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   Chapter 12 HIS FAME

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 18519

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Henry's sleep was feverish, and shot with the iridescence of strange dreams. And during the whole of the next day one thought burned in his brain, the thought of the immense success of Love in Babylon. It burned so fiercely and so brightly, it so completely preoccupied Henry, that he would not have been surprised to overhear men whisper to each other in the street as he passed: 'See that extraordinary thought blazing away there in that fellow's brain?' It was, in fact, curious to him that people did not stop and gaze at his cranium, so much the thing felt like a hollowed turnip illuminated by this candle of an idea. But nobody with whom he came into contact appeared to be aware of the immense success of Love in Babylon. In the office of Powells were seven full-fledged solicitors and seventeen other clerks, without counting Henry, and not a man or youth of the educated lot of them made the slightest reference to Love in Babylon during all that day. (It was an ordinary, plain, common, unromantic, dismal Tuesday in Lincoln's Inn Fields.) Eighteen thousand persons had already bought Love in Babylon; possibly several hundreds of copies had been sold since nine o'clock that morning; doubtless someone was every minute inquiring for it and demanding it in bookshop or library, just as someone is born every minute. And yet here was the author, the author himself, the veritable and only genuine author, going about his daily business unhonoured, unsung, uncongratulated, even unnoticed! It was incredible, and, besides being incredible, it was exasperating. Henry was modest, but there are limits to modesty, and more than once in the course of that amazing and endless Tuesday Henry had a narrow escape of dragging Love in Babylon bodily into the miscellaneous conversation of the office. However, with the aid of his natural diffidence he refrained from doing so.

At five-fifty Sir George departed, as usual, to catch the six-five for Wimbledon, where he had a large residence, which outwardly resembled at once a Bloomsbury boarding-house, a golf-club, and a Riviera hotel. Henry, after Sir George's exit, lapsed into his principal's chair and into meditation. The busy life of the establishment died down until only the office-boys and Henry were left. And still Henry sat, in the leathern chair at the big table in Sir George's big room, thinking, thinking, thinking, in a vague but golden and roseate manner, about the future.

Then the door opened, and Foxall, the emperor of the Powellian office-boys, entered.

'Here's someone to see you,' Foxall whispered archly; he economized time by licking envelopes the while. Every night Foxall had to superintend and participate in the licking of about two hundred envelopes and as many stamps.

'Who is it?' Henry asked, instantly perturbed and made self-conscious by the doggishness, the waggishness, the rakishness, of Foxall's tone. It must be explained that, since Henry did not happen to be an 'admitted' clerk, Foxall and himself, despite the difference in their ages and salaries, were theoretically equals in the social scale of the office. Foxall would say 'sir' to the meanest articled clerk that ever failed five times in his intermediate, but he would have expired on the rack before saying 'sir' to Henry. The favour accorded to Henry in high quarters, the speciality of his position, gave rise to a certain jealousy of him-a jealousy, however, which his natural simplicity and good-temper prevented from ever becoming formidable. Foxall, indeed, rather liked Henry, and would do favours for him in matters connected with press-copying, letter-indexing, despatching, and other mysteries of the office-boy's peculiar craft.

'It's a girl,' said Foxall, smiling with the omniscience of a man of the world.

'A girl!' Somehow Henry had guessed it was a girl. 'What's she like?'

'She's a bit of all right,' Foxall explained. 'Miss Foster she says her name is. Better show her in here, hadn't I? The old woman's in your room now. It's nearly half-past six.'

'Yes,' said Henry; 'show her in here. Foster? Foster? I don't know--'

His heart began to beat like an engine under his waistcoat.

And then Miss Foster tripped in. And she was Goldenhair!

'Good-afternoon, Mr. Knight,' she said, with a charming affectation of a little lisp. 'I'm so glad I've caught you. I thought I should. What a lovely room you've got!'

He wanted to explain that this was Sir George's room, not his own, and that any way he did not consider it lovely; but she gave him no chance.

'I'm awfully nervous, you know, and I always talk fast and loud when I'm nervous,' she continued rapidly. 'I shall get over it in a few minutes. Meanwhile you must bear with me. Do you think you can? I want you to do me a favour, Mr. Knight. Only you can do it. May I sit down? Oh, thanks! What a huge chair! If I get lost in it, please advertise. Is this where your clients sit? Yes, I want you to do me a favour. It's quite easy for you to do. You won't say No, will you? You won't think I'm presuming on our slight acquaintanceship?'

The words babbled and purled out of Miss Foster's mouth like a bright spring out of moss. It was simply wonderful. Henry did not understand quite precisely how the phenomenon affected him, but he was left in no doubt that his feelings were pleasurable. She had a manner of looking-of looking up at him and to him, of relying on him as a great big wise man who could get poor little silly her out of a difficulty. And when she wasn't talking she kept her mouth open, and showed her teeth and the tip of her red, red tongue. And there was her golden fluffy hair! But, after all, perhaps the principal thing was her dark-blue, tight-fitting bodice-not a wrinkle in all those curves!

It is singular how a man may go through life absolutely blind to a patent, obvious, glaring fact, and then suddenly perceive it. Henry perceived that his mother and his aunt were badly dressed-in truth, dowdy. It struck him as a discovery.

'Anything I can do, I'm sure--' he began.

'Oh, thank you, Mr. Knight I felt I could count on your good-nature. You know--'

She cleared her throat, and then smiled intimately, dazzlingly, and pushed a thin gold bangle over the wrist of her glove. And as she did so Henry thought what bliss it would be to slip a priceless diamond bracelet on to that arm. It was just an arm, the usual feminine arm; every normal woman in this world has two of them; and yet--! But at the same time, such is the contradictoriness of human nature, Henry would have given a considerable sum to have had Miss Foster magically removed from the room, and to be alone. The whole of his being was deeply disturbed, as if by an earthquake. And, moreover, he could scarce speak coherently.

'You know,' said Miss Foster, 'I want to interview you.'

He did not take the full meaning of the phrase at first.

'What about?' he innocently asked.

'Oh, about yourself, and your work, and your plans, and all that sort of thing. The usual sort of thing, you know.'

'For a newspaper?'

She nodded.

He took the meaning. He was famous, then! People-that vague, vast entity known as 'people'-wished to know about him. He had done something. He had arrested attention-he, Henry, son of the draper's manager; aged twenty-three; eater of bacon for breakfast every morning like ordinary men; to be observed daily in the Underground, and daily in the A.B.C. shop in Chancery Lane.

'You are thinking of Love in Babylon?' he inquired.

She nodded again. (The nod itself was an enchantment. 'She's just about my age,' said Henry to himself. And he thought, without realizing that he thought: 'She's lots older than me practically. She could twist me round her little finger.')

'Oh, Mr. Knight, she recommenced at a tremendous rate, sitting up in the great client's chair, 'you must let me tell you what I thought of Love in Babylon! It's the sweetest thing! I read it right off, at one go, without looking up! And the title! How did you think of it? Oh! if I could write, I would write a book like that. Old Spring Onions has produced it awfully well, too, hasn't he? It's a boom, a positive, unmistakable boom! Everyone's talking about you, Mr. Knight. Personally, I tell everyone I meet to read your book.'

Henry mildly protested against this excess of enthusiasm.

'I must,' Miss Foster explained. 'I can't help it.'

Her admiration was the most precious thing on earth to him at that moment. He had not imagined that he could enjoy anything so much as he enjoyed her admiration.

'I'm going now, Mr. Knight,' Foxall sang out from the passage.

'Very well, Foxall,' Henry replied, as who should say: 'Foxall, I benevolently permit you to go.'

They were alone together in the great suite of rooms.

'You know Home and Beauty, don't you?' Miss Foster demanded.

'Home and Beauty?'

'Oh, you don't! I thought perhaps you did. But then, of course, you're a man. It's one of the new ladies' penny papers. I believe it's doing rather well now. I write interviews for it. You see, Mr. Knight, I have a great ambition to be a regular journalist, and in my spare time at Mr. Snyder's, and in the evenings, I write-things. I'm getting q

uite a little connection. What I want to obtain is a regular column in some really good paper. It's rather awkward, me being engaged all day, especially for interviews. However, I just thought if I ran away at six I might catch you before you left. And so here I am. I don't know what you think of me, Mr. Knight, worrying you and boring you like this with my foolish chatter.... Ah! I see you don't want to be interviewed.'

'Yes, I do,' said Henry. 'That is, I shall be most happy to oblige you in any way, I assure you. If you really think I'm sufficiently--'

'Why, of course you are, Mr. Knight,' she urged forcefully. 'But, like most clever men, you're modest; you've no idea of it-of your success, I mean. By the way, you'll excuse me, but I do trust you made a proper bargain with Mr. Onions Winter.'

'I think so,' said Henry. 'You see, I'm in the law, and we understand these things.'

'Exactly,' she agreed, but without conviction. 'Then you'll make a lot of money. You must be very careful about your next contracts. I hope you didn't agree to let Mr. Winter have a second book on the same terms as this one.'

Henry recalled a certain clause of the contract which he had signed.

'I am afraid I did,' he admitted sheepishly. 'But the terms are quite fair. I saw to that.'

'Mr. Knight! Mr. Knight!' she burst out. 'Why are all you young and clever men the same? Why do you perspire in order that publishers may grow fat? I know what Spring Onions' terms would be. Seriously, you ought to employ an agent. He'd double your income. I don't say Mr. Snyder particularly--'

'But Mr. Snyder is a very good agent, isn't he?'

'Yes,' affirmed Miss Foster gravely. 'He acts for all the best men.'

'Then I shall come to him,' said Henry. 'I had thought of doing so. You remember when I called that day-it was mentioned then.'

He made this momentous decision in an instant, and even as he announced it he wondered why. However, Mr. Snyder's ten per cent no longer appeared to him outrageous.

'And now can you give me some paper and a pencil, Mr. Knight? I forgot mine in my hurry not to miss you. And I'll sit at the table. May I? Thanks awfully.'

She sat near to him, while he hastily and fumblingly searched for paper. The idea of being alone with her in the offices seemed delightful to him. And just then he heard a step in the passage, and a well-known dry cough, and the trailing of a long brush on the linoleum. Of course, the caretaker, the inevitable and omnipresent Mrs. Mawner, had invested the place, according to her nightly custom.

Mrs. Mawner opened the door of Sir George's room, and stood on the mat, calmly gazing within, the brush in one hand and a duster in the other.

'I beg pardon, sir,' said she inimically. 'I thought Sir George was gone.'

'Sir George has gone,' Henry replied.

Mrs. Mawner enveloped the pair in her sinister glance.

'Shall you be long, sir?'

'I can't say.' Henry was firm.

Giving a hitch to her sackcloth, she departed and banged the door.

Henry and Miss Foster were solitary again. And as he glanced at her, he thought deliciously: 'I am a gay spark.' Never before had such a notion visited him.

'What first gave you the idea of writing Love in Babylon, Mr. Knight?' began Miss Foster, smiling upon him with a marvellous allurement.

Henry was nearly an hour later than usual in arriving home, but he offered no explanation to his mother and aunt beyond saying that he had been detained by a caller, after Sir George's departure. He read in the faces of his mother and aunt their natural pride that he should be capable of conducting Sir George's business for him after Sir George's departure of a night. Yet he found himself incapable of correcting the false impression which he had wittingly given. In plain terms, he could not tell the ladies, he could not bring himself to tell them, that a well-dressed young woman had called upon him at a peculiar hour and interviewed him in the strict privacy of Sir George's own room on behalf of a lady's paper called Home and Beauty. He wanted very much to impart to them these quite harmless and, indeed, rather agreeable and honourable facts, but his lips would not frame the communicating words. Not even when the talk turned, as of course it did, to Love in Babylon, did he contrive to mention the interview. It was ridiculous; but so it was.

'By the way--' he began once, but his mother happened to speak at the same instant.

'What were you going to say, Henry?' Aunt Annie asked when Mrs. Knight had finished.

'Oh, nothing. I forget,' said the miserable poltroon.

'The next advertisement will say twentieth thousand, that's what it will say-you'll see!' remarked Mrs. Knight.

'What an ass you are!' murmured Henry to Henry. 'You'll have to tell them some time, so why not now? Besides, what in thunder's the matter?'

Vaguely, dimly, he saw that Miss Foster's tight-fitting bodice was the matter. Yes, there was something about that bodice, those teeth, that tongue, that hair, something about her, which seemed to challenge the whole system of his ideas, all his philosophy, self-satisfaction, seriousness, smugness, and general invincibility. And he thought of her continually-no particular thought, but a comprehensive, enveloping, brooding, static thought. And he was strangely jolly and uplifted, full of affectionate, absent-minded good humour towards his mother and Aunt Annie.

There was a ting-ting of the front-door bell.

'Perhaps Dr. Dancer has called for a chat,' said Aunt Annie with pleasant anticipation.

Sarah was heard to ascend and to run along the hall. Then Sarah entered the dining-room.

'Please, sir, there's a young lady to see you.'

Henry flushed.

The sisters looked at one another.

'What name, Sarah?' Aunt Annie whispered.

'I didn't ask, mum.'

'How often have I told you always to ask strangers' names when they come to the door!' Aunt Annie's whisper became angry. 'Go and see.'

Henry hoped and feared, feared and hoped. But he knew not where to look.

Sarah returned and said: 'The young lady's name is Foster, sir.'

'Oh!' said Henry, bursting into speech as some plants burst suddenly and brilliantly into blossom. 'Miss Foster, eh? It's the lady who called at the office to-night. Show her into the front-room, Sarah, and light the gas. I'll come in a minute I wonder what she wants.'

'You didn't say it was a lady,' said his mother.

'No,' he admitted; his tongue was unloosed now on the subject. 'And I didn't say it was a lady-journalist, either. The truth is,' this liar proceeded with an effrontery which might have been born of incessant practice, but was not, 'I meant it as a surprise for you. I've been interviewed this afternoon, for a lady's paper. And I wouldn't mind betting-I wouldn't mind betting,' he repeated, 'that she's come for my photograph.'

All this was whispered.

Henry had guessed correctly. It was the question of a portrait which Miss Foster plunged into immediately he entered the drawing-room. She had forgotten it utterly-she had been so nervous. 'So I ran down here to-night,' she said, 'because if I send in my stuff and the portrait to-morrow morning, it may be in time for next week's issue. Now, don't say you haven't got a photograph of yourself, Mr. Knight. Don't say that! What a pretty, old-fashioned drawing-room! Oh, there's the very thing!'

She pointed to a framed photograph on the plush-covered mantelpiece.

'The very thing, is it?' said Henry. He was feeling his feet now, the dog. 'Well, you shall have it, then.' And he took the photograph out of the frame and gave it to her.

No! she wouldn't stay, not a minute, not a second. One moment her delicious presence filled the drawing-room (he was relieved to hear her call it a pretty, old-fashioned drawing-room, because, as the drawing-room of a person important enough to be interviewed, it had seemed to him somewhat less than mediocre), and the next moment she had gone. By a singular coincidence, Aunt Annie was descending the stairs just as Henry showed Miss Foster out of the house; the stairs commanded the lobby and the front-door.

On his return to the dining-room and the companionship of his relatives, Henry was conscious of a self-preserving instinct which drove him to make conversation as rapidly and in as large quantities as possible. In a brief space of time he got round to Home and Beauty.

'Do you know it?' he demanded.

'No,' said Aunt Annie. 'I never heard of it. But I dare say it's a very good paper.'

Mrs. Knight rang the bell.

'What do you want, sister?' Aunt Annie inquired.

'I'm going to send Sarah out for a copy of Home and Beauty,' said Mrs. Knight, with the air of one who has determined to indulge a wild whim for once in a way. 'Let's see what it's like.'

'Don't forget the name, Sarah-Home and Beauty!' Aunt Annie enjoined the girl when Mrs. Knight had given the order.

'Not me, mum,' said Sarah. 'I know it. It's a beautiful paper. I often buys it myself. But it's like as if what must be-I lighted the kitchen fire with this week's this very morning, paper pattern and all.'

'That will do, thank you, Sarah,' said Aunt Annie crushingly.

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