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   Chapter 24 No.24

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 15241

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


He left early. Lucas seemed to regard his departure as the act of a traitor, but he insisted on leaving. And in spite of Lucas's great social success he inwardly condescended to Lucas. Lucas was not a serious man and could not comprehend seriousness. George went because he had to go, because the power of an idea drove him forth. He had no intention of sleeping. He walked automatically through dark London, and his eyes, turned within, saw nothing of the city. He did not walk quickly-he was too preoccupied to walk quickly-yet in his brain he was hurrying, he had not a moment to lose. The goal was immensely far off. His haste was as absurd and as fine as that of a man who, starting to cross Europe on foot, must needs run in order to get out of Calais and be fairly on his way.

At Russell Square he wondered whether he would be able to get into the office. However, there was still a light in the basement, and he rang the house-bell. The housekeeper's daughter, a girl who played at being parlourmaid in the afternoons and brought bad tea and thick bread-and-butter to the privileged in the office, opened the front door with bridling exclamations of astonishment. She had her best frock on; her hair was in curling-pins; she smelt delicately of beer; the excitement of the Sunday League excursion and of the evening's dalliance had not quite cooled in this respectable and experienced young creature of central London. She was very feminine and provocative and unparlourmaidish, standing there in the hall, and George passed by her as callously as though she had been a real parlourmaid on duty. She had to fly to her mother for the key of the office. Taking the key from the breathless, ardent little thing, he said that he would see to the front door being properly shut when he went out. That was all. Her legitimate curiosity about his visit had to go to bed hungry.

In the office he switched on the lights in Haim's cubicle, in the pupils' room, and in the principals' room. He enjoyed the illumination and the solitude. He took deep breaths. He walked about. After rummaging for the sketches and the printed site-plan of the town hall projected by the northern city, he discovered them under John Orgreave's desk. He moved them to Mr. Enwright's desk, which was the best one, and he bent over them rapturously. Yes, the idea of entering for the competition himself was a magnificent idea. Strange that it should have occurred not to him, but to Lois! A disconcerting girl, Lois! She had said that he looked twenty-five. He liked that. Why should he not enter for the competition himself? He would enter for it. The decision was made, as usual without consulting anybody; instinct was his sole guide. Failure in the final examination was beside the point. Moreover, though he had sworn never to sit again, he could easily sit again in December; he could pass the exam, on his head. He might win the competition; to be even in the selected first six or ten would rank as a glorious achievement. But why should he not win outright? He was lucky, always had been lucky. It was essential that he should win outright. It was essential that he should create vast and grandiose structures, that he should have both artistic fame and worldly success. He could not wait long for success. He required luxury. He required a position enabling him to meet anybody and everybody on equal terms, and to fulfil all his desires.

He would not admit that he was too young for the enterprise. He was not too young. He refused to be too young. And indeed he felt that he had that very night become adult, and that a new impulse, reducing all previous impulses to unimportance, had inspired his life. He owed the impulse to the baffling Lois. Marguerite would never have given him such an impulse. Marguerite had no ambition either for herself or for him. She was profoundly the wrong girl for him. He admitted his error candidly, with the eagerness of youth. He had no shame about the blunder. And the girl's environment was wrong for him also. What had he to do with Chelsea? Chelsea was a parish; it was not the world. He had been gravely disappointed in Chelsea. Marguerite had no shimmer of romance. She was homely. And she was content with her sphere. And she was not elegant; she had no kind of smartness; who would look twice at her? And she was unjust, she was unfair. She had lacerated his highly sensitive pride. She had dealt his conceit a frightful wound. He would not think of it.

And in fact he could ignore the wound in the exquisite activity of creating town halls for mighty municipalities. He drew plans with passion and with fury; he had scores of alternative schemes; he was a god fashioning worlds. Having drawn plans, he drew elevations and perspectives; he rushed to the files (rushed-because he was in haste to reach the goal) and studied afresh the schedules of accommodation for other municipal buildings that had been competed for in the past. Much as he hated detail, he stooped rather humbly to detail that night, and contended with it in all honesty. He worked for hours before he thought of lighting a cigarette.

It was something uncanny beyond the large windows that first gently and perceptibly began to draw away his mind from the profusion of town halls on the desk, and so indirectly reminded him of the existence of cigarettes. When he lighted a cigarette he stretched himself and glanced at the dark windows, of which the blinds had not been pulled down. He understood then what was the matter. Dawn was the matter. The windows were no longer quite dark. He looked out. A faint pallor in the sky, and some stars sickening therein, and underneath the silent square with its patient trees and indefatigable lamps! The cigarette tasted bad in his mouth, but he would not give it up. He yawned heavily. The melancholy of the square, awaiting without hope the slow, hard dawn, overcame him suddenly.... Marguerite was a beautiful girl; her nose was marvellous; he could never forget it. He could never forget her gesture as she intervened between him and her father in the basement at Alexandra Grove. They had painted lamp-shades together. She was angelically kind; she could not be ruffled; she would never criticize, never grasp, never exhibit selfishness. She was a unique combination of the serious and the sensuous. He felt the passionate, ecstatic clinging of her arm as they walked under the interminable chain of lamp-posts on Chelsea Embankment. Magical hours!... And how she could absorb herself in her work! And what a damned shame it was that rascally employers should have cut down her prices! It was intolerable; it would not bear thinking about. He dropped the cigarette and stamped on it angrily. Then he returned to the desk, and put his head in his hands and shut his eyes.

He awakened with a start of misgiving. He was alone in the huge house (for the basement was under the house and, somehow, did not count). Something was astir in the house. He could hear it through the doors ajar. His flesh crept. It was exactly like the flap of a washing-cloth on the stone stairs; it stopped; it came nearer. He thought inevitably of the dead Mrs. Haim, once charwoman and step cleaner. In an instant he believed fully in all that he had ever heard about ghosts and spirit manifestations. An icy wave passed down his spine. He felt that if the phantom of Mrs. Haim was approaching him he simply could not bear to meet it. The ordeal would kill him. Then he decided that the sounds were not those of a washing-cloth, but of slippered feet. Odd that he should have bee

n so deluded. Somebody was coming down the long stairs from the upper stories, uninhabited at night. Burglars? He was still very perturbed, but differently perturbed. He could not move a muscle. The suspense as the footsteps hesitated at the cubicle was awful. George stood up straight and called out in a rough voice-louder than he expected it to be:

"Who's there?"

Mr. Enwright appeared. He was wearing beautiful blue pyjamas and a plum-coloured silk dressing-gown and doe-skin slippers. His hair was extremely deranged; he blinked rapidly, and his lined face seemed very old.

"Well, I like this, I like this!" he said in a quiet, sardonic tone. "Sitting at my desk and blazing my electricity away! I happened to get up, and I looked out of the window and noticed the glare below. So I came to see what was afoot. Do you know you frightened me?-and I don't like being frightened."

"I hadn't the slightest notion you ever slept here," George feebly stammered.

"Didn't you know I'd decided to keep a couple of rooms here for myself?"

"I had heard something about it, but I didn't know you'd really moved in. I-I've been away so much."

"I moved in, as you call it, to-day-yesterday, and a nice night you're giving me! And even supposing I hadn't moved in, what's that got to do with your being here? Give me a cigarette."

With hurrying deference George gave the cigarette, and struck a match for it, and as he held the match he had a near view of Mr Enwright's prosaic unshaved chin. The house was no longer the haunt of lurking phantoms; it was a common worldly house without any mystery or any menace. George's skin was no longer the field of abnormal phenomena. Dawn was conquering Russell Square. On the other hand, George was no longer a giant of energy, initiating out of ample experience a tremendous and superb enterprise. He was suddenly diminished to a boy, or at best a lad. He really felt that it was ridiculous for him to be sketching and scratching away there in the middle of the night in his dress-clothes. Even his overcoat, hat, and fancy muffler cast on a chair seemed ridiculous. He was a child, pretending to be an adult. He glanced like a child at Mr. Enwright; he roughened his hair with his hand like a child. He had the most wistful and apologetic air.

He said:

"I just came along here for a bit instead of going to bed. I didn't know it was so late."

"Do you often just come along here?"

"No. I never did it before. But to-night--"

"What is it you're at ?"

"I'd been thinking a bit about that new town hall."

"What new town hall?"

"You know--"

Mr. Enwright did know.

"But haven't I even yet succeeded in making it clear that this firm is not going in for that particular competition?"

Mr. Enwright's sarcastic and discontented tone challenged George, who stiffened.

"Oh! I know the firm isn't going in for it. But what's the matter with me going in for it?"

He forced himself to meet Mr. Enwright's eyes, but he could not help blushing. He was scarcely out of his articles; he had failed in the Final; and he aspired to create the largest English public building of the last half-century.

"Are you quite mad?" Mr. Enwright turned away from the desk to the farther window, hiding his countenance.

"Yes," said George firmly. "Quite!"

Mr. Enwright, after a pause, came back to the desk.

"Well, it's something to admit that," he sneered. "At any rate, we know where we are. Let's have a look at the horrid mess."

He made a number of curt observations as he handled the sheets of sketches.

"I see you've got that Saracenic touch in again."

"What's the scale here?"

"Is this really a town hall, or are you trying to beat the Temple at Karnak?"

"If that's meant for an Ionic capital, no assessor would stand it. It's against all the textbooks to have Ionic capitals where there's a side-view of them. Not that it matters to me."

"Have you made the slightest attempt to cube it up? You'd never get out of this under half a million, you know."

Shaking his head, he retired once more to the window. George began to breathe more freely, as one who has fronted danger and still lives. Mr. Enwright addressed the window:

"It's absolute folly to start on a thing like that before the conditions are out. Absolute folly. Have you done all that to-night?"

"Yes."

"Well, you've shifted the stuff.... But you haven't the slightest notion what accommodation they want. You simply don't know."

"I know what accommodation they ought to want with four hundred thousand inhabitants," George retorted pugnaciously.

"Is it four hundred thousand?" Mr. Enwright asked, with bland innocence. He generally left statistics to his partner.

"Four hundred and twenty-five."

"You've looked it up?"

"I have."

Mr. Enwright was now at the desk yet again.

"There's an idea to it," he said shortly, holding up the principal sheet and blinking.

" I shall go in for it !" The thought swept through George's brain like a fierce flare, lighting it up vividly to its darkest corners, and incidentally producing upon his skin phenomena similar to those produced by uncanny sounds on the staircase. He had caught admiration and benevolence in Mr. Enwright's voice. He was intensely happy, encouraged, and proud. He began to talk eagerly; he babbled, entrusting himself to Mr. Enwright's benevolence.

"Of course there's the Final. If they give six months for the thing I could easily get through the Final before sending-in day. I could take a room somewhere. I shouldn't really want any assistance-clerk, I mean. I could do it all myself...." He ran on until Mr. Enwright stopped him.

"You could have a room here-upstairs."

"Could I?"

"But you would want some help. And you needn't think they'll give six months, because they won't. They might give five."

"That's no good."

"Why isn't it any good?" snapped Mr. Enwright. "You don't suppose they're going to issue the conditions just yet, do you? Not a day before September, not a day. And you can take it from me!"

"Oh! Hurrah!"

"But look here, my boy, let's be clear about one thing."

"Yes?"

"You're quite mad."

They looked at each other.

"The harmless kind, though," said George confidently, well aware that Mr. Enwright doted upon him.

In another minute the principal had gone to bed, without having uttered one word as to his health. George had announced that he should tidy the sacred desk before departing. When he had done that he wrote a letter, in pencil. "It's the least I can do," he said to himself seriously. He began:

"DEAR MISS INGRAM."-"Dash it!-She calls me 'George,'" he thought, and tore up the sheet.-"DEAR LOIS,-I think after what you said it's only due to you to tell you that I've decided to go in for that competition on my own. Thanks for the tip.-Yours, GEORGE CANNON"

He surveyed the message.

"That's about right," he murmured.

Then he looked at his watch. It showed 3.15, but it had ceased to beat. He added at the foot of the letter: "Monday, 3.30 a.m." He stole one of John Orgreave's ready-stamped envelopes.

In quitting the house he inadvertently banged the heavy front door.

"Do 'em good!" he said, thinking of awakened sleepers.

It was now quite light. He dropped the letter into the pillar-box round the corner, and as soon as he had irretrievably done so, the thought occurred to him: "I wish I hadn't put '3.30 a.m.' There's something rottenly sentimental about it." The chill fresh air was bracing him to a more perfect sanity. He raised the collar of his overcoat.

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