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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 6. The Dinner
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The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 6. The Dinner Post by :Fred_E Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :836

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

PART I CHAPTER VI. THE DINNER

I

Early 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 the crammed vehicles; they had travelled from far lands such as Putney; they had been up for hours, and the morning, which was so new to George, had lost its freshness for them; they were well used to the lustrous summer glories of the Green Park; what they chiefly beheld in the Green Park was the endless lines of wayfarers, radiating from Victoria along the various avenues, on the way, like themselves, to offices, ware-houses, and shops. Of the stablemen, bus-washers, drivers, mechanics, chauffeurs, and conductors, who had left their beds much in advance even of the travellers, let us not speak--even they had begun the day later than their wives, mothers, or daughters. All this flying population, urged and preoccupied by pitiless time, gazed down upon George and saw a gay young swell without a care in the world rushing on 'one of those motor-bikes' to freedom.

George was well aware of the popular gaze, and he supported it with negligent pride. He had the air of having been born to greatness; cigarette smoke and the fumes of exploded petrol and the rattle of explosions made a fine wake behind his greatness. In two years, since he had walked into Mr. Haim's parlour, his body had broadened, his eyes had slightly hardened, and his complexion and hair had darkened. And there was his moustache, very sprightly, and there was a glint of gold in his teeth. He had poor teeth, but luxuriant hair, ruthlessly cut and disciplined and subjugated. His trousers were clipped tightly at the ankles, and his jacket loosely buttoned by the correct button; his soft felt hat achieved the architect's ideal of combining the perfectly artistic with the perfectly modish. But the most remarkable and envy-raising portion of his attire was the loose, washable, yellow gloves, with large gauntlets, designed to protect the delicately tended hands when they had to explore among machinery.

He had obtained the motor-bicycle in a peculiar way. On arriving at Axe Station for the previous Christmas holidays, he had seen two low-hung lamps brilliantly flashing instead of the higher and less powerful lamps of the dogcart, and there had been no light-reflecting flanks of a horse in front of the lamps. The dark figure sitting behind the lamps proved to be his mother. His mother herself had driven him home. He noted calmly that as a chauffeur she had the same faults as the contemned Lois Ingram. Still, she did drive, and they reached Ladderedge Hall in safety. He admired, and he was a little frightened by, his mother's terrific volition to widen her existence. She would insist on doing everything that might be done, and nobody could stop her. Who would have dreamt that she, with her narrow, troubled past, and her passionate temperament rendered somewhat harsh by strange experiences, would at the age of forty-six or so be careering about the country at the wheel of a motor-car? Ah! But she would! She would be a girl. And by her individual force she successfully carried it off! Those two plotters, she and his stepfather, had conspired to buy a motor-car in secret from him. No letter from home had breathed a word of the motor-car. He was thunder-struck, and jealous. He had spent the whole of the Christmas holidays in that car, and in four days could drive better than his mother, and also--what was more difficult--could convince her obstinate self-assurance that he knew far more about the mechanism than she did. As a fact, her notions of the mechanism, though she was convinced of their rightness, were mainly fantastic. George of course had had to punish his parents. He had considered it his duty to do so. "The _least you can do," he had said discontentedly and menacingly, "the _least you can do is to give me a decent motor-bike!" The guilty pair had made amends in the manner thus indicated for them. George gathered from various signs that his stepfather was steadily and rapidly growing richer. George had acted accordingly--not only in the matter of the motor-bicycle, but in other matters.

Now, on this June morning he had just begun to breast the slope rising from the hollow to Hyde Park Corner when a boy shot out from behind a huge, stationary dust-cart on the left and dashed unregarding towards him. George shouted. The boy, faced with sudden death, was happily so paralysed that he fell down, thus checking his momentum by the severest form of friction. George swerved aside, missing the small, outstretched hands by an inch or two, but missing also by an inch or two the front wheel of a tremendous motor-bus on his right. He gave a nervous giggle as he flashed by the high red side of the motor-bus; and then he deliberately looked back at the murderous boy, who had jumped up. At the same moment George was brought to a sense of his own foolishness in looking back by a heavy jolt. He had gone over half a creosoted wood block which had somehow escaped from a lozenge-shaped oasis in the road where two workmen were indolently using picks under the magic protection of a tiny, dirty red flag. Secure in the guardianship of the bit of bunting, which for them was as powerful and sacred as the flag of an empire, the two workmen gazed with indifference at George and at the deafening traffic which swirled affronting but harmless around them. George slackened speed, afraid lest the jar might have snapped the plates of his accumulator. The motor-bicycle was a wondrous thing, but as capricious and delicate as a horse. For a trifle, for nothing at all, it would cease to function. The high-tension magneto and the float-feed carburetter, whose invention was to transform the motor-bicycle from an everlasting harassment into a means of loco-motion, were yet years away in the future. However, the jar had done no harm. The episode, having occupied less than ten seconds, was closed. George felt his heart thumping. He thought suddenly of the recent Paris-Madrid automobile race, in which the elite of the world had perished. He saw himself beneath the motor-bus, and a futile staring crowd round about. Simply by a miracle was he alive. But this miracle was only one of a score of miracles. He believed strongly in luck. He had always believed in it. The smoke of the cigarette displayed his confidence to all Piccadilly. Still, his heart was thumping.

And it had not ceased to thump when a few minutes later he turned into Manresa Road. Opposite the entrance to the alley of Romney Studios, there happened to be a small hiatus in the kerbstone. George curved the machine largely round and, mounting the pavement through this hiatus, rode gingerly up the alley, in defiance of the regulations of a great city, and stopped precisely at the door of No. 6. It was a matter of honour with him to arrive thus. Not for a million would he have walked the machine up the alley. He got off, sounded a peremptory call on the horn, and tattooed with the knocker. No answer came. An apprehension visited him. By the last post on the previous night he had received a special invitation to breakfast from Marguerite. Never had he been kept waiting at the door. He knocked again. Then he heard a voice from the side of the studio:

"Come round here, George."

In the side of the studio was a very small window from which the girls, when unpresentable, would parley with early tradesmen. Agg was at the window. He could see only her head and neck, framed by the window. Her short hair was tousled, and she held a dressing-gown tight about her neck. For the first time she seemed to him like a real feminine girl, and her tones were soft as they never were when Marguerite was present with her.

"I'm very sorry," she said. "You woke me. I was fast asleep. You can't come in."

"Anything up?" he questioned, rather anxiously. "Where's Marguerite?"

"Oh, George! A dreadful night!" she answered, almost plaintively, almost demanding sympathy from the male--she, Agg! "We were wakened up at two o'clock. Mr. Prince came round to fetch Marguerite to go to No. 8."

"To go to No. 8?" he repeated, frightened, and wondered why he should be frightened. "What on earth for?"

"Mrs. Haim very ill!" Agg paused. "Something about a baby."

"And did she go?"

"Yes; she put on her things and went off at once."

He was silent. He felt the rough grip of destiny, of some strange power irresistible and unescapable, just as he had momentarily felt it in the basement of No. 8 more than eighteen months before, when the outraged Mr. Haim had quarrelled with him. The mere idea of Marguerite being at No. 8 made him feel sick. He no longer believed in his luck. "How soon d'ye think she'll be back?"

"I--I don't know, George. I should have thought she'd have been back before this."

"I'll run round there," he said curtly.

Agg was disconcertingly, astoundingly sympathetic. Her attitude increased his disturbance.

II

When George rang the bell at No. 8 Alexandra Grove his mysterious qualms were intensified. He dreaded the moment when the door should open, even though it should be opened by Marguerite herself. And yet he had a tremendous desire to see Marguerite--merely to look at her face, to examine it, to read it. His summons was not answered. He glanced about. The steps were dirty. The brass knob and the letter-flap had not been polished. After a time he pushed up the flap and gazed within, and saw the interior which he knew so well and which he had not entered for so many months. Nothing was changed in it, but it also had a dusty and neglected air. Every detail roused his memory. The door of what had once been his room was shut; he wondered what the room was now. This house held the greatest part of his history. It lived in his mind as vitally as even the boarding-house kept by his mother in a side-street in Brighton, romantic and miserable scene of his sensitive childhood. It was a solemn house for him. Through the basement window on a dark night he had first glimpsed Marguerite. Unforgettable event! Unlike anything else that had ever happened to anybody!... He heard a creak, and caught sight through the letter-aperture of a pair of red slippers, and then the lower half of a pair of trousers, descending the stairs. And he dropped the flap hurriedly. Mr. Haim was coming to open the door. Mr. Haim did open the door, started at the apparition of George, and stood defensively and forbiddingly in the very centre of the doorway.

"Oh!" said George nervously. "How is Mrs. Haim?"

"Mrs. Haim is very ill indeed." The reply was emphatic and inimical.

"I'm sorry."

Mr. Haim said nothing further. George had not seen him since the previous Saturday, having been excused by Mr. Enwright from the office on Monday on account of examination work. He did not know that Mr. Haim had not been to the office on Monday either. In the interval the man had shockingly changed. He seemed much older, and weaker too; he seemed worn out by acute anxiety. Nevertheless he so evidently resented sympathy that George was not sympathetic, and regarded him coldly as a tiresome old man. The official relations between the two had been rigorously polite and formal. No reference had ever been made by either to the quarrel in the basement or to the cause of it. And for the world in general George's engagement had remained as secret as before. Marguerite had not seen her father in the long interval, and George had seen only the factotum of Lucas & Enwright. But he now saw Marguerite's father again--a quite different person from the factotum.... Strange, how the house seemed forlorn! 'Something about a baby,' Agg had said vaguely. And it was as though something that Mr. Haim and his wife had concealed had burst from its concealment and horrified and put a curse on the whole Grove. Something not at all nice! What in the name of decent propriety was that slippered old man doing with a baby? George would not picture to himself Mrs. Haim lying upstairs. He did not care to think of Marguerite secretly active somewhere in one of those rooms. But she was there; she was initiated. He did not criticize her.

"I should like to see Marguerite," he said at length. Despite himself he had a guilty feeling.

"My daughter!" Mr. Haim took up the heavy role.

"Only for a minute," said George boyishly, and irritated by his own boyishness.

"You can't see her, sir."

"But if she knows I'm here, she'll come to me," George insisted. He saw that the old man's hatred of him was undiminished. Indeed, time had probably strengthened it.

"You can't see her, sir. This is my house."

George considered himself infinitely more mature than in the November of 1901 when the old man had worsted him. And yet he was no more equal to this situation than he had been to the former one.

"But what am I to do, then?" he demanded, not fiercely, but crossly.

"What are you to do? Don't ask me, sir. My wife is very ill indeed, and you come down the Grove making noise enough to wake the dead"--he indicated the motor-bicycle, of which the silencer was admittedly defective--"and you want to see my daughter. My daughter has more important work to do than to see you. I never heard of such callousness. If you want to communicate with my daughter you had better write--so long as she stays in this house."

Mr. Haim shut the door, which rendered his advantage over George complete.

From the post office nearly opposite the end of the Grove George dispatched a reply-paid telegram to Marguerite:

"Where and when can I see you?--GEORGE. Russell Square."

It seemed a feeble retort to Mr. Haim, but he could think of nothing better.

On the way up town he suddenly felt, not hungry, but empty, and he called in at a tea-shop. He was the only customer, in a great expanse of marble-topped tables. He sat down at a marble-topped table. On the marble-topped table next to him were twenty-four sugar-basins, and on the next to that a large number of brass bells, and on another one an infinity of cruets. A very slatternly woman was washing the linoleum in a corner of the floor. Two thin, wrinkled girls in shabby black were whispering together behind the counter. The cash-den was empty. Through the open door he could keep an eye on his motor-bicycle, which was being surreptitiously regarded by a boy theoretically engaged in cleaning the window. A big van drove up, and a man entered with pastry on a wooden tray and bantered one of the girls in black. She made no reply, being preoccupied with the responsibility of counting cakes. The man departed and the van disappeared. Nobody took the least notice of George. He might have been a customer invisible and inaudible. After the fiasco of his interview with Mr. Haim, he had not the courage to protest. He framed withering sentences to the girls in black, such as: "Is this place supposed to be open for business, or isn't it?" but they were not uttered. Then a girl in black with a plain, ugly white apron and a dowdy white cap appeared on the stairs leading from the basement, and removed for her passage a bar of stained wood lettered in gilt: 'Closed,' and she halted at George's table. She spoke no word. She just stood over him, unsmiling, placid, flaccid, immensely indifferent. She was pale, a poor sort of a girl, without vigour. But she had a decent, honest face. She was not aware that she ought to be bright, welcoming, provocative, for a penny farthing an hour. She had never heard of Hebe. George thought of the long, desolating day that lay before her. He looked at her seriously. His eyes did not challenge hers as they were accustomed to challenge Hebe's. He said in a friendly, matter-of-fact tone:

"A meat-pie, please, and a large coffee."

And she repeated in a thin voice:

"Meat-pie. Large coffee."

A minute later she dropped the order on the table, as it might have been refuse, and with it a bit of white paper. The sadness of the city, and the inexplicable sadness of June mornings, overwhelmed George as he munched at the meat-pie and drank the coffee, and reached over for the sugar and reached over for the mustard. And he kept saying to himself:

"She doesn't see her father at all for nearly two years, and then she goes off to him like that in the middle of the night--at a word."

III

The office was not at its normal. The empty cubicle of the factotum looked strange enough. But there was more than that in the abnormality. There were currents of excitement in the office. The door of the principals' room was open, and George saw John Orgreave and Everard Lucas within, leaning over one of the great flat desks. The hour was early for Lucas, and self-satisfaction was on Lucas's face as he raised it to look at the entering of George.

"I say," he remarked quietly through the doorway, "that town hall scheme is on again."

"Oh!" said George, depositing his hat and gloves and strolling into the principals' room. "Good morning, Mr. Orgreave. Got the conditions there?" For a moment his attitude of interest was a pose, but very quickly it became sincere. Astonishing how at sight of a drawing-board and a problem he could forget all that lay beyond them! He was genuinely and extremely disturbed by the course of affairs at Chelsea; nevertheless he now approached Mr. Orgreave and Lucas with eagerness, and Chelsea slipped away into another dimension.

"No," said John Orgreave, "the conditions aren't out yet. But it's all right this time. I know for a fact."

The offices of all the regular architectural competitors in London were excited that morning. For the conception of the northern town hall was a vast one. Indeed, journalists had announced, from their mysterious founts of information, that the town hall would be the largest public building erected in England during half a century. The scheme had been the sport of municipal politics for many months, for years. Apparently it could not get itself definitely born. And now the Town Clerk's wife had brought about the august parturition. It is true that her agency was unintentional. The Town Clerk had belonged to a powerful provincial dynasty of town clerks. He had the illusion that without him a great town would cease to exist. There was nothing uncommon in this illusion, which indeed is rife among town clerks; but the Town Clerk in question had the precious faculty of being able to communicate it to mayors, aldermen, and councillors. He was a force in the municipal council. Voteless, he exercised a moral influence over votes. And he happened to be opposed to the scheme for the new town hall. He gave various admirable reasons for the postponement of the scheme, but he never gave the true reasons, even to himself. The true reasons were, first, that he hated and detested the idea of moving office, and, second, that he wanted acutely to be able to say in the fullness of years that he had completed half a century of municipal work in one and the same room. If the pro-scheme party had had the wit to invent a pretext for allowing the Town Clerk to remain in the old municipal buildings, the scheme would instantly have taken life. The Town Clerk, being widowed, had consoled himself with a young second wife. This girl adored dancing; the Town Clerk adored her; and therefore where she danced he deemed it prudent to attend. Driving home from a January ball at 4 a.m. the Town Clerk had caught pneumonia. In a week he was dead, and his dynasty with him. In a couple of months the pro-scheme party had carried the council off its feet. Such are the realities, never printed in newspapers, of municipal politics in the grim north.

Sketches of the site had appeared in the architectural press. John Orgreave and Lucas were pencilling in turn upon one of these, a page torn out of a weekly. George inserted himself between them, roughly towards Lucas and deferentially towards Mr. John.

"But you've got the main axis wrong!" he exclaimed.

"How, wrong?" John Orgreave demanded.

"See here--give me the pencil, Looc."

George felt with a little thrill of satisfaction the respect for him which underlay John Orgreave's curt tone of a principal--and a principal from the Midlands. He did not miss, either, Lucas's quick, obedient, expectant gesture in surrendering the pencil. Ideas for the plan of the building sprang up multitudinously in his mind. He called; they came. He snatched towards him a blank sheet of tracing-paper, and scrawled it over with significant lines.

"That's my notion. I thought of it long ago," he said. "Or if you prefer--"

The other two were impressed. He himself was impressed. His notion, which he was modifying and improving every moment, seemed to him perfect and ever more perfect. He was intensely and happily stimulated in the act of creation; and they were all three absorbed.

"Why hasn't my desk been arranged?" said a discontented voice behind them. Mr. Enwright had arrived by the farther door from the corridor.

Lucas glanced up.

"I expect Haim hasn't come again to-day," he answered urbanely, placatingly.

"Why hasn't he come?"

"I hear his wife's very ill," said George.

"Who told you?"

"I happened to be round that way this morning."

"Oh! I thought all was over between you two."

George flushed. Nothing had ever been said in the office as to his relations with Haim, though it was of course known that George no longer lodged with the factotum. Mr. Enwright, however, often had disconcerting intuitions concerning matters to which Mr. Orgreave and Lucas were utterly insensible.

"Oh no!" George haltingly murmured.

"Well, this is all very well, this is----!" Mr. Enwright ruthlessly proceeded, beginning to marshal the instruments on his desk.

He had been a somewhat spectacular martyr for some time past. A mysterious facial neuralgia had harried his nights and days. For the greater part of a week he had dozed in an arm-chair in the office under the spell of eight tabloids of aspirin per diem. Then a specialist had decided that seven of his side teeth, already studded with gold, must leave him. Those teeth were not like any other person's teeth, and in Mr. Enwright's mind the extracting of them had become a major operation, as, for example, the taking off of a limb. He had spent three days in a nursing home in Welbeck Street. His life was now saved, and he was a convalescent, and passed several hours daily in giving to friends tragi-farcical accounts of existence in a nursing home. Mr. Enwright's career was one unending romance.

"I was just looking at that town hall affair," said John Orgreave.

"What town hall?" his partner snapped.

"_The town hall," answered the imperturbable John. "George here has got an idea."

"I suppose you know Sir Hugh Corver, Bart., is to be the assessor," said Mr. Enwright in a devastating tone.

Sir Hugh Corver, formerly a mere knight, had received a baronetcy, to Mr. Enwright's deep disgust. Mr. Enwright had remarked that any decent-minded man who had been a husband and childless for twenty-four years would have regarded the supplementary honour as an insult, but that Sir Hugh was not decent-minded and, moreover, was not capable of knowing an insult when he got one. This theory of Mr. Enwright's, however, did not a bit lessen his disgust.

"Oh yes," John Orgreave admitted lamely.

"I for one am not going in for any more competitions with Corver as assessor," said Mr. Enwright. "I won't do it."

Faces fell. Mr. Enwright had previously published this resolve, but it had not been taken quite seriously. It was entirely serious. Neuralgia and a baronetcy had given it the consistency of steel.

"It isn't as if we hadn't got plenty of work in the office," said Mr. Enwright.

This was true. The firm was exceedingly prosperous.

Nobody else spoke.

"What _can you expect from a fellow like Corver?" Mr. Enwright cried, with a special glance at George. "He's the upas-tree of decent architecture."

George's mood changed immediately. Profound discouragement succeeded to his creative stimulation. Mr. Enwright had reason on his side. What _could you expect from a fellow like Corver? With all the ardour of a disciple George dismissed the town hall scheme, and simultaneously his private woes surged up and took full possession of him. He walked silently out of the room, and Lucas followed. As a fact, Mr. Enwright ought not to have talked in such a way before the pupils. A question of general policy should first have been discussed in private between the partners, and the result then formally announced to the staff. Mr. Enwright was not treating his partner with proper consideration. But Mr. Enwright, as every one said at intervals, was 'like that'; and his partner did not seem to care greatly.

Lucas shut the door between the principals' room and the pupils' room.

"I say," said Lucas importantly. "I've got a show on to-night. Women. Cafe Royal. I want a fourth. You must come."

"Yes," sneered George. "And what about my exam., I should like to know.... Besides, I can't."

The Final was due to begin on Thursday.

"That's all right," Lucas answered, with tact. "That's all right. I'd thought of the exam., of course. You'll have to-morrow to recover. It'll do you all the good in the world. And you know you're more than ready for the thing. You don't want to be overtrained, my son. Besides, you'll sail through it. As for 'can't,' 'can't' be damned. You've got to."

A telegraph boy, after hesitating at the empty cubicle, came straight into the room.

"Name of Cannon?"

George nodded, trembling.

The telegram read:

"Impossible to-day.--MARGUERITE."

It was an incredible telegram, as much by what it said as by what it didn't say. It overthrew George.

"Seven forty-five, and I'll drive you round," said Lucas.

"Tis well," said George.

Immediately afterwards Mr. Enwright summoned Lucas.

IV

The two young men of fashion were silent that evening as they drove to the Cafe Royal in the car which Lucas loosely called 'my car,' but which was his mother's and only to be obtained by him upon his own conditions after delicate diplomacies. The chief of his conditions was that the chauffeur should not accompany the car. Lucas, having been engaged upon outdoor work for the firm, had not seen George throughout the day. Further, he was late in calling for George, and therefore rather exacerbated in secret; and if George had not been ready and waiting for him at the club trouble might have arisen. George understood his host's mood and respected it. Lucas drove rapidly and fiercely, with appropriate frowns and settings of cruel teeth; his mien indeed had the arrogance of the performer who, having given only a fraction of his time to the acquirement of skill, reckons that he can beat the professional who has given the whole of his time. Lucas's glances at chauffeurs who hindered his swiftness were masterpieces of high disdain, and he would accelerate, after circumventing them, with positive ferocity.

George himself, an implacable critic, could not find fault with the technique of Lucas's driving. But exacerbation tells, even in the young, and at Piccadilly Circus, Lucas, in obeying a too suddenly uplifted hand of a policeman, stopped his engine. The situation, horribly humiliating for Lucas and also for George, provided pleasure for half the chauffeurs and drivers in Piccadilly Circus, and was the origin of much jocularity of a kind then fairly new. Lucas cursed the innocent engine, and George leapt down to wield the crank. But the engine, apparently resenting curses, refused to start again. No, it would not start. Lucas leapt down too. "Get out of the way," he muttered savagely to George, and scowled at the bonnet as if saying to the engine: "I'm not going to stand any of your infernal nonsense!" But still the engine refused to start.

The situation, humiliating before, was now appalling. Two entirely correct young gentlemen, in evening dress, with light overcoats and opera hats, struggling with a refractory car that in its obstinacy was far more dignified than themselves--and the car obstructing traffic at the very centre of the world in the very hour when the elect of Britain were driving by on the way to _Tristan at the Opera! Sebastians both, they were martyrized by the poisoned arrows of vulgar wit, shot at them from all sides and especially from the lofty thrones of hansom-cab drivers. The policeman ordered them to shove the car to the kerb, and with the aid of a boy and the policeman himself they did so, opposite the shuttered front of Swan & Edgar's.

The two experts then examined the engine in a professional manner; they did everything but take it down; they tried in vain all known devices to conquer the recalcitrancy of engines; and when they had reached despair and fury George, startlingly visited by an idea, demanded:

"Any petrol in the tank?..." In those days men of fashion were apt to forget, at moments of crisis, that the first necessity of the engine was petrol. George behaved magnanimously. He might have extinguished Lucas with a single inflection as Lucas, shamed to the uttermost, poured a spare half-tin of petrol into the tank. He refrained.

In one minute, in less than one minute, they were at the side entrance to the Cafe Royal, which less than a minute earlier had been inconceivably distant and unattainable. Lucas dashed first into the restaurant. To keep ladies waiting in a public place was for him the very worst crime, surpassing in turpitude arson, embezzlement, and the murder of innocents. The ladies must have been waiting for a quarter of an hour, half an hour! His reputation was destroyed!

However, the ladies had not arrived.

"That's all right," Lucas breathed, at ease at last. The terrible scowl had vanished from his face, which was perfectly recomposed into its urbane, bland charm.

"Now perhaps you'll inform me who they are, old man," George suggested, relinquishing his overcoat to a flunkey, and following Lucas into the cloister set apart for the cleansing of hands which have meddled with machinery.

"The Wheeler woman is one--didn't I tell you?" Lucas answered, unsuccessfully concealing his pride.

"Wheeler?"

"Irene Wheeler. You know."

George was really impressed. Lucas had hitherto said no word as to his acquaintance with this celebrated woman. It was true that recently Lucas had been spreading himself in various ways--he had even passed his Intermediate--but George had not anticipated such a height of achievement as the feat of entertaining at a restaurant a cynosure like Irene Wheeler. George had expected quite another sort of company at dinner, for he had publicly dined with Lucas before. All day he had been abstracted, listless, and utterly desolate. All day he had gone over again and again the details of the interview with Mr. Haim, his telegram to Marguerite and her unspeakable telegram to him, hugging close a terrific grievance. Only from pique against Marguerite had he accepted Lucas's invitation. The adventure in Piccadilly Circus had somewhat enlivened him, and now the fluttering prospect of acquaintance with the legendary Irene Wheeler pushed Marguerite into the background of his mind, and excitement became quite pleasant. "And a Miss Ingram," Lucas added.

"Not Lois Ingram?" exclaimed George, suddenly dragging the names of Ingram and Wheeler out of the same drawer of his memory.

"No. Laurencine. But she has a sister named Lois. What do _you know about her?" Lucas spoke challengingly, as if George had trespassed on preserves sacred to himself alone. He had not yet admitted that it was merely Mrs. John Orgreave who had put him in the way of Irene Wheeler.

George was surprised and shocked that it had never occurred to him to identify Lois Ingram's wealthy friend Miss Wheeler with the Irene Wheeler of society columns of newspapers. And Lois Ingram rose in his esteem, not because of the distinction of her friend, but because she had laid no boastful stress on the distinction of her friend.

"Don't you remember?" he said. "I told you once about a girl who jolly nearly got me into a motor accident all through her fancying herself as a chauffeur. That was Lois Ingram. Paris girl. Same lot, isn't it?"

"Oh! Was _that Lois?" Lucas murmured. "Well, I'm dashed!"

They returned in a hurry to the entrance-hall, fearful lest the ladies might have arrived. However, the ladies had not arrived. Lucas had the inexpressible satisfaction of finding in an illustrated weekly a full-page portrait of Miss Irene Wheeler.

"Here you are!" he ejaculated, with an air of use, as though he was habitually picking up from the tables of fashionable restaurants high-class illustrated papers containing portraits of renowned beauties to whom he said "Come!" and they came. It was a great moment for Lucas.

Ten minutes later the ladies very calmly arrived, seeming perfectly unaware that they were three-quarters of an hour behind time. Lucas felt that, much as he already knew about life, he had learned something fresh.

To George, Irene Wheeler was not immediately recognizable as the original of her portrait. He saw the resemblance when he looked for it, but if after seeing the photograph he had met the woman in the street he would have passed her by unknowing. At first he was disappointed in her. He had never before encountered celebrated people--except architects, who, Enwright always said, never could be really celebrated--and he had to learn that celebrated people seldom differ in appearance from uncelebrated people. Nevertheless it was not to be expected that George should escape where the most experienced and the most wary of two capitals had not escaped. He did not agree that she was beautiful, but her complexion enthralled him. He had never seen such a complexion; nobody had ever seen such a complexion. It combined extremely marvellous whites and extremely marvellous pinks, and the skin had the exquisite, incredible softness of a baby's. Next he was struck by her candid, ingenuous, inquiring gaze, and by her thin voice with the slight occasional lisp. The splendid magnificence of her frock and jewels came into play later. Lastly her demeanour imposed itself. That simple gaze showed not the slightest diffidence, scarcely even modesty; it was more brazen than effrontery. She preceded the other three into the restaurant, where electricity had finally conquered the expiring daylight, and her entry obviously excited the whole room; yet, guided by two waving and fawning waiters, and a hundred glances upon her, she walked to the appointed table without a trace of self-consciousness--as naturally as a policeman down a street. When she sat down, George on her right, Lucas on her left, and the tall, virginal Laurencine Ingram opposite, she was the principal person in the restaurant. George had already passed from disappointment to an impressed nervousness. The inquisitive diners might all have been quizzing him instead of Irene Wheeler. He envied Lucas, who was talking freely to both Miss Wheeler and Laurencine about what he had ordered for dinner. That morning over a drawing-board and an architectural problem, Lucas had been humble enough to George, and George by natural right had laid the law down to Lucas; but now Lucas, who--George was obliged to admit--never said anything brilliant or original, was outshining him.... It was unquestionable that in getting Irene Wheeler to dinner, Lucas, by some mysterious talent which he possessed, had performed a feat greater even than George had at first imagined--a prodigious feat.

George waited for Irene Wheeler to begin to talk. She did not begin to talk. She was content with the grand function of existing. Lucas showed her the portrait in the illustrated paper, which he had kept. She said that it was comparatively an old one, and had been taken at the Durbar in January. "Were you at the Durbar?" asked the simpleton George. Irene Wheeler looked at him. "Yes. I was in the Viceroy's house-party," she answered mildly. And then she said to Lucas that she had sat three times to photographers that week--"They won't leave me alone"--but that the proofs were none of them satisfactory. At this Laurencine Ingram boldly and blushingly protested, maintaining that one of them was lovely. George was attracted to Laurencine, in whom he saw no likeness to her sister Lois. She could not long have left school. She was the product finished for the world; she had been taught everything that was considered desirable--even to the art of talking easily and yet virginally on all subjects at table; and she was a nice, honest, handsome girl, entirely unspoilt by the mysterious operations practised upon her. She related how she had been present when a famous photographer arrived at Miss Wheeler's flat with his apparatus, and what the famous photographer had said. The boys laughed. Miss Wheeler smiled faintly. "I'm glad we didn't have to go to that play to-night," she remarked, quitting photography. "However, I shall have to go to-morrow night. And I don't care for first nights in London, only they will have me go." In this last phrase, and in the intonation of it, was the first sign she had given of her American origin; her speech was usually indistinguishable from English English, which language she had in fact carefully acquired years earlier. George gathered that Lucas's success in getting Miss Wheeler to dinner was due to the accident of a first night being postponed at the last moment and Miss Wheeler thus finding herself with an empty evening. He covertly examined her. Why was the feat of getting Miss Wheeler to dinner enormous? Why would photographers not leave her alone? Why would theatrical managers have her accept boxes gratis which they could sell for money? Why was she asked to join the Viceregal party for the Durbar? Why was the restaurant agog? Why was he himself proud and flattered--yes, proud and flattered--to be seen at the same table with her?... She was excessively rich, no doubt; she was reputed to be the niece of a railway man in Indianapolis who was one of the major rivals of Harriman. She dressed superbly, perhaps too superbly. But there were innumerable rich and well-dressed women on earth. After all, she put her gold bag and her gloves down on the table with just the same gesture as other women did; and little big Laurencine had a gold bag too. She was not witty. He questioned whether she was essentially kind. She was not young; her age was an enigma. She had not a remarkable figure, nor unforgettable hair, nor incendiary eyes. She seemed too placid and self-centred for love. If she had loved, it must have been as she sat to photographers or occupied boxes on first nights--because 'they' would have it so. George was baffled to discover the origin of her prestige. He had to seek it in her complexion. Her complexion was indubitably miraculous. He enjoyed looking at it, though he lacked the experience to know that he was looking at a complexion held by connoisseurs who do naught else but look at complexions to be a complexion unique in Europe. George, unsophisticated, thought that the unaffected simplicity--far exceeding self-confidence--with which she acquiesced in her prestige was perhaps more miraculous than her complexion. It staggered him.

The dinner was a social success. Irene Wheeler listened adroitly, if without brilliance, and after one glass of wine George found himself quite able to talk in the Enwright manner about architecture and the profession of architecture, and also to talk about automobiles. The casualness with which he mentioned his Final Examination was superb--the examiners might have been respectfully waiting for him to arrive and discomfit them. But of course the main subject was automobiles. Even Laurencine knew the names of all the leading makers, and when the names of all the leading makers had been enumerated and their products discussed, the party seemed to think that it had accomplished something that was both necessary and stylish. When the tablecloth had been renewed, and the solemn moment came for Everard Lucas to order liqueurs, George felt almost gay. He glanced round the gilded and mirrored apartment, now alluringly animated by the subdued yet vivacious intimacies of a score of white tables, and decided that the institution of restaurants was a laudable and agreeable institution. Marguerite had receded further than ever into the background of his mind; and as for the Final, it had diminished to a formality.

"And you?" Everard asked Laurencine, after Miss Wheeler.

George had thought that Laurencine was too young for liqueurs. She had had no wine. He expected her to say 'Nothing, thanks,' as conventionally as if her late head mistress had been present. But she hesitated, smiling, and then, obedient to the profound and universal instinct which seems to guide all young women to the same liqueur, she said:

"May I have a _creme de menthe_? I've never had _creme de menthe_."

George was certainly shocked for an instant. But no one else appeared to be shocked. Miss Wheeler, in charge of Laurencine, offered no protest. And then George reflected: "And why not? Why shouldn't she have a _creme de menthe_?" When Laurencine raised the tiny glass to her firm, large mouth, George thought that the sight of the young virginal thing tasting a liqueur was a fine and a beautiful sight.

"It's just heavenly!" murmured Laurencine ecstatically.

Miss Wheeler was gazing at George.

"What's the matter?" he demanded, smiling, and rested one elbow on the table and looked enigmatically through the smoke of his cigar.

"I was just wondering about you," said Miss Wheeler. Her voice, always faint, had dropped to a murmur which seemed to expire as it reached George's ear.

"Why?" He was flattered.

"I've been wanting to see you."

"Really!" he laughed, rather too loudly. "What a pity I didn't know earlier!" He was disturbed as well as flattered, for such a remark from such a person as Irene Wheeler to such a person as himself was bound to be disturbing. His eyes sought audaciously to commune with hers, but hers were not responsive; they were entirely non-committal.

"You _are the man that wouldn't let my friend Lois drive him in my car, aren't you?"

"Yes," he said defiantly, but rather guiltily. "Did she tell you about that? It's an awful long time ago."

"She told me something about it."

"And you've remembered it all this long while!"

"Yes," she answered, and her thin, queer tone and her tepid, impartial glance had the effect of a challenge to him to justify himself.

"And don't you think I was quite right?" he ventured.

"She drives very well." It was not the sort of answer he was expecting. His desire was to argue.

"She didn't drive very well then," he said, with conviction.

"Was that a reason for your leaving her to drive home alone?"

Women were astounding!

"She ought to have let the chauffeur drive," he maintained.

"Ah! A man mustn't expect too much from a woman."

"But I was risking my life in that car! Do you mean to say I ought to have kept on risking it?"

"I don't express any opinion on that. That was for you to decide.... You must admit it was very humiliating for poor Lois."

He felt himself cornered, but whether justly or unjustly he was uncertain.

"Was she vexed?"

"No, she wasn't vexed. Lois isn't the woman to be vexed. But I have an idea she was a little hurt."

"Did she say so?"

"Say so? Lois? She'd never say anything against anybody. Lois is a perfect angel.... Isn't she, Laurencine?"

Laurencine was being monopolized by Everard.

"What did you say?" the girl asked, collecting herself.

"I was just saying what an angel Lois is."

"Oh, she _is_!" the younger sister agreed, with immense and sincere emphasis.

George, startled, said to himself suddenly:

"Was I mistaken in her? Some girls you _are mistaken in! They're regular bricks, but they keep it from you at first."

Somehow, in spite of a slight superficial mortification, he was very pleased by the episode of the conversation, and his curiosity was titillated.

"Lois would have come to-night instead of Laurencine," Miss Wheeler went on, "only she wasn't feeling very well."

"Is she in London? I've only seen her once from that day to this, and then we didn't get near each other owing to the crush. So we didn't speak. It was at Mrs. Orgreave's."

"Yes, I know."

"Did she tell you?"

"Yes."

"Is she at your flat?"

"Yes; but she's not well."

"Not in bed, I hope, or anything like that?"

"Oh no! She's not in bed."

Laurencine threw laughingly across the table:

"She's as well as I am."

It was another aspect of the younger sister.

When they left the restaurant it was nearly empty. They left easily, slowly, magnificently. The largesse of Everard Lucas--his hat slightly raked--in the foyer and at the portico was magnificent in both quantity and manner. There was no need to hurry; the hour, though late for the end of dinner, was early for separation. They moved and talked without the slightest diffidence, familiar and confident; the whole world was reformed and improved for them by the stimulus of food and alcohol. The night was sultry and dark. The two women threw their cloaks back from their shoulders, revealing the whiteness of toilettes. At the door the head-lights of Miss Wheeler's automobile shot horizontally right across Regent Street. The chauffeur recognized George, and George recognized the car; he was rather surprised that Miss Wheeler had not had a new car in eighteen months. Lucas spoke of his own car, which lay beyond in the middle of the side-street like a ship at anchor. He spoke in such a strain that Miss Wheeler deigned to ask him to drive her home in it. The two young men went to light the head-lights. George noticed the angry scowl on Everard's face when three matches had been blown out in the capricious breeze. The success of the fourth match restored his face to perfect benignity. He made the engine roar triumphantly, imperiously sounded his horn, plunged forward, and drew the car up in front of Miss Wheeler's. His bliss, when Miss Wheeler had delicately inserted herself into the space by his side, was stern and yet radiant. The big car, with George and Laurencine on board, followed the little one like a cat following a mouse, and Laurencine girlishly interested herself in the chase. George, with his mind on Lois, kept saying to himself: "She's been thinking about that little affair ever since last November but one. They've all been thinking about it." He felt apprehensive, but his satisfaction amounted to excitement. His attitude was: "At any rate I gave them something to think about!" Also he breathed appreciatively the atmosphere of the three women--two seen and one unseen. How extraordinarily different all of them were from Agg! They reminded him acutely of his deep need of luxury. After all, the life lived by those two men about town, George and Everard, was rather humdrum and monotonous. In spite of Everard's dash, and in spite of George's secret engagement, neither of them met enough women or enough sorts of women. George said to himself: "I shall see her to-night. We shall go up to the flat. She isn't in bed. I shall see her to-night." He wanted to see her because he had hurt her, and because she had remembered and had talked about him and had raised curiosity about him in others. Was she really unwell? Or had she been excusing herself! Was she an angel? He wanted to see her again in order to judge for himself whether she was an angel. If Laurencine said she was an angel she must be an angel. Laurencine was a jolly, honest girl. To be in the car with her was agreeable. But she was insipid. So he assessed the splendidly budding Laurencine, patronizing her a little. Miss Wheeler gave him pause. Her simple phrases had mysterious intonations. He did not understand her glance. He could not settle the first question about her--her age. She might be very wicked; certainly she could be very ruthless. And he had no hold over her. He could give her nothing that she wanted. He doubted whether any man could.

"Have you been in London long?" he asked Laurencine.

"A week," she said. "I came over with Miss Wheeler. I didn't think mother would let me, but she did."

"And did your sister come with you?"

"No; Lois only came yesterday."

"By herself?"

"Yes."

"I suppose you go about a lot?"

"Oh, we _do It's such a change from Paris."

"Well, I should prefer Paris."

"You wouldn't! London's much more romantic. Paris is so hard and matter-of-fact."

"So's London."

She squirmed about lissomly on the seat.

"You don't know what I mean," she said. "I never _can make people see what I mean--about anything."

He smiled indulgently and dropped the point.

"Miss Wheeler taken you to Mrs. Orgreave's yet?"

"Yes; we were there on Saturday afternoon."

"Well, what do you think of Mrs. Orgreave?"

"Oh! She's very nice," Laurencine answered, with polite tepidity; and added eagerly: "Mr. Orgreave's a dear."

George was glad that she had not been enthusiastic about Mrs. Orgreave. Her reserve showed that she could discriminate. Ecstasy was not altogether a habit. If she said that Lois was an angel, Lois probably was an angel.

The cars stopped at the foot of a huge block of masonry in a vast leafy square. George suddenly became very nervous. He thought: "I shall be seeing her in a minute."

Then, as he got out of the car, he heard Miss Wheeler saying to Lucas:

"Well, good night. And thank you so much. It's been most delightful.... We expect you soon, of course."

She actually was not asking them to go up! George was excessively disappointed. He watched Miss Wheeler and Laurencine disappear into the rich and guarded interior with envy, as though they had entered a delectable paradise to which he could not aspire; and the fact that Miss Wheeler had vaguely invited him to call did not brighten him very much. He had assumed that he would see Lois the angel that night.

V

The young men finished the evening at Pickering's. Pickering's was George's club. George considered, rightly, that in the matter of his club he had had great luck. Pickering's was a small club, and it had had vicissitudes. Most men whose worldly education had been completed in St. James's were familiar with its historical name, but few could say off-hand where it was. Its address was Candle Court, and Candle Court lay at the end of Candle Alley (a very short passage), between Duke Street and Bury Street. The Court was in fact a tiny square of several houses, chiefly used by traders and agents of respectability--as respectability is understood in St. James's; it had a lamp-post of its own. The report ran, and was believed by persons entitled to an opinion, that the Duke of Wellington had for some years hidden there the lovely desire of his heart from an inquisitive West End. Pickering's had, of course, originally been a coffee-house; later, like many other coffee-houses in the neighbourhood, it had developed into a proprietary club. Misfortunes due to the caprices of taste and to competition had brought about an arrangement by which the ownership was vested in a representative committee. The misfortunes had continued, and at the beginning of the century a crisis was reached, and Pickering's tried hard to popularize itself, thereby doing violence to its feelings. Rules were abated, and the entrance-fee fell. It was in this period that Everard Lucas, whose ears were always open for useful items, heard of it and suggested it to George. George wanted to join Lucas's club, which was in St. James's Street itself, but Lucas wisely pointed out that if they belonged to different clubs each would in practice have two clubs. Moreover, he said that George might conceivably get a permanent bedroom there. The first sight of the prim, picturesque square, the first hint of scandal about the Duke of Wellington, decided George. It was impossible for a man about town to refuse the chance of belonging to a club in a Court where the Duke of Wellington had committed follies.

George was proposed, seconded, and duly elected, together with other new blood. Some of the old blood naturally objected, but the feud was never acute. Solely owing to the impression which his young face made on the powerful and aged hall-porter, George obtained a bedroom. It was small, and at the top of the house; but it was cheap, it solved the even more tiresome and uncomfortable problem of lodging; and further it was a bedroom at Pickering's, and George could say that he lived at his club--an imposing social advantage. He soon learnt how to employ the resources of the club for his own utmost benefit. Nobody could surpass him in choosing a meal inexpensively. He could have his breakfast in his bedroom for tenpence, or even sixpence when his appetite was poor. He was well served by a valet who apparently passed his whole life on stairs and landings. This valet, courteous rather in the style of old Haim, had a brain just equal to the problems presented by his vocation. Every morning George would say: "Now, Downs, how soon can I have my bath?" or "Now, Downs, what can I have for breakfast?" And Downs would conscientiously cerebrate, and come forth after some seconds with sound solutions, such as: "I'll see if I can put you in before Mr. de Gales if you're in a hurry, sir," or "Scrambled eggs, sir--it'll make a bit of a change." And when George agreed, Downs would exhibit a restrained but real satisfaction. Yes, George had been very lucky. The club too was lucky. The oldest member, who being paralysed had not visited the club for eleven years, died and bequeathed ten thousand pounds to the institution where he had happily played cards for several decades. Pickering's was refurnished, and the stringency of its rules re-established. The right wing of the committee wished that the oldest member could have managed to die a year or two earlier and so obviated the crisis. It was recognized, however, by the more reasonable, that you cannot have everything in this world.

Pickering's was very dull; but it was still Pickering's. George was often bored at Pickering's. He soon reached the stage at which a club member asserts gloomily that the club cookery is simply damnable. Nevertheless he would have been desolated to leave Pickering's. The place was useful to him in another respect than the purely material. He learnt there the code which governs the familiar relations of men about town.

On the night of the Cafe Royal dinner, George and Lucas reclined in two easy chairs in the inner smoking-room of Pickering's. They were alone. Through the wide archway that marked the division between the inner and the outer smoking-rooms they could see one solitary old gentleman dozing in an attitude of abandonment, a magazine on his knees. Ash-trays were full of ash and cigarette ends and matches. Newspapers were scattered around, some folded inside out, some not folded, some whose component sheets had been divided for ever like the members of a ruined family. The windows were open, and one gave a view of the Court's watchful lamp-post, and the other of the house--now occupied by an art dealer and a commission agent--where the Duke had known both illusion and disillusion. The delicate sound of the collision of billiard-balls came from somewhere, and the rat-tatting of a tape-machine from somewhere else. The two friends had arrived at the condition of absolute wisdom and sagacity and tolerance which is apt to be achieved at a late hour in clubs by young and old men who have discussed at length the phenomena of society.

"Well, I must be toddling," said Lucas, yawning as he looked idly at the coloured horses on each wall who were for ever passing winning-posts or soaring over bullfinches or throwing riders into brooks.

"Here! Hold on!" George protested. "It's early."

"Is it?"

They began again to smoke and talk.

"Nice little thing, What's-her-name! What's her funny name?"

"Laurencine, do you mean? Yes." Lucas spoke coldly, with a careful indifference. George, to whom insight had not been denied, understood that Everard did not altogether care for Laurencine to be referred to as a little thing, that he had rendered Laurencine sacred by his secret approval.

"I say," said George, sitting up slightly, and increasing the intimacy of his tone, "devilish odd, wasn't it, that the Wheeler woman didn't ask us up?"

Hitherto they had avoided this question in their profound gossip. It had lain between them untouched, like a substance possibly dangerous and explosive. Yet they could not have parted without touching it, and George, with characteristic moral courage or rashness, had touched it first. Lucas was of a mind to reply succinctly that the Wheeler woman's conduct was not a bit devilish odd. But sincerity won. The dismissal at the entrance to the Mansions had affected him somewhat deeply. It had impaired the perfection of his most notable triumph. The temptation to release his feelings was too strong.

"Well, if you ask me," he answered, it was. After a little pause he went on:

"Especially seeing that she practically asked me to ask them to dinner." His nice features loosened to dissatisfaction. "The deuce she did!"

"Yes! Practically asked me! Anyhow, gave me the tip What can you do?" He implied that, far from deriving unique and unhoped-for glory from the condescension of Irene Wheeler in consenting to dine with him, he had conferred a favour on her by his invitation. He implied that brilliant women all over London competed for his invitations. His manner was entirely serious; it probably deceived even himself. George's manner corresponded, instinctively, chivalrously; but George was not deceived--at any rate in the subconscious depth of his mind.

"Exactly!" murmured George.

"Yes" said Lucas. "She said: 'I could bring Laurencine with me, if you can get another man. That would make a four.' She said she wanted to wake Laurencine up."

"Did you tell her you should ask me?" George questioned.

"Oh! She seemed to know all about you, my boy."

"Well, but she couldn't know all about me," said George insincerely. "Well, if you want to know then, she suggested I should ask you."

"But she'd never seen me!"

"She's heard of you. Mrs. Orgreave, I expect."

"Odd!... Odd!" George now pretended to be academically assessing an announcement that had no intrinsic interest for him. In reality he was greatly excited.

"Well you know what those sort of women are!" Lucas summed up wisely, as if referring to truths of knowledge common among men of their kidney.

"Oh, of course!"

The magazine slid from the knees of the sleeper. The sleeper snorted and woke up. The spell was broken. Lucas rose suddenly. "Bye-bye!" He was giving an ultimatum as to his departure.

George rose also, but slowly.

"All that doesn't explain why she didn't ask us up," said he.

But in his heart he thought he knew why Miss Wheeler hadn't asked them up. The reason was that she maliciously wanted to tantalize him, George. She had roused his curiosity about Lois, and then she had said to herself: "You think you're going to see her to-night, but you just aren't." Such, according to George, was Irene Wheeler the illustrious. He reflected on the exasperating affair until he had undressed and got into bed. But as soon as he had put out the light Marguerite appeared before him, and at the back of her were the examiners for the Final. He slept ill.

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