Author of The Grand Babylon Hotel, The Gates of Wrath, Anna of the Five Towns, etc.
I. THE HOUSEHOLD AT HILLPORT II. MESHACH AND HANNAH III. THE CALL IV. AN INTIMACY V. THE CHANCE VI. COMIC OPERA VII. THE DEPARTURE VIII. THE DANCE IX. A DEATH IN THE FAMILY X. IN THE GARDEN XI. THE REFUSAL XII. IN LONDON
THE HOUSEHOLD AT HILLPORT
She was walking, with her customary air of haughty and rapt leisure, across the market-place of Bursley, when she observed in front of her, at the top of Oldcastle Street, two men conversing and gesticulating vehemently, each seated alone in a dog-cart. These persons, who had met from opposite directions, were her husband, John Stanway, the earthenware manufacturer, and David Dain, the solicitor who practised at Hanbridge. Stanway's cob, always quicker to start than to stop, had been pulled up with difficulty, drawing his cart just clear of the other one, so that the two portly and middle-aged talkers were most uncomfortably obliged to twist their necks in order to see one another; the attitude did nothing to ease the obvious asperity of the discussion. She thought the spectacle undignified and silly; and she marvelled, as all women marvel, that men who conduct themselves so magisterially should sometimes appear so infantile. She felt glad that it was Thursday afternoon, and the shops closed and the streets empty.
Immediately John Stanway caught sight of her he said a few words to the lawyer in a somewhat different key, and descended from his vehicle. As she came up to them Mr. Dain saluted her with bashful abruptness, and her proud face broke as if by the loosing of a spell into a generous and captivating smile; Mr. Dain blushed, the vision was too much for his composure; he moved his horse forward a yard or two, and then jerked it back again, gruffly advising it to stand still. Stanway turned to her bluntly, unceremoniously, as to a creature to whom he owed nothing. She noticed once more how the whole character of his face was changed under annoyance.
'Here, Nora!' he said, speaking with the raw anger of a man with a new-born grievance, 'run this home for me. I'm going over to Hanbridge with Mr. Dain.'
'Very well,' she agreed with soothing calmness, and taking the reins she climbed up to the high driving-seat.
'And I say, Nora—Wo-back!' he flamed out passionately to the impatient cob, 'where're your manners, you idiot? I say, Nora, I doubt I shall be late for tea—half-past six. Tell Milly she must be in. The others too.' He gave these instructions in a lower tone, and emphasised them by a stormy and ominous frown. Then with an injured 'Now, Dain!' he got into the equipage of his legal adviser and departed towards Hanbridge, trailing clouds of vexation.
Leonora drove smartly but cautiously down the steep slope of Oldcastle Street; she could drive as well as a woman may. A group of clay-soiled girls lounging in the archway of a manufactory exchanged rude but admiring remarks about her as she passed. The paces of the cob, the dazzle of the silver-plated harness, the fine lines of the cart, the unbending mien of the driver, made a glittering cynosure for envy. All around was grime, squalor, servitude, ugliness; the inglorious travail of two hundred thousand people, above ground and below it, filled the day and the night. But here, as it were suddenly, out of that earthy and laborious bed, rose the blossom of luxury, grace, and leisure, the final elegance of the industrial district of the Five Towns. The contrast between Leonora and the rough creatures in the archway, between the flower and the phosphates which nourished it, was sharp and decisive: and Leonora, in the September sunshine, was well aware of the contrast. She felt that the loud-voiced girls were at one extremity of the scale and she at the other; and this arrangement seemed natural, necessary, inevitable.
She was a beautiful woman. She had a slim perfect figure; quite simply she carried her head so high and her shoulders so square that her back seemed to be hollowed out, and no tightness on the part of a bodice could hide this charming concavity. Her face was handsome with its large regular features; one noticed the abundant black hair under the hat, the thick eyebrows, the brown and opaque skin, the teeth impeccably white, and the firm, unyielding mouth and chin. Underneath the chin, half muffling it, came a white muslin bow, soft, frail, feminate, an enchanting disclaimer of that facial sternness and the masculinity of that tailor-made dress, a signal at once provocative and wistful of the woman. She had brains; they appeared in her keen dark eyes. Her judgment was experienced and mature. She knew her world and its men and women. She was not too soon shocked, not too severe in her verdicts, not the victim of too many illusions. And yet, though everything about her witnessed to a serene temperament and the continual appeasing of mild desires, she dreamed sadly, like the girls in the archway, of an existence more distinguished than her own; an existence brilliant and tender, where dalliance and high endeavour, virtue and the flavour of sin, eternal appetite and eternal satisfaction, were incredibly united. Even now, on her fortieth birthday, she still believed in the possibility of a conscious state of positive and continued happiness, and regretted that she should have missed it.
The imminence and the arrival of this dire birthday, this day of wrath on which the proudest woman will kneel to implacable destiny and beg a reprieve, had induced the reveries natural to it—the self-searching, the exchange of old fallacies for new, the dismayed glance forward, the lingering look behind. Absorbed though she was in the control of the sensitive steed, the field of her mind's eye seemed to be entirely filled by an image of the woman of forty as imagined by herself at the age of twenty. And she was that woman now! But she did not feel like forty; at thirty she had not felt thirty; she could only accept the almanac and the rules of arithmetic. The interminable years of her marriage rolled back, and she was eighteen again, ingenuous and trustful, convinced that her versatile husband was unique among his sex. The fading of a short-lived and factitious passion, the descent of the unique male to the ordinary level of males, the births of her three girls and their rearing and training: all these things seemed as trifles to her, mere excrescences and depressions in the vast tableland of her monotonous and placid career. She had had no career. Her strength of will, of courage, of love, had never been taxed; only her patience. 'And my life is over!' she told herself, insisting that her life was over without being able to believe it.
As the dog-cart was crossing the railway bridge at Shawport, at the foot of the rise to Hillport, Leonora overtook her eldest daughter. She drew up. From the height of the dog-cart she looked at her child; and the girlishness of Ethel's form, the self-consciousness of newly-arrived womanhood in her innocent and timid eyes, the virgin richness of her vitality, made Leonora feel sad, superior, and protective.
'Oh, mother! Where's father?' Ethel exclaimed, staring at her, struck with a foolish wonder to see her mother where her father had been an hour before.
'What a schoolgirl she is! And at her age I was a mother twice over!' thought Leonora; but she said aloud: 'Jump up quickly, my dear. You know Prince won't stand.'
Ethel obeyed, awkwardly. As she did so the mother scrutinised the rather lanky figure, the long dark skirt, the pale blouse, and the straw hat, in a single glance that missed no detail. Leonora was not quite dissatisfied; Ethel carried herself tolerably, she resembled her mother; she had more distinction than her sisters, but her manner was often lackadaisical.
'Your father was very vexed about something,' said Leonora, when she had recounted the meeting at the top of Oldcastle Street. 'Where's Milly?'
'I don't know, mother—I think she went out for a walk.' The girl added apprehensively: 'Why?'
'Oh, nothing!' said Leonora, pretending not to observe that Ethel had blushed. 'If I were you, Ethel, I should let that belt out one hole ... not here, my dear child, not here. When you get home. How was Aunt Hannah?'
Every day one member or another of John Stanway's family had to pay a visit to John's venerable Aunt Hannah, who lived with her brother, the equally venerable Uncle Meshach, in a little house near the parish church of St. Luke's. This was a social rite the omission of which nothing could excuse. On that day it was Ethel who had called.
'Auntie was all right. She was making a lot of parkin, and of course I had to taste it, all new, you know. I'm simply stodged.'
'Don't say "stodged."'
'Oh, mother! You won't let us say anything,' Ethel dismally protested; and Leonora secretly sympathised with the grown woman in revolt.
'Oh! And Aunt Hannah wishes you many happy returns. Uncle Meshach came back from the Isle of Man last night. He gave me a note for you. Here it is.'
'I can't take it now, my dear. Give it me afterwards.'
'I think Uncle Meshach's a horrid old thing!' said Ethel.
'My dear girl! Why?'
'Oh! I do. I'm glad he's only father's uncle and not ours. I do hate that name. Fancy being called Meshach!'
'That isn't uncle's fault, anyhow,' said Leonora.
'You always stick up for him, mother. I believe it's because he flatters you, and says you look younger than any of us.' Ethel's tone was half roguish, half resentful.
Leonora gave a short unsteady laugh. She knew well that her age was plainly written beneath her eyes, at the corners of her mouth, under her chin, at the roots of the hair above her ears, and in her cold, confident gaze. Youth! She would have forfeited all her experience, her knowledge, and the charm of her maturity, to recover the irrecoverable! She envied the woman by her side, and envied her because she was lightsome, thoughtless, kittenish, simple, unripe. For a brief moment, vainly coveting the ineffable charm of Ethel's immaturity, she had a sharp perception of the obscure mutual antipathy which separates one generation from the next. As the cob rattled into Hillport, that aristocratic and plutocratic suburb of the town, that haunt of exclusiveness, that retreat of high life and good tone, she thought how commonplace, vulgar, and petty was the opulent existence within those tree-shaded villas, and that she was doomed to droop and die there, while her girls, still unfledged, might, if they had the sense to use their wings, fly away.... Yet at the same time it gratified her to reflect that she and hers were in the picture, and conformed to the standards; she enjoyed the admiration which the sight of herself and Ethel and the expensive cob and cart and accoutrements must arouse in the punctilious and stupid breast of Hillport.
She was picking flowers for the table from the vivid borders of the lawn, when Ethel ran into the garden from the drawing-room. Bran, the St. Bernard, was loose and investigating the turf.
'Mother, the letter from Uncle Meshach.'
Leonora took the soiled envelope, and handing over the flowers to Ethel, crossed the lawn and sat down on the rustic seat, facing the house. The dog followed her, and with his great paw demanded her attention, but she abruptly dismissed him. She thought it curiously characteristic of Uncle Meshach that he should write her a letter on her fortieth birthday; she could imagine the uncouth mixture of wit, rude candour, and wisdom with which he would greet her; his was a strange and sinister personality, but she knew that he admired her. The note was written in Meshach's scraggy and irregular hand, in three lines starting close to the top of half a sheet of note paper. It ran: 'Dear Nora, I hear young Twemlow is come back from America. You had better see as your John looks out for himself.' There was nothing else, no signature.
As she read it, she experienced precisely the physical discomfort which those feel who travel for the first time in a descending lift. Fifteen quiet years had elapsed since the death of her husband's partner William Twemlow, and a quarter of a century since William's wild son, Arthur, had run away to America. Yet Uncle Meshach's letter seemed to invest these far-off things with a mysterious and disconcerting actuality. The misgivings about her husband which long practice and continual effort had taught her how to keep at bay, suddenly overleapt their artificial barriers and swarmed upon her.
The long garden front of the dignified eighteenth-century house, nearly the last villa in Hillport on the road to Oldcastle, was extended before her. She had played in that house as a child, and as a woman had watched, from its windows, the years go by like a procession. That house was her domain. Hers was the supreme intelligence brooding creatively over it. Out of walls and floors and ceilings, out of stairs and passages, out of furniture and woven stuffs, out of metal and earthenware, she had made a home. From the lawn, in the beautiful sadness of the autumn evening, any one might have seen and enjoyed the sight of its high French windows, its glowing sun-blinds, its faintly-tinted and beribboned curtains, its creepers, its glimpses of occasional tables, tall vases, and dressing-mirrors. But Leonora, as she sat holding the letter in her long white hand, could call up and see the interior of every room to the most minute details. She, the housemistress, knew her home by heart. She had thought it into existence; and there was not a cabinet against a wall, not a rug on a floor, not a cushion on a chair, not a knicknack on a mantelpiece, not a plate in a rack, but had come there by the design of her brain. Without possessing much artistic taste, Leonora had an extraordinary talent for domestic equipment, organisation, and management. She was so interested in her home, so exacting in her ideals, that she could never reach finality; the place went through a constant succession of improvements; its comfort and its attractiveness were always on the increase. And the result was so striking that her supremacy in the woman's craft could not be challenged. All Hillport, including her husband, bowed to it. Mrs. Stanway's principles, schemes, methods, even her trifling dodges, were mentioned with deep respect by the ladies of Hillport, who often expressed their astonishment that, although the wheels of Mrs. Stanway's household revolved with perfect smoothness, Mrs. Stanway herself appeared never to be doing anything. That astonishment was Leonora's pride. As her brain marshalled with ease the thousand diverse details of the wonderful domestic machine, she could appreciate, better than any other woman in Hillport, without vanity and without humility, the singular excellence of her gifts and of the organism they had perfected. And now this creation of hers, this complex structure of mellow brick-and-mortar, and fine chattels, and nice and luxurious habit, seemed to Leonora to tremble at the whisper of an enigmatic message from Uncle Meshach. The foreboding caused by the letter mingled with the menace of approaching age and with the sadness of the early autumn, and confirmed her mood.
Millicent, her youngest, ran impulsively to her in the garden. Millicent was eighteen, and the days when she went to school and wore her hair in a long plait were still quite fresh in the girl's mind. For this reason she was often inordinately and aggressively adult.
'Mamma! I'm going to have my tea first thing. The Burgesses have asked me to play tennis. I needn't wait, need I? It gets dark so soon.' As Millicent stood there, ardently persuasive, she forgot that adult persons do not stand on one leg or put their fingers in their mouths.
Leonora looked fondly at the sprightly girl, vain, self-conscious, and blonde and pretty as a doll in her white dress. She recognised all Millicent's faults and shortcomings, and yet was overcome by the charm of her presence.
'No, Milly, you must wait.' Throned on the rustic seat, inscrutable and tyrannous Leonora, a wistful, wayward atom in the universe, laid her command upon the other wayward atom; and she thought how strange it was that this should be.
'Father specially said you must be in for tea. You know you have far too much freedom. What have you been doing all the afternoon?'
'I haven't been doing anything, Ma.'
Leonora feared for the strict veracity of her youngest, but she said nothing, and Milly retired full of annoyance against the inconceivable caprices of parents.
At twenty minutes to seven John Stanway entered his large and handsome dining-room, having been driven home by David Dain, whose residence was close by. Three languorous women and the erect and motionless parlourmaid behind the door were waiting for him. He went straight to his carver's chair, and instantly the women were alert, galvanised into vigilant life. Leonora, opposite to her husband, began to pour out the tea; the impassive parlourmaid stood consummately ready to hand the cups; Ethel and Millicent took their seats along one side of the table, with an air of nonchalance which was far from sincere; a chair on the other side remained empty.
'Turn the gas on, Bessie,' said John. Daylight had scarcely begun to fail; but nevertheless the man's tone announced a grievance, that, with half-a-dozen women in the house, he the exhausted breadwinner should have been obliged to attend to such a trifle. Bessie sprang to pull the chain of the Welsbach tap, and the white and silver of the tea-table glittered under the yellow light. Every woman looked furtively at John's morose countenance.
Neither dark nor fair, he was a tall man, verging towards obesity, and the fulness of his figure did not suit his thin, rather handsome face. His age was forty-eight. There was a small bald spot on the crown of his head. The clipped brown beard seemed thick and plenteous, but this effect was given by the coarseness of the hairs, not by their number; the moustache was long and exiguous. His blue eyes were never still, and they always avoided any prolonged encounter with other eyes. He was a personable specimen of the clever and successful manufacturer. His clothes were well cut, the necktie of a discreet smartness. His grandfather had begun life as a working potter; nevertheless John Stanway spoke easily and correctly in a refined variety of the broad Five Towns accent; he could open a door for a lady, and was noted for his neatness in compliment.
It was his ambition always to be calm, oracular, weighty; always to be sure of himself; but his temperament was incurably nervous, restless, and impulsive. He could not be still, he could not wait. Instinct drove him to action for the sake of action, instinct made him seek continually for notice, prominence, comment. These fundamental appetites had urged him into public life—to the Borough Council and the Committee of the Wedgwood Institution. He often affected to be buried in cogitation upon municipal and private business affairs, when in fact his attention was disengaged and watchful. Leonora knew that this was so to-night. The idea of his duplicity took possession of her mind. Deeps yawned before her, deeps that swallowed up the solid and charming house and the comfortable family existence, as she glanced at that face at once strange and familiar to her. 'Is it all right?' she kept thinking. 'Is John all that he seems? I wonder whether he has ever committed murder.' Yes, even this absurd thought, which she knew to be absurd, crossed her mind.
'Where's Rose?' he demanded suddenly in the depressing silence of the tea-table, as if he had just discovered the absence of his second daughter.
'She's been working in her room all day,' said Leonora.
'That's no reason why she should be late for tea.'
At that moment Rose entered. She was very tall and pale, her dress was a little dowdy. Like her father and Millicent, she carried her head forward and had a tendency to look downwards, and her spine seemed flaccid. Ethel was beautiful, or about to be beautiful; Millicent was pretty; Rose plain. Rose was deficient in style. She despised style, and regarded her sisters as frivolous ninnies and gadabouts. She was the serious member of the family, and for two years had been studying for the Matriculation of London University.
'Late again!' said her father. 'I shall stop all this exam work.'
Rose said nothing, but looked resentful.
When the hot dishes had been partaken of, Bessie was dismissed, and Leonora waited for the bursting of the storm. It was Millicent who drew it down.
'I think I shall go down to Burgesses, after all, mamma. It's quite light,' she said with audacious pertness.
Her father looked at her.
'What were you doing this afternoon, Milly?'
'I went out for a walk, pa.'
'Didn't I see you on the canal-side with young Ryley?'
'Yes, father. He was going back to the works after dinner, and he just happened to overtake me.'
Milly and Ethel exchanged a swift glance.
'Happened to overtake you! I saw you as I was driving past, over the canal bridge. You little thought that I saw you.'
'Well, father, I couldn't help him overtaking me. Besides——'
'Besides!' he took her up. 'You had your hand on his shoulder. How do you explain that?'
Millicent was silent.
'I'm ashamed of you, regularly ashamed ... You with your hand on his shoulder in full sight of the works! And on your mother's birthday too!'
Leonora involuntarily stirred. For more than twenty years it had been his custom to give her a kiss and a ten-pound note before breakfast on her birthday, but this year he had so far made no mention whatever of the anniversary.
'I'm going to put my foot down,' he continued with grieved majesty. 'I don't want to, but you force me to it. I'll have no goings-on with Fred Ryley. Understand that. And I'll have no more idling about. You girls—at least you two—are bone-idle. Ethel shall begin to go to the works next Monday. I want a clerk. And you, Milly, must take up the housekeeping. Mother, you'll see to that.'
Leonora reflected that whereas Ethel showed a marked gift for housekeeping, Milly was instinctively averse to everything merely domestic. But with her acquired fatalism she accepted the ukase.
'You understand,' said John to his pert youngest.
'No more carrying-on with Fred Ryley—or any one else.'
'I've got quite enough to worry me without being bothered by you girls.'
Rose left the table, consciously innocent both of sloth and of light behaviour.
'What are you going to do now, Rose?' He could not let her off scot-free.
'Read my chemistry, father.'
'You'll do no such thing.'
'I must, if I'm to pass at Christmas,' she said firmly. 'It's my weakest subject.'
'Christmas or no Christmas,' he replied, 'I'm not going to let you kill yourself. Look at your face! I wonder your mother——'
'Run into the garden for a while, my dear,' said Leonora softly, and the girl moved to obey.
'Rose,' he called her back sharply as his exasperation became fidgetty. 'Don't be in such a hurry. Open the window—an inch.'
* * * * *
Ethel and Millicent disappeared after the manner of young fox-terriers; they did not visibly depart; they were there, one looked away, they were gone. In the bedroom which they shared, the door well locked, they threw oft all restraints, conventions, pretences, and discussed the world, and their own world, with terrible candour. This sacred and untidy apartment, where many of the habits of childhood still lingered, was a retreat, a sanctuary from the law, and the fastness had been ingeniously secured against surprise by the peculiar position of the bedstead in front of the doorway.
'Father is a donkey!' said Ethel.
'And ma never says a word!' said Milly.
'I could simply have smacked him when he brought in mother's birthday,' Ethel continued, savagely.
'So could I.'
'Fancy him thinking it's you. What a lark!'
'Yes. I don't mind,' said Milly.
'You are a brick, Milly. And I didn't think you were, I didn't really.'
'What a horrid pig you are, Eth!' Milly protested, and Ethel laughed.
'Did you give Fred my note all right?' Ethel demanded.
'Yes,' answered Milly. 'I suppose he's coming up to-night?'
'I asked him to.'
'There'll be a frantic row one day. I'm sure there will,' Milly said meditatively, after a pause.
'Oh! there's bound to be!' Ethel assented, and she added: 'Mother does trust us. Have a choc?'
Milly said yes, and Ethel drew a box of bonbons from her pocket.
They seemed to contemplate with a fearful joy the probable exposure of that life of flirtations and chocolate which ran its secret course side by side with the other life of demure propriety acted out for the benefit of the older generation. If these innocent and inexperienced souls had been accused of leading a double life, they would have denied the charge with genuine indignation. Nevertheless, driven by the universal longing, and abetted by parental apathy and parental lack of imagination, they did lead a double life. They chafed bitterly under the code to which they were obliged ostensibly to submit. In their moods of revolt, they honestly believed their parents to be dull and obstinate creatures who had lost the appetite for romance and ecstasy and were determined to mortify this appetite in others. They desired heaps of money and the free, informal companionship of very young men. The latter—at the cost of some intrigue and subterfuge—they contrived to get. But money they could not get. Frequently they said to each other with intense earnestness that they would do anything for money; and they repeated passionately, 'anything.'
'Just look at that stuck-up thing!' said Milly laughing. They stood together at the window, and Milly pointed her finger at Rose, who was walking conscientiously to and fro across the garden in the gathering dusk.
Ethel rapped on the pane, and the three sisters exchanged friendly smiles.
'Rosie will never pass her exam, not if she lives to be a hundred,' said Ethel. 'And can you imagine father making me go to the works? Can you imagine the sense of it?'
'He won't let you walk up with Fred at nights,' said Milly, 'so you needn't think.'
'And your housekeeping!' Ethel exclaimed. 'What a treat father will have at meals!'
'Oh! I can easily get round mother,' said Milly with confidence. 'I can't housekeep, and ma knows that perfectly well.'
'Well, father will forget all about it in a week or two, that's one comfort,' Ethel concluded the matter. 'Are you going down to Burgesses to see Harry?' she inquired, observing Milly put on her hat.
'Yes,' said Milly. 'Cissie said she'd come for me if I was late. You'd better stay in and be dutiful.'
'I shall offer to play duets with mother. Don't you be long. Let's try that chorus for the Operatic before supper.'
* * * * *
That night, after the girls had kissed them and gone to bed, John and Leonora remained alone together in the drawing-room. The first fire of autumn was burning in the grate, and at the other end of the long room dark curtains were drawn across the French window. Shaded candles lighted the grand piano, at which Leonora was seated, and a single gas jet illuminated the region of the hearth, where John, lounging almost at full length in a vast chair, read the newspaper; otherwise the room was in shadow. John dropped the 'Signal,' which slid to the hearthrug with a rustle, and turned his head so that he could just see the left side of his wife's face and her left hand as it moved over the keys of the piano. She played with gentle monotony, and her playing seemed perfunctory, yet agreeable. John watched the glinting of the four rings on her left hand, and the slow undulations of the drooping lace at her wrist. He moved twice, and she knew he was about to speak.
'I say, Leonora,' he said in a confidential tone.
'Yes, my dear,' she responded, complying generously with his appeal for sympathy. She continued to play for a moment, but even more softly; and then, as he kept silence, she revolved on the piano-stool and looked into his face.
'What is it?' she asked in a caressing voice, intensifying her femininity, forgiving him, excusing him, thinking and making him think what a good fellow he was, despite certain superficial faults.
'You knew nothing of this Ryley business, did you?' he murmured.
'Oh, no. Are you sure there's anything in it? I don't think there is for an instant.' And she did not. Even the placing of Milly's hand on Fred Ryley's shoulder in full sight of the street, even this she regarded only as the pretty indiscretion of a child. 'Oh! there's nothing in it,' she repeated.
'Well, there's got to be nothing in it. You must keep an eye on 'em. I won't have it.'
She leaned forward, and, resting her elbows on her knees, put her chin in her long hands. Her bangles disappeared amid lace.
'What's the matter with Fred?' said she. 'He's a relation; and you've said before now that he's a good clerk,'
'He's a decent enough clerk. But he's not for our girls.'
'If it's only money——' she began.
'Money!' John cried. 'He'll have money. Oh! he'll have money right enough. Look here, Nora, I've not told you before, but I'll tell you now. Uncle Meshach's altered his will in favour of young Ryley.'
John Stanway stood up, gazing at his wife with an air of martyrised virtue which said: 'There! what do you think of that as a specimen of the worries which I keep to myself?'
She raised her eyebrows with a gesture of deep concern. And all the time she was asking herself: 'Why did Uncle Meshach alter his will? Why did he do that? He must have had some reason.' This question troubled her far more than the blow to their expectations.
John's maternal grandfather had married twice. By his first wife he had had one son, Shadrach; and by his second wife two daughters and a son, Mary (John's mother), Hannah, and Meshach. The last two had never married. Shadrach had estranged all his family (except old Ebenezer) by marrying beneath him, and Mary had earned praise by marrying rather well. These two children, by a useful whim of the eccentric old man, had received their portions of the patrimony on their respective wedding-days. They were both dead. Shadrach, amiable but incompetent, had died poor, leaving a daughter, Susan, who had repeated, even more reprehensibly, her father's sin of marrying beneath her. She had married a working potter, and thus reduced her branch of the family to the status from which old Ebenezer had originally raised himself. Fred Ryley, now an orphan, was Susan's only child. As an act of charity John Stanway had given Fred Ryley a stool in the office of his manufactory; but, though Fred's mother was John's first cousin, John never acknowledged the fact. John argued that Fred's mother and Fred's grandfather had made fools of themselves, and that the consequences were irremediable save by Fred's unaided effort. Such vicissitudes of blood, and the social contrasts resulting therefrom, are common enough in the history of families in democratic communities.
Old Ebenezer's will left the residue of his estate, reckoned at some fifteen thousand pounds, to Meshach and Hannah as joint tenants with the remainder absolutely to the survivor of them. By this arrangement, which suited them excellently since they had always lived together, though neither could touch the principal of their joint property during their joint lives, the survivor had complete freedom to dispose of everything. Both Meshach and Hannah had made a will in sole favour of John.
'Yes,' John said again, 'he's altered it in favour of young Ryley. David Dain told me the other day. Uncle told Dain he might tell me.'
'Why has he altered it?' Leonora asked aloud at last.
John shook his head. 'Why does Uncle Meshach do anything?' He spoke with sarcastic irritation. 'I suppose he's taken a sudden fancy for Susan's child, after ignoring him all these years.'
'And has Aunt Hannah altered her will, too?'
'No. I'm all right in that quarter.'
'Then if your Aunt Hannah lives longest, you'll still come in for everything, just as if your Uncle Meshach hadn't altered his will?'
'Yes. But Aunt Hannah won't live for ever. And Uncle Meshach will. And where shall I be if she dies first?' He went on in a different tone. 'Of course one of 'em's bound to die soon. Uncle's sixty-four if he's a day, and the old lady's a year older. And I want money.'
'Do you, Jack, really?' she said. Long ago she had suspected it, though John never stinted her. Once more the solid house and their comfortable existence seemed to shiver and be engulfed.
'By the way, Nora,' he burst out with sudden bright animation, 'I've been so occupied to-day I forgot to wish you many happy returns. And here's the usual. I hadn't got it on me this morning.'
He kissed her and gave her a ten-pound note.
'Oh! thanks, Jack!' she said, glancing at the note with a factitious curiosity to hide her embarrassment.
'You're good-looking enough yet!' he exclaimed as he gazed at her.
'He wants something out of me. He wants something out of me,' she thought as she gave him a smile for his compliment. And this idea that he wanted something, that circumstances should have forced him into the position of an applicant, distressed her. She grieved for him. She saw all his good qualities—his energy, vitality, cleverness, facile kindliness, his large masculinity. It seemed to her, as she gazed up at him from the music-stool in the shaded solitude or the drawing-room, that she was very intimate with him, and very dependent on him; and she wished him to be always flamboyant, imposing, and successful.
'If you are at all hard up, Jack——' She made as if to reject the note.
'Oh! get out!' he laughed. 'It's not a tenner that I'm short of. I tell you what you can do,' he went on quickly and lightly. 'I was thinking of raising a bit temporarily on this house. Five hundred, say. You wouldn't mind, would you?'
The house was her own property, inherited from an aunt. John's suggestion came as a shock to her. To mortgage her house: this was what he wanted!
'Oh yes, certainly, if you like,' she acquiesced quietly. 'But I thought—I thought business was so good just now, and——'
'So it is,' he stopped her with a hint of annoyance. 'I'm short of capital. Always have been.'
'I see,' she said, not seeing. 'Well, do what you like.'
'Right, my girl. Now—roost!' He extinguished the gas over the mantelpiece.
The familiar vulgarity of some of his phrases always vexed her, and 'roost' was one of these phrases. In a flash he fell from a creature engagingly masculine to the use-worn daily sharer of her monotonous existence.
'Have you heard about Arthur Twemlow coming over?' she demanded, half vindictively, as he was preparing to blow out the last candle on the piano. He stopped.
'Who's Arthur Twemlow?'
'Mr. Twemlow's son, of course,' she said. 'From America.'
'Oh! Him! Coming over, did you say? I wonder what he looks like. Who told you?'
'Uncle Meshach. And he said I was to say you were to look out for yourself when Arthur Twemlow came. I don't know what he meant. One of his jokes, I expect.' She tried to laugh.
John looked at her, and then looked away, and immediately blew out the last candle. But she had seen him turn pale at what Uncle Meshach had said. Or was that pallor merely the effect on his face of raising the coloured candle-shade as he extinguished the candle? She could not be sure.
'Uncle Meshach ought to be in the lunatic asylum, I think,' John's voice came majestically out of the gloom as they groped towards the door.
'We shall have to be polite to Arthur Twemlow, when he comes, if he is coming,' said John after they had gone upstairs. 'I understand he's quite a reformed character.'
* * * * *
Because she fancied she had noticed that the window at the end of the corridor was open, she came out of the bedroom a few minutes later, and traversed the dark corridor to satisfy herself, and found the window wide open. The night was cloudy and warm, and a breeze moved among the foliage of the garden. In the mysterious diffused light she could distinguish the forms of the poplar trees. Suddenly the bushes immediately beneath her were disturbed as though by some animal.
'Good night, Ethel.'
'Good night, Fred.'
She shook with violent agitation as the amazing adieu from the garden was answered from the direction of her daughter's window. But the secondary effect of those words, so simply and affectionately whispered in the darkness, was to bring a tear to her eye. As the mother comprehended the whole staggering situation, the woman envied Ethel for her youth, her naughty innocence, her romance, her incredibly foolish audacity in thus risking the disaster of parental wrath. Leonora heard cautious footsteps on the gravel, and the slow closing of a window. 'My life is over!' she said to herself. 'And hers beginning. And to think that this afternoon I called her a schoolgirl! What romance have I had in my life?'
She put her head out of the window. There was no movement now, but above her a radiance streaming from Rose's dormer showed that the serious girl of the family, defying commands, plodded obstinately at her chemistry. As Leonora thought of Rose's ambition, and Ethel's clandestine romance, and little Millicent's complicity in that romance, and John's sinister secrets, and her own ineffectual repining—as she thought of these five antagonistic preoccupied souls and their different affairs, the pathos and the complexity of human things surged over her and overwhelmed her.
MESHACH AND HANNAH
The little old bachelor and spinster were resting after dinner in the back-parlour of their house near the top of Church Street. In that abode they had watched generations pass and manners change, as one list hearthrug succeeded another in the back-parlour. Meshach had been born in the front bedroom, and he meant to die there; Hannah had also been born in the front bedroom, but it was through the window of the back bedroom that the housewife's soul would rejoin the infinite. The house, which Meshach's grandfather, first of his line to emerge from the grey mass of the proletariat, had ruined himself to build, was a six-roomed dwelling of honest workmanship in red brick and tile, with a beautiful pillared doorway and fanlight in the antique taste. It had cost two hundred pounds, and was the monument of a life's ambition. Mortgaged by its hard-pressed creator, and then sold by order of the mortgagee, it had ultimately been bought again in triumph by Meshach's father, who made thirty thousand pounds out of pots without getting too big for it, and left it unspoilt to Meshach and Hannah. Only one alteration had ever been made in it, and that, completed on Meshach's fiftieth birthday, admirably exemplified his temperament. Because he liked to observe the traffic in Church Street, and liked equally to sit in the back-parlour near the hob, he had, with an oriental grandeur of self-indulgence, removed the dividing wall between the front and the back parlours and substituted a glass partition: so that he could simultaneously warm the fire and keep an eye on the street. The town said that no one but Meshach could have hit on such a scheme, or would have carried it out with such an object: it crowned his reputation.
John Stanway's maternal uncle was one of those individuals whose character, at once strong, egotistic, and peculiar, so forcibly impresses the community that by contrast ordinary persons seem to be without character; such men are therefore called, distinctively, 'characters'; and it is a matter of common experience that, whether through the unconscious prescience of parents or through that felicitous sense of propriety which often guides the hazards of destiny, they usually bear names to match their qualities. Meshach Myatt! Meshach Myatt! What piquant curious syllables to roll glibly off the tongue, and to repeat for the pleasure of repetition! And what a vision of Meshach their utterance conjured up! At sixty-four, stereotyped by age, fixed and confirmed in singularity, Meshach's figure answered better than ever to his name. He was slight of bone and spare in flesh, with a hardly perceptible stoop. He had a red, seamed face. Under the small, pale blue eyes, genial and yet frigid, there showed a thick, raw, red selvedge of skin, and below that the skin was loose and baggy; the wrinkled eyelids, instead of being shaped to the pupil, came down flat and perpendicular. His nose and chin were witch-like, the nostrils large and elastic; the lips, drawn tight together, curved downwards, indifferently captious; a short white beard grew sparsely on the chin; the skin of the narrow neck was fantastically drawn and creased. His limbs were thin, the knees and elbows sharpened to a fine point; the hands very long, with blue, corded veins. As a rule his clothes were a distressing combination of black and dark blue; either the coat, the waistcoat, or the trousers would be black, the rest blue; the trousers had the old-fashioned flap-pockets, like a sailor's, with a complex apparatus of buttons. He wore loose white cuffs that were continually slipping down the wrist, a starched dickey, a collar of too lenient flexure, and a black necktie with a 'made' bow that was fastened by means of a button and button-hole under the chin to the right; twenty times a day Meshach had to secure this precarious cravat. Lastly, the top and bottom buttons of his waistcoat were invariably loose.
He was of that small and lonely minority of men who never know ambition, ardour, zeal, yearning, tears; whose convenient desires are capable of immediate satisfaction; of whom it may be said that they purchase a second-rate happiness cheap at the price of an incapacity for deep feeling. In his seventh decade, Meshach Myatt could look back with calm satisfaction at a career of uninterrupted nonchalance and idleness. The favourite of a stern father and of fate, he had never done a hard day's work in his life. When he and Hannah came into their inheritance, he realised everything except the house and invested the proceeds in Consols. With a roof, four hundred a year from the British Empire, a tame capable sister, and notoriously good health, he took final leave of care at the age of thirty-two. He wanted no more than he had. Leisure was his chief luxury; he watched life between meals, and had time to think about what he saw. Being gifted with a vigorous and original mind that by instinct held formulas in defiance, he soon developed a philosophy of his own; and his reputation as a 'character' sprang from the first diffident, wayward expressions of this philosophy. Perceiving that the town not unadmiringly deemed him odd, he cultivated oddity. Perceiving also that it was sometimes astonished at the extent of his information about hidden affairs, he cultivated mystery, the knowledge of other people's business, and the trick of unexpected appearances. At forty his fame was assured; at fifty he was an institution; at sixty an oracle.
'Meshach's a mixture,' ran the local phrase; but in this mixture there was a less tedious posturing and a more massive intellect than usually go to the achievement of a provincial renown such as Meshach's. The man's externals were deceptive, for he looked like a local curiosity who might never have been out of Bursley. Meshach, however, travelled sometimes in the British Isles, and thereby kept his ideas from congealing. And those who had met him in trains and hotels knew that porters, waiters, and drivers did not mistake his shrewdness for that of a simpleton determined not to be robbed; that he wanted the right things and had the art to get them; in short, that he was an expert in travel. Like many old provincial bachelors, while frugal at home he could be profuse abroad, exercising the luxurious freedom of the bachelor. In the course of years it grew slowly upon his fellow pew-holders at the big Sytch Chapel that he was worldly-minded and possibly contemptuous of their codes; some, who made a specialty of smelling rats, accused him of gaiety.
'You'd happen better get something extra for tea, sister,' said Meshach, rousing himself.
'Why, brother?' demanded Hannah.
'Some sausage, happen,' Meshach proceeded.
'Is any one coming?' she asked.
'Or a bit of fish,' said Meshach, gazing meditatively at the fire.
Hannah rose and interrogated his face. 'You ought to have told me before, brother. It's past three now, and Saturday afternoon too!' So saying, she hurried anxiously into the kitchen and told the servant to put her hat on.
'Who is it that's coming, brother?' she inquired later, with timid, ravenous curiosity.
'I see you'll have it out of me,' said Meshach, who gave up mysteries as a miser parts with gold. 'It's Arthur Twemlow from New York; and let that stop your mouth.'
Thus, with the utterance of this name in the prim, archaic, stuffy little back-parlour, Meshach raised the curtain on the last act of a drama which had slumbered for fifteen years, since the death of William Twemlow, and which the principal actors in it had long thought to be concluded or suppressed.
The whole matter could be traced back, through a series of situations which had developed one out of another, to the character of old Twemlow; but the final romantic solution was only rendered possible by the peculiarities of Meshach Myatt. William Twemlow had been one of those men in whom an unbridled appetite for virtue becomes a vice. He loved God with such virulence that he killed his wife, drove his daughter into a fatuous marriage, and quarrelled irrevocably with his son. The too sensitive wife died for lack of joy; Alice escaped to Australia with a parson who never accomplished anything but a large family; and Arthur, at the age of seventeen, precociously cursed his father and sought in America a land where there were fewer commandments. Then old Twemlow told his junior partner, John Stanway, that the ways of Providence were past finding out. Stanway sympathised with him, partly from motives of diplomacy, and partly from a genuine misunderstanding of the case; for Twemlow, mild, earnest, and a generous supporter of charities, was much respected in the town, and his lonely predicament excited compassion; most people looked upon young Arthur as a godless and heartless vagabond.
Alice's husband was a fool, impulsive and vain; and, despite introductions, no congregation in Australia could be persuaded to listen to his version of the gospel; Alice gave birth to more children than bad sermons could keep alive, and soon the old man at Bursley was regularly sending remittances to her. Twemlow desired fervently to do his duty, and moreover the estrangement from his son increased his satisfaction in dealing handsomely with his daughter; the son would doubtless learn from the daughter how much he had lost by his impiety. Seven years elapsed so, and then the parson gave up his holy calling and became a tea-blender in Brisbane. Twemlow was shocked at this defection, which seemed to him sacrilegious, and a chance phrase in a letter of Alice's requesting capital for the new venture—a too assured demand, an insufficient gratitude for past benefits, Alice never quite knew what—brought about a second breach in the Twemlow family. The paternal purse was closed, and perhaps not too early, for the improvidence of the tea-blender and Alice's fecundity were a gulf whose depth no munificence could have plumbed. Again John Stanway sympathised with the now enfeebled old man. John advised him to retire, and Twemlow decided to do so, receiving one-third of the net profits of the partnership business during life. In two years he was bedridden and the miserable victim of a housekeeper; but, though both Alice and Arthur attempted reconciliation, some fine point of conscience obliged him to ignore their overtures. John Stanway, his last remaining friend, called often and chatted about business, which he lamented was far from being what it ought to be. Twemlow's death was hastened by a fire at the works; it happened that he could see the flames from his bedroom window; he survived the spectacle five days. Before entering into his reward, the great pietist wrote letters of forgiveness to Alice and Arthur, and made a will, of which John Stanway was sole executor, in favour of Alice. The town expressed surprise when it learnt that the estate was sworn at less than a thousand pounds, for the dead man's share in the profits of Twemlow & Stanway was no secret, and Stanway had been living in splendour at Hillport for several years. John, when questioned by gossips, referred sadly to Alice's husband and to the depredations of housekeepers. In this manner the name and memory of the Twemlows were apparently extinguished in Bursley.
But Meshach Myatt had witnessed the fire at the works; he had even remained by the canal side all through that illuminated night; and an adventure had occurred to him such as occurs only to the Meshach Myatts of this world. The fire was threatening the office, and Meshach saw his nephew John running to a place of refuge with a drawer snatched out of an American desk; the drawer was loaded with papers and books, and as John ran a small book fell unheeded to the ground. Meshach cried out to John that he had dropped something, but in the excitement and confusion of the fire his rather high-pitched voice was not heard. He left the book lying where it fell; half-an-hour afterwards he saw it again, picked it up, and put it in his pocket. It contained some interesting informal private memoranda of the annual profits of the firm. Now Meshach did not return the book to its owner. He argued that John deserved to suffer for his carelessness in losing it, that John ought to have heard his call, and that anyhow John would surely inquire for it and might then be allowed to receive it with a few remarks upon the need of a calm demeanour at fires; but John never did inquire for it.
When William Twemlow's will was proved a few weeks later, Meshach Myatt made no comment whatever. From time to time he heard news of Arthur Twemlow: that he had set up in New York as an earthenware and glassware factor, that he was doing well, that he was doing extremely well, that his buyer had come over to visit the more aristocratic manufactories at Knype and Cauldon, that some one from Bursley had met Arthur at the Leipzig Easter Fair and reported him stout, taciturn, and Americanised. Then, one morning in Lord Street, Liverpool, fifteen years after the death of old Twemlow and the misappropriation of the little book, Meshach encountered Arthur Twemlow himself; Meshach was returning from his autumn holiday in the Isle of Man, and Arthur had just landed from the 'Servia.' The two men were mutually impressed by each other's skill in nicely conducting an interview which ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have botched; for they had last met as boy of seventeen and man of forty. They lunched richly at the Adelphi, and gave news for news. Arthur's buyer, it seemed, was dead, and after a day or two in London Arthur was coming to the Five Towns to buy a little in person. Meshach inquired about Alice in Australia, and was told that things were in a specially bad way with the tea-blender. He said that you couldn't cure a fool, and remarked casually upon the smallness of the amount left by old Twemlow. Arthur, unaware that Meshach Myatt was raising up an idea which for fifteen years had been buried but never forgotten in his mind, answered with nonchalance that the amount certainly was rather small. Arthur added that in his dying letter of forgiveness to Alice the old man had stated that his income from the works during the last years of his life had been less than two hundred per annum. Meshach worked his shut thin lips up and down and then began to discuss other matters. But as they parted at Lime Street Station the observer of life said to Arthur with presaging calm: 'You'll be i' th' Five Towns at the end of the week. Come and have a cup o' tea with me and Hannah on Saturday afternoon. The old spot, you know it, top of Church Street. I've something to show you as 'll interest you.' There was a pause and an interchange of glances. 'Right!' said Arthur Twemlow. 'Thank you! I'll be there at a quarter after four or thereabouts.' 'It's like as if what must be!' Meshach murmured to himself with almost sad resignation, in the enigmatic idiom of the Five Towns. But he was highly pleased that he, the first of all the townsfolk, should have seen Arthur Twemlow after twenty-five years' absence.
When Hannah, in silk, met the most interesting and disconcerting American stranger in the lobby, the sound and the smell of Bursley sausage frizzling in the kitchen added a warm finish to her confused welcome. She remembered him perfectly, 'Eh! Mr. Arthur,' she said, 'I remember you that well....' And that was all she could say, except: 'Now take off your overcoat and do make yourself at home, Mr. Arthur.'
'I guess I know you,' said Twemlow, touched by the girlish shyness, the primeval innocence, and the passionate hospitality of the little grey-haired thing.
As he took off his glossy blue overcoat and hung it up he seemed to fill the narrow lobby with his large frame and his quiet but penetrating attractive American accent. He probably weighed fourteen stone, but the elegance of his suit and his boots, the clean-shaven chin, the fineness of the lines of the nose, and the alert eyes set back under the temples, redeemed him from grossness. He looked under rather than over forty; his brown hair was beginning to recede from the forehead, but the heavy moustache, which entirely hid his mouth and was austerely trimmed at the sides, might have aroused the envy of a colonel of hussars.
'Come in, wut,' cried Meshach impatiently from the hob, 'come in and let's be pecking a bit,' and as Arthur and Hannah entered the parlour, he added: 'She's gotten sausages for you. She would get 'em, though I told her you'd take us as you found us. I told her that. But women—well, you know what they are!'
 Wut = wilt.
'Eh, Meshach, Meshach!' the old damsel protested sadly, and escaped into the kitchen.
And when Meshach insisted that the guest should serve out the sausages, and Hannah, passing his tea, said it was a shame to trouble him, Twemlow slipped suddenly back into the old life and ways and ideas. This existence, which he thought he had utterly forgotten, returned again and triumphed for a time over all the experiences of his manhood; it alone seemed real, honest, defensible. Sensations of his long and restless career in New York flashed through his mind as he impaled Hannah's sausages in the curious parlour—the hysteric industry of his girl-typist, the continuous hot-water service in the bedroom of his glittering apartment at the Concord House, youthful nights at Coster and Bial's music-hall, an insanely extravagant dinner at Sherry's on his thirtieth birthday, a difficulty once with an emissary of Pinkerton, the incredible plague of flies in summer. And during all those racing years of clangour and success in New York, the life of Bursley, self-sufficient and self-contained, had preserved its monotonous and slow stolidity. Bursley had become a museum to him; he entered it as he might have entered the Middle Ages, and was astonished to find that beautiful which once he had deemed sordid and commonplace. Some of the streets seemed like a monument of the past, a picturesque survival; the crate-floats, drawn by swift shaggy ponies and driven by men who balanced themselves erect on two thin boards while flying round corners, struck him as the quaintest thing in the world.
'And what's going on nowadays in old Bosley, Miss Myatt?' he asked expansively, trying to drop his American accent and use the dialect.
'Eh, bless us!' exclaimed Hannah, startled. 'Nothing ever happens here, Mr. Arthur.'
He felt that nothing did happen there.
'Same here as elsewhere,' said Meshach. 'People living, and getting childer to worry 'em, and dying. Nothing'll cure 'em of it seemingly. Is there anything different to that in New York? Or can they do without cemeteries?'
Twemlow laughed, and again he had the illusion of having come back to reality after a long, hurried dream. 'Nothing seems to have changed here,' he remarked idly.
'Nothing changed!' said Meshach. 'Nay, nay! We're up in the world. We've got the steam-car. And we've got public baths. We wash oursen nowadays. And there's talk of a park, and a pond with a duck on it. We're moving with the times, my lad, and so's the rates.'
It gave him pleasure to be called 'my lad' by old Meshach. It was piquant to him that the first earthenware factor in New York, the Jupiter of a Fourteenth Street office, should be addressed as a stripling. 'And where is the park to be?' he suavely inquired.
'Up by the railway station, opposite your father's old works as was—it's a row of villas now.'
'Well,' said Twemlow. 'That sounds pretty nice. I believe I'll get you to come around with me and show off the sights. Say!' he added suddenly, 'do you remember being on that works one day when my poor father was on to me like half a hundred of bricks, and you said, "The boy's all right, Mr. Twemlow"? I've never forgotten that. I've thought of it scores of times.'
'Nay!' Meshach answered carelessly, 'I remember nothing o' that.'
Twemlow was dashed by this oblivion. It was his memory of the minute incident which more than anything else had encouraged him to respond so cordially to Meshach's advances in Liverpool; for he was by no means facile in social intercourse. And Meshach had rudely forgotten the affecting scene! He felt diminished, and saw in the old bachelor a personification of the blunt independent spirit of the Five Towns.
* * * * *
'Milly's late to-day,' said Hannah to her brother, timorously breaking the silence which ensued.
'Milly?' questioned Twemlow.
'Millicent her proper name is,' Hannah said quickly, 'but we call her Milly. My nephew's youngest.'
'Yes, of course,' Twemlow commented, when the Myatt family-tree had been sketched for him by the united effort of brother and sister, 'I recollect now you told me in Liverpool that Mr. Stanway was married. Who did he marry?'
Meshach Myatt pushed back his chair and stood up. 'John catched on to Knight's daughter, the doctor at Turnhill,' he said, reaching to a cigar-cabinet on the sideboard. 'Best thing he ever did in his life. John's among the better end of folk now. People said it were a come-down for her, but Leonora isn't the sort that comes down. She's got blood in her. That!' He snapped his fingers. 'She's a good bred 'un. Old Knight's father came from up York way. Ah! She's a cut above Twemlow & Stanway, is Leonora.'
Twemlow smiled at this persistence of respect for caste.
'Have a weed,' said Meshach, offering him a cigar. 'You'll find it all right; it's a J.S. Murias. Yes,' he resumed, 'maybe you don't remember old Knight's sister as had that far house up at Hillport? When she died she left it to Leonora, and they've lived there this dozen year and more.'
'Well, I guess she's got a handsome name to her,' Twemlow remarked perfunctorily, rising and leaving Hannah alone at the table.
'And she's the handsomest woman in the Five Towns: that I do know,' said Meshach as, in the grand manner of a connoisseur, he lighted his cigar. 'And her was forty, day afore yesterday,' he added with caustic emphasis.
'Meshach!' cried Hannah, 'for shame of yourself!' Then she turned to Twemlow smiling and blushing a little. 'Oughtn't he? Eh, but Mrs. John's a great favourite of my brother's. And I'm sure her girls are very good and attentive. Not a day but one or another of them calls to see me, not a day. Eh, if they missed a day I should think the world was coming to an end. And I'm expecting Milly to-day. What's made the dear child so late——'
'I will say this for John,' asserted Meshach, as though the little housewife had not been speaking, 'I will say this for John,' he repeated, settling himself by the hob. 'He knew how to pick up a d——d fine woman.'
'Meshach!' Hannah expostulated again.
Something in the excellence of Meshach's cigars, in his way of calling a woman fine, in the dry, aloof masculinity of his attitude towards Hannah, gave Twemlow to reflect that in the fundamental deeps of experience New York was perhaps not so far ahead of the old Five Towns after all.
There was a fluttering in the lobby, and Millicent ran into the parlour, hurriedly, negligently.
'I can't stay a minute, auntie,' the vivacious girl burst out in the unmistakable accents of condescending pertness, and then she caught sight of the well-dressed, good-looking man in the corner, and her bearing changed as though by a conjuring trick. She flushed sensitively, stroked her blue serge frock, composed her immature features to the mask of the finished lady paying a call, and summoned every faculty to aid her in looking her best. 'So this chit is the daughter of our admired Leonora,' thought Twemlow.
'I suppose you don't remember old Mr. Twemlow, my dear?' said Hannah after she had proudly introduced her niece.
'Oh, auntie! how silly you are! Of course I remember him quite well. I really can't stay, auntie.'
'You'll stay and drink this cup of tea with me,' Hannah insisted firmly, and Milly was obliged to submit. It was not often that the old lady exercised authority; but on that afternoon the famous New York visitor was just as much an audience for Hannah as for Hannah's greatniece.
Twemlow could think of nothing to say to this pretty pouting creature who had rushed in from a later world and dissipated the atmosphere of mediaevalism, and so he addressed himself to Meshach upon the eternal subject of the staple trade. The women at the table talked quietly but self-consciously, and Twemlow saw Milly forced to taste parkin after three refusals. Even while still masticating the viscid unripe parkin, Milly rose to depart. She bent down and dutifully grazed with her lips the cheek of the parkin-maker. 'Good-bye, auntie; good-bye, uncle.' And in an elegant, mincing tone, 'Good afternoon, Mr. Twemlow.'
'I suppose you've just got to be on time at the next place?' he said quizzically, smiling at her vivid youth in spite of himself. 'Something very important?'
'Oh, very important!' she laughed archly, reddening, and then was gone; and Aunt Hannah followed her to the door.
'What th' old folks lose,' murmured Meshach, apparently to the fire, as he put his half-consumed cigar into a meerschaum holder, 'goes to the profit of young Burgess, as is waiting outside the Bank at top o' th' Square.'
'I see,' said Twemlow, and thought primly that in his day such laxities were not permitted.
Hannah and the servant cleared the tea-table, and the two men were left alone, each silently reducing an J.S. Murias to ashes. Meshach seemed to grow smaller in his padded chair by the hob, to become torpid, and to lose that keen sense of his own astuteness which alone gave zest to his life. Arthur stared out of the window at the confined backyard. The autumn dusk thickened.
Suddenly Meshach sprang up and lighted the gas, and as he adjusted the height of the flame, he remarked casually: 'So your sister Alice is as poorly off as ever?'
Twemlow assented with a nod. 'By the way,' he said, 'you told me on Wednesday you had something interesting to show me.'
Meshach made no answer, but picked up the poker and struck several times a large pewter platter on the mantelpiece.
'Do you want anything, brother?' said Hannah, hastening into the room.
'Go up into my bedroom, sister, and in the left-hand pigeon-hole in the bureau you'll see a little flat tissue-paper parcel. Bring it me. It's marked J.S.'
'Yes, brother,' and she departed.
'You said as your father had told your sister as he never got no more than two hundred a year from th' partnership after he retired.'
'Yes,' Twemlow replied. 'That's what she wrote me. In fact she sent me the old chap's letter to read. So I reckoned it cost him most all he got to live.'
'Well,' the old man said, and Hannah returned with the parcel, which he carefully unwrapped. 'That'll do, sister.' Hannah disappeared. 'Sithee!' He mysteriously drew Arthur's attention to a little green book whose cover still showed traces of mud and water.
'And what's this?' Twemlow asked with assumed lightness.
Meshach gave him the history of his adventure at the fire, and then laboriously displayed and expounded the contents of the book, peering into the yellow pages through the steel-rimmed spectacles which he had put on for the purpose.
'And you've kept it all this time?' said Twemlow.
'I've kept it,' answered the old man grimly, and Twemlow felt that that was precisely what Meshach Myatt might have been expected to do.
'See,' said Meshach, and their heads were close together,' that's the year before your father's death—eight hundred and ninety-two pounds. And year afore that—one thousand two hundred and seven pounds. And year afore that—bless us! Have I turned o'er two pages at once?' And so he continued.
Twemlow's heart began to beat heavily as Meshach's eyes met his. He seemed to see his father as a pathetic cheated simpleton, and to hear the innumerable children of his sister crying for food; he remembered that in the old Bursley days he had always distrusted John Stanway, that conceited fussy imposing young man of twenty-two whom his father had taken into partnership and utterly believed in. He forgot that he had hated his father, and his mind was obsessed by a sentimental and pure passion for justice.
'Say! Mr. Myatt,' he exclaimed with sudden gruffness, 'do you suggest that John Stanway didn't do my father right?'
'My lad, I'm doing no suggesting.... You can keep the book if you've a mind to. I've said nothing to no one, and if I had not met you in Liverpool, and you hadn't told me that your sister was poorly off again, happen I should ha' been mum to my grave. But that's how things turn out.'
'He's your own nephew, you know,' said Twemlow.
'Ay!' said the old man, 'I know that. What by that? Fair's fair.'
Meshach's tone, frigidly jocular, almost frightened the American.
'According to you,' said he, determined to put the thing into words, 'your nephew robbed my father each year of sums varying from one to three hundred pounds—that's what it comes to.'
'Nay, not according to me—according to that book, and what your father told your sister Alice,' Meshach corrected.
'But why should he do it? That's what I want to know.'
'Look here,' said Meshach quietly, resuming his chair. 'John's as good a man of business as you'd meet in a day's march. But never sin' he handled money could he keep off stocks and shares. He speculates, always has, always will. And now you know it—and 'tisn't everybody as does, either.'
'Then you think——'
'Nay, my lad, I don't,' said Meshach curtly.
'But what ought I to do?'
Meshach cackled in laughter. 'Ask your sister Alice,' he replied, 'it's her as is interested, not you. You aren't in the will.'
'But I don't want to ruin John Stanway,' Twemlow protested.
'Ruin John!' Meshach exclaimed, cackling again. 'Not you! We mun have no scandals in th' family. But you can go and see him, quiet-like, I reckon. Dost think as John'll be stuck fast for six or seven hundred, or eight hundred? Not John! And happen a bit of money'll come in handy to th' old parson tea-blender, by all accounts.'
'Suppose my father—made some mistake—forgot?'
'Ay!' said Meshach calmly. 'Suppose he did. And suppose he didna'.'
'I believe I'll go and talk to Stanway,' said Twemlow, putting the book in his pocket. 'Let me see. The works is down at Shawport?'
'On th' cut,' said Meshach.
 Cut = canal.
'I can say Alice had asked me to look at the accounts. Oh! Perhaps I can straighten it out neat——' He spoke cheerfully, then stopped. 'But it's fifteen years ago!'
'Fifteen!' said Meshach with gravity.
'I'm d——d if I can make you out!' thought Twemlow as he walked along King Street towards the steam-tram for Knype, where he was staying at the Five Towns Hotel. Hannah had sped him, with blushings, and rustlings of silk, from Meshach's door. 'I'm d——d if I can make you out, Meshach.' He said it aloud. And yet, so complex and self-contradictory is the mind's action under certain circumstances, he could make out Meshach perfectly well; he could discern clearly that Meshach had been actuated partly by the love of chicane, partly by a quasi-infantile curiosity to see what he should see, and partly by an almost biblical sense of justice, a sense blind, callous, cruel.
It was the Trust Anniversary at the Sytch Chapel, and two sermons were to be delivered by the Reverend Dr. Simon Quain; during fifteen years none but he had preached the Trust sermons. Even in the morning, when pillars of the church were often disinclined to assume the attitude proper to pillars, the fane was almost crowded. For it was impossible to ignore the Doctor. He was an expert geologist, a renowned lecturer, the friend of men of science and sometimes their foe, a contributor to the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' and the author of a book of travel. He did not belong to the school of divines who annihilated Huxley by asking him, from the pulpit, to tell them, if protoplasm was the origin of all life, what was the origin of protoplasm. Dr. Quain was a man of genuine attainments, at which the highest criticism could not sneer; and when he visited Bursley the facile agnostics of the town, the young and experienced who knew more than their elders, were forced to take cover. Dr. Quain, whose learning exceeded even theirs—so the elders sarcastically ventured to surmise—was not ashamed to believe in the inspiration of the Old Testament; he could reconcile the chronology of the earth's crust with the first chapter of Genesis; he had a satisfactory explanation of the Johannine gospel; and his mere existence was an impregnable fortress from which the adherents of the banner of belief could not be dislodged. On this Sunday morning he offered a simple evangelical discourse, enhanced by those occasional references to palaeozoic and post-tertiary periods which were expected from him, and which he had enough of the wisdom of the serpent to supply. His grave and assured utterances banished all doubts, fears, misgivings, apprehensions; and the timid waverers smiled their relief at being freed, by the confidence of this illustrious authority, from the distasteful exertion of thinking for themselves.
The collection was immense, and, in addition to being immense, it provided for the worshippers an agreeable and legitimate excitement of curiosity; for the plate usually entrusted to Meshach Myatt was passed from pew to pew, and afterwards carried to the communion rails, by a complete stranger, a man extremely self-possessed and well-attired, with a heavy moustache, a curious dimple in his chin, and melancholy eyes, a man obviously of considerable importance somewhere. 'Oh, mamma,' whispered Milly to her mother, who was alone with her in the Stanway pew, 'do look; that's Mr. Twemlow.' Several men in the congregation knew his identity, and one, a commercial traveller, had met him in New York. Before the final hymn was given out, half the chapel had pronounced his name in surprise. His overt act of assisting in the offertory was favourably regarded; it was thought to show a nice social feeling on his part; and he did it with such distinction! The older people remembered that his father had always been a collector; they were constrained now to readjust their ideas concerning the son, and these ideas, rooted in the single phrase, ran away from home, and set fast by time, were difficult of adjustment. The impressiveness of Dr. Quain's sermon was impaired by this diversion of interest.
The members of the Stanway family, in order to avoid the crush in the aisles and portico, always remained in their pew after service, until the chapel had nearly emptied itself; and to-day Leonora chose to sit longer than usual. John had been too fatigued to rise for breakfast; Rose was struck down by a sick headache; and Ethel had stayed at home to nurse Rose, so far as Rose would allow herself to be nursed. Leonora felt no desire to hurry back to the somewhat perilous atmosphere of Sunday dinner, and moreover she shrank nervously from the possibility of having to make the acquaintance of Mr. Twemlow. But when she and Milly at length reached the outer vestibule, a concourse of people still lingered there, and among them Arthur was just bidding good-bye to the Myatts. Hannah, rather shortsighted, did not observe Leonora and Milly; Meshach gave them his curt quizzical nod, and the aged twain departed. Then Millicent, proud of her acquaintance with the important stranger, and burning to be seen in converse with him, left her mother's side and became an independent member of society.
'How do you do, Mr. Twemlow?' she chirped.
'Ah!' he replied, recognising her with a bow the sufficiency of which intoxicated the young girl. 'Not in such a hurry this morning?'
'Oh! no!' she agreed with smiling effusion, and they both glanced with furtive embarrassed swiftness at Leonora. 'Mamma, this is Mr. Twemlow. Mr. Twemlow my mother.' The dashing modish air of the child was adorable. Having concluded her scene she retired from the centre of the stage in a glow.
Arthur Twemlow's manner altered at once as he took Leonora's hand and saw the sudden generous miracle which happened in her calm face when she smiled. He was impressed by her beautiful maturity, by the elegance born of a restrained but powerful instinct transmitted to her through generations of ancestors. His respect for Meshach rose higher. And she, as she faced the self-possessed admiration in Arthur's eyes, was conscious of her finished beauty, even of the piquancy of the angle of her hat, and the smooth immaculate whiteness of her gloves; and she was proud, too, of Millicent's gracile, restless charm. They walked down the steps side by side, Leonora in the middle, watched curiously from above and below by little knots of people who still lingered in front of the chapel.
'You soon got to work here, Mr. Twemlow,' said Leonora lightly.
He laughed. 'I guess you mean that collecting box. That was Mr. Myatt's game. He didn't do me right, you know. He got me into his pew, and then put the plate on to me.'
Leonora liked his Americanism of accent and phrase; it seemed romantic to her; it seemed to signify the quick alertness, the vivacious and surprising turns, of existence in New York, where the unexpected and the extraordinary gave a zest to every day.
'Well, you collected perfectly,' she remarked.
'Oh, yes you did, really, Mr. Twemlow,' echoed Millicent.
'Did I?' he said, accepting the tribute with frank satisfaction. 'I used to collect once at Talmage's Church in Brooklyn—you've heard Talmage over here of course.' He faintly indicated contempt for Talmage. 'And after my first collection he sent for me into the church parlour, and he said to me: "Mr. Twemlow, next time you collect, put some snap into it; don't go shuffling along as if you were dead." So you see this morning, although I haven't collected for years, I thought of that and tried to put some snap into it.'
Milly laughed obstreperously, Leonora smiled.
At the corner they could see Mrs. Burgess's carriage waiting at the vestry door in Mount Street. The geologist, escorted by Harry Burgess, got into the carriage, where Mrs. Burgess already sat; Harry followed him, and the stately equipage drove off. Dr. Quain had married a cousin of Mrs. Burgess's late husband, and he invariably stayed at her house. All this had to be explained to Arthur Twemlow, who made a point of being curious. By the time they had reached the top of Oldcastle Street, Leonora felt an impulse to ask him without ceremony to walk up to Hillport and have dinner with them. She knew that she and Milly were pleasing him, and this assurance flattered her. But she could not summon the enterprise necessary for such an unusual invitation; her lips would not utter the words, she could not force them to utter the words.
He hesitated, as if to leave them; and quite automatically, without being able to do otherwise, Leonora held her hand to bid good-bye; he took it with reluctance. The moment was passing, and she had not even asked him where he was staying: she had learnt nothing of the man of whom Meshach had warned her husband to beware.
'Good morning,' he said, 'I'm very glad to have met you. Perhaps——'
'Won't you come and see us this afternoon, if you aren't engaged?' she suggested quickly. 'My husband will be anxious to meet you, I know.'
He appeared to vacillate.
'Oh, do, Mr. Twemlow!' urged Milly, enchanted.
'It's very good of you,' he said, 'I shall be delighted to call. It's quite a considerable time since I saw Mr. Stanway.' He laughed. This was his first reference to John.
'I'm so glad you asked him, ma,' said Milly, as they walked down Oldcastle Street.
'Your father said we must be polite to Mr. Twemlow,' her mother replied coldly.
'He's frightfully rich, I'm sure,' Milly observed.
At dinner Leonora told John that Arthur Twemlow was coming.
'Oh, good!' he said: nothing more.
* * * * *
In the afternoon the mother and her eldest and youngest, supine and exanimate in the drawing-room, were surprised into expectancy by the sound of the front-door bell before three o'clock.
'He's here!' exclaimed Milly, who was sitting near Leonora on the long Chesterfield. Ethel, her face flushed by the fire, lay like a curving wisp of straw in John's vast arm-chair. Leonora was reading; she put down the magazine and glanced briefly at Ethel, then at the aspect of the room. In silence she wished that Ethel's characteristic attitudes could be a little more demure and sophisticated. She wondered how often this apparently artless girl had surreptitiously seen Fred Ryley since the midnight meeting on Thursday, and she was amazed that a child of hers, so kindly disposed, could be so naughty and deceitful. The door opened and Ethel sat up with a bound.
'Mr. Burgess,' the parlourmaid announced. The three women sank back, disappointed and yet relieved.
Harry Burgess, though barely of age, was one of the acknowledged dandies of Hillport. Slim and fair, with a frank, rather simple countenance, he supported his stylistic apparel with a natural grace that attracted sympathy. Just at present he was achieving a spirited effect by always wearing an austere black necktie fastened with a small gold safety-pin; he wore this necktie for weeks to a bewildering variety of suits, and then plunged into a wild polychromatic debauch of neckties. Upon all the niceties of masculine dress, the details of costume proper to a particular form of industry or recreation or ceremonial, he was a genuine authority. His cricketing flannels—he was a fine cricketer and lawn-tennis player of the sinuous oriental sort—were the despair of other dandies and the scorn of the sloven; he caused the material, before it was made up, to be boiled for many hours by the Burgess charwoman under his own superintendence. He had extraordinary aptitudes for drawing corks, lacing boots, putting ferrules on walking-sticks, opening latched windows from the outside, and rolling cigarettes; he could make a cigarette with one hand, and not another man in the Five Towns, it was said, could do that. His slender convex silver cigarette-case invariably contained the only cigarettes worthy of the palate of a connoisseur, as his pipes were invariably the only pipes fit for the combustion of truly high-class tobacco. Old women, especially charwomen, adored him, and even municipal seigniors admitted that Harry was a smart-looking youth. Fatherless, he was the heir to a tolerable fortune, the bulk of which, during his mother's life, he could not touch save with her consent; but his mother and his sister seemed to exist chiefly for his convenience. His fair hair and his facile smile vanquished them, and vanquished most other people also; and already, when he happened to be crossed, there would appear on his winning face the pouting, hard, resentful lines of the man who has learnt to accept compliance as a right. He had small intellectual power, and no ambition at all. A considerable part of his prospective fortune was invested in the admirable shares of the Birmingham, Sheffield and District Bank, and it pleased him to sit on a stool in the Bursley branch of this bank, since he wanted, pro tempore, a dignified avocation without either the anxieties of trade or the competitive tests of a profession. He was a beautiful bank clerk; but he had once thrown a bundle of cheques into the office fire while aiming at a basket on the mantelpiece; the whole banking world would have been agitated and disorganised had not another clerk snatched the bundle from peril at the expense of his own fingers: the incident, still legendary behind the counter of the establishment at the top of St. Luke's Square, kept Harry awake to the seriousness of life for several weeks.
'Well, Harry,' said Leonora with languid good nature. He paid his homage in form to the mistress of the house; raised his eyebrows at Milly, who returned the gesture; smiled upon Ethel, who feebly waved a hand as if too exhausted to do more; and then sat down on the piano-stool, carefully easing the strain on his trousers at the knees and exposing an inch of fine wool socks above his American boots. He was a familiar of the house, and had had the unconditional entree since he and the Stanway girls first went to the High Schools at Oldcastle.
'I hope I haven't disturbed your beauty sleep—any of you,' was his opening remark.
'Yes, you have,' said Ethel.
He continued: 'I just came in to seek a little temporary relief from the excellent Quain. Quain at breakfast, Quain at chapel, Quain at dinner.... I got him to slumber on one side of the hearth and mother on the other, and then I slipped away in case they awoke. If they do, I've told Cissie to say that I've gone out to take a tract to a sick friend—back in five minutes.'
'Oh, Harry, you are silly!' Millicent laughed. Every one, including the narrator, was amused by this elaborate fiction of the managing of those two impressive persons, Mrs. Burgess and the venerable Christian geologist, by a kind, indulgent, bored Harry. Leonora, who had resumed her magazine, looked up and smiled the guarded smile of the mother.
'I'm afraid you're getting worse,' she murmured, and his candid seductive face told her that while he was on no account not to be regarded as a gay dog, and a sad dog, and a worldly dog, yet nevertheless he and she thoroughly appreciated and understood each other. She did indeed like him, and she found pleasure in his presence; he gratified the eye.
'I wish you'd sing something, Milly,' he began again after a pause.
'No,' said Milly, 'I'm not going to sing now.'
'But do. Can't she, Mrs. Stanway?'
'Well, what do you want me to sing?'
'Sing "Love is a plaintive song," out of the second act.'
Harry was the newly appointed secretary of the Bursley Amateur Operatic Society, of which both Ethel and Millicent were members. In a few weeks' time the Society was to render Patience in the Town Hall for the benefit of local charities, and rehearsals were occurring frequently.
'Oh! I'm not Patience,' Milly objected stiffly; she was only Ella. 'Besides, I mayn't, may I, mamma?'
'Your father might not like it,' said Leonora.
'The dad has taken Bran out for a walk, so it won't trouble him,' Ethel interjected sleepily under her breath.
'Well, but look here, Mrs. Stanway,' said Harry conclusively, 'the organist at the Wesleyan chapel actually plays the sextet from Patience for a voluntary. What about that? If there's no harm in that——' Leonora surrendered. 'Come on, Mill,' he commanded. 'I shall have to return to my muttons directly,' and he opened the piano.