Full Online Books
BOOK CATEGORIES
Authors Authors Short Stories Short Stories Long Stories Long Stories Funny Stories Funny Stories Love Stories Love Stories Stories For Kids Stories For Kids Poems Poems Essays Essays Nonfictions Nonfictions Plays Plays Folktales Folktales Fairy Tales Fairy Tales Fables Fables Learning Kitchen Learning Kitchen
LINKS
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Free Classified Website Without Registration Free Classified Website Daniel Company
Twitter Twitter Add book
donate
Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 5. The Tea
Famous Authors (View All Authors)
The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 5. The Tea Post by :Fred_E Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2572

Click below to download : The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 5. The Tea (Format : PDF)

The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 5. The Tea

PART I CHAPTER V. THE TEA

I

"Tea is ready, Mr. Cannon," said Mr. Haim in his most courteous style, coming softly into George's room. And George looked up at the old man's wrinkled face, and down at his crimson slippers, with the benevolent air of a bookworm permitting himself to be drawn away from an ideal world into the actual. Glasses on the end of George's nose would have set off the tableau, but George had outgrown the spectacles which had disfigured his boyhood. As a fact, since his return that afternoon from Mrs. John's, he had, to the detriment of modesty and the fostering of conceit, accomplished some further study for the Final, although most of the time had been spent in dreaming of women and luxury.

"All right," said he. "I'll come."

"I don't think that lamp's been very well trimmed to-day," said Mr. Haim apologetically, sniffing.

"Does it smell?"

"Well, I do notice a slight odour."

"I'll open the window," said George heartily. He rose, pulled the curtains, and opened the front French window with a large gesture. The wild, raw, damp air of Sunday night rushed in from the nocturnal Grove, and instantly extinguished the lamp.

"Oh!" exclaimed Mr. Haim, rather nervously.

"Saved me the trouble," said George.

As he emerged after Mr. Haim from the dark room, he was thinking that it was ridiculous not to have electricity, and that he must try to come to some arrangement with Mr. Haim for the installation of electricity. Fancy oil-lamps in the middle of London in the twentieth century! Shocks were waiting in George's mind for Mr. Haim. He intended, if he could, to get the room on the first floor, empty since the departure of Marguerite, and to use it for a bedroom, while keeping the ground-floor room exclusively for work and society. His project would involve shocks also for Mr. Edwin Clayhanger in the Five Towns, who would be called upon to pay; but George had an airy confidence in the ability of his stepfather to meet such shocks in a satisfactory manner.

To George's surprise, Mr. Alfred Prince was in the sitting-room. Shabby and creased as usual, he looked far more like a clerk in some establishment where clerks were not morally compelled to imitate dandies than like an etcher of European renown. But, also as usual, he was quietly at ease and conversational; and George at once divined that he had been invited with the object of relieving the social situation created by the presence of the brilliant young lodger at tea. This tea was the first meal to be taken by George with Mr. and Mrs. Haim, for he was almost never at home on Sunday afternoons, and he was not expected to be at home. The table showed, as Mr. Haim's nervousness had shown, that the importance of the occasion had been realized. It was an obviously elaborate table. The repast was ready in every detail; the teapot was under the cosy; the cover was over the hot crumpets; Mrs. Haim alone lacked.

"Where's missus?" asked George lightly. Mr. Haim had not come into the room.

"I don't know," said Mr. Prince. "She brought the tea in a minute ago. You been working this afternoon?"

At that moment Mr. Haim entered. He said:

"Mrs. Haim isn't feeling very well. She's upstairs. She says she's sure she'll be all right in a little while. In the meantime she prefers us to go on with our tea."

Mr. Prince and Mr. Haim looked at each other, and George looked at Mr. Haim. The older men showed apprehension. The strange idea of unconquerable destiny crossed George's mind--destiny clashing ruthlessly with ambition and desire. The three males sat down in obedience to the wish of the woman who had hidden herself in the room above. All of them were dominated by the thought of her. They did not want to sit down and eat and drink, and they were obliged to do so by the invisible volitional force of which Mr. Haim was the unwilling channel. Mr. Haim, highly self-conscious, began to pour out the tea. Mr. Prince, highly self-conscious, suggested that he should make himself useful by distributing the crumpets while they were hot. George, highly selfconscious, accepted a crumpet. Mr. Prince chatted; George responded in a brave worldly fashion; Mr. Haim said 'Yes,' 'Ye-es,' very absently.

And then Mrs. Haim appeared smiling in the doorway. "Ah!" breathed everybody, assuaged. "Ah!" Mr. Haim moved from in front of the tea-tray to the next seat. Mrs. Haim was perhaps somewhat pale, but she gave a sincere, positive assurance that she was perfectly well again. Reassurance spread throughout the company. Forebodings vanished; hearts lightened; gladness reigned; the excellence of crumpets became apparent. And all this swift, wonderful change was brought about by the simple entry of the woman. But beneath the genuine relief and satisfaction of the men there stirred vaguely the thought of the mysteriousness of women, of the entire female sex. Mrs. Haim, charwoman, was just as mysterious as any other woman. As for George, despite the exhilaration which he could feel rising in him effortless and unsought, he was preoccupied by more than women's mysteriousness; the conception of destiny lingered and faintly troubled him. It was as though he had been walking on a clear path through a vast and empty and safe forest, and the eyes of a tiger had gleamed for an instant in the bush and gone. Not a real tiger! And if a real tiger, then a tiger that would never recur, and the only tiger in the forest!... Yet the entire forest was transformed.

Mrs. Haim was wearing the blue sateen. It was a dress unsuited to her because it emphasized her large bulk; but it was her best dress; it shone and glittered; it imposed. Her duty was to wear it on that Sunday afternoon. She was shy, without being self-conscious. To preside over a society consisting of young bloods, etchers of European renown, and pillars of the architectural profession was an ordeal for her. She did not pretend that it was not an ordeal. She did not pretend that the occasion was not extraordinary. She was quite natural in her calm confusion. She was not even proud, being perhaps utterly incapable of social pride. Her husband was proud for her. He looked at her earnestly, wistfully. He could not disguise his anxiety for her success. Was she equal to the role? She was. Of course she was. He had never doubted that she would be (he said to himself). His pride increased, scarcely escaped being fatuous.

"I must congratulate you on the new front doormat, Mrs. Haim," said Mr. Prince, with notable conversational tact. "I felt it at once in the dark."

Mrs. Haim smiled.

"I do like a good doormat," she said. "It saves so much work, I always think. I told Mr. Haim I thought we needed a new one, and bless me if he didn't take me straight out to buy one."

The new doormat expressed Mrs. Haim's sole and characteristic criticism of the organism into which she had so unassumingly entered. Secure in the adoration of Mr. Haim, she might safely have turned the place upside-down and proved to the Grove that she could act the mistress with the best of them; but she changed nothing except the doormat. The kitchen and scullery had already been hers before the eye of Mr. Haim had fallen upon her; she was accustomed to them and had largely fashioned their arrangements. Her own furniture, such of it as was retained, had been put into the spare bedroom and the kitchen, and was hardly noticeable there. The dramatic thing for her to do would have been to engage another charwoman. But Mrs. Haim was not dramatic; she was accommodating. She fitted herself in. The answer to people who asked what Mr. Haim could see in her, was that what Mr. Haim first saw was her mere way of existing, and that in the same way she loved. At her tea-table, as elsewhere, she exhibited no special quality; she said little; she certainly did not shine. Nevertheless the three men were quite happy and at ease, because her way of existing soothed and reinspired them. George especially got gay; and he narrated the automobile adventure of the afternoon with amusing gusto. He was thereby a sort of hero, and he liked that. He was bound by his position in the world and by his clothes and his style to pretend to some extent that the adventure was much less extraordinary to him than it seemed to them. The others made no pretence. They were open-mouthed. Their attitude admitted frankly that above them was a world to which they could not climb, that they were not familiar with it and knew nothing about it. They admired George; they put it to his credit that he was acquainted with these lofty matters and moved carelessly and freely among them; and George too somehow thought that credit was due to him and that his superiority was genuine.

"And do you mean to say she'd never met you before?" exclaimed Mr. Haim.

"Never in this world!"

Mr. Prince remarked calmly: "You must have had a very considerable effect on her then." His eyes twinkled.

George flushed slightly. The idea had already presented itself to him with great force. "Oh no!" He negligently pooh-poohed it.

"Well, does she go about asking every man she meets what his Christian name is?"

"I expect she just does."

There was silence for a moment. Mrs. Haim refilled a cup.

"Something will have to be done soon about these motor-cars," observed Mr. Haim at length, sententiously, in the vein of 'Mustard and Cress.' "That's very evident."

"They cost so much," said Mr. Prince. "Why! They cost as much as a house, some of them."

"More!" said George.

"Nay, nay!" Mr. Haim protested. The point had come at which his imagination halted.

"Anyhow, you had a lucky escape," said Mr. Prince. "You might have been lamed for life--or anything."

George laughed.

"I am always lucky," said he. He thought: "I wonder whether I _am_!" He was afraid.

Mrs. Haim was half-way towards the door before any of the men noticed what she was about. She had risen silently and quickly; she could manoeuvre that stout frame of hers with surprising facility. There was a strange, silly look on her face as she disappeared, and the face was extremely pale. Mr. Haim showed alarm, and Mr. Prince concern. Mr. Haim's hands clasped the arms of his chair; he bent forward hesitatingly.

"What----?"

Then was heard the noise of a heavy subsidence, apparently on the stairs. George was out of the room first. But the other two were instantly upon him. Mrs. Haim had fallen at the turn of the stairs; her body was distributed along the little half-landing there.

"My God! She's fainted!" muttered Mr. Haim.

"We'd better get her into the bedroom," said Mr. Prince, with awe.

The trouble had come back, but in a far more acute form. The prostrate and unconscious body, all crooked and heaped in the shadow, intimidated the three men, convicting them of helplessness and lack of ready wit. George stood aside and let the elder pair pass him. Mr. Haim hurried up the stairs, bent over his wife, and seized her under the arms. Mr. Prince took her by the legs. They could not lift her. They were both thin little men, quite unaccustomed to physical exertion. Mrs. Haim lay like a giantess, immovably recumbent between their puny, straining figures.

"Here, let me try," said George eagerly, springing towards the group.

With natural reluctance Mr. Haim gave way to him. George stooped and braced himself to the effort. His face was close to the blanched, blind face of Mrs. Haim. He thought she looked very young, astonishingly young in comparison with either Haim or Prince. Her complexion was damaged but not destroyed. Little fluffy portions of her hair seemed absolutely girlish. Her body was full of nice curves, which struck George as most enigmatically pathetic. But indeed the whole of her was pathetic, very touching, very precious and fragile. Even her large, shiny, shapeless boots and the coarse sateen stuff of her dress affected him. A lump embarrassed his throat. He suddenly understood the feelings of Mr. Haim towards her. She was inexpressibly romantic.... He lifted her torso easily; and pride filled him because he could do easily what others could not do at all. Her arms trailed limp. Mr. Haim and Mr. Prince jointly raised her lower limbs. George staggered backwards up the remainder of the stairs. As they steered the burden into the bedroom, where a candle was burning, Mrs. Haim opened her eyes and, gazing vacantly at the ceiling, murmured in a weak, tired voice:

"I'm all right. It's nothing. Please put me down."

"Yes, yes, my love!" said Mr. Haim, agitated.

They deposited her on the bed. She sighed; then smiled. A slight flush showed on her cheek under the light of the candle which Mr. Prince was holding aloft. Mysterious creature, with the mysterious forces of life flowing and ebbing incomprehensibly within her! To George she was marvellous, she was beautiful, as she lay defenceless and silently appealing.

"Thank you, Mr. Cannon. Thank you very much," said Mr. Haim, turning to the strong man.

It was a dismissal. George modestly departed from the bedroom, which was no place for him. After a few minutes Mr. Prince also descended. They stood together at the foot of the stairs in the draught from the open window of George's room.

"Hadn't I better go for a doctor?" George suggested.

"That's what I said," replied Mr. Prince. "But she won't have one."

"But----"

"Well, she won't."

The accommodating, acquiescent dame, with scarcely strength to speak, was defeating all three of them on that one point.

"What is it?" asked George confidentially.

"Oh! I don't suppose it's anything, really."

II

That George should collect the tea-things together on the tray, and brush and fold the cloth, and carry the loaded tray downstairs into the scullery, was sufficiently strange. But it was very much more strange that he should have actually had the idea of washing-up the tea-things himself. In his time, in the domestic crises of Bursley, he had boyishly helped ladies to wash-up, and he reckoned that he knew all about the operation. There he stood, between the kitchen and the scullery, elegantly attired, with an inquiring eye upon the kettle of warm water on the stove, debating whether he should make the decisive gesture of emptying the kettle into the large tin receptacle that lay on the slop-stone. Such was the miraculous effect on him of Mrs. Haim's simplicity, her weakness, and her predicament. Mrs. Haim was a different woman for him now that he had carried her upstairs and laid her all limp and girlish on the solemn conjugal bed! He felt quite sure that old Haim was incapable of washing-up. He assuredly did not want to be caught in the act of washing-up, but he did want to be able to say in his elaborately nonchalant manner, answering a question about the disappearance of the tea-things: "I thought I might as well wash-up while I was about it." And he did want Mrs. Haim to be put in a flutter by the news that Mr. George Cannon had washed-up for her. The affair would positively cause a sensation.

He was about to begin, taking the risks of premature discovery, when he heard a noise above. It was Mr. Haim at last descending the stairs to the ground floor. George started. He had been alone in the lower parts of the house for a period which seemed long. (Mr. Prince had gone to the studio, promising to return later.) The bedroom containing Mr. and Mrs. Haim had become for him the abode of mystery. The entity of the enchanted house had laid hold of his imagination. He had thought of Marguerite as she used to pervade the house, and of his approaching interview with her at the Manresa Road studio. He had thought very benevolently of Marguerite and also of, Mr. and Mrs. Haim. He had involved them all three, in his mind, in a net of peace and goodwill. He saw the family quarrel as something inevitable, touching, absurd--the work of a maleficent destiny which he might somehow undo and exorcise by the magic act of washing-up, to be followed by other acts of a more diplomatic and ingenious nature. And now the dull, distant symptoms of Mr. Haim on the stairs suddenly halted him at the very outset of his benignant machinations. He listened. If the peace of the world had depended upon his washing-up he could not have permitted himself to be actually seen in the role of kitchen-girl by Mr. Haim--so extreme was his lack of logic and right reason. There was a silence, a protracted silence, and then Mr. Haim unmistakably came down the basement stairs, and George thanked God that he had not allowed his impulse to wash-up run away with his discretion, to the ruin of his dignity.

Mr. Haim, hesitating in the kitchen doorway, peered in front of him as if at a loss. George had shifted the kitchen lamp from its accustomed place.

"I'm here," said George, moving slightly in the dim light. "I thought I might as well make myself useful and clear the table for you. How is she going on?" He spoke cheerfully, even gaily, and he expected Mr. Haim to be courteously appreciative--perhaps enthusiastic in gratitude.

"Mrs. Haim is quite recovered, thank you. It was only a passing indisposition," said Mr. Haim, using one of his ridiculously stilted phrases. His tone was strange; it was very strange.

"Good!" exclaimed George, with a gaiety that was now forced, a bravado of gaiety.

He thought:

"The old chump evidently doesn't like me interfering. Silly old pompous ass!" Nevertheless his attitude towards the huffy landlord, if scornful, was good-humoured and indulgent.

Then he noticed that Mr. Haim held in his hand a half-sheet of note-paper which disturbingly seemed familiar. "What is the meaning of this, Mr. Cannon?" Mr. Haim demanded, advancing towards the brightness of the lamp and extending the paper. He was excessively excited. Excitement always intensified his age.

The offered document was the letter which George had that morning received from Marguerite. The missive was short, a mere note, but its terms could leave no doubt as to the relations between the writer and the recipient. Moreover, it ended with a hieroglyphic sign, several times repeated, whose significance is notorious throughout the civilized world.

"Where did you get that?" muttered George, with a defensive menace half formed in his voice. He faltered. His mood had not yet become definitive.

Mr. Haim answered:

"I have just picked it up in the hall, sir. The wind must have blown it off the table in your room, and the door was left open. I presume that I have the right to read papers I find lying about in my own house."

George was dashed. On returning home from Mrs. John's lunch he had changed his suit for another one almost equally smart, but of Angora and therefore more comfortable. He liked to change. He had taken the letter out of a side-pocket of the jacket and put it with his watch, money, and other kit on the table while he changed, and he had placed everything back into the proper pockets, everything except the letter. Carelessness! A moment of negligence had brought about the irremediable. The lovely secret was violated. The whole of his future life and of Marguerite's future life seemed to have been undermined and contaminated by that single act of omission. Marguerite wrote seldom to him because of the risks. But precautions had been arranged for the occasions when she had need to write, and she possessed a small stock of envelopes addressed by himself, so that Mr. Haim might never by chance, picking up an envelope from the hall floor, see George's name in his daughter's hand. And now Mr. Haim had picked up an actual letter from the hall floor. And the fault for the disaster was George's own.

"May I ask, sir, are you engaged to my daughter?" demanded Mr. Haim, getting every instant still more excited.

George had once before seen him agitated about Marguerite, but by no means to the same degree. He trembled. He shook. His dignity had a touch of the grotesque; yet it remained dignity, and it enforced respect. For George, destiny seemed to dominate the kitchen and the scullery like a presence. He and the old man were alone together in that presence, and he was abashed. He was conscious of awe. The old man's mien accused him of an odious crime, of something base and shameful. Useless to argue with himself that he was entirely guiltless, that he had the right to be the betrothed of either Mr. Haim's daughter or any other girl, and to publish or conceal the betrothal as he chose and as she chose. Yes, useless! He felt, inexplicably, a criminal. He felt that he had committed an enormity. It was not a matter of argument; it was a matter of instinct. The old man's frightful and irrational resentment was his condemnation. He could not face the old man.

He thought grievously: "I am up against this man. All politeness and conventions have vanished. It's the real, inmost me, and the real, inmost him." Nobody else could take a part in the encounter. And he was sad, because he could not blame the old man. Could he blame the old man for marrying a charwoman? Why, he could only admire him for marrying the charwoman. In marrying the charwoman the old man had done a most marvellous thing. Could he blame Marguerite? Impossible. Marguerite's behaviour was perfectly comprehensible. He understood Marguerite and he understood her father; he sympathized with both of them. But Marguerite could not understand her father, and her father could not understand either his daughter or George. Never could they understand! He alone understood. And his understanding gave him a melancholy, hopeless feeling of superiority, without at all lessening the strange conviction of guilt. He had got himself gripped by destiny. Destiny had captured all three of them. But not the fourth. The charwoman possessed the mysterious power to defy destiny. Perhaps the power lay in her simplicity.... Fool! An accursed negligence had eternally botched his high plans for peace and goodwill.

"Yes," he said. "I am."

"And how long have you been engaged, sir?"

"Oh! Since before Marguerite left here." He tried to talk naturally and calmly.

"Then you've been living here all this time like a spy--a dirty spy. My daughter behaves to us in an infamous manner. She makes an open scandal. And all the time you're----"

George suddenly became very angry. And his anger relieved and delighted him. With intense pleasure he felt his anger surging within him. He frowned savagely. His eyes blazed. But he did not move.

"Excuse me," he interrupted, with cold and dangerous fury. "She didn't do anything of the kind."

Mr. Haim went wildly on, intimidated possibly by George's defiance, but desperate:

"And all the time, I say, you stay on here, deceiving us, spying on us. Going every night to that wicked, cruel, shameful girl and tittle-tattling. Do you suppose that if we'd had the slightest idea----"

George walked up to him.

"I'm not going to stand here and listen to you talking about Marguerite like that."

Their faces were rather close together. George forced himself away by a terrific effort and left the kitchen.

"Jackanapes!"

George swung round, very pale. Then with a hard laugh he departed. He stood in the hall, and thought of Mrs. Haim upstairs. The next moment he had got his hat and overcoat and was in the street. A figure appeared in the gloom. It was Mr. Prince.

"Hallo! Going out? How are things?"

"Oh! Fine!" He could scarcely articulate. A ghastly sob impeded the words. Tears gushed into his eyes. The dimly glowing oblongs in the dark facades of the Grove seemed unbearably tragic.

III

No. 6 Romney Studios, Manresa Road, Chelsea, was at the end of the narrow alley which, running at right angles to the road, had a blank wall on its left and Romney Studios on its right. The studios themselves were nondescript shanties which reminded George of nothing so much as the office of a clerk-of-the-works nailed together anyhow on ground upon which a large building is in course of erection. They were constructed of brick, wood, waterproof felting, and that adaptable material, corrugated iron. No two were alike. None had the least pretension to permanency, comeliness, or even architectural decency. They were all horribly hot in summer, and they all needed immense stoves to render them habitable in winter. In putting them up, however, cautiously and one by one, the landlord had esteemed them to be the sort of thing that was good enough for artists and that artists would willingly accept. He had not been mistaken. Though inexpensive they were dear, but artists accepted them with eagerness. None was ever empty. Thus it was demonstrated once more that artists were exactly what capitalists and other sagacious persons had always accused them of being.

When George knocked on the door of No. 6, the entire studio, and No. 5 also, vibrated. As a rule Agg, the female Cerberus of the shanty, answered any summons from outside; but George hoped that to-night she would be absent; he knew by experience that on Sunday nights she usually paid a visit to her obstreperous family in Alexandra Grove.

The door was opened by a young man in a rich but torn and soiled eighteenth-century costume, and he looked, in the half-light of the entrance, as though he was just recovering from a sustained debauch. The young man stared haughtily in silence. Only after an appreciable hesitation did George see through the disguise and recover himself sufficiently to remark with the proper nonchalance:

"Hallo, Agg! What's the meaning of this?"

"You're before your time," said she, shutting the door.

While he took off his overcoat Agg walked up the studio. She made an astonishingly life-like young man. George and Agg were now not unfriendly; but each constantly criticized the other in silence, and both were aware of the existence of this vast body of unspoken criticism. Agg criticized more than George, who had begun to take the attitude that Agg ought to be philosophically accepted as incomprehensible rather than criticized. He had not hitherto seen her in male costume, but he would not exhibit any surprise.

"Where's Marguerite?" he inquired, advancing to the Stove and rubbing his hands above it.

"Restrain your ardour," said Agg lightly. "She'll appear in due season. I've told you--you're before your time."

George offered no retort. Despite his sharp walk, he was still terribly agitated and preoccupied, and the phenomena of the lamplit studio had not yet fully impressed his mind. He saw them, including Agg, as hallucinations gradually turning to realities. He could not be worried with Agg. His sole desire was to be alone with Marguerite immediately, and he regarded the fancy costume chiefly as an obstacle to the fulfilment of that desire, because Agg could not depart until she had changed it for something else.

Then his gaze fell upon a life-size oil-sketch of Agg in the eighteenth-century male dress. The light was bad, but it disclosed the sketch sufficiently to enable some judgment on it to be formed. The sketch was exceedingly clever, painted in the broad, synthetic manner which Steer and Sickert had introduced into England as a natural reaction from the finicking, false exactitudes of the previous age. It showed Agg, glass in hand, as a leering, tottering young drunkard in frills and velvet. The face was odious, but it did strongly resemble Agg's face. The hair was replaced by a bag wig.

"Who did that?"

"I did, of course," said Agg. She pointed to the large mirror at the opposite side of the studio.

"The dickens you did!" George murmured, struck. But now that he knew the sketch to be the work of a woman he at once became more critical, perceiving in it imitative instead of original qualities. "What is it? I mean, what's the idea at the back of it, if it isn't a rude question, Agg?"

"Title: 'Bonnie Prince Charlie,'" said Agg, without a smile. She was walking about, in a convincingly masculine style. Unfortunately she could not put her hands in her pockets, as the costume was without pockets.

"Is that your notion of the gent?"

"Didn't you know I'm supposed to be very like him?" cried Agg, vain. The stern creature had frailties. Then she smiled grimly. "Look at my cold blue eyes, my sharp chin, my curly-curly lips, my broad forehead, my clear complexion. And I hope I'm thin enough. Look!" She picked up the bag wig, which was lying on a chair, and put it on, and posed. The pose was effective.

"You seem to know a lot about this Charlie."

"Well, our well-beloved brother Sam is writing a monograph on him, you see. Besides, every one----"

"But what's the idea? What's the scheme? Why is he drunk?"

"He always was drunk. He was a confirmed drunkard at thirty. Both his fair ladies had to leave him because he was just a violent brute. And so on and so on. I thought it was about time Charlie was shown up in his true colours. And I'm doing it!... After all the sugar-stick Academy pictures of him, my picture will administer a much-needed tonic to our dear public. I expect I can get it into next year's New English Art Club, and if I do it will be the sensation of the show.... I haven't done with it yet. In fact I only started yesterday. There's going to be a lot more realism in it. All those silly Jacobite societies will furiously rage together.... And it's a bit of pretty good painting, you know."

"It is," George agreed. "But it's a wild scheme."

"Not so wild as you think, my minstrel boy. It's very, much needed. It's symbolic, that picture is. It's a symbolic antidote. Shall I tell you what put me on to it? Look here."

She led him to Marguerite's special work-table, under the curtained window. There, on a sheet of paper stretched upon a drawing-board, was the finished design which Marguerite had been labouring at for two days. It was a design for a bookbinding, and the title of the book was, _The Womanly Woman, and the author of the book was Sir Amurath Onway, M.D., D.Sc., F.R.S., a famous specialist in pathology. Marguerite, under instruction from the bookbinders, had drawn a sweet picture, in quiet colours, of a womanly woman in a tea-gown, sitting in a cosy corner of a boudoir. The volume was destined to open the spring season of a publishing firm of immense and historic respectability.

"Look at it! Look at it!" Agg insisted. "I've read the book myself. Poor Marguerite had to go through the proofs, so that she could be sure of getting the spirit of the binding right. Do you know why he wrote it? He hates his wife--that's why. His wife isn't a womanly woman, and he's put all his hatred of her into this immortal rubbish. Read this great work, and you will be made to see what fine, noble creatures we men are"--she strode to and fro--"and how a woman's first duty is to recognize her inferiority to us, and be womanly.... Damme!... As soon as I saw what poor Marguerite had to do I told her I should either have to go out and kill some one, or produce an antidote. And then it occurred to me to tell the truth about one of the leading popular heroes of history." She bowed in the direction of the canvas. "I began to feel better at once. I got the costume from a friend of the learned Sam's, and I've ruined it.... I'm feeling quite bright to-night."

She gazed at George with her cold blue eyes, arraigning in his person the whole sex which she thought she despised but which her deepest instinct it was to counterfeit. George, while admiring, was a little dismayed. She was sarcastic. She had brains and knowledge and ideas. There was an intellectual foundation to her picture. And she could paint--like a witch! Oh! She was ruthlessly clever! Well, he did not like her. What he wanted, though he would not admit it, was old Onway's womanly woman. And especially in that hour he wanted the womanly woman.

"What's Marguerite up to?" he asked quietly.

"After the heat and the toil of the day she's beautifying herself for your august approval," said Agg icily. "I expect she's hurrying all she can. But naturally you expect her to be in a permanent state of waiting for you--fresh out of the cotton-wool."

The next instant Marguerite appeared from the cubicle or dressing-room which had been contrived in a corner of the studio to the left of the door. She was in her plain, everyday attire, but she had obviously just washed, and her smooth hair shone from the brush.

"Well, George."

"Well, Marguerite."

Both spoke casually. Celia Agg was the only person in the world privy to their engagement; but they permitted themselves no freedoms in front of her. As Marguerite came near to George, she delicately touched his arm--nothing more. She was smiling happily, but as soon as she looked close at his face under the lamp, her face changed completely. He thought: "She understands there's something up."

She said, not without embarrassment:

"George, I really must have some fresh air. I haven't had a breath all day. Is it raining?"

"No. Would you like to go for a walk?"

"Oh! I should!"

He was very grateful, and also impressed by the accuracy of her intuitions and her quick resourcefulness. She had comprehended at a glance that he had a profound and urgent need to be alone with her. She was marvellously comforting, precious beyond price. All his susceptibilities, wounded by the scene at Alexandra Grove, and further irritated by Agg, were instantaneously salved and soothed. Her tones, her scarcely perceptible gesture of succour, produced the assuaging miracle. She fulfilled her role to perfection. She was a talented and competent designer, but as the helpmeet of a man she had genius. His mind dwelt on her with rapture.

"You'll be going out as soon as you've changed, dear?" she said affectionately to Agg.

"Yes," answered Agg, who at the mirror was wiping from her face the painted signs of alcoholism. She had thrown off the bag wig. "You'd better take the key with you. You'll be back before I am." She sat down on one of the draped settees which were beds in disguise, and Marguerite got a hat, cloak, and gloves.

While George was resuming his overcoat, which Marguerite held for him, Agg suddenly sprang up and rushed towards them.

"Good night, Flora Macdonald," she murmured in her deep voice in Marguerite's ear, put masculine arms round her, and kissed her. It was a truly remarkable bit of male impersonating, as George had to admit, though he resented it.

Then she gave a short, harsh laugh.

"Good night, old Agg," said Marguerite, with sweet responsiveness, and smiled ingenuously at George.

George, impatient, opened the door, and the damp wind swept anew into the studio.

IV

It was a fine night; the weather had cleared, and the pavements were drying. George, looking up in a pause of the eager conversational exchanges, drew tonic air mightily into his lungs.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"Tite Street," said Marguerite. "That's the Tower House." And she nodded towards the formidable sky-scraper which another grade of landlord had erected for another grade of artists who demanded studios from the capitalist. Marguerite, the Chelsea girl, knew Chelsea, if she knew nothing else; her feet turned corners in the dark with assurance, and she had no need to look at street-signs. George regarded the short thoroughfare made notorious by the dilettantism, the modishness, and the witticisms of art. It had an impressive aspect. From the portico of one highly illuminated house a crimson carpet stretched across the pavement to the gutter; some dashing blade of the brush had maliciously determined to affront the bourgeois Sabbath. George stamped on the carpet; he hated it because it was not his carpet; and he swore to himself to possess that very carpet or its indistinguishable brother.

"I was a most frightful ass to leave that letter lying about!" he exclaimed.

"Oh! George!" she protested lovingly. "It could so easily happen--a thing like that could. It was just bad luck."

A cushion! The divinest down cushion! That was what she was! She was more. She defended a man against himself. She restored him to perfection. Her affectionate faith was a magical inspiration to him; it was, really, the greatest force in the world. Most women would have agreed with him, however tactfully, that he had been careless about the letter. An Adela would certainly have berated him in her shrewish, thin tones. A Lois would have been sarcastic, scornfully patronizing him as a 'boy.' And what would Agg have done?... They might have forgiven and even forgotten, but they would have indulged themselves first. Marguerite was exteriorly simple. She would not perhaps successfully dominate a drawing-room. She would cut no figure playing with lives at the wheel of an automobile. After all, she would no doubt be ridiculous in the costume of Bonnie Prince Charlie. But she was finer than the other women whose images floated in his mind. And she was worth millions of them. He was overpowered by the sense of his good fortune in finding her. He went cold at the thought of what he would have missed if he had not found her. He would not try to conceive what his existence would be without her, for it would be unendurable. Of this he was convinced.

"Do you think he'll go talking about it?" George asked, meaning of course Mr. Haim.

"More likely _she will," said Marguerite.

He positively could feel her lips tightening. Futile to put in a word for Mrs. Haim! When he had described the swoon, Marguerite had shown neither concern nor curiosity. Not the slightest! Antipathy to her stepmother had radiated from her almost visibly in the night like the nimbus round a street lamp. Well, she did not understand; she was capable of injustice; she was quite wrong about Mrs. Haim. What matter? Her whole being was centralized on himself. He was aware of his superiority.

He went on quietly:

"If the old man gets chattering at the office, the Orgreaves will know, and the next minute the news'll be in the Five Towns. I can't possibly let my people hear from anybody else of _my engagement before they hear from me. However, if it comes to the point, we'll tell everybody. Why not?"

"Oh, but dearest! It was so nice it being a secret. It was the loveliest thing in the world."

"Yes, it was jolly."

"Perhaps father will feel differently in the morning, and then you can----"

"He won't," said George flatly. "You don't know what a state he's in. I didn't tell you--he called me a spy in the house, a dirty spy. Likewise a jackanapes. Doubtless a delicate illusion to my tender years."

"He _didn't_!"

"He did, honestly."

"So that was what upset you so!" Marguerite murmured. It was her first admission that she had noticed his agitation.

"Did I look so upset, then?"

"George, you looked terrible. I felt the only thing to do was for us to go out at once."

"Oh! But surely I wasn't so upset as all that?" said George, finding in Marguerite's statement a reflection upon his ability to play the part of an imperturbable man of the world. "Agg didn't seem to see anything."

"Agg doesn't know you like I do."

She insinuated her arm into his. He raised his hand and took hold of hers. In the left pocket of his overcoat he could feel the somewhat unwieldy key of the studio. He was happy. The domestic feel of the key completed his happiness.

"Of course I can't stay on there," said he.

"At father's? Oh! I do wish father hadn't talked like that." She spoke sadly, not critically.

"I suppose I must sleep there to-night. But I'm not going to have my breakfast there to-morrow morning. No fear! I'll have it up town. Lucas'll be able to put me up to some new digs. He always knows about that sort of thing. Then I'll drive down and remove all my worldly in a four-wheeler."

He spoke with jauntiness, in his role of male who is easily equal to any situation. But she said in a low, tenderly commiserating voice:

"It's a shame!"

"Not a bit!" he replied. Then he suddenly stood still and brought her to a halt. Under his erratic guidance they had turned along Dilke Street, and northwards again, past the Botanical Garden. "And this is Paradise Row!" he said, surveying the broad street which they had come into.

"Paradise Row?" she corrected him softly. "No, dear, it's Queen's Road. It runs into Pimlico Road."

"I mean it used to be Paradise Row," he explained. "It was the most fashionable street in Chelsea, you know. Everybody that was anybody lived here."

"Oh! Really!" She showed an amiable desire to be interested, but her interest did not survive more than a few seconds. "I didn't know. I know Paradise Walk. It's that horrid little passage down there on the right."

She had not the historic sense; and she did not understand his mood, did not in the slightest degree suspect that events had been whipping his ambition once more, and that at that moment he was enjoying the seventeenth and even the sixteenth centuries, and thinking of Sir Thomas More and Miss More, and all manner of grandiose personages and abodes, and rebelling obstinately against the fact, that he was as yet a nonentity in Chelsea, whereas he meant in the end to yield to nobody in distinction and renown. He knew that she did not understand, and he would not pretend to himself that she did. There was no reason why she should understand. He did not particularly want her to understand.

"Let's have a look at the river, shall we?" he suggested, and they moved towards Cheyne Walk.

"Dearest," she said, "you must come and have breakfast at the studio to-morrow morning. I shall get it myself."

"But Agg won't like me poking my nose in for breakfast."

"You great silly! Don't you know she simply adores you?"

He was certainly startled by this remark, and he began to like Agg.

"Old Agg! Not she!" he protested, pleased, but a little embarrassed. "Will she be up?"

"You'll see whether she'll be up or not. Nine o'clock's the time, isn't it?"

They reached the gardens of Cheyne Walk. Three bridges hung their double chaplets of lights over the dark river. On the southern shore the shapes of high trees waved mysteriously above the withdrawn woodland glades that in daytime were Battersea Park. Here and there a tiny red gleam gave warning that a pier jutted out into the stream; but nothing moved on the water. The wind that swept clean the pavements had unclouded ten million stars. It was a wind unlike any other wind that ever blew, at once caressing and roughly challenging. The two, putting it behind them, faced eastward, and began to pass one by one the innumerable ornate gas-lamps of Chelsea Embankment, which stretched absolutely rectilinear in front of them for a clear mile. No soul but themselves was afoot. But on the left rose gigantic and splendid houses, palaces designed by modern architects, vying with almost any houses in London, some dark, others richly illuminated and full of souls luxurious, successful, and dominant. As the girl talked creatively about the breakfast, her arm pressed his, and his fingers clasped her acquiescent fingers, and her chaste and confiding passion ran through him in powerful voltaic currents from some inexhaustible source of energy in her secret heart. It seemed to him that since their ride home in the hansom from the Promenade concert her faculty for love had miraculously developed. He divined great deeps in her, and deeps beyond those deeps. The tenderness which he felt for her was inexpressible. He said not a word, keeping to himself the terrific resolves to which she, and the wind, and the spectacular majesty of London inspired him. He and she would live regally in one of those very houses, and people should kowtow to her because she was the dazzling wife of the renowned young architect, George Cannon. And he would show her to Mrs. John Orgreave and to Lois, and those women should acknowledge in her a woman incomparably their superior. They should not be able to hide their impressed astonishment when they saw her.

Nothing of all this did he impart to her as she hung supported and inspiring on his arm. He held it all in reserve for her. And then, thinking again for a moment of what she had said about Agg's liking for him, he thought of Agg's picture and of Marguerite's design which had originated the picture. It was a special design, new for Marguerite, whose bindings were generally of conventional patterns; it was to be paid for at a special price because of its elaborateness; she had worked on it for nearly two days; in particular she had stayed indoors during the whole of Sunday to finish it; and it was efficient, skilful, as good as it could be. It had filled her life for nearly two days--and he had not even mentioned it to her! In the ruthless egotism of the ambitious man he had forgotten it, and forgotten to imagine sympathetically the contents of her mind. Sharp remorse overcame him; she grew noble and pathetic in his eyes.... Contrast her modest and talented industry with the exacting, supercilious, incapable idleness of a Lois!

"That design of yours is jolly good," he said shortly without any introductory phrases.

She perceptibly started.

"Oh! George! I'm so glad you think so. I was afraid. You know it was horribly difficult--they give you no chance."

"I know. I know. You've come out of it fine."

She was in heaven; he also, because it was so easy for him to put her there. He glanced backwards a few hours into the past, and he simply could not comprehend how it was that he had been so upset by the grotesque scene with Mr. Haim in the basement of No. 8. Everything was all right; everything was utterly for the best.

If you like this book please share to your friends :
NEXT BOOKS

The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 6. The Dinner The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 6. The Dinner

The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 6. The Dinner
PART I CHAPTER VI. THE DINNERIEarly on the morning of a Tuesday in the second half of June 1903, George Cannon was moving fast on a motor-bicycle westwards down the slope of Piccadilly. At any rate he had the sensation of earliness, and was indeed thereby quite invigorated; it almost served instead of the breakfast which he had not yet taken. But thousands of people travelling in the opposite direction in horse-omnibuses and in a few motor-buses seemed to regard the fact of their being abroad at that hour as dully normal. They had fought, men and girls, for places in
PREVIOUS BOOKS

The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 4. The Luncheon The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 4. The Luncheon

The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 4. The Luncheon
PART I CHAPTER IV. THE LUNCHEONIGeorge, having had breakfast in bed, opened his door for the second time that morning, and duly found on the mat the can of hot water (covered with a bit of old blanket) and the can of cold water which comprised the material for his bath. There was no sound in the house. The new spouse might be upstairs or she might be downstairs--he could not tell; but the cans proved that she was immanent and regardful; indeed, she never forgot anything. And George's second state at No. 8 was physically even better than his first.
NEXT 10 BOOKS | PREVIOUS 10 BOOKS | RANDOM 10 BOOKS
LEAVE A COMMENT