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   Chapter 8 CREATIVE

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 13475

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The sick-room-all due solemnity and importance must be imported into the significance of that word-the sick-room became a shrine, served by two ageing priestesses and a na?ve acolyte. Everything was done to make Henry an invalid in the grand manner. His bed of agony became the pivot on which the household life flutteringly and soothingly revolved. No detail of delicate attention which the most ingenious assiduity could devise was omitted from the course of treatment. And if the chamber had been at the front instead of at the back, the Fulham Vestry would certainly have received an application for permission to lay down straw in the street.

The sole flaw in the melancholy beauty of the episode was that Henry was never once within ten miles of being seriously ill. He was incapable of being seriously ill. He happened to be one of those individuals who, when they 'take' a disease, seem to touch it only with the tips of their fingers: such was his constitution. He had the measles, admittedly. His temperature rose one night to a hundred and three, and for a few brief moments his mother and Aunt Annie enjoyed visions of fighting the grim spectre of Death. The tiny round pink spots covered his face and then ran together into a general vermilion. He coughed exquisitely. His beard grew. He supported life on black-currant tea and an atmosphere impregnated with eucalyptus. He underwent the examination of the doctor every day at eleven. But he was not personally and genuinely ill. He did not feel ill, and he said so. His most disquieting symptom was boredom. This energetic organism chafed under the bed-clothes and the black-currant tea and the hushed eucalyptic calm of the chamber. He fervently desired to be up and active and stressful. His mother and aunt cogitated in vain to hit on some method of allaying the itch for work. And then one day-it was the day before Christmas-his mother chanced to say:

'You might try to write out that story you told us about-when you are a little stronger. It would be something for you to do.'

Henry shook his head sheepishly.

'Oh no!' he said; 'I was only joking.'

'I'm sure you could write it quite nicely,' his mother insisted.

And Henry shook his head again, and coughed. 'No,' he said. 'I hope I shall have something better to do than write stories.'

'But just to pass the time!' pleaded Aunt Annie.

The fact was that, several weeks before, while his thoughts had been engaged in analyzing the detrimental qualities of the Stream of Trashy Novels Constantly Poured Forth by the Press, Henry had himself been visited by a notion for a story. He had scornfully ejected it as an inopportune intruder; but it had returned, and at length, to get rid for ever of this troublesome guest, he had instinctively related the outline of the tale over the tea-table. And the outline had been pronounced wonderful. 'It might be called Love in Babylon-Babylon being London, you know,' he had said. And Aunt Annie had exclaimed: 'What a pretty title!' Whereupon Henry had remarked contemptuously and dismissingly: 'Oh, it was just an idea I had, that's all!' And the secret thought of both ladies had been, 'That busy brain is never still.'

As the shades of Christmas Eve began to fall, Aunt Annie was seated by the sick-bed, engaged in making entries in the household washing-book with a lead pencil. Henry lay with his eyes closed. Mrs. Knight was out shopping. Presently there was a gentle ting of the front-door bell; then a protracted silence; then another gentle ting.

'Bless the girl! Why doesn't she answer the door?' Aunt Annie whispered to herself, listening hard.

A third time the bell rang, and Aunt Annie, anathematizing the whole race of servants, got up, put the washing-book on the dressing-table, lighted the gas and turned it low, and descended to answer the door in person and to behead Sarah.

More than an hour elapsed before either sister re-entered Henry's room-events on the ground-floor had been rather exciting-and then they appeared together, bearing a bird, and some mince-tarts on a plate, and a card. Henry was wide awake.

'This is a surprise, dear,' began Mrs. Knight. 'Just listen: "With Sir George Powell's hearty greetings and best wishes for a speedy recovery!" A turkey and six mince-tarts. Isn't it thoughtful of him?'

'It's just like the governor,' said Henry, smiling, and feeling the tenderness of the turkey.

'He is a true gentleman,' said Aunt Annie.

'And we've sent round to the doctor to ask, and he says there's no harm in your having half a mince-tart; so we've warmed it. And you are to have a slice off the breast of the turkey to-morrow.'

'Good!' was Henry's comment. He loved a savoury mouthful, and these dainties were an unexpected bliss, for the ladies had not dreamt of Christmas fare in the sad crisis, even for themselves.

Aunt Annie, as if struck by a sudden blow, glanced aside at the gas.

'I could have been certain I left the gas turned down,' she remarked.

'I turned it up,' said Henry.

'You got out of bed! Oh, Henry! And your temperature was a hundred and two only the day before yesterday!'

'I thought I'd begin that thing-just for a lark, you know,' he explained.

He drew from under the bed-clothes the household washing-book. And there, nearly at the top of a page, were Aunt Annie's last interrupted strokes:

'2 Ch--'

and underneath:

'Love in Babylon'

and the commencement of the tale. The marvellous man had covered nine pages of the washing-book.

Within twenty-four hours, not only Henry, but his mother and aunt, had become entirely absorbed in Henry's tale. The ladies wondered how he thought of it all, and Henry himself wondered a little, too. It seemed to 'come,' without trouble and almost without invitation. It cost no effort. The process was as though Henry acted merely as the amanuensis of a great creative power concealed somewhere in the recesses of his vital parts. Fortified by two halves of a mince-tart and several slices of Sir George's turkey, he filled the washing-book full up before dusk on Christmas Day; and on Boxing Day, despite the faint admiring protests of his nurses, he made a considerable hole in a quire of the best ruled essay-paper. Instead of showing signs of fatigue, Henry appeared to grow stronger every hour, and to revel more and more in the sweet labour of composition; while the curiosity of the nurses about the exact nature of what Henry termed the dénouement increased steadily and constantly. The desires of those friends who had wished a Happy Christmas to the household were generously gratified.

It was a love tale, of course. And it began thus, the first line consisting of a single word,

and the second of three words:

'Babylon!

'And in winter!

'The ladies' waiting-room on the arrival platform of one of our vast termini was unoccupied save for the solitary figure of a young and beautiful girl, who, clad in a thin but still graceful costume, crouched shivering over the morsel of fire which the greed of a great company alone permitted to its passengers. Outside resounded the roar and shriek of trains, the ceaseless ebb and flow of the human tide which beats for ever on the shores of modern Babylon. Enid Anstruther gazed sadly into the embers. She had come to the end of her resources. Suddenly the door opened, and Enid looked up, naturally expecting to see one of her own sex. But it was a man's voice, fresh and strong, which exclaimed: "Oh, I beg pardon!" The two glanced at each other, and then Enid sank backwards.'

Such were the opening sentences of Love in Babylon.

Enid was an orphan, and had come to London in order to obtain a situation in a draper's shop. Unfortunately, she had lost her purse on the way. Her reason for sinking back in the waiting-room was that she had fainted from cold, hunger, and fatigue. Thus she and the man, Adrian Tempest, became acquainted, and Adrian's first gift to her was seven drops of brandy, which he forced between her teeth. His second was his heart. Enid obtained a situation, and Adrian took her to the Crystal Palace one Saturday afternoon. It was a pity that he had not already proposed to her, for they got separated in the tremendous Babylonian crowd, and Enid, unused to the intricacies of locomotion in Babylon, arrived home at the emporium at an ungodly hour on Sunday morning. She was dismissed by a proprietor with a face of brass. Adrian sought her in vain. She sought Adrian in vain-she did not know his address. Thenceforward the tale split itself into two parts: the one describing the life of Adrian, a successful barrister, on the heights of Babylon, and the other the life of Enid, reduced to desperate straits, in the depths thereof. The contrasts were vivid and terrific.

Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie could not imagine how Henry would bring the two lovers, each burning secretly the light torch of love in Babylon, together again. But Henry did not hesitate over the problem for more than about fifty seconds. Royal Academy. Private View. Adrian present thereat as a celebrity. Picture of the year, 'The Enchantress.' He recognises her portrait. She had, then, been forced to sell her beauty for eighteenpence an hour as an artist's model. To discover the artist and Enid's address was for Adrian the work of a few minutes.

This might have finished the tale, but Henry opined that the tale was a trifle short. As a fact, it was. He accordingly invented a further and a still more dramatic situation. When Adrian proposed to Enid, she conscientiously told him, told him quietly but firmly, that she could not marry him for the reason that her father, though innocent of a crime imputed to him, had died in worldly disgrace. She could not consent to sully Adrian's reputation. Now, Adrian happened to be the real criminal. But he did not know that Enid's father had suffered for him, and he had honestly lived down that distant past. 'If there is a man in this world who has the right to marry you,' cried Adrian, 'I am that man. And if there is a man in this world whom you have the right to spurn, I am that man also.' The extreme subtlety of the thing must be obvious to every reader. Enid forgave and accepted Adrian. They were married in a snowy January at St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, and the story ended thus:

'Babylon in winter.

'Babylon!'

Henry achieved the entire work in seven days, and, having achieved it, he surveyed it with equal pride and astonishment. It was a matter of surprise to him that the writing of interesting and wholesome fiction was so easy. Some parts of the book he read over and over again, for the sheer joy of reading.

'Of course it isn't good enough to print,' he said one day, while sitting up in the arm-chair.

'I should think any publisher would be glad to print it,' said his mother. 'I'm not a bit prejudiced, I'm sure, and I think it's one of the best tales I ever read in all my life.'

'Do you really?' Henry smiled, his natural modesty fighting against a sure conviction that his mother was right.

Aunt Annie said little, but she had copied out Love in Babylon in her fine, fair Italian hand, keeping pace day by day with Henry's extraordinary speed, and now she accomplished the transcription of the last pages.

The time arrived for Henry to be restored to a waiting world. He was cured, well, hearty, vigorous, radiant. But he was still infected, isolate, one might almost say taboo; and everything in his room, and everything that everyone had worn while in the room, was in the same condition. Therefore the solemn process, rite, and ceremony of purification had to be performed. It began upon the last day of the old year at dusk.

Aunt Annie made a quantity of paste in a basin; Mrs. Knight bought a penny brush; and Henry cut up a copy of the Telegraph into long strips about two inches wide. The sides and sash of the window were then hermetically sealed; the register of the fireplace was closed, and sealed also. Clothes were spread out in open order, the bed stripped, rugs hung over chairs.

'Henry's book?' Mrs. Knight demanded.

'Of course it must be disinfected with the other things,' said Aunt Annie.

'Yes, of course,' Henry agreed.

'And it will be safer to lay the sheets separately on the floor,' Aunt Annie continued.

There were fifty-nine sheets of Aunt Annie's fine, finicking caligraphy, and the scribe and her nephew went down on their knees, and laid them in numerical sequence on the floor. The initiatory 'Babylon' found itself in the corner between the window and the fireplace beneath the dressing-table, and the final 'Babylon' was hidden in gloomy retreats under the bed.

Then Sarah entered, bearing sulphur in a shallow pan, and a box of matches. The paste and the paste-brush and the remnants of the Telegraph were carried out into the passage. Henry carefully ignited the sulphur, and, captain of the ship, was the last to leave. As they closed the door the odour of burning, microbe-destroying sulphur impinged on their nostrils. Henry sealed the door on the outside with 'London Day by Day,' 'Sales by Auction,' and a leading article or so.

'There!' said Henry.

All was over.

At intervals throughout the night he thought of the sanative and benign sulphur smouldering, smouldering always with ghostly yellow flamelets in the midst of his work of art, while the old year died and the new was born.

* * *

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