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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 13636

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Tea is ready, Mr. Cannon," said Mr. Haim in his most courteous style, coming softly into George's room. And George looked up at the old man's wrinkled face, and down at his crimson slippers, with the benevolent air of a bookworm permitting himself to be drawn away from an ideal world into the actual. Glasses on the end of George's nose would have set off the tableau, but George had outgrown the spectacles which had disfigured his boyhood. As a fact, since his return that afternoon from Mrs. John's, he had, to the detriment of modesty and the fostering of conceit, accomplished some further study for the Final, although most of the time had been spent in dreaming of women and luxury.

"All right," said he. "I'll come."

"I don't think that lamp's been very well trimmed to-day," said Mr. Haim apologetically, sniffing.

"Does it smell?"

"Well, I do notice a slight odour."

"I'll open the window," said George heartily. He rose, pulled the curtains, and opened the front French window with a large gesture. The wild, raw, damp air of Sunday night rushed in from the nocturnal Grove, and instantly extinguished the lamp.

"Oh!" exclaimed Mr. Haim, rather nervously.

"Saved me the trouble," said George.

As he emerged after Mr. Haim from the dark room, he was thinking that it was ridiculous not to have electricity, and that he must try to come to some arrangement with Mr. Haim for the installation of electricity. Fancy oil-lamps in the middle of London in the twentieth century! Shocks were waiting in George's mind for Mr. Haim. He intended, if he could, to get the room on the first floor, empty since the departure of Marguerite, and to use it for a bedroom, while keeping the ground-floor room exclusively for work and society. His project would involve shocks also for Mr. Edwin Clayhanger in the Five Towns, who would be called upon to pay; but George had an airy confidence in the ability of his stepfather to meet such shocks in a satisfactory manner.

To George's surprise, Mr. Alfred Prince was in the sitting-room. Shabby and creased as usual, he looked far more like a clerk in some establishment where clerks were not morally compelled to imitate dandies than like an etcher of European renown. But, also as usual, he was quietly at ease and conversational; and George at once divined that he had been invited with the object of relieving the social situation created by the presence of the brilliant young lodger at tea. This tea was the first meal to be taken by George with Mr. and Mrs. Haim, for he was almost never at home on Sunday afternoons, and he was not expected to be at home. The table showed, as Mr. Haim's nervousness had shown, that the importance of the occasion had been realized. It was an obviously elaborate table. The repast was ready in every detail; the teapot was under the cosy; the cover was over the hot crumpets; Mrs. Haim alone lacked.

"Where's missus?" asked George lightly. Mr. Haim had not come into the room.

"I don't know," said Mr. Prince. "She brought the tea in a minute ago. You been working this afternoon?"

At that moment Mr. Haim entered. He said:

"Mrs. Haim isn't feeling very well. She's upstairs. She says she's sure she'll be all right in a little while. In the meantime she prefers us to go on with our tea."

Mr. Prince and Mr. Haim looked at each other, and George looked at Mr. Haim. The older men showed apprehension. The strange idea of unconquerable destiny crossed George's mind-destiny clashing ruthlessly with ambition and desire. The three males sat down in obedience to the wish of the woman who had hidden herself in the room above. All of them were dominated by the thought of her. They did not want to sit down and eat and drink, and they were obliged to do so by the invisible volitional force of which Mr. Haim was the unwilling channel. Mr. Haim, highly self-conscious, began to pour out the tea. Mr. Prince, highly self-conscious, suggested that he should make himself useful by distributing the crumpets while they were hot. George, highly self conscious, accepted a crumpet. Mr. Prince chatted; George responded in a brave worldly fashion; Mr. Haim said 'Yes,' 'Ye-es,' very absently.

And then Mrs. Haim appeared smiling in the doorway. "Ah!" breathed everybody, assuaged. "Ah!" Mr. Haim moved from in front of the tea-tray to the next seat. Mrs. Haim was perhaps somewhat pale, but she gave a sincere, positive assurance that she was perfectly well again. Reassurance spread throughout the company. Forebodings vanished; hearts lightened; gladness reigned; the excellence of crumpets became apparent. And all this swift, wonderful change was brought about by the simple entry of the woman. But beneath the genuine relief and satisfaction of the men there stirred vaguely the thought of the mysteriousness of women, of the entire female sex. Mrs. Haim, charwoman, was just as mysterious as any other woman. As for George, despite the exhilaration which he could feel rising in him effortless and unsought, he was preoccupied by more than women's mysteriousness; the conception of destiny lingered and faintly troubled him. It was as though he had been walking on a clear path through a vast and empty and safe forest, and the eyes of a tiger had gleamed for an instant in the bush and gone. Not a real tiger! And if a real tiger, then a tiger that would never recur, and the only tiger in the forest!... Yet the entire forest was transformed.

Mrs. Haim was wearing the blue sateen. It was a dress unsuited to her because it emphasized her large bulk; but it was her best dress; it shone and glittered; it imposed. Her duty was to wear it on that Sunday afternoon. She was shy, without being self-conscious. To preside over a society consisting of young bloods, etchers of European renown, and pillars of the architectural profession was an ordeal for her. She did not pretend that it was not an ordeal. She did not pretend that the occasion was not extraordinary. She was quite natural in her calm confusion. She was not even proud, being perhaps utterly incapable of social pride. Her husband was proud for her. He looked at her earnestly, wistfully. He could not disguise his anxiety for her success. Was she equal to the r?le? She was. Of course she was. He had never doubted that she would be (he said to himself). His pride increased, scarcely escaped being fatuous.

"I must congratulate you on the new front doormat, Mrs. Haim," said Mr. Prince, with notable conversational tact. "I felt it at once in the dark."

Mrs. Haim smiled.

"I do like a good doormat," she said. "It saves so much work, I always think. I told Mr. Haim I thought we needed a new one, and bless me if he didn't take me straight out to buy one."

The new doormat expressed Mrs. Haim's sole and chara

cteristic criticism of the organism into which she had so unassumingly entered. Secure in the adoration of Mr. Haim, she might safely have turned the place upside-down and proved to the Grove that she could act the mistress with the best of them; but she changed nothing except the doormat. The kitchen and scullery had already been hers before the eye of Mr. Haim had fallen upon her; she was accustomed to them and had largely fashioned their arrangements. Her own furniture, such of it as was retained, had been put into the spare bedroom and the kitchen, and was hardly noticeable there. The dramatic thing for her to do would have been to engage another charwoman. But Mrs. Haim was not dramatic; she was accommodating. She fitted herself in. The answer to people who asked what Mr. Haim could see in her, was that what Mr. Haim first saw was her mere way of existing, and that in the same way she loved. At her tea-table, as elsewhere, she exhibited no special quality; she said little; she certainly did not shine. Nevertheless the three men were quite happy and at ease, because her way of existing soothed and reinspired them. George especially got gay; and he narrated the automobile adventure of the afternoon with amusing gusto. He was thereby a sort of hero, and he liked that. He was bound by his position in the world and by his clothes and his style to pretend to some extent that the adventure was much less extraordinary to him than it seemed to them. The others made no pretence. They were open-mouthed. Their attitude admitted frankly that above them was a world to which they could not climb, that they were not familiar with it and knew nothing about it. They admired George; they put it to his credit that he was acquainted with these lofty matters and moved carelessly and freely among them; and George too somehow thought that credit was due to him and that his superiority was genuine.

"And do you mean to say she'd never met you before?" exclaimed Mr. Haim.

"Never in this world!"

Mr. Prince remarked calmly: " You must have had a very considerable effect on her then." His eyes twinkled.

George flushed slightly. The idea had already presented itself to him with great force. "Oh no!" He negligently pooh-poohed it.

"Well, does she go about asking every man she meets what his Christian name is?"

"I expect she just does."

There was silence for a moment. Mrs. Haim refilled a cup.

"Something will have to be done soon about these motor-cars," observed Mr. Haim at length, sententiously, in the vein of 'Mustard and Cress.' "That's very evident."

"They cost so much," said Mr. Prince. "Why! They cost as much as a house, some of them."

"More!" said George.

"Nay, nay!" Mr. Haim protested. The point had come at which his imagination halted.

"Anyhow, you had a lucky escape," said Mr. Prince. "You might have been lamed for life-or anything."

George laughed.

"I am always lucky," said he. He thought: "I wonder whether I am !" He was afraid.

Mrs. Haim was half-way towards the door before any of the men noticed what she was about. She had risen silently and quickly; she could manoeuvre that stout frame of hers with surprising facility. There was a strange, silly look on her face as she disappeared, and the face was extremely pale. Mr. Haim showed alarm, and Mr. Prince concern. Mr. Haim's hands clasped the arms of his chair; he bent forward hesitatingly.

"What--?"

Then was heard the noise of a heavy subsidence, apparently on the stairs. George was out of the room first. But the other two were instantly upon him. Mrs. Haim had fallen at the turn of the stairs; her body was distributed along the little half-landing there.

"My God! She's fainted!" muttered Mr. Haim.

"We'd better get her into the bedroom," said Mr. Prince, with awe.

The trouble had come back, but in a far more acute form. The prostrate and unconscious body, all crooked and heaped in the shadow, intimidated the three men, convicting them of helplessness and lack of ready wit. George stood aside and let the elder pair pass him. Mr. Haim hurried up the stairs, bent over his wife, and seized her under the arms. Mr. Prince took her by the legs. They could not lift her. They were both thin little men, quite unaccustomed to physical exertion. Mrs. Haim lay like a giantess, immovably recumbent between their puny, straining figures.

"Here, let me try," said George eagerly, springing towards the group.

With natural reluctance Mr. Haim gave way to him. George stooped and braced himself to the effort. His face was close to the blanched, blind face of Mrs. Haim. He thought she looked very young, astonishingly young in comparison with either Haim or Prince. Her complexion was damaged but not destroyed. Little fluffy portions of her hair seemed absolutely girlish. Her body was full of nice curves, which struck George as most enigmatically pathetic. But indeed the whole of her was pathetic, very touching, very precious and fragile. Even her large, shiny, shapeless boots and the coarse sateen stuff of her dress affected him. A lump embarrassed his throat. He suddenly understood the feelings of Mr. Haim towards her. She was inexpressibly romantic.... He lifted her torso easily; and pride filled him because he could do easily what others could not do at all. Her arms trailed limp. Mr. Haim and Mr. Prince jointly raised her lower limbs. George staggered backwards up the remainder of the stairs. As they steered the burden into the bedroom, where a candle was burning, Mrs. Haim opened her eyes and, gazing vacantly at the ceiling, murmured in a weak, tired voice:

"I'm all right. It's nothing. Please put me down."

"Yes, yes, my love!" said Mr. Haim, agitated.

They deposited her on the bed. She sighed; then smiled. A slight flush showed on her cheek under the light of the candle which Mr. Prince was holding aloft. Mysterious creature, with the mysterious forces of life flowing and ebbing incomprehensibly within her! To George she was marvellous, she was beautiful, as she lay defenceless and silently appealing.

"Thank you, Mr. Cannon. Thank you very much," said Mr. Haim, turning to the strong man.

It was a dismissal. George modestly departed from the bedroom, which was no place for him. After a few minutes Mr. Prince also descended. They stood together at the foot of the stairs in the draught from the open window of George's room.

" Hadn't I better go for a doctor?" George suggested.

"That's what I said," replied Mr. Prince. "But she won't have one."

"But--"

"Well, she won't."

The accommodating, acquiescent dame, with scarcely strength to speak, was defeating all three of them on that one point.

"What is it?" asked George confidentially.

"Oh! I don't suppose it's anything, really."

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