MoboReader> Literature > The Roll-Call

   Chapter 31 No.31

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 21276

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


George came into the conjugal bedroom. The hour was about three o'clock in the afternoon. Lois lay on the sofa at the foot of the twin beds. It was perhaps characteristic of her that she sincerely preferred the sofa to her bed. Sometimes in the night, when she could not sleep, she would get up and go sighing to the sofa, and, with nothing but a slippery eiderdown to cover her, sleep perfectly till George arose in the morning. Quite contentedly conventional in most matters of mere social deportment, she often resisted purely physical conventions. A bed was the recognized machine for slumber; hence she would instinctively choose another machine. Also, the sofa was nearer to the ground. She liked to be near the ground. She had welcomed with ardour the first beginnings of the new fashion which now regularly permits ladies to sit on the hearth-rug after a ceremonial dinner and prop their backs with cushions or mantelpieces. Doubtless a trait of the 'cave-woman' that as a girl she had called herself!

She was now stretched on the sofa in a luxurious and expensive ribboned muslin negligée, untidy, pale, haggard, heavy, shapeless, the expectant mother intensely conscious of her own body and determined to maintain all the privileges of the exacting r?le which nature had for the third time assigned to her. Little Laurencine, aged eight, and little Lois, aged five, in their summer white, were fondling her, tumbling about her, burying themselves in her; she reclined careless, benignant, and acquiescent under their tiny assaults; it was at moments as though the three were one being. When their father appeared in the doorway, she warned them in an apparently awed tone that father was there, and that nursey was waiting for them and that they must run off quietly. And she kissed them with the enormous kiss of a giantess suddenly rendered passionate by a vast uprush of elemental feeling. And they ran off, smiling confidently at their father, giggling, chattering about important affairs in their intolerable, shrieking voices. George could never understand why Lois should attempt, as she constantly did, to instil into them awe of their father; his attitude to the children made it impossible that she should succeed. But she kept on trying. The cave-woman again! George would say to himself: "All women are cave-women."

"Have you come to pack?" she asked, with fatigued fretfulness, showing no sign of surprise at his arrival.

"Oh no!" he answered, and implied that in his over-charged existence packing would have to be done when it could, if at all. "I only came in for one second to see if I could root out that straw hat I wore last year."

"Do open the window," she implored grievously.

"It is open."

"Both sides?"

"Yes."

"Well, open it more."

"It's wide open."

"Both sides?"

"Yes."

"It's so stuffy in this room," she complained, expelling much breath.

It was stuffy in the room. The room was too full of the multitudinous belongings and furniture of wife and husband. It was too small for its uses. The pair, unduly thrown together, needed two rooms. But the house could not yield them two rooms, though from the outside it had an air of spaciousness. The space was employed in complying with custom, in imitating the disposition of larger houses, and in persuading the tenant that he was as good as his betters. There was a basement, because the house belonged to the basement era, and because it is simpler to burrow than to erect. On the ground floor were the hall-narrow, and the dining-room-narrow. To have placed the dining-room elsewhere would have been to double the number of stairs between it and the kitchen; moreover, the situation of the dining-room in all such correct houses is immutably fixed by the code Thus the handiest room in the house was occupied during four hours of the twenty-four, and wasted during the remaining twenty. Behind the dining-room was a very small room appointed by the code to be George's 'den.' It would never have been used at all had not George considered it his duty to use it occasionally, and had not Lois at intervals taken a fancy to it because it was not hers.

The whole of the first floor was occupied by the landing, the well of the staircase, and the drawing-room, which last was inevitably shaped in the resemblance of an L. The small back portion of it over George's den was never utilized save by the grand piano and rare pianists. Still, the code demanded that the drawing-room should have this strange appendage, and that a grand piano should reside in it modestly, apologetically, like a shame that cannot be entirely concealed. Nearly every house in Elm Park Road, and every house in scores of miles of other correct streets in the West End, had a drawing-room shaped in the semblance of an L, and a grand piano in the hinterland thereof. The drawing-room, like the dining-room, was occupied during about four hours of the twenty-four, and wasted during the remaining twenty.

The two main floors of the house being in such manner accounted for, the family and its dependents principally lived aloft on the second and third floors. Eight souls slept up there nightly. A miracle of compression!

George had had the house for ten years; he entered it as a bridegroom. He had stayed in it for seven years because the landlord would only confide it to him on lease, and at the end of the seven years he lacked the initiative to leave it. An ugly house, utterly without architectural merit! A strange house for an architect to inhabit! George, however, had never liked it. Before his marriage he had discovered a magnificent house in Fitzroy Square, a domestic masterpiece of the Adams period, exquisitely designed without and within, huge rooms and many rooms, lovely ceilings, a forged-iron stair-rail out of Paradise; a house appreciably nearer to the centre than the one in Elm Park Road, and with a lower rental. George would have taken the house, had not Lois pointed out to him its fatal disadvantage, which had escaped him, namely, that people simply did not live in Fitzroy Square. Instantly Lois entered Fitzroy Square, George knew himself for a blind fool. Of course the house was impossible. He was positively ashamed to show her the house. She admitted that it was beautiful. So Elm Park Road was finally selected, Elm Park Road being a street where people could, and in fact did, live. It was astounding how Lois, with her small and fragmentary knowledge of London, yet knew, precisely and infallibly, by instinct, by the sound of the names of the thoroughfares, by magic diabolical or celestial, what streets were inhabitable and what were not. And something in George agreed with her.

He now rummaged among hat-boxes beneath the beds, pulled one out, and discovered a straw hat in it.

"Will it do?" he questioned doubtfully.

"Let me look at it."

He approached her and gave her the hat, which she carefully examined, frowning.

"Put it on," she said.

He put it on, and she gazed at him for what seemed to him an unnecessarily long time. His thought was that she liked to hold him under her gaze.

"Well?" he exclaimed impatiently.

"It's quite all right," she said. "What's the matter with it? It makes you look about fourteen." He felt envy in her voice. Then she added: "But surely you won't be able to wear that thing to-morrow?"

"Of course not. I only want it for this afternoon.... This sun."

"Oh!" she cried. "I do think it's a shame I can't go to the Opening! It's just my luck."

He considered that she arraigned her luck much too often; he considered that on the whole her luck was decidedly good. But he knew that she had to be humoured. It was her right to be humoured.

"Yes," he said judicially and rather shortly. "I'm sorry too! But what are you going to do about it? If you can't go, you can't. And you know it's absolutely out of the question." As a fact he was glad that her condition made such an excursion impossible for her. She would certainly have been rather a ticklish handful for him at the Opening.

"But I should so have enjoyed it!" she insisted, with emphasis.

There it was, the thirst for enjoyment, pleasure! The supreme, unslakable thirst! She had always had it, and he had always hardened himself against it-while often, nevertheless, accepting with secret pleasure the satisfactions of her thirst. Thus, for example, in the matter of dancing. She had shared to the full in the extraordinary craze for dancing which had held the West End for several years. Owing to her initiative they had belonged to two dancing clubs whose members met weekly in the saloons of the great hotels. The majority of the members were acutely tedious to George, but Lois was quite uncritical, save on the main point; she divided the members into good dancers and bad dancers. George was a pretty good dancer. He liked dancing. Membership of these clubs involved expense, it interfered with his sleep, it made his early mornings more like defeats than triumphs, it prevented him from duly reading and sketching. But he liked dancing. While resenting the compulsion to outrage his conscience, he enjoyed the sin. What exasperated him was Lois's argument that that kind of thing "did him good" professionally, and was indeed essential to the career of a rising or risen young architect, and that also it was good for his health and his mind. He wished that she would not so unconvincingly pretend that self-indulgence was not what it was. These pretences, however, seemed to be a necessity of her nature. She reasoned similarly about the dinners and theatre-parties which they gave and attended. Next to dancing she adored dinners and theatre-parties. She would sooner eat a bad dinner in company anywhere than a good dinner quietly at home; she would far sooner go to a bad play than to none at all; she was in fact never bored in the theatre or in the music-hall. Never!

Once, by misfortune-as George privately deemed-he had got a small job (erection of a dwelling-house at Hampstead) through a dinner. Lois had never forgotten it, and she would adduce the trifle again and again as evidence of the sanity of her ideas about social life. George really did not care for designing houses; they were not worth the trouble; he habitually thought in public edifices and the palaces of kings, nobles, and plutocrats of taste. Moreover, his commission on the house would not have kept his own household in being for a month-and yet the owner, while obviously proud to be the patron of the celebrated prodigy George Cannon, had the air of doing George Cann

on a favour!

And so her ambition, rather than his, had driven them both ruthlessly on. Both were overpressed, but George considerably more than Lois. Lois was never, in ordinary times, really tired. Dinners, teas, even lunches, restaurants, theatres, music-halls, other people's houses, clubs, dancing, changing clothes, getting into autos and taxis and getting out of autos and taxis, looking at watches, writing down engagements, going to bed with a sigh at the lateness of the hour, waking up fatigued to the complexities of the new day-she coped admirably with it all. She regarded it as natural; she regarded it as inevitable and proper. She enjoyed it. She wanted it, and that which she wanted she must have. Yet her attitude to George was almost invariably one of deep solicitude for him. She would look at him with eyes troubled and anxious for his welfare. When they were driving to a dance which he had no desire to attend, she would put her arm in his and squeeze his arm and murmur: "Coco, I don't like you working so hard." (Coco was her pet name for him, a souvenir of Paris.)

He acknowledged that, having chosen her r?le, she played it well. She made him comfortable. She was a good housekeeper, and a fair organizer generally. She knew how to be well served. He thought that her manner to servants was often inexcusable, but she "kept" her servants, and they would "do anything" for her. Further, except that she could not shine in conversation, she was a good hostess. She never made mistakes, never became muddled, never forgot. Of course she had friends to whom he was indifferent or perhaps slightly hostile, but she was entitled to her friends, as he to his. And she was a good mother. Stranger still, though she understood none of the arts and had no logical taste, she possessed a gift of guessing or of divination which, in all affairs relating to the home, was the practical equivalent of genuine taste. George had first noticed this faculty in her when she put a thousand pounds of her money to a thousand pounds of his stepfather's and they began to buy furniture. The house was beautifully furnished, and she had done her share. And in the alterations, additions, and replacements which for several years she had the habit of springing upon him, she rarely offended him. Still, he knew indubitably that she had not taste,-anyhow in his sense of the term,-and would never, never acquire it. An astonishing creature! He had not finished being astonished at her. In some respects he had not even come to a decision about her. For instance, he suspected that she had "no notion of money," but he could not be sure. She did what she liked with her own income, which was about two hundred a year; that is to say, she clothed herself out of it. Her household accounts were unknown to him; he had once essayed to comprehend them, but had drawn back affrighted.

" Well," she said plaintively. "Now you're here, I think you might sit a bit with me. It's most awfully lonely for me."

"I can't possibly," he said, with calm. "I have to rush off to the club to see Davids about that business."

She ignored his inescapable duties! It was nothing to her that he had a hundred affairs to arrange before his night-journey to the north. She wanted him to sit with her. Therefore she thought that he ought to sit with her, and she would be conscious of a grievance if he did not. 'Lonely!' Because the children were going out for an hour or so! Besides, even if it was lonely, facts were facts, and destiny was destiny and had to be borne.

"What business?"

"You know."

"Oh! That!... Well, can't you go after tea?"

Incurable!

"Here, lass!" he said, with a laugh. "If I stop arguing here I shall miss him."

He bent down, and prepared his lips to kiss her. He smiled superiorly, indulgently. He was the stronger. She defeated him sometimes; she gravely defeated him in the general arrangement and colour of their joint existence; but he was the stronger. She had known it for over ten years. They had had two tremendous, critical, highly dangerous battles. He had won them both. Lois had wanted to be married in Paris. He had been ready to agree until suddenly it occurred to him that French legal formalities might necessitate an undue disclosure as to his parentage and the bigamy of which his mother had been a victim. He refused absolutely to be married in Paris. He said: "You're English and I'm English, and the proper place for us to be married is England." There were good counter-arguments, but he would not have them. Curiously, at this very period, news came from his stepfather of his father's death in America. He kept it to himself. Again, on the night itself of their marriage, he had said to her: " Now give me that revolver you've got ." At her protesting refusal he had said: "My wife is not going about with any revolver. Not if I know it!" He was playful but determined. He startled her, for the altercation lasted two hours. On the other hand he had never said a word about the photograph of Jules Defourcambault, and had never seen it. Somewhere, in some mysterious fastness, the mysterious woman kept it.

His lips were close to hers, and his eyes to her eyes. Most persons called her eyes golden, but to him they were just yellow. They had an infinitesimal cast, to which nobody ever referred. They were voluptuous eyes. He examined her face. She was still young; but the fine impressive imprint of existence was upon her features, and the insipid freshness had departed. She blinked, acquiescent. Her eyes changed, melting. He could almost see into her brain, and watch there the impulse of repentance for an unreasonable caprice, and the intense resolve to think in the future only of her husband's welfare. She was like that.... She could be an angel.... He knew that he was hard. He guessed that he might be inordinately hard He would bear people down. Why had he not been touched by her helpless condition? She was indeed touching as she lay. She wanted to keep him near her and she could not. She wanted acutely to go to the north, and she was imprisoned. She would have to pass the night alone, and the next night alone. Danger and great suffering lay in front of her. And she was she; she was herself, with all her terrific instincts. She could not alter herself. Did she not merit compassion? Still, he must go to his club .

He kissed her tenderly. She half lifted her head, and kissed him exactly as she kissed his children, like a giantess, and as though she was the ark of wisdom from everlasting, and he a callow boy whose safety depended upon her sagacious, loving direction.

From the top of the flight of stairs leading from the ground floor, George, waiting till it was over, witnessed the departure of his family for the afternoon promenade. A prodigious affair! The parlourmaid (a delightful creature who was, unfortunately, soon to make an excellent match above her station) amiably helped the nursemaid to get the perambulator down the steps. The parlourmaid wore her immutable uniform, and the nursemaid wore her immutable uniform. Various things had to be packed into the perambulator, and then little Lois had to be packed into it-not because she could not walk, but because it was not desirable for her to arrive at the playground tired. Nursey's sunshade was undiscoverable, and little Laurencine's little sunshade had to be retrieved from underneath little Lois in the depths of the perambulator. Nursey's book had fallen on the steps. Then the tiny but elaborate perambulator of Laurencine's doll had to go down the steps, and the doll had to be therein ensconced under Laurencine's own direction, and Laurencine's sunshade had to be opened, and Laurencine had to prove to the maids that she could hold the sunshade in one hand and push the doll's perambulator with the other. Finally, the procession of human beings and vehicles moved, munitioned, provisioned, like a caravan setting forth into the desert, the parlourmaid amiably waving adieux.

George thought: "I support all that. It all depends on me. I have brought it all into existence." And his reflections embraced Lois upstairs, and the two colleagues of the parlourmaid in the kitchen, and the endless apparatus of the house, and the people at his office and the apparatus there, and the experiences that awaited him on the morrow, and all his responsibilities, and all his apprehensions for the future. And he was amazed and dismayed by the burden which almost unwittingly he bore night and day. But he felt too that it was rather fine. He felt that he was in the midst of life.

As he was cranking his car, which he had left unattended at the kerb, Mrs. Buckingham Smith's magnificent car driven by her magnificent chauffeur, swept in silence up to the door and sweetly stopped. George's car was a very little one, and he was his own chauffeur, and had to walk home from the garage when he had done with it. The contemplation of Buck Smith's career showed George that there are degrees of success. Buck Smith received a thousand pounds for a portrait (in the French manner of painting)-and refused commissions at that. Buck Smith had a kind of palace in Melbury Road. By the side of Buck Smith. George was a struggling semi-failure. Mrs. Buck Smith, the lady whom George had first glimpsed in the foyer of a theatre, was a superb Jewess whom Buck had enticed from the stage. George did not like her because she was apt, in ecstasy, to froth at the mouth, and for other reasons; but she was one of his wife's most intimate friends. Lois, usually taciturn, would chatter with Adah for hours.

"I thought I'd come and see Lois," said Mrs. Buck, effulgently smiling, as George handed her out of the car. "How is the dear thing? You just flying off?"

"You'll do her all the good in the world," George replied. "I can't stop. I have to leave town to-night, and I'm full up."

"Oh yes! The Opening! How perfectly splendid!" Tiny bubbles showed between her glorious lips. "What a shame it is poor Lois isn't able to go!"

"Yes," said George. "But look here! Don't you go and tell her so. That's quite the wrong tack."

" I see! I see!" said Mrs. Buck, gazing at him as one who was capable of subtle comprehensions. "By the way," she added, as she turned to mount the steps, "I ran across Everard Lucas at the Berkeley to-day. Lunching there. I said I was coming here. He told me to tell you, if I saw you, that old Mr. Haim or Home or some such name was dead. He said you'd be interested."

"By Jove!" George ejaculated. "Is he? Haven't seen him for years and years."

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares