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A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 8478

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

It was a most fortunate thing that there was cold mutton for dinner. The economic principle governing the arrangement of the menu was that the simplicity of the mutton atoned for the extravagance of the birthday pudding, while the extravagance of the birthday pudding excused the simplicity of the mutton. Had the first course been anything richer than cold mutton, Henry could not have pretended even to begin the repast. As it was, he ate a little of the lean, leaving a wasteful margin of lean round the fat, which he was not supposed to eat; he also nibbled at the potatoes, and compressed the large remnant of them into the smallest possible space on the plate; then he unobtrusively laid down his knife and fork.

'Come, Henry,' said Aunt Annie, 'don't leave a saucy plate.'

Henry had already pondered upon a plausible explanation of his condition.

'I'm too excited to eat,' he promptly answered.

'You aren't feeling ill, are you?' his mother asked sharply.

'No,' he said. 'But can I have my birthday pudding for supper, after it's all over, instead of now?'

Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie looked at one another. 'That might be safer,' said Aunt Annie, and she added: 'You can have some cold rice pudding now, Henry.'

'No, thank you, auntie; I don't want any.'

'The boy's ill,' Mrs. Knight exclaimed. 'Annie, where's the Mother Seigel?'

'The boy's no such thing,' said Mr. Knight, pouring calmness and presence of mind over the table like oil. 'Give him some Seigel by all means, if you think fit; but don't go and alarm yourself about nothing. The boy's as well as I am.'

'I think I should like some Seigel,' said the boy.

Tom was never present at the mid-day meal; only Mrs. Knight knew that Henry had been out with him; and Mrs. Knight was far too simple a soul to suspect the horrid connection between the morning ramble and this passing malaise of Henry's. As for Henry, he volunteered nothing.

'It will pass off soon,' said Aunt Annie two hours later. The time was then half-past three; the great annual ceremony of Speech Day began at half-past seven. Henry reclined on the sofa, under an antimacassar, and Mrs. Knight was bathing his excited temples with eau de Cologne.

'Oh yes,' Mr. Knight agreed confidently; he had looked in from the shop for a moment. 'Oh yes! It will pass off. Give him a cup of strong tea in a quarter of an hour, and he'll be as right as a trivet.'

'Of course you will, won't you, my dear?' Mrs. Knight demanded fondly of her son.

Henry nodded weakly.

The interesting and singular fact about the situation is that these three adults, upright, sincere, strictly moral, were all lying, and consciously lying. They knew that Henry's symptoms differed in no particular from those of his usual attacks, and that his usual attacks had a minimum duration of twelve hours. They knew that he was decidedly worse at half-past three than he had been at half-past two, and they could have prophesied with assurance that he would be still worse at half-past four than he was then. They knew that time would betray them. Yet they persisted in falsehood, because they were incapable of imagining the Speech Day ceremony without Henry in the midst. If any impartial friend had approached at that moment and told them that Henry would spend the evening in bed, and that they might just as well resign themselves first as last, they would have cried him down, and called him unfriendly and unfeeling, and, perhaps, in the secrecy of their hearts thrown rotten eggs at him.

It proved to be the worst dyspeptic visitation that Henry had ever had. It was not a mere 'attack'-it was a revolution, beginning with slight insurrections, but culminating in universal upheaval, the overthrowing of dynasties, the establishment of committees of public safety, and a reign of terror. As a series of phenomena it was immense, variegated, and splendid, and was remembered for months afterwards.

'Surely he'll be better now!' said Mrs. Knight, agonized.

But no! And so they carried Henry to bed.

At six the martyr uneasily dozed.

'He may sleep a couple of hours,' Aunt Annie whispered.

Not one of the three had honestly and openly withdrawn from the position that Henry w

ould be able to go to the prize-giving. They seemed to have silently agreed to bury the futile mendacity of the earlier afternoon in everlasting forgetfulness.

'Poor little thing!' observed Mrs. Knight.

His sufferings had reduced him, in her vision, to about half his ordinary size.

At seven Mr. Knight put on his hat.

'Are you going out, father?' his wife asked, shocked.

'It is only fair,' said Mr. Knight, 'to warn the school people that Henry will not be able to be present to-night. They will have to alter their programme. Of course I shan't stay.'

In pitying the misfortune of the school, thus suddenly and at so critical a moment deprived of Henry's presence and help, Mrs. Knight felt less keenly the pang of her own misfortune and that of her son. Nevertheless, it was a night sufficiently tragic in Oxford Street.

Mr. Knight returned with Henry's two prizes-Self-Help and The Voyage of the 'Fox' in the Arctic Seas.

The boy had wakened once, but dozed again.

'Put them on the chair where he can see them in the morning,' Aunt Annie suggested.

'Yes,' said the father, brightening. 'And I'll wind up his watch for him.... Bless us! what's he been doing to the watch? What is it, Annie?

'Why did you do it?' Mr. Knight asked Tom. 'That's what I can't understand. Why did you do it?'

They were alone together the next morning in the sitting-room. ('I will speak to that young man privately,' Mr. Knight had said to the two women in a formidable tone.) Henry was still in bed, but awake and reading Smiles with precocious gusto.

'Did the kid tell you all about it, then?'

'The kid,' said Mr. Knight, marking by a peculiar emphasis his dissatisfaction with Tom's choice of nouns, 'was very loyal. I had to drag the story out of him bit by bit. I repeat: why did you do it? Was this your idea of a joke? If so, I can only say--'

'You should have seen how he enjoyed them! It was tremendous,' Tom broke in. 'Tremendous! I've no doubt the afternoon was terrible, but the morning was worth it. Ask Henry himself. I wanted to give him a treat, and it seems I gave you all one.'

'And then the headmaster!' Mr. Knight complained. 'He was very upset. He told me he didn't know what they should do without Henry last night.'

'Oh yes. I know old Pingles. Pingles is a great wit. But seriously, uncle,' said Tom-he gazed at the carpet; 'seriously--' He paused. 'If I had thought of the dreadful calamity to the school, I would only have bought half a pound.'

'Pah!' Mr. Knight whiffed out.

'It's a mercy we're all still alive,' murmured Tom.

'And may I ask, sir--' Mr. Knight began afresh, in a new vein, sarcastic and bitter. 'Of course you're an independent member of society, and your own master; but may I venture to ask what you were doing in Hyde Park yesterday at eleven o'clock?'

'You may,' Tom replied. 'The truth is, Bollingtons Limited and me, just me, have had a row. I didn't like their style, nor their manners. So the day before yesterday I told them to go to the devil--'

'You told them to go to the--!'

'And I haven't seen anything of Bollingtons since, and I don't want to.'

'That is where you are going to yourself, sir,' thundered Mr. Knight. 'Mark my words. That is where you are going to yourself. Two guineas a week, at your age, and you tell them--! I suppose you think you can get a place like that any day.'

'Look here, uncle. Listen. Mark my words. I have two to say to you, and two only. Good-morning.'

Tom hastened from the room, and went down into the shop by the shop-stairs. The cashier of the establishment was opening the safe.

'Mr. Perkins,' said Tom lightly, 'uncle wants change for a ten-pound note, in gold.'

'Certainly, Mr. Tom. With pleasure.'

'Oh!' Tom explained, as though the notion had just struck him, taking the sovereigns, 'the note! I'll bring it down in a jiffy.'

'That's all right, Mr. Tom,' said the cashier, smiling with suave confidence.

Tom ran up to his room, passing his uncle on the way. He snatched his hat and stick, and descended rapidly into the street by the house-stairs. He chose this effective and picturesque method of departing for ever from the hearth and home of Mr. Knight.

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