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A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 13325

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

He went at once to Kenilworth Mansions, but he went against his will. And the reason of his disinclination was that he scarcely desired to encounter Geraldine. It was an ordeal for him to encounter Geraldine. The events which had led to this surprising condition of affairs were as follows:

Henry was one of those men-and there exist, perhaps, more of them than may be imagined-who are capable of plunging off the roof of a house, and then reconsidering the enterprise and turning back. With Henry it was never too late for discretion. He would stop and think at the most extraordinary moments. Thirty-six hours after the roseate evening at the Louvre and the Alhambra, just when he ought to have been laying a scheme for meeting Geraldine at once by sheer accident, Henry was coldly remarking to himself: 'Let me see exactly where I am. Let me survey the position.' He liked Geraldine, but now it was with a sober liking, a liking which is not too excited to listen to Reason. And Reason said, after the position had been duly surveyed: 'I have nothing against this charming lady, and much in her favour. Nevertheless, there need be no hurry.' Geraldine wrote to thank Henry for the most enjoyable evening she had ever spent in her life, and Henry found the letter too effusive. When they next saw each other, Henry meant to keep strictly private the advice which he had accepted from Reason; but Geraldine knew all about it within the first ten seconds, and Henry knew that she knew. Politeness reigned, and the situation was felt to be difficult. Geraldine intended to be sisterly, but succeeded only in being resentful, and thus precipitated too soon the second stage of the entanglement, the stage in which a man, after seeing everything in a woman, sees nothing in her; this second stage is usually of the briefest, but circumstances may render it permanent. Then Geraldine wrote again, and asked Henry to tea at the flat in Chenies Street on a Saturday afternoon. Henry went, and found the flat closed. He expected to receive a note of bewitching, cajoling, feminine apology, but he did not receive it. They met again, always at Kenilworth Mansions, and in an interview full of pain at the start and full of insincerity at the finish Henry learnt that Geraldine's invitation had been for Sunday, and not Saturday, that various people of much importance in her eyes had been asked to meet him, and that the company was deeply disappointed and the hostess humiliated. Henry was certain that she had written Saturday. Geraldine was certain that he had misread the day. He said nothing about confronting her with the letter itself, but he determined, in his masculine way, to do so. She gracefully pretended that the incident was closed, and amicably closed, but the silly little thing had got into her head the wild, inexcusable idea that Henry had stayed away from her 'at home' on purpose, and Henry felt this.

He rushed to Dawes Road to find the letter, but the letter was undiscoverable; with the spiteful waywardness which often characterizes such letters, it had disappeared. So Henry thought it would be as well to leave the incident alone. Their cheery politeness to each other when they chanced to meet was affecting to witness. As for Henry, he had always suspected in Geraldine the existence of some element, some quality, some factor, which was beyond his comprehension, and now his suspicions were confirmed.

He fell into a habit of saying, in his inmost heart: 'Women!'

This meant that he had learnt all that was knowable about them, and that they were all alike, and that-the third division of the meaning was somewhat vague.

Just as he was ascending with the beautiful flunkey in the Kenilworth lift, a middle-aged and magnificently-dressed woman hastened into the marble hall from the street, and, seeing the lift in the act of vanishing with its precious burden, gave a slight scream and then a laugh. The beautiful flunkey permitted himself a derisive gesture, such as one male may make to another, and sped the lift more quickly upwards.

'Who's she?' Henry demanded.

'I don't know, sir,' said the flunkey. 'But you'll hear her ting-tinging at the bell in half a second. There!' he added in triumphant disgust, as the lift-bell rang impatiently. 'There's some people,' he remarked, 'as thinks a lift can go up and down at once.'

Geraldine with a few bright and pleasant remarks ushered Henry directly into the presence of Mark Snyder. Her companion was not in the office.

'Well,' Mr. Snyder expansively and gaily welcomed him, 'come and sit down, my young friend.'

'Anything wrong?' Henry asked.

'No,' said Mark. 'But I've postponed publication of the Q. C. for a month.'

In his letters Mr. Snyder always referred to A Question of Cubits as the Q. C.

'What on earth for?' exclaimed Henry.

He was not pleased. In strict truth, no one of his innumerable admirers was more keenly anxious for the appearance of that book than Henry himself. His appetite for notoriety and boom grew by what it fed on. He expected something colossal, and he expected it soon.

'Both in England and America,' said Snyder.

'But why?'

'Serial rights,' said Snyder impressively. 'I told you some time since I might have a surprise for you, and I've got one. I fancied I might sell the serial rights in England to Macalistairs, at my own price, but they thought the end was too sad. However, I've done business in New York with Gordon's Weekly. They'll issue the Q. C. in four instalments. It was really settled last week, but I had to arrange with Spring Onions. They've paid cash. I made 'em. How much d'you think?'

'I don't know,' Henry said expectantly.

'Guess,' Mark Snyder commanded him.

But Henry would not guess, and Snyder rang the bell for Geraldine.

'Miss Foster,' he addressed the puzzling creature in a casual tone, 'did you draw that cheque for Mr. Knight?'

'Yes, Mr. Snyder.'

'Bring it me, please.'

And she respectfully brought in a cheque, which Mr. Snyder signed.

'There!' said he, handing it to Henry. 'What do you think of that?'

It was a cheque for one thousand and eighty pounds. Gordon and Brothers, the greatest publishing firm of the United States, had paid six thousand dollars for the right to publish serially A Question of Cubits, and Mark Snyder's well-earned commission on the transaction amounted to six hundred dollars.

'Things are looking up,' Henry stammered, feebly facetious.

'It's nearly a record price,' said Snyder complacently. 'But you're a sort of a record man. And when they believe in a thing over there, they aren't afraid of making money

talk and say so.'

'Nay, nay!' thought Henry. 'This is too much! This beats everything! Either I shall wake up soon or I shall find myself in a lunatic asylum.' He was curiously reminded of the conjuring performance at the Alhambra.

He said:

'Thanks awfully, I'm sure!'

A large grandiose notion swept over him that he had a great mission in the world.

'That's all I have to say to you,' said Mark Snyder pawkily.

Henry wanted to breathe instantly the ampler ether of the street, but on his way out he found Geraldine in rapid converse with the middle-aged and magnificently-dressed woman who thought that a lift could go up and down at once. They became silent.

'Good-morning, Miss Foster,' said Henry hurriedly.

Then a pause occurred, very brief but uncomfortable, and the stranger glanced in the direction of the window.

'Let me introduce you to Mrs. Ashton Portway,' said Geraldine. 'Mrs. Portway, Mr. Knight.'

Mrs. Portway bent forward her head, showed her teeth, smiled, laughed, and finally sniggered.

'So glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Knight!' she burst out loudly and uncontrollably, as though Geraldine's magic formula had loosened a valve capable of withstanding enormous strains. Then she smiled, laughed, and sniggered: not because she imagined that she had achieved humour, but because that was her way of making herself agreeable. If anybody had told her that she could not open her mouth without sniggering, she would have indignantly disbelieved the statement. Nevertheless it was true. When she said the weather was changeable, she sniggered; when she hoped you were quite well, she sniggered; and if circumstances had required her to say that she was sorry to hear of the death of your mother, she would have sniggered.

Henry, however, unaccustomed to the phenomena accompanying her speech, mistook her at first for a woman determined to be witty at any cost.

'I'm glad to meet you,' he said, and laughed as if to insinuate that that speech also was funny.

'I was desolated, simply desolated, not to see you at Miss Foster's "at home,"' Mrs. Ashton Portway was presently sniggering. 'Now, will you come to one of my Wednesdays? They begin in November. First and third. I always try to get interesting people, people who have done something.'

'Of course I shall be delighted,' Henry agreed. He was in a mood to scatter largesse among the crowd.

'That's so good of you,' said Mrs. Ashton Portway, apparently overcome by the merry jest. 'Now remember, I shall hold you to your promise. I shall write and remind you. I know you great men.'

When Henry reached the staircase he discovered her card in his hand. He could not have explained how it came there. Without the portals of Kenilworth Mansions a pair of fine horses were protesting against the bearing-rein, and throwing spume across the street.

He walked straight up to the Louvre, and there lunched to the sound of wild Hungarian music. It was nearly three o'clock when he returned to his seat at Powells.

'The governor's pretty nearly breaking up the happy home,' Foxall alarmingly greeted him in the inquiry office.

'Oh!' said Henry with a very passable imitation of guilelessness. 'What's amiss?'

'He rang for you just after you went out at a quarter-past twelve.' Here Foxall glanced mischievously at the clock. 'He had his lunch sent in, and he's been raving ever since.'

'What did you tell him?'

'I told him you'd gone to lunch.'

'Did he say anything?'

'He asked whether you'd gone to Brighton for lunch. Krikey! He nearly sacked me! You know it's his golfing afternoon.'

'So it is. I'd forgotten,' Henry observed calmly.

Then he removed his hat and gloves, found his note-book and pencil, and strode forward to joust with the knight.

'Did you want to dictate letters, Sir George?' he asked, opening Sir George's door.

The knight was taken aback.

'Where have you been,' the famous solicitor demanded, 'since the middle of the morning?'

'I had some urgent private business to attend to,' said Henry. 'And I've been to lunch. I went out at a quarter-past twelve.'

'And it's now three o'clock. Why didn't you tell me you were going out?'

'Because you were engaged, Sir George.'

'Listen to me,' said Sir George. 'You've been getting above yourself lately, my friend. And I won't have it. Understand, I will not have it. The rules of this office apply just as much to you as to anyone.'

'I'm sorry,' Henry put in coldly, 'if I've put you to any inconvenience.'

'Sorry be d--d, sir!' exclaimed Sir George.

'Where on earth do you go for your lunch?'

'That concerns no one but me, Sir George,' was the reply.

He would have given a five-pound note to know that Foxall and the entire staff were listening behind the door.

'You are an insolent puppy,' Sir George stated.

'If you think so, Sir George,' said Henry, 'I resign my position here.'

'And a fool!' the knight added.

'And did you say anything about the thousand pounds?' Aunt Annie asked, when, in the evening domesticity of Dawes Road, Henry recounted the doings of that day so full of emotions.

'Not I!' Henry replied. 'Not a word!'

'You did quite right, my dear!' said Aunt Annie. 'A pretty thing, that you can't go out for a few minutes!'

'Yes, isn't it?' said Henry.

'Whatever will Sir George do without you, though?' his mother wondered.

And later, after he had displayed for her inspection the cheque for a thousand and eighty pounds, the old lady cried, with moist eyes:

'My darling, your poor father might well insist on having you called Shakspere! And to think that I didn't want it! To think that I didn't want it!'

'Mark my words!' said Aunt Annie. 'Sir George will ask you to stay on.'

And Aunt Annie was not deceived.

'I hope you've come to your senses,' the lawyer began early the next morning, not unkindly, but rather with an intention obviously pacific. 'Literature, or whatever you call it, may be all very well, but you won't get another place like this in a hurry. There's many an admitted solicitor earns less than you, young man.'

'Thanks very much, Sir George,' Henry answered. 'But I think, on the whole, I had better leave.'

'As you wish,' said Sir George, hurt.

'Still,' Henry proceeded, 'I hope our relations will remain pleasant. I hope I may continue to employ you.'

'Continue to employ me?' Sir George gasped.

'Yes,' said Henry. 'I got you to invest some moneys for me some time ago. I have another thousand now that I want a sound security for.'

It was one of those rare flashes of his-rare, but blindingly brilliant.

* * *

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