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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 12330

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Alderman Machin had to stand at the back, and somewhat towards the side, of that part of the auditorium known as the Grand Circle at the Empire Music Hall, Hanbridge. The attendants at the entrance, and in the lounge, where the salutation "Welcome" shone in electricity over a large cupid-surrounded mirror, had compassionately and yet exultingly told him that there was not a seat left in the house. He had shared their exultation. He had said to himself, full of honest pride in the Five Towns: "This music-hall, admitted by the press to be one of the finest in the provinces, holds over two thousand five hundred people. And yet we can fill it to overflowing twice every night! And only a few years ago there wasn't a decent music-hall in the entire district!"

The word "Progress" flitted through his head.

It was not strictly true that the Empire was or could be filled to overflowing twice every night, but it was true that at that particular moment not a seat was unsold; and the aspect of a crowded auditorium is apt to give an optimistic quality to broad generalizations. Alderman Machin began instinctively to calculate the amount of money in the house, and to wonder whether there would be a chance for a second music-hall in the dissipated town of Hanbridge. He also wondered why the idea of a second music-hall in Hanbridge had never occurred to him before.

[30] The Grand Circle was so called because it was grand. Its plush fauteuils cost a shilling, no mean price for a community where seven pounds of potatoes can be bought for sixpence, and the view of the stage therefrom was perfect. But the Alderman's view was far from perfect, since he had to peer as best he could between and above the shoulders of several men, each apparently, but not really, taller than himself. By constant slight movements, to comply with the movements of the rampart of shoulders, he could discern fragments of various advertisements of soap, motor-cars, whisky, shirts, perfume, pills, bricks and tea-for the drop-curtain was down. And, curiously, he felt obliged to keep his eyes on the drop-curtain and across the long intervening vista of hats and heads and smoke to explore its most difficult corners again and again, lest when it went up he might not be in proper practice for seeing what was behind it.

Nevertheless, despite the marked inconveniences of his situation, he felt brighter, he felt almost happy in this dense atmosphere of success. He even found a certain peculiar and perverse satisfaction in the fact that he had as yet been recognized by nobody. Once or twice the owners of shoulders had turned and deliberately glared at the worrying fellow who had the impudence to be all the time peeping over them and between them; they had not distinguished the fellow from any ordinary fellow. Could they have known that he was the famous Alderman Edward Henry Machin, founder and sole proprietor of the Thrift Club, into which their wives were probably paying so much a week, they would most assuredly have glared to another tune, and they would have said with pride afterwards: "That chap Machin o'Bursley was standing behind me at the Empire to-night!" And though Machin is amongst the commonest [31] names in the Five Towns, all would have known that the great and admired Denry was meant ... It was astonishing that a personage so notorious should not have been instantly "spotted" in such a resort as the Empire. More proof that the Five Towns was a vast and seething concentration of cities, and no longer a mere district where everybody knew everybody!

The curtain rose, and as it did so a thunderous, crashing applause of greeting broke forth; applause that thrilled and impressed and inspired; applause that made every individual in the place feel right glad that he was there. For the curtain had risen on the gigantic attraction, which many members of the audience were about to see for the fifth time that week; in fact, it was rumoured that certain men of fashion, whose habit was to refuse themselves nothing, had attended every performance of the gigantic attraction since the second house on Monday.

The scene represented a restaurant of quiet aspect, into which entered a waiter bearing a pile of plates some two feet high. The waiter being intoxicated the tower of plates leaned this way and that as he staggered about, and the whole house really did hold its breath in the simultaneous hope and fear of an enormous and resounding smash. Then entered a second intoxicated waiter, also bearing a pile of plates some two feet high, and the risk of destruction was thus more than doubled-it was quadrupled, for each waiter, in addition to the risks of his own inebriety, was now subject to the dreadful peril of colliding with the other. However, there was no catastrophe.

Then arrived two customers, one in a dress suit and an eyeglass, and the other in a large violet hat, a diamond necklace and a yellow [32] satin skirt. The which customers, seemingly well used to the sight of drunken waiters tottering to and fro with towers of plates, sat down at a table and waited calmly for attention. The popular audience, with that quick mental grasp for which popular audiences are so renowned, soon perceived that the table was in close proximity to a lofty sideboard, and that on either hand of the sideboard were two chairs, upon which the two waiters were trying to climb in order to deposit their plates on the topmost shelf of the sideboard. The waiters successfully mounted the chairs and successfully lifted their towers of plates to within half an inch of the desired shelf, and then the chairs began to show signs of insecurity. By this time the audience was stimulated to an ecstasy of expectation, whose painfulness was only equalled by its extreme delectability. The sole unmoved persons in the building were the customers awaiting attention at the restaurant table.

One tower was safely lodged on the shelf. But was it? It was not! Yes? No! It curved; it straightened; it curved again. The excitement was as keen as that of watching a drowning man attempt to reach the shore. It was simply excruciating. It

could not be borne any longer, and when it could not be borne any longer the tower sprawled irrevocably and seven dozen plates fell in a cascade on the violet hat, and so with an inconceivable clatter to the floor. Almost at the same moment the being in the dress-suit and the eyeglass, becoming aware of phenomena slightly unusual even in a restaurant, dropped his eyeglass, turned round to the sideboard and received the other waiter's seven dozen plates in the face and on the crown of his head.

No such effect had ever been seen in the Five Towns, and the felicity [33] of the audience exceeded all previous felicities. The audience yelled, roared, shrieked, gasped, trembled, and punched itself in a furious passion of pleasure. They make plates in the Five Towns. They live by making plates. They understand plates. In the Five Towns a man will carry not seven but twenty-seven dozen plates on a swaying plank for eight hours a day up steps and down steps, and in doorways and out of doorways, and not break one plate in seven years! Judge, therefore, the simple but terrific satisfaction of a Five Towns audience in the hugeness of the calamity. Moreover, every plate smashed means a demand for a new plate and increased prosperity for the Five Towns. The grateful crowd in the auditorium of the Empire would have covered the stage with wreaths, if it had known that wreaths were used for other occasions than funerals; which it did not know.

Fresh complications instantly ensued, which cruelly cut short the agreeable exercise of uncontrolled laughter. It was obvious that one [34] of the waiters was about to fall. And in the enforced tranquillity of a new dread every dyspeptic person in the house was deliciously conscious of a sudden freedom from indigestion due to the agreeable exercise of uncontrolled laughter, and wished fervently that he could laugh like that after every meal. The waiter fell; he fell through the large violet hat and disappeared beneath the surface of a sea of crockery. The other waiter fell too, but the sea was not deep enough to drown a couple of them. Then the customers, recovering themselves, decided that they must not be outclassed in this competition of havoc, and they overthrew the table and everything on it, and all the other tables and everything on all the other tables. The audience was now a field of artillery which nothing could silence. The waiters arose, and, opening the sideboard, disclosed many hundreds of unsuspected plates of all kinds, ripe for smashing. Niagaras of plates surged on to the stage. All four performers revelled and wallowed in smashed plates. New supplies of plates were constantly being produced from strange concealments, and finally the tables and chairs were broken to pieces, and each object on the walls was torn down and flung in bits on to the gorgeous general debris, to the top of which clambered the violet hat, necklace and yellow petticoat, brandishing one single little plate, whose life had been miraculously spared. Shrieks of joy in that little plate played over the din like lightning in a thunderstorm. And the curtain fell.

It was rung up fifteen times, and fifteen times the quartette of artists, breathless, bowed in acknowledgment of the frenzied and boisterous testimony to their unique talents. No singer, no tragedian, no comedian, no wit could have had such a triumph, could have given such intense pleasure. And yet none of the four had spoken a word. Such is genius.

At the end of the fifteenth call the stage-manager came before the curtain and guaranteed that two thousand four hundred plates had been broken.

The lights went up. Strong men were seen to be wiping tears from their eyes. Complete strangers were seen addressing each other in the manner of old friends. Such is art.

"Well, that was worth a bob, that was!" muttered Edward Henry to himself. And it was. Edward Henry had not escaped the general fate. Nobody, being present, could have escaped it. He was enchanted. He had utterly forgotten every care.

"Good evening, Mr. Machin," said a voice at his side. Not only he [35] turned but nearly everyone in the vicinity turned. The voice was the voice of the stout and splendid managing director of the Empire, and it sounded with the ring of authority above the rising tinkle of the bar behind the Grand Circle.

"Oh! How d'ye do, Mr. Dakins?" Edward Henry held out a cordial hand, for even the greatest men are pleased to be greeted in a place of entertainment by the managing director thereof. Further, his identity was now recognized.

"Haven't you seen those gentlemen in that box beckoning to you?" said Mr. Dakins, proudly deprecating complimentary remarks on the show.

"Which box?"

Mr. Dakins' hand indicated a stage-box. And Henry, looking, saw three men, one unknown to him, the second, Robert Brindley, the architect, of Bursley, and the third, Dr. Stirling.

Instantly his conscience leapt up within him. He thought of rabies. Yes, sobered in the fraction of a second, he thought of rabies. Supposing that, after all, in spite of Mr. Long's Muzzling Order, as cited by his infant son, an odd case of rabies should have lingered in the British Isles, and supposing that Carlo had been infected ...! Not impossible ...! Was it providential that Dr. Stirling was in the auditorium?

"You know two of them?" said Mr. Dakins.

"Yes."

"Well, the third's a Mr. Bryany. He's manager to Mr. Seven Sachs." Mr. Dakins' tone was respectful.

"And who's Mr. Seven Sachs?" asked Edward Henry, absently. It was a stupid question.

He was impressively informed that Mr. Seven Sachs was the arch-famous American actor-playwright, now nearing the end of a provincial tour, [36] which had surpassed all records of provincial tours, and that he would be at the Theatre Royal, Hanbridge, next week. Edward Henry then remembered that the hoardings had been full of Mr. Seven Sachs for some time past.

"They keep on making signs to you," said Mr. Dakins, referring to the occupants of the stage-box.

Edward Henry waved a reply to the box.

"Here! I'll take you there the shortest way," said Mr. Dakins.

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