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   Chapter 41 No.41

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 11782

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The next morning, after a disturbed night, Lois was taken ill. George telephoned for the doctor, and as soon as he had seen the patient the doctor telephoned for the nurse, and as soon as the doctor had telephoned for the nurse George telephoned for Laurencine. What with George's uniform and approaching departure, and the premature seizure of Lois, the household had, in an exceedingly short time, reached a state of intense excitement and inefficiency. Nurse was with Lois; the children were with cook in the kitchen; the other two servants were noisily and vaguely active on the stairs and the landings. The breakfast had been very badly cooked; the newspapers, with a detailed description of the retreat from Mons, were not glanced at. George was expecting a letter from his mother concerning the arrangements for the visit of Lois and the children to Ladderedge, already decided upon, and no letter had come.

At half-past ten he sent the parlourmaid to get a taxi. Having inspected his luggage in the hall, he went to the telephone again and ascertained that Laurencine had actually started from home. Almost at the same moment a taxi stopped in front of the house. "She's been jolly quick," thought George, meaning the parlourmaid; but going to the window he saw that his stepfather and his mother were in the taxi. He did not rush out to them. He did not move. The comfortable sense of the perfect reliability and benevolence of his 'people' filled and warmed him. They had not written again; they had just come themselves.

He affectionately and critically watched them as they got out of the taxi. Alderman Edwin Clayhanger, undeniably stout, with grey hair and beard, was passing from middle-age into the shadow of the sixties. He dressed well, but the flat crown of his felt hat, and the artificial, exaggerated squareness of the broad shoulders, gave him a provincial appearance. His gesture as he paid the driver was absolutely characteristic-a mixture of the dignified and the boyish, the impressive and the timid. He had descended from the vehicle with precautions, but Mrs. Clayhanger jumped down lightly, though she was about as old and as grey as her husband. Her costume was not successful; she did not understand and never had understood how to dress herself. But she had kept her figure; she was as slim as a girl, and as restless.

George ran to the door, which the feverish parlourmaid had neglected to shut. His mother, mounting the steps, was struck full in the face by the apparition of her son in uniform. The Alderman, behind her, cried mockingly to cover his emotion: "Hal lo ! Hal lo !"

"When did you come up?" asked George quietly, taking his mother's hand and kissing her. She slid past him into the house. Her eyes were moist.

"Last night," the Alderman answered. "Last train. Your mother's idea. All of a sudden. Thought you might be leaving."

"Well, I am," said George. "I have to report at Headquarters at Wimbledon by twelve o'clock. It's rather a good thing you've come. Lois is ill. Oh! Here's my taxi." The parlourmaid had driven up.

"Ill!" exclaimed Mrs. Clayhanger.

"Yes. I've sent for the doctor, and he's sent for the nurse. I'm expecting the nurse every minute."

" You don't mean to say-" Mrs. Clayhanger began.

George nodded.

"She must have had a shock. I knew what it would be for her. It's all very well, but-" Mrs. Clayhanger again left a sentence unfinished.

"I've sent for Laurencine too," said George. "She also may be here any minute."

"Oh!" said the old lady tartly. "I can stay as long as you like, you know. Lois and I get on splendidly."

It was true. They had had one enormous quarrel, which had mysteriously ended by both of them denying superiorly to all males that any quarrel had ever occurred.

"Well, come into the dining-room."

"I think I'll go up and see Lois at once," said Mrs. Clayhanger.

"The doctor's there."

"What if he is?"

The Alderman put in:

"Now look here, missis. Don't startle her."

Mrs. Clayhanger exhaled impatient scorn and went upstairs.

"This your stuff?" the Alderman questioned, pointing with his stick to the kit-bag and strange packages on the hall floor.

"Yes," said George, and to the parlourmaid: "You can put it all in the taxi, May. Come along in, uncle."

"Don't hurry me, boy. Don't hurry me."

"Where are you staying?"

"Russell ... Bit awkward, this about Lois!"

They were now within the dining-room.

"Yes." In the presence and under the influence of his people George at once ceased to be an expansive Londoner, and reverted to the character of the Five Towns.

"I suppose she'll be all right ?"

"Doctor seems to think so."

"Yes. They generally are." The Alderman sighed pleasantly and dropped rather heavily into a chair.

"Have a cigarette?"

"No!" The Alderman refused regretfully. "I've got a new rule now. I don't smoke till after dinner."

There was a pause.

"I'm glad we came."

"So'm I."

"You needn't worry about anything. Your mother and I will see to everything. I'll go up and have a talk with Johnnie about the leases."

" Thanks."

"What about money?"

"I'll write you. No hurry."

"What sort of a woman is Laurencine? I've scarcely set eyes on her."

"She's fine."

"She is?"

"Yes."

"Will she hit it off with your mother?"

"Trust her."

"Well, then, I think I'll have one o' them cigarettes."

They smoked in taciturnity, nervous but relieved. They had said what they had to say to each other. After a time George remarked:

"I heard last night there was a chance of me being Vice-President of the Institute this year if I hadn't gone into the Army."

Mr. Clayhanger raised his eyebrows.

"That'll keep all right for later."

"Yes."

Mrs. Clayhanger hurried into the dining-room. She had removed her hat and gloves.

"Lois wants to see you."

"I was just coming up. I've got to go now." He glanced at his watch.

"Go where?" It was like Mrs. Clayhanger to ask a question to which she knew the answer. Her ardent eyes, set a little too close together in the thin, lined, nervous face, burned upon him challengingly.

"I told you! I have to report at Headquarters before noon."

"But you don't mean to say you're going to leave your wife like this! She's very ill."

"I'm bound to leave her."

"But you can't leave her."

The Alderman said:

"The boy's quite right. If he's got to report he's got to report."

"And supposing she was dying?"

"Now, missis, we needn't suppose that. She isn't."

"It would be just the same if she was," Mrs. Clayhanger retorted bitterly. "I don't know what men are coming to. But I know this-all husbands are selfish. They probably don't know it, but they are."

She wept angrily.

"Don't you understand I'm in the machine now, mater?" said George resentfully as he left the room.

In the bedroom Lois lay on her back, pale, perspiring, moaning. He kissed her, glanced at the doctor for instructions, and departed. Lois was not in a condition to talk, and the doctor wished her not to speak. Then George went to the kitchen and took leave of the children, and incidentally of the servants. The nurse was arriving as he re-entered the dining-room; he had seized his cap in the hall and put it on.

"Better give me an address," said the Alderman.

"You might wire during the day," George said, scribbling on a loose leaf from his pocket-book, which he had to search for in unfamiliar pockets.

"The idea had occurred to me," the Alderman smiled.

"Au revoir, mater."

"But you've got plenty of time!" she protested.

"I know," said he. "I'm not going to be late. I haven't the slightest notion where Headquarters are, and supposing the taxi had a break-down!"

He divined from the way in which she kissed him good-bye that she was excessively proud of him.

"Mater," he said, "I see you're still a girl."

As he was leaving, Mr. Clayhanger halted him.

"You said something in your last letter about storing the furniture, didn't you? Have ye made any inquiries?"

"No. But I've told Orgreave. You might look into that, because-well, you'll see."

From the hall he glanced into the dining-room and up the stairs. The furniture that filled the house had been new ten years earlier; it had been anybody's furniture. The passage of ten years, marvellously swift, had given character to the furniture, charged it with associations, scarred it with the history of a family-his family, individualized it, humanized it. It was no longer anybody's furniture. With a pang he pictured it numbered and crowded into a warehouse, forlorn, thick with dust, tragic, exiled from men and women.

He drove off, waving. His stepfather waved from the door, his mother waved from the dining-room; the cook had taken the children into the drawing-room, where they shook their short, chubby arms at him, smiling. On the second floor the back of the large rectangular mirror on the dressing-table presented a flat and wooden negative to his anxious curiosity.

In the neighbourhood of Wimbledon the taxi-driver ascertained his destination at the first inquiry from a strolling soldier. It was the Blue Lion public-house. The taxi skirted the Common, parts of which were covered with horse-lines and tents. Farther on, in vague suburban streets, the taxi stopped at a corner building with a blatant, curved gilt sign and a very big lamp. A sentry did something with his rifle as George got out, and another soldier obligingly took the luggage. A clumsy painted board stuck on a pole at the entrance to a side-passage indicated that George had indeed arrived at his Headquarters. He was directed to a small, frowzy apartment, which apparently had once been the land-lord's sitting-room. Two officers, Colonel Hullocher and his Adjutant, both with ribbons, were seated close together at a littered deal table, behind a telephone whose cord, instead of descending modestly to the floor, went up in sight of all men to the ceiling. In a corner a soldier, the Colonel's confidential clerk, was writing at another table. Everything was dirty and untidy. Neither of the officers looked at George. The Adjutant was excitedly reading to the Colonel and the Colonel was excitedly listening and muttering. The clerk too was in a state of excitement. George advanced towards the table, and saluted and stood at attention. The Adjutant continued to read and the Colonel to murmur, but the Adjutant did manage to give a momentary surreptitious glance at George. After some time the Colonel, who was a short, stout, bald, restless man, interrupted the reading, and, still without having looked at George, growled impatiently to the Adjutant:

"Who's this fellow?"

The Adjutant replied smoothly:

"Mr. Cannon, sir."

The Colonel said:

"He's got a devilish odd way of saluting. I must go now." And jumped up and went cyclonically as far as the door. At the door he paused and looked George full in the face, glaring.

"You came to me with a special recommendation?" he demanded loudly.

"Colonel Rannion kindly recommended me, sir."

"General Rannion, sir. Haven't you seen this morning's Times ? You should read your Gazette."

"Yes, sir."

"You're the celebrated architect?"

"I'm an architect, sir."

" I wish you would condescend to answer, yes or no, sir. That's the second time. I say-you're the celebrated architect?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, remember this. When you come into the Army what you were before you came into the Army has not the slightest importance."

"Yes, sir."

Colonel Hullocher glared in silence for a moment, and was gone. The clerk slipped out after him.

The Adjutant rose:

"Now, Cannon, we're all very busy."

And shook hands.

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