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   Chapter 38 No.38

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 7904

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In front of his own house George saw a tradesman's coupé of the superior, discreet sort, with a smart horse (the same being more 'distinctive' than motor-traction), a driver liveried in black, and the initials of the firm in a restrained monogram on the doors. He thought: "She's blueing money again. Of course it's her own, but-" He was extremely sardonic. In the drawing-room he found not only Lois but Laurencine and an attentive, respectful, bright-faced figure rather stylishly dressed in black. This last was fastening a tea-gown on the back of pale Lois, who stood up with a fatigued, brave air. Laurencine sat critically observant on the end of a sofa. The furniture of the room was heaped with tea-gowns, and other garments not very dissimilar, producing a rich and exciting effect. All three women quickened to George's entry.

"Oh! George!" said Lois querulously. "Are you going to play tennis? I wish I could! I'm so glad you came in; we'd no idea you were in the house, had we, Laurencine? Laurencine's giving me a tea-gown. Which of them do you prefer? It's no good me having one you don't like."

He had been unjust to her, then.

"It's really her birthday present," said Laurencine, "only a bit late. Oh! Dear! Darling, do sit down, you're standing too long."

Both Laurencine and the young woman in black regarded Lois with soft compassion, and she sat down. Laurencine too was a mother. But she had retained her girlhood. She was a splendid, powerful, erect creature, handsome, with a frank, benevolent, sane face, at the height of her physical perfection. George had a great fondness for her. Years earlier he had wondered how it was that he had not fallen in love with her instead of with Lois. But he knew the reason now. She lacked force of individuality. She was an adorer by instinct. She adored Lois; Lois could do no wrong. More strange, she adored her husband. Ingenuous simpleton! Yet wise! Another thing was that her mind was too pure. Instead of understanding, it rejected. It was a mind absolutely impregnable to certain phenomena. And this girl still enjoyed musical comedies and their successors in vogue, the revues!

"The Germans have taken Namur," George announced.

The news impressed. Even the young woman in black permitted herself by a facial gesture to show that she was interested in the war as well as in tea-gowns, and apart from its effect on tea-gowns.

"Oh! Dear!" murmured Laurencine.

"Is it serious?" Lois demanded.

"You bet it is!" George replied.

"But what's Sir John French doing, then? I say, Laurencine, I think I shall have that pale blue one, after all, if you don't mind." The black young woman went across to the piano and brought the pale blue one. "George, don't you think so?"

The gown was deferentially held out for his inspection.

"Well, I can't judge if I don't see it on, can I?" he said, yielding superciliously to their mood. Women were incurable. Namur had fallen, but the room was full of finery, and the finery claimed attention. And if Paris had fallen, it would have been the same. So he told himself. Nevertheless the spectacle of the heaped finery and its absorbed priestess was very agreeable. Lois rose. Laurencine and the priestess helped her to remove the white gown she wore, and to put on the blue one. The presence of the male somewhat disturbed the priestess, but the male had signified a wish and the wish was flattering and had to be fulfilled. George, cynically, enjoyed her constraint. He might at least have looked out of the window, but he would not.

"Yes, that's fine," he decided carelessly, when the operation was done. He did not care a pin which tea-gown Lois had.

"I knew you'd like it better," said Lois eagerly. The other two, in words or by demeanour, applauded his august choice.

The affair was over. The priestess began to collect her scattered stock into a light trunk. Behind her back, Lois took hold of Laurencin

e and kissed her fondly. Laurencine smiled, and persuaded Lois into a chair.

"You will of course keep that on, madam?" the priestess suggested.

"Oh yes, darling, you must rest, really!" said Laurencine earnestly.

"Thank you, madam."

In three minutes the priestess, bearing easily the trunk by a strap, had gone, bowing. Lois's old tea-gown, flung across the head of the sofa, alone remained to brighten the furniture.

The drawing-room door opened again immediately, and a military officer entered. Laurencine sprang up with a little girlish scream and ran to him.

"Oh! Dearest! Have you got them already? You never told me you would have! How lovely you look!"

Blushing with pleasure and pride, she kissed him. It was Everard Lucas. Laurencine had come to Elm Park Road that afternoon with the first news that Everard, through a major known to his late mother, had been offered a com mission in a Territorial line regiment. George, who saw Lucas but seldom, had not the slightest idea of this enormous family event, and he was astounded; he had not been so taken back by anything perhaps for years. Lucas was rounder and his face somewhat coarser than in the past; but the uniform had created a new Lucas. It was beautifully made and he wore it well; it suited him; he had the fine military air of a regular; he showed no awkwardness, only a simple vanity.

"Don't you feel as if you must kiss him, Lois darling?" said Laurencine.

"Oh! I certainly must!" Lois cried, forgetting her woes in the new tea-gown and in the sudden ecstasy produced by the advent of an officer into the family.

Lucas bent down and kissed his sister-in-law, while Laurencine beheld the act with delight.

"The children must see you before you go," said Lois.

"Madam, they shall see their uncle," Lucas answered. At any rate his agreeable voice had not coarsened. He turned to George: "What d'you think of it, George?"

"My boy, I'm proud of you," said George. In his tennis-flannels he felt like one who has arrived at an evening party in morning-dress. And indeed he was proud of Lucas. Something profound and ingenuous in him rose into his eyes and caused them to shine.

Lucas related his adventures with the tailor and other purveyors, and explained that he had to 'join his regiment' the next day, but would be able to remain in London for the present. George questioned him about his business affairs.

"No difficulty about that whatever!" said Lucas lightly. "The old firm will carry on as usual; Enwright and Orgreave will have to manage it between them; and of course they wouldn't dream of trying to cut off the spondulicks. Not that I should let that stop me if they did."

"Yes, it's all very well for you to talk like that!" said Lois, with a swift change of tone. "You've got partners to do your work for you, and you've got money.... Have you written to mother, Laurencine?"

George objected to his wife making excuses. His gaze faltered.

"Of course, darling!" Laurencine answered eagerly, agreeing with her sister's differentiation between George and Everard. "No, not yet. But I'm going to to-night. Everard, we ought to be off."

" I've got a taxi outside," said Lucas.

"A taxi?" she repeated in a disappointed tone. And then, as an afterthought: "Well, I have to call at Debenham's."

The fact was that Laurencine wanted to be seen walking with her military officer in some well-frequented thoroughfare. They lived at Hampstead.

Lois rang the bell.

"Ask nurse to bring the children down, please-at once," she told the parlourmaid.

"So this is the new tea-gown, if I mistake not!" observed Lucas in the pause. " Très chic ! I suppose Laurencine's told you all about the chauffeur being run off with against his will by a passionate virgin. I couldn't start the car this morning myself."

"You never could start a car by yourself, my boy," said George. "What's this about the passionate virgin?"

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