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   Chapter 33 No.33

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 14876

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


She was just closing the side gate leading to the studio when he drove up. He recognized her face over the top of the gate. At the first glance it seemed to be absolutely unchanged-the same really beautiful lips, the same nose, the same look in the eyes. Had a decade passed by her and left no trace? He lost his nerve for an instant, and brought the car to a standstill with less than his usual adroitness. She hesitated.

"I was coming to see you," he called out hastily, boyishly, not in the least measuring his effects. He jumped from the car, and said in a lower, more intimate tone: "I've only this minute heard about Mr. Haim. I'm awfully sorry. I thought I'd come along at once."

"How nice of you!" she replied, quite simply and naturally, with a smile. "Do come in."

The tension was eased.

She pulled at the gate, which creaked. He then saw plainly the whole of her figure. She was dressed in black, and wore what the newspaper advertisement called a 'matron's coat.' The decade had not passed by her and left no trace. She had been appointed to a share in the mysterious purpose. Her bust, too, was ampler; only her face, rather pale like the face of Lois, was unaltered in its innocent contours. He felt that he was blushing. He had no instinctive jealousy nor resentment; it did not appear strange to him that this woman in the matron's coat was the girl he had passionately kissed in that very house; and indeed the woman was not the girl-the connexion between the woman and the girl had snapped. Nevertheless, he was extremely self-conscious; but not she. And in his astonishment he wondered at the secretiveness of London. His house and hers were not more than half a mile apart, and yet in eleven years he had never set eyes on her house. Nearly always, on leaving his house, he would go up Elm Park Gardens and turn to the right. If he was not in the car he would never turn to the left. Occasionally he had flown past the end of the Grove in the car; not once, however, had he entered the Grove. He lived in Chelsea and she lived in Chelsea, but not the same Chelsea; his was not the Chelsea of the studios and the King's Road. They had existed close together, side by side, for years and years-and she had been hidden from him.

As they walked towards the studio door she told him that 'they' had buried her father a week ago and that 'they' were living in the studio, and had already arranged to let the lower part of the house. She had the air of assuming that he was aware of the main happenings in her life, only a little belated in the knowledge of her father's death. She was quite cheerful. He pretended to himself to speculate as to the identity of her husband. He would not ask: "And who is your husband?". All the time he knew who her husband was: it could be no other than one man. She opened the studio door with a latchkey. He was right. At a table Mr. Prince was putting sheets of etching-paper to soak in a porcelain bath.

"Well! Well! Well!" exclaimed Mr. Prince warmly, not flustered, not a bit embarrassed, and not too demonstrative. He came forward, delicately drying the tips of his fingers on a rag, and shook hands. His hair was almost white, his thin, benevolent face amazingly lined; his voice had a constant little vibration. Yet George could not believe that he was an old man.

"He only heard to-day about father, and he's called at once," said Marguerite. "Isn't it just like him?"

The last phrase surprised and thrilled George. Did she mean it? Her kind, calm, ingenuous face showed that obviously she meant it.

"It is," said Mr. Prince seriously. "Very good of you, old man."

After some talk about Mr. Haim, and about old times, and about changes, during which Marguerite took off her matron's coat and Mr. Prince gently hung it up for her, they all sat down near to one another and near the unlighted stove. The studio seemed to be precisely as of old, except that it was very clean. Marguerite, in a high-backed wicker-chair, began slowly to remove her hat, which she perched behind her on the chair. Mr. Prince produced a tin of Gold Flake cigarettes.

"And so you're living in the studio?" said George.

"We have the two rooms at the top of the house of course," answered Mr. Prince, glancing at the staircase. "I don't know whether it's quite the wisest thing, with all those stairs; you see how we're fixed"-he glanced at Marguerite-"but we had a fine chance to let the house, and in these days it's as well to be cautious."

Marguerite smiled happily and patted her husband's hand.

"Of course it's the wisest thing," she said.

"Why! What's the matter with these days?" George demanded. "How's the work?"

"Oh!" said Mr. Prince, in a new tone. "I've one or two things that might interest you."

He displayed some prints, and chatted of his labours. He was still etching; he would die etching. This was the etcher of European renown. He referred to the Vienna acquisition as though it was an affair of a few weeks ago. He had disposed of an etching to Stockholm, and mentioned that he had exhibited at the International Show in Rome. He said that his things were attracting attention at a gallery in Bond Street. He displayed catalogues and press-cuttings.

"These are jolly fine," said George enthusiastically, as he examined the prints on his knee.

" I'm glad you like them," said Mr. Prince, pleased. "I think I've improved."

But in spite of his European renown, Mr. Prince had remained practically unknown. His name would not call forth the 'Oh yes!' of recognition from the earnest frequenter of fashionable exhibitions who takes pride in his familiarity with names. The etchings of Prince were not subscribed for in advance. He could not rank with the stars-Cameron, Muirhead Bone, Legros, Brangwyn. Probably he could command not more than two or three guineas for a print. He had never been the subject of a profusely laudatory illustrated article in the Studio . With his white hair he was what in the mart is esteemed a failure. He knew it. Withal he had a notable self-respect and a notable confidence. There was no timidity in him, even if his cautiousness was excessive. He possessed sagacity and he had used it. He knew where he was. He had something substantial up his sleeve. There was no wistful appeal in his eye, as of a man who hopes for the best and fears the worst. He could meet dealers with a firm glance, for throughout life he had subjugated his desires to his resources. His look was modest but independent; and Marguerite had the same look.

"Hallo!" cried George. "I see you've got that here!" He pointed to Celia Agg's portrait of herself as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

"Yes," said Marguerite. "She insisted on me taking it when she gave up painting."

"Gave up painting?"

"Very good, isn't it?" said Mr. Prince gravely. "Pity she ever did give up painting, I think," he added in a peculiar tone.

"Yes, it is," George agreed insincerely, for the painting now seemed to him rather tenth-rate. "But what on earth did she stop painting for?"

Marguerite replied, with reserve:

"Oh! Didn't you know? She's quite gone in for this suffragette business. No one ever sees her now. Not even her people."

"Been in prison," said Mr. Prince, sardonically disapproving, "I always said she'd end in that kind of thing, didn't I, Margy?"

"You did, dear," said Marguerite, with wifely eagerness.

Th

ese two respected not only themselves but each other. The ensuing conversation showed that Mr. Prince was somewhat disgusted with the mundane movement, and that Marguerite was his disciple. They were more and more leaving the world alone; their self-sufficiency was increasing with the narrow regularity of their habits. They seldom went out; and when they did, they came home the more deeply convinced that all was not well with the world, and that they belonged to the small remnant of the wise and the sane. George was in two minds about them, or rather about Mr. Prince. He secretly condescended to him, but on the other hand he envied him. The man was benevolent; he spent his life in the creation of beauty; and he was secure. Surely an ideal existence! Yes, George wished that he could say as much for himself. Marguerite, completely deprived of ambition, would never have led any man into insecurity. He had realized already that afternoon that there were different degrees of success; he now realized that there were different kinds of success.

"Well!" he rose suddenly. "I must be off. I'm very busy."

"I suppose you are," said Mr. Prince. Untrue to assert that his glance was never wistful! It was ever so slightly wistful then.

George comprehended that Mr. Prince admired him and looked up to him after all.

"My town hall is being opened to-morrow."

"So I saw," said Mr. Prince. "I congratulate you."

They knew a good deal about him-where he lived, the statistics of his family, and so on. He picked up his hat.

"I can't tell you how I appreciate your coming," said Marguerite, gazing straight into his eyes.

"Rather!" said Mr. Prince.

They were profoundly flattered by the visit of this Bird-of-paradise. But they did not urge him to stay longer.

As he was leaving, the door already open, George noticed a half-finished book-cover design on a table.

"So you're still doing these binding designs!" He stopped to examine.

Husband and wife, always more interested in their own affairs than in other people's, responded willingly to his curiosity. George praised, and his praise was greatly esteemed. Mr. Prince talked about the changes in trade bindings, which were all for the worse. The bright spot was that Marguerite's price for a design had risen to twenty-five shillings. This improvement was evidently a source of genuine satisfaction to them. To George it seemed pathetic that a rise, after vicissitudes, of four shillings in fourteen years should be capable of causing them so much joy. He and they lived in absolutely different worlds.

"This is the last I shall let her do for a long time," observed Mr. Prince. "I shouldn't have let her do this one, but the doctor, who's a friend of ours, said there wouldn't be any harm, and of course it's always advisable to break a connexion as little as possible. You never know...."

George smiled, returning their flattery.

"You aren't going to tell me that that matters to you !"

Mr. Prince fixed George with his eye.

"When the European War starts in earnest I think most of us will need all we've been able to get together."

"What European War?" asked George, with a touch of disdain. "You don't mean to say that this Sarajevo business will lead to a European War!"

"No, I don't," said Mr. Prince very firmly. "Germany's diplomatists are much too clever for that. They're clever enough to find a better excuse. But they will find it, and soon."

George saw that Mr. Prince, having opened up a subject which apparently was dear to him, had to be handled with discretion. He guessed at once, from the certainty and the emotion of Mr. Prince's phrases, that Mr. Prince must have talked a lot about a European War. So he mildly replied:

"Do you really think so?"

"Do I think so? My dear fellow, you have only to look at the facts. Austria undoubtedly annexed Bosnia at Germany's instigation. Look at what led to Algeciras. Look at Agadir. Look at the increase in the German army last July. And look at the special levy. The thing's as clear as day." Mr. Prince now seemed to be a little angry with George, who had moved into the doorway.

"I'll tell you what I think," said George, with the assurance with which as a rule he announced his opinions. "We're Germany's only serious rival. It's us she's up against. She can only fight us on the sea. If she fought us now on the sea she'd be wiped out. That's admitted. In ten years, if she keeps on building, she might have a chance. But not now! Not yet! And she knows it." George did not mention that he had borrowed the whole weighty argument from his stepfather; but he spoke with finality, and was rather startled when Mr. Prince blew the whole weighty argument into the air with one scornful, pitying exhalation.

Mr. Prince said: " Nothing in it! Nothing in it! It's our alliances that will be the ruin of us. We shall be dragged into war. If Germany chooses to fight on land everybody will have to fight on land. When she gets to Paris, what are we going to do about it? We shall be dragged into war. It's the damnable alliances that Sir Edward Grey has let us in for." Mr. Prince fixed George afresh. "That man ought to be shot. What do we want with alliances?... Have you heard Lord Roberts?"

George admitted weakly, and as if ashamed, that he had not.

"Well, you should."

"Oh yes," Marguerite ingenuously put in. "Alfred's been very strong on the European War ever since he heard Lord Roberts speak at Chelsea Town Hall."

George then understood the situation. Mr. Prince, through the hazard of a visit to Chelsea Town Hall, had become obsessed by a single idea, an idea which his natural apprehensions had well nourished. A common phenomenon! George had met before the man obsessed by one idea, with his crude reasoning, his impatience, and his flashing eye. As for himself he did not pretend to be an expert in politics; he had no time for politics; but he was interested in them, and held strong views about them; and among his strongest views was the view that the crudity of the average imperialist was noxious, and a source of real danger. 'That man ought to be shot.' Imagine such a remark! He felt that he must soothe Mr. Prince as he would soothe a child. And he did so, with all the tact acquired at municipal committee meetings in the north.

His, last impression, on departure, was that Mr. Prince was an excellent and most lovable fellow, despite his obsession. "Glad to see you at any time," said Mr. Prince, with genuine cordiality, critically and somewhat inimically assessing the car, which he referred to as 'she.' Marguerite had remained in the studio. She was wonderful. She admired her husband too simply, and she was too content, but she had marvellous qualities of naturalness, common sense in demeanour, realism, and placidity. Thanks to her remarkable instinct for taking things for granted, the interview had been totally immune from constraint. It was difficult, and she had made it seem easy. No fuss, no false sentiment! And she looked very nice, very interesting, quite attractive, in her mourning and in her expectancy. A fine couple. Unassuming of course, narrow, opinionated-(he surmised that the last days of the late Mr. Haim had been disciplined)-but no fools either, and fundamentally decent. While condescending to them, he somehow envied them. But he knew what the opinion of Lois about them would be!

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