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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 11506

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Later, catching through the open door fragments of a conversation on the stairs which indicated that his mother was at last coming down for tea, he sped like a threatened delinquent into the drawing-room. He had no wish to encounter his mother, though that woman usually said little.

The drawing-room, after the bathroom, was Edward Henry's favourite district in the home. Since he could not spend the whole of his time in the bathroom-and he could not!-he wisely gave a special care to the drawing-room, and he loved it as one always loves that upon which one has bestowed benefits. He was proud of the drawing-room, and he had the right to be. The principal object in it, at night, was the electric chandelier, which would have been adequate for a lighthouse. Edward Henry's eyes were not what they used to be; and the minor advertisements in the Signal-which constituted his sole evening perusals-often lacked legibility. Edward Henry sincerely believed in light and heat; he was almost the only person in the Five Towns who did. In the Five Towns people have fires in their grates-not to warm the room, but to make the room bright. Seemingly [10] they use their pride to keep themselves warm. At any rate, whenever Edward Henry talked to them of radiators, they would sternly reply that a radiator did not and could not brighten a room. Edward Henry had made the great discovery that an efficient chandelier will brighten a room better even than a fire, and he had gilded his radiator. The notion of gilding the radiator was not his own; he had seen a gilded radiator in the newest hotel at Birmingham, and had rejoiced as some peculiar souls rejoice when they meet a fine line in a new poem. (In concession to popular prejudice Edward Henry had fire-grates in his house, and fires therein during exceptionally frosty weather; but this did not save him from being regarded in the Five Towns as in some ways a peculiar soul.) The effulgent source of dark heat was scientifically situated in front of the window, and on ordinarily cold evenings Edward Henry and his wife and mother, and an acquaintance if one happened to come in, would gather round the radiator and play bridge or dummy whist.

The other phenomena of the drawing-room which particularly interested Edward Henry were the Turkey carpet, the four vast easy-chairs, the sofa, the imposing cigar-cabinet and the mechanical piano-player. At one brief period he had hovered a good deal about the revolving bookcase containing the Encyclopaedia (to which his collection of books was limited), but the frail passion for literature had not survived a struggle with the seductions of the mechanical piano-player.

The walls of the room never drew his notice. He had chosen, some years before, a patent washable kind of wall-paper (which could be wiped over with a damp cloth), and he had also chosen the pattern of the paper, but it is a fact that he could spend hours in any room without [11] even seeing the pattern of its paper. (In the same way his wife's cushions and little draperies and bows were invisible to him, though he had searched for and duly obtained the perfect quality of swansdown which filled the cushions.)

The one ornament of the walls which attracted him was a large and splendidly-framed oil-painting of a ruined castle, in the midst of a sombre forest, through which cows were strolling. In the tower of the castle was a clock, and this clock was a realistic timepiece, whose fingers moved and told the hour. Two of the oriel windows of the castle were realistic holes in its masonry; through one of them you could put a key to wind up the clock, and through the other you could put a key to wind up the secret musical box, which played sixteen different tunes. He had bought this handsome relic of the Victorian era (not less artistic, despite your scorn, than many devices for satisfying the higher instincts of the present day) at an auction sale in the Strand, London. But it, too, had been supplanted in his esteem by the mechanical piano-player.

He now selected an example of the most expensive cigar in the cigar-cabinet and lighted it as only a connoisseur can light a cigar, lovingly; he blew out the match lingeringly, with regret, and dropped it and the cigar's red collar with care into a large copper bowl on the centre table, instead of flinging it against the Japanese umbrella in the fireplace. (A grave disadvantage of radiators is that you cannot throw odds and ends into them.) He chose the most expensive cigar because he wanted comfort and peace. The ham was not digesting very well.

Then he sat down and applied himself to the property advertisements [12] in the Signal, a form of sensational serial which usually enthralled him-but not to-night. He allowed the paper to lapse on to the floor, and then rose impatiently, rearranged the thick dark blue curtains behind the radiator, and finally yielded to the silent call of the mechanical piano-player. He quite knew that to dally with the piano-player while smoking a high-class cigar was to insult the cigar. But he did not care. He tilted the cigar upwards from an extreme corner of his mouth, and through the celestial smoke gazed at the titles of the new music rolls which had been delivered that day, and which were ranged on the top of the piano itself.

And while he did so he was thinking:

"Why in thunder didn't the little thing come and tell me at once about that kid and his dog-bite? I wonder why she didn't! She seemed only to mention it by accident. I wonder why she didn't bounce into the bathroom and tell me at once?"

But it was untrue that he sought vainly for an answer to this riddle. He was aware of the answer. He even kept saying over the answer to

himself:

"She's made up her mind I've been teasing her a bit too much lately about those kids and their precious illnesses. And she's doing the dignified. That's what she's doing! She's doing the dignified!"

Of course, instantly after his tea he ought to have gone upstairs to inspect the wounded victim of dogs. The victim was his own child, and its mother was his wife. He knew that he ought to have gone upstairs long since. He knew that he ought now to go, and the sooner the better! But somehow he could not go; he could not bring himself to go. In the minor and major crises of married life there are not two partners, but four; each partner has a dual personality; each partner [13] is indeed two different persons, and one of these fights against the other, with the common result of a fatal inaction.

The wickeder of the opposing persons in Edward Henry, getting the upper hand of the more virtuous, sniggered. "Dirty teeth, indeed! Blood-poisoning, indeed! Why not rabies, while she's about it? I guarantee she's dreaming of coffins and mourning coaches already!"

Scanning nonchalantly the titles of the music rolls, he suddenly saw: "Funeral March. Chopin."

"She shall have it," he said, affixing the roll to the mechanism. And added: "Whatever it is!"

For he was not acquainted with the Funeral March from Chopin's Pianoforte Sonata. His musical education had, in truth, begun only a year earlier-with the advertisements of the "Pianisto" mechanical player. He was a judge of advertisements, and the "Pianisto" literature pleased him in a high degree. He justifiably reckoned that he could distinguish between honest and dishonest advertising. He made a deep study of the question of mechanical players, and deliberately came to the conclusion that the Pianisto was the best. It was also the most costly. But one of the conveniences of having six thousand pounds a year is that you need not deny yourself the best mechanical player because it happens to be the most costly. He bought a Pianisto, and incidentally he bought a superb grand piano and exiled the old cottage piano to the nursery.

The Pianisto was the best, partly because, like the vacuum-cleaner, it could be operated by electricity, and partly because, by means of certain curved lines on the unrolling paper, and of certain gun-metal levers and clutches, it enabled the operator to put his secret ardent [14] soul into the music. Assuredly it had given Edward Henry a taste for music. The whole world of musical compositions was his to conquer, and he conquered it at the rate of about two great masters a month. From Handel to Richard Strauss, even from Palestrina to Debussy, the achievements of genius lay at his mercy. He criticized them with a freedom that was entirely unprejudiced by tradition. Beethoven was no more to him than Arthur Sullivan-indeed, was rather less. The works of his choice were the "Tannh?user" overture, a potpourri of Verdi's "Aida," Chopin's Study in Thirds (which ravished him), and a selection from "The Merry Widow" (which also ravished him). So that on the whole it may be said that he had a very good natural taste.

He at once liked Chopin's Funeral March. He entered profoundly into the spirit of it. With the gun-metal levers he produced in a marvellous fashion the long tragic roll of the drums, and by the manipulation of a clutch he distilled into the chant at the graveside a melancholy sweetness that rent the heart. The later crescendoes were overwhelming. And as he played there, with the bright blaze of the chandelier on his fair hair and beard, and the blue cigar smoke in his nostrils, and the effluence of the gilded radiator behind him, and the intimacy of the drawn window-curtains and the closed and curtained door folding him in from the world, and the agony of the music grieving his artistic soul to the core-as he played there he grew gradually happier and happier, and the zest of existence seemed to return. It was not only that he felt the elemental, unfathomable satisfaction of a male who is sheltered in solitude from a pack of women that have got on his nerves. There was also the more piquant assurance that he was behaving in a very sprightly manner. How long was it since he had accomplished anything worthy of his ancient [15] reputation as a "card," as "the" card of the Five Towns? He could not say. But now he knew that he was being a card again. The whole town would smile and forgive and admire if it learnt that-

Nellie invaded the room. She had resumed the affray.

"Denry!" she reproached him, in an uncontrolled voice. "I'm ashamed of you! I really am!" She was no longer doing the dignified. The mask was off and the unmistakable lineaments of the outraged mother appeared. That she should address him as "Denry" proved the intensity of her agitation. Years ago, when he had been made an alderman, his wife and his mother had decided that "Denry" was no longer a suitable name for him, and had abandoned it in favour of "Edward Henry."

He ceased playing.

"Why?" he protested, with a ridiculous air of innocence. "I'm only playing Chopin. Can't I play Chopin?"

He was rather surprised and impressed that she had recognized the piece for what it was. But of course she did, as a fact, know something about music, he remembered, though she never touched the Pianisto.

"I think it's a pity you can't choose some other evening for your funeral marches!" she exclaimed.

"If that's it," said Edward Henry like lightning, "why did you stick me out you weren't afraid of hydrophobia?"

"I'll thank you to come upstairs," she replied with warmth.

"Oh, all right, my dear! All right!" he cooed.

And they went upstairs in a rather solemn procession.

[16]

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