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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 11882

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The examination began the next day. Despite his preoccupation about Marguerite, George's performances during the first days were quite satisfactory to himself. Indeed, after a few minutes in the examination-room, after the preliminary critical assessing of the difficulty of the problems in design, and the questions, and of his ability to deal with them, George successfully forgot everything except the great seven-day duel between the self-constituted autocratic authorities backed by prestige and force, and the aspirants who had naught but their wits to help them. He was neither a son, nor a friend, nor a lover; he ceased to have human ties; he had become an examinee. Marguerite wrote him two short letters which were perfect, save that he always regarded her handwriting as a little too clerical, too like her father's. She made no reference whatever to the scene in the basement room. She said that she could not easily arrange to see him immediately, and that for the sake of his exam. he ought not to be distracted. She would have seen him on the Saturday, but on Saturday George learnt that her father was a little unwell and required, even if he did not need, constant attention. The funeral, unduly late, occurred by Mr. Haim's special desire on the Sunday, most of which day George spent with Everard Lucas. On the Monday he had a rendezvous at eight o'clock with Marguerite at the studio.

She opened the door herself; and her welcome was divine. Her gestures spoke, delicate, and yet robust in their candour. But she was in deep mourning.

"Oh!" he said, holding her. "You're wearing black, then."

"Of course!" she answered sweetly. "You see, I had to be there all through the funeral. And father would have been frightfully shocked if I hadn't been in black-naturally."

"Of course!" he agreed. It was ridiculous that he should be surprised and somewhat aggrieved to find her in mourning; still, he was surprised and somewhat aggrieved.

"Besides--" she added vaguely.

And that 'besides' disquieted him, and confirmed his grievance. Why should she wear mourning for a woman to whom she was not related, whom she had known simply as a charwoman, and who had forced her to leave her father's house? There was no tie between Marguerite and her stepmother. George, for his part, had liked the dead woman, but Marguerite had not even liked her. No, she was not wearing black in honour of the dead, but to humour the living. And why should her father be humoured? George privately admitted the unreasonableness, the unsoundness, of these considerations-obviously mourning wear was imperative for Marguerite-nevertheless they were present in his mind.

"That frock's a bit tight, but it suits you," he said, advancing with her into the studio.

" It's an old one," she smiled.

"An old one?"

"It's one I had for mother."

He had forgotten that she had had a mother, that she had known what grief was, only a very few years earlier. He resented these bereavements and the atmosphere which they disengaged. He wanted a different atmosphere.

"Is the exam. really all right?" she appealed to him, taking both his hands and leaning against him and looking up into his face.

"What did I tell you in my letter?"

"Yes, I know."

"The exam. is as right as rain."

"I knew it would be."

"You didn't," he laughed. He imitated her: "'Is the exam. really all right?'" She just smiled. He went on confidently: "Of course you never know your luck, you know. There's the viva to-morrow.... Where's old Agg?"

"She's gone home."

"Thoughtful child! How soon will she be back?"

"About nine," said Marguerite, apparently unaware that George was being funny.

"Nine!"

"Oh, George!" Marguerite exclaimed, breaking away from him. "I'm awfully sorry, but I must get on with my packing."

"What packing?"

"I have to take my things home."

"What home?"

"Father's, I mean."

She was going to live with her father, who would not willingly allow him, George, to enter the house! How astounding girls were! She had written to him twice without giving the least hint of her resolve. He had to learn it as it were incidentally, through the urgency of packing. She did not tell him she was going-she said she must get on with her packing! And there, lying on the floor, was an open trunk; and two of her drawing-boards already had string round them.

George inquired:

"How is the old man-to-day?"

"He's very nervy," said Marguerite briefly and significantly. "I'd better light the lamp; I shall see better." She seemed to be speaking to herself. She stood on a chair and lifted the chimney off the central lamp. George absently passed her his box of matches.

As she, was replacing the chimney, he said suddenly in a very resolute tone:

"This is all very well, Marguerite. But it's going to be jolly awkward for me."

She jumped lightly down from the chair, like a little girl.

"Oh! George! I know!" she cried. "It will be awkward for both of us. But we shall arrange something." She might have resented his tone. She might have impulsively defended herself. But she did not. She accepted his attitude with unreserved benevolence. Her gaze was marvellously sympathetic.

"I can't make out what your father's got against me," said George angrily, building his vexation on her benevolence. "What have I done, I should like to know."

"It's simply because you lived there all that time without him knowing we were engaged. He says if he'd known he would never have let you stay there a day." She smiled, mournfully, forgivingly, excusingly.

"But it's preposterous!"

"Oh! It is."

"And how does he behave to you ? Is he treating you decently?"

"Oh! Fairly. You see, he's got a lot to get over. And he's most frightfully upset about-his wife. Well, you saw him yourself, didn't you?"

"That's no reason why he should treat you badly."

"But he doesn't, George!"

"Oh! I know! I know! Do you think I don't know? He's not even decent to you. I can hear it in your voice. Why should you go back and live with him if he isn't prepared to appreciate it?"

"But he expects it, George. And what am I to do? He's all alone. I can't leave him all alone, can I?"

George burst out:

"I tell you what it is. Marguerite. You're too good-natured. That's what it is. You're too good-natured. And it's a very bad thing."

Tears came into her eyes; she could not control them. She was grieved by his remark.

"I'm not, George, truly. You must remember father's been through a lot this last week. So have I."

" "I know! I know! I admit all that. But you're too good-natured, and I'll stick to it."

She was smiling again.

"You only think that because you're fond of me. Nobody else would say it, and I'm not. Help me to lift this trunk on to the chest."

While the daylight withdrew, and the smell of the lamp strengthened and then faded, and the shadows cast by the lamp-rays grew blacker, she went on rapidly with her packing, he serving her at intervals. They said little. His lower lip fell lower and lower. The evening was immensely, horribly different from what he had expected and hoped for. He felt once more the inescapable grip of destiny fastening upon him.

"Why are you in such a hurry?" he asked, after a long time.

"I told father I should be back at a quarter-past nine."

This statement threw George into a condition of total dark disgust. He made no remark. But what remarks he could have made-sarcastic, bitter, unanswerable! Why indeed in the name of heaven should she promise her father to be back at a quarter-past nine, or at a quarter-past anything? Was she a servant? Had she no rights? Had he himself, George, no rights?

A little before nine Agg arrived. Marguerite was fastening the trunk.

"Now be sure, Agg," said Marguerite. "Don't forget to hang out the Carter Paterson card at the end of the alley to-morrow morning. I must have these things at home to-morrow night for certain. The labels are on. And here's twopence for the man."

"Do I forget?" retorted Agg cheerfully. "By the way, George, I want to talk to you." She turned to Marguerite and repeated in quite a different voice: "I want to talk to him, dear, to-night. Do, let him stay. Will you?"

Marguerite gave a puzzled assent.

"I'll call after I've taken Marguerite to Alexandra Grove, Agg-on my way back to the club."

"Oh no, you won't!" said Agg. "I shall be gone to bed then. Look at that portrait and see how I've worked. My family's concerned about me. It wants me to go away for a holiday."

George had not till then noticed the portrait at all.

"But I must take Marguerite along to the Grove," he insisted. "She can't go alone."

" And why can't she go alone? What sort of a conventional world do you think you live in? Don't girls go home alone? Don't they come in alone? Don't I? Anybody would think, to listen to some people, that the purdah flourished in Chelsea. But it's all pretence. I don't ask for the honour of a private interview with you every night. You've both of you got all your lives before you. And for once in a way Marguerite's going out alone. At least, you can take her to the street, I don't mind that. But don't be outside more than a minute."

Agg, who had sat down, rose and slowly removed her small hat. With pins in her mouth she said something about the luggage to Marguerite.

"All right! All right!" George surrendered gloomily. In truth he was not sorry to let Marguerite depart solitary. And Agg's demeanour was very peculiar; he would have been almost afraid to be too obstinate in denying her request. He had never seen her hysterical, but a suspicion took him that she might be capable of hysteria.... You never knew, with that kind of girl, he thought sagaciously.

In the darkness of the alley George said to Marguerite, feigning irritation:

"What on earth does she want?"

"Agg? Oh! It's probably nothing. She does get excited sometimes, you know."

The two girls had parted with strange, hard demonstrations of affection from Agg.

"I suppose you'll write," said George coldly.

"To-morrow, darling," she replied quite simply and gravely.

Her kiss was warm, complete, faithful, very loving, very sympathetic. Nothing in her demeanour as she left him showed that George had received it in a non-committal manner. Yet she must have noticed his wounded reserve. He did not like such duplicity. He would have preferred her to be less miraculously angelic.

When he re-entered the studio, Agg, who very seldom smoked, was puffing violently at a cigarette. She reclined on one elbow on the settee, her eyes fixed on the portrait of herself. George was really perturbed by the baffling queerness of the scenes through which he was passing.

"Look here, infant-in-arms," she began immediately. "I only wanted to say two words to you about Marguerite. Can you stand it?"

There was a pause. George walked in front of her, hiding the easel.

"Yes," he said gruffly.

"Well, Marguerite's a magnificent girl. She's extraordinarily capable. You'd think she could look after herself as well as anyone. But she can't. I know her far better than you do. She needs looking after. She'll make a fool of herself if she isn't handled."

"How do you mean?"

"You know how I mean."

"D'you mean about the old man?"

"I mean about the perfectly horrid old man.... Ah! If I was in your place, if I was a man," she said passionately, "do you know what I should do with Marguerite? I should carry her off. I should run away with her. I should drag her out of the house, and she should know what a real man was. I'm not going to discuss her with you. I'm not going to say any more at all. I'm off to bed. But before you go, I do think you might tell me my portrait's a pretty good thing."

And she did not say any more.

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