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   Chapter 23 No.23

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9003

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


After dinner, in the drawing-room which had cost Irene Wheeler an extra flat, there was, during coffee, a certain amount of general dullness, slackness, and self-consciousness which demonstrated once more Miss Wheeler's defects as a hostess. Miss Wheeler would not or could not act as shepherdess and inspirer to her guests. She reclined, and charmingly left them to manufacture the evening for her. George was still disappointed and disgusted; for he had imagined, very absurdly as he admitted, that artistic luxuriousness always implied social dexterity and the ability to energize and reinvigorate diversion without apparent effort. There were moments during coffee which reminded him of the maladroit hospitalities of the Five Towns.

Then Everard Lucas opened the piano, and the duel between him and Laurencine was resumed. The girl yielded. Electric lights were adjusted. She began to play, while Lucas, smoking, leaned over the piano. George was standing by himself at a little distance behind the piano. He had perhaps been on his way to a chair when suddenly caught and immobilized by one of those hazards which do notoriously occur-the victim never remembers how-in drawing-rooms. Hands in pockets, he looked aimlessly about, smiling perfunctorily, and wondering where he should settle or whether he should remain where he was. In the deep embrasure of the large east bow-window Lois was lounging. She beckoned to him, not with her hand but with a brief, bright smile-she smiled rarely-and with a lifting of the chin. He re sponded alertly and pleasurably, and went to sit beside her. Such invitations from young women holding themselves apart in obscurity are never received without excitement and never unanswered.

Crimson curtains of brocaded silk would have cut off the embrasure entirely from the room had they been fully drawn, but they were not fully drawn; one was not drawn at all, and the other was only half drawn. Still, the mere fact of the curtains, drawn or undrawn, did morally separate the embrasure from the salon ; and the shadows thickened in front of the window. The smile had gone from Lois's face, but it had been there. Sequins glittered on her dark dress, the line of the low neck of which was distinct against the pallor of the flesh. George could follow the outlines of her slanted, plump body from the hair and freckled face down to the elaborate shoes. The eyes were half closed. She did not speak. The figure of Laurencine, whose back was towards the window, received an aura from the electric light immediately over the music-stand of the piano. She played brilliantly. She played with a brilliance that astonished George.... She was exceedingly clever, was this awkward girl who had not long since left school Her body might be awkward, but not her hands. The music radiated from the piano and filled the room with brightness, with the illusion of the joy of life, and with a sense of triumph. To George it was an intoxication.

A man-servant entered with a priceless collection of bon-bons, some of which he deferentially placed on a small table in the embrasure. To do so he had to come into the embrasure, disturbing the solitude, which had already begun to exist, of Lois and George. He ignored the pair. His sublime indifference seemed to say: "I am beyond good and evil." But at the same time it left them more sensitively awake to themselves than before. The hostess indolently muttered an order to the man, and in passing the door on his way out he extinguished several lights. The place and the hour grew romantic. George was impressed by the scene, and he eagerly allowed it to impress him. It was, to him, a marvellous scene; the splendour of the apartment, the richly attired girls, the gay, exciting music, the spots of high light, the glooms, the glimpses everywhere of lovely objects. He said to himself: "I was born for this."

Lois turned her head slowly and looked out of the window.

"Wonderful view from here," she murmured.

George turned his head. The flat was on the sixth story. The slope of central London lay beneath. There was no moon, but there were stars in a clear night. Roofs; lighted windows; lines of lighted traffic; lines of lamps patterning the invisible meadows of a park; hiatuses of blackness; beyond, several towers scarcely discernible against the sky-the towers of Parliament, and the high tower of the Roman Catholic Cathedral: these were London.

"You haven't seen it in daytime, have you?" said Lois

.

"No. I'd sooner see it at night."

"So would I."

The reply, the sympathy in it, the soft, thrilled tone of It, startled him. His curiosity about Lois was being justified, after all. And he was startled too at the extraordinary surprises of his own being. Yesterday he had parted from Marguerite; not ten years ago, but yesterday. And now already he was conscious of pleasure, both physical and spiritual, in the voice of another girl heard in the withdrawn obscurity of the embrasure. Yes, and a girl whom he had despised! Yesterday he had seriously believed himself to be a celibate for life; he had dismissed for ever the hope of happiness. He had seen naught but a dogged and eternal infelicity. And now he was, if not finding happiness, expecting it. He felt disloyal-less precisely to Marguerite than to a vanished ideal. He felt that he ought to be ashamed. For Marguerite still existed; she was existing at that moment less than three miles off-somewhere over there in the dark.

"See the Cathedral tower?" he said.

"Yes," she answered. "What a shame Bentley died, wasn't it?"

He was more than startled, now-he was amazed and enchanted. Something touching and strange in her voice usually hard; something in the elegant fragility of her slipper! Everybody knew that Bentley was the architect of the Cathedral and that he had died of cancer on the tongue. The knowledge was not esoteric; it did not by itself indicate a passion for architecture or a comprehension of architecture. Yet when she said the exclamatory words, leaning far back in the seat, her throat emerging from the sequined frock, her tapping slipper peeping out beneath the skirt, she cast a spell on him. He perceived in her a woman gifted and endowed. This was the girl whom he had bullied in the automobile. She must have bowed in secret to his bullying; though he knew she had been hurt by it, she had given no sign of resentment, and her voice was acquiescent. Above all, she had remembered him.

"You only like doing very large buildings, don't you?" she suggested.

"Who told you?"

"Everard."

"Oh! Did old Lucas tell you? Well, he's quite right."

He had a sudden desire to talk to her about the great municipal building in the north that was soon to be competed for. He yielded to the desire. She listened, motionless. He gave vent to his regret that Mr. Enwright absolutely declined to enter for the competition. He said he had had ideas for it, and would have liked to work for it.

"But why don't you go in for it yourself, George?" she murmured gravely.

"Me!" he exclaimed, almost frightened. "It wouldn't be any good. I'm too young. Besides--"

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-one."

"Good heavens! You look twenty-five at least! I know I should go in for it if I were you-if I were a man."

He understood her. She could not talk well. She could not easily be agreeable; she could easily be rude; she could not play the piano like the delightful Laurencine. But she was passionate. And she knew the force of ambition. He admired ambition perhaps more than anything. Ambition roused him. She was ambitious when she drove the automobile and endangered his life.... She had called him by his Christian name quite naturally. There was absolutely no nonsense about her. Now Marguerite was not in the slightest degree ambitious. The word had no significance for her.

"I couldn't!" he insisted humbly. "I don't know enough. It's a terrific affair."

She made no response. But she looked at him, and suddenly he saw the angel that Irene Wheeler and Laurencine had so enthusiastically spoken of at the Cafe Royal!

"I couldn't!" he murmured.

He was insisting too much. He was insisting against himself. She had implanted the idea in his mind. Why had he not thought of it? Certainly he had not thought of it. Had he lacked courage to think of it? He beheld the idea as though it was an utterly original discovery, revolutionary, dismaying, and seductive. His inchoate plans for the building took form afresh in his brain. And the luxury by which he was surrounded whipped his ambition till it writhed.

Curious, she said no more! After a moment she sat up and took a sweet.

George saw, in a far corner, Jules Defourcambault talking very quietly to Irene Wheeler, whose lackadaisical face had become ingenuous and ardent as she listened to him under the shelter of the dazzling music. George felt himself to be within the sphere of unguessed and highly perturbing forces.

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