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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 16556

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


With no clear plan as to his dinner he took her back to Alexandra Grove. The dusk was far advanced. Mounting the steps quickly Marguerite rang the bell. There was no answer. She pushed up the flap of the letter-aperture and looked within.

"Have you got your latchkey?" she asked, turning round on George. "Father's not come home-his hat's not hanging up. He promised me certain that he would be here at six-thirty at the latest. Otherwise I should have taken the big key."

She did not show resentment against her father; nor was there impatience in her voice. But she seemed to be firmly and impassively judging her father, as his equal, possibly even as somewhat his superior. And George admired the force of her individuality. It flattered him that a being so independent and so strong should have been so meltingly responsive to him in the cathedral.

An adventurous idea occurred to him in a flash and he impulsively adopted it. His latchkey was in his pocket, but if the house door was once opened he would lose her-he would have to go forth and seek his dinner and she would remain in the house; whereas, barred out of the house, she would be bound to him-they would be thrust together into exquisite contingencies, into all the deep potentialities of dark London.

"Dash it!" he said, first fumbling in one waistcoat pocket, and then ledging the portfolio against a step and fumbling in both waistcoat pockets simultaneously. "I must have left it in my other clothes."

It is doubtful whether his conscience troubled him. But he had a very exciting sense of risk and of romance and of rapture, as though he had done something wonderful and irremediable.

"Ah! Well!" she murmured, instantly acquiescent, and without the least hesitation descended the steps.

How many girls (he demanded) would or could have made up their minds and faced the situation like that? Her faculty of decision was simply masculine! He looked at her in the twilight and she was inimitable, unparalleled. And yet by virtue of the wet glistening of her eyes in the cathedral she had somehow become mystically his! He. permitted himself the suspicion: "Perhaps she guesses that I'm only pretending about the latchkey." The suspicion which made her an accessory to his crime did not lower her in his eyes. On the contrary, the enchanting naughtiness with which it invested her only made her variety more intoxicant and perfection more perfect. His regret was that the suspicion was not a certainty.

Before a word could be said as to the next move, a figure in a grey suit and silk hat, and both arms filled with packages, passed in front of the gate and then halted.

"Oh! It's Mr. Buckingham Smith!" exclaimed Marguerite. "Mr. Buckingham Smith, we're locked out till father comes." She completed the tale of the mishap, to George's equal surprise and mortification.

Mr. Buckingham Smith, with Mr. Alfred Prince, was tenant of the studio at the back of No. 8. He raised his hat as well as an occupied arm would allow.

"Come and wait in the studio, then," he suggested bluntly.

"You know Mr. Cannon, don't you?" said Marguerite, embarrassed.

George and Mr. Buckingham Smith had in fact been introduced to one another weeks earlier in the Grove by Mr. Haim. Thereafter Mr. Buckingham Smith had, as George imagined, saluted George with a kind of jealous defiance and mistrust, and the acquaintance had not progressed. Nor, by the way, had George's dreams been realized of entering deeply into the artistic life of Chelsea. Chelsea had been no more welcoming than Mr. Buckingham Smith. But now Mr. Buckingham Smith grew affable and neighbourly. Behind the man's inevitable insistence that George should accompany Miss Haim into the studio was a genuine, eager hospitality.

The studio was lofty and large, occupying most of the garden space of No. 8. Crimson rep curtains, hung on a thick, blackened brass rod, divided it into two unequal parts. By the wall nearest the house a staircase ran up to a door high in the gable, which door communicated by a covered bridge with the second floor of No. 8, where the artists had bedrooms. The arrangement was a characteristic example of the manner in which building was added to building in London contrary to the intention of the original laying-out, and George in his expert capacity wondered how the plans had been kept within the by-laws of the borough, and by what chicane the consent of the ground-landlord had been obtained.

Mr. Alfred Prince, whom also George knew slightly, was trimming a huge oil-lamp which depended by a wire from the scarcely visible apex of the roof. When at length the natural perversity of the lamp had been mastered and the metal shade replaced, George got a general view of the immense and complex disorder of the studio. It was obviously very dirty-even in the lamplight the dust could be seen in drifts on the moveless folds of the curtains-it was a pigsty; but it was romantic with shadowed spaces, and gleams of copper and of the pale arms of the etching-press, and glimpses of pictures; and the fellow desired a studio of his own! He was glad, now, that Mr. Buckingham Smith had invited them in. He had wanted to keep Marguerite Haim to himself; but it was worth while to visit the studio, and it was especially worth while to watch her under the illumination of the lamp.

"Lucky we have a clean tablecloth," said Mr. Buckingham Smith, opening his packages and setting a table. "Brawn, Miss Haim! And beer, Miss Haim! That is to say, Pilsener. From the only place in Chelsea where you can get it."

And his packages really did contain brawn and beer (four bottles of the Pilsener); also bread and a slice of butter. The visitors learnt that they had happened on a feast, a feast which Mr. Buckingham Smith had conceived and ordained, a feast to celebrate the triumph of Mr. Alfred Prince. An etching by Mr. Prince had been bought by Vienna. Mr. Buckingham Smith did not say that the etching had been bought by any particular gallery in Vienna. He said 'by Vienna,' giving the idea that all Vienna, every man, woman, and child in that distant and enlightened city where etchings were truly understood, had combined for the possession of a work by Mr. Prince. Mr. Buckingham Smith opined that soon every gallery in Europe would be purchasing examples of Alfred Prince. He snatched from a side-table and showed the identical authentic letter from Vienna to Mr. Alfred Prince, with its official heading, foreign calligraphy, and stilted English. The letter was very complimentary.

In George's estimation Mr. Prince did not look the part of an etcher of continental renown. He was a small, pale man, with a small brown beard, very shabby, and he was full of small nervous gestures. He had the innocently-red nose which pertains to indigestion. His trousers bagged horribly at the knees, and he wore indescribable slippers. He said little, in an extremely quiet, weak voice. His eyes, however, were lively and attractive. He was old, probably at least thirty-five. Mr. Buckingham Smith made a marked contrast to him. Tall, with newish clothes, a powerful voice and decisive gestures, Mr. Buckingham Smith dominated, though he was younger than his friend. He tried to please, and he mingled the grand seigneurial style with the abrupt. It was he who played both the parlourmaid and the host. He forced Marguerite to have some brawn, serving her with a vast portion; but he could not force her to take Pilsener.

"Now, Mr. Cannon," he said, pouring beer into a glass with an up-and-down motion of the bottle so as to put a sparkling head on the beer.

"No, thank you," said George decidedly. "I won't have beer."

Mr. Buckingham Smith gazed at him challengingly out of his black eyes. "Oh! But you've got to," he said. It was as if he had said: "I am generous. I love to be hospitable, but I am not going to have my hospitality thwarted, and you needn't think it."

George accepted the beer and joined in the toasting of Mr. Alfred Prince's health.

"Old chap!" Mr. Buckingham Smith greeted his chum, and then to George and Marguerite, informingly and seriously: "One of the best."

It was during the snack that Mr. Buckingham Smith began to display the etchings of Mr. A

lfred Prince, massed in a portfolio. He extolled them with his mouth half-full of brawn, or between two gulps of Pilsener. They impressed George deeply-they were so rich and dark and austere.

"Old Princey boy's one of the finest etchers in Europe to-day, if you ask me," said Mr. Buckingham Smith off-handedly, and with the air of stating the obvious. And George thought that Mr. Prince was. The etchings were not signed 'Alfred Prince,' but just 'Prince,' which was quietly imposing. Everybody agreed that Vienna had chosen the best one.

"It's a dry-point, isn't it?" Marguerite asked, peering into it. George started. This single remark convinced him that she knew all about etching, whereas he himself knew nothing. He did not even know exactly what a dry-point was.

"Mostly," said Mr. Prince. "You can only get that peculiar quality of line in dry-point."

George perceived that etching was an entrancing subject, and he determined to learn something about it-everything about it.

Then came the turn of Mr. Buckingham Smith's paintings. These were not signed 'Smith' as the etchings were signed 'Prince.' By no means! They were signed 'Buckingham Smith.' George much admired them, though less than he admired the etchings. They were very striking and ingenious, in particular the portraits and the still-life subjects. He had to admit that these fellows to whom he had scarcely given a thought, these fellows who existed darkly behind the house, were prodigiously accomplished.

"Of course," said Mr. Buckingham Smith negligently, "you can't get any idea of them by this light-though," he added warningly, "it's the finest artificial light going. Better than all your electricity."

There was a pause, and Mr. Prince sighed and said:

"I was thinking of going up to the Promenades to-night, but Buck won't go."

George took fire at once. "The Glazounov ballet music?"

"Glazounov?" repeated Mr. Prince uncertainly. "No. I rather wanted to hear the new Elgar."

George was disappointed, for he had derived from Mr. Enwright positive opinions about the relative importance of Elgar and Glazounov.

"Go often?" he asked.

"No," said Mr. Prince. "I haven't been this season yet, but I'm always meaning to." He smiled apologetically. "And I thought to-night--" Despite appearances, he was not indifferent after all to his great Viennese triumph; he had had some mild notion of his own of celebrating the affair.

"I suppose this is what etchings are printed with," said George to Mr. Buckingham Smith, for the sake of conversation, and he moved towards the press. The reception given to the wonderful name of Glazounov in that studio was more than a disappointment for George; he felt obscurely that it amounted to a snub.

Mr. Buckingham Smith instantly became the urbane and alert showman. He explained how the pressure was regulated. He pulled the capstan-like arms of the motive wheel and the blanketed steel bed slid smoothly under the glittering cylinder. Although George had often been in his stepfather's printing works he now felt for the first time the fascination of manual work, of artisanship, in art, and he regretted that the architect had no such labour. He could indistinctly hear Mr. Prince talking to Marguerite.

"This is a monotype," said Mr. Buckingham Smith, picking up a dusty print off the window-sill. "I do one occasionally."

"Did you do this?" asked George, who had no idea what a monotype was and dared not inquire.

"Yes. They're rather amusing to do. You just use a match or your finger or anything."

"It's jolly good," said George. "D'you know, it reminds me a bit of Cézanne."

Of course it was in Paris that he had heard of the great original, the martyr and saviour of modern painting. Equally of course it was Mr. Enwright who had inducted him into the esoteric cult of Cézanne, and magically made him see marvels in what at the first view had struck him as a wilful and clumsy absurdity.

"Oh!" murmured Buck, stiffening.

"What do you think of Cézanne?"

"Rule it out!" said Buck, with a warning cantankerous inflection, firmly and almost brutally reproving this conversational delinquency of George's. "Rule it out, young man! We don't want any of that sort of mountebanking in England. We know what it's worth."

George was cowed. More, his faith in Cézanne was shaken. He smiled sheepishly and was angry with himself. Then he heard Mr. Prince saying calmly and easily to Miss Haim-the little old man could not in fact be so nervous as he seemed:

"I suppose you wouldn't come with me to the Prom?"

George was staggered and indignant. It was inconceivable, monstrous, that those two should be on such terms as would warrant Mr. Prince's astounding proposal. He felt that he simply could not endure them marching off together for the evening. Her acceptance of the proposal would be an outrage. He trembled. However, she declined, and he was lifted from the rack.

"I must really go," she said. "Father's sure to be home by now."

"May I?" demanded Mr. Buckingham Smith, stooping over Marguerite's portfolio of designs, and glancing round at her for permission to open it. Already his hand was on the tape.

"On no account!" she cried. "No! No!... Mr. Cannon, please take it from him!" She was serious.

"Oh! All right! All right!" Mr. Buckingham Smith rose to the erect good-humouredly.

After a decent interval George took the portfolio under his arm. Marguerite was giving thanks for hospitality. They left. George was singularly uplifted by the fact that she never concealed from him those designs upon which Mr. Buckingham Smith had not been allowed to gaze. And, certain contretemps and disappointments notwithstanding, he was impressed by the entity of the studio. It had made a desirable picture in his mind: the romantic paraphernalia, the etchings, the canvases, the lights and shadows, the informality, the warm odours of the lamp and of the Pilsener, the dazzling white of the tablecloth, the quick, positive tones of Buckingham Smith, who had always to be convincing not only others but himself that he was a strong man whose views were unassailable, the eyes of Buckingham Smith like black holes in his handsome face, the stylish gestures and coarse petulance of Buckingham Smith, the shy assurance of little old Prince. He envied the pair. Their existence had a cloistral quality which appealed to something in him. They were continually in the studio, morning, afternoon, evening. They were independent. They had not to go forth to catch omnibuses and trains, to sit in offices, to utilize the services of clerks, to take orders, to 'Consider the idiosyncrasies of superiors. They were self-contained, they were consecrated, and they were free. No open competitions for them! No struggles with committees and with contractors! And no waiting for the realization of an idea! They sat down and worked, and the idea came at once to life, complete, without the necessity of other human co-operation! They did not sit in front of a painting or etching and say, as architects had too often to say in front of their designs: "That is wasted! That will never come into being." Architecture might be the art of arts, and indeed it was, but there were terrible drawbacks to it....

And next he was outside in the dark with Marguerite Haim, and new, intensified sensations thrilled him. She was very marvellous in the dark.

Mr. Haim had not returned.

"Well!" she muttered; and then dreamily: "What a funny little man Mr. Prince is, isn't he?" She spoke condescendingly.

"Anyhow," said George, who had been respecting Mr. Alfred Prince, "anyhow, I'm glad you didn't go to the concert with him."

"Why?" she asked, with apparent simplicity. "I adore the Proms. Don't you?"

"Let's go, then," he suggested. "We shan't be very late, and what else is there for you to do?"

His audacity frightened him. There she stood with him in the porch, silent, reflective. She would never go. For sundry practical and other reasons she would refuse. She must refuse.

"I'll go," she said, as if announcing a well-meditated decision. He could scarcely believe it. This could not be London that he was in.

They deposited the portfolio under the mat in the porch.

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