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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9608

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The office was not at its normal. The empty cubicle of the factotum looked strange enough. But there was more than that in the abnormality. There were currents of excitement in the office. The door of the principals' room was open, and George saw John Orgreave and Everard Lucas within, leaning over one of the great flat desks. The hour was early for Lucas, and self-satisfaction was on Lucas's face as he raised it to look at the entering of George.

"I say," he remarked quietly through the doorway, "that town hall scheme is on again."

"Oh!" said George, depositing his hat and gloves and strolling into the principals' room. "Good morning, Mr. Orgreave. Got the conditions there?" For a moment his attitude of interest was a pose, but very quickly it became sincere. Astonishing how at sight of a drawing-board and a problem he could forget all that lay beyond them! He was genuinely and extremely disturbed by the course of affairs at Chelsea; nevertheless he now approached Mr. Orgreave and Lucas with eagerness, and Chelsea slipped away into another dimension.

"No," said John Orgreave, "the conditions aren't out yet. But it's all right this time. I know for a fact."

The offices of all the regular architectural competitors in London were excited that morning. For the conception of the northern town hall was a vast one. Indeed, journalists had announced, from their mysterious founts of information, that the town hall would be the largest public building erected in England during half a century. The scheme had been the sport of municipal politics for many months, for years. Apparently it could not get itself definitely born. And now the Town Clerk's wife had brought about the august parturition. It is true that her agency was unintentional. The Town Clerk had belonged to a powerful provincial dynasty of town clerks. He had the illusion that without him a great town would cease to exist. There was nothing uncommon in this illusion, which indeed is rife among town clerks; but the Town Clerk in question had the precious faculty of being able to communicate it to mayors, aldermen, and councillors. He was a force in the municipal council. Voteless, he exercised a moral influence over votes. And he happened to be opposed to the scheme for the new town hall. He gave various admirable reasons for the postponement of the scheme, but he never gave the true reasons, even to himself. The true reasons were, first, that he hated and detested the idea of moving office, and, second, that he wanted acutely to be able to say in the fullness of years that he had completed half a century of municipal work in one and the same room. If the pro-scheme party had had the wit to invent a pretext for allowing the Town Clerk to remain in the old municipal buildings, the scheme would instantly have taken life. The Town Clerk, being widowed, had consoled himself with a young second wife. This girl adored dancing; the Town Clerk adored her; and therefore where she danced he deemed it prudent to attend. Driving home from a January ball at 4 a.m. the Town Clerk had caught pneumonia. In a week he was dead, and his dynasty with him. In a couple of months the pro-scheme party had carried the council off its feet. Such are the realities, never printed in newspapers, of municipal politics in the grim north.

Sketches of the site had appeared in the architectural press. John Orgreave and Lucas were pencilling in turn upon one of these, a page torn out of a weekly. George inserted himself between them, roughly towards Lucas and deferentially towards Mr. John.

"But you've got the main axis wrong!" he exclaimed.

"How, wrong?" John Orgreave demanded.

"See here-give me the pencil, Looc."

George felt with a little thrill of satisfaction the respect for him which underlay John Orgreave's curt tone of a principal-and a principal from the Midlands. He did not miss, either, Lucas's quick, obedient, expectant gesture in surrendering the pencil. Ideas for the plan of the building sprang up multitudinously in his mind. He called; they came. He snatched towards him a blank sheet of tracing-paper, and scrawled it over with significant lines.

"That's my notion. I thought of it long ago," he said. "Or if you prefer-"

The other two were impressed. He himself was impressed. His notion, which he was modifying and improving every moment, seemed to him perfect and ever more perfect. He was intensely and happily stimulated in the act of creation; and they were all three absorbed.

"Why hasn't my desk been arranged?" said a discontented voice behind them. Mr. Enwright had arrived by the farther door from the corridor.

Lucas glanced up.

"I expect Haim hasn't come again to-day," he answered urbanely, placatingly.

"Why hasn't he come?"

"I hear hi

s wife's very ill," said George.

"Who told you?"

"I happened to be round that way this morning."

"Oh! I thought all was over between you two."

George flushed. Nothing had ever been said in the office as to his relations with Haim, though it was of course known that George no longer lodged with the factotum. Mr. Enwright, however, often had disconcerting intuitions concerning matters to which Mr. Orgreave and Lucas were utterly insensible.

"Oh no!" George haltingly murmured.

"Well, this is all very well, this is--!" Mr. Enwright ruthlessly proceeded, beginning to marshal the instruments on his desk.

He had been a somewhat spectacular martyr for some time past. A mysterious facial neuralgia had harried his nights and days. For the greater part of a week he had dozed in an arm-chair in the office under the spell of eight tabloids of aspirin per diem. Then a specialist had decided that seven of his side teeth, already studded with gold, must leave him. Those teeth were not like any other person's teeth, and in Mr. Enwright's mind the extracting of them had become a major operation, as, for example, the taking off of a limb. He had spent three days in a nursing home in Welbeck Street. His life was now saved, and he was a convalescent, and passed several hours daily in giving to friends tragi-farcical accounts of existence in a nursing home. Mr. Enwright's career was one unending romance.

"I was just looking at that town hall affair," said John Orgreave.

"What town hall?" his partner snapped.

" The town hall," answered the imperturbable John. "George here has got an idea."

"I suppose you know Sir Hugh Corver, Bart., is to be the assessor," said Mr. Enwright in a devastating tone.

Sir Hugh Corver, formerly a mere knight, had received a baronetcy, to Mr. Enwright's deep disgust. Mr. Enwright had remarked that any decent-minded man who had been a husband and childless for twenty-four years would have regarded the supplementary honour as an insult, but that Sir Hugh was not decent-minded and, moreover, was not capable of knowing an insult when he got one. This theory of Mr. Enwright's, however, did not a bit lessen his disgust.

"Oh yes," John Orgreave admitted lamely.

"I for one am not going in for any more competitions with Corver as assessor," said Mr. Enwright. "I won't do it."

Faces fell. Mr. Enwright had previously published this resolve, but it had not been taken quite seriously. It was entirely serious. Neuralgia and a baronetcy had given it the consistency of steel.

"It isn't as if we hadn't got plenty of work in the office," said Mr. Enwright.

This was true. The firm was exceedingly prosperous.

Nobody else spoke.

"What can you expect from a fellow like Corver?" Mr. Enwright cried, with a special glance at George. "He's the upas-tree of decent architecture."

George's mood changed immediately. Profound discouragement succeeded to his creative stimulation. Mr. Enwright had reason on his side. What could you expect from a fellow like Corver? With all the ardour of a disciple George dismissed the town hall scheme, and simultaneously his private woes surged up and took full possession of him. He walked silently out of the room, and Lucas followed. As a fact, Mr. Enwright ought not to have talked in such a way before the pupils. A question of general policy should first have been discussed in private between the partners, and the result then formally announced to the staff. Mr. Enwright was not treating his partner with proper consideration. But Mr. Enwright, as every one said at intervals, was 'like that'; and his partner did not seem to care greatly.

Lucas shut the door between the principals' room and the pupils' room.

"I say," said Lucas importantly. "I've got a show on to-night. Women. Café Royal. I want a fourth. You must come."

"Yes," sneered George. "And what about my exam., I should like to know.... Besides, I can't."

The Final was due to begin on Thursday.

"That's all right," Lucas answered, with tact. "That's all right. I'd thought of the exam., of course. You'll have to-morrow to recover. It'll do you all the good in the world. And you know you're more than ready for the thing. You don't want to be overtrained, my son. Besides, you'll sail through it. As for 'can't,' 'can't' be damned. You've got to."

A telegraph boy, after hesitating at the empty cubicle, came straight into the room.

"Name of Cannon?"

George nodded, trembling.

The telegram read:

"Impossible to-day.-MARGUERITE."

It was an incredible telegram, as much by what it said as by what it didn't say. It overthrew George.

"Seven forty-five, and I'll drive you round," said Lucas.

"Tis well," said George.

Immediately afterwards Mr. Enwright summoned Lucas.

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