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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 7379

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When George rang the bell at No. 8 Alexandra Grove his mysterious qualms were intensified. He dreaded the moment when the door should open, even though it should be opened by Marguerite herself. And yet he had a tremendous desire to see Marguerite-merely to look at her face, to examine it, to read it. His summons was not answered. He glanced about. The steps were dirty. The brass knob and the letter-flap had not been polished. After a time he pushed up the flap and gazed within, and saw the interior which he knew so well and which he had not entered for so many months. Nothing was changed in it, but it also had a dusty and neglected air. Every detail roused his memory. The door of what had once been his room was shut; he wondered what the room was now. This house held the greatest part of his history. It lived in his mind as vitally as even the boarding-house kept by his mother in a side-street in Brighton, romantic and miserable scene of his sensitive childhood. It was a solemn house for him. Through the basement window on a dark night he had first glimpsed Marguerite. Unforgettable event! Unlike anything else that had ever happened to anybody!... He heard a creak, and caught sight through the letter-aperture of a pair of red slippers, and then the lower half of a pair of trousers, descending the stairs. And he dropped the flap hurriedly. Mr. Haim was coming to open the door. Mr. Haim did open the door, started at the apparition of George, and stood defensively and forbiddingly in the very centre of the doorway.

"Oh!" said George nervously. "How is Mrs. Haim?"

"Mrs. Haim is very ill indeed." The reply was emphatic and inimical.

"I'm sorry."

Mr. Haim said nothing further. George had not seen him since the previous Saturday, having been excused by Mr. Enwright from the office on Monday on account of examination work. He did not know that Mr. Haim had not been to the office on Monday either. In the interval the man had shockingly changed. He seemed much older, and weaker too; he seemed worn out by acute anxiety. Nevertheless he so evidently resented sympathy that George was not sympathetic, and regarded him coldly as a tiresome old man. The official relations between the two had been rigorously polite and formal. No reference had ever been made by either to the quarrel in the basement or to the cause of it. And for the world in general George's engagement had remained as secret as before. Marguerite had not seen her father in the long interval, and George had seen only the factotum of Lucas & Enwright. But he now saw Marguerite's father again-a quite different person from the factotum.... Strange, how the house seemed forlorn! 'Something about a baby,' Agg had said vaguely. And it was as though something that Mr. Haim and his wife had concealed had burst from its concealment and horrified and put a curse on the whole Grove. Something not at all nice! What in the name of decent propriety was that slippered old man doing with a baby? George would not picture to himself Mrs. Haim lying upstairs. He did not care to think of Marguerite secretly active somewhere in one of those rooms. But she was there; she was initiated. He did not criticize her.

"I should like to see Marguerite," he said at length. Despite himself he had a guilty feeling.

"My daughter!" Mr. Haim took up the heavy r?le.

"Only for a minute," said George boyishly, and irritated by his own boyishness.

"You can't see her, sir."

"But if she knows I'm here, she'll come to me," George insisted. He saw that the old man's hatred of him was undiminished. Indeed, time had probably strengthened it.

"You can't see her, sir. This is my house."

George considered himself infinitely more mature than in the November of 1901 when the old man had worsted him. And yet he was no more equal to this situation than he had been to the former one.

"But what am I to do, then?" he demanded, not fiercely, but crossly.

"What are you to do? Don't ask me, sir. My wife is very ill indeed, and you come down the Grove making noise enough to wake the dead"-he indicated the motor-bicycle, of which the silencer was admittedly defective-"and you want to see my daughter. My daughter has more important work to do than to see you. I never heard of such callousness. If you want to communicate with my daughter you had better write-so long as she stays in this house."

Mr. Haim shut the door, which rendered his advantage over George complete.

From the post office nearly opposite the end of the Grove George dispatched a reply-paid telegram to Marguerite:

"Where and when can I see you?-GEORGE. Russell Square."

It seemed a feeble retort to Mr. Haim, but he could think of nothing better.

On the way up town he suddenly felt, not hungry, but empty, and he called in at a tea-shop. He was the only customer, in a great expanse of marble-topped tables. He sat down at a marble-topped table. On the marble-topped table next to him were twenty-four sugar-basins, and on the next to that a large number of brass bells, and on another one an infinity of cruets. A very slatternly woman was washing the linoleum in a corner of the floor. Two thin, wrinkled girls in shabby black were whispering together behind the counter. The cash-den was empty. Through the open door he could keep an eye on his motor-bicycle, which was being surreptitiously regarded by a boy theoretically engaged in cleaning the window. A big van drove up, and a man entered with pastry on a wooden tray and bantered one of the girls in black. She made no reply, being preoccupied with the responsibility of counting cakes. The man departed and the van disappeared. Nobody took the least notice of George. He might have been a customer invisible and inaudible. After the fiasco of his interview with Mr. Haim, he had not the courage to protest. He framed withering sentences to the girls in black, such as: "Is this place supposed to be open for business, or isn't it?" but they were not uttered. Then a girl in black with a plain, ugly white apron and a dowdy white cap appeared on the stairs leading from the basement, and removed for her passage a bar of stained wood lettered in gilt: 'Closed,' and she halted at George's table. She spoke no word. She just stood over him, unsmiling, placid, flaccid, immensely indifferent. She was pale, a poor sort of a girl, without vigour. But she had a decent, honest face. She was not aware that she ought to be bright, welcoming, provocative, for a penny farthing an hour. She had never heard of Hebe. George thought of the long, desolating day that lay before her. He looked at her seriously. His eyes did not challenge hers as they were accustomed to challenge Hebe's. He said in a friendly, matter-of-fact tone:

"A meat-pie, please, and a large coffee."

And she repeated in a thin voice:

"Meat-pie. Large coffee."

A minute later she dropped the order on the table, as it might have been refuse, and with it a bit of white paper. The sadness of the city, and the inexplicable sadness of June mornings, overwhelmed George as he munched at the meat-pie and drank the coffee, and reached over for the sugar and reached over for the mustard. And he kept saying to himself:

"She doesn't see her father at all for nearly two years, and then she goes off to him like that in the middle of the night-at a word."

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