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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 10986

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The early adventures of Alderman Machin of Bursley at Wilkins's Hotel, London, were so singular, and to him so refreshing, that they must be recounted in some detail.

He went to London by the morning express from Knype, on the Monday week after his visit to the music-hall. In the meantime he had had some correspondence with Mr. Bryany, more poetic than precise, about the option, and had informed Mr. Bryany that he would arrive in London several days before the option expired. But he had not given a definite date. The whole affair, indeed, was amusingly vague; and, despite his assurances to his wife that the matter was momentous, he did not regard his trip to London as a business trip at all, but rather as a simple freakish change of air. The one certain item in the whole situation was that he had in his pocket a quite considerable sum of actual money, destined-he hoped, but was not sure-to take up the option at the proper hour.

Nellie, impeccable to the last, accompanied him in the motor to Knype, the main-line station. The drive, superficially pleasant, was in reality very disconcerting to him. For nine days the household had talked in apparent cheerfulness of father's visit to London, as though it were an occasion for joy on father's behalf, tempered by [60] affectionate sorrow for his absence. The official theory was that all was for the best in the best of all possible homes, and this theory was admirably maintained. And yet everybody knew-even to Maisie-that it was not so; everybody knew that the master and the mistress of the home, calm and sweet as was their demeanour, were contending in a terrific silent and mysterious altercation, which in some way was connected with the visit to London.

So far as Edward Henry was concerned he had been hoping for some decisive event-a tone, gesture, glance, pressure-during the drive to Knype, which offered the last chance of a real concord. No such event occurred. They conversed with the same false cordiality as had marked their relations since the evening of the dog-bite. On that evening Nellie had suddenly transformed herself into a distressingly perfect angel, and not once had she descended from her high estate. At least daily she had kissed him-what kisses! Kisses that were not kisses! Tasteless mockeries, like non-alcoholic ale! He could have killed her, but he could not put a finger on a fault in her marvellous wifely behaviour; she would have died victorious.

So that his freakish excursion was not starting very auspiciously. And, waiting with her for the train on the platform at Knype, he felt this more and more. His old clerk, Penkethman, was there to receive certain final instructions on Thrift Club matters, and the sweetness of Nellie's attitude towards the ancient man, and the ancient man's na?ve pleasure therein, positively maddened Edward Henry. To such an extent that he began to think: "Is she going to spoil my trip for me?"

Then Brindley came up. Brindley, too, was going to London. And Nellie's saccharine assurances to Brindley that Edward Henry really needed a change just about completed Edward Henry's desperation. Not [61] even the uproarious advent of two jolly wholesale grocers, Messieurs Garvin & Quorrall, also going to London, could effectually lighten his pessimism.

When the train steamed in, Edward Henry, in fear, postponed the ultimate kiss as long as possible. He allowed Brindley to climb before him into the second-class compartment, and purposely tarried in finding change for the porter; and then he turned to Nellie and stooped. She raised her white veil and raised the angelic face. They kissed-the same false kiss-and she was withdrawing her lips ... But suddenly she put them again to his for one second, with a hysterical, clinging pressure. It was nothing. Nobody could have noticed it. She herself pretended that she had not done it. Edward Henry had to pretend not to notice it. But to him it was everything. She had relented. She had surrendered. The sign had come from her. She wished him to enjoy his visit to London.

He said to himself:

"Dashed if I don't write to her every day!"

He leaned out of the window as the train rolled away and waved and smiled to her, not concealing his sentiments now; nor did she conceal hers as she replied with exquisite pantomime to his signals. But if the train had not been rapidly and infallibly separating them the reconciliation could scarcely have been thus open. If for some reason the train had backed into the station and ejected its passengers, those two would have covered up their feelings again in an instant. Such is human nature in the Five Towns.

When Edward Henry withdrew his head into the compartment Brindley and Mr. Garvin, the latter standing at the corridor door, observed that his spirits had shot up in the most astonishing manner, and in their [62] blindness they attributed the phenomenon to Edward Henry's delight in a temporary freedom from domesticity.

Mr. Garvin had come from the neighbouring compartment, which was first-class, to suggest a game at bridge. Messieurs Garvin & Quorrall journeyed to London once a week and sometimes oftener, and, being traders, they had special season-tickets. They travelled first-class because their special season-tickets were first-class, Brindley said that he didn't mind a game, but that he had not the slightest intention of paying excess fare for the privilege. Mr. Garvin told him to come along and trust in M

essieurs Garvin & Quorrall. Edward Henry, not nowadays an enthusiastic card-player, enthusiastically agreed to join the hand, and announced that he did not care if he paid forty excess fares. Whereupon Robert Brindley grumbled enviously that it was "all very well for millionaires"!... They followed Mr. Garvin into the first-class compartment, and it soon appeared that Messrs Garvin & Quorrall did, in fact, own the train, and that the London and North Western Railway was no more than their washpot.

"Bring us a cushion from somewhere, will ye?" said Mr. Quorrall, casually, to a ticket-collector who entered.

And the resplendent official obeyed. The long cushion, rapt from another compartment, was placed on the knees of the quartette, and the game began. The ticket-collector examined the tickets of Brindley and Edward Henry, and somehow failed to notice that they were of the wrong colour. And at this proof of their influential greatness Messieurs Garvin & Quorrall were both secretly proud.

The last rubber finished in the neighbourhood of Willesden, and Edward [63] Henry, having won eighteenpence halfpenny, was exuberantly content, for Messrs Garvin, Quorrall and Brindley were all renowned card-players. The cushion was thrown away and a fitful conversation occupied the few remaining minutes of the journey.

"Where do you put up?" Brindley asked Edward Henry.

"Majestic," said Edward Henry. "Where do you?"

"Oh! Kingsway, I suppose."

The Majestic and the Kingsway were two of the half-dozen very large and very mediocre hotels in London which, from causes which nobody, and especially no American, has ever been able to discover, are particularly affected by Midland provincials "on the jaunt!" Both had an immense reputation in the Five Towns.

There was nothing new to say about the Majestic and the Kingsway, and the talk flagged until Mr. Quorrall mentioned Seven Sachs. The mighty Seven Sachs, in his world-famous play, "Overheard," had taken precedence of all other topics in the Five Towns during the previous week. He had crammed the theatre and half emptied the Empire Music Hall for six nights; a wonderful feat. Incidentally, his fifteen hundredth appearance in "Overheard" had taken place in the Five Towns, and the Five Towns had found in this fact a peculiar satisfaction, as though some deep merit had thereby been acquired or rewarded. Seven Sachs's tour was now closed, and on the Sunday he had gone to London, en route for America.

"I heard he stops at Wilkins's," said Mr. Garvin.

"Wilkins's your grandmother!" Brindley essayed to crush Mr. Garvin.

[64] "I don't say he does stop at Wilkins's," said Mr. Garvin, an individual not easy to crush; "I only say I heard as he did."

"They wouldn't have him!" Brindley insisted firmly.

Mr. Quorrall at any rate seemed tacitly to agree with Brindley. The august name of Wilkins's was in its essence so exclusive that vast numbers of fairly canny provincials had never heard of it. Ask ten well-informed provincials which is the first hotel in London and nine of them would certainly reply, the Grand Babylon. Not that even wealthy provincials from the industrial districts are in the habit of staying at the Grand Babylon! No! Edward Henry, for example, had never stayed at the Grand Babylon, no more than he had ever bought a first-class ticket on a railroad. The idea of doing so had scarcely occurred to him. There are certain ways of extravagant smartness which are not considered to be good form among solid wealthy provincials. Why travel first-class (they argue) when second is just as good and no one can tell the difference once you get out of the train? Why ape the tricks of another stratum of society? They like to read about the dinner-parties and supper-parties at the Grand Babylon; but they are not emulous and they do not imitate. At their most adventurous they would lunch or dine in the neutral region of the grill-room at the Grand Babylon. As for Wilkins's, in Devonshire Square, which is infinitely better known among princes than in the Five Towns, and whose name is affectionately pronounced with a "V" by half the monarchs of Europe, few industrial provincials had ever seen it. The class which is the backbone of England left it serenely alone to royalty and the aristocratic parasites of royalty.

[65] "I don't see why they shouldn't have him," said Edward Henry, as he lifted a challenging nose in the air.

"Perhaps you don't, Alderman!" said Brindley.

"I wouldn't mind going to Wilkins's," Edward Henry persisted.

"I'd like to see you," said Brindley, with curt scorn.

"Well," said Edward Henry, "I'll bet you a fiver I do." Had he not won eighteenpence halfpenny, and was he not securely at peace with his wife?

"I don't bet fivers," said the cautious Brindley. "But I'll bet you half-a-crown."

"Done!" said Edward Henry.

"When will you go?"

"Either to-day or to-morrow. I must go to the Majestic first, because I've ordered a room and so on."

"Ha!" hurtled Brindley, as if to insinuate that Edward Henry was seeking to escape from the consequences of his boast.

And yet he ought to have known Edward Henry. He did know Edward Henry. And he hoped to lose his half-crown. On his face and on the faces of the other two was the cheerful admission that tales of the doings of Alderman Machin, the great local card, at Wilkins's-if he succeeded in getting in-would be cheap at half-a-crown.

Porters cried out "Euston!"

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