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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 10669

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


George entered Alexandra Grove very early the next evening, having dined inadequately and swiftly so that he might reach the neighbourhood of Marguerite at the first moment justifiable. He would have omitted dinner and trusted to Marguerite's kitchen, only that, in view of the secrecy resolved upon, appearances had to be preserved. The secrecy in itself was delicious, but even the short experiences of the morning had shown both of them how extremely difficult it would be for two people who were everything to each other to behave as though they were nothing to each other. George hoped, however, that Mr. Haim would again be absent, and he was anticipating exquisite hours.

At the precise instant when he put his latchkey in the door the door was pulled away from him by a hand within, and he saw a woman of about thirty-five, plump but not stout, in a blue sateen dress, bonneted but not gloved. She had pleasant, commonplace features and brown hair. Several seconds elapsed before George recognized in her Mrs. Lobley, the charwoman of No. 8, and when he did so he was a little surprised at her presentableness. He had met her very seldom in the house. He was always late for breakfast, and his breakfast was always waiting for him. On Sundays he was generally out. If he did catch sight of her, she was invariably in a rough apron and as a rule on her knees. Their acquaintance had scarcely progressed far enough for him to call her 'Mrs. Lob' with any confidence. He had never seen her at night, though upon occasion he had heard her below in the basement, and for him she was associated with mysterious nocturnal goings and comings by the basement door. That she should be using the front door was as startling as that she should be so nobly attired in blue sateen.

" Good evening-Mr. Cannon," she said, in her timid voice, too thin for her body. He noticed that she was perturbed. Hitherto she had always addressed him as 'sir.'

"Excuse me," she said, and with an apologetic air she slipped past him and departed out of the house.

Mr. Haim was visible just within the doorway of the sitting-room, and behind him the table with the tea-things still on it. George had felt considerably self-conscious in Mr. Haim's presence at the office; and he was so preoccupied by his own secret mighty affair that his first suspicion connected the strange apparition of a new Mrs. Lobley and the peculiar look on Mr. Haim's face with some disagreeable premature and dramatic explosion of the secret mighty affair. His thoughts, though absurd, ran thus because they could not run in any other way.

"Ah, Mr. Cannon!" said Mr. Haim queerly. "You're in early to-night."

"A bit earlier," George admitted, with caution. "Have to read, you know." He was using the word 'read' in the examination sense.

"If you could spare me a minute," smiled Mr. Haim

"Certainly."

"Have a cigarette," said Mr. Haim, as soon as George had deposited his hat and come into the room. This quite unprecedented offer reassured George, who in spite of reason had continued to fear that the landlord had something on his mind about his daughter and his lodger. Mr. Haim presented his well-known worn cigarette-case, and then with precise and calm gestures carefully shut the door.

"The fact is," said he, "I wanted to tell you something. I told Mr. Enwright this afternoon, as I thought was proper, and it seems to me that you are the next person who ought to be informed."

"Oh yes?"

"I am going to be married."

"The deuce you are!"

The light words had scarcely escaped from young George before he perceived that his tone was a mistake, and that Mr. Haim was in a state of considerable emotion, which would have to be treated very carefully. And George too now suddenly partook of the emotion. He felt himself to be astonished and even shaken by Mr. Haim's news. The atmosphere of the interview changed in an instant. Mr. Haim moved silently on slippered feet to the mantelpiece, out of the circle of lamplight, and dropped some ash into the empty fire-place.

"I congratulate you," said George.

"Thank you!" said Mr. Haim brightly, seizing gratefully on the fustian phrase, eager to hall-mark it as genuine and put it among his treasures. Without doubt he was flattered. "Yes," he proceeded, as it were reflectively, "I have asked Mrs. Lobley to be my wife, and she has done me the honour to consent." He had the air of having invented the words specially to indicate that Mrs. Lobley was descending from a throne in order to espouse him. It could not have occurred to him that they had ever been used before and that the formula was classic. He smiled again, and went on: "Of course I've known and admired Mrs. Lobley for a long time. What we should have done without her valuable help in this house I don't like to think. I really don't."

"'Her help in this house,'" thought the ruthless George, behind cigarette smoke. "Why doesn't he say right out she's the charwoman? If I was marrying a charwoman, I should say I was marrying a charwoman." And then he had a misgiving: "Should I? I wonder whether I should." And he remembered that ultimately the charwoman was going to be his own mother-in-law. He was aware of a serious qualm.

"Mrs. Lobley has had an uphill fight since her first husband's death," said Mr.

Haim. "He was an insurance agent-the Prudential. She's come out of it splendidly. She's always kept up her little home, though it was only two rooms, and she'll only leave it because I can offer her a better one. I have always admired her, and I'm sure the more you know her the more you'll like her. She's a woman in a thousand, Mr. Cannon."

"I expect she is," George agreed feebly. He could not think of anything to say.

"And I'm thankful I can offer her a better home. I don't mind telling you now that at one time I began to fear I shouldn't have a home. I've had my ambitions, Mr. Cannon. I was meant for a quantity surveyor. I was one-you may say. But it was not to be. I came down in the world, but I kept my head above water. And then in the end, with a little money I had I bought this house. £575. It needed some negotiation. Ground-rent £10 per annum, and seventy years to run. You see, all along I had had the idea of building a studio in the garden. I was one of the first to see the commercial possibilities of studios in Chelsea. But of course I know Chelsea. I made the drawings for the studio myself. Mr. Enwright kindly suggested a few improvements. With all my experience I was in a position to get it put up as cheaply as possible. You'd be surprised at the number of people in the building line anxious to oblige me. It cost under £300. I had to borrow most of it. But I've paid it off. What's the consequence? The consequence is that the rent of the studio and the top rooms brings me in over eight per cent on all I spent on the house and the studio together. And I'm living rent free myself."

"Jolly good!"

"Yes.... If I'd had capital, Mr. Cannon, I could have made thousands out of studios. Thousands. I fancy I've the gift. But I've never had the capital. And that's all there is to it." He smacked his lips, and leaned back against the mantelpiece. "You may tell me I've realized my ambitions. Not all of them, Mr. Cannon. Not all of them. If I'd had money I should have had leisure, and I should have improved myself. Reading, I mean. Study. Literature. Music. Painting. History of architecture. All that sort of thing. I've got the taste for it. I know I've got the taste for it. But what could I do? I gave it up. You'll never know how lucky you are, Mr. Cannon. I gave it up. However, I've nothing to be ashamed of. At any rate I hope not."

George nodded appreciatively. He was touched. He was even impressed. He admitted the naiveté of the ageing man, his vanity, his sentimentality. But he saw himself to be in the presence of an achievement. And though the crown of Mr. Haim's achievement was to marry a charwoman, still the achievement impressed. And the shabby man with the lined, common face was looking back at the whole of his life-there was something positively formidable in that alone. He was at the end; George was at the beginning, and George felt callow and deferential. The sensation of callowness at once heightened his resolve to succeed. All George's sensations seemed mysteriously to transform themselves into food for this great resolve.

"And what does Miss Haim say to all this?" he asked, rather timidly and wildly. It was a venturesome remark; it might well have been called an impertinence; but the mage of Marguerite was involved in all the workings of his mind, and it would not be denied expression.

Mr. Haim lifted his back from the mantelpiece sharply. Then he hesitated, moving forward a little.

"Mr. Cannon," he said, "it's curious you should ask that." His voice trembled, and at the vibration George was suddenly apprehensive. Mr. Haim had soon recovered from his original emotion, but now he seemed to be in danger of losing control of himself.

George nervously cleared his throat and apologized.

"I didn't mean--"

"I'd better tell you," Mr. Haim interrupted him, rather loudly. "We've just had a terrible scene with my daughter, a terrible scene!" He seldom referred to Marguerite by her Christian name, "Mr. Cannon, I had hoped to get through my life without a scandal, and especially an open scandal. But it seems as if I shouldn't-if I know my daughter! It was not my intention to say anything. Far from it. Outsiders ought not to be troubled.... I-I like you, Mr. Cannon. She left us a few minutes ago And as she didn't put her hat on she must be either at the studio or at Agg's...."

"She went out of the house?" George questioned awkwardly.

Mr. Haim nodded, and then without warning he dropped like an inert lump on to a chair and let his head fall on to his hand.

George was frightened as well as mystified. The spectacle of the old man-at one moment boasting ingenuously of his career, and at the next almost hysterical with woe-roused his pity in a very disconcerting manner, and from his sight the Lucas & Enwright factotum vanished utterly, and was supplanted by a tragic human being. But he had no idea how to handle the unexampled situation with dignity; he realized painfully his own lack of experience, and his over-mastering impulse was to get away while it was still possible to get away. Moreover, he desired intensely to see and hear Marguerite.

"Perhaps I had better find out where she is," he absurdly suggested, and departed from the room feeling like a criminal reprieved.

The old man did not stir.

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