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   Chapter 16 DURING THE TEA-MEETING

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 11896

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


In spite of the sincerest intention not to arrive too soon, Henry reached the Louvre Restaurant a quarter of an hour before the appointed time. He had meant to come in an omnibus, and descend from it at Piccadilly Circus, but his attire made him feel self-conscious, and he had walked on, allowing omnibus after omnibus to pass him, in the hope of being able to get into an empty one; until at last, afraid that he was risking his fine reputation for exact promptitude, he had suddenly yielded to the alluring gesture of a cabman.

The commissionaire of the Louvre, who stood six feet six and a half inches high, who wore a coat like the side of a blue house divided by means of pairs of buttons into eighty-five storeys, who had the face of a poet addicted to blank verse, and who was one of the glories of the Louvre, stepped across the pavement in one stride and assisted Henry to alight. Henry had meant to give the cabman eighteenpence, but the occult influence of the glorious commissionaire mysteriously compelled him, much against his will, to make it half a crown. He hesitated whether to await Geraldine within the Louvre or without; he was rather bashful about entering (hitherto he had never flown higher than Sweeting's). The commissionaire, however, attributing this indecision to Henry's unwillingness to open doors for himself, stepped back across the pavement in another stride, and held the portal ajar. Henry had no alternative but to pass beneath the commissionaire's bended and respectful head. Once within the gorgeous twilit hall of the Louvre, Henry was set upon by two very diminutive and infantile replicas of the commissionaire, one of whom staggered away with his overcoat, while the other secured the remainder of the booty in the shape of his hat, muffler, and stick, and left Henry naked. I say 'naked' purposely. Anyone who has dreamed the familiar dream of being discovered in a state of nudity amid a roomful of clothed and haughty strangers may, by recalling his sensations, realize Henry's feelings as he stood alone and unfriended there, exposed for the first time in his life in evening dress to the vulgar gaze. Several minutes passed before Henry could conquer the delusion that everybody was staring at him in amused curiosity. Having conquered it, he sank sternly into a chair, and surreptitiously felt the sovereigns in his pocket.

Soon an official bore down on him, wearing a massive silver necklet which fell gracefully over his chest. Henry saw and trembled.

'Are you expecting someone, sir?' the man whispered in a velvety and confidential voice, as who should say: 'Have no secrets from me. I am discretion itself.'

'Yes,' answered Henry boldly, and he was inclined to add: 'But it's all right, you know. I've nothing to be ashamed of.'

'Have you booked a table, sir?' the official proceeded with relentless suavity. As he stooped towards Henry's ear his chain swung in the air and gently clanked.

'No,' said Henry, and then hastened to assure the official: 'But I want one.' The idea of booking tables at a restaurant struck him as a surprising novelty.

'Upstairs or down, sir? Perhaps you'd prefer the balcony? For two, sir? I'll see, sir. We're always rather full. What name, sir?'

'Knight,' said Henry majestically.

He was a bad starter, but once started he could travel fast. Already he was beginning to feel at home in the princely foyer of the Louvre, and to stare at new arrivals with a cold and supercilious stare. His complacency, however, was roughly disturbed by a sudden alarm lest Geraldine might not come in evening-dress, might not have quite appreciated what the Louvre was.

'Table No. 16, sir,' said the chain-wearer in his ear, as if depositing with him a state-secret.

'Right,' said Henry, and at the same instant she irradiated the hall like a vision.

'Am I not prompt?' she demanded sweetly, as she took a light wrap from her shoulders.

Henry began to talk very rapidly and rather loudly. 'I thought you'd prefer the balcony,' he said with a tremendous air of the man about town; 'so I got a table upstairs. No. 16, I fancy it is.'

She was in evening-dress. There could be no doubt about that; it was a point upon which opinions could not possibly conflict. She was in evening-dress.

'Now tell me all about yourself,' Henry suggested. They were in the middle of the dinner.

'Oh, you can't be interested in the affairs of poor little me!'

'Can't I!'

He had never been so ecstatically happy in his life before. In fact, he had not hitherto suspected even the possibility of that rapture. In the first place, he perceived that in choosing the Louvre he had builded better than he knew. He saw that the Louvre was perfect. Such napery, such argent, such crystal, such porcelain, such flowers, such electric and glowing splendour, such food and so many kinds of it, such men, such women, such chattering gaiety, such a conspiracy on the part of menials to persuade him that he was the Shah of Persia, and Geraldine the peerless Circassian odalisque! The reality left his fancy far behind. In the second place, owing to his prudence in looking up the subject in Chambers' Encyclop?dia earlier in the day, he, who was almost a teetotaler, had cut a more than tolerable figure in handling the wine-list. He had gathered that champagne was in truth scarcely worthy of its reputation among the uninitiated, that the greatest of all wines was burgundy, and that the greatest of all burgundies was Romanée-Conti. 'Got a good Romanée-Conti?' he said casually to the waiter. It was immense, the look of genuine respect that came into the face of the waiter. The Louvre had a good Romanée-Conti. Its price, two pounds five a bottle, staggered Henry, and he thought of his poor mother and aunt at the tea-meeting, but his impassive features showed no sign of the internal agitation. And when he had drunk half a glass of the incomparable flu

id, he felt that a hundred and two pounds five a bottle would not have been too much to pay for it. The physical, moral, and spiritual effects upon him of that wine were remarkable in the highest degree. That wine banished instantly all awkwardness, diffidence, timidity, taciturnity, and meanness. It filled him with generous emotions and the pride of life. It ennobled him.

And, in the third place, Geraldine at once furnished him with a new ideal of the feminine and satisfied it. He saw that the women of Munster Park were not real women; they were afraid to be real women, afraid to be joyous, afraid to be pretty, afraid to attract; they held themselves in instead of letting themselves go; they assumed that every pleasure was guilty until it was proved innocent, thus transgressing the fundamental principle of English justice; their watchful eyes seemed to be continually saying: 'Touch me-and I shall scream for help!' In costume, any elegance, any elaboration, any coquetry, was eschewed by them as akin to wantonness. Now Geraldine reversed all that. Her frock was candidly ornate. She told him she had made it herself, but it appeared to him that there were more stitches in it than ten women could have accomplished in ten years. She openly revelled in her charms; she openly made the most of them. She did not attempt to disguise her wish to please, to flatter, to intoxicate. Her eyes said nothing about screaming for help. Her eyes said: 'I'm a woman; you're a man. How jolly!' Her eyes said: 'I was born to do what I'm doing now.' Her eyes said: 'Touch me-and we shall see'. But what chiefly enchanted Henry was her intellectual courage and her freedom from cant. In conversing with her you hadn't got to tread lightly and warily, lest at any moment you might put your foot through the thin crust of a false modesty, and tumble into eternal disgrace. You could talk to her about anything; and she did not pretend to be blind to the obvious facts of existence, to the obvious facts of the Louvre Restaurant, for example. Moreover, she had a way of being suddenly and deliciously serious, and of indicating by an earnest glance that of course she was very ignorant really, and only too glad to learn from a man like him.

'Can't I!' he replied, after she had gazed at him in silence over the yellow roses and the fowl.

So she told him that she was an orphan, and had a brother who was a solicitor in Leicester. Why Henry should have immediately thought that her brother was a somewhat dull and tedious person cannot easily be explained; but he did think so.

She went on to tell him that she had been in London five years, and had begun in a milliner's shop, had then learnt typewriting and shorthand, advertised for a post, and obtained her present situation with Mark Snyder.

'I was determined to earn my own living,' she said, with a charming smile. 'My brother would have looked after me, but I preferred to look after myself.' A bangle slipped down her arm.

'She's perfectly wonderful!' Henry thought.

And then she informed him that she was doing fairly well in journalism, and had attempted sensational fiction, but that none saw more clearly than she how worthless and contemptible her sort of work was, and none longed more sincerely than she to produce good work, serious work.... However, she knew she couldn't.

'Will you do me a favour?' she coaxed.

'What is it?' he said.

'Oh! No! You must promise.'

'Of course, if I can.'

'Well, you can. I want to know what your next book's about. I won't breathe a word to a soul. But I would like you to tell me. I would like to feel that it was you that had told me. You can't imagine how keen I am.'

'Ask me a little later,' he said. 'Will you?'

'To-night?'

She put her head on one side.

And he replied audaciously: 'Yes.'

'Very well,' she agreed. 'And I shan't forget. I shall hold you to your promise.'

Just then two men passed the table, and one of them caught Geraldine's eye, and Geraldine bowed.

'Well, Mr. Doxey,' she exclaimed. 'What ages since I saw you!'

'Yes, isn't it?' said Mr. Doxey.

They shook hands and talked a moment.

'Let me introduce you to Mr. Henry Knight,' said Geraldine. 'Mr. Knight-Mr. Doxey, of the P.A.'

'Love in Babylon?' murmured Mr. Doxey inquiringly. 'Very pleased to meet you, sir.'

Henry was not favourably impressed by Mr. Doxey's personal appearance, which was attenuated and riggish. He wondered what 'P.A.' meant. Not till later in the evening did he learn that it stood for Press Association, and had no connection with Pleasant Sunday Afternoons. Mr. Doxey stated that he was going on to the Alhambra to 'do' the celebrated Toscato, the inventor of the new vanishing trick, who made his first public appearance in England at nine forty-five that night.

'You didn't mind my introducing him to you? He's a decent little man in some ways,' said Geraldine humbly, when they were alone again.

'Oh, of course not!' Henry assured her. 'By the way, what would you like to do to-night?'

'I don't know,' she said. 'It's awfully late, isn't it? Time flies so when you're interested.'

'It's a quarter to nine. What about the Alhambra?' he suggested.

(He who had never been inside a theatre, not to mention a music-hall!)

'Oh!' she burst out. 'I adore the Alhambra. What an instinct you have! I was just hoping you'd say the Alhambra!'

They had Turkish coffee. He succeeded very well in pretending that he had been thoroughly accustomed all his life to the spectacle of women smoking-that, indeed, he was rather discomposed than otherwise when they did not smoke. He paid the bill, and the waiter brought him half a crown concealed on a plate in the folds of the receipt; it was the change out of a five-pound note.

Being in a hansom with her, though only for two minutes, surpassed even the rapture of the restaurant. It was the quintessence of Life.

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