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   Chapter 12 IN LONDON

Leonora By Arnold Bennett Characters: 28899

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The last day of the dramatic portion of Leonora's life was that on which she went to London with Milly. They were up early, in order to catch the morning express, and, before leaving, Leonora arranged with the excited Bessie all details for the reception of Ethel and Fred, who were to arrive in the afternoon from their honeymoon. 'I will drive,' she said to Carpenter when the cart was brought round, and Carpenter had to sit behind among the trunks. Bessie in her morning print and her engagement ring stood at the front door, and sped them beneficently away while clinging hard to Bran.

As the train rushed smoothly across the vast and rich plain of Middle England, Leonora's thoughts dwelt on the house at Hillport, on her skilled and sympathetic servants, on Prince and Bran, and on the calm and the orderliness and the high decency of everything. And she pictured the homecoming of Ethel and Fred from Wales-Fred stiff and nervous, and Ethel flushed, beautiful, and utterly bewitching in the self-consciousness of the bride. 'May I call her Mrs. Fred, ma'am?' Bessie had asked, recoiling from the formality of 'Mrs. Ryley,' and aware that 'Miss Ethel' was no longer possible. Leonora saw them in the dining-room consuming the tea which Bessie had determined should be the final word of teas; and she saw Bessie, in that perfect black of hers and that miraculous muslin, waiting at table with a superlative and cold primness that covered a desire to take Ethel in her arms and kiss her. And she saw the pair afterwards, dallying on the lawn with Bran at dusk, simple, unambitious, unassuming, content; and, still later, Fred meticulously locking up the great house, so much too large and complicated for one timid couple, and Ethel standing at the top of the stairs as he extinguished the hall-gas. These visions of them made her feel sad-sad because Ethel could never again be that which she had been, and because she was so young, inexperienced, confiding, and beautiful, and would gradually grow old and lose the ineffable grace of her years and situation; and because they were both so innocent of the meaning of life. Leonora yearned for some magic to stay the destructive hand of time and keep them ever thus, young, na?ve, trustful, and unspoilt. And knowing that this could not be, she wanted intensely to shield, and teach, and advise them. She whispered, thinking of Ethel: 'Ah! I must always be near, within reach, within call, lest she should need me.'

'Mother, shall you go with me to see Mr. Louis Lewis to-morrow?' Milly demanded suddenly when the train halted at Rugby.

'Yes, of course, dear. Don't you wish me to?'

'Oh! I don't mind,' said Milly grandly.

Two well-dressed, middle-aged men entered the compartment, which, till then, Leonora and Milly had had to themselves; and while duly admiring Leonora, they could not refrain from looking continually at Millicent; they talked to one another gravely, and they made a pretence of reading newspapers, but their eyes always returned furtively to Milly's corner. The girl was not by any means confused by the involuntary homage, which merely heightened her restless vitality. She chattered to her mother; she was pert; she looked out of the window; she tapped the floor with her brown shoes. In the unconscious process of displaying her individuality for admiration, she was never still. The fair, pretty face under the straw hat responded to each appreciative glance, and beneath her fine blue coat and skirt the muscles of the immature body and limbs played perpetually in graceful and free movement. She was adorable; she knew it, Leonora knew it, the two middle-aged men knew it. Nothing-no pertness, no audacity, no silliness, no affectation-could impair the extraordinary charm. Leonora was exceedingly proud of her daughter. And yet she reflected impartially that Millicent was a little fool. She trembled for Millicent; she feared to let her out of sight; the idea of Millicent loose in the world, with no guide but her own rashness and no protection but her vanity, made Leonora feel sick. Nevertheless, Millicent would soon be loose in the world, and at the best Leonora could only stand in the background, ready for emergency.

At Euston they were not surprised to see Harry. The young man was more dandiacal and correct than ever, and he could cut a figure on the platform; but Leonora observed the pallor of his thin cheeks and the watery redness of his eyes. He had come to meet them, and he insisted on escorting them to their hotel in South Kensington.

'Look here,' he said in the cab, 'I've one dying request to make before the luggage drops through the roof. I want you both to come and dine with me at the Majestic to-night, and then we'll go to the Regency. Lewis has given me a box. By the way, I told him he might rely on me to take you up to see him to-morrow.'

'Shall we, mother?' Milly asked carelessly; but it was obvious that she wished to dine at the Majestic.

'I don't know,' said Leonora. 'There's Rose. We're going to fetch Rose from the hospital this afternoon, Harry, and she will spend the evening with us.'

'Well, Rose must come too, of course,' Harry replied quickly, after a slight hesitation. 'It will do her good.'

'We will see,' said Leonora. She had known Harry from his infancy, and when she encountered him in these latter days she was always subject to the illusion that he could not really be a man, but was rather playing at manhood. Moreover, she had warned Arthur Twemlow of their arrival and expected to find a letter from him at the hotel, and she could make no arrangements until she had seen the letter.

They drove into the courtyard of the select and austere establishment where John Stanway had brought his wife on her wedding journey. Leonora found that it had scarcely changed; the dark entrance lounge presented the same appearance now as it had done more than twenty years ago; it had the same air of receiving visitors with condescension; the whole street was the same. She grew thoughtful; and Harry's witticisms, as he ceremoniously superintended their induction into the place, served only to deepen the shadow in her heart.

'Any letters for me?' she asked the hall porter, loitering behind while Millicent and Harry went into the salle à manger.

'What name, madam? No, madam.'

But during luncheon, to which Harry stayed, a flunkey approached bearing a telegram on silver. 'In a moment,' she thought, 'I shall know when we are to meet.' And she trembled with apprehension. The flunkey, however, gave the telegram to Millicent, who accepted it as though she had been accepting telegrams at the hands of flunkeys all her life.

'Miss Stanway,' she smiled superiorly with her chin forward, perceiving the look on Leonora's face. She tore the envelope. 'Lewis says I am to go to-day at four, instead of to-morrow. Hooray! the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep, though the harbour bar be mo-oaning. Ma, that's the very time you have to meet Rose at the hospital. Harry, you shall take me.'

Leonora would have preferred that Harry and Millicent should not go alone together to see Mr. Louis Lewis. But she could not bring herself to break the appointment with Rose, who was extremely sensitive; nor could she well inform Harry, at this stage of his close intimacy with the family, that she no longer cared to entrust Milly to his charge.

She left the hotel before the other two, because she had further to drive. The hansom had scarcely got into the street when she instructed the driver to return.

'Of course you will settle nothing definitely with Mr. Lewis,' she said to Milly. 'Tell him I wish to see him first.'

'Oh, mother!' the girl cried, pouting.

* * *

At the New Female and Maternity Hospital in Lamb's Conduit Street Leonora was shown to a bench in the central hall and requested to sit down. The clock over the first landing of the double staircase indicated three minutes to four. During the drive she had begun by expecting to meet Arthur on his way to the hotel, and even in Piccadilly, where delays of traffic had forced upon her attention the glittering opulence and afternoon splendour of the London season, she had still thought of him and of the interview which was to pass between them. But here she was obsessed by her immediate environment. The approach to the hospital, through sombre squalid streets, past narrow courts in which innumerable children tumbled and yelled, disturbed and desolated her. It appeared that she had entered the secret breeding-quarter of the immense city, the obscene district where misery teemed and generated, and where the revolting fecundity of nature was proved amid surroundings of horror and despair. And the hospital itself was the very centre, the innermost temple of all this ceaseless parturition. In a corner of the hall, near a door, waited a small crowd of embossed women, young and middle-aged, sad, weary, unkempt, lightly dressed in shabby shapeless clothes, and sweltering in the summer heat; a few had babies in their arms. In the doorway two neatly attired youngish women, either doctors or students, held an animated and interminable conversation, staring absent-mindedly at the attendant crowd. A pale nurse came hurrying from the back of the hall and vanished through the doorway, squeezing herself between the doctors or students, who soon afterwards followed her, still talking; and then one by one the embossed women began to vanish through the doorway also. The clock gently struck four, and Leonora, sighing, watched the hand creep to five minutes and to ten beyond the hour. She gazed up the well of the staircases, and in imagination saw ward after ward, floor above floor of beds, on which lay repulsive and piteous creatures in fear, in pain, in exhaustion. And she thought with dismay how many more poor immortal souls went out of that building than ever went into it. 'Rose is somewhere up there,' she reflected. At a quarter past four a stout white-haired lady briskly descended the stairs, and, after being accosted twice by officials, spoke to Leonora.

'You are Mrs. Stanway? My name is Smithson. I dare say your daughter has mentioned it in her letters.' The famous dean of the hospital smiled, and paused while Leonora responded. 'Just at the moment,' Miss Smithson continued, 'dear Rosalys is engaged, but I hope she will be down directly. We are very, very busy. Are you making a long stay in London, Mrs. Stanway? The season is now in full swing, is it not?'

Leonora could find little to say to this experienced spinster, whom she unwillingly admired but with whom she was not in accord. Miss Smithson uttered amiable banalities with an evident intention to do nothing more; her demeanour was preoccupied, and she made no further reference to Rose. Soon a nurse respectfully called her; she hastened away full of apologies, leaving Leonora to meditate upon her own shortcomings as a serious person, and upon the futility of her existence of forty-one years.

Another quarter of an hour elapsed, and then Rose ran impetuously down the stone steps.

'Mother, I'm so glad to see you! Where's Milly?' she exclaimed eagerly, and they kissed twice.

As she answered the greeting Leonora noticed the lines of fatigue in Rose's face, the brilliancy of her eyes, the emaciation of the body beneath her grey alpaca dress, and that air of false serenity masking hysteric excitement which she seemed to have noticed too in all the other officials-the doctors or students, the nurses, and even the dean.

'Are you ready now, dear?' she asked.

'Oh, I can't possibly come to-day, mother. Didn't Miss Smithson tell you? I'm awfully sorry I can't. But there's a very important case on. I can only stay a minute.'

'But, my child, we have arranged to take you to the theatre,' Leonora was on the point of expostulating. She checked herself, and placidly replied: 'I'm sorry, too. When shall you be free?'

'Might be able to get off to-morrow. I'll slip out in the morning and send you a telegram.'

'I should like you to try and be free to-morrow, my dear. You seem as if you needed a rest. Do you take any exercise?'

'As much as I can.'

'But you know, Rose--'

'That's all right, mater,' Rose interrupted confidently, patting her mother's arm. 'We can look after ourselves here, don't you worry. Have you seen Mr. Twemlow yet?'

'Not yet. Why?'

'Nothing. But he called to see me yesterday. We're great friends. I must run back now.'

Leonora departed with the girl's hasty kiss on her lips, realising that she had fallen to the level of a mere episodic interest in Rose's life. The impassioned student of obstetrics had disappeared up the staircase before Leonora could reach the double-doors of the entrance. The mother was dashed, stricken, a little humiliated. But as she arranged the folds of her beautiful dress in the hansom which was carrying her away from Lamb's Conduit Street towards South Kensington, she said to herself firmly, 'I am not a ninny, after all, and I know that Rose will be ill soon. And there are things in that hospital that I could manage better.'

'Mr. Twemlow came to see you just after you left,' said Harry when he restored Milly to her mother at half-past five. 'I asked him to join us at dinner, but he said he couldn't. However, he's coming to the theatre, to our box.'

'You must excuse us from dining with you to-night, Harry,' was Leonora's reply. 'We'll meet you at the theatre.'

'Yes, Harry,' said Millicent coldly. 'We really can't come to-day.'

'The hand of the Lord is heavy upon me,' Harry murmured. And he repeated the phrase on leaving the hotel.

Neither he nor Millicent had shown much interest in Rose's defection. The dandy seemed to be relieved, and Millicent said, 'How stupid of her!' Milly had returned from the visit to Mr. Louis Lewis in a state of high self-satisfaction. Leonora was told that Mr. Lewis was simply the most delightful and polite man that Milly had ever met; he would be charmed to see Mrs. Stanway, and would make an appointment. Meanwhile Milly gave her mother to understand that the affair was practically settled. She knew the date when the tour of Princess Puck started, and the various towns which it would include; and Mr. Lewis had provided her with a box for the next afternoon at the Queen's Theatre, where the piece had been most successfully pr

oduced a month ago; the music she would receive by post; and the first rehearsal of the No. I. Company would occur within a week or so. Millicent walked in flowery paths. She saw herself covered with jewels and compliments, flattered, adored, worshipped, and leading always a life of superb luxury. And this prophetic dream was not the conception of a credulous fancy, but the product of the hard and calculating shrewdness which she possessed. She was aware of the importance of Mr. Louis Lewis, who, on behalf of Lionel Belmont, absolutely controlled three West End theatres; and she was also aware of the effect which she had had upon him. She knew that in her personality there was a mysterious something which intoxicated, not all the men with whom she came in contact, but most of them, and men of utterly different sorts. She did not trouble to attempt any analysis of that quality; she accepted it as a natural phenomenon; and she meant to use it ruthlessly, for she was almost incapable of pity or gratitude. It was, for instance, her intention to drop Harry; she had no further use for him now. She was learning to forget her childish awe of Leonora: a very little time, and she would implacably force her mother to recognise that even the semblance of parental control must cease.

'And I am to have my photograph taken, mamma!' she exclaimed triumphantly. 'Mr. Lewis says that Antonios in Regent Street will be only too glad to take it for nothing. He's going to send them a line.'

Leonora was silent. Deep in her heart she made a gesture of appeal to each of her daughters-to Ethel who was immersed in love, to Rose who was absorbed by a vocation, and to this seductive minx whose venal lips would only smile to gain an end-and each seemed to throw her a glance indifferent or preoccupied, and to say, 'Presently, presently. When I can spare a moment.' And she thought bitterly how Rose had been content to receive her mother in the public hall of the hospital.

* * *

They were late in arriving at the theatre because the cab could not get through Piccadilly, and Harry was impatiently expecting them in the foyer. His brow smoothed at once when he caught sight of them, and he admired their dresses, and escorted them up the celebrated marble stairs with youthful pride.

'I thought no one was going to supervene,' he smiled. 'I was afraid you'd all been murdered in patent asphyxiating hansoms. I don't know what's happened to Twemlow. I must leave word with the people here which box he's to come to.'

'Perhaps he won't come,' thought Leonora. 'Perhaps I shall not see him till to-morrow.'

Harry's box was exactly in the middle of the semi-circle of boxes which surround the balcony of the Regency Theatre. They were ushered into it with the precautions of silence, for the three hundred and fifty-fifth performance of The Dolmenico Doll, the unique musical comedy from New York, had already commenced. Leonora and Milly sat in front, and Harry drew up a chair so that he might whisper in their ears; he was very talkative. Leonora could see nothing clearly at first. Then gradually the crowded auditorium arranged itself in her mind. She perceived the semi-circle of boxes, each exactly like their own, and each filled with women quite as elegantly gowned as she and Millicent, and men as dandiacal and correct as Harry; and in the balcony and in the stalls were serried regular rows of elaborate coiffures and shining bald heads; and all the seats seemed to be pervaded by the glitter of gems, the wing-like beating of fans, and the restless curving of arms. She had not visited London for many years, and this multitudinous and wholesale opulence startled her. Under other circumstances she would have enjoyed it intensely, and basked in it as a flower in the sunshine; to-night, however, she could not dismiss the image of Rose in the gaunt hospital in Lamb's Conduit Street. She knew the comparison was crude; she assured herself that there must always be rich and poor, idle and industrious, gay and sorrowful, elegant and shabby, arrogant and meek; but her discomfort none the less persisted, and she had the uneasy feeling that the whole of civilisation was wrong, and that Rose and the earnest ones were justified in their scorn of such as her. And concurrently she dwelt upon Ethel and Fred at that hour, and listened with anxiety for the opening of the box-door and the entry of Arthur Twemlow.

She imagined that owing to their late arrival she must have missed the one essential clue to the plot of The Dolmenico Doll, and as the gorgeously decorated action was developed on the dazzling stage she tried in vain to grasp its significance. The fall of the curtain came as a surprise to her. The end of the first act had left her with nothing but a confused notion of the interior of a confectioner's shop, and young men therein getting tipsy and stealing kisses, and marvellously pretty girls submitting to the robbery with a nonchalance born of three hundred and fifty four similar experiences; and old men grotesque in a dissolute senility; and sudden bursts of orchestral music, and simpering ballads, and comic refrains and crashing choruses; and lights, lingerie, picture-hats and short skirts; and over all, dominating all, the set, eternal, mechanical, bored smile of the pretty girls.

'Awfully good, isn't it?' said Harry, when the generous applause had ceased.

'It's simply lovely,' Milly agreed, fidgeting on her chair in juvenile rapture.

'Yes,' Leonora admitted. And she indeed thought that parts of it were amusing and agreeable.

'Of course,' Harry remarked hastily to Leonora, 'Princess Puck isn't at all like this. It's an idyll sort of thing, you know. By the way, hadn't I better go out and offer a reward for the recovery of Twemlow?'

He returned just as the curtain went up, bringing a faint odour of whisky, but without Twemlow.

A few moments later, while the principal pretty girl was warbling an invitation to her lover amid the diversions of Narragansett Pier, the latch of the door clicked and Arthur noiselessly entered the box. He nodded cheerfully, murmuring 'Sorry I'm so late,' and then shook hands with Leonora. She could not find her voice. In the hazard of rearranging the seats, an operation which Harry from diffidence conducted with a certain clumsiness, Arthur was placed behind Milly while Leonora had Harry by her side.

'You've missed all the first act, and everyone says it's the best,' Milly remarked, leaning towards Arthur with an air of intimacy. And Harry expressed agreement.

'But you must remember I saw it in New York two years ago,' Leonora heard him whisper in reply.

She liked his avuncular, slightly quizzical attitude to them. He reinforced the elder generation in the box, reducing by his mere presence the two young and callow creatures to their proper position in the scheme of things.

And now the question of her future relations with Arthur, which hitherto she had in a manner shunned, at once became peremptory for Leonora. She was conscious of a passionate tenderness for him; he seemed to her to have qualities, indefinable and exquisite touches of character, which she had never observed in any other human being. But she was in control of her heart. She had chosen, and she knew that she could abide by her choice. She was uplifted by the force of one of those tremendous and invincible resolutions which women alone, with their instinctive bent towards martyrdom, are capable of making. And the resolution was not the fruit of the day, the result of all that she had recently seen and thought. It was a resolution independent of particular circumstances, a simple admission of the naked fact that she could not desert her daughters. If Ethel had been shrewd and worldly, and Rose temperate in her altruism, and Milly modest and sage, the resolution would not have been modified. She dared not abandon her daughters: the blood in her veins, the stern traits inherited from her irreproachable ancestors, forbade it. She might be convinced in argument-and she vividly remembered everything that Arthur had said-she might admit that she was wrong, that her sacrifice would be futile, and that she was about to be guilty of a terrible injustice to Arthur and to herself. No matter! She would not leave the girls. And if in thus obstinately remaining at their service she committed a sin, she could only ask pardon for that sin. She could only beg Arthur to forgive her, and assure him that he would forget, and submit to his reproaches in silence and humility. Now and then she gazed at him, but his eyes were always fixed on the stage, and the corners of his mouth turned down into a slightly ironic smile. She wondered if he expected to be able to persuade her, and whether an opportunity to convince him and so end the crisis would occur that evening, or whether she would be compelled to wait through another night.

At last the adventures of the Dolmenico Doll were concluded, the naughty kisses regularised, the old men finally befooled, the glory extinguished, the music hushed. The audience stood up and began to chatter, and the women curved their long arms backward to receive white cloaks from the men. Arthur led the way out with Milly, and as the party slowly proceeded through the crush into the foyer, Leonora could hear the impetuous and excited child delivering to him her professional views on the acting and the singing.

'Well, Burgess,' Arthur said, in the portico, 'I guess we'll see these ladies home, eh?' And he called to a commissionaire: 'Say, two hansoms.'

In a minute Leonora and Arthur were driving together along the scintillating nocturnal thoroughfare; he had put Harry and Millicent into the other hansom like school children. And in the sudden privacy of the vehicle Leonora thought: 'Now!' She looked up at him furtively from beneath her eyelashes. He caught the glance and shook his head sadly.

'Why do you shake your head?' she timidly began.

His kind shrewd eyes caressed her. 'You mustn't look at me so,' he said.

'Why?'

'I can't stand it,' he replied. 'It's too much for me. You don't know-you don't know. You think I'm calm enough, but I tell you the top of my head has nearly come off to-day.'

'But I--'

'Listen here,' he ran on. 'Let me finish up. What I said a fortnight ago was quite right. It was absolutely unanswerable. But there was something about your letter that upset me. I can't tell you what it was-only it made my heart beat. And then yesterday I happened to go and worry out Rose at that awful hospital. And then Milly to-night! I know how you feel. I've got it to the eighth of an inch. And I've thought: "Suppose I do get her to New York, and she isn't happy?" Well, it's right here: I've settled to sell my business over there, and fix up in London. What do I care for New York, anyway? I don't care for anything so long as we can be happy. I've been a bachelor too long. And if I can be alone with you in this London, lost in it, just you and me! Oh, well! I want a woman to think about-one woman all mine. I'm simply mad for it. And we can only live once. We shan't be short of money. Now don't look at me any more like you did. Say yes, and let's begin right away and be happy.'

'Do you really mean--?' She was obliged thus, in weak unfinished phrases, to gain time in order to recover from the shock.

'I'm going to cable to-morrow morning,' he said, joyously. 'Not that there's so much hurry as all that, but I shall feel better after I've cabled. I'm silly, and I want to be silly.... I wouldn't live in New York for a million now. And don't you think we can keep an eye on Rose and Millicent, between us?'

'Oh, Arthur!'

She breathed a long, deep sigh, shutting her eyes for an instant; and then the beautiful creature, with all her elegance and her appearance of impassive and fastidious calm, permitted herself to move infinitesimally, but perceptibly, closer to him in the hansom; and her spirit performed the supreme feminine act of acquiescence and surrender. She thought passionately: 'He has yielded to me-I will be his slave.'

'I shall call you Leo,' he murmured fondly. 'It occurred to me last night.'

She smiled, as if to say: 'How charmingly boyish you are!'

'And I must tell you-but see here, we shall be at your hotel too soon.' He pushed at the trap-door. 'Say, driver, go up Park Lane and along Oxford Street a bit.'

Then he explained to her how he had refused Harry's invitation to dinner, and had arrived late at the theatre, solely that he might not have to talk to her until they could talk in solitude.

As, later, the cab rolled swiftly southwards through the mysterious dark avenues of Hyde Park, Leonora had the sensation of being really alone with him in the very heart of that luxurious, voluptuous, and decadent civilisation for which she had always yearned, and in which she was now to participate. The feeling of the beauty of the world, and of its catholicity and many-sidedness, returned to her. She gave play to her instincts. And, revelling in the self-confidence and the masterful ascendency which underlay Arthur's usual reticent demeanour, she resumed with exquisite relief her natural supineness. She began to depend on him. And she foresaw how he would reason diplomatically with Rose, and watch between Milly and Mr. Louis Lewis, and perhaps assist Fred Ryley, and do in the best way everything that ought to be done; and how she would reward him with the consolations of her grace and charm, her feminine arts, and her sweet acquiescence.

'So you've come,' exclaimed Milly, rather desolate in the drawing-room of the hotel.

'Yes, Miss Muffet,' said Arthur, 'we've come. Where is the youth?'

'Harry? I made him go home.'

Leonora smiled indulgently at Millicent with her pretty pouting face and her adorable artificiality, lounging on one of the sofas in the vast garish chamber. And her thoughts flew to Ethel, and existence in Bursley. The Myatt family had risen, flourished, and declined. Some of its members were dead, in honour or in dishonour; others were scattered now. Only Ethel and Fred remained; and these two, in the house at Hillport (which Leonora meant to give them), were beginning again the eternal effort, and renewing the simple and austere traditions of the Five Towns, where luxury was suspect and decadence unknown.

* * *

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