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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 14426

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Within ten minutes, within less than ten minutes, Alderman Edward Henry Machin's supper-party at Wilkins's was so wonderfully changed [96] for the better that Edward Henry might have been excused for not recognizing it as his own.

The service at Wilkins's, where they profoundly understood human nature, was very intelligent. Somewhere in a central bureau at Wilkins's sat a psychologist, who knew, for example, that a supper commanded on the spur of the moment must be produced instantly if it is to be enjoyed. Delay in these capricious cases impairs the ecstasy and therefore lessens the chance of other similar meals being commanded at the same establishment. Hence, no sooner had the gentleman-in-waiting disappeared with the order than certain esquires appeared with the limbs and body of a table which they set up in Edward Henry's drawing-room, and they covered the board with a damask cloth and half covered the damask cloth with flowers, glasses and plates, and laid a special private wire from the skirting-board near the hearth to a spot on the table beneath Edward Henry's left hand, so that he could summon courtiers on the slightest provocation with the minimum of exertion. Then immediately brown bread-and-butter and lemons and red-pepper came, followed by oysters, followed by bottles of pale wine, both still and sparkling. Thus, before the principal dishes had even begun to frizzle in the distant kitchens, the revellers were under the illusion that the entire supper was waiting just outside the door....

Yes, they were revellers now! For the advent of her young men had transformed Rose Euclid, and Rose Euclid had transformed the general situation. At the table, Edward Henry occupied one side of it, Mr. Seven Sachs occupied the side opposite, Mr. Marrier, the very, very talented young manager, occupied the side to Edward Henry's left, and Rose Euclid and Carlo Trent together occupied the side to his right.

[97] Trent and Marrier were each about thirty years of age. Trent, with a deep voice, had extremely lustrous eyes, which eyes continually dwelt on Rose Euclid in admiration. Apparently, all she needed in this valley was oysters and admiration, and she now had both in unlimited quantities.

"Oysters are darlings," she said, as she swallowed the first.

Carlo Trent kissed her hand, respectfully-for she was old enough to be his mother.

"And you are the greatest tragic actress in the world, Ra-ose!" said he in the Kensingtonian bass.

A few moments earlier Rose Euclid had whispered to Edward Henry that Carlo Trent was the greatest dramatic poet in the world. She flowered now beneath the sun of those dark lustrous eyes and the soft rain of that admiration from the greatest dramatic poet in the world. It really did seem to Edward Henry that she grew younger. Assuredly she grew more girlish and her voice improved. And then the bottles began to pop, and it was as though the action of uncorking wine automatically uncorked hearts also. Mr. Seven Sachs, sitting square and upright, smiled gaily at Edward Henry across the gleaming table and raised a glass. Little Marrier, who at nearly all times had a most enthusiastic smile, did the same. In the result five glasses met over the central bed of chrysanthemums. Edward Henry was happy. Surrounded by enigmas-for he had no conception whatever why Rose Euclid had brought any of the three men to his table-he was nevertheless uplifted.

As he looked about him, at the rich table, and at the glittering chandelier overhead (albeit the lamps thereof were inferior to his own), and at the expanses of soft carpet, and at the silken-textured [98] walls, and at the voluptuous curtains, and at the couple of impeccable gentlemen in-waiting, and at Joseph, who knew his place behind his master's chair-he came to the justifiable conclusion that money was a marvellous thing, and the workings of commerce mysterious and beautiful. He had invented the Five Towns Thrift Club; working men and their wives in the Five Towns were paying their twopences and sixpences and shillings weekly into his club, and finding the transaction a real convenience-and lo! he was entertaining celebrities at Wilkins's.

For, mind you, they were celebrities. He knew Seven Sachs was a celebrity because he had verily seen him act-and act very well-in his own play, and because his name in letters a foot high had dominated all the hoardings of the Five Towns. As for Rose Euclid, could there be a greater celebrity? Such was the strange power of the popular legend concerning her that even now, despite the first fearful shock of disappointment, Edward Henry could not call her by her name without self-consciously stumbling over it, without a curious thrill. And further, he was revising his judgment of her, as well as lowering her age slightly. On coming into the room she had doubtless been almost as startled as himself, and her constrained muteness had been probably due to a guilty feeling in the matter of passing too open remarks to a friend about a perfect stranger's manner of eating artichokes. The which supposition flattered him. (By the way, he wished she had brought the young friend who had shared her amusement over his artichokes.) With regard to the other two men, he was quite ready to believe that Carlo Trent was the world's greatest dramatic poet, and to admit the exceeding talent of Mr. Marrier as a theatrical manager.... In fact, unmistakable celebrities, one and all! He himself [99] was a celebrity. A certain quality in the attitude of each of his guests showed clearly that they considered him a celebrity, and not only a celebrity but a card-Bryany must have been talking-and the conviction of this rendered him happy. His magnificent hunger rendered him still happier. And the reflection that Brindley owed him half-a-crown put a top on his bliss!

"I like your dressing-gown, Mr. Machin," said Carlo Trent, suddenly, after his first spoonful of soup.

"Then I needn't apologize for it!" Edward Henry replied.

"It is the dressing-gown of my dreams," Carlo Trent went on.

"Well," said Edward Henry, "as we're on the subject, I like your shirt-front."

Carlo Trent was wearing a soft shirt. The other three shirts were all rigidly starched. Hitherto Edward Henry had imagined that a fashionable evening shirt should be, before aught else, bullet-proof. He now appreciated the distinction of a frilled and gently flowing breast-plate, especially when a broad purple eyeglass ribbon wandered across it. Rose Euclid gazed in modest transport at Carlo's chest.

"The colour," Carlo proceeded, ignoring Edward Henry's compliment, "the colour is inspiring. So is the texture. I have a woman's delight in textures. I could certainly produce better hexameters in such a dressing-gown."

Although Edward Henry, owing to an unfortunate hiatus in his education, did not know what a hexameter might be, he was artist enough to comprehend the effect of attire on creative work, for he had noticed that he himself could make more money in one necktie than in another, and he would instinctively take particular care in the [100] morning choice of a cravat on days when he meditated a great coup

.

"Why don't you get one?" Marrier suggested.

"Do you really think I could?" asked Carlo Trent, as if the possibility were shimmering far out of his reach like a rainbow.

"Rather!" smiled Harrier. "I don't mind laying a fiver that Mr. Machin's dressing-gown came from Drook's in Old Bond Street." But instead of saying "Old" he said "Ehoold."

"It did," Edward Henry admitted.

Mr. Marrier beamed with satisfaction.

"Drook's, you say," murmured Carlo Trent. "Old Bond Street," and wrote down the information on his shirt cuff.

Rose Euclid watched him write.

"Yes, Carlo," said she. "But don't you think we'd better begin to talk about the theatre? You haven't told me yet if you got hold of Longay on the 'phone."

"Of course we got hold of him," said Marrier. "He agrees with me that 'The Intellectual' is a better name for it."

Rose Euclid clapped her hands.

"I'm so glad!" she cried. "Now what do you think of it as a name, Mr. Machin-'The Intellectual Theatre'? You see it's most important we should settle on the name, isn't it?"

It is no exaggeration to say that Edward Henry felt a wave of cold in the small of his back, and also a sinking away of the nevertheless quite solid chair on which he sat. He had more than the typical Englishman's sane distrust of that morbid word 'Intellectual.' His attitude towards it amounted to active dislike. If ever he used it, he would on no account use it alone; he would say, "Intellectual and all [101] that sort of thing!" with an air of pushing violently away from him everything that the phrase implied. The notion of baptizing a theatre with the fearsome word horrified him. Still, he had to maintain his nerve and his repute. So he drank some champagne, and smiled nonchalantly as the imperturbable duellist smiles while the pistols are being examined.

"Well-" he murmured.

"You see," Marrier broke in, with the smile ecstatic, almost dancing on his chair. "There's no use in compromise. Compromise is and always [102] has been the curse of this country. The unintellectual drahma is dead-dead. Naoobody can deny that. All the box-offices in the West are proclaiming it-"

"Should you call your play intellectual, Mr. Sachs?" Edward Henry inquired across the table.

"I scarcely know," said Mr. Seven Sachs, calmly. "I know I've played it myself fifteen hundred and two times, and that's saying nothing of my three subsidiary companies on the road."

"What is Mr. Sachs's play?" asked Carlo Trent, fretfully.

"Don't you know, Carlo?" Rose Euclid patted him. "'Overheard.'"

"Oh! I've never seen it."

"But it was on all the hoardings!"

"I never read the hoardings," said Carlo. "Is it in verse?"

"No, it isn't," Mr. Seven Sachs briefly responded. "But I've made over six hundred thousand dollars out of it."

"Then of course it's intellectual!" asserted Mr. Marrier, positively. "That proves it. I'm very sorry I've not seen it either; but it must be intellectual. The day of the unintellectual drahma is over. The people won't have it. We must have faith in the people, and we can't show our faith better than by calling our theatre by its proper name-'The Intellectual Theatre'!"

("His theatre!" thought Edward Henry. "What's he got to do with it?")

"I don't know that I'm so much in love with your 'Intellectual,'" muttered Carlo Trent.

"Aren't you?" protested Rose Euclid, shocked.

"Of course I'm not," said Carlo. "I told you before, and I tell you now, that there's only one name for the theatre-'The Muses' Theatre!'"

"Perhaps you're right!" Rose agreed, as if a swift revelation had come to her. "Yes, you're right."

("She'll make a cheerful sort of partner for a fellow," thought Edward Henry, "if she's in the habit of changing her mind like that every thirty seconds." His appetite had gone. He could only drink.)

"Naturally, I'm right! Aren't we going to open with my play, and isn't my play in verse?... I'm sure you'll agree with me, Mr. Machin, that there is no real drama except the poetical drama."

Edward Henry was entirely at a loss. Indeed, he was drowning in his dressing-gown, so favourable to the composition of hexameters.

"Poetry ..." he vaguely breathed.

"Yes, sir," said Carlo Trent. "Poetry."

"I've never read any poetry in my life," said Edward Henry, like a desperate criminal. "Not a line."

Whereupon Carlo Trent rose up from his seat, and his eyeglasses dangled in front of him.

"Mr. Machin," said he with the utmost benevolence. "This is the most [103] interesting thing I've ever come across. Do you know, you're precisely the man I've always been wanting to meet?... The virgin mind. The clean slate.... Do you know, you're precisely the man that it's my ambition to write for?"

"It's very kind of you," said Edward Henry, feebly; beaten, and consciously beaten.

(He thought miserably:

"What would Nellie think if she saw me in this gang?")

Carlo Trent went on, turning to Rose Euclid:

"Rose, will you recite those lines of Nashe?"

Rose Euclid began to blush.

"That bit you taught me the day before yesterday?"

"Only the three lines! No more! They are the very essence of poetry-poetry at its purest. We'll see the effect of them on Mr. Machin. We'll just see. It's the ideal opportunity to test my theory. Now, there's a good girl!"

"Oh! I can't. I'm too nervous," stammered Rose.

"You can, and you must," said Carlo, gazing at her in homage. "Nobody in the world can say them as well as you can. Now!"

Rose Euclid stood up.

"One moment," Carlo stopped her. "There's too much light. We can't do with all this light. Mr. Machin-do you mind?"

A wave of the hand and all the lights were extinguished, save a lamp on the mantelpiece, and in the disconcertingly darkened room Rose Euclid turned her face towards the ray from this solitary silk-shaded globe.

[104] Her hand groped out behind her, found the table-cloth and began to scratch it agitatedly. She lifted her head. She was the actress, impressive and subjugating, and Edward Henry felt her power. Then she intoned:

"Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen's eye."

And she ceased and sat down. There was a silence.

"Bra vo!" murmured Carlo Trent.

"Bravo!" murmured Mr. Marrier.

Edward Henry in the gloom caught Mr. Seven Sachs's unalterable observant smile across the table.

"Well, Mr. Machin?" said Carlo Trent.

Edward Henry had felt a tremor at the vibrations of Rose Euclid's voice. But the words she uttered had set up no clear image in his mind, unless it might be of some solid body falling from the air, or of a young woman named Helen, walking along Trafalgar Road, Bursley, on a dusty day, and getting the dust in her eyes. He knew not what to answer.

"Is that all there is of it?" he asked at length.

Carlo Trent said:

"It's from Thomas Nashe's 'Song in Time of Pestilence.' The closing lines of the verse are:

'I am sick, I must die-

Lord, have mercy on me!'"

"Well," said Edward Henry, recovering, "I rather like the end. I think the end's very appropriate."

[105] Mr. Seven Sachs choked over his wine, and kept on choking.

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