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   Chapter 32 No.32

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 6016

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


He got into his car and drove off at speed. Beneath his off-hand words to Mrs. Buckingham Smith he was conscious of a quickly growing, tender sympathy for Marguerite Haim. The hardness in him was dissolved almost instantaneously. He saw Marguerite, who had been adamantine in the difference which separated them, as the image of pliancy, sweetness, altruism, and devotion; and he saw her lips and the rapt glance of her eyes as beautiful as in the past. What a soft, soothing, assuaging contrast with the difficult Lois, so imperious and egoistic! (An unforgettable phrase of Lois's had inhabited his mind for over a decade: "Fancy quarrelling over a man!") He had never met Marguerite since their separation, and for years he had heard nothing whatever about her; he did not under-estimate the ordeal of meeting her again. Yet he at once decided that he must meet her again. He simply could not ignore her in her bereavement and new loneliness. To write to her would be absurd; it would be a cowardly evasion; moreover, he could not frame a letter. He must prove to her and to himself that he had a sense of decent kindliness which would rise above conventional trifles when occasion demanded.

At the top of Elm Park Gardens, instead of turning east towards Piccadilly he turned west in the direction of the Workhouse tower. And thus he exposed the unreality of the grandiose pleas with which professional men impose on their wives and on themselves. A few minutes earlier his appointment at the club (not Pickering's, to which, however, he still belonged, but a much greater institution, the Artists, in Albemarle Street) had been an affair of extreme importance, upon which might depend his future career, for did it not concern negotiations for a London factory, which was to be revolutionary in design, and to cost £150,000, and which, erected, would form a permanent advertisement of the genius of George Cannon? Now he remembered that Sir Isaac Davids, the patron of all the arts and the influencer of commissions, had said that he would probably but not certainly be at the club that afternoon, and he argued that in any event half an hour sooner or later would not make or mar the business. Indeed, he went further, and persuaded himself that between that moment and dinner he had nothing to do except sign a few routine letters at the office. Still, it was just as well that Lois should remain in delusion as to his being seriously pressed for time.

As he curved, slackening and accelerating, with the perfect assurance of long habit, through the swift, intricate, towering motor traffic of Fulham Road, it was inevitable that he should recall the days, eleven years ago, when through a sedate traffic of trotting horses enlivened with a few motors and motor-buses, he used to run down on his motor-cycle to visit Marguerite. It was inevitable that he should think upon what had happened to him in the meantime. His body felt, honestly, no older. The shoulders had broadened, the moustache wa

s fiercer, there were semicircular furrows under the eyes; but he was as slim and agile as ever, and did his morning exercises as regularly as he took his bath. More, he was still, somehow, the youthful prodigy who had won the biggest competition of modern years while almost an infant. He was still known as such, regarded as such, greeted as such, referred to as such at intervals in the Press. His fame in his own world seemed not to have deteriorated. But disappointment had slowly, imperceptibly, eaten into him. He was far off the sublime heights of Sir Hugh Corver, though he met Sir Hugh apparently as an equal on the Council of the Royal Society of British Architects. Work had not surged in upon him. He had not been able to pick and choose among commissions. He had never won another competition. Again and again his hopes had been horribly defeated in these ghastly enterprises, of which two were still pending. He was a man of one job. And a quarter of his professional life had slipped behind him! His dreams were changed. Formerly he had dreamed in architectural forms; now he dreamed in percentages. His one job had been enormous and lucrative, but he had lived on it for a decade, and it was done. And outside it he had earned probably less than twelve hundred pounds.

And if the job had been enormous, his responsibilities were likewise enormous. Home expenses with an increasing family; establishment expenses; a heavy insurance! Slavery to habits! The common story, without the slightest originality in it. The idea recurred continually: it was the fault of Lois, of that embodied, implacable instinct which Lois was! And it was the fault of circumstance, of the structure of society, of existence itself. And it was his fault too. And the whole of the blame would be his if disaster came. Imagine those kids with the perambulator and the doll's perambulator-imagine them in an earthquake! He could see no future beyond, perhaps, eight months ahead. No, he could not! Of course his stepfather was a sure resource. But he could not conceive himself confessing failure to his stepfather or to anybody on earth. Yet, if he did not very soon obtain more work, remunerative and on a large scale ... if he did not ... However, he would obtain more work. It was impossible that he should not obtain it. The matter with Sir Isaac was as good as arranged. And the chances of winning at any rate one of the two competitions were very favourable.... He dismissed every apprehension. His health was too good to tolerate apprehensions permanently. And he had a superstitious faith in his wife's superstitious faith in him, and in his luck. The dark mood quickly faded. It had been induced, not by the spectacle of his wife and family and household seen somehow from a new angle, but by the recollection of the past. Though he often went through dark moods, they were not moods of financial pessimism; they seemed to be causeless, inexplicable, and indescribable-abysses in which cerebration ceased.

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