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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9663

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It was rather late in the afternoon when Edward Henry arrived in front of the fa?ade of Wilkins's. He came in a taxi-cab, and though the [66] distance from the Majestic to Wilkins's is not more than a couple of miles, and he had had nothing else to preoccupy him after lunch, he had spent some three hours in the business of transferring himself from the portals of the one hotel to the portals of the other. Two hours and three-quarters of this period of time had been passed in finding courage merely to start. Even so, he had left his luggage behind him. He said to himself that, first of all, he would go and spy out Wilkins's; in the perilous work of scouting he rightly wished to be unhampered by impedimenta; moreover, in case of repulse or accident, he must have a base of operations upon which he could retreat in good order.

He now looked on Wilkins's for the first time in his life, and he was even more afraid of it than he had been while thinking about it in the vestibule of the Majestic. It was not larger than the Majestic; it was perhaps smaller; it could not show more terra-cotta, plate-glass and sculptured cornice than the Majestic. But it had a demeanour ... and it was in a square which had a demeanour.... In every window-sill-not only of the hotel, but of nearly every mighty house in the Square-there were boxes of bright blooming flowers. These he could plainly distinguish in the October dusk, and they were a wonderful phenomenon-say what you will about the mildness of that particular October! A sublime tranquillity reigned over the scene. A liveried keeper was locking the gate of the garden in the middle of the Square as if potentates had just quitted it and rendered it for ever sacred. And between the sacred shadowed grove and the inscrutable fronts of the stately houses there flitted automobiles of the silent and expensive kind, driven by chauffeurs in pale grey or dark purple, who reclined as they steered, and who were supported on their left [67] sides by footmen who reclined as they contemplated the grandeur of existence.

Edward Henry's taxi-cab in that Square seemed like a homeless cat that had strayed into a dog-show.

At the exact instant, when the taxi-cab came to rest under the massive portico of Wilkins's, a chamberlain in white gloves bravely soiled the gloves by seizing the vile brass handle of its door. He bowed to Edward Henry and assisted him to alight on to a crimson carpet. The driver of the taxi glanced with pert and candid scorn at the chamberlain, but Edward Henry looked demurely aside, and then in abstraction mounted the broad carpeted steps.

"What about poor little me?" cried the driver, who was evidently a ribald socialist, or at best a republican.

The chamberlain, pained, glanced at Edward Henry for support and direction in this crisis.

"Didn't I tell you I'd keep you?" said Edward Henry, raised now by the steps above the driver.

"Between you and me, you didn't," said the driver.

The chamberlain, with an ineffable gesture, wafted the taxi-cab away into some limbo appointed for waiting vehicles.

A page opened a pair of doors, and another page opened another pair of doors, each with eighteen century ceremonies of deference, and Edward Henry stood at length in the hall of Wilkins's. The sanctuary, then, was successfully defiled, and up to the present nobody had demanded his credentials! He took breath.

In its physical aspects Wilkins's appeared to him to resemble other hotels-such as the Majestic. And so far he was not mistaken. Once [68] Wilkins's had not resembled other hotels. For many years it had deliberately refused to recognize that even the nineteenth century had dawned, and its magnificent antique discomfort had been one of its main attractions to the elect. For the elect desired nothing but their own privileged society in order to be happy in a hotel. A hip-bath on a blanket in the middle of the bedroom floor richly sufficed them, provided they could be guaranteed against the calamity of meeting the unelect in the corridors or at table d'h?te. But the rising waters of democracy-the intermixture of classes-had reacted adversely on Wilkins's. The fall of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico had given Wilkins's sad food for thought long, long ago, and the obvious general weakening of the monarchical principle had most considerably shaken it. Came the day when Wilkins's reluctantly decided that even it could not fight against the tendency of the whole world, and then, at one superb stroke, it had rebuilt and brought itself utterly up-to-date.

Thus it resembled other hotels. (Save, possibly, in the reticence of its advertisements! The Majestic would advertise bathrooms as a miracle of modernity, just as though common dwelling-houses had not possessed bathrooms for the past thirty ye

ars. Wilkins's had superlative bathrooms, but it said nothing about them. Wilkins's would as soon have advertised two hundred bathrooms as two hundred bolsters; and for the new Wilkins's a bathroom was not more modern than a bolster.) Also, other hotels resembled Wilkins's. The Majestic, too, had a chamberlain at its portico and an assortment of pages to prove to its clients that they were incapable of performing the simplest act for themselves. Nevertheless, the difference between Wilkins's and [69] the Majestic was enormous; and yet so subtle was it that Edward Henry could not immediately detect where it resided. Then he understood. The difference between Wilkins's and the Majestic resided in the theory which underlay its manner. And the theory was that every person entering its walls was of royal blood until he had admitted the contrary.

Within the hotel it was already night.

Edward Henry self-consciously crossed the illuminated hall, which was dotted with fashionable figures. He knew not whither he was going, until by chance he saw a golden grille with the word "Reception" shining over it in letters of gold. Behind this grille, and still further protected by an impregnable mahogany counter, stood three young dandies in attitudes of graceful ease. He approached them. The fearful moment was upon him. He had never in his life been so genuinely frightened. Abject disgrace might be his portion within the next ten seconds.

Addressing himself to the dandy in the middle he managed to articulate:

"What have you got in the way of rooms?"

Could the Five Towns have seen him then, as he waited, it would hardly have recognized its "card," its character, its mirror of aplomb and inventive audacity, in this figure of provincial and plebeian diffidence.

The dandy bowed.

"Do you want a suite, sir?"

"Certainly!" said Edward Henry. Rather too quickly, rather too defiantly; in fact, rather rudely! A habitué would not have so savagely hurled back in the dandy's teeth the insinuation that he wanted only one paltry room.

However, the dandy smiled, accepting with meekness Edward Henry's [70] sudden arrogance, and consulted a sort of pentateuch that was open in front of him.

No person in the hall saw Edward Henry's hat fly up into the air and fall back on his head. But in the imagination of Edward Henry this was what his hat did.

He was saved. He would have a proud tale for Brindley. The thing was as simple as the alphabet. You just walked in and they either fell on your neck or kissed your feet.

Wilkins's, indeed!

A very handsome footman, not only in white gloves but in white calves, was soon supplicating him to deign to enter a lift. And when he emerged from the lift another dandy-in a frock-coat of Paradise-was awaiting him with obeisances. Apparently it had not yet occurred to anybody that he was not the younger son of some aged king.

He was prayed to walk into a gorgeous suite, consisting of a corridor, a noble drawing-room (with portrait of His Majesty of Spain on the walls), a large bedroom with two satin-wood beds, a small bedroom and a bathroom, all gleaming with patent devices in porcelain and silver that fully equalled those at home.

Asked if this suite would do, he said it would, trying as well as he could to imply that he had seen better. Then the dandy produced a note-book and a pencil and impassively waited. The horrid fact that he was unelect could no longer be concealed.

"E.H. Machin, Bursley," he said shortly; and added: "Alderman Machin." After all, why should he be ashamed of being an Alderman?

To his astonishment the dandy smiled very cordially, though always with profound respect.

"Ah! yes!" said the dandy. It was as though he had said: "We have long [71] wished for the high patronage of this great reputation." Edward Henry could make naught of it.

His opinion of Wilkins's went down.

He followed the departing dandy up the corridor to the door of the suite in an entirely vain attempt to inquire the price of the suite per day. Not a syllable would pass his lips. The dandy bowed and vanished. Edward Henry stood lost at his own door, and his wandering eye caught sight of a pile of trunks near to another door in the main corridor. These trunks gave him a terrible shock. He shut out the rest of the hotel and retired into his private corridor to reflect. He perceived only too plainly that his luggage, now at the Majestic, never could come into Wilkins's. It was not fashionable enough. It lacked elegance. The lounge-suit that he was wearing might serve, but his luggage was totally impossible. Never before had he imagined that the aspect of one's luggage could have the least importance in one's scheme of existence. He was learning, and he frankly admitted that he was in an incomparable mess.

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