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you and Laurencine are entitled to criticise my relations with my
husband, because he's your father. But I propose to carry on my affairs
with other men just according to my own ideas, and any interference will
be resented. I've had a bad night, owing to the garage again, and I
don't feel equal to calling George George. I've only known him about
twenty minutes. Moreover, I might be misunderstood, mightn't I, Mr.
Cannon?"

"You might," said George.

"Now, dad!" Laurencine admonished.

Mr. Ingram, addressing George, began:

"Laurencine suffers from a grave form of self-consciousness - - "

"I don't, dad."

"It is a disease akin to conceit. Her sufferings are sometimes so acute
that she cannot sit up straight and is obliged to loll and curl her legs
round the legs of the chair. We are all very sorry for her. The only
treatment is brutal candour, as she herself advocates - - "

Laurencine jumped up, towered over her father, and covered his mouth
with her hand.

"This simple hand," said Mr. Ingram, seizing it, "will soon bear a ring.
Laurencine is engaged to be married."

"I'm not, father." She sat down again.

"Well, you are not. But you will be, I presume, by post-time to-night. A
young man of the name of Lucas has written to Laurencine this morning in
a certain sense, and he has also written to me. Laurencine has seen my
letter, and I've seen hers. But my envelope contained only one letter.
Whether her envelope contained more than one, whether the epistle which
I saw is written in the style usually practised by the present age,
whether it was composed for the special purpose of being shown to me, I
do not know, and discretion and nice gentlemanly feeling forbid me to
inquire. However - - "

At this point, Laurencine snatched her father's napkin off his knees and
put it on her own.

"However, my wife and I have met this Mr. Lucas, and as our opinion
about him is not wholly unfavourable, the matter was satisfactorily and
quickly arranged - even before I had had my bath; Laurencine and I will
spend the afternoon in writing suitable communications to Mr. Lucas. I
am ready to show her mine for a shilling, but I doubt if five pounds
would procure me a sight of hers. Yet she is only an amateur writer and
I'm a professional."

There was a little silence, and then George said awkwardly:

"I congratulate old Lucas."

"This news must have astonished you extremely," observed Mr. Ingram. "It
must have come as a complete surprise. In fact you are doubtless in the
condition known to charwomen as capable of being knocked down with a
feather."

"Oh! Quite!" George agreed.

Nevertheless, in spite of his light tone, he regretted the engagement.
He did not think Lucas was worthy of the splendid girl. He felt sorry
for her. At that moment she faced him bravely, and smiled. Her face had
a tremendous deep crimson flush. There was a woman somewhere in the
girl! Strange phenomenon! And another strange phenomenon: if Laurencine
had been self-conscious, George also was self-conscious; and he avoided
Lois's eyes! Why? He wondered whether the circumstances in which he had
come to Paris and entered the Ingram home were as simple and ordinary as
they superficially appeared.

"Laurencine," said her mother, "give your father back his serviette!"

"Mine's fallen."

"Never mind, my dear," said Mr. Ingram very benevolently, and he bent
down and retrieved Laurencine's napkin, which he kept. "And now," he
proceeded, "the serious operation being over and the patient out of
danger, shall we talk about something else for a few moments?"

"I should think so indeed!" Laurencine exclaimed, suddenly gay. "George,
when _shall_ you know about the competition?"

"Any minute, I might," said he.

They all talked sympathetically to George on the new subject.

After lunch, Lois disappeared. She came back resplendent for the races,
when coffee had long been finished in the drawing-room.

"Why aren't you ready, Laure?" she demanded.

"I'm not going, darling."

"Lois," Mr. Ingram exhorted, "don't forget the afternoon is to be spent
in literary composition."

"It isn't," Laurencine contradicted. "I may as well tell you I've
written all I mean to write in the way of letters for one day. But I
don't want to go, really, Lois darling."

"No. She wants to think," Mrs. Ingram explained.

Lois set her lips together, and then glimpsed herself in the large
mirror over the anthracite stove. She looked too rich and complicated
for that simple drawing-room.

A performance on a horn made itself heard in the street below.

"There he is!" said Laurencine.

She opened a window and ran out on to the balcony and leaned over; then
glanced within the room and nodded. George had assumed that Irene
Wheeler was the author and hostess of the race-party, and he was not
mistaken. Irene's automobile had been sent round to embark him and the
girls. Mrs. Ingram urged him to come again the next day, and he said
ardently that he would. Mrs. Ingram's 'affair' with him was progressing
rapidly.

"But I hope you'll call me George, then," he added.

"I may!" she said. "I may! I may go even further."

Lois and George descended the stairs in silence. He had not seen her,
nor written to her, since the night of the comedy when he had so
abruptly left the box. Once or twice at the Ingrams' he had fancied that
she might be vexed with him for that unceremonious departure. But she
was not. The frank sigh of relief which she gave on reaching the foot of
the interminable stairs, and her equally frank smile, had no reserve
whatever.

The chauffeur's welcoming grin seemed to indicate that he was much
attached to Miss Ingram. He touched his hat, bowed, and spoke to her at
some length in French. Lois frowned.

"It seems Miss Wheeler doesn't feel equal to going out this afternoon,"
she translated to George. "But she insists that we shall use the car all
the same."

"Is she ill?"

"She's lying down, trying to sleep."

"Well, then, I suppose we'd better use the car, hadn't we?"

Lois said seriously:

"If you don't object, I don't."


IV


At Longchamps the sun most candidly and lovingly blessed the elaborate
desecration of the English Sabbath. The delicately ornamented grand
stands, the flags, the swards, the terraces, the alleys, the booths, the
notice-boards, the vast dappled sea of hats and faces in the distant
cheaper parts of the Hippodrome, were laved in the descending, caressing
floods of voluptuous, warm sunshine. The air itself seemed luminous. The
enchantment of the sun was irresistible; it stunned apprehensions and
sad memories, obliterating for a moment all that was or might be unhappy
in the past or in the future. George yielded to it. He abandoned his
preoccupations about the unsatisfactoriness of using somebody else's car
in the absence of the owner, about Mr. and Mrs. Ingram's ignorance of
the fact that their daughter had gone off alone with him, about Lois's
perfect indifference to this fact, about the engagement of Laurencine to
a man not her equal in worth, about the strange, uncomfortable effect of
Laurencine's engagement upon his attitude towards Lois, and finally and
supremely about the competition. He gave himself up to the bright warmth
like an animal, and forgot. And he became part of the marvellous and
complicated splendour of the scene, took pride in it, took even credit
for it (Heaven knew why!), and gradually passed from insular
astonishment to a bland, calm acceptance of the miracles of sensuous
beatitude which civilization had to offer.

After all, he was born to such experiences; they were his right; and he
was equal to them. Nevertheless his conviction of the miraculous
fortunately was not impaired. What was impaired was his conviction of
his own culture. He was constantly thinking that he knew everything or
could imagine everything, and constantly undergoing the shock of
undeception; but the shock of the Longchamps Sunday was excessive. He
had quite failed to imagine the race-meeting; he had imagined an
organism brilliant, perhaps, but barbaric and without form and style; he
had imagined grotesque contrasts of squalor, rascality, and fashion; he
had imagined an affair predominantly equine and masculine. The reality
did not correspond; it transcended his imagination; it painfully
demonstrated his jejune crudity. The Hippodrome was as formalized and
stylistic as an Italian garden; the only contrasts were those of one
elegance with another; horses were not to be seen, except occasionally
in the distance when under their riders they shot past some dark
background a flitting blur of primary colours with a rumble of muffled
thunder; and women, not men, predominated.

On entering the Hippodrome George and Lois had met a group of
fashionably attired women, and he had thought: "There's a bunch of jolly
well-dressed ones." But as the reserved precincts opened out before him
he saw none but fashionably attired women. They were there not in
hundreds but in thousands. They sat in rows on the grand stands; they
jostled each other on the staircases; they thronged the alleys and
swards. The men were negligible beside them. And they were not only
fashionably and very fashionably attired - all their frocks and all their
hats and all their parasols and all their boots were new, glittering,
spick-and-span; were complex and expensive; not one feared the sun. The
conception of what those innumerable chromatic toilettes had cost in the
toil, stitch by stitch, of malodorous workrooms and in the fatigue of
pale, industrious creatures was really formidable. But it could not
detract from the scenic triumph. The scenic triumph dazzlingly justified
itself, and proved beyond any cavilling that earth was a grand,
intoxicating place, and Longchamps under the sun an unequalled paradise
of the senses.... Ah! These women were finished - finished to the least
detail of coiffure, sunshade-handle, hatpin, jewellery, handbag,
bootlace, glove, stocking, _lingerie_. Each was the product of many arts
in co-ordination. Each was of great price. And there were thousands of
them. They were as cheap as periwinkles. George thought: "This is
Paris."

He said aloud:

"Seems to be a fine lot of new clothes knocking about."

Evidently for Lois his tone was too impressed, not sufficiently casual.
She replied in her condescending manner, which he detested:

"My poor George, considering that this is the opening of the spring
season, and the place where all the new spring fashions are tried
out - what did you expect?"

The dolt had not known that he was assisting at a solemnity recognized
as such by experts throughout the clothed world. But Lois knew all those
things. She herself was trying out a new toilette, for which doubtless
Irene Wheeler was partly sponsor. She could hold her own on the terraces
with the rest. She was staggeringly different now from the daughter of
the simple home in the Rue d'Athènes.

The eyes of the splendid women aroused George's antipathy, because he
seemed to detect antipathy in them - not against himself but against the
male in him. These women, though by their glances they largely
mistrusted and despised each other, had the air of having combined
sexually against a whole sex. The situation was very contradictory. They
had beautified and ornamented themselves in order to attract a whole
sex, and yet they appeared to resent the necessity and instinct to
attract. They submitted with a secret repugnance to the mysterious and
supreme bond which kept the sexes inexorably together. And while
stooping to fascinate, while deliberately seeking attention, they still
had the assured mien of conquerors. Their eyes said that they knew they
were indispensable, that they had a transcendent role to play, that no
concealed baseness of the inimical sex was hidden from them, and that
they meant to exploit their position to the full. These Latin women
exhibited a logic, an elegance, and a frankness beyond the reach of the
Anglo-Saxon. Their eyes said not that they had been disillusioned, but
rather that they had never had illusions. They admitted the facts; they
admitted everything - economic dependence, chicane, the intention to
seize every advantage, ruthless egotism. They had no shame for a
depravity which they shared equally with the inescapable and cherished
enemy And it was the youngest who, beneath the languishing and the
softness and the invitation deceitful and irresistible, gazed outmost
triumphantly to the enemy: "You are the victims. We have tried our
strength and your infirmity." They were heroic. There was a feeling in
the bright air of melancholy and doom as the two hostile forces,
inseparable, inextricably involved together, surveyed the opponent in
the everlasting conflict. George felt its influence upon himself, upon
Lois, upon the whole scene. The eyes of the most feminine women in the
world, denying their smiles and their lure, had discovered to him
something which marked a definite change in his estimate of certain
ultimate earthly values.

Lois said:

"Perhaps a telegram is waiting for you at the hotel."

"Well, I can wait till I get back," he replied stoutly.

He thought, looking at her by his side:

"She is just like these Frenchwomen!" And for some reason he felt proud.

"You needn't," said Lois, "We can telephone from under the grand stand
if you like."

"But I don't know the number."

"We can get that out of the book, of course."

"I don't reckon I can use these French telephones."

"Oh! My poor boy, I'll telephone for you - unless you prefer not to risk
knowing the worst."

Yes, her tone was the tone of a strange woman. And it was she who
thirsted for the result of the competition.

Controlling himself, submissively he asked her to telephone for him, and
she agreed in a delightfully agreeable voice. She seemed to know the
entire geography of the Hippodrome. She secured a telephone-cabin in a
very business-like manner. As she entered the cabin she said to George:

"I'll ask them if a telegram has come, and if it has I'll ask them to
open it and read it to me, or spell it - of course it'll be in
English.... Eh?"

Through the half-open door of the cabin he watched her, and listened.
She rapidly turned over the foul and torn pages of the telephone-book
with her thumb. She spoke into the instrument very clearly, curtly, and
authoritatively. George could translate in his mind what she said - his
great resolve to learn French had carried him so far.

"On the part of Monsieur Cannon, one of your clients, Monsieur Cannon of
London. Has there arrived a telegram for him?"

She waited. The squalor of the public box increased the effect of her
young and proud stylishness and of her perfume. George waited, humbled
by her superior skill in the arts of life, and saying anxiously to
himself: "Perhaps in a moment I shall know the result," almost
trembling.

She hung up the instrument, and, with a glance at George, shook her
head.

"There isn't anything," she murmured.

He said:

"It's very queer, isn't it? However..."

As they emerged from the arcana of the grand stand, Lois was stopped by
a tall, rather handsome Jew, who, saluting her with what George esteemed
to be French exaggeration of gesture, nevertheless addressed her in a
confidential tone in English. George, having with British restraint
acknowledged the salute, stood aside, and gazed discreetly away from the
pair. He could not hear what was being said. After several minutes Lois
rejoined George, and they went back into the crowds and the sun. She did
not speak. She did not utter one word. Only, when the numbers went up
for a certain race, she remarked:

"This is the Prix du Cadran. It's the principal race of the afternoon."

And when that was over, amid cheering that ran about the field like fire
through dried bush, she added:

"I think I ought to go back now. I told the chauffeur to be here after
the Prix du Cadran. What time is it exactly?"

They sat side by side in the long, open car, facing the chauffeur's
creaseless back. After passing the Cascade, the car swerved into the
Allée de Longchamps which led in an absolutely straight line, two miles
long, to the Port Maillot and the city. Spring decorated the magnificent
wooded thoroughfare. The side-alleys, aisles of an interminable nave,
were sprinkled with revellers and lovers and the most respectable
families half hidden amid black branches and gleams of tender green.
Automobiles and carriages threaded the main alley at varying speeds. The
number of ancient horse-cabs gradually increased until, after the
intersection of the Allée de la Reine Marguerite, they thronged the vast
road. All the humble and shabby genteel people in Paris who could
possibly afford a cab seemed to have taken a cab. Nearly every cab was
overloaded. The sight of this vast pathetic effort of the disinherited
towards gaiety and distraction and the mood of spring, intensified the
vague sadness in George due to the race-crowd, Lois's silence, and the
lack of news about the competition.

At length Lois said, scowling - no doubt involuntarily:

"I think I'd better tell you now. Irene Wheeler's committed suicide.
Shot herself." She pressed her lips together and looked at the road.

George gave a startled exclamation. He could not for an instant credit
the astounding news.

"But how do you know? Who told you?"

"The man who spoke to me in the grand stand. He's correspondent of _The
London Courier_ - friend of father's of course."

George protested:

"Then why on earth didn't you tell me before?... Shot herself! What
for?"

"I didn't tell you before because I couldn't."

All the violence of George's nature came to the surface as he said
brutally:

"Of course you could!"

"I tell you I couldn't!" she cried. "I knew the car wouldn't be there
for us until after the Prix du Cadran. And if I'd told you I couldn't
have borne to be walking about that place three-quarters of an hour. We
should have had to talk about it. I couldn't have borne that. And so you
needn't be cross, please."

But her voice did not break, nor her eyes shine.

"I was wondering whether I should tell the chauffeur at once, or let him
find it out."

"I should let him find it out," said George. "He doesn't know that you
know. Besides, it might upset his driving."

"Oh! I shouldn't mind about his driving," Lois murmured disdainfully.


V


When the uninformed chauffeur drove the car with a grand sweep under the
marquise of the ostentatious pale yellow block in the Avenue Hoche where
Irene Wheeler had had her flat, Mr. Ingram and a police-agent were
standing on the steps, but nobody else was near. Little Mr. Ingram came
forward anxiously, his eyes humid, and his face drawn with pain and
distress.

"We know," said Lois. "I met Mr. Cardow at Longchamps. He knew."

Mr. Ingram's pain and distress seemed to increase.

He said, after a moment:

"Alfred will drive you home, dear, at once. _Alfred, vous seriez gentil
de reconduire Mademoiselle à la rue d'Athènes."_ He had the air of
supplicating the amiable chauffeur. "Mr. Cannon, I particularly want a
few words with you."

"But, father, I must come in!" said Lois. "I must - - "

"You will go home immediately. Please, please do not add to my
difficulties. I shall come home myself as quickly as possible. You can
do nothing here. The seals have been affixed."

Lois raised her chin in silence.

Then Mr. Ingram turned to the police-agent, spoke to him in French, and
pointed to the car persuasively; and the police-agent permissively
nodded. The chauffeur, with an affectation of detachment worthy of the
greatest days of valetry, drove off, leaving George behind. Mr. Ingram
descended the steps.

"I think, perhaps, we might go to a café," said he in a tone which
dispersed George's fear of a discussion as to the propriety of the
unchaperoned visit to the races.

They sat down on the _terrasse_ of a large café near the Place des
Ternes, a few hundred yards away from the Avenue Hoche. The café was
nearly empty, citizens being either in the Bois or on the main
boulevards. Mr. Ingram sadly ordered bocks. The waiter, flapping his
long apron, called out in a loud voice as he went within: "_Deux blonds,
deux._" George supplied cigarettes.

"Mr. Cannon," began Mr. Ingram, "it is advisable for me to tell you a
most marvellous and painful story. I have only just heard it. It has
overwhelmed me, but I must do my duty." He paused.

"Certainly," said George self-consciously, not knowing what to say. He
nearly blushed as, in an attempt to seem at ease, he gazed negligently
round at the rows of chairs and marble tables, and at the sparse traffic
of the somnolent Place.

Mr. Ingram proceeded.

"When I first knew Irene Wheeler she was an art student here. So was I.
But I was already married, of course, and older than she. Exactly what
her age was I should not care to say. I can, however, say quite
truthfully that her appearance has scarcely altered in those nineteen
years. She always affirmed that her relatives, in Indianapolis, were
wealthy - or at least had money, but that they were very mean with her.
She lived in the simplest way. As for me, I had to give up art for
something less capricious, but capricious enough in all conscience. Miss
Wheeler went to America and was away for some time - a year or two. When
she came back to Paris she told us that she had made peace with her
people, and that her uncle, whom for present purposes I will call Mr. X,
a very celebrated railway magnate of Indianapolis, had adopted her. Her
new manner of life amply confirmed these statements."

"_Deux bocks_," cried the waiter, slapping down on the table two saucers
and two stout glass mugs filled with frothing golden liquid.

George, unaccustomed to the ritual of cafés, began at once to sip, but
Mr. Ingram, aware that the true boulevardier always ignores his bock for
several minutes, behaved accordingly.

"She was evidently extremely rich. I have had some experience, and I
estimate that she had the handling of at least half a million francs a
year. She seemed to be absolutely her own mistress. You have had an
opportunity of judging her style of existence. However, her attitude
towards ourselves was entirely unchanged. She remained intimate with my
wife, who, I may say, is an excellent judge of character, and she was
exceedingly kind to our girls, especially Lois - but Laurencine too - and
as they grew up she treated them like sisters. Now, Mr. Cannon, I shall
be perfectly frank with you. I shall not pretend that I was not rather
useful to Miss Wheeler - I mean in the Press. She had social ambitions.
And why not? One may condescend towards them, but do they not serve a
purpose in the structure of society? Very rich as she was, it was easy
for me to be useful to her. And at worst her pleasure in publicity was
quite innocent - indeed, it was so innocent as to be charming. Naïve,
shall we call it?"

Here Mr. Ingram smiled sadly, tasted his bock, and threw away the end of
a cigarette.

"Well," he resumed, "I am coming to the point. This is the point, which
I have learnt scarcely an hour ago - I was called up on the telephone
immediately after you and Lois had gone. This is the point. Mr. X was
not poor Irene's uncle, and he had not adopted her. But it was his money
that she was spending." Mr. Ingram gazed fixedly at George.

"I see," said George calmly, rising to the rôle of man of the world. "I
see." He had strange mixed sensations of pleasure, pride, and confusion.
"And you've just found this out?"

"I have just found it out from Mr. X himself, whom I met for the first
time to-day - in poor Irene's flat. I never assisted at such a scene.
Never! It positively unnerved me. Mr. X is a man of fifty-five,
fabulously wealthy, used to command, autocratic, famous in all the Stock
Exchanges of the world. When I tell you that he cried like a child ...
Oh! I never had such an experience. His infatuation for
Irene - indescribable! Indescribable! She had made her own terms with
him. He told me himself. Astounding terms, but for him it was those
terms or nothing. He accepted them - had to. She was to be quite free.
The most absolute discretion was to be observed. He came to Paris or
London every year, and sometimes she went to America. She utterly
refused to live in America."

"Why didn't she marry him?"

"He has a wife. I have no doubt in my own mind that one of his reasons
for accepting her extraordinary terms was to keep in close touch with
her at all costs in case his wife should die. Otherwise he might have


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Online LibraryArnold BennettThe Roll-Call → online text (page 18 of 28)