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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 13588

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The next morning, Joseph, having opened wide the window, informed his master that the weather was bright and sunny, and Edward Henry arose with just that pleasant degree of fatigue which persuades one that one is if anything rather more highly vitalized than usual. He sent for Mr. Bryany, as for a domestic animal, and Mr. Bryany, ceremoniously attired, was received by a sort of jolly king who happened to be trimming his beard in the royal bathroom but who was too good-natured to keep Mr. Bryany waiting. It is remarkable how the habit of royalty, having once taken root, will flourish in the minds of quite unmonarchical persons. Edward Henry first inquired after the health of Mr. Seven Sachs, and then obtained from Mr. Bryany all remaining papers and trifles of information concerning the affair of the option. Whereupon Mr. Bryany, apparently much elated by the honour of an informal reception, effusively retired. And Edward Henry too was so elated, and his faith in life so renewed and invigorated, that he said to himself:

"It might be worth while to shave my beard off, after all!"

As in his electric brougham he drove along muddy and shining Piccadilly, he admitted that Joseph's account of the weather had been very accurate. The weather was magnificent; it presented the best [146] features of summer combined with the salutary pungency of autumn. And flags were flying over the establishments of tobacconists, soothsayers and insurance companies in Piccadilly. And the sense of Empire was in the very air, like an intoxication. And there was no place like London. When, however, having run through Piccadilly into streets less superb, he reached the Majestic, it seemed to him that the Majestic was not a part of London, but a bit of the provinces surrounded by London. He was very disappointed with the Majestic, and took his letters from the clerk with careless condescension. In a few days the Majestic had sunk from being one of "London's huge caravanserais" to the level of a swollen Turk's Head. So fragile are reputations!

From the Majestic Edward Henry drove back into the regions of Empire, between Piccadilly and Regent Street, and deigned to call upon his tailors. A morning-suit which he had commanded being miraculously finished, he put it on, and was at once not only spectacularly but morally regenerated. The old suit, though it had cost five guineas in its time, looked a paltry and a dowdy thing as it lay, flung down anyhow, on one of Messrs Quayther & Cuthering's cane chairs in the mirrored cubicle where baronets and even peers showed their braces to the benign Mr. Cuthering.

"I want to go to Piccadilly Circus now. Stop at the fountain," said Edward Henry to his chauffeur. He gave the order somewhat defiantly, because he was a little self-conscious in the new and gleaming suit, and because he had an absurd idea that the chauffeur might guess that he, a provincial from the Five Towns, was about to venture into West End theatrical enterprise and sneer at him accordingly.

[147] But the chauffeur merely touched his cap with an indifferent and lofty gesture, as if to say:

"Be at ease. I have driven persons more moon-struck even than you. Human eccentricity has long since ceased to surprise me."

The fountain in Piccadilly Circus was the gayest thing in London. It mingled the fresh tinkling of water with the odour and flame of autumn blossoms and the variegated colours of shawled women who passed their lives on its margin engaged in the commerce of flowers. Edward Henry bought an aster from a fine bold, red-cheeked, blowsy, dirty wench with a baby in her arms, and left some change for the baby. He was in a very tolerant and charitable mood, and could excuse the sins and the stupidity of all mankind. He reflected forgivingly that Rose Euclid and her friends had perhaps not displayed an abnormal fatuity in discussing the name of the theatre before they had got the lease of the site for it. Had not he himself bought all the option without having even seen the site? The fact was that he had had no leisure in his short royal career for such details as seeing the site. He was now about to make good the omission.

It is a fact that as he turned northwards from Piccadilly Circus, to the right of the County Fire Office, in order to spy out the land upon which his theatre was to be built, he hesitated, under the delusion that all the passers-by were staring at him! He felt just as he might have felt had he been engaged upon some scheme nefarious. He even went back and pretended to examine the windows of the County Fire Office. Then, glancing self-consciously about, he discerned-not unnaturally-the words "Regent Street" on a sign.

"There you are!" he murmured, with a thrill. "There you are! There's [148] obviously only one name for that theatre-'The Regent.' It's close to Regent Street. No other theatre is called 'The Regent.' Nobody before ever had the idea of 'Regent' as a name for a theatre. 'Muses' indeed!... 'Intellectual'! ... 'The Regent Theatre'! How well it comes off the tongue! It's a great name! It'll be the finest name of any theatre in London! And it took yours truly to think of it!"

Then he smiled privately at his own weakness.... He too, like the despised Rose, was baptizing the unborn! Still, he continued to dream of the theatre, and began to picture to himself the ideal theatre. He discovered that he had quite a number of startling ideas about theatre-construction, based on his own experience as a playgoer.

When, with new courage, he directed his feet towards the site, upon which he knew there was an old chapel known as Queen's Glasshouse Chapel, whose ownership had slipped from the nerveless hand of a dying sect of dissenters, he could not find the site and he could not see the chapel. For an instant he was perturbed by a horrid suspicion that he had been victimized by a gang of swindlers posing as celebrated persons. Everything was possible in this world and century! None of the people who had appeared in the transaction had resembled his previous conceptions of such people! And confidence-thieves always operated in the grandest hotels! He immediately decided that if the sequel should prove him to be a simpleton and gull, he would at any rate be a silent simpleton and gull. He would stoically bear the loss of two hundred pounds and breathe no word of woe.

But then he remembered with relief that he had genuinely recognized [149] both Rose Euclid and Seven Sachs; and also that Mr. Bryany, among other documents, had furnished him with a photograph of the Chapel and surrounding property. The Chapel therefore existed. He had a plan in his pocket. He now opened this plan and tried to consult it in the middle of the street, but his agitation wa

s such that he could not make out on it which was north and which was south. After he had been nearly prostrated by a taxi-cab, a policeman came up to him and said, with all the friendly disdain of a London policeman addressing a provincial:

"Safer to look at that on the pavement, sir!"

Edward Henry glanced up from the plan.

"I was trying to find the Queen's Glasshouse Chapel, officer," said he. "Have you ever heard of it?"

(In Bursley, members of the Town Council always flattered members of the Force by addressing them as "officer"; and Edward Henry knew exactly the effective intonation.)

"It was there, sir," said the policeman, less disdainful, pointing to a narrow hoarding behind which could be seen the back-walls of high buildings in Shaftesbury Avenue. "They've just finished pulling it down."

"Thank you," said Edward Henry, quietly, with a superb and successful effort to keep as much colour in his face as if the policeman had not dealt him a dizzying blow.

He then walked towards the hoarding, but could scarcely feel the ground under his feet. From a wide aperture in the palisades a cart full of earth was emerging; it creaked and shook as it was dragged by [150] a labouring horse over loose planks into the roadway; a whip-cracking carter hovered on its flank. Edward Henry approached the aperture and gazed within. An elegant young man stood solitary inside the hoarding and stared at a razed expanse of land in whose furthest corner some navvies were digging a hole....

The site!

But what did this sinister destructive activity mean? Nobody was entitled to interfere with property on which he, Alderman Machin, held an unexpired option! But was it the site? He perused the plan again with more care. Yes, there could be no doubt that it was the site. His eye roved round and he admitted the justice of the boast that an electric sign displayed at the southern front corner of the theatre would be visible from Piccadilly Circus, Lower Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, etc., etc. He then observed a large notice-board, raised on posts above the hoardings, and read the following:

SITE

OF THE

FIRST NEW THOUGHT CHURCH

to be opened next Spring.

Subscriptions invited.

Rollo Wrissell: Senior Trustee. Ralph Alloyd:

Architect. Dicks & Pato: Builders.

The name of Rollo Wrissell seemed familiar to him, and after a few moments' searching he recalled that Rollo Wrissell was one of the trustees and executors of the late Lord Woldo, the other being the [151] widow-and the mother of the new Lord Woldo. In addition to the lettering the notice-board held a graphic representation of the First New Thought Church as it would be when completed.

"Well," said Edward Henry, not perhaps unjustifiably, "this really is a bit thick! Here I've got an option on a plot of land for building a theatre, and somebody else has taken it to put up a church!"

He ventured inside the hoarding, and addressing the elegant young man asked:

"You got anything to do with this, mister?"

"Well," said the young man, smiling humorously, "I'm the architect. It's true that nobody ever pays any attention to an architect in these days."

"Oh! You're Mr. Alloyd?"

"I am."

Mr. Alloyd had black hair, intensely black, changeful eyes, and the expressive mouth of an actor.

"I thought they were going to build a theatre here," said Edward Henry.

"I wish they had been!" said Mr. Alloyd. "I'd just like to design a theatre! But of course I shall never get the chance."

"Why not?"

"I know I shan't," Mr. Alloyd insisted with gloomy disgust. "Only obtained this job by sheer accident! ... You got any ideas about theatres?"

"Well, I have," said Edward Henry.

Mr. Alloyd turned on him with a sardonic and half-benevolent gleam.

"And what are your ideas about theatres?"

"Well," said Edward Henry, "I should like to meet an architect who had thoroughly got it into his head that when people pay for seats to see a play they want to be able to see it, and not just get a look [152] at it now and then over other people's heads and round corners of boxes and things. In most theatres that I've been in the architects seemed to think that iron pillars and wooden heads are transparent. Either that, or the architects were rascals! Same with hearing! The pit costs half-a-crown, and you don't pay half-a-crown to hear glasses rattled in a bar or motor-omnibuses rushing down the street. I was never yet in a London theatre where the architect had really understood that what the people in the pit wanted to hear was the play and nothing but the play."

"You're rather hard on us," said Mr. Alloyd.

"Not so hard as you are on us!" said Edward Henry. "And then draughts! I suppose you think a draught on the back of the neck is good for us!... But of course you'll say all this has nothing to do with architecture!"

"Oh, no, I shan't! Oh, no, I shan't!" exclaimed Mr. Alloyd. "I quite agree with you!"

"You do?"

"Certainly. You seem to be interested in theatres?"

"I am a bit."

"You come from the north?"

"No, I don't," said Edward Henry. Mr. Alloyd had no right to be aware that he was not a Londoner.

"I beg your pardon."

"I come from the Midlands."

"Oh!... Have you seen the Russian Ballet?"

Edward Henry had not-nor heard of it. "Why?" he asked.

"Nothing," said Mr. Alloyd. "Only I saw it the night before last in [153] Paris. You never saw such dancing. It's enchanted-enchanted! The most lovely thing I ever saw in my life. I couldn't sleep for it. Not that I ever sleep very well!-I merely thought, as you were interested in theatres-and Midland people are so enterprising!... Have a cigarette?"

Edward Henry, who had begun to feel sympathetic, was somewhat repelled by these odd last remarks. After all the man, though human enough, was an utter stranger.

"No thanks," he said. "And so you're going to put up a church here?"

"Yes."

"Well, I wonder whether you are."

He walked abruptly away under Alloyd's riddling stare, and he could almost hear the man saying, "Well, he's a queer lot, if you like."

At the corner of the site, below the spot where his electric sign was to have been, he was stopped by a well-dressed middle-aged lady who bore a bundle of papers.

"Will you buy a paper for the cause?" she suggested in a pleasant, persuasive tone. "One penny."

He obeyed, and she handed him a small blue-printed periodical of which the title was "Azure, the Organ of the New Thought Church." He glanced at it, puzzled, and then at the middle-aged lady.

"Every penny of profit goes to the Church Building Fund," she said, as if in defence of her action.

Edward Henry burst out laughing; but it was a nervous, half-hysterical laugh that he laughed.

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