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   Chapter 13 A LION IN HIS LAIR

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 13162

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The respectable portion of the male sex in England may be divided into two classes, according to its method and manner of complete immersion in water. One class, the more clashing, dashes into a cold tub every morning. Another, the more cleanly, sedately takes a warm bath every Saturday night. There can be no doubt that the former class lends tone and distinction to the country, but the latter is the nation's backbone. Henry belonged to the Saturday-nighters, to the section which calls a bath a bath, not a tub, and which contrives to approach godliness without having to boast of it on frosty mornings.

Henry performed the weekly rite in a zinc receptacle exactly circular, in his bedroom, because the house in Dawes Road had been built just before the craze for dashing had spread to such an extent among the lower middle-classes that no builder dared build a tenement without providing for it specially; in brutal terms, the house in Dawes Road had no bathroom. The preparations for Henry's immersion were always complex and thorough. Early in the evening Sarah began by putting two kettles and the largest saucepan to boil on the range. Then she took an old blanket and spread it out upon the master's bedroom floor, and drew the bathing-machine from beneath the bed and coaxed it, with considerable clangour, to the mathematical centre of the blanket. Then she filled ewers with cold water and arranged them round the machine. Then Aunt Annie went upstairs to see that the old blanket was well and truly laid, not too near the bed and not too near the mirror of the wardrobe, and that the machine did indeed rest in the mathematical centre of the blanket. (As a fact, Aunt Annie's mathematics never agreed with Sarah's.) Then Mrs. Knight went upstairs to bear witness that the window was shut, and to decide the question of towels. Then Sarah went upstairs, panting, with the kettles and the large saucepan, two journeys being necessary; and Aunt Annie followed her in order to indicate to Sarah every step upon which Sarah had spilled boiling-water. Then Mrs. Knight moved the key of Henry's door from the inside to the outside; she was always afraid lest he might lock himself in and be seized with a sudden and fatal illness. Then the women dispersed, and Aunt Annie came down to the dining-room, and in accents studiously calm (as though the preparation of Henry's bath was the merest nothing) announced:

'Henry dear, your bath is waiting.'

And Henry would disappear at once and begin by mixing his bath, out of the ewers, the kettles, and the saucepan, according to a recipe of which he alone had the secret. The hour would be about nine o'clock, or a little after. It was not his custom to appear again. He would put one kettle out on an old newspaper, specially placed to that end on the doormat in the passage, for the purposes of Sunday's breakfast; the rest of the various paraphernalia remained in his room till the following morning. He then slept the sleep of one who is aware of being the nation's backbone.

Now, he was just putting a toe or so into the zinc receptacle, in order to test the accuracy of his dispensing of the recipe, when he heard a sharp tap at the bedroom door.

'What is it?' he cried, withdrawing the toe.

'Henry!'

'Well?'

'Can I open the door an inch?' It was Aunt Annie's voice.

'Yes. What's the matter?'

'There's come a copy of Home and Beauty by the last post, and on the wrapper it says, "See page 16."'

'I suppose it contains that-thing?'

'That interview, you mean?'

'Yes, I suppose so.'

'Shall I open it?'

'If you like,' said Henry. 'Certainly, with pleasure.'

He stepped quietly and unconcernedly into the bath. He could hear the sharp ripping of paper.

'Oh yes!' came Aunt Annie's voice through the chink. 'And there's the portrait! Oh! and what a smudge across the nose! Henry, it doesn't make you look at all nice. You're too black. Oh, Henry! what do you think it's called? "Lions in their Lairs. No. 19. Interview with the brilliant author of Love in Babylon." And you told us her name was Foster.'

'Whose name?' Henry demanded, reddening in the hot water.

'You know-that lady's name, the one that called.'

'So it is.'

'No, it isn't, dear. It's Flossie Brighteye. Oh, I beg pardon, Henry! I'm sure I beg pardon!'

Aunt Annie, in the excitement of discovering Miss Foster's real name, and ground withal for her original suspicion that the self-styled Miss Foster was no better than she ought to be, had leaned too heavily against the door, and thrust it wide open. She averted her eyes and drew it to in silence.

'Shall I show the paper to your mother at once?' she asked, after a fit pause.

'Yes, do,' said Henry.

'And then bring it up to you again for you to read in bed?'

'Oh,' replied Henry in the grand manner, 'I can read it to-morrow morning.

He said to himself that he was not going to get excited about a mere interview, though it was his first interview. During the past few days the world had apparently wakened up to his existence. Even the men at the office had got wind of his achievement, and Sir George had been obliged to notice it. At Powells everyone pretended that this was the same old Henry Knight who arrived so punctually each day, and yet everyone knew secretly that it was not the same old Henry Knight. Everyone, including Henry, felt-and could not dismiss the feeling-that Henry was conferring a favour on the office by working as usual. There seemed to be something provisional, something unreal, something uncanny, in the continuance of his position there. And Sir George, when he demanded his services to take down letters in shorthand, had the air of saying apologetically: 'Of course, I know you're only here for fun; but, since you are here, we may as well carry out the joke in a practical manner.' Similar phenomena occurred at Dawes Road. Sarah's awe of Henry, always great, was enormously increased. His mother went about in a state of not being quite sure whether she had the right to be his mother, whether she was not taking a mean advantage of him in remaining his mother. Aunt Annie did not give herself away, but on her face might be read a continuous, proud, gentle surprise that Henry should eat as usual, drink as usual, talk simply as usual, and generally behave as though he was not one of the finest geniuses in England.

Further, Mr. Onions Winter had written to ask whether Henry was proceeding with a new book, and how pleased he was at the prospective privilege of publishing it. Nine othe

r publishers had written to inform him that they would esteem it a favour if he would give them the refusal of his next work. Messrs. Antonio, the eminent photographers of Regent Street, had written offering to take his portrait gratis, and asking him to deign to fix an appointment for a séance. The editor of Which is Which, a biographical annual of inconceivable utility, had written for intimate details of his age, weight, pastimes, works, ideals, and diet. The proprietary committee of the Park Club in St. James's Square had written to suggest that he might join the club without the formality of paying an entrance fee. The editor of a popular magazine had asked him to contribute his views to a 'symposium' about the proper method of spending quarter-day. Twenty-five charitable institutions had invited subscriptions from him. Three press-cutting agencies had sent him cuttings of reviews of Love in Babylon, and the reviews grew kinder and more laudatory every day. Lastly, Mr. Onions Winter was advertising the thirty-first thousand of that work.

It was not to be expected that the recipient of all these overtures, the courted and sought-for author of Love in Babylon, should disarrange the tenor of his existence in order to read an interview with himself in a ladies' penny paper. And Henry repeated, as he sat in the midst of the zinc circle, that he would peruse Flossie Brighteye's article on Sunday morning at breakfast. Then he began thinking about Flossie's tight-fitting bodice, and wondered what she had written. Then he murmured: 'Oh, nonsense! I'll read it to-morrow. Plenty soon enough.' Then he stopped suddenly and causelessly while applying the towel to the small of his back, and stood for several moments in a state of fixity, staring at a particular spot on the wall-paper. And soon he dearly perceived that he had been too hasty in refusing Aunt Annie's suggestion. However, he had made his bed, and so he must lie on it, both figuratively and factually....

The next thing was that he found himself, instead of putting on his pyjamas, putting on his day-clothes. He seemed to be doing this while wishing not to do it. He did not possess a dressing-gown-Saturday-nighters and backbones seldom do. Hence he was compelled to dress himself completely, save that he assumed a silk muffler instead of a collar and necktie, and omitted the usual stockings between his slippers and his feet. In another minute he unostentatiously entered the dining-room.

'Nay,' his mother was saying, 'I can't read it.' Tears of joyous pride had rendered her spectacles worse than useless. 'Here, Annie, read it aloud.'

Henry smiled, and he tried to make his smile carry so much meaning, of pleasant indifference, careless amusement, and benevolent joy in the joy of others, that it ended by being merely foolish.

And Aunt Annie began:

'"It is not too much to say that Mr. Henry Knight, the author of Love in Babylon, the initial volume of the already world-famous Satin Library, is the most-talked-of writer in London at the present moment. I shall therefore make no apology for offering to my readers an account of an interview which the young and gifted novelist was kind enough to give to me the other evening. Mr. Knight is a legal luminary well known in Lincoln's Inn Fields, the right-hand man of Sir George Powell, the celebrated lawyer. I found him in his formidable room seated at a--"'

'What does she mean by "formidable," Henry? 'I don't think that's quite nice,' said Mrs. Knight.

'No, it isn't,' said Aunt Annie. 'But perhaps she means it frightened her.'

'That's it,' said Henry. 'It was Sir George's room, you know.'

'She doesn't look as if she would be easily frightened,' said Aunt Annie. 'However-"seated at a large table littered with legal documents. He was evidently immersed in business, but he was so good as to place himself at my disposal for a few minutes. Mr. Knight is twenty-three years of age. His father was a silk-mercer in Oxford Street, and laid the foundation of the fortunes of the house now known as Duck and Peabody Limited."'

'That's very well put,' said Mrs. Knight.

'Yes, isn't it?' said Aunt Annie, and continued in her precise, even tones:

'"'What first gave you the idea of writing, Mr. Knight?' I inquired, plunging at once in medias res. Mr. Knight hesitated a few seconds, and then answered: 'I scarcely know. I owe a great deal to my late father. My father, although first and foremost a business man, was devoted to literature. He held that Shakspere, besides being our greatest poet, was the greatest moral teacher that England has ever produced. I was brought up on Shakspere,' said Mr. Knight, smiling. 'My father often sent communications to the leading London papers on subjects of topical interest, and one of my most precious possessions is a collection of these which he himself put into an album.'"'

Mrs. Knight removed her spectacles and wiped her eyes.

'"'With regard to Love in Babylon, the idea came to me-I cannot explain how. And I wrote it while I was recovering from a severe illness--'"'

'I didn't say "severe,"' Henry interjected. 'She's got that wrong.'

'But it was severe, dear,' said Aunt Annie, and once more continued: '"'I should never have written it had it not been for the sympathy and encouragement of my dear mother--'"'

At this point Mrs. Knight sobbed aloud, and waved her hand deprecatingly.

'Nay, nay!' she managed to stammer at length. 'Read no more. I can't stand it. I'll try to read it myself to-morrow morning while you're at chapel and all's quiet.'

And she cried freely into her handkerchief.

Henry and Aunt Annie exchanged glances, and Henry retired to bed with Home and Beauty under his arm. And he read through the entire interview twice, and knew by heart what he had said about his plans for the future, and the state of modern fiction, and the tendency of authors towards dyspepsia, and the question of realism in literature, and the Stream of Trashy Novels Constantly Poured Forth by the Press. The whole thing seemed to him at first rather dignified and effective. He understood that Miss Foster was no common Fleet Street hack.

But what most impressed him, and coloured his dreams, was the final sentence: 'As I left Mr. Knight, I could not dismiss the sensation that I had been in the presence of a man who is morally certain, at no distant date, to loom large in the history of English fiction.-Flossie Brighteye.'

A passing remark about his 'pretty suburban home' was the sauce to this dish.

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