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   Chapter 40 No.40

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 8335

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


He promptly received his papers and returned them. His medical examination was quite satisfactory. Then there was no further sign from the Army. The Army might have completely forgotten him; his enrolment in the Army might have been an illusion. Every day and every hour he expected a telegram of command. It was in anticipation of the telegram, curt and inexorable, that he kept harrying his tradesmen. To be caught unprepared by the telegram would be a disaster. But the tradesmen had lessons to teach him, and by the time the kit was approximately completed he had learnt the lessons. Whether the transaction concerned his tunic, breeches, spurs, leggings, cane, sword, socks, shirts, cap, camp field-kit, or any of the numerous other articles without which an officer might not respectably enter the British Army, the chief lesson was the same, namely, that the tradesmen were bearing the brunt of the war. Those who had enrolled and made spectacular sacrifices of homes and careers and limbs and lives were enjoying a glorious game amid the laudations of an ecstatic populace, but the real work was being done in the shops and in the workrooms. The mere aspect of tradesmen was enough to restore the lost modesty of officers. Useless to argue with the tradesmen, to expostulate, to vituperate. The facts were in their favour; the sublime law of supply and demand was in their favour. If the suddenly unloosed military ardour had not been kept down it might have submerged the Island. The tradesmen kept it down, and the Island was saved by them from militarization. Majors and colonels and even generals had to flatter and cajole tradesmen. As for lieutenants, they cringed. And all officers were obliged to be grateful for the opportunity to acquire goods at prices fifty per cent higher than would have been charged to civilians. Within a few days George, who had need of every obtainable sovereign for family purposes, had disbursed some forty pounds out of his own pocket in order to exercise the privilege of defending, at the risk of ruin and death, the ideals of his country.

At the end of the week what, as a civilian, he would have described as his first 'suit' had not been delivered, and he spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday in most uncomfortable apprehension of the telegraph-boy and in studying an artillery manual now known to hundreds of thousands as 'F.A.T.' On the Monday morning he collected such portions of his kit as had to be worn with the 'suit' (leggings, boots, spurs, cap, shirt, collar, etc.), and took them in a taxi to the tailor's, intending to change there and emerge a soldier. The clothes were not ready, but the tailor, intimidated by real violence, promised them for three o'clock. At three o'clock they were still not ready, for buttons had to be altered on the breeches; another hour was needed.

George went to call at Lucas & Enwright's. That office seemed to function as usual, for Everard Lucas alone had left it for the profession of arms. The factotum in the cubicle was a young man of the finest military age, and there were two other good ones in the clerks' room, including a clerk just transferred from George's own office. And George thought of his own office, already shut up, and his glance was sardonic. Mr. Enwright sat alone in the principals' room, John Orgreave being abroad in London in pursuit of George's two landlords-the landlord of his house and the landlord of his office-neither of whom had yet been brought to see that George's caprice for a military career entitled him in the slightest degree to slip out of contracts remunerative to the sacred caste of landlords. Lucas & Enwright had behaved handsomely to George, having taken everything over, assumed all responsibilities, and allotted to George more than a fair share of percentages. And John Orgreave, who in his rough provincial way was an admirable negotiator, had voluntarily busied himself with the affair of the resilition of George's leases.

"Not gone, then?" Mr. Enwright greeted him. "Well, you'd better be going, or I shan't get my chance of being Vice-President."

"What do you mean?"

"Orgreave was at a committee at

the Institute this morning. It seems you might have been the next Vice, in spite of your tender years, if you'd stayed. You're becoming the rage, you know."

"Am I?" said George, startled.

He hungered for further details of this great and highly disturbing matter, but Enwright, jealous by nature and excusably jealous by reason of the fact that despite his immense artistic reputation he had never succeeded in being even Vice-President of the Institute, would say no more. Indeed he took a malicious pleasure in saying no more.

The ageing man, more hypochondriacal, thinner, and more wrinkled than ever, was full to the brim of one subject-India. Somebody at the India Office had flattered him by showing a knowledge of his work. The India Office had very graciously agreed to the transfer of the barracks enterprise to Lucas & Enwright, and now Mr. Enwright was for going to India himself. He had never been there. Indian scenery, Indian manners, Indian architecture boiled in his brain. The menace of German raiders would not prevent him from going to India. He had already revisited the photographs of Indian buildings at South Kensington Museum. Moreover, he had persuaded himself that the erection of the barracks formed an urgent and vital part of British war activity.

At the same time he was convinced that the war would soon end, and in favour of Germany. He assumed, as being beyond doubt, that a German army would occupy Paris, and when George, with a wave of the hand, pushed the enemy back and magically rendered Paris impregnable, he nearly lost his temper. This embittered Englishman would not hear a word against the miraculous efficiency of the Germans, whom he admired as much as he hated them. The German military reputation could not have been safer in Potsdam than it was in Russell Square. George, impatient of his master and inspirer, rose to depart, whereupon Mr. Enwright began to talk at large about the terrible derangement of his daily life caused by the sudden disappearance of his favourite barber, deemed now to have been a spy. "But the only barber who ever really understood my chin," said Mr. Enwright. George went, shaking hands perfunctorily. Mr. Enwright was too preoccupied to wish him luck.

The clothes were ready at the tailor's, and they passed the tests. George stood up disguised as a second-lieutenant in the R.F.A., booted, spurred, gloved, nicely managing a cane. He examined himself in the great mirror and was well pleased with his military appearance. In particular, his dark moustache fitted the role excellently.

"Now you'll send the overcoat and all my civilian things down this afternoon, without fail," he said. "I'll let you have an address for the other suit."

And he walked manfully out of the shop. Before he could find himself, a superb serjeant-major strode up, saluted in the highest and strictest perfection, and passed. The encounter was unfortunate. George, taken aback, muddled his share of the rite. Further, the self-consciousness of the potential Vice-President of the Royal Institute of British Architects was so extreme in uniform that it could scarcely have been more extreme had he been thrust by destiny into Oxford Street naked. He returned to the shop and said:

"I think I'll take everything home myself, to make sure. You might get me a taxi."

He crept into his own house furtively with his parcels, like a criminal, though he well knew that the servants would be ready to worship him as a new god. The children were evidently out. Lois was not in the drawing-room. He ran to the bedroom. She lay on the sofa.

"Here I am!" he announced, posing bravely for her inspection.

She did not move for a few seconds. Her eyes were hard-set. Then she gave a tremendous shattering sob, and burst into wild tears. George stooped to pick up a telegram which was lying on the floor. It read:

"You are to report to Adjutant Headquarters Second First West Midland R.F.A. Wimbledon to-morrow Tuesday before noon."

The Army had not forgotten him. Throughout the week his name upon various forms had been under the eye of authority, and at last the order had gone forth.

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