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   Chapter 25 No.25

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 16117

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Sole proprietor of the Regent Theatre."

These were the words which Edward Henry wrote on a visiting-card and which procured him immediate admittance to the unique spectacle-reputed to be one of the most enthralling sights in London-of Sir John Pilgrim at breakfast.

In a very spacious front-room of his flat (so celebrated for its Gobelins tapestries and its truly wonderful parquet-flooring) sat Sir [186] John Pilgrim at a large hexagonal mahogany table. At one side of the table a small square of white diaper was arranged, and on this square were an apparatus for boiling eggs, another for making toast, and a third for making coffee. Sir John, with the assistance of a young Chinaman and a fox-terrier, who flitted around him, was indeed eating and drinking. The vast remainder of the table was gleamingly bare, save for newspapers and letters opened and unopened which Sir John tossed about. Opposite to him sat a secretary whose fluffy hair, neat white chemisette, and tender years gave her an appearance of helpless fragility in front of the powerful and ruthless celebrity. Sir John's crimson-socked left foot stuck out from the table, emerging from the left half of a lovely new pair of brown trousers, and resting on a piece of white paper. Before this white paper knelt a man in a frock-coat who was drawing an outline on the paper round Sir John's foot.

"You are a bootmaker, aren't you?" Sir John was saying airily.

"Yes, Sir John."

"Excuse me!" said Sir John. "I only wanted to be sure. I fancied from the way you caressed my corn with that pencil that you might be an artist on one of the illustrated papers. My mistake!" He was bending down. Then suddenly straightening himself he called across the room: "I say, Givington, did you notice my pose then-my expression as I used the word 'caressed'? How would that do?"

And Edward Henry now observed in a corner of the room a man, standing in front of an easel and sketching somewhat grossly thereon in charcoal. This man said:

[187] "If you won't bother me, Sir John, I won't bother you."

"Ah! Givington! Ah! Givington!" murmured Sir John still more airily-at breakfast he was either airy or nothing. "You're getting on in the world. You aren't merely an A.R.A.;-you're making money! A year ago you'd never have had the courage to address me in that tone. Well, I sincerely congratulate you.... Here, Snip, here's my dentist's bill-worry it, worry it! Good dog! Worry it!" (The dog growled now over a torn document beneath the table.) "Miss Taft, you might see that a communique goes out to the effect that I gave my first sitting to Mr. Saracen Givington, A.R.A., this morning. The activities of Mr. Saracen Givington are of interest to the world, and rightly so! You'd better come round to the other side for the right foot, Mr. Bootmaker. The journey is simply nothing."

And then, and not till then, did Sir John Pilgrim turn his large and handsome middle-aged blond face in the direction of Alderman Edward Henry Machin.

"Pardon my curiosity," said Sir John, "but who are you?"

"My name is Machin-Alderman Machin," said Edward Henry. "I sent up my card and you asked me to come in."

[188] "Ha!" Sir John exclaimed, seizing an egg. "Will you crack an egg with me, Alderman? I can crack an egg with anybody."

"Thanks," said Edward Henry. "I'll be very glad to." And he advanced towards the table.

Sir John hesitated. The fact was that, though he dissembled his dismay with marked histrionic skill, he was unquestionably overwhelmed by astonishment. In the course of years he had airily invited hundreds of callers to crack an egg with him-the joke was one of his favourites-but nobody had ever ventured to accept the invitation.

"Chung," he said weakly, "lay a cover for the Alderman."

Edward Henry sat down quite close to Sir John. He could discern all the details of Sir John's face and costume. The tremendous celebrity was wearing a lounge-suit somewhat like his own, but instead of the coat he had a blue dressing-jacket with crimson facings; the sleeves ended in rather long wristbands, which were unfastened, the opal cuff-links drooping each from a single hole. Perhaps for the first time in his life Edward Henry intimately understood what idiosyncratic elegance was. He could almost feel the emanating personality of Sir John Pilgrim, and he was intimidated by it; he was intimidated by its hardness, its harshness, its terrific egotism, its utterly brazen quality. Sir John's glance was the most purely arrogant that Edward Henry had ever encountered. It knew no reticence. And Edward Henry thought: "When this chap dies he'll want to die in public, with the reporters round his bed and a private secretary taking down messages."

"This is rather a lark," said Sir John, recovering.

"It is," said Edward Henry, who now felicitously perceived that a lark it indeed was, and ought to be treated as such. "It shall be a lark!" he said to himself.

Sir John dictated a letter to Miss Taft, and before the letter was finished the grinning Chung had laid a place for Edward Henry, and Snip had inspected him and passed him for one of the right sort.

"Had I said that this is rather a lark?" Sir John inquired, the letter accomplished.

[189] "I forget," said Edward Henry.

"Because I don't like to say the same thing twice over if I can help it. It is a lark though, isn't it?"

"Undoubtedly," said Edward Henry, decapitating an egg. "I only hope that I'm not interrupting you."

"Not in the least," said Sir John. "Breakfast is my sole free time. In another half hour I assure you I shall be attending to three or four things at once." He leant over towards Edward Henry. "But between you and me, Alderman, quite privately, if it isn't a rude question, what did you come for?"

"Well," said Edward Henry, "as I wrote on my card, I'm the sole proprietor of the Regent Theatre-"

"But there is no Regent Theatre," Sir John interrupted him.

"No. Not strictly. But there will be. It's in course of construction. We're up to the first floor."

"Dear me! A suburban theatre, no doubt?"

"Do you mean to say, Sir John," cried Edward Henry, "that you haven't noticed it? It's within a few yards of Piccadilly Circus."

"Really!" said Sir John. "You see my theatre is in Lower Regent Street and I never go to Piccadilly Circus. I make a point of not going to Piccadilly Circus. Miss Taft, how long is it since I went to Piccadilly Circus? Forgive me, young woman, I was forgetting-you aren't old enough to remember. Well, never mind details.... And what is there remarkable about the Regent Theatre, Alderman?"

"I intend it to be a theatre of the highest class, Sir John," said Edward Henry. "Nothing but the very best will be seen on its boards."

"That's not remarkable, Alderman. We're all like that. Haven't you noticed it?"

[190] "Then secondly," said Edward Henry, "I am the sole proprietor. I have no financial backers, no mortgages, no partners. I have made no contracts with anybody."

"That," said Sir John, "is not unremarkable. In fact many persons who do not happen to possess my own robust capacity for belief might not credit your statement."

"And thirdly," said Edward Henry, "every member of the audience-even in the boxes, the most expensive seats-will have a full view of the whole of the stage-or, in the alternative, at matinées, a full view of a lady's hat."

"Alderman," said Sir John, gravely, "before I offer you another egg, let me warn you against carrying remarkableness too far. You may be regarded as eccentric if you go on like that. Some people, I am told, don't want a view of the stage."

"Then they had better not come to my theatre," said Edward Henry.

"All which," commented Sir John, "gives me no clue whatever to the reason why you are sitting here by my side and calmly eating my eggs and toast, and drinking my coffee."

Admittedly, Edward Henry was nervous. Admittedly, he was a provincial in the presence of one of the most illustrious personages i

n the Empire. Nevertheless, he controlled his nervousness, and reflected:

"Nobody else from the Five Towns would or could have done what I am doing. Moreover, this chap is a mountebank. In the Five Towns they would kow-tow to him, but they would laugh at him. They would mighty soon add him up. Why should I be nervous? I'm as good as he is." He finished with the thought which has inspired many a timid man [191] with new courage in a desperate crisis: "The fellow can't eat me."

Then he said aloud:

"I want to ask you a question, Sir John."

"One?"

"One. Are you the head of the theatrical profession, or is Sir Gerald Pompey?"

"Sir Gerald Pompey?"

"Sir Gerald Pompey. Haven't you seen the papers this morning?"

Sir John Pilgrim turned pale. Springing up, he seized the topmost of an undisturbed pile of daily papers, and feverishly opened it.

"Bah!" he muttered.

He was continually thus imitating his own behaviour on the stage. The origin of his renowned breakfasts lay in the fact that he had once played the part of a millionaire-ambassador who juggled at breakfast with his own affairs and the affairs of the world. The stage-breakfast of a millionaire-ambassador created by a playwright on the verge of bankruptcy had appealed to his imagination and influenced all the mornings of his life.

"They've done it just to irritate me as I'm starting off on my world's tour," he muttered, coursing round the table. Then he stopped and gazed at Edward Henry. "This is a political knighthood," said he. "It has nothing to do with the stage. It is not like my knighthood, is it?"

"Certainly not," Edward Henry agreed. "But you know how people will talk, Sir John. People will be going about this very morning and saying that Sir Gerald is at last the head of the theatrical profession. I came here for your authoritative opinion. I know you're unbiased."

[192] Sir John resumed his chair.

"As for Pompey's qualifications as a head," he murmured, "I know nothing of them. I fancy his heart is excellent. I only saw him twice, once in his own theatre, and once in Bond Street. I should be inclined to say that on the stage he looks more like a gentleman than any gentleman ought to look, and that in the street he might be mistaken for an actor.... How will that suit you?"

"It's a clue," said Edward Henry.

"Alderman!" exclaimed Sir John, "I believe that if I didn't keep a firm hand on myself I should soon begin to like you. Have another cup of coffee. Chung!... Good-bye, Bootmaker, good-bye!"

"I only want to know for certain who is the head," said Edward Henry, "because I mean to invite the head of the theatrical profession to lay the corner-stone of my new theatre."

"Ah!"

"When do you start on your world's tour, Sir John?"

"I leave Tilbury, with my entire company, scenery and effects, on the morning of Tuesday week, by the Kandahar. I shall play first at Cairo."

"How awkward!" said Edward Henry. "I meant to ask you to lay the stone on the very next afternoon-Wednesday, that is!"

"Indeed!"

"Yes, Sir John. The ceremony will be a very original affair-very original!"

"A foundation-stone-laying!" mused Sir John. "But if you're already up to the first floor, how can you be laying the foundation-stone on Wednesday week?"

"I didn't say foundation-stone. I said corners-tone," Edward Henry [193] corrected him. "An entire novelty! That's why we can't be ready before Wednesday week."

"And you want to advertise your house by getting the head of the profession to assist?"

"That is exactly my idea."

"Well," said Sir John, "whatever else you may lack, Mr. Alderman, you are not lacking in nerve, if you expect to succeed in that."

Edward Henry smiled. "I have already heard, in a roundabout way," he replied, "that Sir Gerald Pompey would not be unwilling to officiate. My only difficulty is that I'm a truthful man by nature. Whoever officiates I shall of course have to have him labelled, in my own interests, as the head of the theatrical profession, and I don't want to say anything that isn't true."

There was a pause.

"Now, Sir John, couldn't you stay a day or two longer in London, and join the ship at Marseilles instead of going on board at Tilbury?"

"But I have made all my arrangements. The whole world knows that I am going on board at Tilbury."

Just then the door opened, and a servant announced:

"Mr. Carlo Trent."

Sir John Pilgrim rushed like a locomotive to the threshold and seized both Carlo Trent's hands with such a violence of welcome that Carlo Trent's eyeglass fell out of his eye and the purple ribbon dangled to his waist.

"Come in, come in!" said Sir John. "And begin to read at once. I've been looking out of the window for you for the last quarter of an [194] hour. Alderman, this is Mr. Carlo Trent, the well-known dramatic poet. Trent, this is one of the greatest geniuses in London.... Ah! You know each other? It's not surprising! No, don't stop to shake hands. Sit down here, Trent. Sit down on this chair.... Here, Snip, take his hat. Worry it! Worry it! Now, Trent, don't read to me. It might make you nervous and hurried. Read to Miss Taft and Chung and to Mr. Givington over there. Imagine that they are the great and enlightened public. You have imagination, haven't you, being a poet?"

Sir John had accomplished the change of mood with the rapidity of a transformation scene-in which form of art, by the way, he was a great adept.

Carlo Trent, somewhat breathless, took a manuscript from his pocket, opened it, and announced: "The Orient Pearl."

"Oh!" breathed Edward Henry.

For some thirty minutes Edward Henry listened to hexameters, the first he had ever heard. The effect of them on his moral organism was worse than he had expected. He glanced about at the other auditors. Givington had opened a box of tubes and was spreading colours on his palette. The Chinaman's eyes were closed while his face still grinned. Snip was asleep on the parquet. Miss Taft bit the end of a pencil with her agreeable teeth. Sir John Pilgrim lay at full length on a sofa, occasionally lifting his legs. Edward Henry despaired of help in his great need. But just as his desperation was becoming too acute to be borne, Carlo Trent ejaculated the word "Curtain." It was the first word that Edward Henry had clearly understood.

"That's the first act," said Carlo Trent, wiping his face. Snip awakened.

[195] Edward Henry rose, and, in the hush, tiptoed round to the sofa.

"Good-bye, Sir John," he whispered.

"You're not going?"

"I am, Sir John."

The head of his profession sat up. "How right you are!" said he. "How right you are! Trent, I knew from the first words it wouldn't do. It lacks colour. I want something more crimson, more like the brighter parts of this jacket, something-" He waved hands in the air. "The Alderman agrees with me. He's going. Don't trouble to read any more, Trent. But drop in any time-any time. Chung, what o'clock is it?"

"It is nearly noon," said Edward Henry, in the tone of an old friend. "Well, I'm sorry you can't oblige me, Sir John. I'm off to see Sir Gerald Pompey now."

"But who says I can't oblige you?" protested Sir John. "Who knows what sacrifices I would not make in the highest interests of the profession? Alderman, you jump to conclusions with the agility of an acrobat, but they are false conclusions! Miss Taft, the telephone! Chung, my coat! Good-bye, Trent, good-bye!"

An hour later Edward Henry met Mr. Marrier at the Grand Babylon Hotel.

"Well, sir," said Mr. Marrier, "you are the greatest man that ever lived!"

"Why?"

Mr. Marrier showed him the stop-press news of a penny evening paper, which read: "Sir John Pilgrim has abandoned his ceremonious departure from Tilbury, in order to lay the corner-stone of the new Regent [196] Theatre on Wednesday week. He and Miss Cora Pryde will join the Kandahar at Marseilles."

"You needn't do any advertaysing," said Mr. Marrier. "Pilgrim will do all the advertaysing for you."

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