Source: Arnold Bennett, The Price of Love (New York/London: Harper Brothers, 1914), pp. 171-178
Text: It was not surprising that Rachel, who never in her life had beheld at close quarters any of the phenomena of luxury, should blink her ingenuous eyes at the blinding splendour of the antechambers of the Imperial Cinema de Luxe. Eyes less ingenuous than hers had blinked before that prodigious dazzlement. Even Louis, a man of vast experience and sublime imperturbability, visiting the Imperial on its opening night, had allowed the significant words to escape him, “Well, I’m blest!” – proof enough of the triumph of the Imperial!
The Imperial had set out to be the most gorgeous cinema in the Five Towns; and it simply was. Its advertisements read: “There is always room at the top.” There was. Over the ceiling of its foyer enormous crimson peonies expanded like tropic blooms, and the heart of each peony was a sixteen-candle-power electric lamp. No other two cinemas in the Five Towns, it was reported, consumed together as much current as the Imperial de Luxe; and nobody could deny that the degree of excellence of a cinema is finally settled by its consumption of electricity.
Rachel now understood better the symbolic meaning of the glare in the sky caused at night by the determination of the Imperial to make itself known. She had been brought up to believe that, gas being dear, no opportunity should be lost of turning a jet down, and that electricity was so dear as to be inconceivable in any house not inhabited by crass spendthrift folly. She now saw electricity scattered about as though it were as cheap as salt. She saw written in electric fire across the inner entrance the beautiful sentiment, “Our aim is to please YOU.” The “you” had two lines of fire under it. She saw, also, the polite nod of the official, dressed not less glitteringly than an Admiral of the Fleet in full uniform, whose sole duty in life was to welcome and reassure the visitor. All this in Bursley, which even by Knype was deemed an out-of-the-world spot and home of sordid decay! In Hanbridge she would have been less surprised to discover such marvels, because the flaunting modernity of Hanbridge was notorious. And her astonishment would have been milder had she had been in the habit of going out at night. Like all those who never went out at night, she had quite failed to keep pace with the advancing stride of the Five Towns on the great road of civilization.
More impressive still than the extreme radiance about her was the easy and superb gesture of Louis as, swinging the reticule containing pineapple, cocoa, and cutlets, he slid his hand into his pocket and drew therefrom a coin and smacked it on the wooden ledge of the ticket-window – gesture of a man to whom money was naught provided he got the best of everything. “Two!” he repeated, with slight impatience, bending down so as to see the young woman in white who sat in another world behind gilt bars. He was paying for Rachel! Exquisite experience for the daughter and sister of Fleckrings! Experience unique in her career! And it seemed so right and yet so wondrous, that he should pay for her!… He picked up the change, and without a glance at them dropped the coins into his pocket. It was a glorious thing to be a man! But was it not even more glorious to be a girl and the object of his princely care?… They passed a heavy draped curtain, on which was a large card, “Tea-Room,” and there seemed to be celestial social possibilities behind that curtain, though indeed it bore another and smaller card: “Closed after six o’clock” – the result of excessive caution on the part of a kill-joy Town Council. A boy in the likeness of a midshipman took halves of the curving tickets and dropped them into a tin box, and then next Rachel was in a sudden black darkness, studded here and there with minute glowing rubies that revealed the legend: “Exit. Exit. Exit.”
Row after row of dim, pale, intent faces became gradually visible, stretching far back-into complete obscurity; thousands, tens of thousands of faces, it seemed – for the Imperial de Luxe was demonstrating that Saturday night its claim to be “the fashionable rage of Bursley.” Then mysterious laughter rippled in the gloom, and loud guffaws shot up out of the rippling. Rachel saw nothing whatever to originate this mirth until an attendant in black with a tiny white apron loomed upon them out of the darkness, and, beckoning them forward, bent down, and indicated two empty places at the end of a row, and the great white scintillating screen of the cinema came into view. Instead of being at the extremity it was at the beginning of the auditorium. And as Rachel took her seat she saw on the screen – which was scarcely a dozen feet away – a man kneeling at the end of a canal-lock, and sucking up the water of the canal through a hose-pipe; and this astoundingly thirsty man drank with such rapidity that the water, with huge boats floating on it, subsided at the rate of about a foot a second, and the drinker waxed enormously in girth. The laughter grew uproarious. Rachel herself gave a quick, uncontrolled, joyous laugh, and it was as if the laugh had been drawn out of her violently unawares. Louis Fores also laughed very heartily.
“Cute idea, that!” he whispered.
When the film was cut off Rachel wanted to take back her laugh. She felt a little ashamed of having laughed at anything so silly.
“How absurd!” she murmured, trying to be serious.
Nevertheless she was in bliss. She surrendered herself to the joy of life, as to a new sensation. She was intoxicated, ravished, bewildered, and quite careless. Perhaps for the first time in her adult existence she lived without reserve or preoccupation completely in and for the moment. Moreover the hearty laughter of Louis Fores helped to restore her dignity. If the spectacle was good enough for him, with all his knowledge of the world, to laugh at, she need not blush for its effect on herself. And in another ten seconds, when the swollen man, staggering along a wide thoroughfare, was run down by an automobile and squashed flat, while streams of water inundated the roadway, she burst again into free laughter, and then looked round at Louis, who at the same instant looked round at her, and they exchanged an intimate smiling glance. It seemed to Rachel that they were alone and solitary in the crowded interior, and that they shared exactly the same tastes and emotions and comprehended one another profoundly and utterly; her confidence in him, at that instant, was absolute, and enchanting to her. Half a minute later the emaciated man was in a room and being ecstatically kissed by a most beautiful and sweetly shameless girl in a striped shirtwaist; it was a very small room, and the furniture was close upon the couple, giving the scene an air of delightful privacy. And then the scene was blotted out and gay music rose lilting from some unseen cave in front of the screen.
Rachel was rapturously happy. Gazing along the dim rows, she descried many young couples, without recognizing anybody at all, and most of these couples were absorbed in each other, and some of the girls seemed so elegant and alluring in the dusk of the theatre, and some of the men so fine in their manliness! And the ruby-studded gloom protected them all, including Rachel and Louis, from the audience at large.
The screen glowed again. And as it did so Louis gave a start.
“By Jove!” he said, “I’ve left my stick somewhere. It must have been at Heath’s. Yes, it was. I put it on the counter while I opened this net thing. Don’t you remember? You were taking some money out of your purse.” Louis had a very distinct vision of his Rachel’s agreeably gloved fingers primly unfastening the purse and choosing a shilling from it.
“How annoying!” murmured Rachel feelingly.
“I wouldn’t lose that stick for a five-pound note.” (He had a marvellous way of saying “five-pound note.”) “Would you mind very much if I just slip over and get it, before he shuts? It’s only across the road, you know.”
There was something in the politeness of the phrase “mind very much” that was irresistible to Rachel. It caused her to imagine splendid drawing-rooms far beyond her modest level, and the superlative deportment therein of the well-born.
“Not at all!” she replied, with her best affability. “But will they let you come in again without paying?”
“Oh, I’ll risk that,” he whispered, smiling superiorly.
Then he went, leaving the reticule, and she was alone.
She rearranged the reticule on the seat by her side. The reticule being already perfectly secure, there was no need for her to touch it, but some nervous movement was necessary to her. Yet she was less self-conscious than she had been with Louis at her elbow. She felt, however, a very slight sense of peril – of the unreality of the plush fauteuil on which she sat, and those rows of vaguely discerned faces on her right; and the reality of distant phenomena such as Mrs. Maldon in bed. Notwithstanding her strange and ecstatic experiences with Louis Fores that night in the dark, romantic town, the problem of the lost money remained, or ought to have remained, as disturbing as ever. To ignore it was not to destroy it. She sat rather tight in her place, increasing her primness, and trying to show by her carriage that she was an adult in full control of all her wise faculties. She set her lips to judge the film with the cold impartiality of middle age, but they persisted in being the fresh, responsive, mobile lips of a young girl. They were saying noiselessly: “He will be back in a moment. And he will find me sitting here just as he left me. When I hear him coming I shan’t turn my head to look. It will be better not.”
The film showed a forest with a wooden house in the middle of it. Out of this house came a most adorable young woman, who leaped on to a glossy horse and galloped at a terrific rate, plunging down ravines, and then trotting fast over the crests of clearings. She came to a man who was boiling a kettle over a camp-fire, and slipped lithely from the horse, and the man, with a start of surprise, seized her pretty waist and kissed her passionately, in the midst of the immense forest whose every leaf was moving. And she returned his kiss without restraint. For they were betrothed. And Rachel imagined the free life of distant forests, where love was, and where slim girls rode mettlesome horses more easily than the girls of the Five Towns rode bicycles. She could not even ride a bicycle, had never had the opportunity to learn. The vision of emotional pleasures that in her narrow existence she had not dreamed of filled her with mild, delightful sorrow. She could conceive nothing more heavenly than to embrace one’s true love in the recesses of a forest…. Then came crouching Indians…. And then she heard Louis Fores behind her. She had not meant to turn round, but when a hand was put heavily on her shoulder she turned quickly, resenting the contact.
“I should like a word with ye, if ye can spare a minute, young miss,” whispered a voice as heavy as the hand. It was old Thomas Batchgrew’s face and whiskers that she was looking up at in the gloom.
Comment: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British writer, best known for his novels of life in the Potteries with its ‘five towns’ that now equate with Stoke-on-Trent. His novel The Price of Love tells of a lower middle class woman (Rachel Fleckring) who marries a rogue (Louis Fores) and comes to regret it. This extract comes from Chapter VII, entitled ‘The Cinema’. Thomas Batchgrew is a town councillor and owner of a cinema chain, of which the Imperial Cinema de Luxe is one. Investing in the cinema business forms part of the plot. ‘Bursley’ equates with the real-life Burslem. Ellipses in the above occur as they do in the original text.
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