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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 12377

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Before the regular closing hour of the office the two articled pupils had left and were walking side by side through Bloomsbury. They skirted the oval garden of Bedford Square, which, lying off the main track to the northern termini, and with nothing baser in it than a consulate or so, took precedence in austerity and selectness over Russell Square, which had consented to receive a grand hotel or 'modern caravanserai' and a shorthand school. Indeed the aspect of Bedford Square, where the great institution of the basement and area still flourished in perfection, and wealthy menials with traditional manners lived sensually in caves beneath the spacious, calm salons of their employers and dupes,-the aspect of Bedford Square gave the illusion that evolution was not, and that Bloomsbury and the whole impressive structure of British society could never change. Still, from a more dubious Bloomsbury, demure creatures with inviting, indiscreet eyes were already traversing the prim flags of Bedford Square on their way to the evening's hard diplomacy. Mr. Lucas made quiet remarks about their qualities, but George did not respond.

"Look here, old man," said Lucas, "there's no use in all this gloom. You might think Lucas & Enwright had never put up a building in their lives. Just as well to dwell now and then on what they have done instead of on what they haven't done. We're fairly busy, you know. Besides--"

He spoke seriously, tactfully, with charm, and he had a beautiful voice.

"Quite right! Quite right!" George willingly agreed, swinging his stick and gazing straight ahead. And he thought: "This chap has got his head screwed on. He's miles wiser than I am, and he's really nice. I could never be nice like that."

In a moment they were at the turbulent junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, where crowds of Londoners, deeply unconscious of their own vulgarity, and of the marvellous distinction of Bedford Square, and of the moral obligation to harmonize socks with neckties, were preoccupying themselves with omnibuses and routes, and constituting the spectacle of London. The high-heeled, demure creatures were lost in this crowd, and Lucas and George were lost in it.

"Well," said Lucas, halting on the pavement. "You're going down to the cathedral."

"It'll please the old cock," answered George, anxious to disavow any higher motive. "You aren't coming?"

Lucas shook his head. "I shall just go and snatch a hasty".... 'Cup of tea' was the unuttered end of the sentence.

"Puffin's?"

Lucas nodded. Puffin's was a cosy house of sustenance in a half-new street on the site of the razed slums of St. Giles's. He would not frequent the orthodox tea-houses, which were all alike and which had other serious disadvantages. He adventured into the unusual, and could always demonstrate that what he found was subtly superior to anything else.

"That affair still on?" George questioned.

"It's not off."

"She's a nice little thing-that I will say."

"It all depends," Lucas replied sternly. "I don't mind telling you she wasn't so jolly nice on Tuesday."

"Wasn't she?" George raised his eyebrows.

Lucas silently scowled, and his handsomeness vanished for an instant.

"However--" he said.

As George walked alone down Charing Cross Road, he thought: "That girl will have to look out,"-meaning that in his opinion Lucas was not a man to be trifled with. Lucas was a wise and an experienced man, and knew the world. And what he did could not be other than right. This notion comforted George, who had a small affair of his own, which he had not yet even mentioned to Lucas. Delicacy as well as diffidence had prevented him from doing so. It was a very different affair from any of Lucas's, and he did not want Lucas to misesteem it; neither did he want Lucas to be under the temptation to regard him as a ninny.

Not the cathedral alone had induced George to leave the office early. The dissembler had reflected that if he called in a certain conventional tea-shop near Cambridge Circus at a certain hour he would probably meet Marguerite Haim. He knew that she had an appointment with one of her customers, a firm of bookbinders, that afternoon, and that on similar occasions she had been to the tea-shop. In fact he had already once deliciously taken tea with her therein. To-day he was disappointed, to the extent of the tea, for he met her as she was coming out of the shop. Their greetings were rather punctilious, but beneath superficial formalities shone the proofs of intimacy. They had had large opportunities to become intimate, and they had become intimate. The immediate origin of and excuse for the intimacy was a lampshade. George had needed a lampshade for his room, and she had offered to paint one. She submitted sketches. But George also could paint a bit. Hence discussions, conferences, rival designs, and, lastly, an agreement upon a composite design. Before long, the lampshade craze increasing in virulence, they had between them re-lampshaded the entire house. Then the charming mania expired; but it had done its work. During the summer holiday George had written twice to Marguerite, and he had thought pleasurably about her the whole time. He had hoped that she would open the door for him upon his return, and that when he saw her again he would at length penetrate the baffling secret of her individuality. She had opened the door for him, exquisitely, but the secret had not yielded itself. It was astonishing to George, how that girl could combine the candours of honest intimacy with a profound reserve.

"Were you going in there for tea?" she asked, looking up at him gravely.

"No," he said. "I don't want any tea. I have to wend my way to the Roman Catholic Cathedral-you know, the new one, near Victoria. I suppose you wouldn't care to see it?"

"I should love to," she answered, with ingenuous eagerness. "I think it might do me good."

A strange phrase, he thought! What did she mean?

"Would you mind walking?" she suggested.

"Let me take that portfolio, then."

So they walked. She had her usual serious expression, as it were full of the consciousness of duty.

It made him think how reliable she would always be. She held herself straight and independently, and her appearance was very simple and very trim. He considered it wrong that a girl with such beautiful lips should have to consult callous bookbinders and accept whatever they chose to say. To him she was like a lovely and valiant martyr. The spectacle of her was touching. However, he could not have dared to hint at these sentiments. He had to pretend that her exposure to the stresses of the labour-market was quite natural and right. Always he was careful in his speech with her. When he got to know people he was apt to be impatient and ruthless; for example, to John Orgreave and his wife, and to his mother and stepfather, and sometimes even to Everard Lucas. He would bear them down. But he was restrained from such freedoms with Enwright, and equally with Marguerite Haim. She did not intimidate him, but she put him under a spell.

Crossing Piccadilly Circus he had a glimpse of the rising walls and the scaffolding of the new restaurant. He pointed to the building without a word. She nodded and smiled.

In the Mall, where the red campanile of the cathedral was first descried, George began to get excited. And he perceived that Marguerite sympathetically responded to his excitement. She had never even noticed the campanile before, and the reason was that the cathedral happened not to be on the route between Alexandra Grove and her principal customers. Suddenly, out of Victoria Street, they came up against the vast form of the Byzantine cathedral. It was hemmed in by puny six-story blocks of flats, as ancient cathedrals also are hemmed in by the dwellings of townsfolk. But here, instead of the houses having gathered about the cathedral, the cathedral had excavated a place for itself amid the houses. Tier above tier the expensively curtained windows of dark drawing-rooms and bedrooms inhabited by thousands of the well-to-do blinked up at the colossal symbol that dwarfed them all. George knew that he was late. If the watchman's gate was shut for the night he would look a fool. But his confidence in his magic power successfully to run risks sustained him in a gallant and assured demeanour. The gate in the hoarding that screened the west front was open. With a large gesture he tipped the watchman a shilling, and they passed in like princes. The transition to the calm and dusty interior was instantaneous and almost overwhelming. Immense without, the cathedral seemed still more immense within. On one side of the nave was a steam-engine; on the other some sort of a mill; and everywhere lay in heaps the wild litter of construction, among which moved here and there little parties of aproned pygmies engaged silently and industriously on sub-contracts; the main army of labourers had gone. The walls rose massively clear out of the white-powdered confusion into arches and high domes; and the floor of the choir, and a loftier floor beyond that, also rose clear. Perspectives ended in shadow and were illimitable, while the afternoon light through the stone grille of the western windows made luminous spaces in the gloom.

The sensation of having the mysterious girl at his elbow in that wonder-striking interior was magnificent.

He murmured, with pride:

"Do you know this place has the widest nave of any cathedral in the world? It's a much bigger cathedral than St. Paul's. In fact I'm not sure if it isn't the biggest in England."

"You know," he said again, "in the whole of the nineteenth century only one cathedral was built in England."

"Which was that?"

"Truro.... And you could put Truro inside this and leave a margin all round. Mr. Enwright says this is the last cathedral that ever will be built, outside America."

They gazed, more and more aware of a solemn miracle.

"It's marvellous-marvellous!" he breathed.

After a few moments, glancing at her, a strong impulse to be confidential mastered him. He was obliged to tell that girl.

"I say, we've lost that competition-for the Law Courts."

He smiled, but the smile had no effect.

"Oh!" She positively started.

He saw that her eyes had moistened, and he looked quickly away, as though he had seen something that he ought not to have seen. She cared! She cared a great deal! She was shocked by the misfortune to the firm, by the injustice to transcendent merit! She knew nothing whatever about any design in the competition. But it was her religion that the Lucas & Enwright design was the best, and by far the best. He had implanted the dogma, and he felt that she was ready to die for it. Mystery dropped away from her. Her soul stood bare to him. He was so happy and so proud that the intensity of his feeling dismayed him. But he was enheartened too, and courage to surmount a thousand failures welled up in him as from an unimagined spring.

"I wonder who that is?" she said quietly and ordinarily, as if a terrific event had not happened.

On the highest floor, at the other extremity of the cathedral, in front of the apse, a figure had appeared in a frock-coat and a silk hat. The figure stood solitary, gazing around in the dying light.

"By Jove! It's Bentley! It's the architect!"

George literally trembled. He literally gave a sob. The vision of Bentley within his masterpiece, of Bentley whom Enwright himself worshipped, was too much for him. Renewed ambition rushed through him in electric currents. All was not wrong with the world of architecture. Bentley had succeeded. Bentley, beginning life as an artisan, had succeeded supremely. And here he stood on the throne of his triumph. Genius would not be denied. Beauty would conquer despite everything. What completed the unbearable grandeur of the scene was that Bentley had cancer of the tongue, and was sentenced to death. Bentley's friends knew it; the world of architecture knew it; Bentley knew it.... "Shall I tell her?" George thought. He looked at her; he looked at the vessel which he had filled with emotion. He could not speak. A highly sensitive decency, an abhorrence of crudity, restrained him. "No," he decided, "I can't tell her now. I'll tell her some other time."

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