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   Chapter 26 No.26

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 17768

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In spite of all this he anticipated with pleasure the theatre-party. He wanted to go; he was glad he was going; the memory of Lois in the tea-palace excited him. And he could refuse a hearing to his conscience, and could prevent himself from thinking uncomfortably of the future, as well as most young men. His secret, unadmitted voluptuous eagerness was alloyed only by an apprehension that after the scene over the telephone Lois might be peevish and ungracious. The fear proved to be baseless.

Owing to the imperfections of the club laundry and the erring humanity of Downs, he arrived late. The Gay Spark had begun. He found a darkened auditorium and a glowing stage. In the dim box Lois and Laurencine were sitting in front on gilt chairs. Lucas sat behind Laurencine, and there was an empty chair behind Lois. Her gesture, her smile, her glance, as she turned to George and looked up, were touching. She was delighted to see him; she had the mien of a child who has got what it wanted and has absolutely forgotten that it ever pouted, shrieked, and stamped its foot. She was determined to charm her uttermost. Her eye in the gloom was soft with mysterious invitations. George looked about the interior of the box; he saw the rich cloaks of the girls hanging up next to glossy masculine hats, the large mirror on the wall, and mother-of-pearl opera-glasses, chocolates, and flowers on the crimson ledge. He was very close to the powerfully built and yet plastic Lois. He could watch her changing curves as she breathed; the faint scent she used rose to his nostrils. He thought, with contained rapture: "Nothing in the world is equal to this." He did not care a fig for the effect of perspective drawings or the result of the competition. Lois, her head half-turned towards him, her gaze lost in the sombre distances of the auditorium, talked in a low tone, ignoring the performance. He gathered that the sudden departure of Irene Wheeler had unusually impressed and disconcerted and, to a certain extent, mortified the sisters, who could not explain it, and who resented the compulsion to go back to Paris at once. And he detected in Lois, not for the first time, a grievance that Irene kept her, Lois, apart from the main current of her apparently gorgeous social career. Obviously an evening at which the sole guests were two girls and a youth all quite unknown to newspapers could not be a major item in the life of a woman such as Irene Wheeler. She had left them unceremoniously to themselves at the last moment, as it were permitting them to do what they liked within the limits of goodness for one night, and commanding them to return sagely home on the morrow. A red-nosed actor, hands in pockets, waddled self-consciously on to the stage, and the packed audience, emitting murmurs of satisfaction, applauded. Conversations were interrupted. George, expectant, gave his attention to the show. He knew little or nothing of musical comedy, having come under influences which had taught him to despise it. His stepfather, for example, could be very sarcastic about musical comedy, and through both Enwright and John Orgreave George had further cultivated the habit of classical music, already acquired in boyhood at home in the Five Towns. In the previous year, despite the calls upon his time of study for examinations, George had attended the Covent Garden performances of the Wagnerian "Ring" as he might have attended High Mass. He knew by name a considerable percentage of the hundred odd themes in "The Ring," and it was his boast that he could identify practically all the forty-seven themes in The Meistersingers . He raved about Ternina in Tristan . He had worshipped the Joachim quartet. He was acquainted with all the popular symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Glazounov, and Tschaikovsky. He even frequented the Philharmonic Concerts, which were then conducted by a composer of sentimental drawing-room ballads, and though he would not class this conductor with Richter or Henry J. Wood, he yet believed that somehow, by the magic of the sacred name of the Philharmonic Society, the balladmonger in the man expired in the act of raising the baton and was replaced by a serious and sensitive artist. He was accustomed to hear the same pieces of music again and again and again, and they were all or nearly all very fine, indisputably great. It never occurred to him that once they had been unfamiliar and had had to fight for the notice of persons who indulged in music exactly as he indulged in music. He had no traffic with the unfamiliar. Unfamiliar items on a programme displeased him. He had heard compositions by Richard Strauss, but he could make nothing of them, and his timid, untravelled taste feared to like them. Mr. Enwright himself was mainly inimical to Strauss, as to most of modern Germany, perhaps because of the new architecture in Berlin. George knew that there existed young English composers with such names as Cyril Scott, Balfour Gardiner, Donald Tovey-for he had seen these names recently on the front page of The Daily Telegraph -but he had never gone to the extent of listening to their works. He was entirely sure that they could not hold a candle to Wagner, and his sub-conscious idea was that it was rather like their cheek to compose at all. He had not noticed that Hugo Wolf had just died, nor indeed had he noticed that Hugo Wolf had ever lived.

Nevertheless this lofty and exclusive adherent of the 'best' music was not prejudiced in advance against The Gay Spark . He was anxious to enjoy it and he expected to enjoy it. The Gay Spark had already an enormous prestige; it bore the agreeable, captivating label of Vienna; and immense sums were being made out of it in all the capitals of the world. George did not hope for immortal strains, but he anticipated a distinguished, lilting gaiety, and in the 'book' a witty and cosmopolitan flavour that would lift the thing high above such English musical comedies as he had seen. It was impossible that a work of so universal and prodigious a vogue should not have unquestionable virtues.

The sight of the red-nosed comedian rather shocked George, who had supposed that red-nosed comedians belonged to the past. However, the man was atoned for by three extremely beautiful and graceful young girls who followed him. Round about the small group was ranged a semicircle of handsome creatures in long skirts, behind whom was another semicircle of young men in white flannels; the scene was a street in Mandalay. The red-nosed comedian began by making a joke concerning his mother-in-law, and another concerning mendacious statements to his wife to explain his nocturnal absences from home, and another concerning his intoxicated condition. The three extremely beautiful and graceful young girls laughed deliriously at the red-nosed comedian; they replied in a similar vein. They clasped his neck and kissed him rapturously, and thereupon he sang a song, of which the message was that all three extremely beautiful and graceful girls practised professionally the most ancient and stable of feminine vocations; the girls, by means of many refrains, confirmed this definition of their status in society. Then the four of them danced, and there was enthusiastic applause from every part of the house except the semicircle of European odalisques lost, for some unexplained reason, in Mandalay. These ladies, the indubitable physical attractions of each of whom were known by the management to fill five or six stalls every night, took no pains whatever to hide that they were acutely bored by the whole proceedings. Self-sufficient in their beauty, deeply aware of the power of their beauty, they deigned to move a lackadaisical arm or leg at intervals in accordance with the respectful suggestions of the conductor.

Soon afterwards the gay spark herself appeared, amid a hysteria of applause. She played the part of the wife of a military officer, and displayed therein a marvellous, a terrifying vitality of tongue, leg, and arm. The young men in white flannels surrounded her, and she could flirt with all of them; she was on intimate terms with the red-nosed comedian, and also with the trio of delightful wantons, and her ideals in life seemed to be identical with theirs. When, through the arrival of certain dandies twirling canes, and the mysterious transformation of the Burmese street into a Parisian cafe, these ideals were on the point of realization, there was a great burst of brass in the orchestra, succeeded by a violent chorus, some kicking, and a general wassail, and the curtain fell on the first act. It had to be raised four times before the gratefully appreciative clapping would cease.

The auditorium shone with light; it grew murmurous with ecstatic approval. The virginal face of Laurencine shot its rapture to Lucas as she turned

to shake hands with George.

"Jolly well done, isn't it?" said Lucas.

"Yes," said George.

Lucas, too content to notice the perfunctoriness of George's affirmative, went on:

"When you think that they're performing it this very night in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and, I fancy, Rome, but I'm not sure-marvellous, isn't it?"

"It is," said George ambiguously.

Though continuing to like him, he now definitely despised Everard. The fellow had no artistic perceptions; he was a child. By some means he had got through his Final, and was soon to be a junior partner in Enwright & Lucas. George, however, did not envy Everard the soft situation; he only pitied Enwright & Lucas. Everard had often urged George to go to musical comedies more frequently, hinting that they were frightfully better than George could conceive. The Gay Spark gave Lucas away entirely; it gave away his method of existence.

"I don't believe you like it," said sharp Laurencine.

"I adore it," George protested. "Don't you?"

"Oh! I do, of course," said Laurencine. "I knew I should."

Lucas, instinctively on the defence, said:

"The second act's much better than the first."

George's hopes, dashed but not broken, recovered somewhat. After all there had been one or two gleams of real jokes, and a catchiness in certain airs; and the spark possessed temperament in profusion. It was possible that the next act might be diverting.

"You do look tired," said Laurencine.

"Oh no, darling!" Lois objected. "I think he looks splendid."

She was intensely happy in the theatre. The box was very well placed-since Irene had bought it-with a view equally good of the stage and of the semicircle of boxes. Lois' glance wandered blissfully round the boxes, all occupied by gay parties, and over the vivacious stalls. She gazed, and she enjoyed being gazed at. She bathed herself in the glitter and the gaudiness and the opulence and the humanity, as in tonic fluid. She seemed to float sinuously and voluptuously immersed in it, as in tepid water lit with sunshine.

"Do have a choc.," she invited eagerly.

George took a chocolate. She took one. They all took one. They all had the unconscious pride of youth that does not know itself young. Each was different from the others. George showed the reserve of the artist; Lucas the ease of the connoisseur of mundane spectacles; Laurencine the sturdy, catholic, girlish innocence that nothing can corrupt. And the sovereign was Lois. She straightened her shoulders; she leaned languorously; she looked up, she looked down; she spoke softly and loudly; she laughed and smiled. And in every movement and in every gesture and tone she sym bolized the ecstasy of life. She sought pleasure, and she had found it, and she had no afterthought. She was infectious; she was irresistible, and terrible too. For it was dismaying, at any rate to George, to dwell on the fierceness of her instinct and on the fierceness of its satisfaction. To George her burning eyes were wistful, pathetic, in their simplicity. He felt a sort of fearful pity for her. And he admired her-she was something definite; she was something magnificently outright; she did live. Also he liked her; the implications in her glance appealed to him. The peculiar accents in which she referred to the enigma of Irene Wheeler were extraordinarily attractive to that part of his nature which was perverse and sophisticated. "At least she is not a simpleton," he thought. "And she doesn't pretend to be. Some day I shall talk to her."

The orchestra resumed; the lights went out. Lois settled herself to fresh enchantment as the curtain rolled up to disclose the bright halls and staircases of a supper-club. The second act was an amplification and inflammation of the themes of the first. As for the music, George listened in vain for an original tune, even for a tune of which he could not foretell the end from the beginning; the one or two engaging bits of melody which enlivened the first act were employed again in the second. The disdainful, lethargic chorus was the same; the same trio of delicious wantons fondled and kissed the same red-nosed comedian, who was still in the same state of inebriety, and the gay spark flitted roysteringly through the same evolutions, in pursuit of the same simple ideals. The jocularity pivoted unendingly on the same twin centres of alcohol and concupiscence. Gradually the latter grew to more and more importance, and the piece became a high and candid homage to the impulse by force of which alone one generation succeeds another. No beautiful and graceful young girl on the stage blenched before the salacious witticisms of the tireless comedian; on the contrary he remained the darling of the stage. And as he was the darling of the stage, so was he the darling of the audience.

And if no beautiful and graceful young girl blenched on the stage, neither did the beautiful and graceful young girls in the audience blench. You could see them sitting happily with their fathers and mothers and cousins and uncles and aunts, savouring the spectacle from dim stalls and boxes in the most perfect respectability. Laurencine leaning her elbows on the ledge of the box, watched with eager, parted lips, and never showed the slightest sign of uneasiness.

George was uneasy; he was distressed. The extraordinary juxtaposition of respectability and a ribald sexual display startled but did not distress him. If the whole audience was ready to stand it he certainly was. He had no desire to protect people from themselves, nor to blush on behalf of others-whoever they might be. Had anybody accused him of saintliness he would have resented the charge, quite justifiably, and if the wit of The Gay Spark had been witty, he would have enjoyed it without a qualm. What distressed him, what utterly desolated him, was the grossness, the poorness, the cheapness, the dullness, and the uninventive monotony of the interminable entertainment. He yawned, he could not help yawning; he yawned his soul away. Lois must have heard him yawning, but she did not move. He looked at her curiously, pitifully, speculating how much of her luxury was due to Irene Wheeler, and how little to 'Parisian' of The Sunday Journal -for he had been inquiring about the fruits of journalism. The vision of his own office and of the perspective drawing rose seductively and irresistibly in his mind. He could not stay in the theatre; he felt that if he stayed he would be in danger of dropping down dead, suffocated by tedium; and the drawing must be finished; it would not wait; it was the most urgent thing in the world. And not a syllable had any person in the box said to him about his great task. Lois's forearm, braceleted, lay on the front of the box. Unceremoniously he took her hand.

"Bye-bye."

"You aren't going?" Her whisper was incredulous.

"Must."

He gave her no chance to expostulate. With one movement he had seized his hat and coat and slid from the box, just as the finale of the act was imminent and the red-nosed comedian was measuring the gay spark for new lingerie with a giant property-cigar. He had not said good-bye to Laurencine. He had not asked about their departure on the morrow. But he was free.

In the foyer a couple-a woman in a rose plush sortie de bal , and a blade-were mysteriously talking. The blade looked at him, smiled, and left the lady.

"Hal lo , old fellow!" It was Buckingham Smith, who had been getting on in the world.

They shook hands.

"You've left Chelsea, haven't you?"

"Yes," said George.

"So've I. Don't see much of the old gang nowadays. Heard anything of old Princey lately?"

George replied that he had not. The colloquy was over in a moment.

"You must come and see my show-next week," Buck Smith called out after the departing George.

"I will," cried George.

He walked quickly up to Russell Square, impatient to steep himself anew in his work. All sense of fatigue had left him. Time seemed to be flying past him, and he rushing towards an unknown fate. On the previous day he had received an enheartening, challenging, sardonic letter from his stepfather, who referred to politics and envisaged a new epoch for the country. Edwin Clayhanger was a Radical of a type found only in the Midlands and the North. For many years Clayhanger's party, to which he was passionately faithful, had had no war-cry and no programme worthy of its traditions. The increasing success of the campaign against Protection, and certain signs that the introduction of Chinese labour into South Africa could be effectively resisted, had excited the middle-aged provincial-now an Alderman-and he had managed to communicate fire to George. But in George, though he sturdily shared his stepfather's views, the resulting righteous energy was diverted to architectural creation.

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