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   Chapter 9 SPRING ONIONS

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 10225

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The return to the world and to Powells, while partaking of the nature of a triumph, was at the same time something of a cold, fume-dispersing, commonsense-bestowing bath for Henry. He had meant to tell Sir George casually that he had taken advantage of his enforced leisure to write a book. 'Taken advantage of his enforced leisure' was the precise phrase which Henry had in mind to use. But, when he found himself in the strenuous, stern, staid, sapient and rational atmosphere of Powells, he felt with a shock of perception that in rattling off Love in Babylon he had been guilty of one of those charming weaknesses to which great and serious men are sometimes tempted, but of which great and serious men never boast. And he therefore confined his personal gossip with Sir George to the turkey, the mince-tarts, and the question of contagion. He plunged into his work with a feeling akin to dignified remorse, and Sir George was vehemently and openly delighted by the proofs which he gave of undiminished loyalty and devotion.

Nevertheless Henry continued to believe in the excellence of his book, and he determined that, in duty to himself, his mother and aunt, and the cause of wholesome fiction, he must try to get it published. From that moment he began to be worried, for he had scarcely a notion how sagaciously to set about the business. He felt like a bachelor of pronounced views who has been given a baby to hold. He knew no one in the realms of literature, and no one who knew anyone. Sir George, warily sounded, appeared to be unaware that such a thing as fiction existed. Not a soul at the Polytechnic enjoyed the acquaintance of either an author or a publisher, though various souls had theories about these classes of persons. Then one day a new edition of the works of Carlyle burst on the world, and Henry bought the first volume, Sartor Resartus, a book which he much admired, and which he had learnt from his father to call simply and familiarly-Sartor. The edition, though inexpensive, had a great air of dignity. It met, in short, with Henry's approval, and he suddenly decided to give the publishers of it the opportunity of publishing Love in Babylon. The deed was done in a moment. He wrote a letter explaining the motives which had led him to write Love in Babylon, and remarked that, if the publishers cared for the story, mutually satisfactory terms might be arranged later; and Aunt Annie did Love in Babylon up in a neat parcel. Henry was in the very act of taking the parcel to the post, on his way to town, when Aunt Annie exclaimed:

'Of course you'll register it?'

He had not thought of doing so, but the advisability of such a step at once appealed to him.

'Perhaps I'd better,' he said.

'But that only means two pounds if it's lost, doesn't it?' Mrs. Knight inquired.

Henry nodded and pondered.

'Perhaps I'd better insure it,' he suggested.

'If I were you, I should insure it for a hundred pounds,' said Aunt Annie positively.

'But that will cost one and a penny,' said Henry, who had all such details by heart. 'I could insure it for twenty pounds for fivepence.'

'Well, say twenty pounds then,' Aunt Annie agreed, relenting.

So he insured Love in Babylon for twenty pounds and despatched it. In three weeks it returned like the dove to the ark (but soiled), with a note to say that, though the publishers' reader regarded it as promising, the publishers could not give themselves the pleasure of making an offer for it. Thenceforward Henry and the manuscript suffered all the usual experiences, and the post-office reaped all the usual profits. One firm said the story was good, but too short. ('A pitiful excuse,' thought Henry. 'As if length could affect merit.') Another said nothing. Another offered to publish it if Henry would pay a hundred pounds down. (At this point Henry ceased to insure the parcel.) Another sent it back minus the last leaf, the matter of which Henry had to reinvent and Aunt Annie to recopy. Another returned it insufficiently stamped, and there was fourpence to pay. Another kept it four months, and disgorged it only under threat of a writ; the threat was launched forth on Powells' formidable notepaper. At length there arrived a day when even Henry's pertinacity was fatigued, and he forgot, merely forgot, to send out the parcel again. It was put in a drawer, after a year of ceaseless adventures, and Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie discreetly forbore to mention it. During that year Henry's opinion on his work had fluctuated. There had been moments, days perhaps, of discouragement, when he regarded it as drivel, and himself as a fool-in so far, that is, as he had trafficked with literature. On the other hand, his original view of it reasserted itself with frequency. And in the end he gloomily and proudly decided, once and for all, that the Stream of Trashy Novels Constantly Poured Forth by the Press had killed all demand for wholesome fiction; he came reluctantly to the conclusion that modern English literature was in a very poor way. He breathed a sigh, and dismissed the episode utterly from his m

ind.

And Love in Babylon languished in the drawer for three months.

Then, upon an April morning, the following telegram was received at Dawes Road, Fulham: 'Please bring manuscript me immediately top left take cab Henry.'

Mrs. Knight was alone in the house with Sarah when the imperious summons of the telegraph-boy and the apparition of the orange envelope threw the domestic atmosphere into a state of cyclonic confusion. Before tearing the envelope she had guessed that Aunt Annie had met with an accident, that Henry was dead, and that her own Aunt Eliza in Glossop had died without making a will; and these imaginings had done nothing to increase the efficiency of her intellectual powers. She could not read sense into the message, not even with the aid of spectacles and Sarah.

Happily Aunt Annie returned, with her masculine grasp of affairs.

'He means Love in Babylon,' said Aunt Annie. 'It's in the top left-hand drawer of his desk. That's what he means. Perhaps I'd better take it. I'm ready dressed.'

'Oh yes, sister,' Mrs. Knight replied hastily. 'You had better take it.'

Aunt Annie rang the bell with quick decision.

'Sarah,' she said, 'run out and get me a cab, a four-wheeler. You understand, a four-wheeler.'

'Yes'm. Shall I put my jacket on, mum?' Sarah asked, glancing through the window.

'No. Go instantly!'

'Yes'm.'

'I wonder what he wants it for,' Aunt Annie remarked, after she had found the manuscript and put it under her arm. 'Perhaps he has mentioned it to Sir George, and Sir George is going to do something.'

'I thought he had forgotten all about it,' said Mrs. Knight. 'But he never gives a thing up, Henry doesn't.'

Sarah drove dashingly up to the door in a hansom.

'Take that back again,' commanded Aunt Annie, cautiously putting her nose outside the front-door. It was a snowy and sleety April morning, and she had already had experience of its rigour. 'I said a four-wheeler.'

'Please'm, there wasn't one,' Sarah defended herself.

'None on the stand, lady,' said the cabman brightly. 'You'll never get a four-wheeler on a day like this.'

Aunt Annie raised her veil and looked at her sister. Like many strong-minded and vigorous women, she had a dislike of hansoms which amounted to dread. She feared a hansom as though it had been a revolver-something that might go off unexpectedly at any moment and destroy her.

'I daren't go in that,' she admitted frankly. She was torn between her allegiance to the darling Henry and her fear of the terrible machine.

'Suppose I go with you?' Mrs. Knight suggested.

'Very well,' said Aunt Annie, clenching her teeth for the sacrifice.

Sarah flew for Mrs. Knight's bonnet, fur mantle, gloves, and muff; and with remarkably little delay the sisters and the manuscript started. First they had the window down because of the snow and the sleet; then they had it up because of the impure air; and lastly Aunt Annie wedged a corner of the manuscript between the door and the window, leaving a slit of an inch or so for ventilation. The main body of the manuscript she supported by means of her muff.

Alas! her morbid fear of hansoms was about to be justified-at any rate, justified in her own eyes. As the machine was passing along Walham Green, it began to overtake a huge market-cart laden, fraught, and piled up with an immense cargo of spring onions from Isleworth; and just as the head of the horse of the hansom drew level with the tail of the market-cart, the off hind wheel of the cart succumbed, and a ton or more of spring onions wavered and slanted in the snowy air. The driver of the hansom did his best, but he could not prevent his horse from premature burial amid spring onions. The animal nobly resisted several hundredweight of them, and then tottered and fell and was lost to view under spring onions. The ladies screamed in concert, and discovered themselves miraculously in the roadway, unhurt, but white and breathless. A constable and a knife-grinder picked them up.

The accident was more amusing than tragic, though neither Mrs. Knight nor Aunt Annie was capable of perceiving this fact. The horse emerged gallantly, unharmed, and the window of the hansom was not even cracked. The constable congratulated everyone and took down the names of the two drivers, the two ladies, and the knife-grinder. The condition of the weather fortunately, militated against the formation of a large crowd.

Quite two minutes elapsed before Aunt Annie made the horrible discovery that Love in Babylon had disappeared. Love in Babylon was smothered up in spring onions.

'Keep your nerve, madam,' said the constable, seeing signs of an emotional crisis, 'and go and stand in that barber's doorway-both of you.'

The ladies obeyed.

In due course Love in Babylon was excavated, chapter by chapter, and Aunt Annie held it safely once more, rumpled but complete.

By the luckiest chance an empty four-wheeler approached.

The sisters got into it, and Aunt Annie gave the address.

'As quick as you can,' she said to the driver, 'but do drive slowly.'

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