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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9394

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Early on the morning of a Tuesday in the second half of June 1903, George Cannon was moving fast on a motor-bicycle westwards down the slope of Piccadilly. At any rate he had the sensation of earliness, and was indeed thereby quite invigorated; it almost served instead of the breakfast which he had not yet taken. But thousands of people travelling in the opposite direction in horse-omnibuses and in a few motor-buses seemed to regard the fact of their being abroad at that hour as dully normal. They had fought, men and girls, for places in the crammed vehicles; they had travelled from far lands such as Putney; they had been up for hours, and the morning, which was so new to George, had lost its freshness for them; they were well used to the lustrous summer glories of the Green Park; what they chiefly beheld in the Green Park was the endless lines of wayfarers, radiating from Victoria along the various avenues, on the way, like themselves, to offices, ware-houses, and shops. Of the stablemen, bus-washers, drivers, mechanics, chauffeurs, and conductors, who had left their beds much in advance even of the travellers, let us not speak-even they had begun the day later than their wives, mothers, or daughters. All this flying population, urged and preoccupied by pitiless time, gazed down upon George and saw a gay young swell without a care in the world rushing on 'one of those motor-bikes' to freedom.

George was well aware of the popular gaze, and he supported it with negligent pride. He had the air of having been born to greatness; cigarette smoke and the fumes of exploded petrol and the rattle of explosions made a fine wake behind his greatness. In two years, since he had walked into Mr. Haim's parlour, his body had broadened, his eyes had slightly hardened, and his complexion and hair had darkened. And there was his moustache, very sprightly, and there was a glint of gold in his teeth. He had poor teeth, but luxuriant hair, ruthlessly cut and disciplined and subjugated. His trousers were clipped tightly at the ankles, and his jacket loosely buttoned by the correct button; his soft felt hat achieved the architect's ideal of combining the perfectly artistic with the perfectly modish. But the most remarkable and envy-raising portion of his attire was the loose, washable, yellow gloves, with large gauntlets, designed to protect the delicately tended hands when they had to explore among machinery.

He had obtained the motor-bicycle in a peculiar way. On arriving at Axe Station for the previous Christmas holidays, he had seen two low-hung lamps brilliantly flashing instead of the higher and less powerful lamps of the dogcart, and there had been no light-reflecting flanks of a horse in front of the lamps. The dark figure sitting behind the lamps proved to be his mother. His mother herself had driven him home. He noted calmly that as a chauffeur she had the same faults as the contemned Lois Ingram. Still, she did drive, and they reached Ladderedge Hall in safety. He admired, and he was a little frightened by, his mother's terrific volition to widen her existence. She would insist on doing everything that might be done, and nobody could stop her. Who would have dreamt that she, with her narrow, troubled past, and her passionate temperament rendered somewhat harsh by strange experiences, would at the age of forty-six or so be careering about the country at the wheel of a motor-car? Ah! But she would! She would be a girl. And by her individual force she successfully carried it off! Those two plotters, she and his stepfather, had conspired to buy a motor-car in secret from him. No letter from home had breathed a word of the motor-car. He was thunder-struck, and jealous. He had spent the whole of the Christmas holidays in that car, and in four days could drive better than his mother, and also-what was more difficult-could convince her obstinate self-assurance that he knew far more about the mechanism than she did. As a fact, her notions of the mechanism, though she was convinced of their rightness, were mainly fantastic. George of course had had to punish his parents. He had considered it his duty to do so. "The least you can do," he had said discontentedly and menacingly, "the least you can do is to give me a decent motor-bike!" The guilty pair had made amends in the manner thus indicated for them. George gathered from various signs that his stepfather was steadily and rapidly growing richer. George had acted accordingly-not only in the matter of the motor-bicycle, but in other matters.

Now, on this June morning he had just begun to breast the slope rising from the hollow to Hyde Park Corner when a boy shot out from be

hind a huge, stationary dust-cart on the left and dashed unregarding towards him. George shouted. The boy, faced with sudden death, was happily so paralysed that he fell down, thus checking his momentum by the severest form of friction. George swerved aside, missing the small, outstretched hands by an inch or two, but missing also by an inch or two the front wheel of a tremendous motor-bus on his right. He gave a nervous giggle as he flashed by the high red side of the motor-bus; and then he deliberately looked back at the murderous boy, who had jumped up. At the same moment George was brought to a sense of his own foolishness in looking back by a heavy jolt. He had gone over half a creosoted wood block which had somehow escaped from a lozenge-shaped oasis in the road where two workmen were indolently using picks under the magic protection of a tiny, dirty red flag. Secure in the guardianship of the bit of bunting, which for them was as powerful and sacred as the flag of an empire, the two workmen gazed with indifference at George and at the deafening traffic which swirled affronting but harmless around them. George slackened speed, afraid lest the jar might have snapped the plates of his accumulator. The motor-bicycle was a wondrous thing, but as capricious and delicate as a horse. For a trifle, for nothing at all, it would cease to function. The high-tension magneto and the float-feed carburetter, whose invention was to transform the motor-bicycle from an everlasting harassment into a means of loco-motion, were yet years away in the future. However, the jar had done no harm. The episode, having occupied less than ten seconds, was closed. George felt his heart thumping. He thought suddenly of the recent Paris-Madrid automobile race, in which the elite of the world had perished. He saw himself beneath the motor-bus, and a futile staring crowd round about. Simply by a miracle was he alive. But this miracle was only one of a score of miracles. He believed strongly in luck. He had always believed in it. The smoke of the cigarette displayed his confidence to all Piccadilly. Still, his heart was thumping.

And it had not ceased to thump when a few minutes later he turned into Manresa Road. Opposite the entrance to the alley of Romney Studios, there happened to be a small hiatus in the kerbstone. George curved the machine largely round and, mounting the pavement through this hiatus, rode gingerly up the alley, in defiance of the regulations of a great city, and stopped precisely at the door of No. 6. It was a matter of honour with him to arrive thus. Not for a million would he have walked the machine up the alley. He got off, sounded a peremptory call on the horn, and tattooed with the knocker. No answer came. An apprehension visited him. By the last post on the previous night he had received a special invitation to breakfast from Marguerite. Never had he been kept waiting at the door. He knocked again. Then he heard a voice from the side of the studio:

"Come round here, George."

In the side of the studio was a very small window from which the girls, when unpresentable, would parley with early tradesmen. Agg was at the window. He could see only her head and neck, framed by the window. Her short hair was tousled, and she held a dressing-gown tight about her neck. For the first time she seemed to him like a real feminine girl, and her tones were soft as they never were when Marguerite was present with her.

"I'm very sorry," she said. "You woke me. I was fast asleep. You can't come in."

"Anything up?" he questioned, rather anxiously. "Where's Marguerite?"

"Oh, George! A dreadful night!" she answered, almost plaintively, almost demanding sympathy from the male-she, Agg! "We were wakened up at two o'clock. Mr. Prince came round to fetch Marguerite to go to No. 8."

"To go to No. 8?" he repeated, frightened, and wondered why he should be frightened. "What on earth for?"

"Mrs. Haim very ill!" Agg paused. "Something about a baby."

"And did she go?"

"Yes; she put on her things and went off at once."

He was silent. He felt the rough grip of destiny, of some strange power irresistible and unescapable, just as he had momentarily felt it in the basement of No. 8 more than eighteen months before, when the outraged Mr. Haim had quarrelled with him. The mere idea of Marguerite being at No. 8 made him feel sick. He no longer believed in his luck. " How soon d'ye think she'll be back?"

"I-I don't know, George. I should have thought she'd have been back before this."

"I'll run round there," he said curtly.

Agg was disconcertingly, astoundingly sympathetic. Her attitude increased his disturbance.

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