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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 8. Inspiration
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The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 8. Inspiration Post by :gftgd Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1057

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The Roll-call - Part 1 - Chapter 8. Inspiration

PART I CHAPTER VIII. INSPIRATION

I

George, despite his own dispositions, as he went up in the lift, to obviate the danger of such a mishap, was put out of countenance by the overwhelming splendour of Miss Irene Wheeler's flat. And he did not quite recover his aplomb until the dinner was nearly finished. The rooms were very large and lofty; they blazed with electric light, though the day had not yet gone; they gleamed with the polish of furniture, enamel, bookbindings, marble, ivory, and precious metals; they were ennobled by magnificent pictures, and purified by immense quantities of lovely flowers. George had made the mistake of arriving last. He found in the vast drawing-room five people who had the air of being at home and intimate together. There were, in addition to the hostess, Lois and Laurencine Ingram, Everard Lucas, and a Frenchman from the French Embassy whose name he did not catch. Miss Wheeler wore an elaborate Oriental costume, and apologized for its simplicity on the grounds that she was fatigued by a crowded and tiresome reception which she had held that afternoon, and that the dinner was to be without ceremony. This said, her conversation seemed to fail, but she remained by George's side, apart from the others. George saw not the least vestige of the ruinous disorder which, in the society to which he was accustomed, usually accompanied a big afternoon tea, or any sign of a lack of ceremony. He had encountered two male servants in the hall, and had also glimpsed a mulatto woman in a black dress and a white apron, and a Frenchwoman in a black dress and a black apron. Now a third man-servant entered, bearing an enormous silver-gilt tray on which were multitudinous bottles, glasses, decanters, and jugs. George comprehended that _aperitifs were being offered. The tray contained enough cocktails and other combinations, some already mingled and some not, to produce a factitious appetite in the stomachs of a whole platoon. The girls declined, Miss Wheeler declined, the Frenchman declined, George declined (from prudence and diffidence); only Lucas took an _aperitif_, and he took it, as George admitted, in style. The man-servant, superbly indifferent to refusals, marched processionally off with the loaded tray. The great principle of conspicuous ritualistic waste had been illustrated in a manner to satisfy the most exacting standard of the leisured class; and incidentally a subject of talk was provided.

George observed the name of 'Renoir' on the gorgeous frame of a gorgeous portrait in oils of the hostess.

"Is that a Renoir?" he asked the taciturn Miss Wheeler, who seemed to jump at the opening with relief.

"Yes," she said, with her slight lisp. "I'm glad you noticed it. Come and look at it. Do you think it's a good one? Do you like Renoir?"

By good fortune George had seen a Renoir or two in Paris under the guidance of Mr. Enwright. They stared at the portrait together.

"It's awfully distinguished," he decided, employing a useful adjective which he had borrowed from Mr. Enwright.

"Isn't it!" she said, turning her wondrous complexion towards him, and admiring his adjective. "I have a Boldini too."

He followed her across the room to the Boldini portrait of herself, which was dazzling in its malicious flattery.

"And here's a Nicholson," she said.

Those three portraits were the most striking pictures in the _salon_, but there were others of at least equal value.

"Are you interested in fans?" she demanded, and pulled down a switch which illuminated the interior of a large cabinet full of fans. She pointed out fans painted by Lami, Glaize, Jacquemart. "That one is supposed to be a Lancret," she said. "But I'm not sure about it, and I don't know anybody that is. Here's the latest book on the subject." She indicated Lady Charlotte Schreiber's work in two volumes which, bound in vellum and gold, lay on a table. "But of course it only deals with English fans. However, Conder is going to do me a couple. He was here yesterday to see me about them. Of course you know him. What a wonderful man! The only really cosmopolitan artist in England, I say, now Beardsley's dead. I've got a Siegfried drawing by Beardsley. He was a great friend of mine. I adored him."

"This is a fine thing," said George, touching a bronze of a young girl on the same table as the books.

"You think so?" Miss Wheeler responded uncertainly. "I suppose it _is_. It's a Gilbert. He gave it me. But do you really think it compares with this Barye? It doesn't, does it?" She directed him to another bronze of a crouching cheetah.

So she moved him about. He was dazed. His modest supply of adjectives proved inadequate. When she paused, he murmured:

"It's a great room you've managed to get here."

"Ah!" she cried thinly. "But you've no idea of the trouble I've had over this room. Do you know it's really two rooms. I had to take two flats in order to fix this room."

She was launched on a supreme topic, and George heard a full history. She would not have a house. She would have a flat. She instructed house-agents to find for her the best flat in London. There was no best flat in London. London landlords did not understand flats, which were comprehended only in Paris. The least imperfect flats in London were two on a floor, and as their drawing-rooms happened to be contiguous on their longer sides, she had the idea of leasing two intolerable flats so as to obtain one flat that was tolerable. She had had terrible difficulties about the central heating. No flats in London were centrally heated except in the corridors and on the staircases. However, she had imposed her will on the landlord, and radiators had appeared in every room. George had a vision of excessive wealth subjugating the greatest artists and riding with implacable egotism over the customs and institutions of a city obstinately conservative. The cost and the complexity of Irene Wheeler's existence amazed and intimidated George--for this double flat was only one of her residences. He wondered what his parents would say if they could see him casually treading the oak parquetry and the heavy rugs of the resplendent abode. And then he thought, the humble and suspicious upstart: "There must be something funny about her, or she wouldn't be asking _me here!"

They went in to dinner, without ceremony. George was last, the hostess close to his side.

"Who's the Frenchman?" he inquired casually, with the sudden boldness that often breaks out of timidity. "I didn't catch."

"It's Monsieur Defourcambault," said Miss Wheeler in a low voice of sincere admiration. "He's from the Embassy. A most interesting man. Been everywhere. Seen everything. Read everything. Done everything."

George could not but be struck by the ingenuous earnestness of her tone, so different from the perfunctory accents in which she had catalogued her objects of art.

The dining-room, the dinner, and the service of the dinner were equally superb. The broad table seemed small in the midst of the great mysterious chamber, of which the illumination was confined by shades to the centre. The glance wandering round the obscurity of the walls could rest on nothing that was not obviously in good taste and very costly. The three men-servants, moving soundless as phantoms, brought burdens from a hidden country behind a gigantic screen, and at intervals in the twilight near the screen could be detected the transient gleam of the white apron of the mulatto, whose sex clashed delicately and piquantly with the grave, priest-like performances of the male menials. The table was of mahogany covered with a sheet of plate-glass. A large gold epergne glittered in the middle. Suitably dispersed about the rim of the board were six rectangular islands of pale lace, and on each island lay a complete set of the innumerable instruments and condiments necessary to the proper consumption of the meal. Thus, every diner dined independently, cut off from his fellows, but able to communicate with them across expanses of plate-glass over mahogany. George was confused by the multiplicity of metal tools and crystal receptacles--he alone had four wine-glasses--but in the handling of the tools he was saved from shame by remembering the maxim--a masterpiece of terse clarity worthy of a class which has given its best brains to the perfecting of the formalities preliminary to deglutition: "Take always from the outside."

The man from the French Embassy sat on the right of the hostess, and George on her left. George had Lois Ingram on his left. Laurencine was opposite her sister. Everard Lucas, by command of the hostess, had taken the foot of the table and was a sort of 'Mr. Vice.' The six people were soon divided into two equal groups, one silent and the other talkative, the talkative three being M. Defourcambault, Laurencine and Lucas. The diplomatist, though he could speak diplomatic English, persisted in speaking French. Laurencine spoke French quite perfectly, with exactly the same idiomatic ease as the Frenchman. Lucas neither spoke nor understood French--he had been to a great public school. Nevertheless these three attained positive loquacity. Lucas guessed at words, or the Frenchman obliged with bits of English, or Laurencine interpreted. Laurencine was far less prim and far more girlish than at the Cafe Royal. She kept all the freshness of her intensely virginal quality, but she was at ease. Her rather large body was at ease, continually restless in awkward and exquisite gestures; she laughed at ease, and made fun at ease. She appeared to have no sex-consciousness, nor even to suspect that she was a most delightful creature. The conversation was disjointed in its gaiety, and had no claim to the attention of the serious. Laurencine said that Lucas ought really to know French. Lucas said he would learn if she would teach him. Laurencine said that she would teach him if he would have his first lesson instantly, during dinner. Lucas said that wasn't fair. Laurencine said that it was. Both of them appealed to M. Defourcambault. M. Defourcambault said that it was fair. Lucas said that there was a plot between them, but that he would consent to learn at once if Laurencine would play the piano for him after dinner. Laurencine said she didn't play. Lucas said she did. M. Defourcambault, invoked once again, said that she played magnificently. Laurencine blushed, and asked M. Defourcambault how he could!... And so on, indefinitely. It was all naught; yet the taciturn three, smiling indulgently and glancing from one to another of the talkers, as taciturn and constrained persons must, envied that peculiar ability to maintain a rush and gush of chatter.

George was greatly disappointed in Lois. In the period before dinner his eyes had avoided her, and now, since they sat side by side, he could not properly see her without deliberately looking at her: which he would not do. She gave no manifestation. She was almost glum. Her French, though free, was markedly inferior to Laurencine's. She denied any interest in music. George decided, with self-condemnation, that he had been deliberately creating in his own mind an illusion about her; on no other hypothesis could either his impatience to meet her to-night, or his disappointment at not meeting her on the night of the Cafe Royal dinner, be explained. She was nothing, after all. And he did not deeply care for Miss Irene Wheeler, whom he could watch at will. She might be concealing something very marvellous, but she was dull, and she ignored the finer responsibilities of a hostess. She collected many beautiful things; she had some knowledge of what they were; she must be interested in them--or why should she trouble to possess them? She must have taste. And yet had she taste? Was she interested in her environment? A tone, a word, will create suspicion that the exhibition of expertise for hours cannot allay. George did not like the Frenchman. The Frenchman was about thirty--small, thin, fair, with the worn face of the man who lives several lives at once. He did not look kind; he did not look reliable; and he offered little evidence in support of Miss Wheeler's ardent assertion that he had been everywhere, seen everything, read everything, done everything. He assuredly had not, for example, read Verlaine, who was mentioned by Miss Wheeler. Now George had read one or two poems of Verlaine, and thought them unique; hence he despised M. Defourcambault. He could read French, in a way, but he was incapable of speaking a single word of it in the presence of compatriots; the least mono-syllable would have died on his lips. He was absurdly envious of those who could speak two languages; he thought sometimes that he would prefer to be able to speak two languages than to do anything else in the world; not to be able to speak two languages humiliated him intensely; he decided to 'take up French seriously' on the morrow; but he had several times arrived at a similar decision.

If Lois was glum, George too was glum. He wished he had not come to the dinner; he wished he could be magically transported to the solitude of his room at the club. He slipped into a reverie about the Marguerite affair. Nobody could have divined that scarcely twenty-four hours earlier he had played a principal part in a tragedy affecting his whole life. He had borne the stroke better than he otherwise would have done for the simple reason that nobody knew of his trouble. He had not to arrange his countenance for the benefit of people who were aware what was behind the countenance. But also he was philosophical. He recognized that the Marguerite affair was over. She would never give way, and he would never give way. She was wrong. He had been victimized. He had behaved with wisdom and with correctness (save for the detail of throwing the ring into the Thames). Agg's warnings and injunctions were ridiculous. What could he have done that he had not done? Run away with Marguerite, carry her off? Silly! No, he was well out of the affair. He perceived the limitations of the world in which Marguerite lived. It was a world too small and too austere for him. He required the spaciousness and the splendour of the new world in which Irene Wheeler and the Ingrams lived. Yea, though it was a world that excited the sardonic in him, he liked it. It flattered authentic, if unsuspected, appetites in him. Still, the image of Marguerite inhabited his memory. He saw her as she stood between himself and old Haim in the basement of No. 8. He heard her.... She was absolutely unlike any other girl; she was so gentle, so acquiescent. Only she put her lover second to her father.... What would Miss Wheeler think of the basement of No. 8?

The chatterers, apropos of songs in musical comedies, were talking about a French popular song concerning Boulanger.

"You knew Boulanger, didn't you, Jules?" Miss Wheeler suggested.

M. Defourcambault looked round, content. He related in English how his father had been in the very centre of the Boulangist movement, and had predicted disaster to the General's cause from the instant that Madame de Bonnemain came on the scene. (Out of consideration for the girls, M. Defourcambault phrased his narrative with neat discretion.) His grandfather also had been of his father's opinion, and his grandfather was in the Senate, and had been Minister at Brussels.... He affirmed that Madame de Bonnemain had telegraphed to Boulanger to leave Paris at the very moment when his presence in Paris was essential, and Boulanger had obediently gone. He said that he always remembered what his mother had said to him: a clever woman irregularly in love with a man may make his fortune, but a stupid woman is certain to ruin it. Finally he related how he, Jules Defourcambault, had driven the General's carriage on a famous occasion through Paris, and how the populace in its frenzy of idolatry had even climbed on to the roof of the carriage.

"And what did you do, then?" George demanded in the hard tone of a cross-examiner.

"I drove straight on," said M. Defourcambault, returning George's cold stare.

This close glimpse into history--into politics and passion--excited George considerably. He was furiously envious of M. Defourcambault, who had been in the middle of things all his life, whose father, mother, and grandfather were all in the middle of things. M. Defourcambault had an immense and unfair advantage over him. To whatever heights he might rise, George would never be in a position to talk as M. Defourcambault talked of his forbears. He would always have to stand alone, and to fight for all he wanted. He could not even refer to his father. He scorned M. Defourcambault because M. Defourcambault was not worthy of his heritage. M. Defourcambault was a little rotter, yet he had driven the carriage of Boulanger in a crisis of the history of France! Miss Wheeler, however, did not scorn M. Defourcambault. On the contrary, she looked at him with admiration, as though he had now proved that he had been everywhere, seen everything, and done everything. George's mood was black. He was a nobody; he would always be a nobody; why should he be wasting his time and looking a fool in this new world?

II

After dinner, in the drawing-room which had cost Irene Wheeler an extra flat, there was, during coffee, a certain amount of general dullness, slackness, and self-consciousness which demonstrated once more Miss Wheeler's defects as a hostess. Miss Wheeler would not or could not act as shepherdess and inspirer to her guests. She reclined, and charmingly left them to manufacture the evening for her. George was still disappointed and disgusted; for he had imagined, very absurdly as he admitted, that artistic luxuriousness always implied social dexterity and the ability to energize and reinvigorate diversion without apparent effort. There were moments during coffee which reminded him of the maladroit hospitalities of the Five Towns.

Then Everard Lucas opened the piano, and the duel between him and Laurencine was resumed. The girl yielded. Electric lights were adjusted. She began to play, while Lucas, smoking, leaned over the piano. George was standing by himself at a little distance behind the piano. He had perhaps been on his way to a chair when suddenly caught and immobilized by one of those hazards which do notoriously occur--the victim never remembers how--in drawing-rooms. Hands in pockets, he looked aimlessly about, smiling perfunctorily, and wondering where he should settle or whether he should remain where he was. In the deep embrasure of the large east bow-window Lois was lounging. She beckoned to him, not with her hand but with a brief, bright smile--she smiled rarely--and with a lifting of the chin. He responded alertly and pleasurably, and went to sit beside her. Such invitations from young women holding themselves apart in obscurity are never received without excitement and never unanswered.

Crimson curtains of brocaded silk would have cut off the embrasure entirely from the room had they been fully drawn, but they were not fully drawn; one was not drawn at all, and the other was only half drawn. Still, the mere fact of the curtains, drawn or undrawn, did morally separate the embrasure from the _salon_; and the shadows thickened in front of the window. The smile had gone from Lois's face, but it had been there. Sequins glittered on her dark dress, the line of the low neck of which was distinct against the pallor of the flesh. George could follow the outlines of her slanted, plump body from the hair and freckled face down to the elaborate shoes. The eyes were half closed. She did not speak. The figure of Laurencine, whose back was towards the window, received an aura from the electric light immediately over the music-stand of the piano. She played brilliantly. She played with a brilliance that astonished George.... She was exceedingly clever, was this awkward girl who had not long since left school Her body might be awkward, but not her hands. The music radiated from the piano and filled the room with brightness, with the illusion of the joy of life, and with a sense of triumph. To George it was an intoxication.

A man-servant entered with a priceless collection of bon-bons, some of which he deferentially placed on a small table in the embrasure. To do so he had to come into the embrasure, disturbing the solitude, which had already begun to exist, of Lois and George. He ignored the pair. His sublime indifference seemed to say: "I am beyond good and evil." But at the same time it left them more sensitively awake to themselves than before. The hostess indolently muttered an order to the man, and in passing the door on his way out he extinguished several lights. The place and the hour grew romantic. George was impressed by the scene, and he eagerly allowed it to impress him. It was, to him, a marvellous scene; the splendour of the apartment, the richly attired girls, the gay, exciting music, the spots of high light, the glooms, the glimpses everywhere of lovely objects. He said to himself: "I was born for this."

Lois turned her head slowly and looked out of the window.

"Wonderful view from here," she murmured.

George turned his head. The flat was on the sixth story. The slope of central London lay beneath. There was no moon, but there were stars in a clear night. Roofs; lighted windows; lines of lighted traffic; lines of lamps patterning the invisible meadows of a park; hiatuses of blackness; beyond, several towers scarcely discernible against the sky--the towers of Parliament, and the high tower of the Roman Catholic Cathedral: these were London.

"You haven't seen it in daytime, have you?" said Lois.

"No. I'd sooner see it at night."

"So would I."

The reply, the sympathy in it, the soft, thrilled tone of It, startled him. His curiosity about Lois was being justified, after all. And he was startled too at the extraordinary surprises of his own being. Yesterday he had parted from Marguerite; not ten years ago, but yesterday. And now already he was conscious of pleasure, both physical and spiritual, in the voice of another girl heard in the withdrawn obscurity of the embrasure. Yes, and a girl whom he had despised! Yesterday he had seriously believed himself to be a celibate for life; he had dismissed for ever the hope of happiness. He had seen naught but a dogged and eternal infelicity. And now he was, if not finding happiness, expecting it. He felt disloyal--less precisely to Marguerite than to a vanished ideal. He felt that he ought to be ashamed. For Marguerite still existed; she was existing at that moment less than three miles off--somewhere over there in the dark.

"See the Cathedral tower?" he said.

"Yes," she answered. "What a shame Bentley died, wasn't it?"

He was more than startled, now--he was amazed and enchanted. Something touching and strange in her voice usually hard; something in the elegant fragility of her slipper! Everybody knew that Bentley was the architect of the Cathedral and that he had died of cancer on the tongue. The knowledge was not esoteric; it did not by itself indicate a passion for architecture or a comprehension of architecture. Yet when she said the exclamatory words, leaning far back in the seat, her throat emerging from the sequined frock, her tapping slipper peeping out beneath the skirt, she cast a spell on him. He perceived in her a woman gifted and endowed. This was the girl whom he had bullied in the automobile. She must have bowed in secret to his bullying; though he knew she had been hurt by it, she had given no sign of resentment, and her voice was acquiescent. Above all, she had remembered him.

"You only like doing very large buildings, don't you?" she suggested.

"Who told you?"

"Everard."

"Oh! Did old Lucas tell you? Well, he's quite right."

He had a sudden desire to talk to her about the great municipal building in the north that was soon to be competed for. He yielded to the desire. She listened, motionless. He gave vent to his regret that Mr. Enwright absolutely declined to enter for the competition. He said he had had ideas for it, and would have liked to work for it.

"But why don't you go in for it yourself, George?" she murmured gravely.

"Me!" he exclaimed, almost frightened. "It wouldn't be any good. I'm too young. Besides----"

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-one."

"Good heavens! You look twenty-five at least! I know I should go in for it if I were you--if I were a man."

He understood her. She could not talk well. She could not easily be agreeable; she could easily be rude; she could not play the piano like the delightful Laurencine. But she was passionate. And she knew the force of ambition. He admired ambition perhaps more than anything. Ambition roused him. She was ambitious when she drove the automobile and endangered his life.... She had called him by his Christian name quite naturally. There was absolutely no nonsense about her. Now Marguerite was not in the slightest degree ambitious. The word had no significance for her.

"I couldn't!" he insisted humbly. "I don't know enough. It's a terrific affair."

She made no response. But she looked at him, and suddenly he saw the angel that Irene Wheeler and Laurencine had so enthusiastically spoken of at the Cafe Royal!

"I couldn't!" he murmured.

He was insisting too much. He was insisting against himself. She had implanted the idea in his mind. Why had he not thought of it? Certainly he had not thought of it. Had he lacked courage to think of it? He beheld the idea as though it was an utterly original discovery, revolutionary, dismaying, and seductive. His inchoate plans for the building took form afresh in his brain. And the luxury by which he was surrounded whipped his ambition till it writhed.

Curious, she said no more! After a moment she sat up and took a sweet.

George saw, in a far corner, Jules Defourcambault talking very quietly to Irene Wheeler, whose lackadaisical face had become ingenuous and ardent as she listened to him under the shelter of the dazzling music. George felt himself to be within the sphere of unguessed and highly perturbing forces.

III

He left early. Lucas seemed to regard his departure as the act of a traitor, but he insisted on leaving. And in spite of Lucas's great social success he inwardly condescended to Lucas. Lucas was not a serious man and could not comprehend seriousness. George went because he had to go, because the power of an idea drove him forth. He had no intention of sleeping. He walked automatically through dark London, and his eyes, turned within, saw nothing of the city. He did not walk quickly--he was too preoccupied to walk quickly--yet in his brain he was hurrying, he had not a moment to lose. The goal was immensely far off. His haste was as absurd and as fine as that of a man who, starting to cross Europe on foot, must needs run in order to get out of Calais and be fairly on his way.

At Russell Square he wondered whether he would be able to get into the office. However, there was still a light in the basement, and he rang the house-bell. The housekeeper's daughter, a girl who played at being parlourmaid in the afternoons and brought bad tea and thick bread-and-butter to the privileged in the office, opened the front door with bridling exclamations of astonishment. She had her best frock on; her hair was in curling-pins; she smelt delicately of beer; the excitement of the Sunday League excursion and of the evening's dalliance had not quite cooled in this respectable and experienced young creature of central London. She was very feminine and provocative and unparlourmaidish, standing there in the hall, and George passed by her as callously as though she had been a real parlourmaid on duty. She had to fly to her mother for the key of the office. Taking the key from the breathless, ardent little thing, he said that he would see to the front door being properly shut when he went out. That was all. Her legitimate curiosity about his visit had to go to bed hungry.

In the office he switched on the lights in Haim's cubicle, in the pupils' room, and in the principals' room. He enjoyed the illumination and the solitude. He took deep breaths. He walked about. After rummaging for the sketches and the printed site-plan of the town hall projected by the northern city, he discovered them under John Orgreave's desk. He moved them to Mr. Enwright's desk, which was the best one, and he bent over them rapturously. Yes, the idea of entering for the competition himself was a magnificent idea. Strange that it should have occurred not to him, but to Lois! A disconcerting girl, Lois! She had said that he looked twenty-five. He liked that. Why should he not enter for the competition himself? He would enter for it. The decision was made, as usual without consulting anybody; instinct was his sole guide. Failure in the final examination was beside the point. Moreover, though he had sworn never to sit again, he could easily sit again in December; he could pass the exam, on his head. He might win the competition; to be even in the selected first six or ten would rank as a glorious achievement. But why should he not win outright? He was lucky, always had been lucky. It was essential that he should win outright. It was essential that he should create vast and grandiose structures, that he should have both artistic fame and worldly success. He could not wait long for success. He required luxury. He required a position enabling him to meet anybody and everybody on equal terms, and to fulfil all his desires.

He would not admit that he was too young for the enterprise. He was not too young. He refused to be too young. And indeed he felt that he had that very night become adult, and that a new impulse, reducing all previous impulses to unimportance, had inspired his life. He owed the impulse to the baffling Lois. Marguerite would never have given him such an impulse. Marguerite had no ambition either for herself or for him. She was profoundly the wrong girl for him. He admitted his error candidly, with the eagerness of youth. He had no shame about the blunder. And the girl's environment was wrong for him also. What had he to do with Chelsea? Chelsea was a parish; it was not the world. He had been gravely disappointed in Chelsea. Marguerite had no shimmer of romance. She was homely. And she was content with her sphere. And she was not elegant; she had no kind of smartness; who would look twice at her? And she was unjust, she was unfair. She had lacerated his highly sensitive pride. She had dealt his conceit a frightful wound. He would not think of it.

And in fact he could ignore the wound in the exquisite activity of creating town halls for mighty municipalities. He drew plans with passion and with fury; he had scores of alternative schemes; he was a god fashioning worlds. Having drawn plans, he drew elevations and perspectives; he rushed to the files (rushed--because he was in haste to reach the goal) and studied afresh the schedules of accommodation for other municipal buildings that had been competed for in the past. Much as he hated detail, he stooped rather humbly to detail that night, and contended with it in all honesty. He worked for hours before he thought of lighting a cigarette.

It was something uncanny beyond the large windows that first gently and perceptibly began to draw away his mind from the profusion of town halls on the desk, and so indirectly reminded him of the existence of cigarettes. When he lighted a cigarette he stretched himself and glanced at the dark windows, of which the blinds had not been pulled down. He understood then what was the matter. Dawn was the matter. The windows were no longer quite dark. He looked out. A faint pallor in the sky, and some stars sickening therein, and underneath the silent square with its patient trees and indefatigable lamps! The cigarette tasted bad in his mouth, but he would not give it up. He yawned heavily. The melancholy of the square, awaiting without hope the slow, hard dawn, overcame him suddenly.... Marguerite was a beautiful girl; her nose was marvellous; he could never forget it. He could never forget her gesture as she intervened between him and her father in the basement at Alexandra Grove. They had painted lamp-shades together. She was angelically kind; she could not be ruffled; she would never criticize, never grasp, never exhibit selfishness. She was a unique combination of the serious and the sensuous. He felt the passionate, ecstatic clinging of her arm as they walked under the interminable chain of lamp-posts on Chelsea Embankment. Magical hours!... And how she could absorb herself in her work! And what a damned shame it was that rascally employers should have cut down her prices! It was intolerable; it would not bear thinking about. He dropped the cigarette and stamped on it angrily. Then he returned to the desk, and put his head in his hands and shut his eyes.

He awakened with a start of misgiving. He was alone in the huge house (for the basement was under the house and, somehow, did not count). Something was astir in the house. He could hear it through the doors ajar. His flesh crept. It was exactly like the flap of a washing-cloth on the stone stairs; it stopped; it came nearer. He thought inevitably of the dead Mrs. Haim, once charwoman and step cleaner. In an instant he believed fully in all that he had ever heard about ghosts and spirit manifestations. An icy wave passed down his spine. He felt that if the phantom of Mrs. Haim was approaching him he simply could not bear to meet it. The ordeal would kill him. Then he decided that the sounds were not those of a washing-cloth, but of slippered feet. Odd that he should have been so deluded. Somebody was coming down the long stairs from the upper stories, uninhabited at night. Burglars? He was still very perturbed, but differently perturbed. He could not move a muscle. The suspense as the footsteps hesitated at the cubicle was awful. George stood up straight and called out in a rough voice--louder than he expected it to be:

"Who's there?"

Mr. Enwright appeared. He was wearing beautiful blue pyjamas and a plum-coloured silk dressing-gown and doe-skin slippers. His hair was extremely deranged; he blinked rapidly, and his lined face seemed very old.

"Well, I like this, I like this!" he said in a quiet, sardonic tone. "Sitting at my desk and blazing my electricity away! I happened to get up, and I looked out of the window and noticed the glare below. So I came to see what was afoot. Do you know you frightened me?--and I don't like being frightened."

"I hadn't the slightest notion you ever slept here," George feebly stammered.

"Didn't you know I'd decided to keep a couple of rooms here for myself?"

"I had heard something about it, but I didn't know you'd really moved in. I--I've been away so much."

"I moved in, as you call it, to-day--yesterday, and a nice night you're giving me! And even supposing I hadn't moved in, what's that got to do with your being here? Give me a cigarette."

With hurrying deference George gave the cigarette, and struck a match for it, and as he held the match he had a near view of Mr. Enwright's prosaic unshaved chin. The house was no longer the haunt of lurking phantoms; it was a common worldly house without any mystery or any menace. George's skin was no longer the field of abnormal phenomena. Dawn was conquering Russell Square. On the other hand, George was no longer a giant of energy, initiating out of ample experience a tremendous and superb enterprise. He was suddenly diminished to a boy, or at best a lad. He really felt that it was ridiculous for him to be sketching and scratching away there in the middle of the night in his dress-clothes. Even his overcoat, hat, and fancy muffler cast on a chair seemed ridiculous. He was a child, pretending to be an adult. He glanced like a child at Mr. Enwright; he roughened his hair with his hand like a child. He had the most wistful and apologetic air.

He said:

"I just came along here for a bit instead of going to bed. I didn't know it was so late."

"Do you often just come along here?"

"No. I never did it before. But to-night----"

"What is it you're _at_?"

"I'd been thinking a bit about that new town hall."

"What new town hall?"

"You know----"

Mr. Enwright did know.

"But haven't I even yet succeeded in making it clear that this firm is not going in for that particular competition?"

Mr. Enwright's sarcastic and discontented tone challenged George, who stiffened.

"Oh! I know the firm isn't going in for it. But what's the matter with me going in for it?"

He forced himself to meet Mr. Enwright's eyes, but he could not help blushing. He was scarcely out of his articles; he had failed in the Final; and he aspired to create the largest English public building of the last half-century.

"Are you quite mad?" Mr. Enwright turned away from the desk to the farther window, hiding his countenance.

"Yes," said George firmly. "Quite!"

Mr. Enwright, after a pause, came back to the desk.

"Well, it's something to admit that," he sneered. "At any rate, we know where we are. Let's have a look at the horrid mess."

He made a number of curt observations as he handled the sheets of sketches.

"I see you've got that Saracenic touch in again."

"What's the scale here?"

"Is this really a town hall, or are you trying to beat the Temple at Karnak?"

"If that's meant for an Ionic capital, no assessor would stand it. It's against all the textbooks to have Ionic capitals where there's a side-view of them. Not that it matters to me."

"Have you made the slightest attempt to cube it up? You'd never get out of this under half a million, you know."

Shaking his head, he retired once more to the window. George began to breathe more freely, as one who has fronted danger and still lives. Mr. Enwright addressed the window:

"It's absolute folly to start on a thing like that before the conditions are out. Absolute folly. Have you done all that to-night?"

"Yes."

"Well, you've shifted the stuff.... But you haven't the slightest notion what accommodation they want. You simply don't know."

"I know what accommodation they _ought to want with four hundred thousand inhabitants," George retorted pugnaciously.

"Is it four hundred thousand?" Mr. Enwright asked, with bland innocence. He generally left statistics to his partner.

"Four hundred and twenty-five."

"You've looked it up?"

"I have."

Mr. Enwright was now at the desk yet again.

"There's an idea to it," he said shortly, holding up the principal sheet and blinking.

"_I shall go in for it_!" The thought swept through George's brain like a fierce flare, lighting it up vividly to its darkest corners, and incidentally producing upon his skin phenomena similar to those produced by uncanny sounds on the staircase. He had caught admiration and benevolence in Mr. Enwright's voice. He was intensely happy, encouraged, and proud. He began to talk eagerly; he babbled, entrusting himself to Mr. Enwright's benevolence.

"Of course there's the Final. If they give six months for the thing I could easily get through the Final before sending-in day. I could take a room somewhere. I shouldn't really want any assistance--clerk, I mean. I could do it all myself...." He ran on until Mr. Enwright stopped him.

"You could have a room here--upstairs."

"Could I?"

"But you would want some help. And you needn't think they'll give six months, because they won't. They might give five."

"That's no good."

"Why isn't it any good?" snapped Mr. Enwright. "You don't suppose they're going to issue the conditions just yet, do you? Not a day before September, not a day. And you can take it from me!"

"Oh! Hurrah!"

"But look here, my boy, let's be clear about one thing."

"Yes?"

"You're quite mad."

They looked at each other.

"The harmless kind, though," said George confidently, well aware that Mr. Enwright doted upon him.

In another minute the principal had gone to bed, without having uttered one word as to his health. George had announced that he should tidy the sacred desk before departing. When he had done that he wrote a letter, in pencil. "It's the least I can do," he said to himself seriously. He began:

"DEAR MISS INGRAM."--"Dash it!--She calls me 'George,'" he thought, and tore up the sheet.--"DEAR LOIS,--I think after what you said it's only due to you to tell you that I've decided to go in for that competition on my own. Thanks for the tip.--Yours, GEORGE CANNON"

He surveyed the message.

"That's about right," he murmured.

Then he looked at his watch. It showed 3.15, but it had ceased to beat. He added at the foot of the letter: "Monday, 3.30 a.m." He stole one of John Orgreave's ready-stamped envelopes.

In quitting the house he inadvertently banged the heavy front door.

"Do 'em good!" he said, thinking of awakened sleepers.

It was now quite light. He dropped the letter into the pillar-box round the corner, and as soon as he had irretrievably done so, the thought occurred to him: "I wish I hadn't put '3.30 a.m.' There's something rottenly sentimental about it." The chill fresh air was bracing him to a more perfect sanity. He raised the collar of his overcoat.

IV

At the club on Tuesday morning Downs brought to his bedside a letter addressed in a large, striking, and untidy hand. Not until he had generally examined the letter did he realize that it was from Lois Ingram. He remembered having mentioned to her that he lived at his club--Pickering's; but he had laid no stress on the detail, nor had she seemed to notice it. Yet she must have noticed it.

"DEAR GEORGE,--I am so glad. Miss Wheeler is going to her bootmaker's in Conduit Street to-morrow afternoon. She's always such a long time there. Come and have tea with me at the new Prosser's in Regent Street, four sharp. I shall have half an hour.--L.I."

In his heart he pretended to jeer at this letter. He said it was 'like' Lois. She calmly assumed that at a sign from her he, a busy man, would arrange to be free in the middle of the afternoon! Doubtless the letter was the consequence of putting '3.30 a.m.' on his own letter. What could a fellow expect?...

All pretence! In reality the letter flattered and excited him. He thought upon the necktie he would wear.

By the same post arrived a small parcel: it contained a ring, a few other bits of jewellery, and all the letters and notes that he had ever written or scribbled to Marguerite. He did not want the jewellery back; he did not want the letters back. To receive them somehow humiliated him. Surely she might have omitted this nauseous conventionality! She was so exasperatingly conscientious. Her neat, clerk-like calligraphy, on the label of the parcel, exasperated him. She had carefully kept every scrap of a missive from him. He hated to look at the letters. What could he do with them except rip them up? And the miserable trinkets--which she had worn, which had been part of her? As for him, he had not kept all her letters--not by any means. There might be a few, lying about in drawers. He would have to collect and return them. Odious job! And he could not ask anybody else to do it for him.

He was obliged to question Lucas about the Regent Street Prosser's, of which, regrettably, he had never heard. He did not, in so many words, request John Orgreave for the favour of an hour off. He was now out of his articles, though still by the force of inertia at the office, and therefore he informed John Orgreave that unless Mr. John had any objection he proposed to take an hour off. Mr. Enwright was not in. Lucas knew vaguely of the rendezvous, having somewhere met Laurencine.

From the outside Prosser's was not distinguishable from any other part of Regent Street. But George could not mistake it, because Miss Wheeler's car was drawn up in front of the establishment, and Lois was waiting for him therein. Strange procedure! She smiled and then frowned, and got out sternly. She said scarcely anything, and he found that he could make only such silly remarks as: "Hope I'm not late, am I?"

The new Prosser's was a grandiose by-product of chocolate. The firm had taken the leading ideas of the chief tea-shop companies catering for the million in hundreds of establishments arranged according to pattern, and elaborated them with what is called in its advertisements 'cachet.' Its prices were not as cheap as those of the popular houses, but they could not be called dear. George and Lois pushed through a crowded lane of chocolate and confectionery, past a staircase which bore a large notice: "Please keep to the right." This notice was needed. They came at length to the main hall, under a dome, with a gallery between the dome and the ground. The floor was carpeted. The multitudinous small tables had cloths, flowers, silver, and menus knotted with red satin ribbon. The place was full of people, people seated at the tables and people walking about. Above the rail of the gallery could be seen the hats and heads of more people. People were entering all the time and leaving all the time. Scores of waitresses, in pale green and white, moved to and fro like an alien and mercenary population. The heat, the stir, the hum, and the clatter were terrific. And from on high descended thin, strident music in a rapid and monotonous rhythm.

"No room!" said George, feeling that he had at last got into the true arena of the struggle for life.

"Oh yes!" said Lois, with superior confidence.

She bore mercilessly across the floor. Round the edge of the huge room, beneath the gallery, were a number of little alcoves framed in fretted Moorish arches of white-enamelled wood. Three persons were just emerging from one of these. She sprang within, and sank into a wicker arm-chair.

"There is always a table," she breathed, surveying the whole scene with a smile of conquest.

George sat down opposite to her with his back to the hall; he could survey nothing but Lois, and the world of the mirror behind her.

"That's one of father's maxims," she said.

"What is?"

"'There is always a table.' Well, you know, there always is."

"He must be a very wise man."

"He is."

"What's his special line?"

She exclaimed:

"Don't you know father? Hasn't Miss Wheeler told you? Or Mrs. Orgreave?"

"No."

"But you must know father. Father's 'Parisian' in _The Sunday Journal_."

Despite the mention of this ancient and very dignified newspaper, George felt a sense of disappointment. He had little esteem for journalists, whom Mr. Enwright was continually scoffing at, and whom he imagined to be all poor. He had conceived Mr. Ingram as perhaps a rich cosmopolitan financier, or a rich idler--but at any rate rich, whatever he might be.

"Of course he does lots of other work besides that. He writes for the _Pall Mall Gazette and the _St. James's Gazette. In fact it's his proud boast that he writes for all the gazettes, and he's the only man who does. That's because he's so liked. Everybody adores him. I adore him myself. He's a great pal of mine. But he's very strict."

"Strict?"

"Yes," she insisted, rather defensively. "Why not? I should like a strawberry ice, and a lemon-squash, and a millefeuille cake. Don't be alarmed, please. I'm a cave-woman. You've got to get used to it."

"What's a cave-woman?"

"It's something primitive. You must come over to Paris. If father likes you, he'll take you to one of the weekly lunches of the Anglo-American Press Circle. He always does that when he likes anyone. He's the Treasurer.... Haven't you got any millefeuille cakes?" she demanded of the waitress, who had come to renew the table and had deposited a basket of various cakes.

"I'm afraid we haven't, miss," answered the waitress, not comprehending the strange word any better than George did.

"Bit rowdy, isn't it?" George observed, looking round, when the waitress had gone.

Lois said with earnestness:

"I simply love these big, noisy places. They make me feel alive."

He looked at her. She was very well dressed--more stylistic than any girl that he could see in the mirror. He could not be sure whether or not her yellow eyes had a slight cast; if they had, it was so slight as to be almost imperceptible. There was no trace of diffidence in them; they commanded. She was not a girl whom you could masculinely protect. On the contrary, she would protect not only herself but others.

"Haven't you cream?" she curtly challenged the waitress, arriving with ice, lemon-squash, and George's tea.

The alien mercenary met her glance inimically for a second, and then, shutting her lips together, walked off with the milk. At Prosser's the waitresses did not wear caps, and were, in theory, ladies. Lois would have none of the theory; the waitress was ready to die for it and carried it away with her intact. George preferred milk to cream, but he said nothing.

"Yes," Lois went on. "You ought to come to Paris. You have been, haven't you? I remember you told me. We're supposed to go back next week, but if Irene doesn't go, I shan't." She frowned.

George said that positively he would come to Paris.

When they had fairly begun the rich, barbaric meal, Lois asked abruptly:

"Why did you write in the middle of the night?"

Sometimes her voice was veiled.

"Why did I write in the middle of the night? Because I thought I would." He spoke masterfully. He didn't mean to stand any of her cheek.

"Oh!" she laughed nicely. "_I didn't mind. I liked it--awfully. It was just the sort of thing I should have done myself. But you might tell me all about it. I think I deserve that much, don't you?"

Thus he told her all about it--how he had arranged everything, got a room, meant to have his name painted on the door, meant to make his parents take their holiday on the north-east coast for a change, so that he could study the site, meant to work like a hundred devils, etc. He saw with satisfaction that the arrogant, wilful creature was impressed.

She said:

"Now listen to me. You'll win that competition."

"I shan't," he said. "But it's worth trying, for the experience--that's what Enwright says."

She said:

"I don't care a fig what Enwright says. You'll win that competition. I'm always right when I sort of feel--you know."

For the moment he believed in the miraculous, inexplicable intuitions of women.

"Oh!" she cried, as the invisible orchestra started a new tune. "Do you know that? It's the first time I've heard it in London. It's the _machiche_. It's all over Paris. I think it's the most wonderful tune in the world." Her body swayed; her foot tapped.

George listened. Yes, it was a maddening tune.

"It is," he agreed eagerly.

She cried:

"Oh! I do love pleasure! And success! And money! Don't you?"

Her eyes had softened; they were liquid with yearning; but there was something frankly sensual in them. This quality, swiftly revealed, attracted George intensely for an instant.

Immediately afterwards she asked the time, and said she must go.

"I daren't keep Irene waiting," she said. Her eyes now had a hard glitter.

In full Regent Street he put the haughty girl into Irene's automobile, which had turned round; he was proud to be seen in the act; he privately enjoyed the glances of common, unsuccessful persons. As he walked away he smiled to himself, to hide from himself his own nervous excitement. She was a handful, she was. Within her life burned and blazed. He remembered Mr. Prince's remark: "You must have made a considerable impression on her," or words to that effect. The startling thought visited him: "I shall marry that woman." Then another thought: "Not if I know it! I don't like her. I do not like her. I don't like her eyes."

She had, however, tremendously intensified in him the desire for success. He hurried off to work. The days passed too slowly, and yet they were too short for his task. He could not wait for the fullness of time. His life had become a breathless race. "I shall win. I can't possibly win. The thing's idiotic. I might.... Enwright's rather struck." Yes, it was Mr. Enwright's attitude that inspired him. To have impressed Mr. Enwright--by Jove, it was something!

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