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   Chapter 37 No.37

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 8547

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


George sailed down Piccadilly westwards on the top of a motor-bus. The August afternoon was superb. Piccadilly showed more than its usual splendour of traffic, for the class to whom the sacred word 'England' signified personal dominion and a vast apparatus of personal luxury either had not gone away for its holiday or had returned therefrom in a hurry. The newspaper placards spoke of great feats of arms by the Allies. Through the leafage of Hyde Park could be seen uncountable smart troops manoeuvring in bodies. On the top of the motor-bus a student of war was explaining to an ignorant friend that the active adhesion of Japan, just announced, meant the beginning of the end for Germany. From Japan he went to Namur, seeing that Namur was the 'chief bastion' of the defensive line, and that hence the Germans would not be 'allowed' to take it. Almost every motor-bus carried a fine specimen of this type of philosopher, to whom the whole travelling company listened while pretending not to listen. George despised him for his manner, but agreed with some of his reasoning.

George was thinking chiefly about Sir Isaac. Impressive person, Sir Isaac, even if hateful! It was remarkable how the fellow seemed always to have leisure. Organization, of course! Indubitably the fellow's arguments could not be gainsaid. The firing-line was not the only or even the most important part of the national war machine. To suppose otherwise was to share the crude errors of the childlike populace and its Press. Men were useless without guns, guns without shot, shot without explosives; and explosives could not be produced without a factory. The populace would never understand the close interdependence of various activities; it would never see beyond the recruiting station; it was meet only for pity. Sir Isaac had uttered a very wise saying: "Things are always arranged in the end ... It's up to the individual to look out for himself." Sir Isaac was freed from the thrall of mob-sentimentality. He was a super-man. And he was converting George into a super-man. George might have gone back to the office, but he was going home instead, because he could think creatively just as well outside the office as inside-so why should he accept the convention of the ordinary professional man. (Sir Isaac assuredly did not.) He had telephoned to the office. A single consideration appealed to him: How could he now best serve his country? Beyond question he could now serve his country best as an architect. If his duty marched with his advantage, what matter? It was up to the individual to look out for himself. And he, George, with already an immense reputation, would steadily enhance his reputation, which in the end would surpass all others in the profession. The war could not really touch him-no more than it could touch Sir Isaac; by good fortune, and by virtue of the impartiality of his intelligence, he was above the war.... Yes, Sir Isaac, disliked and unwillingly but deeply respected, had cleared his ideas for him.

In Elm Park Gardens he met the white-clad son of a Tory M.P. who lived in that dignified street.

"The very man! Come and make a fourth, will you, Cannon?" asked the youth, dandiacal in flannels, persuasively and flatteringly.

George demanded with firmness:

"Who are the other two?"

"Miss Horton and Gladys What's-her-name."

Why shouldn't he play at tennis? It was necessary to keep fit.

"All right. But not for long, you know."

"That's all right. Hurry up and get into your things."

"Ten minutes."

And in little more than ten minutes he was swinging a racket on the private sward that separates Elm Park Gardens East from Elm Park Gardens West, and is common to the residents of both. He had not encountered Lois at home, and had not thought it necessary to seek her out. He and she were often invited to play tennis in Elm Park Gardens.

The grass was beautifully kept. At a little distance two gardeners were at work, and a revolving sprinkler whirled sprays of glinting water in a wide circle. The back windows of the two streets disclosed not the slightest untidiness nor deshabille; rising irregularly in tier over tier to the high roof-line, they were all open, and all neatly curtained, and many of them had gorg

eous sun-blinds. The sound of one or two pianos emerged faintly on the warm, still afternoon. Miss Horton and the slim Gladys were dressed in white, with short skirts, at once elegant and athletic. Miss Horton, very tall and strong, with clear eyes, and a complexion damaged by undue exposure to healthy fresh air, was a fine player of many years' experience, now at the decline of her powers. She played seriously, every stroke conscientious and calculated, and she gave polite, good-humoured hints to the youth, her partner. George and Gladys were together. Gladys, eighteen, was a delightful girl, the raw material of a very sound player; she held herself well, and knew by instinct what style was. A white belt defined her waist in the most enchanting fashion. George appreciated her, as a specimen of the newest generation of English girls. There were thousands of them in London alone, an endless supply, with none of the namby-pambiness and the sloppiness and the blowziness of their forerunners. Walking in Piccadilly or Bond Street or the Park, you might nowadays fancy yourself in Paris ... Why indeed should he not be playing tennis at that hour? The month was August. The apparatus of pleasure was there. Used or unused, it would still be there. It could not be destroyed simply because the times were grave. And there was his health; he would work better after the exercise. What purpose could there be in mournful inactivity? Yet continuously, as he ran about the court, and smiled at Gladys, and called out the score, and exclaimed upon his failures in precision, the strange, physical weight oppressed his stomach. He supposed that nearly everybody carried that physical weight. But did Sir Isaac? Did the delicious Gladys? The youth on the other side of the net was in the highest spirits because in a few days he would be entering Sandhurst.

A butler appeared from the French window of the ground floor of the M.P.'s house, walked down the curving path screened by a pergola, and came near the court with a small white paper in his solemn hand. At a suitable moment he gave the paper to the young master, who glanced at it and stuffed it into his pocket; the butler departed. A few minutes later the players changed courts. While the girls chatted apart, the youth leaped over the net, and, drawing the paper from his pocket, showed it furtively to George. It bore the words:

"Namur has fallen."

The M.P.'s household received special news by telephone from a friend at the War Office.

The youth raised his eyebrows, and with a side-glance seemed to say that there could be no object in telling the women immediately. The next instant the game was resumed with full ardour.

George missed his strokes. Like thousands of other people, untaught by the episode of Liége, he had counted upon Namur. Namur, the bastion, the shoulder of the newly forming line, if not impregnable, was expected to hold out for many days. And it had tumbled like a tin church, and with it the brave edifice of his confidence. He saw the Germans inevitably in Paris, blowing up Paris quarter by quarter, arrondissement by arrondissement, imposing peace, dictating peace, forcing upon Europe unspeakable humiliations. He saw Great Britain compelled to bow; and he saw worse than that. And the German officer, having struck across the face with his cane the soldier standing at attention, would go back to Germany in triumph more arrogant than ever, to ogle adoring virgins and push cowed and fatuous citizens off the pavement into the gutter. The solid houses of Elm Park Gardens, with their rich sun-blinds, the perfect sward, the white-frocked girls, the respectful gardeners, the red motor-buses flitting past behind the screen of bushes in the distance, even the butler in his majestic and invulnerable self-conceit-the whole systematized scene of correctness and tradition trembled as if perceived through the quivering of hot air. Gladys, reliant on the male and feeling that the male could no longer be relied on, went 'off her game,' with apologies; the experience of Miss Horton asserted itself, and the hard-fought set was lost by George and his partner. He reminded the company that he had only come for a short time, and left in a mood of bitter blackness.

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