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   Chapter 22 HE LEARNS MORE ABOUT WOMEN

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9693

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


When Henry had rendered up his ticket and recovered his garments, he found Geraldine in the hall, and a servant asking her if she wanted a four-wheeler or a hansom. He was not quite sure whether she had descended before him or after him: things were rather misty.

'I am going your way,' he said. 'Can't I see you home?'

He was going her way: the idea of going her way had occurred to him suddenly as a beautiful idea.

Instead of replying, she looked at him. She looked at him sadly out of the white shawl which enveloped her head and her golden hair, and nodded.

There was a four-wheeler at the kerb, and they entered it and sat down side by side in that restricted compartment, and the fat old driver, with his red face popping up out of a barrel consisting of scores of overcoats and aprons, drove off. It was very foggy, but one could see the lamp-posts.

Geraldine coughed.

'These fogs are simply awful, aren't they?' he remarked.

She made no answer.

'It isn't often they begin as early as this,' he proceeded; 'I suppose it means a bad winter.'

But she made no answer.

And then a sort of throb communicated itself to him, and then another, and then he heard a smothered sound. This magnificent creature, this independent, experienced, strong-minded, superior, dazzling creature was crying-was, indeed, sobbing. And cabs are so small, and she was so close. Pleasure may be so keen as to be agonizing: Henry discovered this profound truth in that moment. In that moment he learnt more about women than he had learnt during the whole of his previous life. He knew that her sobbing had some connection with A Question of Cubits, but he could not exactly determine the connection.

'What's the matter?' the blundering fool inquired nervously. 'You aren't well.'

'I'm so-so ashamed,' she stammered out, when she had patted her eyes with a fragment of lace.

'Why? What of?'

'I introduced her to you. It's my fault.'

'But what's your fault?'

'This horrible thing that happened.'

She sobbed again frequently.

'Oh, that was nothing!' said Henry kindly. 'You mustn't think about it.'

'You don't know how I feel,' she managed to tell him.

'I wish you'd forget it,' he urged her. 'He didn't mean to be rude.'

'It isn't so much his rudeness,' she wept. 'It's-anyone saying a thing-like that-about your book. You don't know how I feel.'

'Oh, come!' Henry enjoined her. 'What's my book, anyhow?'

'It's yours,' she said, and began to cry gently, resignedly, femininely.

It had grown dark. The cab had plunged into an opaque sea of blackest fog. No sound could be heard save the footfalls of the horse, which was now walking very slowly. They were cut off absolutely from the rest of the universe. There was no such thing as society, the state, traditions, etiquette; nothing existed, ever had existed, or ever would exist, except themselves, twain, in that lost four-wheeler.

Henry had a box of matches in his overcoat pocket. He struck one, illuminating their tiny chamber, and he saw her face once more, as though after long years. And there were little black marks round her eyes, due to her tears and the fog and the fragment of lace. And those little black marks appeared to him to be the most delicious, enchanting, and wonderful little black marks that the mind of man could possibly conceive. And there was an exquisite, timid, confiding, surrendering look in her eyes, which said: 'I'm only a weak, foolish, fanciful woman, and you are a big, strong, wise, great man; my one merit is that I know how great, how chivalrous, you are!' And mixed up with the timidity in that look there was something else-something that made him almost shudder. All this by the light of one match....

Good-bye world! Good-bye mother! Good-bye Aunt Annie! Good-bye the natural course of events! Good-bye correctness, prudence, precedents! Good-bye all! Good-bye everything! He dropped the match and kissed her.

And his knowledge of women was still further increased.

Oh, the unique ecstasy of such propinquity!

Eternity set in. And in eternity one does not light matches....

The next exterior phenomenon was a blinding flash through the window of what, after all, was a cab. The door opened.

'You'd better get out o' this,' said the cabman, surveying them by the ray of one of his own lamps.

'Why?' asked Henry.

'Why?' replied the cabman sourly. 'Look here, governor, do you know where we are?'

'No,' said Henry.

'No. And I'm jiggered if I do, either. You'd better take the other blessed lamp and ask. No, not me. I don't leave my horse. I ain't agoin' to lose my horse.'

So Henry got out of the cab, and took a lamp and moved forward into nothingness, and found a railing and some steps, and after climbing the steps saw a star, which proved ultimately to be a li

ght over a swing-door. He pushed open the swing-door, and was confronted by a footman.

'Will you kindly tell me where I am? he asked the footman.

'This is Marlborough House,' said the footman.

'Oh, is it? Thanks,' said Henry.

'Well,' ejaculated the cabman when Henry had luckily regained the vehicle. 'I suppose that ain't good enough for you! Buckingham Palace is your doss, I suppose.'

They could now hear distant sounds, which indicated other vessels in distress.

The cabman said he would make an effort to reach Charing Cross, by leading his horse and sticking to the kerb; but not an inch further than Charing Cross would he undertake to go.

The passage over Trafalgar Square was so exciting that, when at length the aged cabman touched pavement-that is to say, when his horse had planted two forefeet firmly on the steps of the Golden Cross Hotel-he announced that that precise point would be the end of the voyage.

'You go in there and sleep it off,' he advised his passengers. 'Chenies Street won't see much of you to-night. And make it five bob, governor. I've done my best.'

'You must stop the night here,' said Henry in a low voice to Geraldine, before opening the doors of the hotel. 'And I,' he added quickly, 'will go to Morley's. It's round the corner, and so I can't lose my way.'

'Yes, dear,' she acquiesced. 'I dare say that will be best.'

'Your eyes are a little black with the fog,' he told her.

'Are they?' she said, wiping them. 'Thanks for telling me.'

And they entered.

'Nasty night, sir,' the hall-porter greeted them.

'Very,' said Henry. 'This lady wants a room. Have you one?'

'Certainly, sir.'

At the foot of the staircase they shook hands, and kissed in imagination.

'Good-night,' he said, and she said the same.

But when she had climbed three or four stairs, she gave a little start and returned to him, smiling, appealing.

'I've only got a shilling or two,' she whispered. 'Can you lend me some money to pay the bill with?'

He produced a sovereign. Since the last kiss in the cab, nothing had afforded him one hundredth part of the joy which he experienced in parting with that sovereign. The transfer of the coin, so natural, so right, so proper, seemed to set a seal on what had occurred, to make it real and effective. He wished to shower gold upon her.

As, bathed in joy and bliss, he watched her up the stairs, a little, obscure compartment of his brain was thinking: 'If anyone had told me two hours ago that before midnight I should be engaged to be married to the finest woman I ever saw, I should have said they were off their chumps. Curious, I've never mentioned her at home since she called! Rather awkward!'

He turned sharply and resolutely to go to Morley's, and collided with Mr. Dolbiac, who, strangely enough, was standing immediately behind him, and gazing up the stairs, too.

'Ah, my bold buccaneer!' said Mr. Dolbiac familiarly. 'Digested those marrons glacés? I've fairly caught you out this time, haven't I?'

Henry stared at him, startled, and blushed a deep crimson.

'You don't remember me. You've forgotten me,' said Mr. Dolbiac.

'It isn't Cousin Tom?' Henry guessed.

'Oh, isn't it?' said Mr. Dolbiac. 'That's just what it is.'

Henry shook his hand generously. 'I'm awfully glad to see you,' he began, and then, feeling that he must be a man of the world: 'Come and have a drink. Are you stopping here?'

The episode of Mrs. Ashton Portway's was, then, simply one of Cousin Tom's jokes, and he accepted it as such without the least demur or ill-will.

'It was you who sent that funny telegram, wasn't it?' he asked Cousin Tom.

In the smoking-room Tom explained how he had grown a beard in obedience to the dictates of nature, and changed his name in obedience to the dictates of art. And Henry, for his part, explained sundry things about himself, and about Geraldine.

The next morning, when Henry arrived at Dawes Road, decidedly late, Tom was already there. And more, he had already told the ladies, evidently in a highly-decorated narrative, of Henry's engagement! The situation for Henry was delicate in the extreme, but, anyhow, his mother and aunt had received the first shock. They knew the naked fact, and that was something. And of course Cousin Tom always made delicate situations: it was his privilege to do so. Cousin Tom's two aunts were delighted to see him again, and in a state so flourishing. He was asked no inconvenient questions, and he furnished no information. Bygones were bygones. Henry had never been told about the trifling incident of the ten pounds.

'She's coming down to-night,' Henry said, addressing his mother, after the mid-day meal.

'I'm very glad,' replied his mother.

'We shall be most pleased to welcome her,' Aunt Annie said. 'Well, Tom--'

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