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   Chapter 26 THE NEW LIFE

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 19478

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


They were nervous, both of them. Although they had been legally and publicly married and their situation was in every way regular, although the new flat in Ashley Gardens was spacious, spotless, and luxurious to an extraordinary degree, although they had a sum of nearly seven thousand pounds at the bank, although their consciences were clear and their persons ornamental, Henry and Geraldine were decidedly nervous as they sat in their drawing-room awaiting the arrival of Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie, who had accepted an invitation to afternoon tea and dinner.

It was the third day after the conclusion of their mysterious honeymoon.

'Have one, dearest?' said Geraldine, determined to be gay, holding up a morsel which she took from a coloured box by her side. And Henry took it with his teeth from between her charming fingers. 'Lovely, aren't they?' she mumbled, munching another morsel herself, and he mumbled that they were.

She was certainly charming, if English. Thoughts of Cosette, which used to flit through his brain with a surprising effect that can only be likened to an effect of flamingoes sweeping across an English meadow, had now almost entirely ceased to disturb him. He had but to imagine what Geraldine's attitude towards Cosette would have been had the two met, in order to perceive the overpowering balance of advantages in Geraldine's favour.

Much had happened since Cosette.

As a consequence of natural reaction, he had at once settled down to be extremely serious, and to take himself seriously. He had been assisted in the endeavour by the publication of an article in a monthly review, entitled 'The Art of Henry Shakspere Knight.' The article explained to him how wonderful he was, and he was ingenuously and sincerely thankful for the revelation. It also, incidentally, showed him that 'Henry Shakspere Knight' was a better signature for his books than 'Henry S. Knight,' and he decided to adopt it in his next work. Further, it had enormously quickened in him the sense of his mission in the world, of his duty to his colossal public, and his potentiality for good.

He put aside a book which he had already haltingly commenced, and began a new one, in which a victim to the passion for gambling was redeemed by the love of a pure young girl. It contained dramatic scenes in Paris, in the train de luxe, and in Monte Carlo. One of the most striking scenes was a harmony of moonlight and love on board a yacht in the Mediterranean, in which sea Veronica prevailed upon Hubert to submerge an ill-gotten gain of six hundred and sixty-three thousand francs, although the renunciation would leave Hubert penniless. Geraldine watched the progress of this book with absolute satisfaction. She had no fault to find with it. She gazed at Henry with large admiring eyes as he read aloud to her chapter after chapter.

'What do you think I'm going to call it?' he had demanded of her once, gleefully.

'I don't know,' she said.

'Red and Black,' he told her. 'Isn't that a fine title?'

'Yes,' she said. 'But it's been used before;' and she gave him particulars of Stendhal's novel, of which he had never heard.

'Oh, well!' he exclaimed, somewhat dashed. 'As Stendhal was a Frenchman, and his book doesn't deal with gambling at all, I think I may stick to my title. I thought of it myself, you know.'

'Oh yes, dearest. I know you did,' Geraldine said eagerly.

'You think I'd better alter it?'

Geraldine glanced at the floor. 'You see,' she murmured, 'Stendhal was a really great writer.'

He started, shocked. She had spoken in such a way that he could not be sure whether she meant, 'Stendhal was a really great writer,' or, 'Stendhal was a really great writer.' If the former, he did not mind, much. But if the latter-well, he thought uncomfortably of what Tom had said to him in the train. And he perceived again, and more clearly than ever before, that there was something in Geraldine which baffled him-something which he could not penetrate, and never would penetrate.

'Suppose I call it Black and Red? Will that do?' he asked forlornly.

'It would do,' she answered; 'but it doesn't sound so well.'

'I've got it!' he cried exultantly. 'I've got it! The Plague-Spot. Monte Carlo the plague-spot of Europe, you know.'

'Splendid!' she said with enthusiasm. 'You are always magnificent at titles.'

And it was universally admitted that he was.

The book had been triumphantly finished, and the manuscript delivered to Macalistairs via Mark Snyder, and the huge cheque received under cover of a letter full of compliments on Henry's achievement. Macalistairs announced that their Magazine would shortly contain the opening chapters of Mr. Henry Shakspere Knight's great romance, The Plague-Spot, which would run for one year, and which combined a tremendous indictment of certain phases of modern life with an original love-story by turns idyllic and dramatic. Gordon's Monthly was serializing the novel in America. About this time, an interview with Henry, suggested by Sir Hugh Macalistair himself, appeared in an important daily paper. 'It is quite true,' said Henry in the interview, 'that I went to Monte Carlo to obtain first-hand material for my book. The stories of my breaking the bank there, however, are wildly exaggerated. Of course, I played a little, in order to be able to put myself in the place of my hero. I should explain that I was in Monte Carlo with my cousin, Mr. Dolbiac, the well-known sculptor and painter, who was painting portraits there. Mr. Dolbiac is very much at home in Parisian artistic society, and he happened to introduce me to a famous French lady singer who was in Monte Carlo at the time. This lady and I found ourselves playing at the same table. From time to time I put down her stakes for her; that was all. She certainly had an extraordinary run of luck, but the bank was actually broken at last by the united bets of a number of people. That is the whole story, and I'm afraid it is much less exciting and picturesque than the rumours which have been flying about. I have never seen the lady since that day.'

Then his marriage had filled the air.

At an early stage in the preparations for that event his mother and Aunt Annie became passive-ceased all activity. Perfect peace was maintained, but they withdrew. Fundamentally and absolutely, Geraldine's ideas were not theirs, and Geraldine did as she liked with Henry. Geraldine and Henry interrogated Mark Snyder as to the future. 'Shall we be justified in living at the rate of two thousand a year?' they asked him. 'Yes,' he said, 'and four times that!' He had just perused The Plague-Spot in manuscript. 'Let's make it three thousand, then,' said Geraldine to Henry. And she had planned the establishment of their home on that scale. Henry did not tell the ladies at Dawes Road that the rent of the flat was three hundred a year, and that the furniture had cost over a thousand, and that he was going to give Geraldine two hundred a year for dress. He feared apoplexy in his mother, and a nervous crisis in Aunt Annie.

The marriage took place in a church. It was not this that secretly pained Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie; all good Wesleyan Methodists marry themselves in church. What secretly pained them was the fact that Henry would not divulge, even to his own mother, the locality of the honeymoon. He did say that Geraldine had been bent upon Paris, and that he had completely barred Paris ('Quite right,' Aunt Annie remarked), but he would say no more. And so after the ceremony the self-conscious pair had disappeared for a fortnight into the unknown and the unknowable.

And now they had reappeared out of the unknown and the unknowable, and, with the help of four servants, meant to sustain life in Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie for a period of some five hours.

They heard a ring in the distance of the flat.

'Prepare to receive cavalry,' said Geraldine, sitting erect in her blue dress on the green settee in the middle of the immense drawing-room.

Then, seeing Henry's face, she jumped up, crossed over to her husband, and gave him a smacking kiss between the eyes. 'Dearest, I didn't mean it!' she whispered enchantingly. He smiled. She flew back to her seat just as the door opened.

'Mr. Doxey,' said a new parlourmaid, intensely white and black, and intensely aware of the eminence of her young employers. And little Doxey of the P.A. came in, rather shabby and insinuating as usual, and obviously impressed by the magnificence of his surroundings.

'My good Doxey,' exclaimed the chatelaine. 'How delicious of you to have found us out so soon!'

'How d'you do, Doxey?' said Henry, rising.

'Awfully good of you to see me!' began Doxey, depositing his well-preserved hat on a chair. 'Hope I don't interrupt.' He smiled. 'Can't stop a minute. Got a most infernal bazaar on at the Cecil. Look here, old man,' he addressed Henry: 'I've been reading your Love in Babylon again, and I fancied I could make a little curtain-raiser out of it-out of the picture incident, you know. I mentioned the idea to Pilgrim, of the Prince's Theatre, and he's fearfully stuck on it.'

'You mean, you think he is,' Geraldine put in.

'Well, he is,' Doxey pursued, after a brief pause. 'I'm sure he is. I've sketched out a bit of a scenario. Now, if you'd give permission and go shares, I'd do it, old chap.'

'A play, eh?' was all that Henry said.

Doxey nodded. 'There's nothing like the theatre, you know.'

'What do you mean-there's nothing like the theatre?'

'For money, old chap. Not short pieces, of course, but long ones; only, short ones lead to long ones.'

'I tell you what you'd better do,' said Henry, when they had d

iscussed the matter. 'You'd better write the thing, and I'll have a look at it, and then decide.'

'Very well, if you like,' said Doxey slowly. 'What about shares?'

'If it comes to anything, I don't mind halving it,' Henry replied.

'I see,' said Doxey. 'Of course, I've had some little experience of the stage,' he added.

His name was one of those names which appear from time to time in the theatrical gossip of the newspapers as having adapted, or as being about to adapt, something or other for the stage which was not meant for the stage. It had never, however, appeared on the playbills of the theatres; except once, when, at a benefit matinée, the great John Pilgrim, whom to mention is to worship, had recited verses specially composed for the occasion by Alfred Doxey.

'And the signature, dear?' Geraldine glanced up at her husband, offering him a suggestion humbly, as a wife should in the presence of third parties.

'Oh!' said Henry. 'Of course, Mr. Doxey's name must go with mine, as one of the authors of the piece. Certainly.'

'Dearest,' Geraldine murmured when Doxey had gone, 'you are perfect. You don't really need an agent.'

He laughed. 'There's rather too much "old chap" about Doxey,' he said. 'Who's Doxey?'

'He's quite harmless, the little creature,' said Geraldine good-naturedly.

They sat silent for a time.

'Miles Robinson makes fifteen thousand a year out of plays,' Geraldine murmured reflectively.

'Does he?' Henry murmured reflectively.

The cavalry arrived, in full panoply of war.

'I am thankful Sarah stays with us,' said Mrs. Knight. 'Servants are so much more difficult to get now than they were in my time.'

Tea was nearly over; the cake-stand in four storeys had been depleted from attic to basement, and, after admiring the daintiness and taste displayed throughout Mrs. Henry's drawing-room, the ladies from Dawes Road had reached the most fascinating of all topics.

'When you keep several,' said Geraldine, 'they are not so hard to get. It's loneliness they object to.'

'How many shall you have, dear?' Aunt Annie asked.

'Forty,' said Henry, looking up from a paper.

'Don't be silly, dearest!' Geraldine protested. (She seemed so young and interesting and bright and precious, and so competent, as she sat there, behind the teapot, between her mature visitors in their black and their grey: this was what Henry thought.) 'No, Aunt Annie; I have four at present.'

'Four!' repeated Aunt Annie, aghast. 'But--'

'But, my dear!' exclaimed Mrs. Knight. 'Surely--'

Geraldine glanced with respectful interest at Mrs. Knight.

'Surely you'll find it a great trial to manage them all?' said Aunt Annie.

'No,' said Geraldine. 'At least, I hope not. I never allow myself to be bothered by servants. I just tell them what they are to do. If they do it, well and good. If they don't, they must leave. I give an hour a day to domestic affairs. My time is too occupied to give more.'

'She likes to spend her time going up and down in the lift,' Henry explained.

Geraldine put her hand over her husband's mouth and silenced him. It was a pretty spectacle, and reconciled the visitors to much.

Aunt Annie examined Henry's face. 'Are you quite well, Henry?' she inquired.

'I'm all right,' he said, yawning. 'But I want a little exercise. I haven't been out much to-day. I think I'll go for a short walk.'

'Yes, do, dearest.'

'Do, my dear.'

As he approached the door, having kissed his wife, his mother, without looking at him, remarked in a peculiarly dry tone, which she employed only at the rarest intervals: 'You haven't told me anything about your honeymoon yet, Henry.'

'You forget, sister,' said Aunt Annie stiffly, 'it's a secret.'

'Not now-not now!' cried Geraldine brightly. 'Well, we'll tell you. Where do you think we drove after leaving you? To the Savoy Hotel.'

'But why?' asked Mrs. Knight ingenuously.

'We spent our honeymoon there, right in the middle of London. We pretended we were strangers to London, and we saw all the sights that Londoners never do see. Wasn't it a good idea?'

'I-I don't know,' said Mrs. Knight.

'It seems rather queer-for a honeymoon,' Aunt Annie observed.

'Oh, but it was splendid!' continued Geraldine. 'We went to the theatre or the opera every night, and lived on the fat of the land in the best hotel in Europe, and saw everything-even the Tower and the Mint and the Thames Tunnel and the Tate Gallery. We enjoyed every moment.'

'And think of the saving in fares!' Henry put in, swinging the door to and fro.

'Yes, there was that, certainly,' Aunt Annie agreed.

'And we went everywhere that omnibuses go,' Henry proceeded. 'Once even we got as far as the Salisbury, Fulham.'

'Well, dear,' Mrs. Knight said sharply, 'I do think you might have popped in.'

'But, mamma,' Geraldine tried to explain, 'that would have spoilt it.'

'Spoilt what?' asked Mrs. Knight. 'The Salisbury isn't three minutes off our house. I do think you might have popped in. There I was-and me thinking you were gone abroad!'

'See you later,' said Henry, and disappeared.

'He doesn't look quite well, does he, Annie?' said Mrs. Knight.

'I know how it used to be,' Aunt Annie said. 'Whenever he began to make little jokes, we knew he was in for a bilious attack.'

'My dear people,' Geraldine endeavoured to cheer them, 'I assure you he's perfectly well-perfectly.'

'I've decided not to go out, after all,' said Henry, returning surprisingly to the room. 'I don't feel like it.' And he settled into an ear-flap chair that had cost sixteen pounds ten.

'Have one?' said Geraldine, offering him the coloured box from which she had just helped herself.

'No, thanks,' said he, shutting his eyes.

'I beg your pardon, I'm sure;' Geraldine turned to her visitors and extended the box. 'Won't you have a marron glacé?'

And the visitors gazed at each other in startled, affrighted silence.

'Has Henry eaten some?' Mrs. Knight asked, shaken.

'He had one or two before tea,' Geraldine answered. 'Why?'

'I knew he was going to be ill!' said Aunt Annie.

'But he's been eating marrons glacés every day for a fortnight. Haven't you, sweetest?' said Geraldine.

'I can believe it,' Aunt Annie murmured, 'from his face.'

'Oh dear! Women! Women!' Henry whispered facetiously.

'He's only saving his appetite for dinner,' said Geraldine, with intrepid calm.

'My dear girl,' Mrs. Knight observed, again in that peculiar dry tone, 'if I know anything about your husband, and I've had him under my care for between twenty and thirty years, he will eat nothing more to-day.'

'Now, mater,' said Henry, 'don't get excited. By the way, we haven't told you that I'm going to write a play.'

'A play, Henry?'

'Yes. So you'll have to begin going to theatres in your old age, after all.'

There was a pause.

'Shan't you?' Henry persisted.

'I don't know, dear. What place of worship are you attending?'

There was another pause.

'St. Philip's, Regent Street, I think we shall choose,' said Geraldine.

'But surely that's a church?'

'Yes,' said Geraldine. 'It is a very good one. I have belonged to the Church of England all my life.'

'Not High, I hope,' said Aunt Annie.

'Certainly, High.'

The beneficent Providence which always watched over Henry, watched over him then. A gong resounded through the flat, and stopped the conversation. Geraldine put her lips together.

'There's the dressing-bell, dearest,' said she, controlling herself.

'I won't dress to-night,' Henry replied feebly. 'I'm not equal to it. You go. I'll stop with mother and auntie.'

'Don't you fret yourself, mater,' he said as soon as the chatelaine had left them. 'Sir George has gone to live at Redhill, and given up his pew at Great Queen Street. I shall return to the old place and take it.'

'I am very glad,' said Mrs. Knight. 'Very glad.'

'And Geraldine?' Aunt Annie asked.

'Leave me to look after the little girl,' said Henry. He then dozed for a few moments.

The dinner, with the Arctic lamps dotted about the table, and two servants to wait, began in the most stately and effective fashion imaginable. But it had got no further than the host's first spoonful of soupe aux moules, when the host rose abruptly, and without a word departed from the room.

The sisters nodded to each other with the cheerful gloom of prophetesses who find themselves in the midst of a disaster which they have predicted.

'You poor, foolish boy!' exclaimed Geraldine, running after Henry. She was adorably attired in white.

* * * * *

The clash of creeds was stilled in the darkened and sumptuous chamber, as the three women bent with murmurous affection over the bed on which lay, swathed in a redolent apparatus of eau-de-Cologne and fine linen, their hope and the hope of English literature. Towards midnight, when the agony had somewhat abated, Mrs. Knight and Aunt Annie reluctantly retired in a coupé which Geraldine had ordered for them by telephone.

And in the early June dawn Henry awoke, refreshed and renewed, full of that languid but genuine interest in mortal things which is at once the compensation and the sole charm of a dyspepsy. By reaching out an arm he could just touch the hand of his wife as she slept in her twin couch. He touched it; she awoke, and they exchanged the morning smile.

'I'm glad that's over,' he said.

But whether he meant the marrons glacés or the first visit of his beloved elders to the glorious flat cannot be decided.

Certain it is, however, that deep in the minds of both the spouses was the idea that the new life, the new heaven on the new earth, had now fairly begun.

* * *

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