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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 6846

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The written part of the examination lasted four days; and then there was an interval of one day in which the harassed and harried aspirants might restore themselves for the two days' ordeal of the viva voce. George had continued to be well satisfied with his work up to the interval. He considered that he had perfectly succeeded in separating the lover and the examinee, and that nothing foreign to the examination could vitiate his activity therein. It was on the day of repose, a Wednesday, that a doubt suddenly occurred to him as to the correctness of his answer, in the "Construction" paper, to a question which began with the following formidable words: "A girder, freely supported at each end and forty feet long, carries a load of six tons at a distance of six feet from one end and another load of ten tons--" Thus it went on for ten lines. He had always been impatient of detail, and he hated every kind of calculation. Nevertheless he held that calculations were relatively easy, and that he could do them as well as the driest duffer in the profession when he set his mind to them. But the doubt as to the correctness of his answer developed into a certainty. Facing the question in private again, he obtained four different solutions in an hour; it was John Orgreave who ultimately set him right, convicting him of a most elementary misconception. Forthwith his faith in his whole "Construction" paper vanished. He grumbled that it was monstrous to give candidates an unbroken stretch of four hours' work at the end of a four-day effort. Yet earlier he had been boasting that he had not felt the slightest fatigue. He had expected to see Marguerite on the day of repose. He did not see her. She had offered no appointment, and he said to himself that he had not the slightest intention of running after her. Such had become the attitude of the lover to the beloved.

On the Thursday morning, however, he felt fit enough to face a dozen oral examiners, and he performed his morning exercises in the club bedroom with a positive ferocity of vigour. And then he was gradually overtaken by a black moodiness which he could not explain. He had passed through similar though less acute moods as a boy; but this was the first of the inexplicable sombre humours which at moments darkened his manhood. He had not the least suspicion that prolonged nervous tension due to two distinct causes had nearly worn him out. He was melancholy, and his melancholy increased. But he was proud; he was defiant. His self-confidence, as he looked back at the years of genuine hard study behind him, was complete. He disdained examiners. He knew that with all their damnable ingenuity they could not floor him.

The crisis arrived in the afternoon of the first of the two days. His brain was quite clear. Thousands of details about drainage, ventilation, shoring, architectural practice, lighting, subsoils, specifications, iron and steel construction, under-pinning, the properties of building materials, strains, thrusts, water-supply; thousands of details about his designs-the designs in his 'testimonies of study,' the design for his Thesis, and the designs produced during the examination itself-all these peopled his brain; but they were in order; they were under control; they were his slaves. For four and a half hours, off and on, he had admirably displayed the reality of his knowledge, and then he was sent into a fre

sh room to meet a fresh examiner. There he stood in the room alone with his designs for a small provincial town hall-a key-plan, several one-eighth scale-plans, a piece of half-inch detail, and two rough perspective sketches which he knew were brilliant. The room was hot; through the open window came the distant sound of the traffic of Regent Street. The strange melancholy of a city in summer floated towards him from the outside and reinforced his own.

The examiner, who had been snatching tea, entered briskly and sternly. He was a small, dapper, fair man of about fifty, with wonderfully tended finger-nails. George despised him because Mr. Enwright despised him, but he had met him once in the way of the firm's business and found him urbane.

"Good afternoon," said George politely.

The examiner replied, trotting along the length of the desk with quick, short steps:

"Now about this work of yours. I've looked at it with some care--" His speech was like his demeanour and his finger-nails.

"Boor!" thought George. But he could not actively resent the slight. He glanced round at the walls; he was in a prison. He was at the mercy of a tyrant invested with omnipotence.

The little tyrant, however, was superficially affable. Only now and then in his prim, courteous voice was there a hint of hostility and cruelty. He put a number of questions, the answers to which had to be George's justification. He said "H'm!" and "Ah!" and "Really?" He came to the matter of spouting.

"Now, I object to hopper-heads," he said. "I regard them as unhygienic."

And he looked coldly at George with eyebrows lifted. George returned the gaze.

"I know you do, sir," George replied.

Indeed it was notorious that hopper-heads to vertical spouting were a special antipathy of the examiner's; he was a famous faddist. But the reply was a mistake. The examiner, secure in his attributes, ignored the sally. A little later, taking up the general plan of the town hall, he said:

"The fact is, I do-not-care for this kind of thing. The whole tendency---"

"Excuse me, sir," George interrupted, with conscious and elaborate respectfulness. "But surely the question isn't one of personal preferences. Is the design good or is it bad?"

"Well, I call it bad," said the examiner, showing testiness. The examiner too could be impulsive, was indeed apt to be short-tempered. The next instant he seized one of the brilliant perspective sketches, and by his mere manner of holding it between his thumb and finger he sneered at it and condemned it.

He snapped out, not angrily-rather pityingly:

"And what the devil's this?"

George, furious, retorted:

"What the hell do you think it is?"

He had not foreseen that he was going to say such a thing. The traffic in Regent Street, which had been inaudible to both of them, was loud in their ears.

The examiner had committed a peccadillo, George a terrible crime. The next morning the episode, in various forms, was somehow common knowledge and a source of immense diversion. George went through the second day, but lifelessly. He was sure he had failed. Apart from the significance of the fact that the viva voce counted for 550 marks out of a total of 1200, he felt that the Royal Institute of British Architects would know how to defend its dignity. On the Saturday morning John Orgreave had positive secret information that George would be plucked.

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