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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 7176

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Can I come in?" said George, hatless, pushing open the door of the studio, which was ajar.

There were people in the bright and rather chilly studio, and none of them moved until the figure arriving out of the darkness was identified. Mr. Prince, who in the far corner was apparently cleaning or adjusting his press, then came forward with a quiet, shy, urbane welcome. Marguerite herself stood nearly under the central lamp, talking to Agg, who was seated. The somewhat celebrated Agg immediately rose and said in her somewhat deep voice to Marguerite:

"I must go."

Agg was the eldest daughter of the Agg family, a broad-minded and turbulent tribe who acknowledged the nominal headship of a hard-working and successful barrister. She was a painter, and lived and slept in semi-independence in a studio of her own in Manresa Road, but maintained close and constant relations with the rest of the tribe. In shape and proportions fairly tall and fairly thin, she counted in shops among the stock-sizes; but otherwise she was entitled to call herself unusual. She kept her hair about as short as the hair of a boy who has postponed going to the barber's for a month after the proper time, and she incompletely covered the hair with the smallest possible hat. Her coat was long and straight and her skirt short. Her boots were high, reaching well up the calf, but they had high heels and were laced in some hundreds of holes. She carried a cane in a neatly gloved hand. She was twenty-seven. In style Marguerite and Agg made a great contrast with one another. Each was fully aware of the contrast, and liked it.

"Good evening, Mr. Cannon," said Agg firmly, not shaking hands.

George had met her once in the way of small-talk at her father's house. Having yet to learn the important truth that it takes all sorts to make a world, he did not like her and wondered why she existed. He could understand Agg being fond of Marguerite, but he could not understand Marguerite being fond of Agg; and the friendship between these two, now that he actually for the first time saw it in being, irked him.

"Is anything the matter?... Have you seen father?" asked Marguerite in a serious, calm tone, turning to him. Like George, she had run into the studio without putting on any street attire.

George perceived that there was no secret in the studio as to the crisis in the Haim family. Clearly the topic had been under discussion. Prince as well as Agg was privy to it. He did not quite like that. He was vaguely jealous of both Prince and Agg. Indeed he was startled to find that Marguerite could confide such a matter to Prince-at any rate without consulting himself. While not definitely formulating the claim in his own mind, he had somehow expected of Marguerite that until she met him she would have existed absolutely sole, without any sentimental connexions of any sort, in abeyance, waiting for his miraculous advent. He was glad that Mr. Buckingham Smith was not of the conclave; he felt that he could not have tolerated Mr. Buckingham Smith.

"Yes, I've seen him," George answered.

"Did he tell you?"

"Yes."

Mr. Prince, after a little hovering, retired to his press, and a wheel could be heard creaking.

"What did he tell you?"

"He told me about-the marriage.... And I gathered there'd been a bit of a scene."

"Nothing else?"

"No."

Agg then interjected, fixing her blue eyes on George:

"Marguerite is coming to live with me in my studio."

And her challenging gaze met George's.

"Oh!" George could not suppress his pained inquietude at th

is decision having been made without his knowledge. Both girls misapprehended his feeling. "That's it, is it?"

"Well," said Agg, "what can Mr. Haim expect? Here Marguerite's been paying this woman two shillings a day and her food, and letting her take a parcel home at nights. And then all of a sudden she comes dressed up for tea, and sits down, and Mr. Haim says she's his future wife. What does he expect? Does he expect Marguerite to kiss her and call her mamma? The situation's impossible."

"But you can't stop people from falling in love, Agg, you know. It's not a crime," said Mr. Prince in his weak voice surprisingly from the press.

"I know it's not a crime," said Agg sharply. "And nobody wants to stop people from falling in love. If Mr. Haim chooses to go mad about a charwoman, when his wife, and such a wife, 's been dead barely three years, that's his concern. It's true the lady isn't much more than half his age, and that the whole business would be screamingly funny if it wasn't disgusting; but still he's a free agent. And Marguerite's a free agent too, I hope. Of course he's thunder-struck to discover that Marguerite is a free agent. He would be!"

"He certainly is in a state," said George, with an uneasy short laugh.

Agg continued:

"And why is he in a state? Because Marguerite says she shall leave the house? Not a bit. Only because of what he thinks is the scandal of her leaving. Mr. Haim is a respectable man. He's simply all respectability. Respectability's his god-Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Always has been. He'd sacrifice everything to respectability-except the lovely Lobley. It's not respectable in a respectable family for a girl to leave home on account of her stepmother. And so he's in a state, if you please!... If he wanted to carry on with Mrs. Lobley, let him carry on with her. But no! That's not respectable. He's just got to marry her!" Agg sneered.

George was startled, perhaps excusably, at the monstrous doctrine implied in Agg's remarks. He had thought himself a man of the world, experienced, unshockable. But he blenched, and all his presence of mind was needed to preserve a casual, cool demeanour. The worst of the trial was Marguerite's tranquil acceptance of the attitude of her friend. She glanced at Agg in silent, admiring approval. He surmised that until that moment he had been perfectly ignorant of what girls really were.

"I see," said George courageously. And then, strangely, he began to admire too. And he pulled himself together.

"I think I shall leave to-morrow," Marguerite announced. "Morning. It will be much better. She can look after him. I don't see that I owe any duty ..."

"Yes, you do, dear," Agg corrected her impressively. "You owe a duty to your mother-to her memory. That's the duty you owe. I'll come round for you to-morrow myself in a four-wheeler-let me see, about eleven."

George hated the sound of the word 'duty.'

"Thank you, dear," Marguerite murmured, and the girls shook hands; they did not kiss.

" Bye-bye, Princey."

"Bye-bye, Agg."

"Good night, Mr. Cannon."

Agg departed, slightly banging the door.

"I think I'll go back home now," said Marguerite, in a sweet, firm tone. "Had they gone out?"

"Who? Your father and What's-her-name? She's gone, but he hasn't. If you don't want to meet him to-night again, hadn't you better--"

"Oh! If she's gone, he'll be gone too by this time. Trust him!"

Mr. Prince approached them, urging Marguerite soothingly to stay as long as she liked. She shook her head, and pressed his hand affectionately.

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