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   Chapter 28 No.28

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 12346

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

At Longchamps the sun most candidly and lovingly blessed the elaborate desecration of the English Sabbath. The delicately ornamented grand stands, the flags, the swards, the terraces, the alleys, the booths, the notice-boards, the vast dappled sea of hats and faces in the distant cheaper parts of the Hippodrome, were laved in the descending, caressing floods of voluptuous, warm sunshine. The air itself seemed luminous. The enchantment of the sun was irresistible; it stunned apprehensions and sad memories, obliterating for a moment all that was or might be unhappy in the past or in the future. George yielded to it. He abandoned his preoccupations about the unsatisfactoriness of using somebody else's car in the absence of the owner, about Mr. and Mrs. Ingram's ignorance of the fact that their daughter had gone off alone with him, about Lois's perfect indifference to this fact, about the engagement of Laurencine to a man not her equal in worth, about the strange, uncomfortable effect of Laurencine's engagement upon his attitude towards Lois, and finally and supremely about the competition. He gave himself up to the bright warmth like an animal, and forgot. And he became part of the marvellous and complicated splendour of the scene, took pride in it, took even credit for it (Heaven knew why!), and gradually passed from insular astonishment to a bland, calm acceptance of the miracles of sensuous beatitude which civilization had to offer.

After all, he was born to such experiences; they were his right; and he was equal to them. Nevertheless his conviction of the miraculous fortunately was not impaired. What was impaired was his conviction of his own culture. He was constantly thinking that he knew everything or could imagine everything, and constantly undergoing the shock of undeception; but the shock of the Longchamps Sunday was excessive. He had quite failed to imagine the race-meeting; he had imagined an organism brilliant, perhaps, but barbaric and without form and style; he had imagined grotesque contrasts of squalor, rascality, and fashion; he had imagined an affair predominantly equine and masculine. The reality did not correspond; it transcended his imagination; it painfully demonstrated his jejune crudity. The Hippodrome was as formalized and stylistic as an Italian garden; the only contrasts were those of one elegance with another; horses were not to be seen, except occasionally in the distance when under their riders they shot past some dark background a flitting blur of primary colours with a rumble of muffled thunder; and women, not men, predominated.

On entering the Hippodrome George and Lois had met a group of fashionably attired women, and he had thought: "There's a bunch of jolly well-dressed ones." But as the reserved precincts opened out before him he saw none but fashionably attired women. They were there not in hundreds but in thousands. They sat in rows on the grand stands; they jostled each other on the staircases; they thronged the alleys and swards. The men were negligible beside them. And they were not only fashionably and very fashionably attired-all their frocks and all their hats and all their parasols and all their boots were new, glittering, spick-and-span; were complex and expensive; not one feared the sun. The conception of what those innumerable chromatic toilettes had cost in the toil, stitch by stitch, of malodorous workrooms and in the fatigue of pale, industrious creatures was really formidable. But it could not detract from the scenic triumph. The scenic triumph dazzlingly justified itself, and proved beyond any cavilling that earth was a grand, intoxicating place, and Longchamps under the sun an unequalled paradise of the senses.... Ah! These women were finished-finished to the least detail of coiffure, sunshade-handle, hatpin, jewellery, handbag, bootlace, glove, stocking, lingerie . Each was the product of many arts in co-ordination. Each was of great price. And there were thousands of them. They were as cheap as periwinkles. George thought: "This is Paris."

He said aloud:

"Seems to be a fine lot of new clothes knocking about."

Evidently for Lois his tone was too impressed, not sufficiently casual. She replied in her condescending manner, which he detested:

"My poor George, considering that this is the opening of the spring season, and the place where all the new spring fashions are tried out-what did you expect?"

The dolt had not known that he was assisting at a solemnity recognized as such by experts throughout the clothed world. But Lois knew all those things. She herself was trying out a new toilette, for which doubtless Irene Wheeler was partly sponsor. She could hold her own on the terraces with the rest. She was staggeringly different now from the daughter of the simple home in the Rue d'Athènes.

The eyes of the splendid women aroused George's antipathy, because he seemed to detect antipathy in them-not against himself but against the male in him. These women, though by their glances they largely mistrusted and despised each other, had the air of having combined sexually against a whole sex. The situation was very contradictory. They had beautified and ornamented themselves in order to attract a whole sex, and yet they appeared to resent the necessity and instinct to attract. They submitted with a secret repugnance to the mysterious and supreme bond which kept the sexes inexorably together. And while stooping to fascinate, while deliberately seeking attention, they still had the assured mien of conquerors. Their eyes said that they knew they were indispensable, that they had a transcendent role to play, that no concealed baseness of the inimical sex was hidden from them, and that they meant to exploit their position to the full. These Latin women exhibited a logic, an elegance, and a frankness beyond the reach of the Anglo-Saxon. Their eyes said not that they had been disillusioned, but rather that they had never had illusions. They admitted the facts; they admitted everything-economic dependence, chicane, the intention to seize every advantage, ruthless egotism. They had no shame for a depr

avity which they shared equally with the inescapable and cherished enemy And it was the youngest who, beneath the languishing and the softness and the invitation deceitful and irresistible, gazed outmost triumphantly to the enemy: "You are the victims. We have tried our strength and your infirmity." They were heroic. There was a feeling in the bright air of melancholy and doom as the two hostile forces, inseparable, inextricably involved together, surveyed the opponent in the everlasting conflict. George felt its influence upon himself, upon Lois, upon the whole scene. The eyes of the most feminine women in the world, denying their smiles and their lure, had discovered to him something which marked a definite change in his estimate of certain ultimate earthly values.

Lois said:

"Perhaps a telegram is waiting for you at the hotel."

"Well, I can wait till I get back," he replied stoutly.

He thought, looking at her by his side:

"She is just like these Frenchwomen!" And for some reason he felt proud.

"You needn't," said Lois, "We can telephone from under the grand stand if you like."

"But I don't know the number."

"We can get that out of the book, of course."

"I don't reckon I can use these French telephones."

"Oh! My poor boy, I'll telephone for you-unless you prefer not to risk knowing the worst."

Yes, her tone was the tone of a strange woman. And it was she who thirsted for the result of the competition.

Controlling himself, submissively he asked her to telephone for him, and she agreed in a delightfully agreeable voice. She seemed to know the entire geography of the Hippodrome. She secured a telephone-cabin in a very business-like manner. As she entered the cabin she said to George:

"I'll ask them if a telegram has come, and if it has I'll ask them to open it and read it to me, or spell it-of course it'll be in English.... Eh?"

Through the half-open door of the cabin he watched her, and listened. She rapidly turned over the foul and torn pages of the telephone-book with her thumb. She spoke into the instrument very clearly, curtly, and authoritatively. George could translate in his mind what she said-his great resolve to learn French had carried him so far.

"On the part of Monsieur Cannon, one of your clients, Monsieur Cannon of London. Has there arrived a telegram for him?"

She waited. The squalor of the public box increased the effect of her young and proud stylishness and of her perfume. George waited, humbled by her superior skill in the arts of life, and saying anxiously to himself: "Perhaps in a moment I shall know the result," almost trembling.

She hung up the instrument, and, with a glance at George, shook her head.

"There isn't anything," she murmured.

He said:

"It's very queer, isn't it? However ..."

As they emerged from the arcana of the grand stand, Lois was stopped by a tall, rather handsome Jew, who, saluting her with what George esteemed to be French exaggeration of gesture, nevertheless addressed her in a confidential tone in English. George, having with British restraint acknowledged the salute, stood aside, and gazed discreetly away from the pair. He could not hear what was being said. After several minutes Lois rejoined George, and they went back into the crowds and the sun. She did not speak. She did not utter one word. Only, when the numbers went up for a certain race, she remarked:

"This is the Prix du Cadran. It's the principal race of the afternoon."

And when that was over, amid cheering that ran about the field like fire through dried bush, she added:

"I think I ought to go back now. I told the chauffeur to be here after the Prix du Cadran. What time is it exactly?"

They sat side by side in the long, open car, facing the chauffeur's creaseless back. After passing the Cascade, the car swerved into the Allée de Longchamps which led in an absolutely straight line, two miles long, to the Port Maillot and the city. Spring decorated the magnificent wooded thoroughfare. The side-alleys, aisles of an interminable nave, were sprinkled with revellers and lovers and the most respectable families half hidden amid black branches and gleams of tender green. Automobiles and carriages threaded the main alley at varying speeds. The number of ancient horse-cabs gradually increased until, after the intersection of the Allée de la Reine Marguerite, they thronged the vast road. All the humble and shabby genteel people in Paris who could possibly afford a cab seemed to have taken a cab. Nearly every cab was overloaded. The sight of this vast pathetic effort of the disinherited towards gaiety and distraction and the mood of spring, intensified the vague sadness in George due to the race-crowd, Lois's silence, and the lack of news about the competition.

At length Lois said, scowling-no doubt involuntarily:

"I think I'd better tell you now. Irene Wheeler's committed suicide. Shot herself." She pressed her lips together and looked at the road.

George gave a startled exclamation. He could not for an instant credit the astounding news.

"But how do you know? Who told you?"

"The man who spoke to me in the grand stand. He's correspondent of The London Courier -friend of father's of course."

George protested:

"Then why on earth didn't you tell me before?... Shot herself! What for?"

"I didn't tell you before because I couldn't."

All the violence of George's nature came to the surface as he said brutally:

"Of course you could!"

"I tell you I couldn't!" she cried. "I knew the car wouldn't be there for us until after the Prix du Cadran. And if I'd told you I couldn't have borne to be walking about that place three-quarters of an hour. We should have had to talk about it. I couldn't have borne that. And so you needn't be cross, please."

But her voice did not break, nor her eyes shine.

"I was wondering whether I should tell the chauffeur at once, or let him find it out."

"I should let him find it out," said George. "He doesn't know that you know. Besides, it might upset his driving."

"Oh! I shouldn't mind about his driving," Lois murmured disdainfully.

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