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   Chapter 27 No.27

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 12946

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The circumstances in which, about a month later, George lunched with the Ingram family at their flat in the Rue d'Athènes, near the Gare St. Lazare, Paris, had an appearance of the utmost simplicity and ordinariness. He had been down to Staffordshire for a rest, and had returned unrested. And then Mr. Enwright had suggested that it would do him good to go to Paris, even to go alone. He went, with no plan, but having made careful arrangements for the telegraphing to him of the result of the competition, which was daily expected. By this time he was very seriously convinced that there was no hope of him being among the selected six or ten, and he preferred to get the news away from London rather than in it; he felt that he could not face London on the day or the morrow of a defeat which would of course render his youthful audacity ridiculous.

He arrived in Paris on a Wednesday evening, and took a room in a maison meublée of the Rue de Sèze. Every inexperienced traveller in Paris has a friend who knows a lodging in Paris which he alleges is better and cheaper than any other lodging-and which is not. The house in the Rue de Sèze was the economical paradise of Buckingham Smith, whom George had encountered again at the Buckingham Smith exhibition. Buckingham Smith, with over half his pictures bearing the red seal that indicates 'Sold,' felt justified in posing to the younger George as a cosmopolitan expert-especially as his opinions on modern French art were changing. George spent three solitary and dejected days in Paris, affecting an interest in museums and architecture and French opera, and committing follies. Near the end of the third day, a Saturday, he suddenly sent a threepenny express note to Lois Ingram. He would have telephoned had he dared to use the French telephone. On Sunday morning, an aproned valet having informed him that Monsieur was demanded at the telephone, he had to use the telephone. Lois told him that he must come to lunch, and that afterwards he would be escorted to the races. Dejection was instantly transformed into a gay excitation. Proud of having spoken through a French telephone, he began to conceive romantically the interior of a Paris home-he had seen naught but a studio or so with Mr. Enwright-and to thrill at the prospect of Sunday races. Not merely had he never seen a horse-race on a Sunday-he had never seen a horse-race at all. He perhaps was conscious of a genuine interest in Lois and her environment, but what most satisfied and flattered him, after his loneliness, was the bare fact of possessing social relations in Paris at all.

The Ingram home was up four flights of naked oaken stairs, fairly swept, in a plain, flat-fronted house. The door of the home was opened by a dark, untidy, dishevelled, uncapped, fat girl, with a full apron, dazzling white and rectangularly creased, that had obviously just been taken out of a drawer. Familiarly and amicably smiling, she led him into a small, modest drawing-room where were Lois and her father and mother. Lois was enigmatic and taciturn. Mr. and Mrs. Ingram were ingenuous, loquacious, and at ease. Both of them had twinkling eyes. Mrs. Ingram was rather stout and grey and small, and wore a quiet, inexpensive blue dress, embroidered at the neck in the Morrisian manner, of no kind of fashionableness. She spoke in a low voice, smiled to herself with a benevolence that was not without a touch of the sardonic, and often looked at the floor or at the ceiling. Mr. Ingram, very slim and neat, was quite as small as his wife, and seemed smaller. He talked much and rather amusingly, in a somewhat mincing tone, as it were apologetically, truly anxious to please. He had an extremely fair complexion, and his youthfulness was quite startling. His golden hair and perfect teeth might have belonged to a boy. George leapt immediately into familiarity with these two. But nobody could have less resembled his preconceived image of 'Parisian' than Mr. Ingram. And he could not understand a bit whence or how such a pair had produced their daughter Lois. Laurencine was a far more comprehensible offspring for them.

The dining-room was even less spacious than the drawing-room, and as unpretentious. The furniture everywhere was sparse, but there were one or two rich knick-knacks, and an abundance of signed photographs. The few pictures, too, were signed, and they drew attention. On the table the napkins, save George's, were in rings, and each ring different from the others. George's napkin had the air of a wealthy, stiff, shiny relative of the rest. Evidently in that home the long art of making both ends meet was daily practised. George grew light-hearted and happy, despite the supreme preoccupation which only a telegram could allay. He had keenly the sensation of being abroad. The multiplicity of doors, the panelling of the doors, the narrow planking of the oaken floor, the moulding of the cornices, the shape of the windows, the view of the courtyard from the dining-room and of attics and chimney-cowls from the drawing-room, the closed anthracite stoves in lieu of fires, the crockery, the wine-bottle, the mustard, the grey salt, the unconventional gestures and smiles and exclamations of the unkempt maid-all these strange details enchanted him, and they all set off very vividly the intense, nice, honest, reassuring Englishness of the host and hostess.

It was not until after the others were seated for the meal that Laurencine made her appearance. She was a magnificent and handsome virgin, big-boned, physically a little awkward, candid. How exquisitely and absurdly she flushed in shaking hands with George! With what a delicious mock-furious setting of the teeth and tossing of the head she frowned at her mother's reproaches for being late! This family knew the meaning of intimacy but not of ceremony. Laurencine sat down at her father's left; George was next to her on Mrs. Ingram's right. Lois had the whole of the opposite side of the table.

"Does he know?" Laurencine asked; and turning to George: "Do you know?"

"Know what?"

"You'd better tell him, dad. You like talking, and he ought to know. I shan't be able to eat if he doesn't. It would be so ridiculous sitting here and pretending."

Mrs. Ingram looked upwards across the room at a corner of the ceiling, and smiled faintly.

"You might," she said, "begin by asking Mr. Cannon if he particularly wants to be burdened with the weight of your

secrets, my dear child."

"Oh! I particularly do," said George.

"There's no secret about it-at least there won't be soon," said Laurencine.

Lois spoke simultaneously:

"My dear mother, please call George George. If we call him George, you can't possibly call him Mr. Cannon."

"I quite admit," Mrs. Ingram replied to her eldest, "I quite admit that you and Laurencine are entitled to criticise my relations with my husband, because he's your father. But I propose to carry on my affairs with other men just according to my own ideas, and any interference will be resented. I've had a bad night, owing to the garage again, and I don't feel equal to calling George George. I've only known him about twenty minutes. Moreover, I might be misunderstood, mightn't I, Mr. Cannon?"

"You might," said George.

"Now, dad!" Laurencine admonished.

Mr. Ingram, addressing George, began:

"Laurencine suffers from a grave form of self-consciousness--"

"I don't, dad."

"It is a disease akin to conceit. Her sufferings are sometimes so acute that she cannot sit up straight and is obliged to loll and curl her legs round the legs of the chair. We are all very sorry for her. The only treatment is brutal candour, as she herself advocates--"

Laurencine jumped up, towered over her father, and covered his mouth with her hand.

" This simple hand," said Mr. Ingram, seizing it, "will soon bear a ring. Laurencine is engaged to be married."

"I'm not, father." She sat down again.

"Well, you are not. But you will be, I presume, by post-time to-night. A young man of the name of Lucas has written to Laurencine this morning in a certain sense, and he has also written to me. Laurencine has seen my letter, and I've seen hers. But my envelope contained only one letter. Whether her envelope contained more than one, whether the epistle which I saw is written in the style usually practised by the present age, whether it was composed for the special purpose of being shown to me, I do not know, and discretion and nice gentlemanly feeling forbid me to inquire. However--"

At this point, Laurencine snatched her father's napkin off his knees and put it on her own.

"However, my wife and I have met this Mr. Lucas, and as our opinion about him is not wholly unfavourable, the matter was satisfactorily and quickly arranged-even before I had had my bath; Laurencine and I will spend the afternoon in writing suitable communications to Mr. Lucas. I am ready to show her mine for a shilling, but I doubt if five pounds would procure me a sight of hers. Yet she is only an amateur writer and I'm a professional."

There was a little silence, and then George said awkwardly:

"I congratulate old Lucas."

"This news must have astonished you extremely," observed Mr. Ingram. "It must have come as a complete surprise. In fact you are doubtless in the condition known to charwomen as capable of being knocked down with a feather."

"Oh! Quite!" George agreed.

Nevertheless, in spite of his light tone, he regretted the engagement. He did not think Lucas was worthy of the splendid girl. He felt sorry for her. At that moment she faced him bravely, and smiled. Her face had a tremendous deep crimson flush. There was a woman somewhere in the girl! Strange phenomenon! And another strange phenomenon: if Laurencine had been self-conscious, George also was self-conscious; and he avoided Lois's eyes! Why? He wondered whether the circumstances in which he had come to Paris and entered the Ingram home were as simple and ordinary as they superficially appeared.

" Laurencine," said her mother, "give your father back his serviette!"

"Mine's fallen."

"Never mind, my dear," said Mr. Ingram very benevolently, and he bent down and retrieved Laurencine's napkin, which he kept. "And now," he proceeded, "the serious operation being over and the patient out of danger, shall we talk about something else for a few moments?"

"I should think so indeed!" Laurencine exclaimed, suddenly gay. "George, when shall you know about the competition?"

"Any minute, I might," said he.

They all talked sympathetically to George on the new subject.

After lunch, Lois disappeared. She came back resplendent for the races, when coffee had long been finished in the drawing-room.

"Why aren't you ready, Laure?" she demanded.

"I'm not going, darling."

"Lois," Mr. Ingram exhorted, "don't forget the afternoon is to be spent in literary composition."

"It isn't," Laurencine contradicted. "I may as well tell you I've written all I mean to write in the way of letters for one day. But I don't want to go, really, Lois darling."

"No. She wants to think," Mrs. Ingram explained.

Lois set her lips together, and then glimpsed herself in the large mirror over the anthracite stove. She looked too rich and complicated for that simple drawing-room.

A performance on a horn made itself heard in the street below.

"There he is!" said Laurencine.

She opened a window and ran out on to the balcony and leaned over; then glanced within the room and nodded. George had assumed that Irene Wheeler was the author and hostess of the race-party, and he was not mistaken. Irene's automobile had been sent round to embark him and the girls. Mrs. Ingram urged him to come again the next day, and he said ardently that he would. Mrs. Ingram's 'affair' with him was progressing rapidly.

"But I hope you'll call me George, then," he added.

"I may!" she said. "I may! I may go even further."

Lois and George descended the stairs in silence. He had not seen her, nor written to her, since the night of the comedy when he had so abruptly left the box. Once or twice at the Ingrams' he had fancied that she might be vexed with him for that unceremonious departure. But she was not. The frank sigh of relief which she gave on reaching the foot of the interminable stairs, and her equally frank smile, had no reserve whatever.

The chauffeur's welcoming grin seemed to indicate that he was much attached to Miss Ingram. He touched his hat, bowed, and spoke to her at some length in French. Lois frowned.

"It seems Miss Wheeler doesn't feel equal to going out this afternoon," she translated to George. "But she insists that we shall use the car all the same."

"Is she ill?"

"She's lying down, trying to sleep."

"Well, then, I suppose we'd better use the car, hadn't we?"

Lois said seriously:

"If you don't object, I don't."

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