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The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 7415

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Two thoughts ran through his head, shooting in and out and to and fro among his complex sensations of pleasure. The first was that he had never been in such a fix before, despite his enterprising habits. And the second was that neither Elsie April nor anybody else connected with his affairs in London had ever asked him whether he was married, or assumed by any detail of behaviour towards him that there existed the possibility of his being married. Of course he might, had he chosen, have informed a few of them that a wife and children possessed him, but then really would not that have been equivalent to attaching a label to himself: "Married"? a procedure which had to him the stamp of provinciality.

Elsie April said nothing. And as she said nothing he was obliged to say something, if only to prove to both of them that he was not a mere tongue-tied provincial. He said:

[234] "You know I feel awfully out of it here in this Society of yours!"

"Out of it?" she exclaimed, and her voice thrilled as she resented his self-depreciation.

"It's over my head-right over it!"

"Now, Mr. Machin," she said, dropping somewhat that rich low voice, "I quite understand that there are some things about the Society you don't like, trifles that you're inclined to laugh at. I know that. Many of us know it. But it can't be helped in an organization like ours. It's even essential. Don't be too hard on us. Don't be sarcastic."

"But I'm not sarcastic!" he protested.

"Honest?" She turned to him quickly. He could descry her face in the gloom, and the forward bend of her shoulders, and the backward sweep of her arms resting on the seat, and the straight droop of her Egyptian shawl from her inclined body.

"Honest!" he solemnly insisted.

The exchange of this single word was so intimate that it shifted their conversation to a different level-level at which each seemed to be assuring the other that intercourse between them could never be aught but utterly sincere thenceforward, and that indeed in future they would constitute a little society of their own, ideal in its organization.

"Then you're too modest," she said decidedly. "There was no one here to-night who's more respected than you are. No one! Immediately I first spoke to you-I daresay you don't remember that afternoon at the Grand Babylon Hotel!-I knew you weren't like the rest. And don't I know them? Don't I know them?"

"But how did you know I'm not like the rest?" asked Edward Henry. The [235] line which she was taking had very much surprised him-and charmed him. The compliment, so serious and urgent in tone, was intensely agreeable, and it made an entirely new experience in his career. He thought: "Oh! there's no mistake about it. These London women are marvellous! They're just as straight and in earnest as the best of our little lot down there. But they've got something else. There's no comparison!" The unique word to describe the indescribable floated into his head: "Scrumptious!" What could not life be with such semi-divine creatures? He dreamt of art drawing-rooms softly shaded at midnight. And his attitude towards even poetry was modified.

"I knew you weren't like the rest," said she, "by your look. By the way you say everything you do say. We all know it. And I'm sure you're far more than clever enough to be perfectly aware that we all know it. Just see how everyone looked at you to-night!"

Yes, he had in fact been aware of the glances.

"I think I ought to tell you," she went on, "that I was rather unfair to you that day in talking about my cousin-in the taxi. You were quite right to refuse to go into partnership with her. She thinks so too. We've talked it over, and w

e're quite agreed. Of course it did seem hard-at the time, and her bad luck in America seemed to make it worse. But you were quite right. You can work much better alone. You must have felt that instinctively-far quicker than we felt it."

"Well," he murmured, confused, "I don't know-"

Could this be she who had too openly smiled at his skirmish with an artichoke?

"Oh, Mr. Machin!" she burst out. "You've got an unprecedented opportunity, and thank Heaven you're the man to use it! We're all [236] expecting so much from you, and we know we shan't be disappointed."

"D'ye mean the theatre?" he asked, alarmed as it were amid rising waters.

"The theatre," said she, gravely. "You're the one man that can save London. No one in London can do it!... You have the happiness of knowing what your mission is, and of knowing, too, that you are equal to it. What good fortune! I wish I could say as much for myself. I want to do something! I try! But what can I do? Nothing-really! You've no idea of the awful loneliness that comes from a feeling of inability."

"Loneliness," he repeated. "But surely-" he stopped.

"Loneliness," she insisted. Her little chin was now in her little hand, and her dim face upturned.

And suddenly a sensation of absolute and marvellous terror seized Edward Henry. He was more afraid than he had ever been-and yet once or twice in his life he had felt fear. His sense of true perspective-one of his most precious qualities-returned. He thought: "I've got to get out of this." Well, the door was not locked. It was only necessary to turn the handle, and security lay on the other side of the door! He had but to rise and walk. And he could not. He might just as well have been manacled in a prison-cell. He was under an enchantment.

"A man," murmured Elsie, "a man can never realize the loneliness-" She ceased.

He stirred uneasily.

"About this play," he found himself saying. And yet why should he mention the play in his fright? He pretended to himself not to know [237] why. But he knew why. His instinct had seen in the topic of the play the sole avenue of salvation.

"A wonderful thing, isn't it?"

"Oh, yes," he said. And then-most astonishingly to himself-added: "I've decided to do it."

"We knew you would," she said calmly. "At any rate I did.... You'll open with it, of course."

"Yes," he answered desperately. And proceeded, with the most extraordinary bravery, "If you'll act in it."

Immediately on hearing these last words issue from his mouth he knew that a fool had uttered them, and that the bravery was mere rashness. For Elsie's responding gesture reinspired him afresh with the exquisite terror which he had already begun to conjure away.

"You think Miss Euclid ought to have the part," he added quickly, before she could speak.

"Oh! I do!" cried Elsie, positively and eagerly. "Rose will do simply wonders with that part. You see she can speak verse. I can't. I'm nobody. I only took it because-"

"Aren't you anybody?" he contradicted. "Aren't you anybody? I can just tell you-"

There he was again, bringing back the delicious terror! An astounding situation!

But the door creaked. The babble from the stage invaded the room. And in a second the enchantment was lifted from him. Several people entered. He sighed, saying within himself to the disturbers:

"I'd have given you a hundred pounds apiece if you'd been five minutes sooner."

And yet simultaneously he regretted their arrival. And, more curious [238] still, though he well remembered the warning words of Mr. Seven Sachs concerning Elsie April, he did not consider that they were justified.... She had not been a bit persuasive ... only....

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