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   Chapter 22 No.22

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 17251

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


George, despite his own dispositions, as he went up in the lift, to obviate the danger of such a mishap, was put out of countenance by the overwhelming splendour of Miss Irene Wheeler's flat. And he did not quite recover his aplomb until the dinner was nearly finished. The rooms were very large and lofty; they blazed with electric light, though the day had not yet gone; they gleamed with the polish of furniture, enamel, bookbindings, marble, ivory, and precious metals; they were ennobled by magnificent pictures, and purified by immense quantities of lovely flowers. George had made the mistake of arriving last. He found in the vast drawing-room five people who had the air of being at home and intimate together. There were, in addition to the hostess, Lois and Laurencine Ingram, Everard Lucas, and a Frenchman from the French Embassy whose name he did not catch. Miss Wheeler wore an elaborate Oriental costume, and apologized for its simplicity on the grounds that she was fatigued by a crowded and tiresome reception which she had held that afternoon, and that the dinner was to be without ceremony. This said, her conversation seemed to fail, but she remained by George's side, apart from the others. George saw not the least vestige of the ruinous disorder which, in the society to which he was accustomed, usually accompanied a big afternoon tea, or any sign of a lack of ceremony. He had encountered two male servants in the hall, and had also glimpsed a mulatto woman in a black dress and a white apron, and a Frenchwoman in a black dress and a black apron. Now a third man-servant entered, bearing an enormous silver-gilt tray on which were multitudinous bottles, glasses, decanters, and jugs. George comprehended that apéritifs were being offered. The tray contained enough cocktails and other combinations, some already mingled and some not, to produce a factitious appetite in the stomachs of a whole platoon. The girls declined, Miss Wheeler declined, the Frenchman declined, George declined (from prudence and diffidence); only Lucas took an apéritif , and he took it, as George admitted, in style. The man-servant, superbly indifferent to refusals, marched processionally off with the loaded tray. The great principle of conspicuous ritualistic waste had been illustrated in a manner to satisfy the most exacting standard of the leisured class; and incidentally a subject of talk was provided.

George observed the name of 'Renoir' on the gorgeous frame of a gorgeous portrait in oils of the hostess.

"Is that a Renoir?" he asked the taciturn Miss Wheeler, who seemed to jump at the opening with relief.

"Yes," she said, with her slight lisp. "I'm glad you noticed it. Come and look at it. Do you think it's a good one? Do you like Renoir?"

By good fortune George had seen a Renoir or two in Paris under the guidance of Mr. Enwright. They stared at the portrait together.

"It's awfully distinguished," he decided, employing a useful adjective which he had borrowed from Mr. Enwright.

"Isn't it!" she said, turning her wondrous complexion towards him, and admiring his adjective. "I have a Boldini too."

He followed her across the room to the Boldini portrait of herself, which was dazzling in its malicious flattery.

"And here's a Nicholson," she said.

Those three portraits were the most striking pictures in the salon , but there were others of at least equal value.

"Are you interested in fans?" she demanded, and pulled down a switch which illuminated the interior of a large cabinet full of fans. She pointed out fans painted by Lami, Glaize, Jacquemart. "That one is supposed to be a Lancret," she said. "But I'm not sure about it, and I don't know anybody that is. Here's the latest book on the subject." She indicated Lady Charlotte Schreiber's work in two volumes which, bound in vellum and gold, lay on a table. "But of course it only deals with English fans. However, Conder is going to do me a couple. He was here yesterday to see me about them. Of course you know him. What a wonderful man! The only really cosmopolitan artist in England, I say, now Beardsley's dead. I've got a Siegfried drawing by Beardsley. He was a great friend of mine. I adored him."

" This is a fine thing," said George, touching a bronze of a young girl on the same table as the books.

"You think so?" Miss Wheeler responded uncertainly. "I suppose it is . It's a Gilbert. He gave it me. But do you really think it compares with this Barye? It doesn't, does it?" She directed him to another bronze of a crouching cheetah.

So she moved him about. He was dazed. His modest supply of adjectives proved inadequate. When she paused, he murmured:

"It's a great room you've managed to get here."

"Ah!" she cried thinly. "But you've no idea of the trouble I've had over this room. Do you know it's really two rooms. I had to take two flats in order to fix this room."

She was launched on a supreme topic, and George heard a full history. She would not have a house. She would have a flat. She instructed house-agents to find for her the best flat in London. There was no best flat in London. London landlords did not understand flats, which were comprehended only in Paris. The least imperfect flats in London were two on a floor, and as their drawing-rooms happened to be contiguous on their longer sides, she had the idea of leasing two intolerable flats so as to obtain one flat that was tolerable. She had had terrible difficulties about the central heating. No flats in London were centrally heated except in the corridors and on the staircases. However, she had imposed her will on the landlord, and radiators had appeared in every room. George had a vision of excessive wealth subjugating the greatest artists and riding with implacable egotism over the customs and institutions of a city obstinately conservative. The cost and the complexity of Irene Wheeler's existence amazed and intimidated George-for this double flat was only one of her residences. He wondered what his parents would say if they could see him casually treading the oak parquetry and the heavy rugs of the resplendent abode. And then he thought, the humble and suspicious upstart: "There must be something funny about her, or she wouldn't be asking me here!"

They went in to dinner, without ceremony. George was last, the hostess close to his side.

"Who's the Frenchman?" he inquired casually, with the sudden boldness that often breaks out of timidity. "I didn't catch."

"It's Monsieur Defourcambault," said Miss Wheeler in a low voice of sincere admiration. "He's from the Embassy. A most interesting man. Been everywhere. Seen everything. Read everything. Done everything."

George could not but be struck by the ingenuous earnestness of her tone, so different from the perfunctory accents in which she had catalogued her objects of art.

The dining-room, the dinner, and the service of the dinner were equally superb. The broad table seemed small in the midst of the great mysterious chamber, of which the illumination was confined by shades to the centre. The glance wandering round the obscurity of the walls could rest on nothing that was not obviously in good taste and very costly. The three men-servants, moving soundless as phantoms, brought burdens from a hidden country behind a gigantic screen, and at intervals in the twilight near the screen could be detected the transient gleam of the white apron of the mulatto, whose sex clashed delicately and piquantly with the grave, priest-like performances of the male menials. The table was of mahogany covered with a sheet of plate-glass. A large gold épergne glittered in the middle. Suitably dispersed about the rim of the board were six rectangular islands of pale lace, and on each island lay a complete set of the innumerable instruments and condiments necessary to the proper consumption of the meal. Thus, every diner dined independently, cut off from his fellows, but able to communicate with them across expanses of plate-glass over mahogany. George was confused by the multiplicity of metal tools and crystal receptacles-he alone had four wine-glasses-but in the handling of the tools he was saved from shame by remembering the maxim-a masterpiece of terse clarity worthy of a class which has given its best brains to the perfecting of the formalities preliminary to deglutition: "Take always from the outside."

The man from the French Embassy sat on the right of the hostess, and George on her left. George had Lois Ingram on his left. Laurencine was opposite her sister. Everard Lucas, by command of the hoste

ss, had taken the foot of the table and was a sort of 'Mr. Vice.' The six people were soon divided into two equal groups, one silent and the other talkative, the talkative three being M. Defourcambault, Laurencine and Lucas. The diplomatist, though he could speak diplomatic English, persisted in speaking French. Laurencine spoke French quite perfectly, with exactly the same idiomatic ease as the Frenchman. Lucas neither spoke nor understood French-he had been to a great public school. Nevertheless these three attained positive loquacity. Lucas guessed at words, or the Frenchman obliged with bits of English, or Laurencine interpreted. Laurencine was far less prim and far more girlish than at the Café Royal. She kept all the freshness of her intensely virginal quality, but she was at ease. Her rather large body was at ease, continually restless in awkward and exquisite gestures; she laughed at ease, and made fun at ease. She appeared to have no sex-consciousness, nor even to suspect that she was a most delightful creature. The conversation was disjointed in its gaiety, and had no claim to the attention of the serious. Laurencine said that Lucas ought really to know French. Lucas said he would learn if she would teach him. Laurencine said that she would teach him if he would have his first lesson instantly, during dinner. Lucas said that wasn't fair. Laurencine said that it was. Both of them appealed to M. Defourcambault. M. Defourcambault said that it was fair. Lucas said that there was a plot between them, but that he would consent to learn at once if Laurencine would play the piano for him after dinner. Laurencine said she didn't play. Lucas said she did. M. Defourcambault, invoked once again, said that she played magnificently. Laurencine blushed, and asked M. Defourcambault how he could!... And so on, indefinitely. It was all naught; yet the taciturn three, smiling indulgently and glancing from one to another of the talkers, as taciturn and constrained persons must, envied that peculiar ability to maintain a rush and gush of chatter.

George was greatly disappointed in Lois. In the period before dinner his eyes had avoided her, and now, since they sat side by side, he could not properly see her without deliberately looking at her: which he would not do. She gave no manifestation. She was almost glum. Her French, though free, was markedly inferior to Laurencine's. She denied any interest in music. George decided, with self-condemnation, that he had been deliberately creating in his own mind an illusion about her; on no other hypothesis could either his impatience to meet her to-night, or his disappointment at not meeting her on the night of the Café Royal dinner, be explained. She was nothing, after all. And he did not deeply care for Miss Irene Wheeler, whom he could watch at will. She might be concealing something very marvellous, but she was dull, and she ignored the finer responsibilities of a hostess. She collected many beautiful things; she had some knowledge of what they were; she must be interested in them-or why should she trouble to possess them? She must have taste. And yet had she taste? Was she interested in her environment? A tone, a word, will create suspicion that the exhibition of expertise for hours cannot allay. George did not like the Frenchman. The Frenchman was about thirty-small, thin, fair, with the worn face of the man who lives several lives at once. He did not look kind; he did not look reliable; and he offered little evidence in support of Miss Wheeler's ardent assertion that he had been everywhere, seen everything, read everything, done everything. He assuredly had not, for example, read Verlaine, who was mentioned by Miss Wheeler. Now George had read one or two poems of Verlaine, and thought them unique; hence he despised M. Defourcambault. He could read French, in a way, but he was incapable of speaking a single word of it in the presence of compatriots; the least mono-syllable would have died on his lips. He was absurdly envious of those who could speak two languages; he thought sometimes that he would prefer to be able to speak two languages than to do anything else in the world; not to be able to speak two languages humiliated him intensely; he decided to 'take up French seriously' on the morrow; but he had several times arrived at a similar decision.

If Lois was glum, George too was glum. He wished he had not come to the dinner; he wished he could be magically transported to the solitude of his room at the club. He slipped into a reverie about the Marguerite affair. Nobody could have divined that scarcely twenty-four hours earlier he had played a principal part in a tragedy affecting his whole life. He had borne the stroke better than he otherwise would have done for the simple reason that nobody knew of his trouble. He had not to arrange his countenance for the benefit of people who were aware what was behind the countenance. But also he was philosophical. He recognized that the Marguerite affair was over. She would never give way, and he would never give way. She was wrong. He had been victimized. He had behaved with wisdom and with correctness (save for the detail of throwing the ring into the Thames). Agg's warnings and injunctions were ridiculous. What could he have done that he had not done? Run away with Marguerite, carry her off? Silly! No, he was well out of the affair. He perceived the limitations of the world in which Marguerite lived. It was a world too small and too austere for him. He required the spaciousness and the splendour of the new world in which Irene Wheeler and the Ingrams lived. Yea, though it was a world that excited the sardonic in him, he liked it. It flattered authentic, if unsuspected, appetites in him. Still, the image of Marguerite inhabited his memory. He saw her as she stood between himself and old Haim in the basement of No. 8. He heard her.... She was absolutely unlike any other girl; she was so gentle, so acquiescent. Only she put her lover second to her father.... What would Miss Wheeler think of the basement of No. 8?

The chatterers, apropos of songs in musical comedies, were talking about a French popular song concerning Boulanger.

"You knew Boulanger, didn't you, Jules?" Miss Wheeler suggested.

M. Defourcambault looked round, content. He related in English how his father had been in the very centre of the Boulangist movement, and had predicted disaster to the General's cause from the instant that Madame de Bonnemain came on the scene. (Out of consideration for the girls, M. Defourcambault phrased his narrative with neat discretion.) His grandfather also had been of his father's opinion, and his grandfather was in the Senate, and had been Minister at Brussels.... He affirmed that Madame de Bonnemain had telegraphed to Boulanger to leave Paris at the very moment when his presence in Paris was essential, and Boulanger had obediently gone. He said that he always remembered what his mother had said to him: a clever woman irregularly in love with a man may make his fortune, but a stupid woman is certain to ruin it. Finally he related how he, Jules Defourcambault, had driven the General's carriage on a famous occasion through Paris, and how the populace in its frenzy of idolatry had even climbed on to the roof of the carriage.

"And what did you do, then?" George demanded in the hard tone of a cross-examiner.

"I drove straight on," said M. Defourcambault, returning George's cold stare.

This close glimpse into history-into politics and passion-excited George considerably. He was furiously envious of M. Defourcambault, who had been in the middle of things all his life, whose father, mother, and grandfather were all in the middle of things. M. Defourcambault had an immense and unfair advantage over him. To whatever heights he might rise, George would never be in a position to talk as M. Defourcambault talked of his forbears. He would always have to stand alone, and to fight for all he wanted. He could not even refer to his father. He scorned M. Defourcambault because M. Defourcambault was not worthy of his heritage. M. Defourcambault was a little rotter, yet he had driven the carriage of Boulanger in a crisis of the history of France! Miss Wheeler, however, did not scorn M. Defourcambault. On the contrary, she looked at him with admiration, as though he had now proved that he had been everywhere, seen everything, and done everything. George's mood was black. He was a nobody; he would always be a nobody; why should he be wasting his time and looking a fool in this new world?

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