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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 7150

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Nellie came into the dining-room two minutes after her husband. As Edward Henry had laboriously counted these two minutes almost second [5] by second on the dining-room clock, he was very tired of waiting. His secret annoyance was increased by the fact that Nellie took off her white apron in the doorway and flung it hurriedly on to the table-tray which, during the progress of meals, was established outside the dining-room door. He did not actually witness this operation of undressing, because Nellie was screened by the half-closed door; but he was entirely aware of it. He disliked it, and he had always disliked it. When Nellie was at work, either as a mother or as the owner of certain fine silver ornaments, he rather enjoyed the wonderful white apron, for it suited her temperament; but as the head of a household with six thousand pounds a year at its disposal, he objected to any hint of the thing at meals. And to-night he objected to it altogether. Who could guess from the homeliness of their family life that he was in a position to spend a hundred pounds a week and still have enough income left over to pay the salary of a town clerk or so? Nobody could guess; and he felt that people ought to be able to guess. When he was young he would have esteemed an income of six thousand pounds a year as necessarily implicating feudal state, valets, castles, yachts, family solicitors, racing-stables, county society, dinner-calls and a drawling London accent. Why should his wife wear an apron at all? But the sad truth was that neither his wife nor his mother ever looked rich, or even endeavoured to look rich. His mother would carry an eighty-pound sealskin as though she had picked it up at a jumble sale, and his wife put such simplicity into the wearing of a hundred-and-eighty pound diamond ring that its expensiveness was generally quite wasted.

And yet, while the logical male in him scathingly condemned this feminine defect of character, his private soul was glad of it, for [6] he well knew that he would have been considerably irked by the complexities and grandeurs of high life. But never would he have admitted this.

Nellie's face, as she sat down, was not limpid. He understood naught of it. More than twenty years had passed since they had first met-he and a wistful little creature-at a historic town-hall dance. He could still see the wistful little creature in those placid and pure features, in that buxom body; but now there was a formidable, capable and experienced woman there too. Impossible to credit that the wistful little creature was thirty-seven! But she was! Indeed, it was very doubtful if she would ever see thirty-eight again. Once he had had the most romantic feelings about her. He could recall the slim flexibility of her waist, the timorous melting invitation of her eyes. And now ... Such was human existence!

She sat up erect on her chair. She did not apologize for being late. She made no inquiry as to his neuralgia. On the other hand, she was not cross. She was just neutral, polite, cheerful, and apparently conscious of perfection. He strongly desired to inform her of the exact time of day, but his lips would not articulate the words.

"Maud," she said with divine calm to the maid who bore in the baked York ham under its silver canopy, "you haven't taken away that brush that's in the passage."

(Another illustration of Nellie's inability to live up to six thousand pounds a year; she would always refer to the hall as the "passage!")

"Please'm, I did, m'm," replied Maud, now as conscious of per

fection as her mistress. "He must have took it back again."

[7] "Who's 'he?'" demanded the master.

"Carlo, sir." Upon which triumph Maud retired.

Edward Henry was dashed. Nevertheless, he quickly recovered his presence of mind and sought about for a justification of his previous verdict upon the negligence of five women.

"It would have been easy enough to put the brush where the dog couldn't get at it," he said. But he said this strictly to himself. He could not say it aloud. Nor could he say aloud the words "neuralgia," "three hundred and forty-one pounds," any more than he could say "late."

That he was in a peculiar mental condition is proved by the fact that he did not remark the absence of his mother until he was putting her share of baked ham on to a plate.

He thought: "This is a bit thick, this is!" meaning the extreme lateness of his mother for the meal. But his only audible remark was a somewhat impatient banging down of the hot plate in front of his mother's empty chair.

In answer to this banging Nellie quietly began:

"Your mother-"

(He knew instantly, then, that Nellie was disturbed about something or other. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law lived together under one roof in perfect amity. Nay, more, they often formed powerful and unscrupulous leagues against him. But whenever Nellie was disturbed, by no matter what, she would say "your mother" instead of merely "mother!" It was an extraordinary subtle, silly and effective way of putting him in the wrong.)

"Your mother is staying upstairs with Robert."

Robert was the eldest child, aged eight.

[8] "Oh!" breathed Edward Henry. He might have inquired what the nurse was for; he might have inquired how his mother meant to get her tea. But he refrained, adding simply, "What's up now?"

And in retort to his wife's "your," he laid a faint emphasis on the word "now," to imply that those women were always inventing some fresh imaginary woe for the children.

"Carlo's bitten him-in the calf," said Nellie, tightening her lips.

This, at any rate, was not imaginary.

"The kid was teasing him as usual, I suppose?" he suggested.

"That I don't know," said Nellie. "But I know we must get rid of that dog."

"Serious?"

"Of course we must," Nellie insisted, with an inadvertent heat, which she immediately cooled.

"I mean the bite."

"Well-it's a bite right enough."

"And you're thinking of hydrophobia, death amid horrible agony, and so on."

"No, I'm not," she said stoutly, trying to smile.

But he knew she was. And he knew also that the bite was a trifle. If it had been a good bite she would have made it enormous; she would have hinted that the dog had left a chasm in the boy's flesh.

"Yes, you are," he continued to twit her, encouraged by her attempt at a smile.

However, the smile expired.

"I suppose you won't deny that Carlo's teeth may have been dirty? He's always nosing in some filth or other," she said challengingly, in a measured tone of sagacity. "And there may be blood-poisoning."

"Blood fiddlesticks!" exclaimed Edward Henry.

Such a nonsensical and infantile rejoinder deserved no answer, and [9] it received none. Shortly afterwards Maud entered and whispered that Nellie was wanted upstairs. As soon as his wife had gone Edward Henry rang the bell.

"Maud," he said, "bring me the Signal out of my left-hand overcoat pocket."

And he defiantly finished his meal at leisure, with the news of the day propped up against the flower-pot, which he had set before him instead of the dish of ham.

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