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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 14882

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Nellie led the way to the chamber known as "Maisie's room," where the youngest of the Machins was wont to sleep in charge of the nurse who, under the supervision of the mother of all three, had dominion over Robert, Ralph and their little sister.

The first thing that Edward Henry noticed was the screen which shut off one of the beds. The unfurling of the four-fold screen was always a sure sign that Nellie was taking an infantile illness seriously. It was an indication to Edward Henry of the importance of the dog-bite in Nellie's esteem.

When all the chicks of the brood happened to be simultaneously sound the screen reposed, inconspicuous, at an angle against a wall behind the door; but when pestilence was abroad, the screen travelled from one room to another in the wake of it, and, spreading wide, took part in the battle of life and death.

In an angle of the screen, on the side of it away from the bed and near the fire (in times of stress Nellie would not rely on radiators) sat old Mrs.. Machin, knitting. She was a thin, bony woman of sixty-nine years, and as hard and imperishable as teak. So far as her son knew she had only had two illnesses in her life. The first was an attack of influenza, and the second was an attack of acute rheumatism, which had incapacitated her for several weeks.

Edward Henry and Nellie had taken advantage of her helplessness, then, to force her to give up her barbaric cottage in Brougham Street and share permanently the splendid comfort of their home. She existed in their home like a philosophic prisoner-of-war at the court of conquerors, behaving faultlessly, behaving magnanimously in the [17] melancholy grandeur of her fall, but never renouncing her soul's secret independence, nor permitting herself to forget that she was on foreign ground.

When Edward Henry looked at those yellow and seasoned fingers, which by hard manual labour had kept herself and him in the young days of his humble obscurity, and which during sixty years had not been idle for more than six weeks in all, he grew almost apologetic for his wealth.

They reminded him of the day when his total resources were five pounds-won in a wager, and of the day when he drove proudly about behind a mule collecting other people's rents, and of the glittering days when he burst in on her from Llandudno with over a thousand gold sovereigns in a hat-box-product of his first great picturesque coup-imagining himself to be an English Jay Gould.

She had not blenched, even then. She had not blenched since. And she never would blench. In spite of his gorgeous position and his unique reputation, in spite of her well-concealed but notorious pride in him, he still went in fear of that ageless woman, whose undaunted eye always told him that he was still the lad Denry, and her inferior in moral force. The curve of her thin lips seemed ever to be warning him that with her pretensions were quite useless, and that she saw through him and through him to the innermost grottoes of his poor human depravity.

He caught her eye guiltily.

"Behold the Alderman!" she murmured with grimness.

That was all. But the three words took thirty years off his back, snatched the half-crown cigar out of his hand and reduced him again to the raw, hungry boy of Brougham Street. And he knew that he had sinned [18] gravely in not coming upstairs very much earlier.

"Is that you, father?" called the high voice of Robert from the back of the screen.

He had to admit to his son that it was he.

The infant lay on his back in Maisie's bed, while his mother sat lightly on the edge of nurse's bed near by.

"Well, you're a nice chap!" said Edward Henry, avoiding Nellie's glance, but trying to face his son as one innocent man may face another-and not perfectly succeeding. He never could feel like a real father, somehow.

"My temperature's above normal," announced Robert, proudly, and then added with regret, "but not much!"

There was the clinical thermometer-instrument which Edward Henry despised and detested as being an inciter of illnesses-in a glass of water on the table between the two beds.

"Father!" Robert began again.

"Well, Robert?" said Edward Henry, cheerfully. He was glad that the child was in one of his rare loquacious moods, because the chatter not only proved that the dog had done no serious damage-it also eased the silent strain between himself and Nellie.

"Why did you play the Funeral March, father?" asked Robert, and the question fell into the tranquillity of the room rather like a bomb that had not quite decided whether or not to burst.

For the second time that evening Edward Henry was dashed.

"Have you been meddling with my music rolls?"

"No, father. I only read the labels."

[19] This child simply read everything.

"How did you know I was playing a funeral march?" Edward Henry demanded.

"Oh, I didn't tell him!" Nellie put in, excusing herself before she was accused. She smiled benignly, as an angel-woman, capable of forgiving all. But there were moments when Edward Henry hated moral superiority and Christian meekness in a wife. Moreover, Nellie somewhat spoiled her own effect by adding, with an artificial continuation of the smile, "You needn't look at me!"

Edward Henry considered the remark otiose. Though he had indeed ventured to look at her, he had not looked at her in the manner which she implied.

"It made a noise like funerals and things," Robert explained.

"Well, it seems to me you've been playing a funeral march," said Edward Henry to the child.

He thought this rather funny, rather worthy of himself, but the child answered with ruthless gravity and a touch of disdain (for he was a disdainful child, without bowels):

"I don't know what you mean, father." The curve of his lips (he had his grandmother's lips) appeared to say: "I wish you wouldn't try to be silly, father." However, youth forgets very quickly, and the next instant Robert was beginning once more, "Father!"

"Well, Robert?"

By mutual agreement of the parents the child was never addressed as "Bob" or "Bobby," or by any other diminutive. In their practical opinion a child's name was his name, and ought not to be mauled or dismembered on the pretext of fondness. Similarly, the child had not been baptized after his father, or after any male member of either the Machin or the Cotterill family. Why should family names be perpetuated [20] merely because they were family names? A natural human reaction, this, against the excessive sentimentalism of the Victorian era!

"What does 'stamped out' mean?" Robert inquired.

Now Robert, among other activities, busied himself in the collection of postage stamps, and in consequence his father's mind, under the impulse of the question, ran immediately to postage stamps.

"Stamped out?" said Edward Henry, with the air of omniscience that a father is bound to assume. "Postage stamps are stamped out-by a machine-you see."

Robert's scorn of this explanation was manifest.

"Well," Edward Henry, piqued, made another attempt, "you stamp a fire out with your feet." And he stamped illustratively on the floor. After all, the child was only eight.

"I knew all that before," said Robert, coldly. "You don't understand."

"What makes you ask, dear? Let us show father your leg." Nellie's voice was soothing.

"Yes," Robert murmured, staring reflectively at the ceiling.

"That's it. It says in the Encyclopaedia that hydrophobia is stamped out in this country-by Mr.. Long's muzzling order. Who is Mr.. Long?"

A second bomb had fallen on exactly the same spot as the first, and the two exploded simultaneously. And the explosion was none the less terrible because it was silent and invisible. The tidy domestic chamber was strewn in a moment with an awful mass of wounded susceptibilities. Beyond the screen the nick-nick of grandmother's steel needles stopped and started again. It was [21] characteristic of her temperament that she should recover before the younger generations could recover. Edward Henry, as befitted his sex, regained his nerve a little earlier than Nellie.

"I told you never to touch my Encyclopaedia," said he, sternly. Robert had twice been caught on his stomach on the floor with a vast volume open under his chin, and his studies had been traced by vile thumb-marks.

"I know," said Robert.

Whenever anybody gave that child a piece of unsolicited information he almost invariably replied, "I know."

"But hydrophobia!" cried Nellie. "How did you know about hydrophobia?"

"We had it in spellings last week," Robert explained.

"The deuce you did!" muttered Edward Henry.

The one bright facet of the many-sided and gloomy crisis was the very obvious truth that Robert was the most extraordinary child that ever lived.

"But when on earth did you get at the Encyclopaedia, Robert?" his mother exclaimed, completely at a loss.

"It was before you came in from Hillport," the wondrous infant answered. "After my leg had stopped hurting me a bit."

"But when I came in nurse said it had only just happened!"

"Shows how much she knew!" said Robert, with contempt.

"Does your leg hurt you now?" Edward Henry inquired.

"A bit. That's why I can't go to sleep, of course."

"Well, let's have a look at it." Edward Henry attempted jollity.

"Mother's wrapped it all up in boracic wool."

[22] The bed-clothes were drawn down and the leg gradually revealed. And the sight of the little soft leg, so fragile and defenceless, really did touch Edward Henry. It made him feel more like an authentic father than he had felt for a long time. And the sight of the red wound hurt him. Still, it was a beautifully clean wound, and it was not a large wound.

"It's a clean wound," he observed judiciously. In spite of himself he could not keep a certain flippant harsh quality out of his tone.

"Well, I've naturally washed it with carbolic," Nellie returned sharply.

He illogically resented this sharpness.

"Of course he was bitten through his stocking?"

"Of course," said Nellie, re-enveloping the wound hastily, as though Edward Henry was not worthy to regard it.

"Well, then, by the time they got through the stocking the animal's teeth couldn't be dirty. Everyone knows that."

Nellie shut her lips.

"Were you teasing Carlo?" Edward Henry demanded curtly of his son.

"I don't know."

Whenever anybody asked that child for a piece of information he almost invariably replied, "I don't know."

"How-you don't know? You must know whether you were teasing the dog or not!" Edward Henry was nettled.

The renewed spectacle of his own wound had predisposed Robert to feel a great and tearful sympathy for himself. His mouth now began to take strange shapes and to increase magically in area, and beads appeared in the corners of his large eyes.

[23] "I-I was only measuring his tail by his hind leg," he blubbered and then sobbed.

Edward Henry did his best to save his dignity.

"Come, come!" he reasoned, less menacingly. "Boys who can read Encyclopaedias mustn't be cry-babies. You'd no business measuring Carlo's tail by his hind leg. You ought to remember that that dog's older than you." And this remark, too, he thought rather funny, but apparently he was alone in his opinion.

Then he felt something against his calf. And it was Carlo's nose. Carlo was a large, very shaggy and unkempt Northern terrier, but owing to vagueness of his principal points, due doubtless to a vagueness in his immediate ancestry, it was impossible to decide whether he had come from the north or the south side of the Tweed. This ageing friend of Edward Henry's, surmising that something unusual was afoot in his house, and having entirely forgotten the trifling episode of the bite, had unobtrusively come to make inquiries.

"Poor old boy!" said Edward Henry, stooping to pat the dog. "Did they try to measure his tail with his hind leg?"

The gesture was partly instinctive, for he loved Carlo; but it also had its origin in sheer nervousness, in sheer ignorance of what was the best thing to do. However, he was at once aware that he had done the worst thing. Had not Nellie announced that the dog must be got rid of? And here he was fondly caressing the bloodthirsty dog! With a hysterical movement of the lower part of her leg Nellie pushed violently against the dog-she did not kick, but she nearly kicked-and Carlo, faintly howling a protest, fled.

Edward Henry was hurt. He escaped from between the beds and from that close, enervating domestic atmosphere where he was misunderstood by [24] women and disdained by infants. He wanted fresh air; he wanted bars, whiskies, billiard-rooms and the society of masculine men-about-town. The whole of his own world was against him.

As he passed by his knitting mother she ignored him and moved not. She had a great gift of holding aloof from conjugal complications.

On the landing he decided that he would go out at once into the major world. Half-way down the stairs he saw his overcoat on the hall-stand beckoning to him and offering release.

Then he heard the bedroom door and his wife's footsteps.

"Edward Henry!"

"Well?"

He stopped and looked up inimically at her face, which overhung the banisters. It was the face of a woman outraged in her most profound feelings, but amazingly determined to be sweet.

"What do you think of it?"

"What do I think of what? The wound?"

"Yes."

"Why, it's simply nothing. Nothing at all. You know how that kid always heals up quick. You won't be able to find the wound in a day or two."

"Don't you think it ought to be cauterized at once?"

He moved on downwards.

"No, I don't. I've been bitten three times in my life by dogs. And I was never cauterized."

"Well, I do think it ought to be cauterized." She raised her voice slightly as he retreated from her. "And I shall be glad if you'll call in at Dr. Stirling's and ask him to come round."

[25] He made no reply, but put on his overcoat and his hat and took his stick. Glancing up the stairs he saw Nellie was now standing at the head of them, under the electric light there, and watching him. He knew that she thought he was cravenly obeying her command. She could have no idea that before she spoke to him he had already decided to put on his overcoat and hat and take his stick and go forth into the major world. However, that was no affair of his.

He hesitated a second. Then the nurse appeared out of the kitchen, with a squalling Maisie in her arms, and ran upstairs. Why Maisie was squalling, and why she should have been in the kitchen at such an hour instead of in bed, he could not guess. But he could guess that if he remained one second longer in that exasperating minor world he would begin to smash furniture. And so he quitted it.

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