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The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 5546

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


One afternoon Edward Henry sat in the king of all the easy-chairs in the drawing-room of his house in Trafalgar Road, Bursley. Although [311] the month was September, and the weather warm even for September, a swansdown quilt lay spread upon his knees. His face was pale-his hands were paler; but his eye was clear and his visage enlightened. His beard had grown to nearly its original dimensions. On a chair by his side were a number of letters to which he had just dictated answers. At a neighbouring table a young clerk was using a typewriter. Stretched at full length on the sofa was Robert Machin, engaged in the perusal of the second edition of that day's Signal. Of late Robert, having exhausted nearly all available books, had been cultivating during his holidays an interest in journalism, and he would give great accounts, in the nursery, of events happening in each day's instalment of the Signal's sensational serial. His heels kicked idly one against the other.

A powerful voice resounded in the lobby, and Dr Stirling entered the room with Nellie.

"Well, doc.!" Edward Henry greeted him.

"So you're in full blast again!" observed the doctor, using a metaphor invented by the population of a district where the roar of furnaces wakens the night.

"No!" Edward Henry protested, as an invalid always will. "I'm only just keeping an eye on one or two pressing things."

"Of course he's in full blast!" said Nellie with calm conviction.

"What's this I hear about ye ganging away to the seaside, Saturday?" asked the doctor.

"Well, can't I?" said Edward Henry.

"Ye can," said the doctor. "Let's have a look at ye, man."

"What was it you said I've had?" Edward Henry questioned.

"Colitis."

[312] "Yes, that's the word. I thought I couldn't have got it wrong. Well, you should have seen my mother's face when I told her what you called it. She said, 'He may call it that if he's a mind to, but we had another name for it in my time.' You should have heard her sniff!... Look here, doc., do you know you've had me down now for pretty near three months?"

"Nay," said Stirling, "it's yer own obstinacy that's had ye down, man. If ye'd listened to yer London doctor at first, mayhap ye wouldn't have had to travel from Euston in an invalid's carriage. If ye hadn't had the misfortune to be born an obstinate simpleton ye'd ha' been up and about six weeks back. But there's no doing anything with you geniuses. It's all nerves with you and your like."

"Nerves!" exclaimed Edward Henry, pretending to scorn. But he was delighted at the diagnosis.

"Nerves," repeated the doctor, firmly. "Ye go gadding off to America. Ye get yeself mixed up in theatres.... How's the theatre? I see yer famous play's coming to an end next week."

"A

nd what if it is?" said Edward Henry, jealous for reputations, including his own. "It will have run for a hundred and one nights. And right through August too! No modern poetry play ever did run as long in London, and no other ever will. I've given the intellectual theatre the biggest ad. it ever had. And I've made money on it. I should have made more if I'd ended the run a fortnight ago, but I was determined to pass the hundredth night. And I shall do!"

"And what are ye for giving next?"

"I'm not for giving anything next, doc. I've let the Regent for five years at seven thousand five hundred pounds a year to a musical comedy [313] syndicate, since you're so curious. And when I've paid the ground rent and taxes and repairs, and something towards a sinking-fund, and six per cent on my capital, I shall have not far off two thousand pounds a year clear annual profit. You may say what you like, but that's what I call business!"

It was a remarkable fact that, while giving undemanded information to Dr. Stirling, Edward Henry was in reality defending himself against the accusations of his wife-accusations which, by the way, she had never uttered, but which he thought he read sometimes in her face. He might of course have told his wife these agreeable details directly, and in private. But he was a husband, and, like many husbands, apt to be indirect.

Nellie said not a word.

"Then you're giving up London?" The doctor rose to depart.

"I am," said Edward Henry, almost blushing.

"Why?"

"Well," the genius answered. "Those theatrical things are altogether too exciting and risky! And they're such queer people-Great Scott! I've come out on the right side, as it happens, but-well, I'm not as young as I was. I've done with London. The Five Towns are good enough for me."

Nellie, unable to restrain a note of triumph, indiscreetly remarked, with just the air of superior sagacity that in a wife drives husbands to fury and to foolishness:

"I should think so indeed!"

Edward Henry leaped from his chair, and the swansdown quilt swathed his slippered feet.

"Nell," he exploded, clenching his hand. "If you say that once more [314] in that tone-once more, mind!-I'll go and take a flat in London to-morrow!"

The doctor crackled with laughter. Nellie smiled. Even Robert, who had completely ignored the doctor's entrance, glanced round with creased brows.

"Sit down, dearest," Nellie quietly enjoined the invalid.

But he would not sit down, and, to show his independence, he helped his wife to escort Stirling into the lobby.

Robert, now alone with the ignored young clerk tapping at the table, turned towards him, and in his deliberate, judicial, disdainful, childish voice said to him:

"Isn't father a funny man?"

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