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   Chapter 10 No.10

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 11540

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

At the end of an extensive stroll through and round his new vast domain, he had come to no decision upon a course of action. Certain details of the strange adventure pleased him-as, for instance, the dandy's welcoming recognition of his name; that, though puzzling, was a source of comfort to him in his difficulties. He also liked the suite; nay, more, he was much impressed by its gorgeousness, and such novel complications as the forked electric switches, all of which he [73] turned on, and the double windows, one within the other, appealed to the domestic expert in him; indeed, he at once had the idea of doubling the window of the best bedroom at home; to do so would be a fierce blow to the Five Towns Electric Traction Company, which, as everybody knew, delighted to keep everybody awake at night and at dawn by means of its late and its early tram-cars.

However, he could not wander up and down the glittering solitude of his extensive suite for ever. Something must be done. Then he had the notion of writing to Nellie; he had promised himself to write her daily; moreover, it would pass the time and perhaps help him to some resolution.

He sat down to a delicate Louis XVI. desk, on which lay a Bible, a Peerage, a telephone-book, a telephone, a lamp and much distinguished stationery. Between the tasselled folds of plushy curtains that pleated themselves with the grandeur of painted curtains in a theatre, he glanced out at the lights of Devonshire Square, from which not a sound came. Then he lit the lamp and unscrewed his fountain-pen.

"My dear wife-"

That was how he always began, whether in storm or sunshine. Nellie always began, "My darling husband," but he was not a man to fling "darlings" about. Few husbands in the Five Towns are. He thought "darling," but he never wrote it, and he never said it, save quizzingly.

After these three words the composition of the letter came to a pause. What was he going to tell Nellie? He assuredly was not going to tell her that he had engaged an unpriced suite at Wilkins's. He was not going to mention Wilkins's. Then he intelligently perceived that the [73] note-paper and also the envelope mentioned Wilkins's in no ambiguous manner. He tore up the sheet and searched for plain paper.

Now on the desk there was the ordinary hotel stationery, mourning stationery, cards, letter-cards and envelopes for every mood; but not a piece that was not embossed with the historic name in royal blue. The which appeared to Edward Henry to point to a defect of foresight on the part of Wilkins's. At the gigantic political club to which he belonged, and which he had occasionally visited in order to demonstrate to himself and others that he was a clubman, plain stationery was everywhere provided for the use of husbands with a taste for reticence. Why not at Wilkins's also?

On the other hand, why should he not write to his wife on Wilkins's paper? Was he afraid of his wife? He was not. Would not the news ultimately reach Bursley that he had stayed at Wilkins's? It would. Nevertheless, he could not find the courage to write to Nellie on Wilkins's paper.

He looked around. He was fearfully alone. He wanted the companionship, were it only momentary, of something human. He decided to have a look at the flunkey, and he rang a bell.

Immediately, just as though wafted thither on a magic carpet from the Court of Austria, a gentleman-in-waiting arrived in the doorway of the drawing-room, planted himself gracefully on his black silk calves, and bowed.

"I want some plain note-paper, please."

"Very good, sir." Oh! Perfection of tone and of mien!

Three minutes later the plain note-paper and envelopes were being [74] presented to Edward Henry on a salver. As he took them he looked inquiringly at the gentleman-in-waiting, who supported his gaze with an impenetrable, invulnerable servility. Edward Henry, beaten off with great loss, thought: "There's nothing doing here just now in the human companionship line," and assumed the mask of a hereditary prince.

The black calves carried away their immaculate living burden, set above all earthly ties.

He wrote nicely to Nellie about the weather and the journey and informed her also that London seemed as full as ever, and that he might go to the theatre but he wasn't sure. He dated the letter from the Majestic.

As he was finishing it he heard mysterious, disturbing footfalls in his private corridor, and after trying for some time to ignore them, he was forced by a vague alarm to investigate their origin. A short, middle-aged, pallid man, with a long nose and long moustaches, wearing a red-and-black-striped sleeved waistcoat and a white apron, was in the corridor. At the Turk's Head such a person would have been the boots. But Edward Henry remembered a notice under the bell, advising visitors to ring once for the waiter, twice for the chambermaid, and three times for the valet. This, then, was the valet. In certain picturesque details of costume Wilkins's was coquettishly French.

"What is it?" he demanded.

"I came to see if your luggage had arrived, sir. No doubt your servant is bringing it. Can I be of any assistance to you?"

The man thoughtfully twirled one end of his moustache. It was an appalling fault in demeanour; but the man was proud of his moustache.

"The first human being I've met here!" thought Edward Henry, attracted too by a gleam in the eye of this eternal haunter of corridors.

[75] "His servant!" He saw that something must be done, and quickly! Wilkins's provided valets for emergencies, but obviously it expected visitors to bring their own valets in addition. Obviously existence without a private valet was inconceivable to Wilkins's.

"The fact is," said Edwa

rd Henry, "I'm in a very awkward situation." He hesitated, seeking to and fro in his mind for particulars of the situation.

"Sorry to hear that, sir."

"Yes, a very awkward situation." He hesitated again. "I'd booked passages for myself and my valet on the Minnetonka, sailing from Tilbury at noon to-day, and sent him on in front with my stuff, and at the very last moment I've been absolutely prevented from sailing! You see how awkward it is! I haven't a thing here."

"It is indeed, sir. And I suppose he's gone on, sir?"

"Of course he has! He wouldn't find out till after she sailed that I wasn't on board. You know the crush and confusion there is on those big liners just before they start." Edward Henry had once assisted, under very dramatic circumstances, at the departure of a Transatlantic liner from Liverpool.

"Just so, sir!"

"I've neither servant nor clothes!" He considered that so far he was doing admirably. Indeed, the tale could not have been bettered, he thought. His hope was that the fellow would not have the idea of consulting the shipping intelligence in order to confirm the departure of the Minnetonka from Tilbury that day. Possibly the Minnetonka never had sailed and never would sail from Tilbury. Possibly she had been sold years ago. He had selected the first ship's [76] name that came into his head. What did it matter?

"My man," he added to clinch-the proper word "man" had only just occurred to him-"my man can't be back again under three weeks at the soonest."

The valet made one half-eager step towards him.

"If you're wanting a temporary valet, sir, my son's out of a place for the moment-through no fault of his own. He's a very good valet, sir, and soon learns a gentleman's ways."

"Yes," said Edward Henry, judiciously. "But could he come at once? That's the point." And he looked at his watch, as if to imply that another hour without a valet would be more than human nature could stand.

"I could have him round here in less than an hour, sir," said the hotel-valet, comprehending the gesture. "He's at Norwich Mews-Berkeley Square way, sir."

Edward Henry hesitated.

"Very well, then!" he said commandingly. "Send for him. Let me see him."

He thought:

"Dash it! I'm at Wilkins's-I'll be at Wilkins's!"

"Certainly, sir! Thank you very much, sir."

The hotel-valet was retiring when Edward Henry called him back.

"Stop a moment. I'm just going out. Help me on with my overcoat, will you?"

The man jumped.

"And you might get me a tooth-brush," Edward Henry airily suggested. "And I've a letter for the post."

[77] As he walked down Devonshire Square in the dark he hummed a tune; certain sign that he was self-conscious, uneasy, and yet not unhappy. At a small but expensive hosier's in a side street he bought a shirt and a suit of pyjamas, and also permitted himself to be tempted by a special job line of hair-brushes that the hosier had in his fancy department. On hearing the powerful word "Wilkins's," the hosier promised with passionate obsequiousness that the goods should be delivered instantly.

Edward Henry cooled his excitement by an extended stroll, and finally re-entered the outer hall of the hotel at half-past seven, and sat down therein to see the world. He knew by instinct that the boldest lounge-suit must not at that hour penetrate further into the public rooms of Wilkins's.

The world at its haughtiest was driving up to Wilkins's to eat its dinner in the unrivalled restaurant, and often guests staying at the hotel came into the outer hall to greet invited friends. And Edward Henry was so overfaced by visions of woman's brilliance and man's utter correctness that he scarcely knew where to look-so apologetic was he for his grey lounge-suit and the creases in his boots. In less than a quarter of an hour he appreciated with painful clearness that his entire conception of existence had been wrong, and that he must begin again at the beginning. Nothing in his luggage at the Majestic would do. His socks would not do, nor his shoes, nor the braid on his trousers, nor his cuff-links, nor his ready-made white bow, nor the number of studs in his shirt-front, nor the collar of his coat. Nothing! Nothing! To-morrow would be a full day.

He ventured apologetically into the lift. In his private corridor a [78] young man respectfully waited, hat in hand, the paternal red-and-black waistcoat by his side for purposes of introduction. The young man was wearing a rather shabby blue suit, but a rich and distinguished overcoat that fitted him ill. In another five minutes Edward Henry had engaged a skilled valet, aged twenty-four, name Joseph, with a testimonial of efficiency from Sir Nicholas Winkworth, Bart., at a salary of a pound a week and all found.

Joseph seemed to await instructions. And Edward Henry was placed in a new quandary. He knew not whether the small bedroom in the suite was for a child, or for his wife's maid, or for his valet. Quite probably it would be a sacrilegious defiance of precedent to put a valet in the small bedroom. Quite probably Wilkins's had a floor for private valets in the roof. Again, quite probably, the small bedroom might be, after all, specially destined for valets! He could not decide, and the most precious thing in the universe to him in that crisis was his reputation as a man-about-town in the eyes of Joseph.

But something had to be done.

"You'll sleep in this room," said Edward Henry, indicating the door. "I may want you in the night."

"Yes, sir," said Joseph.

"I presume you'll dine up here, sir," said Joseph, glancing at the lounge-suit.

His father had informed him of his new master's predicament.

"I shall," said Edward Henry. "You might get the menu."

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