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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 10506

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


During the whole of the next day George waited for a letter from Marguerite. There was nothing at the club by the first post; he went to the office, hoping that as he had addressed his telegram from Russell Square she might have written to Russell Square; there was nothing at Russell Square. At lunch-time no word had arrived at the club; when the office closed no word had arrived at the office; the last post brought nothing to the club. He might have sent another telegram to Alexandra Grove, but he was too proud to do so. He dined alone and most miserably at the club. Inspired by unhappiness and resentment, he resolved to go to bed; in bed he might read himself to sleep. But in the hall of the club his feet faltered. Perhaps it was the sight of hats and sticks that made him vacillate, or a glimpse of reluctantly dying silver in the firmament over Candle Court. He wavered; he stood still at the foot of the stairs. The next moment he was in the street. He had decided to call on Agg at the studio. Agg might have the clue to Marguerite's astounding conduct, though he had it not. He took a hansom, after saying he would walk; he was too impatient for walking. Possibly Marguerite would be at the studio; possibly a letter of hers had miscarried; letters did miscarry. He was in a state of peculiar excitement as he paid the cabman-an enigma to himself.

The studio was quite dark. Other studios showed lights, but not Agg's. From one studio came the sound of a mandolin-he thought it was a mandolin-and the sound seemed pathetic, tragic, to his ears. Agg was perhaps in bed; he might safely arouse her; she would not object. But no! He would not do that. Pride again! It would be too humiliating for him, the affianced, to have to ask Agg: "I say, do you know anything about Marguerite?" The affianced ought to be the leading authority as to the doings of Marguerite. He turned away, walked a little, and perceived the cabman swinging himself cautiously down from his perch in order to enter a public-house. He turned back. Marguerite too might be in bed at the studio. Or the girls might be sitting in the dark, talking-a habit of theirs.... Fanciful suppositions! At any rate he would not knock at the door of the studio, would not even enter the alley again. What carried him into the Fulham Road and westwards as far as the Workhouse tower and the corner of Alexandra Grove? Feet! But surely the feet of another person, over which he had no control! He went in the lamplit dimness of Alexandra Grove like a thief; he crept into it. The silver had not yet died out of the sky; he could see it across the spaces between the dark houses; it was sad in exactly the same way as the sound of the mandolin had been sad.

What did he mean to do in the Grove? Nothing! He was just walking in it by chance. He could indeed do nothing. For if he rang at No. 8 old Haim would again confront him in the portico. He passed by No. 8 on the opposite side of the road. No light showed, except a very dim glow through the blind of the basement window to the left of the front door. Those feet beneath him strolled across the road. The basement window was wide open. The blind being narrower than the window-frame, he could see, through the railings, into the room within. He saw Marguerite. She was sitting, in an uncomfortable posture, in the rather high-seated arm-chair in which formerly, when the room was her studio, she used to sit at her work. Her head had dropped, on one shoulder. She was asleep. On the table a candle burned. His heart behaved strangely. He flushed. All his flesh tingled. The gate creaked horribly as he tiptoed into the patch of garden. He leaned over the little chasm between the level of the garden and the window, and supported himself with a hand on the lower sash. He pushed the blind sideways with the other hand.

"Marguerite!" in a whisper. Then louder: "Marguerite!"

She did not stir. She was in a deep sleep. Her hands hung limp. Her face was very pale and very fatigued. She liberated the same sadness as the sound of the mandolin and the gleam of silver in the June sky, but it was far more poignant. At the spectacle of those weary and unconscious features and of the soft, bodily form, George's resentment was annihilated. He wondered at his resentment. He was aware of nothing in himself but warm, protective love. Tenderness surged out from the impenetrable secrecy of his heart, filled him, overflowed, and floated in waves towards the sleeper. In the intense sadness, and in the uncertainty of events, he was happy.

An older man might have paused, but without hesitancy George put his foot on the window-sill, pushed down the window farther, and clambered into the room in which he had first seen Marguerite. His hat, pressing backward the blind, fell off and bounced its hard felt on the floor, which at the edges was uncarpeted. The noise of the hat and the general stir of George's infraction disturbed Marguerite, who awoke and looked up. The melancholy which she was exhaling suddenly vanished. Her steady composure in the alarm delighted George.

"Couldn't wake you," he murmured lightly. It was part of his Five Towns upbringing to conceal excitement. "Saw you through the window."

"O

h! George! Was I asleep?"

Pleasure shone on her face. He deposited his stick and sprang to her. He sat on the arm of the chair. He bent her head back and examined her face. He sat on her knee and held her. She did not kiss; she was kissed; he liked that. Her fatigue was adorable.

"I came here for something, and I just sat down for a second because I was so tired, and I must have gone right off.... No! No!"

The admonishing negative was to stop him from getting up off her knee. She was exhausted, yet she had vast resources of strength to bear him on her knee. She was wearing her oldest frock. It was shabby. But it exquisitely suited her then. It was the frock of her capability, of her great labours, of her vigil, of her fatigue. It covered, but did not hide, her beautiful contours. He thought she was marvellously beautiful-and very young, far younger than himself. As for him, he was the dandy, in striking contrast to her. His dandyism as he sat on her knee pleased both of them. He looked older than his years, his shoulders had broadened, his dark moustache thickened. In his own view he was utterly adult, as she was in hers. But their young faces so close together, so confident, were touchingly immature. As he observed her grave satisfaction at his presence, the comfort which he gave her, he felt sure of her, and the memory of his just resentment came to him, and he was tenderly reproachful.

"I expected to hear from you," he said. The male in him relished the delicate accusation of his tone.

Marguerite answered with a little startled intake of breath:

"She's dead!"

"Dead?"

"She died this afternoon. The layer-out left about half an hour ago."

Death parted them. He rose from her knee, and Marguerite did not try to prevent him. He was profoundly shocked. With desolating vividness he recalled the Sunday afternoon when he had carried upstairs the plump, living woman now dead. He had always liked Mrs. Lob-it was as Mrs. Lob that he thought of her. He had seen not much of her. Only on that Sunday afternoon had he and she reached a sort of intimacy-unspoken but real. He had liked her. He had even admired her. She was no ordinary being. And he had sympathized with her for Marguerite's quite explicable defection. He had often wished that those two, the charwoman and his beloved, could somehow have been brought together. The menaces of death had brought them together. Mrs. Lob was laid out in the bedroom which he had once entered. Mrs. Lob had been dying while he dined richly with Miss Wheeler and Laurencine, and while he talked cynically with Everard Lucas. And while he had been resenting Marguerite's neglect Marguerite was watching by the dying bed. Oh! The despicable superficialities of restaurants and clubs! He was ashamed. The mere receding shadow of death shamed him.

"The baby's dead too, of course," Marguerite added. "She ought never to have had a baby. It seems she had had two miscarriages."

There were tears in Marguerite's eyes and in her voice. Nevertheless her tone was rather matter-of-fact as she related these recondite and sinister things. George thought that women were very strange. Imagine Marguerite quietly talking to him in this strain! Then the sense of the formidable secrets that lie hidden in the history of families, and the sense of the continuity of individual destinies, overwhelmed him. There was silence.

"And your exam. begins to-morrow," whispered the astonishing Marguerite.

" Where's the old gentleman?"

"He's sitting in the parlour in the dark."

It was a terrible house: they two intimidated and mournful in the basement; the widower solitary on the ground floor; the dead bodies, the wastage and futility of conception and long bearing, up in the bedroom. And in all the house the light of one candle! George suddenly noticed, then, that Marguerite was not wearing the thin, delicate ring which he had long ago given her. Had she removed it because of her manual duties? He wanted to ask the question, but, even unspoken, it seemed too trivial for the hour....

There was a shuffling sound beyond the door, and a groping on the outer face of the door. Marguerite jumped up. Mr. Haim stumbled into the room. He had incredibly aged; he looked incredibly feeble. But as he pointed a finger at George he was in a fury of anger, and his anger was senile, ridiculous, awful.

"I thought I heard voices," he said, half squeaking. "How did you get in? You didn't come in by the door. Out of my house! My wife lying dead upstairs, and you choose this night to break in!" He was implacable against George, absolutely; and George recoiled.

The opening of the door had created a draught in which the candle-flame trembled, and the shadow of the old man trembled on the door.

"You'd better go. I'll write. I'll write," Marguerite murmured to George very calmly, very gently, very persuasively. She stood between the two men. Her manner was perfect. It eternally impressed itself on George. "Father, come and sit down."

The old man obeyed her. So did George. He snatched his hat and stick. By the familiar stone steps of the basement, and along the familiar hall, he felt his way to the door, turned the familiar knob, and departed.

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