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   Chapter 36 No.36

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 8945

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Sir Isaac was sitting quite alone in the large smoking-room of the Artists in Albemarle Street-a beautiful apartment terribly disfigured by its pictures, which had been procured from fashionable members in the fashionable taste of twenty years earlier, and were crying aloud for some one brave enough to put them out of their misery. No interpretation of the word 'artist' could by any ingenuity be stretched to include Sir Isaac. Nevertheless he belonged to the club, and so did a number of other men in like case. The difference between Sir Isaac and the rest was that Sir Isaac did actually buy pictures, though seldom from fashionable painters.

He was a personage of about forty-five years, with a rather prominent belly, but not otherwise stout; a dark man; plenty of stiff black hair (except for one small central bald patch); a rank moustache, and a clean-shaven chin apparently woaded in the manner of the ancient Britons; elegantly and yet severely dressed-braided morning-coat, striped trousers, small, skin-fitting boots, a black flowered-silk necktie. As soon as you drew near him you became aware of his respiratory processes; you were bound to notice continually that without ceasing he carried on the elemental business of existence. Hair sprouted from his nose, and the nose was enormous; it led at a pronounced slope to his high forehead, which went on upwards at exactly the same angle and was lost in his hair. If the chin had weakly receded, as it often does in this type, Sir Isaac would have had a face like a spear-head, like a ram of which the sharp point was the top of his nose; but Sir Isaac's chin was square, and the wall of it perpendicular.

His expression was usually inquisitive, dissatisfied, and disdainful-the effect being produced by a slight lifting of the back of the nostrils and a slight tipping forward of the whole head. His tone, however, often by its bluff good-humour, contradicted the expression. He had in an extreme degree the appearance of a Jew, and he had the names of a Jew; and most people said he was a Jew. But he himself seriously denied it. He asserted that he came of a Welsh Nonconformist family, addicted to christening its infants out of the Bible, and could prove his descent for generations-not that he minded being taken for a Jew (he would add), was indeed rather flattered thereby, but he simply was not a Jew. At any rate he was Welsh. A journalist had described him in a phrase: "All the time he's talking to you in English you feel he's thinking something different in Welsh." He was an exceedingly rich industrial, and had made his money by organization; he seemed always to have leisure.

"Here," he curtly advised George, producing a magnificent Partaga, similar to the one he was himself smoking, "you'd better have this."

He cut the cigar carefully with a club tool, and pushed the match-stand across the table with a brusque gesture. George would not thank him for the cigar.

"You're on that Indian barracks, aren't you?"

"Yes. They're in a Hades of a hurry."

"Well, my factory is in much more of a hurry."

George was startled. He had heard nothing of the factory for a month, and had assumed that the war had scotched the enterprise.

He said:

"Then the war won't stop you?"

Sir Isaac shook his head slowly, with an arrogant smile. It then occurred to George that this man differed strangely from all other men-because the sinister spell of the war had been powerless over him alone. All other men bore the war in their faces and in their gestures, but this man did not.

"I'm going to make munitions now-explosives. I'm going to have the biggest explosives factory in the world. However, the modifications in the general plan won't be serious. I want to talk to you about that."

"Have you got contracts, then, already?"

"No. Both the War Office and the Admiralty have told me they have all the explosives they want," he sneered. "But I've made a few inquiries, and I think that by the time my factory's up they'll be wanting more explosives than they can get. In fact I wish I could build half a dozen factories. Dare say I shall."

"Then you think we're in for a long war?"

"Not specially that. If it's a long war you English will win. If it's a short war the Germans will win, and it will be the end of France as a great power. That's all."

"Won't it be the end of your factory too?"

"Noh!" exclaimed Sir Isaac, with careless compassion in his

deep, viscid voice. "If it's a short war, there'll be another war. You English will never leave it alone. So that whatever happens, if I take up explosives, I can't go wrong. It's velvet."

"It seems to me we shall bust up the whole world if we aren't careful, soon."

Sir Isaac smiled more compassion.

"Not at all," he said easily. "Not at all. Things are always arranged in the end-more or less satisfactorily, of course. It's up to the individual to look out for himself."

George said:

"I was thinking of going into the Army."

The statement was not strictly untrue, but he had never formulated it, and he had never thought consecutively of such a project, which did indeed appear too wild and unpractical for serious consideration.

"This recruiting's been upsetting you."

George's vague patriotism seemed to curdle at these half-dozen scornful words.

"Do you think I oughtn't to go into the Army, Sir Isaac?"

"My dear boy, any--can go into the Army. And if you go into the Army you'll lose your special qualities. I see you as the best factory designer we have, architecturally. You've only just started, but you have it in you. And your barracks is pretty good. Of course, if you choose to indulge in sentimentality you can deprive the country of an architect in a million and make it a present of a mediocre soldier-for you haven't got the mind of a soldier. But if you do that, mark my words-you'll only do it to satisfy the egotism that you call your heart, you'll only do it in order to feel comfortable; just as a woman gives a penny to a beggar and thinks it's charity when it's nothing of the sort. There are fellows that go and enlist because they hear a band play."

"Yes," George concurred. He hated to feel himself confronted by a mind more realistic than his own, but he was realistic enough to admit the fact. What Sir Isaac said was unanswerable, and it appealed very strongly to George. He cast away his sentimentality, ashamed of it. And at the same time he felt greatly relieved in other ways.

"You'd better put this Indian barracks on one side as much as you can, or employ some one to help you. I shall want all your energies."

"But I shall probably have to go to India. The thing's very urgent."

Sir Isaac scorned him in a profound gaze. The smoke from their two magnificent cigars mingled in a canopy above them.

"Not it!" said Sir Isaac. "What's more, it's not wanted at all. They think it is, because they're absolutely incapable of thought. They know the word 'war' and they know the word 'barracks.' They put them together and imagine it's logic. They say: 'We were going to build a barracks, and now we're at war. Therefore we must hurry up with the barracks.' That's how they reason, and the official mind will never get beyond it. Why do they want the barracks? If they want the barracks, what's the meaning of what they call 'the response of the Indian Empire'? Are they going to send troops to India or take them away from India? They're going to take them away, of course. Mutiny of India's silent millions? Rubbish! Not because a mutiny would contradict the far-famed 'response of the Indian Empire,' but because India's silent millions haven't got a rifle amongst them. You needn't tell me they've given you forty reasons for getting on with that barracks. I know their reasons. All of 'em put together only mean that in a dull, dim Oxford-and-Cambridge way they see a connexion between the word 'war' and the word 'barracks.'"

George laughed, and then, after a few seconds, Sir Isaac gave a short, rough laugh.

"But if they insist on me going to India-" George began, and paused.

Sir Isaac grew meditative.

"I say, speaking of voyages," he murmured in a tone almost dreamy. "If you have any loose money, put it into ships, and keep it there. You'll double it, you'll treble it.... Any ships. No matter what ships."

"Well, I haven't got any loose money," said George curtly. "And what I want to know is, if they insist on me going to India, what am I to do?"

"Tell them you can't go. Tell 'em your professional engagements won't permit it. They'll lick your boots, and ask humbly if you can suggest any suitable person to represent you. I shall want all your energies, and my factory will be worth more to this country in the war than all the barracks under heaven. Now just bend your eye to these."

He took some papers from his tail-pocket. The discussion grew technical.

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