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   Chapter 34 No.34

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 8539

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


After a period of shallow sleep he woke up in the morning factitiously refreshed as the train was rumbling slowly over the high-level bridge. The sun blinked full in his eyes when he looked out through the trellis-work of the bridge. Far below, the river was tinged with the pale blue of the sky. Big ships lay in the river as if they had never moved and never could move; a steamer in process of painting, with her sides lifted above the water, gleamed in irregular patches of brilliant scarlet. A lively tug passed down-stream, proud of her early rising; and, smaller even than the tug, a smack, running close-hauled, bowed to the puffs of the light breeze. Farther away the lofty chimneys sent their scarves of smoke into the air, and the vast skeletons of incipient vessels could be descried through webs of staging. The translucent freshness of the calm scene was miraculous; it divinely intoxicated the soul, and left no squalor and no ugliness anywhere.

Then, as the line curved, came the view of the city beneath its delicate canopy of mist. The city was built on escarpments, on ridges, on hills, and sagged here and there into great hollows. The serrated silhouette of it wrote romance upon the sky, and the contours of the naked earth beyond lost themselves grandly in the mystery of the north. The jutting custom-house was a fine piece of architecture. From the eighteen-forties it challenged grimly the modern architect. On his hasty first visit to the city George had noticed little save that custom-house. He had seen a slatternly provincial town, large and picturesque certainly, but with small sense of form or dignity. He had decided that his town hall would stand quite unique in the town. But soon the city had imposed itself upon him and taught him the rudiments of humility. It contained an immense quantity of interesting architecture of various periods, which could not be appreciated at a glance. It was a hoary place. It went back to the Romans and further. Its fragmentary walls had survived through seven centuries, its cathedral through six, its chief churches through five. It had the most perfect Norman keep within two hundred miles. It had ancient halls, mansions, towers, markets, and jail. And to these the Victorian-Edwardian age had added museums, law courts, theatres; such astonishing modernities as swimming-baths, power-houses, joint-stock banks, lending libraries, and art schools; and whole monumental streets and squares from the designs of a native architect without whose respectable name no history of British architecture could be called complete. George's town hall was the largest building in the city; but it did not dominate the city nor dwarf it; the city easily digested it. Arriving in the city by train the traveller, if he knew where to look, could just distinguish a bit of the town hall tower, amid masses of granite and brick: which glimpse symbolized the relation between the city and the town hall and had its due effect on the Midland conceit of George.

But what impressed George more than the stout, physical aspects of the city was the sense of its huge, adventurous, corporate life, continuous from century to century. It had known terrible battles, obstinate sieges, famines, cholera, a general conflagration, and, in the twentieth century, strikes that possibly were worse than pestilence. It had fiercely survived them all. It was a city passionate and highly vitalized. George had soon begun to be familiar with its organic existence from the inside. The amazing delays in the construction of the town hall were characteristic of the city, originating as they did not from sloth or indecision but from the obduracy of the human will. At the start a sensational municipal election had put the whole project on the shelf for two years, and George had received a compensatory one per cent on the estimated cost according to contract, and had abandoned his hope. But the pertinacity of Mr. Soulter, first Councillor, then Alderman, then Mayor, the true father of the town hall, had been victorious in the end. Next there had been an infinity of trouble with owners of adjacent properties and with the foundations. Next the local contractor, who had got the work through a ruthless and ingenious con

spiracy of associates on the Council, had gone bankrupt. Next came the gigantic building strike, in which conflicting volitions fought each other for many months to the devastation of an entire group of trades. Finally was the inflexible resolution of Mr. Soulter that the town hall should not be opened and used until it was finished in every part and every detail of furniture and decoration.

George, by his frequent sojourns in the city, and his official connexion with the authorities, had several opportunities to observe the cabals, the chicane, and the personal animosities and friendships which functioned in secret at the very heart of the city's life. He knew the idiosyncrasies of councillors and aldermen in committee; he had learnt more about mankind in the committee-rooms of the old town hall than he could have learnt in ten thousand London clubs. He could divide the city council infallibly into wire-pullers, axe-grinders, vain nincompoops, honest mediocrities, and the handful who combined honesty with sagacity and sagacity with strength. At beefy luncheon-tables, and in gorgeous, stuffy bars tapestried with Lincrusta-Walton, he had listened to the innumerable tales of the town, in which greed, crookedness, ambition, rectitude, hatred, and sexual love were extraordinarily mixed-the last being by far the smallest ingredient. He liked the town; he revelled in it. It seemed to him splendid in its ineradicable, ever-changing, changeless humanity. And as the train bored its way through the granite bowels of the city, he thought pleasurably upon all these matters. And with them in his mind there gradually mingled the images of Lois and Marguerite. He cared not what their virtues were or what their faults were. He enjoyed reflecting upon them, picturing them with their contrasted attributes, following them into the future as they developed blindly under the unperceived sway of the paramount instincts which had impelled and would always impel them towards their ultimate destiny. He thought upon himself, and about himself he was very sturdily cheerful, because he had had a most satisfactory interview with Sir Isaac on the previous afternoon.

A few minutes later he walked behind a portmanteau-bearing night-porter into the wide-corridored, sleeping hotel, whose dust glittered in the straight shafts of early sunlight. He stopped at the big slate under the staircase and wrote in chalk opposite the number 187: "Not to be called till 12 o'clock, under pain of death." And the porter, a friend of some years' standing, laughed. On the second floor that same porter dropped the baggage on the linoleum and rattled the key in the lock with a high disregard of sleepers. In the bedroom the porter undid the straps of the portmanteau, and then:

"Anything else, sir?"

"That's all, John."

And as he turned to leave, John stopped and remarked in a tone of concern:

"Sorry to say Alderman Soulter's ill in bed, sir. Won't be able to come to the Opening. It's him as'll be madder than anybody, ill or not."

George was shocked, and almost frightened. In his opinion the true intelligence of the city was embodied in Mr. Soulter. Mr. Soulter had been a father to him, had understood his aims and fought for them again and again. Without Mr. Soulter he felt defenceless before the ordeal of the Opening, and he wished that he might fly back to London instantly. Nevertheless the contact of the cool, clean sheets was exquisite, and he went to sleep at once, just as he was realizing the extremity of his fatigue.

He did not have his sleep out. Despite the menace of death, a courageous creature heavily knocked at his door at ten o'clock and entered. It was a page-boy with a telegram. George opened the envelope resentfully.

"No answer."

The telegram read:

"Am told we have got it.-PONTING"

Ponting was George's assistant. The news referred to a competition for an enormous barracks in India-one of the two competitions pending. It had come sooner than expected. Was it true? George was aware that Ponting had useful acquaintanceship with a clerk in the India Office.

He thought, trying not to believe:

"Of course Ponting will swallow anything."

But he made no attempt to sleep again. He was too elated.

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