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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 6175

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


As he came within striking distance of 262 Eaton Square he had the advantage of an unusual and brilliant spectacle.

Lord Woldo was one of the richest human beings in England-and incidentally he was very human. If he had been in a position to realize all his assets and go to America with the ready money, his wealth was such that even amid the luxurious society of Pittsburg he could have cut quite a figure for some time. He owned a great deal of [166] the land between Oxford Street and Regent Street, and again a number of the valuable squares north of Oxford Street were his, and as for Edgware Road-just as auctioneers advertise a couple of miles of trout-stream or salmon-river as a pleasing adjunct to a country estate, so, had Lord Woldo's estate come under the hammer, a couple of miles of Edgware Road might have been advertised as among its charms. Lord Woldo owned four theatres, and to each theatre he had his private entrance and in each theatre his private box, over which the management had no sway. The Woldos in their leases had always insisted on this.

He never built in London; his business was to let land for others to build upon, the condition being that what others built should ultimately belong to him. Thousands of people in London were only too delighted to build on these terms; he could pick and choose his builders. (The astute Edward Henry himself, for example, wanted furiously to build for him, and was angry because obstacles stood in the path of his desire.) It was constantly happening that under legal agreements some fine erection put up by another hand came into the absolute possession of Lord Waldo without one halfpenny of expense to Lord Woldo. Now and then a whole street would thus tumble all complete into his hands. The system, most agreeable for Lord Woldo and about a dozen other landlords in London, was called the leasehold system; and when Lord Woldo became the proprietor of some bricks and mortar that had cost him nothing, it was said that one of Lord Woldo's leases had "fallen in," and everybody was quite satisfied by this phrase.

In the provinces, besides castles, forests and moors, Lord Woldo owned [167] many acres of land under which was coal, and he allowed enterprising persons to dig deep for this coal, and often explode themselves to death in the adventure, on the understanding that they paid him sixpence for every ton of coal brought to the surface, whether they made any profit on it or not. This arrangement was called "mining rights," another phrase that apparently satisfied everybody.

It might be thought that Lord Woldo was, as they say, on velvet. But the velvet, if it could be so described, was not of so rich and comfortable a pile after all. For Lord Woldo's situation involved many and heavy responsibilities and was surrounded by grave dangers. He was the representative of an old order going down in the unforeseeable welter of twentieth-century politics. Numbers of thoughtful students of English conditions spent much of their time in wondering what would happen one day to the Lord Woldo

s of England. And when a really great strike came, and a dozen ex-artisans met in a private room of a West End hotel, and decided, without consulting Lord Woldo or the Prime Minister or anybody, that the commerce of the country should be brought to a standstill, these thoughtful students perceived that even Lord Woldo's situation was no more secure than other people's; in fact that it was rather less so.

There could be no doubt that the circumstances of Lord Woldo furnished him with food for thought-and very indigestible food too.... Why, at least one hundred sprightly female creatures were being brought up in the hope of marrying him. And they would all besiege him, and he could only marry one of them-at once!

Now as Edward Henry stopped as near to No. 262 as the presence of a waiting two-horse carriage permitted, he saw a grey-haired and [168] blue-cloaked woman solemnly descending the steps of the portico of No. 262. She was followed by another similar woman, and watched by a butler and a footman at the summit of the steps and by a footman on the pavement and by the coachman on the box of the carriage. She carried a thick and lovely white shawl, and in this shawl was Lord Woldo and all his many and heavy responsibilities. It was his fancy to take the air thus, in the arms of a woman. He allowed himself to be lifted into the open carriage, and the door of the carriage was shut; and off went the two ancient horses, slowly, and the two adult fat men and the two mature spinsters, and the vehicle weighing about a ton; and Lord Woldo's morning promenade had begun.

"Follow that!" said Edward Henry to the chauffeur and nipped into his brougham again. Nobody had told him that the being in the shawl was Lord Woldo, but he was sure that it must be so.

In twenty minutes he saw Lord Woldo being carried to and fro amid the groves of Hyde Park (one of the few bits of London earth that did not belong to him or to his more or less distant connections) while the carriage waited. Once Lord Woldo sat on a chair, but the chief nurse's lap was between him and the chair-seat. Both nurses chattered to him in Kensingtonian accents, but he offered no replies.

"Go back to 262," said Edward Henry to his chauffeur.

Arrived again in Eaton Square, he did not give himself time to be imposed upon by the grandiosity of the square in general, nor of No. 262 in particular. He just ran up the steps and rang the visitors' bell.

"After all," he said to himself as he waited, "these houses aren't [169] even semi-detached! They're just houses in a row, and I bet every one of 'em can hear the piano next door!"

The butler whom he had previously caught sight of opened the great portal.

"I want to see Lady Woldo."

"Her ladyship-" began the formidable official.

"Now, look here, my man," said Edward Henry, rather in desperation, "I must see Lady Woldo instantly. It's about the baby-"

"About his lordship?"

"Yes. And look lively, please."

He stepped into the sombre and sumptuous hall.

"Well," he reflected, "I am going it-no mistake!"

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