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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 10017

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


That George should collect the tea-things together on the tray, and brush and fold the cloth, and carry the loaded tray downstairs into the scullery, was sufficiently strange. But it was very much more strange that he should have actually had the idea of washing-up the tea-things himself. In his time, in the domestic crises of Bursley, he had boyishly helped ladies to wash-up, and he reckoned that he knew all about the operation. There he stood, between the kitchen and the scullery, elegantly attired, with an inquiring eye upon the kettle of warm water on the stove, debating whether he should make the decisive gesture of emptying the kettle into the large tin receptacle that lay on the slop-stone. Such was the miraculous effect on him of Mrs. Haim's simplicity, her weakness, and her predicament. Mrs. Haim was a different woman for him now that he had carried her upstairs and laid her all limp and girlish on the solemn conjugal bed! He felt quite sure that old Haim was incapable of washing-up. He assuredly did not want to be caught in the act of washing-up, but he did want to be able to say in his elaborately nonchalant manner, answering a question about the disappearance of the tea-things: "I thought I might as well wash-up while I was about it." And he did want Mrs. Haim to be put in a flutter by the news that Mr. George Cannon had washed-up for her. The affair would positively cause a sensation.

He was about to begin, taking the risks of premature discovery, when he heard a noise above. It was Mr. Haim at last descending the stairs to the ground floor. George started. He had been alone in the lower parts of the house for a period which seemed long. (Mr. Prince had gone to the studio, promising to return later.) The bedroom containing Mr. and Mrs. Haim had become for him the abode of mystery. The entity of the enchanted house had laid hold of his imagination. He had thought of Marguerite as she used to pervade the house, and of his approaching interview with her at the Manresa Road studio. He had thought very benevolently of Marguerite and also of, Mr. and Mrs. Haim. He had involved them all three, in his mind, in a net of peace and goodwill. He saw the family quarrel as something inevitable, touching, absurd-the work of a maleficent destiny which he might somehow undo and exorcise by the magic act of washing-up, to be followed by other acts of a more diplomatic and ingenious nature. And now the dull, distant symptoms of Mr. Haim on the stairs suddenly halted him at the very outset of his benignant machinations. He listened. If the peace of the world had depended upon his washing-up he could not have permitted himself to be actually seen in the r?le of kitchen-girl by Mr. Haim-so extreme was his lack of logic and right reason. There was a silence, a protracted silence, and then Mr. Haim unmistakably came down the basement stairs, and George thanked God that he had not allowed his impulse to wash-up run away with his discretion, to the ruin of his dignity.

Mr. Haim, hesitating in the kitchen doorway, peered in front of him as if at a loss. George had shifted the kitchen lamp from its accustomed place.

"I'm here," said George, moving slightly in the dim light. "I thought I might as well make myself useful and clear the table for you. How is she going on?" He spoke cheerfully, even gaily, and he expected Mr. Haim to be courteously appreciative-perhaps enthusiastic in gratitude.

"Mrs. Haim is quite recovered, thank you. It was only a passing indisposition," said Mr. Haim, using one of his ridiculously stilted phrases. His tone was strange; it was very strange.

"Good!" exclaimed George, with a gaiety that was now forced, a bravado of gaiety.

He thought:

"The old chump evidently doesn't like me interfering. Silly old pompous ass!" Nevertheless his attitude towards the huffy landlord, if scornful, was good-humoured and indulgent.

Then he noticed that Mr. Haim held in his hand a half-sheet of note-paper which disturbingly seemed familiar. " What is the meaning of this, Mr. Cannon?" Mr. Haim demanded, advancing towards the brightness of the lamp and extending the paper. He was excessively excited. Excitement always intensified his age.

The offered document was the letter which George had that morning received from Marguerite. The missive was short, a mere note, but its terms could leave no doubt as to the relations between the writer and the recipient. Moreover, it ended with a hieroglyphic sign, several times repeated, whose significance is notorious throughout the civilized world.

"Where did you get that?" muttered George, with a defensive menace half formed in his voice. He faltered. His mood had not yet become definitive.

Mr. Haim answered:

"I have just picked it up in the hall, sir. The wind must have blown it off the table in your room, and the door was left open. I presume that I have the right to read papers I find lying about in my own house."

George was dashed. On returning

home from Mrs. John's lunch he had changed his suit for another one almost equally smart, but of Angora and therefore more comfortable. He liked to change. He had taken the letter out of a side-pocket of the jacket and put it with his watch, money, and other kit on the table while he changed, and he had placed everything back into the proper pockets, everything except the letter. Carelessness! A moment of negligence had brought about the irremediable. The lovely secret was violated. The whole of his future life and of Marguerite's future life seemed to have been undermined and contaminated by that single act of omission. Marguerite wrote seldom to him because of the risks. But precautions had been arranged for the occasions when she had need to write, and she possessed a small stock of envelopes addressed by himself, so that Mr. Haim might never by chance, picking up an envelope from the hall floor, see George's name in his daughter's hand. And now Mr. Haim had picked up an actual letter from the hall floor. And the fault for the disaster was George's own.

"May I ask, sir, are you engaged to my daughter?" demanded Mr. Haim, getting every instant still more excited.

George had once before seen him agitated about Marguerite, but by no means to the same degree. He trembled. He shook. His dignity had a touch of the grotesque; yet it remained dignity, and it enforced respect. For George, destiny seemed to dominate the kitchen and the scullery like a presence. He and the old man were alone together in that presence, and he was abashed. He was conscious of awe. The old man's mien accused him of an odious crime, of something base and shameful. Useless to argue with himself that he was entirely guiltless, that he had the right to be the betrothed of either Mr. Haim's daughter or any other girl, and to publish or conceal the betrothal as he chose and as she chose. Yes, useless! He felt, inexplicably, a criminal. He felt that he had committed an enormity. It was not a matter of argument; it was a matter of instinct. The old man's frightful and irrational resentment was his condemnation. He could not face the old man.

He thought grievously: "I am up against this man. All politeness and conventions have vanished. It's the real, inmost me, and the real, inmost him." Nobody else could take a part in the encounter. And he was sad, because he could not blame the old man. Could he blame the old man for marrying a charwoman? Why, he could only admire him for marrying the charwoman. In marrying the charwoman the old man had done a most marvellous thing. Could he blame Marguerite? Impossible. Marguerite's behaviour was perfectly comprehensible. He understood Marguerite and he understood her father; he sympathized with both of them. But Marguerite could not understand her father, and her father could not understand either his daughter or George. Never could they understand! He alone understood. And his understanding gave him a melancholy, hopeless feeling of superiority, without at all lessening the strange conviction of guilt. He had got himself gripped by destiny. Destiny had captured all three of them. But not the fourth. The charwoman possessed the mysterious power to defy destiny. Perhaps the power lay in her simplicity.... Fool! An accursed negligence had eternally botched his high plans for peace and goodwill.

"Yes," he said. "I am."

"And how long have you been engaged, sir?"

"Oh! Since before Marguerite left here." He tried to talk naturally and calmly.

"Then you've been living here all this time like a spy-a dirty spy. My daughter behaves to us in an infamous manner. She makes an open scandal. And all the time you're--"

George suddenly became very angry. And his anger relieved and delighted him. With intense pleasure he felt his anger surging within him. He frowned savagely. His eyes blazed. But he did not move.

"Excuse me," he interrupted, with cold and dangerous fury. "She didn't do anything of the kind."

Mr. Haim went wildly on, intimidated possibly by George's defiance, but desperate:

"And all the time, I say, you stay on here, deceiving us, spying on us. Going every night to that wicked, cruel, shameful girl and tittle-tattling. Do you suppose that if we'd had the slightest idea--"

George walked up to him.

"I'm not going to stand here and listen to you talking about Marguerite like that."

Their faces were rather close together. George forced himself away by a terrific effort and left the kitchen.

"Jackanapes!"

George swung round, very pale. Then with a hard laugh he departed. He stood in the hall, and thought of Mrs. Haim upstairs. The next moment he had got his hat and overcoat and was in the street. A figure appeared in the gloom. It was Mr. Prince.

"Hallo! Going out? How are things?"

"Oh! Fine!" He could scarcely articulate. A ghastly sob impeded the words. Tears gushed into his eyes. The dimly glowing oblongs in the dark fa?ades of the Grove seemed unbearably tragic.

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