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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 15179

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Despite the fresh pinky horrors of its external architecture, and despite his own desire and firm intention to the contrary, George was very deeply impressed by the new Orgreave home. It was far larger than the previous house. The entrance was spacious, and the drawing-room, with a great fire at either end, immense. He had never been in an interior so splendid. He tried to be off-hand in his attitude towards it, but did not fully succeed. The taste shown in the decoration and furniture was almost unexceptionable. White walls-Heppel-white; chintz-black, crackling chintz strewn with tens of thousands of giant roses. On the walls were a few lithographs-John's contribution to the general effect. John having of late years begun to take himself seriously as a collector of lithographs.

One-third of the room was divided from the rest by an arched and fretted screen of red lacquer, and within this open cage stood Mrs. John, surveying winsomely the expanse of little tables, little chairs, big chairs, huge chairs, sofas, rugs, flower-vases, and knick-knacks. She had an advantage over most blondes nearing the forties in that she had not stoutened. She was in fact thin as well as short; but her face was too thin. Still, it dimpled, and she held her head knowingly on one side, and her bright hair was wonderfully done up. Dressed richly as she was, and assisted by the rejuvenating magic of jewels, she produced, in the shadow of the screen, a notable effect of youthful vivacity, which only the insult of close inspection could destroy. With sinuous gestures she waved Mr. Enwright's metaphorical palm before the approaching George. Her smile flattered him; her frail, dinging hand flattered him. He had known her in her harsh morning moods; he had seen that persuasive, manufactured mask vanish for whole minutes, to reveal a petty egotism, giving way, regardless of appearances, to rage; he clearly observed now the hard, preoccupied eyes. Nevertheless, the charm which she exercised was undeniable. Her husband was permanently under its spell. There he stood, near her, big, coarsening, good-natured, content, proud of her. He mixed a cocktail and he threw a match into the fire, in exactly the old Five Towns manner, which he would never lose. But as for her, she had thrown off all trace of the Five Towns; she had learnt London, deliberately, thoroughly. And even George, with the unmerciful, ruthless judgment of his years, was obliged to admit that she possessed a genuine pertinacity and had marvellously accomplished an ambition. She had held John Orgreave for considerably over a decade; she had had the tremendous courage to Leave the heavy provincial manufacturer, her first husband; she had passed through the Divorce Court as a respondent without blenching; she had slowly darned her reputation with such skill that you could scarcely put your finger on the place where the hole had been; and lo! she was reigning in Bedford Park and had all she wanted-except youth. Nor did she in the least show the resigned, disillusioned air of women who have but recently lost their youth. She bore herself just as though she still had no fear of strong lights, and as though she was still the dazzling, dashing blonde of whom John in his earliest twenties used to say, with ingenuous enthusiasm, that she was 'ripping'-the ripping Mrs. Chris Hamson. An epical creature!

This domestic organism created by Mrs. John inspired George, and instantly he was rapt away in dreams of his own future. He said to himself again, and more forcibly, that he had a natural taste for luxury and expensiveness, and that he would have the one and practise the other. He invented gorgeous interiors which would be his and in which he would be paramount and at ease. He positively yearned for them. He was impatient to get back home and resume the long labours that would lead him to them. Every grand adjunct of life must be his, and he could not wait. Absurd to apprehend that Marguerite would not rise to his dreams! Of course she would! She would fit herself perfectly into them, completing them. She would understand all the artistic aspects of them, because she was an artist; and in addition she would be mistress, wife, hostess, commanding impeccable servants, receiving friends with beauty and unsurpassable sweet dignity, wearing costly frocks and jewels as though she had never worn anything else. She had the calm power, she had the individuality, to fulfil all his desires for her. She would be the authentic queen of which Mrs. John was merely the imitation. He wanted intensely to talk to her about the future.... And then he had the seductive idea of making presentable his bed-sitting-room at Mr. Haim's. He saw the room instantaneously transformed; he at once invented each necessary dodge for absolutely hiding during the day the inconvenient fact that it had to serve as a bedroom at night; he refurnished it; he found the money to refurnish it. And just as he was impatient to get back home in order to work, so he was impatient to get back home in order to transform his chamber into the ideal. Delay irked him painfully. And yet he was extremely happy in the excitement of the dreams that ached to be fulfilled.

"Now, Mr. Enwright," said Mrs. John in an accent to draw honey out of a boulder. "You haven't told me what you think of it."

Enwright was wandering about by himself.

"He's coming on with his lithographs," he replied, as if after a decision. "One or two of these are rather interesting."

"Oh! I don't mean the lithographs. You know those are all Jack's affairs. I mean-well, the room. Now do pay me a compliment."

The other guests listened.

Enwright gave a little self-conscious smile, characteristic of him in these dilemmas, half kind and half malicious.

"You must have taken a great deal of trouble over it," he said, with bright amiability; and then relapsing from the effort: "it's all very nice and harmless."

"Oh! Mr. Enwright! Is that all?" She pouted, though still waving the palm. "And you so fond of the eighteenth century, too!"

"But I heard a rumour at the beginning of this year that we're living in the twentieth," said Enwright.

"And I thought I should please you!" sighed Adela. "What ought I to have done?"

"Well, you might have asked me to design you some furniture. Nobody ever has asked me yet." He rubbed his eyeglasses and blinked.

"Oh! You geniuses.... Janet darling!"

Mrs. John moved forward to meet Miss Orgreave, John's appreciably elder sister, spinster, who lived with another brother, Charles, a doctor at Ealing. Janet was a prim emaciated creature, very straight and dignified, whose glance always seemed to hesitate between benevolence and fastidiousness. Janet and Charles had consented to forget the episode of the Divorce Court. Marion, however, the eldest Orgreave sister, mother of a family of daughters, had never received the divorcee. On the other hand the divorcee, obeying her own code, had obstinately ignored the wife of Jim Orgreave, a younger brother, who, according to the universal opinion, had married disgracefully.

When the sisters-in-law had embraced, with that unconvincing fulsomeness which is apt to result from a charitable act of oblivion, Janet turned lovingly to George and asked after his mother. She was his mother's most intimate friend. In the past he had called her Auntie, and was accustomed to kiss her and be kissed. Indeed he feared that she might want to kiss him now, but he was spared. As with negligence of tone he answered her fond inquiries,

he was busy reconstructing quite anew his scheme for the bed-sitting room-for it had actually been an eighteenth-century scheme, and inspired by the notions of Mrs. John!

At the lunch-table George found that the party consisted of ten persons, of whom one, seated next to himself, was a youngish, somewhat plump woman who had arrived at the last moment. He had not been introduced to her, nor to the four other strangers, for it had lately reached Bedford Park that introductions were no longer the correct prelude to a meal. A hostess who wished to be modern should throw her guests in ignorance together and leave them to acquire knowledge by their own initiative. This device added to the piquancy of a gathering. Moreover, there was always a theory that each individual was well known, and that therefore to introduce was subtly to insult. On Mrs. John's right was a beautifully braided gentleman of forty or so, in brown, with brown necktie and hair to match, and the hair was so perfect and ended so abruptly that George at first took it for a wig; but soon afterwards he decided that he had been unkind. Mr. Enwright was opposite to this brown gentleman.

Mrs. John began by hoping that the brown gentleman had been to church.

"I'm afraid I haven't," he replied, with gentle regret in his voice.

And in the course of the conversation he was frequently afraid. Nevertheless his attitude was by no means a fearful attitude; on the contrary it was very confident. He would grasp the edge of the table with his hands, and narrate at length, smiling amiably, and looking from side to side regularly like a public speaker. He narrated in detail the difficulties which he had in obtaining the right sort of cutlets rightly cooked at his club, and added: "But of course there's only one club in London that would be satisfactory in all this-shall I say?-finesse, and I'm afraid I don't belong to it."

"What club's that?" John Orgreave sent the inquiry down the table.

"The Orleans."

"Oh yes, the Orleans! I suppose that is the best."

And everybody seemed glad and proud that everybody had known of the culinary supremacy of the Orleans.

"I'm afraid you'll all think I'm horribly greedy," said the brown gentleman apologetically. And then at once, having noticed that Mr. Enwright was gazing up at the great sham oak rafters that were glued on to the white ceiling, he started upon this new architectural picturesqueness which was to London and the beginning of the twentieth century what the enamelled milking-stool had been to the provinces and the end of the nineteenth century-namely, a reminder that even in an industrial age romance should still survive in the hearts of men. The brown gentleman remarked that with due deference to 'you professional gentlemen,' he was afraid he liked the sham rafters, because they reminded him of the good old times and all that sort of thing.

He was not only a conscientious conversationalist, but he originated talk in others, and listened to them with his best attention. And he invariably stepped into gaps with praise-worthy tact and skill. Thus the chat meandered easily from subject to subject-the Automobile Club's tour from London to Southsea, the latest hotel, Richter, the war (which the brown gentleman treated with tired respect, as some venerable survival that had forgotten to die), the abnormally early fogs, and the abnormally violent and destructive gales. An argument arose as to whether these startling weather phenomena were or were not a hint to mankind from some undefined Higher Power that a new century had in truth begun and that mankind had better mind what it was about. Mrs. John favoured the notion, and so did Miss Orgreave, whereas John Orgreave coarsely laughed at it. The brown gentleman held the scales admirably; he was chivalrously sympathetic to the two ladies, and yet he respected John's materialism. He did, however, venture to point out the contradictions in the character of 'our host,' who was really very responsive to music and art, but who seemed curiously to ignore certain other influences-etc. etc.

"How true that is!" murmured Mrs. John.

The brown gentleman modestly enjoyed his triumph. With only three people had he failed-Mr. Enwright, George, and the youngish woman next to George.

"And how's Paris, Miss Ingram?" he pointedly asked the last.

George was surprised. He had certainly taken her for a married woman, and one of his generalizations about life was that he did not like young married women; hence he had not liked her. He now regarded her with fresh interest. She blushed a little, and looked very young indeed.

"Oh! Paris is all right!" she answered shortly.

The brown gentleman after a long, musing smile, discreetly abandoned the opening; but George, inquiring in a low voice if she lived in Paris, began a private talk with Miss Ingram, who did live in Paris. He had his doubts about her entire agreeableness, but at any rate they got on to a natural, brusque footing, which contrasted with the somewhat ceremonious manner of the general conversation. She exceeded George in brusqueness, and tended to patronize him as a youngster. He noticed that she had yellow eyes.

"What do you think of his wig?" she demanded in an astonishing whisper, when the meal was over and chairs were being vacated.

" Is it a wig?" George exclaimed ingenuously.

"Oh, you boys!" she protested, with superiority. "Of course it's a wig."

"But how do you know it's a wig?" George insisted stoutly.

"'Is it a wig!'" she scorned him.

"Well, I'm not up in wigs," said George. "Who is he, anyhow?"

"I forget his name. I've only met him once, here at tea. I think he's a tea-merchant. He seemed to remember me all right."

"A tea-merchant! I wonder why Mrs. John put him on her right, then, and Mr. Enwright on her left." George resented the precedence.

"Is Mr. Enwright really very great, then?"

"Great! You bet he is.... I was in Paris with him in the summer. Whereabouts do you live in Paris?"

She improved, especially at the point where she said that Mr. Enwright's face was one of the most wonderful faces that she had ever seen. Evidently she knew Paris as well as George knew London. Apparently she had always lived there. But their interchanges concerning Paris, on a sofa in the drawing-room, were stopped by a general departure. Mr. Enwright began it. The tea-merchant instantly supported the movement. Miss Ingram herself rose. The affair was at an end. Nothing interesting had been said in the general talk, and little that was sincere. No topic had been explored, no argument taken to a finish. No wit worth mentioning had glinted. But everybody had behaved very well, and had demonstrated that he or she was familiar with the usages of society and with aspects of existence with which it was proper to be familiar. And everybody-even Mr. Enwright-thanked Mrs. John most heartily for her quite delightful luncheon; Mrs. John insisted warmly on her own pleasure and her appreciation of her guests' extreme good nature in troubling to come, and she was beyond question joyously triumphant. And George, relieved, thought, as he tried to rival the rest in gratitude to Mrs. John:

"What was it all about? What did they all come for? I came because she made me. But why did the others come?"

The lunch had passed like a mild nightmare, and he felt as though, with the inconsequence of dream-people, these people had gone away without having accomplished some essential act which had been the object of their gathering.

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