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A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 13221

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

When Henry had seceded from Powells, and had begun to devote several dignified hours a day to the excogitation of a theme for his new novel, and the triumph of A Question of Cubits was at its height, he thought that there ought to be some change in his secret self to correspond with the change in his circumstances. But he could perceive none, except, perhaps, that now and then he was visited by the feeling that he had a great mission in the world. That feeling, however, came rarely, and, for the most part, he existed in a state of not being quite able to comprehend exactly how and why his stories roused the enthusiasm of an immense public.

In essentials he remained the same Henry, and the sameness of his simple self was never more apparent to him than when he got out of a cab one foggy Wednesday night in November, and rang at the Grecian portico of Mrs. Ashton Portway's house in Lowndes Square. A crimson cloth covered the footpath. This was his first entry into the truly great world, and though he was perfectly aware that as a lion he could not easily be surpassed in no matter what menagerie, his nervousness and timidity were so acute as to be painful; they annoyed him, in fact. When, in the wide hall, a servant respectfully but firmly closed the door after him, thus cutting off a possible retreat to the homely society of the cabman, he became resigned, careless, reckless, desperate, as who should say, 'Now I have done it!' And as at the Louvre, so at Mrs. Ashton Portway's, his outer garments were taken forcibly from him, and a ticket given to him in exchange. The ticket startled him, especially as he saw no notice on the walls that the management would not be responsible for articles not deposited in the cloakroom. Nobody inquired about his identity, and without further ritual he was asked to ascend towards regions whence came the faint sound of music. At the top of the stairs a young and handsome man, faultless alike in costume and in manners, suavely accosted him.

'What name, sir?'

'Knight,' said Henry gruffly. The young man thought that Henry was on the point of losing his temper from some cause or causes unknown, whereas Henry was merely timid.

Then the music ceased, and was succeeded by violent chatter; the young man threw open a door, and announced in loud clear tones, which Henry deemed ridiculously loud and ridiculously clear:

'Mr. Knight!'

Henry saw a vast apartment full of women's shoulders and black patches of masculinity; the violent chatter died into a profound silence; every face was turned towards him. He nearly fell down dead on the doormat, and then, remembering that life was after all sweet, he plunged into the room as into the sea.

When he came up breathless and spluttering, Mrs. Ashton Portway (in black and silver) was introducing him to her husband, Mr. Ashton Portway, known to a small circle of readers as Raymond Quick, the author of several mild novels issued at his own expense. Mr. Portway was rich in money and in his wife; he had inherited the money, and his literary instincts had discovered the wife in a publisher's daughter. The union had not been blessed with children, which was fortunate, since Mrs. Portway was left free to devote the whole of her time to the encouragement of literary talent in the most unliterary of cities.

Henry rather liked Mr. Ashton Portway, whose small black eyes seemed to say: 'That's all right, my friend. I share your ideas fully. When you want a quiet whisky, come to me.'

'And what have you been doing this dark day?' Mrs. Ashton Portway began, with her snigger.

'Well,' said Henry, 'I dropped into the National Gallery this afternoon, but really it was so--'

'The National Gallery?' exclaimed Mrs. Ashton Portway swiftly. 'I must introduce you to Miss Marchrose, the author of that charming hand-book to Pictures in London. Miss Marchrose,' she called out, urging Henry towards a corner of the room, 'this is Mr. Knight.' She sniggered on the name. 'He's just dropped into the National Gallery.'

Then Mrs. Ashton Portway sailed off to receive other guests, and Henry was alone with Miss Marchrose in a nook between a cabinet and a phonograph. Many eyes were upon them. Miss Marchrose, a woman of thirty, with a thin face and an amorphous body draped in two shades of olive, was obviously flattered.

'Be frank, and admit you've never heard of me,' she said.

'Oh yes, I have,' he lied.

'Do you often go to the National Gallery, Mr. Knight?'

'Not as often as I ought.'


Several observant women began to think that Miss Marchrose was not making the best of Henry-that, indeed, she had proved unworthy of an unmerited honour.

'I sometimes think--' Miss Marchrose essayed.

But a young lady got up in the middle of the room, and with extraordinary self-command and presence of mind began to recite Wordsworth's 'The Brothers.' She continued to recite and recite until she had finished it, and then sat down amid universal joy.

'Matthew Arnold said that was the greatest poem of the century,' remarked a man near the phonograph.

'You'll pardon me,' said Miss Marchrose, turning to him. 'If you are thinking of Matthew Arnold's introduction to the selected poems, you'll and--'

'My dear,' said Mrs. Ashton Portway, suddenly looming up opposite the reciter, 'what a memory you have!'

'Was it so long, then?' murmured a tall man with spectacles and a light wavy beard.

'I shall send you back to Paris, Mr. Dolbiac,' said Mrs. Ashton Portway, 'if you are too witty.' The hostess smiled and sniggered, but it was generally felt that Mr. Dolbiac's remark had not been in the best taste.

For a few moments Henry was alone and uncared for, and he examined his surroundings. His first conclusion was that there was not a pretty woman in the room, and his second, that this fact had not escaped the notice of several other men who were hanging about in corners. Then Mrs. Ashton Portway, having accomplished the task of receiving, beckoned him, and intimated to him that, being a lion and the king of beasts, he must roar. 'I think everyone here has done something,' she said as she took him round and forced him to roar. His roaring was a miserable fiasco, but most people mistook it for the latest fashion in roaring, and were impressed.

'Now you must take someone down to get something to eat,' she apprised him, when he had growled out soft nothings to poetesses, paragraphists, publicists, positivists, penny-a-liners, and other pale persons. 'Whom shall it be?-Ashton! What have you done?'

The phonograph had bee

n advertised to give a reproduction of Ternina in the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, but instead it broke into the 'Washington Post,' and the room, braced to a great occasion, was horrified. Mrs. Portway, abandoning Henry, ran to silence the disastrous consequence of her husband's clumsiness. Henry, perhaps impelled by an instinctive longing, gazed absently through the open door into the passage, and there, with two other girls on a settee, he perceived Geraldine! She smiled, rose, and came towards him. She looked disconcertingly pretty; she was always at her best in the evening; and she had such eyes to gaze on him.

'You here!' she murmured.

Ordinary words, but they were enveloped in layers of feeling, as a child's simple gift may be wrapped in lovely tinted tissue-papers!

'She's the finest woman in the place,' he thought decisively. And he said to her: 'Will you come down and have something to eat?'

'I can talk to her,' he reflected with satisfaction, as the faultless young man handed them desired sandwiches in the supper-room. What he meant was that she could talk to him; but men often make this mistake.

Before he had eaten half a sandwich, the period of time between that night and the night at the Louvre had been absolutely blotted out. He did not know why. He could think of no explanation. It merely was so.

She told him she had sold a sensational serial for a pound a thousand words.

'Not a bad price-for me,' she added.

'Not half enough!' he exclaimed ardently.

Her eyes moistened. He thought what a shame it was that a creature like her should be compelled to earn even a portion of her livelihood by typewriting for Mark Snyder. The faultless young man unostentatiously poured more wine into their glasses. No other guests happened to be in the room....

'Ah, you're here!' It was the hostess, sniggering.

'You told me to bring someone down,' said Henry, who had no intention of being outfaced now.

'We're just coming up,' Geraldine added.

'That's right!' said Mrs. Ashton Portway. 'A lot of people have gone, and now that we shall be a little bit more intimate, I want to try that new game. I don't think it's ever been played in London anywhere yet. I saw it in the New York Herald. Of course, nobody who isn't just a little clever could play at it.'

'Oh yes!' Geraldine smiled. 'You mean "Characters." I remember you told me about it.'

And Mrs. Ashton Portway said that she did mean 'Characters.'

In the drawing-room she explained that in playing the game of 'Characters' you chose a subject for discussion, and then each player secretly thought of a character in fiction, and spoke in the discussion as he imagined that character would have spoken. At the end of the game you tried to guess the characters chosen.

'I think it ought to be classical fiction only,' she said.

Sundry guests declined to play, on the ground that they lacked the needful brilliance. Henry declined utterly, but he had the wit not to give his reasons. It was he who suggested that the non-players should form a jury. At last seven players were recruited, including Mr. Ashton Portway, Miss Marchrose, Geraldine, Mr. Dolbiac, and three others. Mrs. Ashton Portway sat down by Henry as a jurywoman.

'And now what are you going to discuss?' said she.

No one could find a topic.

'Let us discuss love,' Miss Marchrose ventured.

'Yes,' said Mr. Dolbiac, 'let's. There's nothing like leather.'

So the seven in the centre of the room assumed attitudes suitable for the discussion of love.

'Have you all chosen your characters?' asked the hostess.

'We have,' replied the seven.

'Then begin.'

'Don't all speak at once,' said Mr. Dolbiac, after a pause.

'Who is that chap?' Henry whispered.

'Mr. Dolbiac? He's a sculptor from Paris. Quite English, I believe, except for his grandmother. Intensely clever.' Mrs. Ashton Portway distilled these facts into Henry's ear, and then turned to the silent seven. 'It is rather difficult, isn't it?' she breathed encouragingly.

'Love is not for such as me,' said Mr. Dolbiac solemnly. Then he looked at his hostess, and called out in an undertone: 'I've begun.'

'The question,' said Miss Marchrose, clearing her throat, 'is, not what love is not, but what it is.'

'You must kindly stand up,' said Mr. Dolbiac. 'I can't hear.'

Miss Marchrose glanced at Mrs. Ashton Portway, and Mrs. Ashton Portway told Mr. Dolbiac that he was on no account to be silly.

Then Mr. Ashton Portway and Geraldine both began to speak at once, and then insisted on being silent at once, and in the end Mr. Ashton Portway was induced to say something about Dulcinea.

'He's chosen Don Quixote,' his wife informed Henry behind her hand. 'It's his favourite novel.'

The discussion proceeded under difficulties, for no one was loquacious except Mr. Dolbiac, and all Mr. Dolbiac's utterances were staccato and senseless. The game had had several narrow escapes of extinction, when Miss Marchrose galvanized it by means of a long and serious monologue treating of the sorts of man with whom a self-respecting woman will never fall in love. There appeared to be about a hundred and thirty-three sorts of that man.

'There is one sort of man with whom no woman, self-respecting or otherwise, will fall in love,' said Mr. Dolbiac, 'and that is the sort of man she can't kiss without having to stand on the mantelpiece. Alas!'-he hid his face in his handkerchief-'I am that sort.'

'Without having to stand on the mantelpiece?' Mrs. Ashton Portway repeated. 'What can he mean? Mr. Dolbiac, you aren't playing the game.'

'Yes, I am, gracious lady,' he contradicted her.

'Well, what character are you, then?' demanded Miss Marchrose, irritated by his grotesque pendant to her oration.

'I'm Gerald in A Question of Cubits.'

The company felt extremely awkward. Henry blushed.

'I said classical fiction,' Mrs. Ashton Portway corrected Mr. Dolbiac stiffly. 'Of course I don't mean to insinuate that it isn't--' She turned to Henry.

'Oh! did you?' observed Dolbiac calmly. 'So sorry. I knew it was a silly and nincompoopish book, but I thought you wouldn't mind so long as--'

'Mr. Dolbiac!'

That particular Wednesday of Mrs. Ashton Portway's came to an end in hurried confusion. Mr. Dolbiac professed to be entirely ignorant of Henry's identity, and went out into the night. Henry assured his hostess that really it was nothing, except a good joke. But everyone felt that the less said, the better. Of such creases in the web of social life Time is the best smoother.

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