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   Chapter 15 HIS TERRIBLE QUANDARY

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 8235

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


There was to be an important tea-meeting at the Munster Park Chapel on the next Saturday afternoon but one, and tea was to be on the tables at six o'clock. The gathering had some connection with an attempt on the part of the Wesleyan Connexion to destroy the vogue of Confucius in China. Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie had charge of the department of sandwiches, and they asked Henry whether he should be present at the entertainment. They were not surprised, however, when he answered that the exigencies of literary composition would make his attendance impossible. They lauded his self-denial, for Henry's literary work was quite naturally now the most important and the most exacting work in the world, the crusade against Confucius not excepted. Henry wrote to Geraldine and invited her to dine with him at the Louvre Restaurant on that Saturday night, and Geraldine replied that she should be charmed. Then Henry changed his tailor, and could not help blushing when he gave his order to the new man, who had a place in Conduit Street and a way of looking at the clothes Henry wore that reduced those neat garments to shapeless and shameful rags.

The first fatal steps in a double life having been irrevocably taken, Henry drew a long breath, and once more seriously addressed himself to book number two. But ideas obstinately refused to show themselves above the horizon. And yet nothing had been left undone which ought to have been done in order to persuade ideas to arrive. The whole domestic existence of the house in Dawes Road revolved on Henry's precious brain as on a pivot. The drawing-room had not only been transformed into a study; it had been rechristened 'the study.' And in speaking of the apartment to each other or to Sarah, Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie employed a vocal inflection of peculiar impressiveness. Sarah entered the study with awe, the ladies with pride. Henry sat in it nearly every night and laboured hard, with no result whatever. If the ladies ventured to question him about his progress, he replied with false gaiety that they must ask him again in a month or so; and they smiled in sure anticipation of the beautiful thing that was in store for them and the public.

He had no one to consult in his dilemma. Every morning he received several cuttings, chiefly of an amiable character, about himself from the daily and weekly press; he was a figure in literary circles; he had actually declined two invitations to be interviewed; and yet he knew no more of literary circles than Sarah did. His position struck him as curious, bizarre, and cruel. He sometimes felt that the history of the last few months was a dream from which he would probably wake up by falling heavily out of bed, so unreal did the events seem. One day, when he was at his wits' end, he saw in a newspaper an advertisement of a book entitled How to become a Successful Novelist, price half-a-crown. Just above it was an advertisement of the thirty-eighth thousand of Love in Babylon. He went into a large bookseller's shop in the Strand and demanded How to become a Successful Novelist. The volume had to be searched for, and while he was waiting Henry's eyes dwelt on a high pile of Love in Babylon, conspicuously placed near the door. Two further instalments of the Satin Library had been given to the world since Love in Babylon, but Henry noted with satisfaction that no excessive prominence was accorded to them in that emporium of literature. He paid the half-crown and pocketed How to become a Successful Novelist with a blush, just as if the bookseller had been his new tailor. He had determined, should the bookseller recognise him-a not remote contingency-to explain that he was buying How to become a Successful Novelist on behalf of a young friend. However, the suspicions of the bookseller happened not to be aroused, and hence there was no occasion to lull them.

That same evening, in the privacy of his study, he eagerly read How to become a Successful Novelist. It disappointed him; nay, it desolated him. He was shocked to discover that he had done nothing that a man must do who wishes to

be a successful novelist. He had not practised style; he had not paraphrased choice pages from the classics; he had not kept note-books; he had not begun with short stories; he had not even performed the elementary, obvious task of studying human nature. He had never thought of 'atmosphere' as 'atmosphere'; nor had he considered the important question of the 'functions of dialogue.' As for the 'significance of scenery,' it had never occurred to him. In brief, he was a lost man. And he could detect in the book no practical hint towards salvation. 'Having decided upon your theme--' said the writer in a chapter entitled 'The Composition of a Novel.' But what Henry desired was a chapter entitled 'The Finding of a Theme.' He suffered the aggravated distress of a starving man who has picked up a cookery-book.

There was a knock at the study door, and Henry hastily pushed How to become a Successful Novelist under the blotting-paper, and assumed a meditative air. Not for worlds would he have been caught reading it.

'A letter, dear, by the last post,' said Aunt Annie, entering; and then discreetly departed.

The letter was from Mark Snyder, and it enclosed a cheque for a hundred pounds, saying that Mr. Onions Winter, though under no obligation to furnish a statement until the end of the year, had sent this cheque on account out of courtesy to Mr. Knight, and in the hope that Mr. Knight would find it agreeable; also in the hope that Mr. Knight was proceeding satisfactorily with book number two. The letter was typewritten, and signed 'Mark Snyder, per G. F.,' and the 'G. F.' was very large and distinct.

Henry instantly settled in his own mind that he would attempt no more with book number two until the famous dinner with 'G. F.' had come to pass. He cherished a sort of hopeful feeling that after he had seen her, and spent that about-to-be-wonderful evening with her, he might be able to invent a theme. The next day he cashed the cheque. The day after that was Saturday, and he came home at two o'clock with a large flat box, which he surreptitiously conveyed to his bedroom. Small parcels had been arriving for him during the week. At half-past four Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie, invading the study, found him reading Chambers' Encyclop?dia.

'We're going now, dear,' said Aunt Annie.

'Sarah will have your tea ready at half-past five,' said his mother. 'And I've told her to be sure and boil the eggs three and three-quarter minutes.'

'And we shall be back about half-past nine,' said Aunt Annie.

'Don't stick at it too closely,' said his mother. 'You ought to take a little exercise. It's a beautiful afternoon.'

'I shall see,' Henry answered gravely. 'I shall be all right.'

He watched the ladies down the road in the direction of the tea-meeting, and no sooner were they out of sight than he nipped upstairs and locked himself in his bedroom. At half-past five Sarah tapped at his door and announced that tea was ready. He descended to tea in his overcoat, and the collar of his overcoat was turned up and buttoned across his neck. He poured out some tea, and drank it, and poured some more into the slop-basin. He crumpled a piece or two of bread-and-butter and spread crumbs on the cloth. He shelled the eggs very carefully, and, climbing on to a chair, dropped the eggs themselves into a large blue jar which stood on the top of the bookcase. After these singular feats he rang the bell for Sarah.

'Sarah,' he said in a firm voice, 'I've had my tea, and I'm going out for a long walk. Tell my mother and aunt that they are on no account to wait up for me, if I am not back.'

'Yes, sir,' said Sarah timidly. 'Was the eggs hard enough, sir?'

'Yes, thank you.' His generous, kindly approval of the eggs cheered this devotee.

Henry brushed his silk hat, put it on, and stole out of the house feeling, as all livers of double lives must feel, a guilty thing. It was six o'clock. The last domestic sound he heard was Sarah singing in the kitchen. 'Innocent, simple creature!' he thought, and pitied her, and turned down the collar of his overcoat.

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