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   Chapter 29 THE PRESIDENT

A Great Man By Arnold Bennett Characters: 7250

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Prince's Theatre, when it was full, held three hundred and forty pounds' worth of solid interest in the British drama. Of The Plague-Spot six evening and two morning performances were given every week for nearly a year, and Henry's tenth averaged more than two hundred pounds a week. His receipts from Lionel Belmont's various theatres averaged rather more. The book had a circulation of a hundred and twenty thousand in England, and two hundred thousand in America, and on every copy Henry got one shilling and sixpence. The magnificent and disconcerting total of his income from The Plague-Spot within the first year, excluding the eight thousand pounds which he had received in advance from Macalistairs, was thirty-eight thousand pounds. I say disconcerting because it emphatically did disconcert Henry. He could not cope with it. He was like a child who has turned on a tap and can't turn it off again, and finds the water covering the floor and rising, rising, over its little shoe-tops. Not even with the help of Sir George could he quite successfully cope with this deluge of money which threatened to drown him each week. Sir George, accustomed to keep his nerve in such crises, bored one hole in the floor and called it India Three per Cents., bored a second and called it Freehold Mortgages, bored a third and called it Great Northern Preference, and so on; but, still, Henry was never free from danger. And the worst of it was that, long before The Plague-Spot had exhausted its geyser-like activity of throwing up money, Henry had finished another book and another play. Fortunately, Geraldine was ever by his side to play the wife's part.

From this point his artistic history becomes monotonous. It is the history of his investments alone which might perchance interest the public.

Of course, it was absolutely necessary to abandon the flat in Ashley Gardens. A man burdened with an income of forty thousand a year, and never secure against a sudden rise of it to fifty, sixty, or even seventy thousand, cannot possibly live in a flat in Ashley Gardens. Henry exists in a superb mansion in Cumberland Place. He also possesses a vast country-house at Hindhead, Surrey. He employs a secretary, though he prefers to dictate his work into a phonograph. His wife employs a secretary, whose chief duty is, apparently, to see to the flowers. The twins have each a nurse, and each a perambulator; but when they are good they are permitted to crowd themselves into one perambulator, as a special treat. In the newspapers they are invariably referred to as Mr. Shakspere Knight's 'pretty children' or Mrs. Shakspere Knight's 'charming twins.' Geraldine, who has abandoned the pen, is undisputed ruler of the material side of Henry's life. The dinners and the receptions at Cumberland Place are her dinners and receptions. Henry has no trouble; he does what he is told, and does it neatly. Only once did he indicate to her, in his mild, calm way, that he could draw a line when he chose. He chose to draw the line when Geraldine spoke of engaging a butler, and perhaps footmen.

'I couldn't stand a butler,' said Henry.

'But, dearest, a great house like this--'

'I couldn't stand a butler,' said Henry.

'As you wish, dearest, of course.'

He would not have minded the butler, perhaps, had not his mother and Aunt Annie been in the habit of coming up to Cumberland Place for tea.

Upon the whole the newspapers and periodicals were very kind to Henry, and even the rudest organs were deeply interested in him. Each morning his secretary opened an enormous packet of press-cuttings. In a good average ye

ar he was referred to in print as a genius about a thousand times, and as a charlatan about twenty times. He was not thin-skinned; and he certainly was good-tempered and forgiving; and he could make allowances for jealousy and envy. Nevertheless, now and then, some casual mention of him, or some omission of his name from a list of names, would sting him into momentary bitterness.

He endeavoured to enforce his old rule against interviews. But he could not. The power of public opinion was too strong, especially the power of American public opinion. As for photographs, they increased. He was photographed alone, with Geraldine, with the twins, and with Geraldine and the twins. It had to be. For permission to reproduce the most pleasing groups, Messrs. Antonio, the eminent firm in Regent Street, charged weekly papers a fee of two guineas.

'And this is fame!' he sometimes said to himself. And he decided that, though fame was pleasant in many ways, it did not exactly coincide with his early vision of it. He felt himself to be so singularly unchangeable! It was always the same he! And he could only wear one suit of clothes at a time, after all; and in the matter of eating, he ate less, much less, than in the era of Dawes Road. He persisted in his scheme of two meals a day, for it had fulfilled the doctor's prediction. He was no longer dyspeptic. That fact alone contributed much to his happiness.

Yes, he was happy, because he had a good digestion and a kind heart. The sole shadow on his career was a spasmodic tendency to be bored. 'I miss the daily journey on the Underground,' he once said to his wife. 'I always feel that I ought to be going to the office in the morning.' 'You dear thing!' Geraldine caressed him with her voice. 'Fancy anyone with a gift like yours going to an office!'

Ah, that gift! That gift utterly puzzled him. 'I just sit down and write,' he thought. 'And there it is! They go mad over it!'

At Dawes Road they worshipped him, but they worshipped the twins more. Occasionally the twins, in state, visited Dawes Road, where Henry's mother was a little stouter and Aunt Annie a little thinner and a little primmer, but where nothing else was changed. Henry would have allowed his mother fifty pounds a week or so without an instant's hesitation, but she would not accept a penny over three pounds; she said she did not want to be bothered.

One day Henry read in the Times that the French Government had made Tom a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and that Tom had been elected President of the newly-formed Cosmopolitan Art Society, which was to hold exhibitions both in London and Paris. And the Times seemed to assume that in these transactions the honour was the French Government's and the Cosmopolitan Art Society's.

Frankly, Henry could not understand it. Tom did not even pay his creditors.

'Well, of course,' said Geraldine, 'everybody knows that Tom is a genius.'

This speech slightly disturbed Henry. And the thought floated again vaguely through his mind that there was something about Geraldine which baffled him. 'But, then,' he argued, 'I expect all women are like that.'

A few days later his secretary brought him a letter.

'I say, Geraldine,' he cried, genuinely moved, on reading it. 'What do you think? The Anti-Breakfast League want me to be the President of the League.'

'And shall you accept?' she asked.

'Oh, certainly!' said Henry. 'And I shall suggest that it's called the National Anti-Breakfast League in future.'

'That will be much better, dearest,' Geraldine smiled.


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