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   Chapter 35 No.35

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9664

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The telephone rang in the principal's room of George's office in Museum Street. He raised his head from the drawing-board with the false gesture of fatigued impatience which, as a business man, he had long since acquired, and took the instrument. As a fact he was not really busy; he was only pretending to be busy; and he rather enjoyed the summons of the telephone, with its eternal promise of some romantic new turn of existence. Nevertheless, though he was quite alone, he had to affect that the telephone was his bane.

"Can Sir Isaac Davids speak to you, sir, from the Artists Club?"

"Put him on."

Immediately came the thick, rich voice of Sir Isaac, with its implications of cynicism and triumphant disdain-attenuated and weakened in the telephone, suggesting an object seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

"Is that you, Cannon?"

"It is," said George shortly. Without yet knowing it, he had already begun to hate Sir Isaac. His criticism of Sir Isaac was that the man was too damnably sure of himself. And not all Sir Isaac's obvious power, and influence, and vast potential usefulness to a young architect, could prevent George from occasionally, as he put it, 'standing up to the fellow.'

"Well, you'd better come along here, if you can. I want to see you," said the unruffled voice of Sir Isaac.

"Now?"

"Yes."

"All right."

As George replaced the instrument, he murmured:

"I know what that means. It's all off." And after a moment: "I knew jolly well it would be."

He glanced round the very orderly room, to which, by judicious furnishing, he had given a severe distinction at no great cost. On the walls were a few interesting things, including a couple of his own perspectives. A neo-impressionist oil-sketch over the mantelpiece, with blue trees and red fields and a girl whose face was a featureless blob, imperiously monopolized the attention of the beholder, warning him, whoever he might be, that the inescapable revolutionary future was now at hand. The room and everything in it, that entity upon which George had spent so much trouble, and of which he had been so proud, seemed futile, pointless, utterly unprofitable.

The winning of the Indian limited competition, coupled with the firm rumour that Sir Isaac Davids had singled him out for patronage, had brilliantly renewed George's reputation and the jealousy which proved its reality. The professional journals had been full of him, and everybody assured everybody that his ultimate, complete permanent success had never been in doubt. The fact that the barracks would be the largest barracks in India indicated to the superstitious, and to George himself, that destiny intended him always to break records. After the largest town hall, the largest barracks; and it was said that Sir Isaac's factory was to be the largest factory! But the outbreak of war had overthrown all reputations, save the military and the political. Every value was changed according to a fresh standard, as in a shipwreck. For a week George had felt an actual physical weight in the stomach. This weight was his own selfish woe, but it was also the woe of the entire friendly world. Every architect knew and said that the profession of architecture would be ruined for years. Then the India Office woke George up. The attitude of the India Office was overbearing. It implied that it had been marvellously original and virtuous in submitting the affair of its barracks to even a limited competition, when it might just as easily have awarded the job to any architect whom it happened to know, or whom its wife, cousin, or aunt happened to know, or whose wife, cousin, or aunt happened to know the India Office-and further, that George ought therefore to be deeply grateful. It said that in view of the war the barracks must be erected with the utmost possible, or rather with quite impossible, dispatch, and that George would probably have to go to India at once. Simultaneously it daily modified George's accepted plans for the structure, exactly as though it was a professional architect and George an amateur, and it involved him in a seemly but intense altercation between itself and the subordinate bureaucracy of a Presidency. It kept George employed. In due course people discovered that business must proceed as usual, and even the architectural profession, despite its traditional pessimism, had hopes of municipalities and other bodies which were to inaugurate public works in order to diminish unemployment.

Nevertheless George had extreme difficulty in applying himself efficiently to urgent tasks. He kept thinking: "It's come! It's come!" He could not get over the fact that it had come-the European War which had obsessed men's minds for so many years past. He saved the face of his own theory as to the immediate impossibi

lity of a great war, by positively asserting that Germany would never have fought had she foreseen that Britain would fight. He prophesied (to himself) Germany's victory, German domination of Europe, and, as the grand central phenomenon, mysterious ruin for George Edwin Cannon. But the next instant he would be convinced that Germany would be smashed, and quickly. Germany, he reckoned superiorly, in 'taking on England' had 'bitten off more than she could chew.'

He knew almost naught of the progress of the fighting. He had obtained an expensive map of Western Europe and some flagged pins, and had hung the map up in his hall and had stuck the pins into it with exactitude. He had moved the pins daily, until little Laurencine one morning, aloft on a chair, decided to change all the positions of the opposing armies. Laurencine established German army corps in Marseilles, the Knockmillydown Mountains, and Torquay, while sending the French to Elsinore and Aberdeen. There was trouble in the house. Laurencine suffered, and was given to understand that war was a serious matter. Still, George soon afterwards had ceased to manipulate the pins; they seemed to be incapable of arousing his imagination; he could not be bothered with them; he could not make the effort necessary to acquire a scientific conception of the western campaign-not to mention the eastern, as to which his ignorance was nearly perfect.

Yet he read much about the war. Some of the recounted episodes deeply and ineffaceably impressed him. For example, an American newspaper correspondent had written a dramatic description of the German army marching, marching steadily along a great Belgian high road-a proces sion without beginning and without end-and of the procession being halted for his benefit, and of a German officer therein who struck a soldier several times in the face angrily with his cane, while the man stood stiffly at attention. George had an ardent desire to spend a few minutes alone with that officer; he could not get the soldier's bruised cheek out of his memory.

Again, he was moved and even dismayed by the recitals of the entry of the German army into Brussels and of its breaking into the goose-step as it reached the Grande Place, though he regarded the goose-step as too ridiculous and contemptible for words. Then the French defence of Dinant, and the Belgian defence of Liége, failure as it was, and the obstinate resistance at Namur, inspired him; and the engagements between Belgians and Uhlans, in which the clumsy Uhlans were always scattered, destroyed for him the dread significance of the term 'Uhlan.'

He simply did not comprehend that all these events were negligible trifles, that no American correspondent had seen the hundredth part of the enemy forces, that the troops which marched through Brussels were a tiny, theatrical side-show, a circus, that the attack on Liége had been mismanaged, that the great battle at Dinant was a mere skirmish in the new scale of war, and the engagements with Uhlans mere scuffles, and that behind the screen of these infinitesimal phenomena the German army , unimagined in its hugeness, horror, and might, was creeping like a fatal and monstrous caterpillar surely towards France.

A similar screen hid from him the realities of England. He saw bunting and recruits, and the crowds outside consulates. But he had no idea of the ceaseless flight of innumerable crammed trains day and night southwards, of the gathering together of Atlantic liners and excursion steamers from all the coasts into an unprecedented Armada, of the sighting of the vanguard of that Armada by an incredulous Boulogne, of the landing of British regiments and guns and aeroplanes in the midst of a Boulogne wonderstruck and delirious, and of the thrill which thereupon ecstatically shivered through France. He knew only that 'the Expeditionary Force had landed in safety.'

He could not believe that a British Army could face successfully the legendary Prussians with their Great General Staff, and yet he had a mystic and entirely illogical belief in the invincibility of the British Army. He had read somewhere that the German forces amounted in all to the equiva lent of over three hundred divisions; he had been reliably told that the British forces in France amounted to three divisions and some cavalry. It was most absurd; but his mysticism survived the absurdity, so richly was it nourished by news from the strange, inartistic colonies, where architecture was not understood. Revelation came to George that the British Empire, which he had always suspected to be an invention of those intolerable persons the Imperialists, was after all something more than a crude pink smear across the map of the world.

Withal he was acutely dejected as he left his office to go to the club.

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