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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 11095

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

No. 6 Romney Studios, Manresa Road, Chelsea, was at the end of the narrow alley which, running at right angles to the road, had a blank wall on its left and Romney Studios on its right. The studios themselves were nondescript shanties which reminded George of nothing so much as the office of a clerk-of-the-works nailed together anyhow on ground upon which a large building is in course of erection. They were constructed of brick, wood, waterproof felting, and that adaptable material, corrugated iron. No two were alike. None had the least pretension to permanency, comeliness, or even architectural decency. They were all horribly hot in summer, and they all needed immense stoves to render them habitable in winter. In putting them up, however, cautiously and one by one, the landlord had esteemed them to be the sort of thing that was good enough for artists and that artists would willingly accept. He had not been mistaken. Though inexpensive they were dear, but artists accepted them with eagerness. None was ever empty. Thus it was demonstrated once more that artists were exactly what capitalists and other sagacious persons had always accused them of being.

When George knocked on the door of No. 6, the entire studio, and No. 5 also, vibrated. As a rule Agg, the female Cerberus of the shanty, answered any summons from outside; but George hoped that to-night she would be absent; he knew by experience that on Sunday nights she usually paid a visit to her obstreperous family in Alexandra Grove.

The door was opened by a young man in a rich but torn and soiled eighteenth-century costume, and he looked, in the half-light of the entrance, as though he was just recovering from a sustained debauch. The young man stared haughtily in silence. Only after an appreciable hesitation did George see through the disguise and recover himself sufficiently to remark with the proper nonchalance:

"Hallo, Agg! What's the meaning of this?"

"You're before your time," said she, shutting the door.

While he took off his overcoat Agg walked up the studio. She made an astonishingly life-like young man. George and Agg were now not unfriendly; but each constantly criticized the other in silence, and both were aware of the existence of this vast body of unspoken criticism. Agg criticized more than George, who had begun to take the attitude that Agg ought to be philosophically accepted as incomprehensible rather than criticized. He had not hitherto seen her in male costume, but he would not exhibit any surprise.

"Where's Marguerite?" he inquired, advancing to the Stove and rubbing his hands above it.

"Restrain your ardour," said Agg lightly. "She'll appear in due season. I've told you-you're before your time."

George offered no retort. Despite his sharp walk, he was still terribly agitated and preoccupied, and the phenomena of the lamplit studio had not yet fully impressed his mind. He saw them, including Agg, as hallucinations gradually turning to realities. He could not be worried with Agg. His sole desire was to be alone with Marguerite immediately, and he regarded the fancy costume chiefly as an obstacle to the fulfilment of that desire, because Agg could not depart until she had changed it for something else.

Then his gaze fell upon a life-size oil-sketch of Agg in the eighteenth-century male dress. The light was bad, but it disclosed the sketch sufficiently to enable some judgment on it to be formed. The sketch was exceedingly clever, painted in the broad, synthetic manner which Steer and Sickert had introduced into England as a natural reaction from the finicking, false exactitudes of the previous age. It showed Agg, glass in hand, as a leering, tottering young drunkard in frills and velvet. The face was odious, but it did strongly resemble Agg's face. The hair was replaced by a bag wig.

"Who did that?"

"I did, of course," said Agg. She pointed to the large mirror at the opposite side of the studio.

"The dickens you did!" George murmured, struck. But now that he knew the sketch to be the work of a woman he at once became more critical, perceiving in it imitative instead of original qualities. "What is it? I mean, what's the idea at the back of it, if it isn't a rude question, Agg?"

"Title: 'Bonnie Prince Charlie,'" said Agg, without a smile. She was walking about, in a convincingly masculine style. Unfortunately she could not put her hands in her pockets, as the costume was without pockets.

"Is that your notion of the gent?"

"Didn't you know I'm supposed to be very like him?" cried Agg, vain. The stern creature had frailties. Then she smiled grimly. "Look at my cold blue eyes, my sharp chin, my curly-curly lips, my broad forehead, my clear complexion. And I hope I'm thin enough. Look!" She picked up the bag wig, which was lying on a chair, and put it on, and posed. The pose was effective.

"You seem to know a lot about this Charlie."

"Well, our well-beloved brother Sam is writing a monograph on him, you see. Besides, every one--"

"But what's the idea? What's the scheme? Why is he drunk?"

"He always was drunk. He was a confirmed drunkard at thirty. Both his fair ladies had to leave him because he was just a violent brute. And so on and so on. I thought it was about time Charlie was shown up in his true colours. And I'm doing it!... After all the sugar-stick Academy pictures of him, my picture will administer a much-needed tonic to our dear public. I expect I can get it into next year's New English Art Club, and if I do it wi

ll be the sensation of the show.... I haven't done with it yet. In fact I only started yesterday. There's going to be a lot more realism in it. All those silly Jacobite societies will furiously rage together.... And it's a bit of pretty good painting, you know."

"It is," George agreed. "But it's a wild scheme."

"Not so wild as you think, my minstrel boy. It's very, much needed. It's symbolic, that picture is. It's a symbolic antidote. Shall I tell you what put me on to it? Look here."

She led him to Marguerite's special work-table, under the curtained window. There, on a sheet of paper stretched upon a drawing-board, was the finished design which Marguerite had been labouring at for two days. It was a design for a bookbinding, and the title of the book was, The Womanly Woman, and the author of the book was Sir Amurath Onway, M.D., D.Sc., F.R.S., a famous specialist in pathology. Marguerite, under instruction from the bookbinders, had drawn a sweet picture, in quiet colours, of a womanly woman in a tea-gown, sitting in a cosy corner of a boudoir. The volume was destined to open the spring season of a publishing firm of immense and historic respectability.

"Look at it! Look at it!" Agg insisted. "I've read the book myself. Poor Marguerite had to go through the proofs, so that she could be sure of getting the spirit of the binding right. Do you know why he wrote it? He hates his wife-that's why. His wife isn't a womanly woman, and he's put all his hatred of her into this immortal rubbish. Read this great work, and you will be made to see what fine, noble creatures we men are"-she strode to and fro-"and how a woman's first duty is to recognize her inferiority to us, and be womanly.... Damme!... As soon as I saw what poor Marguerite had to do I told her I should either have to go out and kill some one, or produce an antidote. And then it occurred to me to tell the truth about one of the leading popular heroes of history." She bowed in the direction of the canvas. "I began to feel better at once. I got the costume from a friend of the learned Sam's, and I've ruined it.... I'm feeling quite bright to-night."

She gazed at George with her cold blue eyes, arraigning in his person the whole sex which she thought she despised but which her deepest instinct it was to counterfeit. George, while admiring, was a little dismayed. She was sarcastic. She had brains and knowledge and ideas. There was an intellectual foundation to her picture. And she could paint-like a witch! Oh! She was ruthlessly clever! Well, he did not like her. What he wanted, though he would not admit it, was old Onway's womanly woman. And especially in that hour he wanted the womanly woman.

"What's Marguerite up to?" he asked quietly.

"After the heat and the toil of the day she's beautifying herself for your august approval," said Agg icily. "I expect she's hurrying all she can. But naturally you expect her to be in a permanent state of waiting for you-fresh out of the cotton-wool."

The next instant Marguerite appeared from the cubicle or dressing-room which had been contrived in a corner of the studio to the left of the door. She was in her plain, everyday attire, but she had obviously just washed, and her smooth hair shone from the brush.

"Well, George."

"Well, Marguerite."

Both spoke casually. Celia Agg was the only person in the world privy to their engagement; but they permitted themselves no freedoms in front of her. As Marguerite came near to George, she delicately touched his arm-nothing more. She was smiling happily, but as soon as she looked close at his face under the lamp, her face changed completely. He thought: "She understands there's something up."

She said, not without embarrassment:

"George, I really must have some fresh air. I haven't had a breath all day. Is it raining?"

"No. Would you like to go for a walk?"

"Oh! I should!"

He was very grateful, and also impressed by the accuracy of her intuitions and her quick resourcefulness. She had comprehended at a glance that he had a profound and urgent need to be alone with her. She was marvellously comforting, precious beyond price. All his susceptibilities, wounded by the scene at Alexandra Grove, and further irritated by Agg, were instantaneously salved and soothed. Her tones, her scarcely perceptible gesture of succour, produced the assuaging miracle. She fulfilled her role to perfection. She was a talented and competent designer, but as the helpmeet of a man she had genius. His mind dwelt on her with rapture.

"You'll be going out as soon as you've changed, dear?" she said affectionately to Agg.

"Yes," answered Agg, who at the mirror was wiping from her face the painted signs of alcoholism. She had thrown off the bag wig. "You'd better take the key with you. You'll be back before I am." She sat down on one of the draped settees which were beds in disguise, and Marguerite got a hat, cloak, and gloves.

While George was resuming his overcoat, which Marguerite held for him, Agg suddenly sprang up and rushed towards them.

"Good night, Flora Macdonald," she murmured in her deep voice in Marguerite's ear, put masculine arms round her, and kissed her. It was a truly remarkable bit of male impersonating, as George had to admit, though he resented it.

Then she gave a short, harsh laugh.

"Good night, old Agg," said Marguerite, with sweet responsiveness, and smiled ingenuously at George.

George, impatient, opened the door, and the damp wind swept anew into the studio.

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