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   Chapter 17 A NOVELIST IN A BOX

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 14909

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Perhaps it was just as well that the curtain was falling on the ballet when Henry and Geraldine took possession of their stalls in the superb Iberian auditorium of the Alhambra Theatre. The glimpse which Henry had of the prima ballerina assoluta in her final pose and her costume, and of the hundred minor choregraphic artists, caused him to turn involuntarily to Geraldine to see whether she was not shocked. She, however, seemed to be keeping her nerve fairly well; so he smothered up his consternation in a series of short, dry coughs, and bought a programme. He said to himself bravely: 'I'm in for it, and I may as well go through with it.' The next item, while it puzzled, reassured him. The stage showed a restaurant, with a large screen on one side. A lady entered, chattered at an incredible rate in Italian, and disappeared behind the screen, where she knocked a chair over and rang for the waiter. Then the waiter entered and disappeared behind the screen, chattering at an incredible rate in Italian. The waiter reappeared and made his exit, and then a gentleman appeared, and disappeared behind the screen, chattering at an incredible rate in Italian. Kissing was heard behind the screen. Instantly the waiter served a dinner, chattering always behind the screen with his customers at an incredible rate in Italian. Then another gentleman appeared, and no sooner had he disappeared behind the screen, chattering at an incredible rate in Italian, than a policeman appeared, and he too, chattering at an incredible rate in Italian, disappeared behind the screen. A fearsome altercation was now developing behind the screen in the tongue of Dante, and from time to time one or other of the characters-the lady, the policeman, the first or second gentleman, the waiter-came from cover into view of the audience, and harangued the rest at an incredible rate in Italian. Then a disaster happened behind the screen: a table was upset, to an accompaniment of yells; and the curtain fell rapidly, amid loud applause, to rise again with equal rapidity on the spectacle of a bowing and smiling little man in ordinary evening dress.

This singular and enigmatic drama disconcerted Henry.

'What is it?' he whispered.

'Pauletti,' said Geraldine, rather surprised at the question.

He gathered from her tone that Pauletti was a personage of some importance, and, consulting the programme, read: 'Pauletti, the world-renowned quick-change artiste.' Then he figuratively kicked himself, like a man kicks himself figuratively in bed when he wakes up in the middle of the night and sees the point of what has hitherto appeared to be rather less than a joke.

'He's very good,' said Henry, as the excellence of Pauletti became more and more clear to him.

'He gets a hundred a week,' said Geraldine.

When Pauletti had performed two other violent dramas, and dressed and undressed himself thirty-nine times in twenty minutes, he gave way to his fellow-countryman Toscato. Toscato began gently with a little prestidigitation, picking five-pound notes out of the air, and simplicities of that kind. He then borrowed a handkerchief, produced an orange out of the handkerchief, a vegetable-marrow out of the orange, a gibus hat out of the vegetable-marrow, a live sucking-pig out of the gibus hat, five hundred yards of coloured paper out of the sucking-pig, a Union-jack twelve feet by ten out of the bunch of paper, and a wardrobe with real doors and full of ladies' dresses out of the Union-jack. Lastly, a beautiful young girl stepped forth from the wardrobe.

'I never saw anything like it!' Henry gasped, very truthfully. He had a momentary fancy that the devil was in this extraordinary defiance of natural laws.

'Yes,' Geraldine admitted. 'It's not bad, is it?'

As Toscato could speak no English, an Englishman now joined him and announced that Toscato would proceed to perform his latest and greatest illusion-namely, the unique vanishing trick-for the first time in England; also that Toscato extended a cordial invitation to members of the audience to come up on to the stage and do their acutest to pierce the mystery.

'Come along,' said a voice in Henry's ear, 'I'm going.' It was Mr. Doxey's.

'Oh, no, thanks!' Henry replied hastily.

'Nothing to be afraid of,' said Mr. Doxey, shrugging his shoulders with an air which Henry judged slightly patronizing.

'Oh yes, do go,' Geraldine urged. 'It will be such fun.'

He hated to go, but there was no alternative, and so he went, stumbling after Mr. Doxey up the step-ladder which had been placed against the footlights for the ascending of people who prided themselves on being acute. There were seven such persons on the stage, not counting himself, but Henry honestly thought that the eyes of the entire audience were directed upon him alone. The stage seemed very large, and he was cut off from the audience by a wall of blinding rays, and at first he could only distinguish vast vague semicircles and a floor of pale, featureless faces. However, he depended upon Mr. Doxey.

But when the trick-box had been brought on to the stage-it was a sort of a sentry-box raised on four legs-Henry soon began to recover his self-possession. He examined that box inside and out until he became thoroughly convinced that it was without guile. The jury of seven stood round the erection, and the English assistant stated that a sheet (produced) would be thrown over Toscato, who would then step into the box and shut the door. The door would then be closed for ten seconds, whereupon it would be opened and the beautiful young girl would step out of the box, while Toscato would magically appear in another part of the house.

At this point Henry stooped to give a last glance under the box. Immediately Toscato held him with a fiery eye, as though enraged, and, going up to him, took eight court cards from Henry's sleeve, a lady's garter from his waistcoat pocket, and a Bath-bun out of his mouth. The audience received this professional joke in excellent part, and, indeed, roared its amusement. Henry blushed, would have given all the money he had on him-some ninety pounds-to be back in the stalls, and felt a hot desire to explain to everyone that the cards, the Bath-bun, and especially the garter, had not really been in his possession at all. That part of the episode over, the trick ought to have gone forward, but Toscato's Italian temper was effervescing, and he insisted by signs that one of the jury should actually get into the box bodily, and so satisfy the community that the box was a box et pr?terea nilil. The English assistant pointed to Henry, and Henry, to save argument, reluctantly entered the box. Toscato shut the door. Henry was in the dark, and quite mechanically he extended his hands and felt the sides of the box. His fingers touched a projection in a corner, and he heard a clicking sound. Then he was aware of Toscato shaking the door of the box, frantically and more frantically, and of the noise of distant multitudinous laughter.

'Don't hold the door,' whispered a voice.

'I'm not doing so,' Henry whispered in reply.

The box trembled.

'I say, old chap, don't hold the door. They want to get on with the trick.' This time it was Mr. Doxey who addressed him in persuasive tones.

'Don't I tell you I'm not holding the door, you silly fool!' retorted Henry, nettled.

The box trembled anew and more dangerously. The distant

laughter grew immense and formidable.

'Carry it off,' said a third voice, 'and get him out in the wings.'

The box underwent an earthquake; it rocked; Henry was thrown with excessive violence from side to side; the sound of the laughter receded.

Happily, the box had no roof; it was laid with all tenderness on its flank, and the tenant crawled out of it into the midst of an interested crowd consisting of Toscato, some stage-managers, several scene-shifters, and many ballerinas. His natural good-temper reasserted itself at once, and he received apologies in the spirit in which they were offered, while Toscato set the box to rights. Henry was returning to the stage in order to escape from the ballerinas, whose proximity disturbed and frightened him, but he had scarcely shown his face to the house before he was, as it were, beaten back by a terrific wave of jubilant cheers. The great vanishing trick was brilliantly accomplished without his presence on the boards, and an official guided him through various passages back to the floor of the house. Nobody seemed to observe him as he sat down beside Geraldine.

'Of course it was all part of the show, that business,' he heard a man remark loudly some distance behind him.

He much enjoyed explaining the whole thing to Geraldine. Now that it was over, he felt rather proud, rather triumphant. He did not know that he was very excited, but he observed that Geraldine was excited.

'You needn't think you are going to escape from telling me all about your new book, because you aren't,' said Geraldine prettily.

They were supping at a restaurant of the discreet sort, divided into many compartments, and situated, with a charming symbolism, at the back of St. George's, Hanover Square. Geraldine had chosen it. They did not need food, but they needed their own unadulterated society.

'I'm only too pleased to tell you,' Henry replied. 'You're about the only person that I would tell. It's like this. You must imagine a youth growing up to manhood, and wanting to be a great artist. I don't mean a painter. I mean a-an actor. Yes, a very great actor. Shakspere's tragedies, you know, and all that.'

She nodded earnestly.

'What's his name?' she inquired.

Henry gazed at her. 'His name's Gerald,' he said, and she flushed. 'Well, at sixteen this youth is considerably over six feet in height, and still growing. At eighteen his figure has begun to excite remark in the streets. At nineteen he has a severe attack of scarlet fever, and while ill he grows still more, in bed, like people do, you know. And at twenty he is six feet eight inches high.'

'A giant, in fact.'

'Just so. But he doesn't want to be a giant He wants to be an actor, a great actor. Nobody will look at him, except to stare. The idea of his going on the stage is laughed at. He scarcely dare walk out in the streets because children follow him. But he is a great actor, all the same, in spirit. He's got the artistic temperament, and he can't be a clerk. He can only be one thing, and that one thing is made impossible by his height. He falls in love with a girl. She rather likes him, but naturally the idea of marrying a giant doesn't appeal to her. So that's off, too. And he's got no resources, and he's gradually starving in a garret. See the tragedy?'

She nodded, reflective, sympathetically silent.

Henry continued: 'Well, he's starving. He doesn't know what to do. He isn't quite tall enough to be a show-giant-they have to be over seven feet-otherwise he might at any rate try the music-hall stage. Then the manager of a West End restaurant catches sight of him one day, and offers him a place as doorkeeper at a pound a week and tips. He refuses it indignantly. But after a week or two more of hunger he changes his mind and accepts. And this man who has the soul and the brains of a great artist is reduced to taking sixpences for opening cab-doors.'

'Does it end there?'

'No. It's a sad story, I'm afraid. He dies one night in the snow outside the restaurant, while the rich noodles are gorging themselves inside to the music of a band. Consumption.'

'It's the most original story I ever heard in all my life,' said Geraldine enthusiastically.

'Do you think so?'

'I do, honestly. What are you going to call it-if I may ask?'

'Call it?' He hesitated a second. 'A Question of Cubits,' he said.

'You are simply wonderful at titles,' she observed. 'Thank you. Thank you so much.'

'No one else knows,' he finished.

When he had seen her safely to Chenies Street, and was travelling to Dawes Road in a cab, he felt perfectly happy. The story had come to him almost by itself. It had been coming all the evening, even while he was in the box, even while he was lost in admiration of Geraldine. It had cost him nothing. He knew he could write it with perfect ease. And Geraldine admired it! It was the most original story she had ever heard in all her life! He himself thought it extremely original, too. He saw now how foolish and premature had been his fears for the future. Of course he had studied human nature. Of course he had been through the mill, and practised style. Had he not won the prize for composition at the age of twelve? And was there not the tangible evidence of his essays for the Polytechnic, not to mention his continual work for Sir George?

He crept upstairs to his bedroom joyous, jaunty, exultant.

'Is that you, Henry?' It was Aunt Annie's inquiry.

'Yes,' he answered, safely within his room.

'How late you are! It's half-past twelve and more.'

'I got lost,' he explained to her.

But he could not explain to himself what instinct had forced him to conceal from his adoring relatives the fact that he had bought a suit of dress-clothes, put them on, and sallied forth in them to spend an evening with a young lady.

Just as he was dropping off to sleep and beauteous visions, he sprang up with a start, and, lighting a candle, descended to the dining-room. There he stood on a chair, reached for the blue jar on the bookcase, extracted the two eggs, and carried them upstairs. He opened his window and threw the eggs into the middle of Dawes Road, but several houses lower down; they fell with a soft plup, and scattered.

Thus ended the miraculous evening.

The next day he was prostrate with one of his very worst dyspeptic visitations. The Knight pew at Munster Park Chapel was empty at both services, and Henry learnt from loving lips that he must expect to be ill if he persisted in working so hard. He meekly acknowledged the justice of the rebuke.

On Monday morning at half-past eight, before he had appeared at breakfast, there came a telegram, which Aunt Annie opened. It had been despatched from Paris on the previous evening, and it ran: 'Congratulations on the box trick. Worth half a dozen books with the dear simple public A sincere admirer.' This telegram puzzled everybody, including Henry; though perhaps it puzzled Henry a little less than the ladies. When Aunt Annie suggested that it had been wrongly addressed, he agreed that no other explanation was possible, and Sarah took it back to the post-office.

He departed to business. At all the newspaper-shops, at all the bookstalls, he saw the placards of morning newspapers with lines conceived thus:

Amusing Incident at the Alhambra.

A Novelist's Adventure.

Vanishing Author at a Music-Hall.

A Novelist in a Box.

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