OF THE FIVE TOWNS
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First published January 1905
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MY LITERARY GODFATHER IN FRANCE
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HIS WORSHIP THE GOOSEDRIVER THE ELIXIR OF YOUTH MARY WITH THE HIGH HAND THE DOG A FEUD PHANTOM TIDDY-FOL-LOL THE IDIOT
THE HUNGARIAN RHAPSODY THE SISTERS QITA NOCTURNE AT THE MAJESTIC CLARICE OF THE AUTUMN CONCERTS A LETTER HOME
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HIS WORSHIP THE GOOSEDRIVER
It was an amiable but deceitful afternoon in the third week of December. Snow fell heavily in the windows of confectioners' shops, and Father Christmas smiled in Keats's Bazaar the fawning smile of a myth who knows himself to be exploded; but beyond these and similar efforts to remedy the forgetfulness of a careless climate, there was no sign anywhere in the Five Towns, and especially in Bursley, of the immediate approach of the season of peace, goodwill, and gluttony on earth.
At the Tiger, next door to Keats's in the market-place, Mr. Josiah Topham Curtenty had put down his glass (the port was kept specially for him), and told his boon companion, Mr. Gordon, that he must be going. These two men had one powerful sentiment in common: they loved the same woman. Mr. Curtenty, aged twenty-six in heart, thirty-six in mind, and forty-six in looks, was fifty-six only in years. He was a rich man; he had made money as an earthenware manufacturer in the good old times before Satan was ingenious enough to invent German competition, American tariffs, and the price of coal; he was still making money with the aid of his son Harry, who now managed the works, but he never admitted that he was making it. No one has yet succeeded, and no one ever will succeed, in catching an earthenware manufacturer in the act of making money; he may confess with a sigh that he has performed the feat in the past, he may give utterance to a vague, preposterous hope that he will perform it again in the remote future, but as for surprising him in the very act, you would as easily surprise a hen laying an egg. Nowadays Mr. Curtenty, commercially secure, spent most of his energy in helping to shape and control the high destinies of the town. He was Deputy-Mayor, and Chairman of the General Purposes Committee of the Town Council; he was also a Guardian of the Poor, a Justice of the Peace, President of the Society for the Prosecution of Felons, a sidesman, an Oddfellow, and several other things that meant dining, shrewdness, and good-nature. He was a short, stiff, stout, red-faced man, jolly with the jollity that springs from a kind heart, a humorous disposition, a perfect digestion, and the respectful deference of one's bank-manager. Without being a member of the Browning Society, he held firmly to the belief that all's right with the world.
Mr. Gordon, who has but a sorry part in the drama, was a younger, quieter, less forceful person, rather shy; a municipal mediocrity, perhaps a little inflated that day by reason of his having been elected to the Chairmanship of the Gas and Lighting Committee.
Both men had sat on their committees at the Town Hall across the way that deceitful afternoon, and we see them now, after refreshment well earned and consumed, about to separate and sink into private life. But as they came out into the portico of the Tiger, the famous Calypso-like barmaid of the Tiger a hovering enchantment in the background, it occurred that a flock of geese were meditating, as geese will, in the middle of the road. The gooseherd, a shabby middle-aged man, looked as though he had recently lost the Battle of Marathon, and was asking himself whether the path of his retreat might not lie through the bar-parlour of the Tiger.
'Business pretty good?' Mr. Curtenty inquired of him cheerfully.
In the Five Towns business takes the place of weather as a topic of salutation.
'Business!' echoed the gooseherd.
In that one unassisted noun, scorning the aid of verb, adjective, or adverb, the gooseherd, by a masterpiece of profound and subtle emphasis, contrived to express the fact that he existed in a world of dead illusions, that he had become a convert to Schopenhauer, and that Mr. Curtenty's inapposite geniality was a final grievance to him.
'There ain't no business!' he added.
'Ah!' returned Mr. Curtenty, thoughtful: such an assertion of the entire absence of business was a reflection upon the town.
'Sithee!' said the gooseherd in ruthless accents, 'I druv these 'ere geese into this 'ere town this morning.' (Here he exaggerated the number of miles traversed.) 'Twelve geese and two gander—a Brent and a Barnacle. And how many is there now? How many?'
'Fourteen,' said Mr. Gordon, having counted; and Mr. Curtenty gazed at him in reproach, for that he, a Town Councillor, had thus mathematically demonstrated the commercial decadence of Bursley.
'Market overstocked, eh?' Mr. Curtenty suggested, throwing a side-glance at Callear the poulterer's close by, which was crammed with everything that flew, swam, or waddled.
'Call this a market?' said the gooseherd. 'I'st tak' my lot over to Hanbridge, wheer there is a bit doing, by all accounts.'
Now, Mr. Curtenty had not the least intention of buying those geese, but nothing could be better calculated to straighten the back of a Bursley man than a reference to the mercantile activity of Hanbridge, that Chicago of the Five Towns.
'How much for the lot?' he inquired.
In that moment he reflected upon his reputation; he knew that he was a cure, a card, a character; he knew that everyone would think it just like Jos Curtenty, the renowned Deputy-Mayor of Bursley, to stand on the steps of the Tiger and pretend to chaffer with a gooseherd for a flock of geese. His imagination caught the sound of an oft-repeated inquiry, 'Did ye hear about old Jos's latest—trying to buy them there geese?' and the appreciative laughter that would follow.
The gooseherd faced him in silence.
'Well,' said Mr. Curtenty again, his eyes twinkling, 'how much for the lot?'
The gooseherd gloomily and suspiciously named a sum.
Mr. Curtenty named a sum startlingly less, ending in sixpence.
'I'll tak' it,' said the gooseherd, in a tone that closed on the bargain like a vice.
The Deputy-Mayor perceived himself the owner of twelve geese and two ganders—one Brent, one Barnacle. It was a shock, but he sustained it. Involuntarily he looked at Mr. Gordon.
'How are you going to get 'em home, Curtenty?' asked Gordon, with coarse sarcasm; 'drive 'em?'
Nettled, Mr. Curtenty retorted:
'Now, then, Gas Gordon!'
The barmaid laughed aloud at this sobriquet, which that same evening was all over the town, and which has stuck ever since to the Chairman of the Gas and Lighting Committee. Mr. Gordon wished, and has never ceased to wish, either that he had been elected to some other committee, or that his name had begun with some other letter.
The gooseherd received the purchase-money like an affront, but when Mr. Curtenty, full of private mirth, said, 'Chuck us your stick in,' he give him the stick, and smiled under reservation. Jos Curtenty had no use for the geese; he could conceive no purpose which they might be made to serve, no smallest corner for them in his universe. Nevertheless, since he had rashly stumbled into a ditch, he determined to emerge from it grandly, impressively, magnificently. He instantaneously formed a plan by which he would snatch victory out of defeat. He would take Gordon's suggestion, and himself drive the geese up to his residence in Hillport, that lofty and aristocratic suburb. It would be an immense, an unparalleled farce; a wonder, a topic for years, the crown of his reputation as a card.
He announced his intention with that misleading sobriety and ordinariness of tone which it has been the foible of many great humorists to assume. Mr. Gordon lifted his head several times very quickly, as if to say, 'What next?' and then actually departed, which was a clear proof that the man had no imagination and no soul.
The gooseherd winked.
'You be rightly called "Curtenty," mester,' said he, and passed into the Tiger.
'That's the best joke I ever heard,' Jos said to himself 'I wonder whether he saw it.'
Then the procession of the geese and the Deputy-Mayor commenced. Now, it is not to be assumed that Mr. Curtenty was necessarily bound to look foolish in the driving of geese. He was no nincompoop. On the contrary, he was one of those men who, bringing common-sense and presence of mind to every action of their lives, do nothing badly, and always escape the ridiculous. He marshalled his geese with notable gumption, adopted towards them exactly the correct stress of persuasion, and presently he smiled to see them preceding him in the direction of Hillport. He looked neither to right nor left, but simply at his geese, and thus the quidnuncs of the market-place and the supporters of shop-fronts were unable to catch his eye. He tried to feel like a gooseherd; and such was his histrionic quality, his instinct for the dramatic, he was a gooseherd, despite his blue Melton overcoat, his hard felt hat with the flattened top, and that opulent-curving collar which was the secret despair of the young dandies of Hillport. He had the most natural air in the world. The geese were the victims of this imaginative effort of Mr. Curtenty's. They took him seriously as a gooseherd. These fourteen intelligences, each with an object in life, each bent on self-aggrandisement and the satisfaction of desires, began to follow the line of least resistance in regard to the superior intelligence unseen but felt behind them, feigning, as geese will, that it suited them so to submit, and that in reality they were still quite independent. But in the peculiar eye of the Barnacle gander, who was leading, an observer with sufficient fancy might have deciphered a mild revolt against this triumph of the absurd, the accidental, and the futile; a passive yet Promethean spiritual defiance of the supreme powers.
Mr. Curtenty got his fourteen intelligences safely across the top of St. Luke's Square, and gently urged them into the steep defile of Oldcastle Street. By this time rumour had passed in front of him and run off down side-streets like water let into an irrigation system. At every corner was a knot of people, at most windows a face. And the Deputy-Mayor never spoke nor smiled. The farce was enormous; the memory of it would survive revolutions and religions.
Halfway down Oldcastle Street the first disaster happened. Electric tramways had not then knitted the Five Towns in a network of steel; but the last word of civilization and refinement was about to be uttered, and a gang of men were making patterns with wires on the skyscape of Oldcastle Street. One of the wires, slipping from its temporary gripper, swirled with an extraordinary sound into the roadway, and writhed there in spirals. Several of Mr. Curtenty's geese were knocked down, and rose obviously annoyed; but the Barnacle gander fell with a clinging circle of wire round his muscular, glossy neck, and did not rise again. It was a violent, mysterious, agonizing, and sudden death for him, and must have confirmed his theories about the arbitrariness of things. The thirteen passed pitilessly on. Mr. Curtenty freed the gander from the coiling wire, and picked it up, but, finding it far too heavy to carry, he handed it to a Corporation road-sweeper.
'I'll send for it,' he said; 'wait here.'
These were the only words uttered by him during a memorable journey.
The second disaster was that the deceitful afternoon turned to rain—cold, cruel rain, persistent rain, full of sinister significance. Mr. Curtenty ruefully raised the velvet of his Melton. As he did so a brougham rolled into Oldcastle Street, a little in front of him, from the direction of St. Peter's Church, and vanished towards Hillport. He knew the carriage; he had bought it and paid for it. Deep, far down, in his mind stirred the thought:
'I'm just the least bit glad she didn't see me.'
He had the suspicion, which recurs even to optimists, that happiness is after all a chimera.
The third disaster was that the sun set and darkness descended. Mr. Curtenty had, unfortunately, not reckoned with this diurnal phenomenon; he had not thought upon the undesirability of being under compulsion to drive geese by the sole illumination of gas-lamps lighted by Corporation gas.
After this disasters multiplied. Dark and the rain had transformed the farce into something else. It was five-thirty when at last he reached The Firs, and the garden of The Firs was filled with lamentable complainings of a remnant of geese. His man Pond met him with a stable-lantern.
'Damp, sir,' said Pond.
'Oh, nowt to speak of,' said Mr. Curtenty, and, taking off his hat, he shot the fluid contents of the brim into Pond's face. It was his way of dotting the 'i' of irony. 'Missis come in?'
'Yes, sir; I have but just rubbed the horse down.'
So far no reference to the surrounding geese, all forlorn in the heavy winter rain.
'I've gotten a two-three geese and one gander here for Christmas,' said Mr. Curtenty after a pause. To inferiors he always used the dialect.
'Turn 'em into th' orchard, as you call it.'
'They aren't all here. Thou mun put th' horse in the trap and fetch the rest thysen.'
'One's dead. A roadman's takkin' care on it in Oldcastle Street. He'll wait for thee. Give him sixpence.'
'There's another got into th' cut [canal].'
'There's another strayed on the railway-line—happen it's run over by this.'
'And one's making the best of her way to Oldcastle. I couldna coax her in here.'
Mr. Curtenty walked away towards the house.
'Mester!' Pond called after him, flashing the lantern.
'There's no gander i' this lot.'
'Hast forgotten to count thysen?' Mr. Curtenty answered blithely from the shelter of the side-door.
But within himself he was a little crest-fallen to think that the surviving gander should have escaped his vigilance, even in the darkness. He had set out to drive the geese home, and he had driven them home, most of them. He had kept his temper, his dignity, his cheerfulness. He had got a bargain in geese. So much was indisputable ground for satisfaction. And yet the feeling of an anticlimax would not be dismissed. Upon the whole, his transit lacked glory. It had begun in splendour, but it had ended in discomfort and almost ignominy. Nevertheless, Mr. Curtenty's unconquerable soul asserted itself in a quite genuine and tuneful whistle as he entered the house.
The fate of the Brent gander was never ascertained.
The dining-room of The Firs was a spacious and inviting refectory, which owed nothing of its charm to William Morris, Regent Street, or the Arts and Crafts Society. Its triple aim, was richness, solidity, and comfort, but especially comfort; and this aim was achieved in new oak furniture of immovable firmness, in a Turkey carpet which swallowed up the feet like a feather bed, and in large oil-paintings, whose darkly-glinting frames were a guarantee of their excellence. On a winter's night, as now, the room was at its richest, solidest, most comfortable. The blue plush curtains were drawn on their stout brass rods across door and French window. Finest selected silkstone fizzed and flamed in a patent grate which had the extraordinary gift of radiating heat into the apartment instead of up the chimney. The shaded Welsbach lights of the chandelier cast a dazzling luminance on the tea-table of snow and silver, while leaving the pictures in a gloom so discreet that not Ruskin himself could have decided whether these were by Whistler or Peter Paul Rubens. On either side of the marble mantelpiece were two easy-chairs of an immense, incredible capacity, chairs of crimson plush for Titans, chairs softer than moss, more pliant than a loving heart, more enveloping than a caress. In one of these chairs, that to the left of the fireplace, Mr. Curtenty was accustomed to snore every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, and almost every evening. The other was usually empty, but to-night it was occupied by Mrs. Curtenty, the jewel of the casket. In the presence of her husband she always used a small rocking-chair of ebonized cane.
To glance at this short, slight, yet plump little creature as she reclined crosswise in the vast chair, leaving great spaces of the seat unfilled, was to think rapturously to one's self: This is a woman. Her fluffy head was such a dot against the back of the chair, the curve of her chubby ringed hand above the head was so adorable, her black eyes were so provocative, her slippered feet so wee—yes, and there was something so mysteriously thrilling about the fall of her skirt that you knew instantly her name was Clara, her temper both fiery and obstinate, and her personality distracting. You knew that she was one of those women of frail physique who can endure fatigues that would destroy a camel; one of those daemonic women capable of doing without sleep for ten nights in order to nurse you; capable of dying and seeing you die rather than give way about the tint of a necktie; capable of laughter and tears simultaneously; capable of never being in the wrong except for the idle whim of so being. She had a big mouth and very wide nostrils, and her years were thirty-five. It was no matter; it would have been no matter had she been a hundred and thirty-five. In short....
Clara Curtenty wore tight-fitting black silk, with a long gold chain that descended from her neck nearly to her waist, and was looped up in the middle to an old-fashioned gold brooch. She was in mourning for a distant relative. Black pre-eminently suited her. Consequently her distant relatives died at frequent intervals.
The basalt clock on the mantelpiece trembled and burst into the song of six. Clara Curtenty rose swiftly from the easy-chair, and took her seat in front of the tea-tray. Almost at the same moment a neat black-and-white parlourmaid brought in teapot, copper kettle, and a silver-covered dish containing hot pikelets; then departed. Clara was alone again; not the same Clara now, but a personage demure, prim, precise, frightfully upright of back—a sort of impregnable stronghold—without doubt a Deputy-Mayoress.
At five past six Josiah Curtenty entered the room, radiant from a hot bath, and happy in dry clothes—a fine, if mature, figure of a man. His presence filled the whole room.
'Well, my chuck!' he said, and kissed her on the cheek.
She gazed at him with a look that might mean anything. Did she raise her cheek to his greeting, or was it fancy that she had endured, rather than accepted, his kiss? He was scarcely sure. And if she had endured instead of accepting the kiss, was her mood to be attributed to his lateness for tea, or to the fact that she was aware of the episode of the geese? He could not divine.
'Pikelets! Good!' he exclaimed, taking the cover off the dish.
This strong, successful, and dominant man adored his wife, and went in fear of her. She was his first love, but his second spouse. They had been married ten years. In those ten years they had quarrelled only five times, and she had changed the very colour of his life. Till his second marriage he had boasted that he belonged to the people and retained the habits of the people. Clara, though she also belonged to the people, very soon altered all that. Clara had a passion for the genteel. Like many warm-hearted, honest, clever, and otherwise sensible persons, Clara was a snob, but a charming little snob. She ordered him to forget that he belonged to the people. She refused to listen when he talked in the dialect. She made him dress with opulence, and even with tidiness; she made him buy a fashionable house and fill it with fine furniture; she made him buy a brougham in which her gentility could pay calls and do shopping (she shopped in Oldcastle, where a decrepit aristocracy of tradesmen sneered at Hanbridge's lack of style); she had her 'day'; she taught the servants to enter the reception-rooms without knocking; she took tea in bed in the morning, and tea in the afternoon in the drawing-room. She would have instituted dinner at seven, but she was a wise woman, and realized that too much tyranny often means revolution and the crumbling of-thrones; therefore the ancient plebeian custom of high tea at six was allowed to persist and continue.
She it was who had compelled Josiah (or bewitched, beguiled, coaxed and wheedled him), after a public refusal, to accept the unusual post of Deputy-Mayor. In two years' time he might count on being Mayor. Why, then, should Clara have been so anxious for this secondary dignity? Because, in that year of royal festival, Bursley, in common with many other boroughs, had had a fancy to choose a Mayor out of the House of Lords. The Earl of Chell, a magnate of the county, had consented to wear the mayoral chain and dispense the mayoral hospitalities on condition that he was provided with a deputy for daily use.
It was the idea of herself being deputy to the lovely, meddlesome, and arrogant Countess of Chell that had appealed to Clara.
The deputy of a Countess at length spoke.
'Will Harry be late at the works again to-night?' she asked in her colder, small-talk manner, which committed her to nothing, as Josiah well knew.
Her way of saying that word 'Harry' was inimitably significant. She gave it an air. She liked Harry, and she liked Harry's name, because it had a Kensingtonian sound. Harry, so accomplished in business, was also a dandy, and he was a dog. 'My stepson'—she loved to introduce him, so tall, manly, distinguished, and dandiacal. Harry, enriched by his own mother, belonged to a London club; he ran down to Llandudno for week-ends; and it was reported that he had been behind the scenes at the Alhambra. Clara felt for the word 'Harry' the unreasoning affection which most women lavish on 'George.'
'Like as not,' said Josiah. 'I haven't been to the works this afternoon.'
Another silence fell, and then Josiah, feeling himself unable to bear any further suspense as to his wife's real mood and temper, suddenly determined to tell her all about the geese, and know the worst. And precisely at the instant that he opened his mouth, the maid opened the door and announced:
'Mr. Duncalf wishes to see you at once, sir. He won't keep you a minute.'
'Ask him in here, Mary,' said the Deputy-Mayoress sweetly; 'and bring another cup and saucer.'
Mr. Duncalf was the Town Clerk of Bursley: legal, portly, dry, and a little shy.
'I won't stop, Curtenty. How d'ye do, Mrs. Curtenty? No, thanks, really——' But she, smiling, exquisitely gracious, flattered and smoothed him into a chair.
'Any interesting news, Mr. Duncalf?' she said, and added: 'But we're glad that anything should have brought you in.'
'Well,' said Duncalf, 'I've just had a letter by the afternoon post from Lord Chell.'
'Oh, the Earl! Indeed; how very interesting.'
'What's he after?' inquired Josiah cautiously.
'He says he's just been appointed Governor of East Australia—announcement 'll be in to-morrow's papers—and so he must regretfully resign the mayoralty. Says he'll pay the fine, but of course we shall have to remit that by special resolution of the Council.'
'Well, I'm damned!' Josiah exclaimed.
'Topham!' Mrs. Curtenty remonstrated, but with a delightful acquitting dimple. She never would call him Josiah, much less Jos. Topham came more easily to her lips, and sometimes Top.
'Your husband,' said Mr. Duncalf impressively to Clara, 'will, of course, have to step into the Mayor's shoes, and you'll have to fill the place of the Countess.' He paused, and added: 'And very well you'll do it, too—very well. Nobody better.'
The Town Clerk frankly admired Clara.
'Mr. Duncalf—Mr. Duncalf!' She raised a finger at him. 'You are the most shameless flatterer in the town.'
The flatterer was flattered. Having delivered the weighty news, he had leisure to savour his own importance as the bearer of it. He drank a cup of tea. Josiah was thoughtful, but Clara brimmed over with a fascinating loquacity. Then Mr. Duncalf said that he must really be going, and, having arranged with the Mayor-elect to call a special meeting of the Council at once, he did go, all the while wishing he had the enterprise to stay.
Josiah accompanied him to the front-door. The sky had now cleared.
'Thank ye for calling,' said the host.
'Oh, that's all right. Good-night, Curtenty. Got that goose out of the canal?'
So the story was all abroad!
Josiah returned to the dining-room, imperceptibly smiling. At the door the sight of his wife halted him. The face of that precious and adorable woman flamed out lightning and all menace and offence. Her louring eyes showed what a triumph of dissimulation she must have achieved in the presence of Mr. Duncalf, but now she could speak her mind.
'Yes, Topham!' she exploded, as though finishing an harangue. 'And on this day of all days you choose to drive geese in the public road behind my carriage!'
Jos was stupefied, annihilated.
'Did you see me, then, Clarry?'
He vainly tried to carry it off.
'Did I see you? Of course I saw you!'
She withered him up with the hot wind of scorn.
'Well,' he said foolishly, 'how was I to know that the Earl would resign just to-day?'
'How were you to——?'
Harry came in for his tea. He glanced from one to the other, discreet, silent. On the way home he had heard the tale of the geese in seven different forms. The Deputy-Mayor, so soon to be Mayor, walked out of the room.
'Pond has just come back, father,' said Harry; 'I drove up the hill with him.'
And as Josiah hesitated a moment in the hall, he heard Clara exclaim, 'Oh, Harry!'
'Damn!' he murmured.
The Signal of the following day contained the announcement which Mr. Duncalf had forecast; it also stated, on authority, that Mr. Josiah Curtenty would wear the mayoral chain of Bursley immediately, and added as its own private opinion that, in default of the Right Honourable the Earl of Chell and his Countess, no better 'civic heads' could have been found than Mr. Curtenty and his charming wife. So far the tone of the Signal was unimpeachable. But underneath all this was a sub-title, 'Amusing Exploit of the Mayor-elect,' followed by an amusing description of the procession of the geese, a description which concluded by referring to Mr. Curtenty as His Worship the Goosedriver.
Hanbridge, Knype, Longshaw, and Turnhill laughed heartily, and perhaps a little viciously, at this paragraph, but Bursley was annoyed by it. In print the affair did not look at all well. Bursley prided itself on possessing a unique dignity as the 'Mother of the Five Towns,' and to be presided over by a goosedriver, however humorous and hospitable he might be, did not consort with that dignity. A certain Mayor of Longshaw, years before, had driven a sow to market, and derived a tremendous advertisement therefrom, but Bursley had no wish to rival Longshaw in any particular. Bursley regarded Longshaw as the Inferno of the Five Towns. In Bursley you were bidden to go to Longshaw as you were bidden to go to ... Certain acute people in Hillport saw nothing but a paralyzing insult in the opinion of the Signal (first and foremost a Hanbridge organ), that Bursley could find no better civic head than Josiah Curtenty. At least three Aldermen and seven Councillors privately, and in the Tiger, disagreed with any such view of Bursley's capacity to find heads.
And underneath all this brooding dissatisfaction lurked the thought, as the alligator lurks in a muddy river, that 'the Earl wouldn't like it'—meaning the geese episode. It was generally felt that the Earl had been badly treated by Jos Curtenty. The town could not explain its sentiments—could not argue about them. They were not, in fact, capable of logical justification; but they were there, they violently existed. It would have been useless to point out that if the inimitable Jos had not been called to the mayoralty the episode of the geese would have passed as a gorgeous joke; that everyone had been vastly amused by it until that desolating issue of the Signal announced the Earl's retirement; that Jos Curtenty could not possibly have foreseen what was about to happen; and that, anyhow, goosedriving was less a crime than a social solecism, and less a social solecism than a brilliant eccentricity. Bursley was hurt, and logic is no balm for wounds.
Some may ask: If Bursley was offended, why did it not mark its sense of Josiah's failure to read the future by electing another Mayor? The answer is, that while all were agreed that his antic was inexcusable, all were equally agreed to pretend that it was a mere trifle of no importance; you cannot deprive a man of his prescriptive right for a mere trifle of no importance. Besides, nobody could be so foolish as to imagine that goosedriving, though reprehensible in a Mayor about to succeed an Earl, is an act of which official notice can be taken.
The most curious thing in the whole imbroglio is that Josiah Curtenty secretly agreed with his wife and the town. He was ashamed, overset. His procession of geese appeared to him in an entirely new light, and he had the strength of mind to admit to himself, 'I've made a fool of myself.'
Harry went to London for a week, and Josiah, under plea of his son's absence, spent eight hours a day at the works. The brougham remained in the coach-house.
The Town Council duly met in special conclave, and Josiah Topham Curtenty became Mayor of Bursley.
Shortly after Christmas it was announced that the Mayor and Mayoress had decided to give a New Year's treat to four hundred poor old people in the St. Luke's covered market. It was also spread about that this treat would eclipse and extinguish all previous treats of a similar nature, and that it might be accepted as some slight foretaste of the hospitality which the Mayor and Mayoress would dispense in that memorable year of royal festival. The treat was to occur on January 9, the Mayoress's birthday.
On January 7 Josiah happened to go home early. He was proceeding into the drawing-room without enthusiasm to greet his wife, when he heard voices within; and one voice was the voice of Gas Gordon.
Jos stood still. It has been mentioned that Gordon and the Mayor were in love with the same woman. The Mayor had easily captured her under the very guns of his not formidable rival, and he had always thereafter felt a kind of benevolent, good-humoured, contemptuous pity for Gordon—Gordon, whose life was a tragic blank; Gordon, who lived, a melancholy and defeated bachelor, with his mother and two unmarried sisters older than himself. That Gordon still worshipped at the shrine did not disturb him; on the contrary, it pleased him. Poor Gordon!
'But, really, Mrs. Curtenty,' Gordon was saying—'really, you know I—that—is—really—'
'To please me!' Mrs. Curtenty entreated, with a seductive charm that Jos felt even outside the door.
Then there was a pause.
'Very well,' said Gordon.
Mr. Curtenty tiptoed away and back into the street. He walked in the dark nearly to Oldcastle, and returned about six o'clock. But Clara said no word of Gordon's visit. She had scarcely spoken to Topham for three weeks.
The next morning, as Harry was departing to the works, Mrs. Curtenty followed the handsome youth into the hall.
'Harry,' she whispered, 'bring me two ten-pound notes this afternoon, will you, and say nothing to your father.'
Gas Gordon was to be on the platform at the poor people's treat. As he walked down Trafalgar Road his eye caught a still-exposed fragment of a decayed bill on a hoarding. It referred to a meeting of the local branch of the Anti-Gambling League a year ago in the lecture-hall of the Wesleyan Chapel, and it said that Councillor Gordon would occupy the chair on that occasion. Mechanically Councillor Gordon stopped and tore the fragment away from the hoarding.
The treat, which took the form of a dinner, was an unqualified success; it surpassed all expectations. Even the diners themselves were satisfied—a rare thing at such affairs. Goose was a prominent item in the menu. After the repast the replete guests were entertained from the platform, the Mayor being, of course, in the chair. Harry sang 'In Old Madrid,' accompanied by his stepmother, with faultless expression. Mr. Duncalf astonished everybody with the famous North-Country recitation, 'The Patent Hair-brushing Mashane.' There were also a banjo solo, a skirt dance of discretion, and a campanological turn. At last, towards ten o'clock, Mr. Gordon, who had hitherto done nothing, rose in his place, amid good-natured cries of 'Gas!'
'I feel sure you will all agree with me,' he began, 'that this evening would not be complete without a vote of thanks—a very hearty vote of thanks—to our excellent host and chairman.'
'I've got a little story to tell you,' he continued—'a story that up to this moment has been a close secret between his Worship the Mayor and myself.' His Worship looked up sharply at the speaker. 'You've heard about some geese, I reckon. (Laughter.) Well, you've not heard all, but I'm going to tell you. I can't keep it to myself any longer. You think his Worship drove those geese—I hope they're digesting well (loud laughter)—just for fun. He didn't. I was with him when he bought them, and I happened to say that goosedriving was a very difficult accomplishment.'
'Depends on the geese!' shouted a voice.
'Yes, it does,' Mr. Gordon admitted. 'Well, his Worship contradicted me, and we had a bit of an argument. I don't bet, as you know—at least, not often—but I don't mind confessing that I offered to bet him a sovereign he couldn't drive his geese half a mile. "Look here, Gordon," he said to me: "there's a lot of distress in the town just now—trade bad, and so on, and so on. I'll lay you a level ten pounds I drive these geese to Hillport myself, the loser to give the money to charity." "Done," I said. "Don't say anything about it," he says. "I won't," I says—but I am doing. (Applause.) I feel it my duty to say something about it. (More applause.) Well, I lost, as you all know. He drove 'em to Hillport. ('Good old Jos!') That's not all. The Mayor insisted on putting his own ten pounds to mine and making it twenty. Here are the two identical notes, his and mine.' Mr. Gordon waved the identical notes amid an uproar. 'We've decided that everyone who has dined here to-night shall receive a brand-new shilling. I see Mr. Septimus Lovatt from the bank there with a bag. He will attend to you as you go out. (Wild outbreak and tumult of rapturous applause.) And now three cheers for your Mayor—and Mayoress!'
It was colossal, the enthusiasm.
'And for Gas Gordon!' called several voices.
The cheers rose again in surging waves.
Everyone remarked that the Mayor, usually so imperturbable, was quite overcome—seemed as if he didn't know where to look.
Afterwards, as the occupants of the platform descended, Mr. Gordon glanced into the eyes of Mrs. Curtenty, and found there his exceeding reward. The mediocrity had blossomed out that evening into something new and strange. Liar, deliberate liar and self-accused gambler as he was, he felt that he had lived during that speech; he felt that it was the supreme moment of his life.
'What a perfectly wonderful man your husband is!' said Mrs. Duncalf to Mrs. Curtenty.
Clara turned to her husband with a sublime gesture of satisfaction. In the brougham, going home, she bewitched him with wifely endearments. She could afford to do so. The stigma of the geese episode was erased.
But the barmaid of the Tiger, as she let down her bright hair that night in the attic of the Tiger, said to herself, 'Well, of all the——' Just that.
* * * * *
THE ELIXIR OF YOUTH
It was Monday afternoon of Bursley Wakes—not our modern rectified festival, but the wild and naive orgy of seventy years ago, the days of bear-baiting and of bull-baiting, from which latter phrase, they say, the town derives its name. In those times there was a town-bull, a sort of civic beast; and a certain notorious character kept a bear in his pantry. The 'beating' (baiting) occurred usually on Sunday mornings at six o'clock, with formidable hungry dogs; and little boys used to look forward eagerly to the day when they would be old enough to be permitted to attend. On Sunday afternoons colliers and potters, gathered round the jawbone of a whale which then stood as a natural curiosity on the waste space near the corn-mill, would discuss the fray, and make bets for next Sunday, while the exhausted dogs licked their wounds, or died. During the Wakes week bull and bear were baited at frequent intervals, according to popular demand, for thousands of sportsmen from neighbouring villages seized the opportunity of the fair to witness the fine beatings for which Bursley was famous throughout the country of the Five Towns. In that week the Wakes took possession of the town, which yielded itself with savage abandonment to all the frenzies of license. The public-houses remained continuously open night and day, and the barmen and barmaids never went to bed; every inn engaged special 'talent' in order to attract custom, and for a hundred hours the whole thronged town drank, drank, until the supply of coin of George IV., converging gradually into the coffers of a few persons, ceased to circulate. Towards the end of the Wakes, by way of a last ecstasy, the cockfighters would carry their birds, which had already fought and been called off, perhaps, half a dozen times, to the town-field (where the discreet 40 per cent. brewery now stands), and there match them to a finish. It was a spacious age.
On this Monday afternoon in June the less fervid activities of the Wakes were proceeding as usual in the market-place, overshadowed by the Town Hall—not the present stone structure with its gold angel, but a brick edifice built on an ashlar basement. Hobby-horses and revolving swing-boats, propelled, with admirable economy to the proprietors, by privileged boys who took their pay in an occasional ride, competed successfully with the skeleton man, the fat or bearded woman, and Aunt Sally. The long toy-tents, artfully roofed with a tinted cloth which permitted only a soft, mellow light to illuminate the wares displayed, were crowded with jostling youth and full of the sound of whistles, 'squarkers,' and various pipes; and multitudes surrounded the gingerbread, nut, and savoury stalls which lined both sides of the roadway as far as Duck Bank. In front of the numerous boxing-booths experts of the 'fancy,' obviously out of condition, offered to fight all comers, and were not seldom well thrashed by impetuous champions of local fame. There were no photographic studios and no cocoanut-shies, for these things had not been thought of; and to us moderns the fair, despite its uncontrolled exuberance of revelry, would have seemed strangely quiet, since neither steam-organ nor hooter nor hurdy-gurdy was there to overwhelm the ear with crashing waves of gigantic sound. But if the special phenomena of a later day were missing from the carnival, others, as astonishing to us as the steam-organ would have been to those uncouth roisterers, were certainly present. Chief, perhaps, among these was the man who retailed the elixir of youth, the veritable eau de jouvence, to credulous drinkers at sixpence a bottle. This magician, whose dark mysterious face and glittering eyes indicated a strain of Romany blood, and whose accent proved that he had at any rate lived much in Yorkshire, had a small booth opposite the watch-house under the Town Hall. On a banner suspended in front of it was painted the legend:
THE INCA OF PERU'S ELIXER OF YOUTH SOLD HERE. ETERNAL YOUTH FOR ALL. DRINK THIS AND YOU WILL NEVER GROW OLD AS SUPPLIED TO THE NOBILITY & GENTRY SIXPENCE PER BOT. WALK IN, WALK IN, & CONSULT THE INCA OF PERU.
The Inca of Peru, dressed in black velveteens, with a brilliant scarf round his neck, stood at the door of his tent, holding an empty glass in one jewelled hand, and with the other twirling a long and silken moustache. Handsome, graceful, and thoroughly inured to the public gaze, he fronted a small circle of gapers like an actor adroit to make the best of himself, and his tongue wagged fast enough to wag a man's leg off. At a casual glance he might have been taken for thirty, but his age was fifty and more—if you could catch him in the morning before he had put the paint on.
'Ladies and gentlemen of Bursley, this enlightened and beautiful town which I am now visiting for the first time,' he began in a hard, metallic voice, employing again with the glib accuracy of a machine the exact phrases which he had been using all day, 'look at me—look well at me. How old do you think I am? How old do I seem? Twenty, my dear, do you say?' and he turned with practised insolence to a pot-girl in a red shawl who could not have uttered an audible word to save her soul, but who blushed and giggled with pleasure at this mark of attention. 'Ah! you flatter, fair maiden! I look more than twenty, but I think I may say that I do not look thirty. Does any lady or gentleman think I look thirty? No! As a matter of fact, I was twenty-nine years of age when, in South America, while exploring the ruins of the most ancient civilization of the world—of the world, ladies and gentlemen—I made my wonderful discovery, the Elixir of Youth!'
'What art blethering at, Licksy?' a drunken man called from the back of the crowd, and the nickname stuck to the great discoverer during the rest of the Wakes.
'That, ladies and gentlemen,' the Inca of Peru continued unperturbed, 'was—seventy-two years ago. I am now a hundred and one years old precisely, and as fresh as a kitten, all along of my marvellous elixir. Far older, for instance, than this good dame here.'
He pointed to an aged and wrinkled woman, in blue cotton and a white mutch, who was placidly smoking a short cutty. This creature, bowed and satiate with monotonous years, took the pipe from her indrawn lips, and asked in a weary, trembling falsetto:
'How many wives hast had?'
'Seventane,' the Inca retorted quickly, dropping at once into broad dialect, 'and now lone and lookin' to wed again. Wilt have me?'
'Nay,' replied the crone. 'I've buried four mysen, and no man o' mine shall bury me.'
There was a burst of laughter, amid which the Inca, taking the crowd archly into his confidence, remarked:
'I've never administered my elixir to any of my wives, ladies and gentlemen. You may blame me, but I freely confess the fact;' and he winked.
'Licksy! Licksy!' the drunken man idiotically chanted.
'And now,' the Inca proceeded, coming at length to the practical part of his ovation, 'see here!' With the rapidity of a conjurer he whipped from his pocket a small bottle, and held it up before the increasing audience. It contained a reddish fluid, which shone bright and rich in the sunlight. 'See here!' he cried magnificently, but he was destined to interruption.
A sudden cry arose of 'Black Jack! Black Jack! 'Tis him! He's caught!' And the Inca's crowd, together with all the other crowds filling the market-place, surged off eastward in a dense, struggling mass.
The cynosure of every eye was a springless clay-cart, which was being slowly driven past the newly-erected 'big house' of Enoch Wood, Esquire, towards the Town Hall. In this, cart were two constables, with their painted staves drawn, and between the constables sat a man securely chained—Black Jack of Moorthorne, the mining village which lies over the ridge a mile or so east of Bursley. The captive was a ferocious and splendid young Hercules, tall, with enormous limbs and hands and heavy black brows. He was dressed in his soiled working attire of a collier, the trousers strapped under the knees, and his feet shod in vast clogs. With open throat, small head, great jaws, and bold beady eyes, he looked what he was, the superb brute—the brute reckless of all save the instant satisfaction of his desires. He came of a family of colliers, the most debased class in a lawless district. Jack's father had been a colliery-serf, legally enslaved to his colliery, legally liable to be sold with the colliery as a chattel, and legally bound to bring up all his sons as colliers, until the Act of George III. put an end to this incredible survival from the customs of the Dark Ages. Black Jack was now a hero to the crowd, and knew it, for those vast clogs had kicked a woman to death on the previous day. She was a Moorthorne woman, not his wife, but his sweetheart, older than he; people said that she nagged him, and that he was tired of her. The murderer had hidden for a night, and then, defiantly, surrendered to the watch, and the watch were taking him to the watch-house in the ashlar basement of the Town Hall. The feeble horse between the shafts of the cart moved with difficulty through the press, and often the coloured staves of the constables came down thwack on the heads of heedless youth. At length the cart reached the space between the watch-house and the tent of the Inca of Peru, where it stopped while the constables unlocked a massive door; the prisoner remained proudly in the cart, accepting, with obvious delight, the tribute of cheers and jeers, hoots and shouts, from five thousand mouths.
The Inca of Peru stood at the door of his tent and surveyed Black Jack, who was not more than a few feet away from him.
'Have a glass of my elixir,' he said to the death-dealer; 'no one in this town needs it more than thee, by all accounts. Have a glass, and live for ever. Only sixpence.'
The man in the cart laughed aloud.
'I've nowt on me—not a farden,' he answered, in a strong grating voice.
At that moment a girl, half hidden by the cart, sprang forward, offering something in her outstretched palm to the Inca; but he, misunderstanding her intention, merely glanced with passing interest at her face, and returned his gaze to the prisoner.
'I'll give thee a glass, lad,' he said quickly, 'and then thou canst defy Jack Ketch.'
The crowd yelled with excitement, and the murderer held forth his great hand for the potion. Using every art to enhance the effect of this dramatic advertisement, the Inca of Peru raised his bottle on high, and said in a loud, impressive tone:
'This precious liquid has the property, possessed by no other liquid on earth, of frothing twice. I shall pour it into the glass, and it will froth. Black Jack will drink it, and after he has drunk it will froth again. Observe!'
He uncorked the bottle and filled the glass with the reddish fluid, which after a few seconds duly effervesced, to the vague wonder of the populace. The Inca held the glass till the froth had subsided, and then solemnly gave it to Black Jack.
'Drink!' commanded the Inca.
Black Jack took the draught at a gulp, and instantly flung the glass at the Inca's face. It missed him, however. There were signs of a fracas, but the door of the watch-house swung opportunely open, and Jack was dragged from the cart and hustled within. The crowd, with a crowd's fickleness, turned to other affairs.
That evening the ingenious Inca of Peru did good trade for several hours, but towards eleven o'clock the attraction of the public-houses and of a grand special combined bull and bear beating by moonlight in the large yard of the Cock Inn drew away the circle of his customers until there was none left. He retired inside the tent with several pounds in his pocket and a god's consciousness of having made immortal many of the sons and daughters of Adam.
As he was counting out his gains on the tub of eternal youth by the flicker of a dip, someone lifted the flap of the booth and stealthily entered. He sprang up, fearing robbery with violence, which was sufficiently common during the Wakes; but it was only the young girl who had stood behind the cart when he offered to Black Jack his priceless boon. The Inca had noticed her with increasing interest several times during the evening as she loitered restless near the door of the watch-house.
'What do you want?' he asked her, with the ingratiating affability of the rake who foresees everything.
'Give me a drink.'
'A drink of what, my dear?'
He raised the dip, and by its light examined her face. It was a kind of face which carries no provocative signal for nine men out of ten, but which will haunt the tenth: a child's face with a passionate woman's eyes burning and dying in it—black hair, black eyes, thin pale cheeks, equine nostrils, red lips, small ears, and the smallest chin conceivable. He smiled at her, pleased.
'Can you pay for it?' he said pleasantly.
The girl evidently belonged to the poorest class. Her shaggy, uncovered head, lean frame, torn gown, and bare feet, all spoke of hardship and neglect.
'I've a silver groat,' she answered, and closed her small fist tighter.
'A silver groat!' he exclaimed, rather astonished. 'Where did you get that from?'
'He give it me for a-fairing yesterday.'
'Him yonder'—she jerked her head back to indicate the watch-house—'Black Jack.'
'He kissed me,' she said boldly; 'I'm his sweetheart.'
'Eh!' The Inca paused a moment, startled. 'But he killed his sweetheart yesterday.'
'What! Meg!' the girl exclaimed with deep scorn. 'Her weren't his true sweetheart. Her druv him to it. Serve her well right! Owd Meg!'
'How old are you, my dear?'
'Don't know. But feyther said last Wakes I was fourtane. I mun keep young for Jack. He wunna have me if I'm owd.'
'But he'll be hanged, they say.'
She gave a short, satisfied laugh.
'Not now he's drunk Licksy—hangman won't get him. I heard a man say Jack 'd get off wi' twenty year for manslaughter, most like.'
'And you'll wait twenty years for him?'
'Yes,' she said; 'I'll meet him at prison gates. But I mun be young. Give me a drink o' Licksy.'
He drew the red draught in silence, and after it had effervesced offered it to her.
''Tis raight?' she questioned, taking the glass.
The Inca nodded, and, lifting the vessel, she opened her eager lips and became immortal. It was the first time in her life that she had drunk out of a glass, and it would be the last.
Struck dumb by the trusting joy in those profound eyes, the Inca took the empty glass from her trembling hand. Frail organism and prey of love! Passion had surprised her too young. Noon had come before the flower could open. She went out of the tent.
'Wench!' the Inca called after her, 'thy groat!'
She paid him and stood aimless for a second, and then started to cross the roadway. Simultaneously there was a rush and a roar from the Cock yard close by. The raging bull, dragging its ropes, and followed by a crowd of alarmed pursuers, dashed out. The girl was plain in the moonlight. Many others were abroad, but the bull seemed to see nothing but her, and, lowering his huge head, he charged with shut eyes and flung her over the Inca's booth.
'Thou's gotten thy wish: thou'rt young for ever!' the Inca of Peru, made a poet for an instant by this disaster, murmured to himself as he bent with the curious crowd over the corpse.
Black Jack was hanged.
Many years after all this Bursley built itself a new Town Hall (with a spire, and a gold angel on the top in the act of crowning the bailiwick with a gold crown), and began to think about getting up in the world.
* * * * *
MARY WITH THE HIGH HAND
In the front-bedroom of Edward Beechinor's small house in Trafalgar Road the two primary social forces of action and reaction—those forces which under a thousand names and disguises have alternately ruled the world since the invention of politics—were pitted against each other in a struggle rendered futile by the equality of the combatants. Edward Beechinor had his money, his superior age, and the possible advantage of being a dying man; Mark Beechinor had his youth and his devotion to an ideal. Near the window, aloof and apart, stood the strange, silent girl whose aroused individuality was to intervene with such effectiveness on behalf of one of the antagonists. It was early dusk on an autumn day.
'Tell me what it is you want, Edward,' said Mark quietly. 'Let us come to the point.'
'Ay,' said the sufferer, lifting his pale hand from the counterpane, 'I'll tell thee.'
He moistened his lips as if in preparation, and pushed back a tuft of sparse gray hair, damp with sweat.
The physical and moral contrast between these two brothers was complete. Edward was forty-nine, a small, thin, stunted man, with a look of narrow cunning, of petty shrewdness working without imagination. He had been clerk to Lawyer Ford for thirty-five years, and had also furtively practised for himself. During this period his mode of life had never varied, save once, and that only a year ago. At the age of fourteen he sat in a grimy room with an old man on one side of him, a copying-press on the other, and a law-stationer's almanac in front, and he earned half a crown a week. At the age of forty-eight he still sat in the same grimy room (of which the ceiling had meanwhile been whitened three times), with the same copying-press and the almanac of the same law-stationers, and he earned thirty shillings a week. But now he, Edward Beechinor, was the old man, and the indispensable lad of fourteen, who had once been himself, was another lad, perhaps thirtieth of the dynasty of office-boys. Throughout this interminable and sterile desert of time he had drawn the same deeds, issued the same writs, written the same letters, kept the same accounts, lied the same lies, and thought the same thoughts. He had learnt nothing except craft, and forgotten nothing except happiness. He had never married, never loved, never been a rake, nor deviated from respectability. He was a success because he had conceived an object, and by sheer persistence attained it. In the eyes of Bursley people he was a very decent fellow, a steady fellow, a confirmed bachelor, a close un, a knowing customer, a curmudgeon, an excellent clerk, a narrow-minded ass, a good Wesleyan, a thrifty individual, and an intelligent burgess—according to the point of view. The lifelong operation of rigorous habit had sunk him into a groove as deep as the canon of some American river. His ideas on every subject were eternally and immutably fixed, and, without being altogether aware of it, he was part of the solid foundation of England's greatness. In 1892, when the whole of the Five Towns was agitated by the great probate case of Wilbraham v. Wilbraham, in which Mr. Ford acted for the defendants, Beechinor, then aged forty-eight, was torn from his stool and sent out to Rio de Janeiro as part of a commission to take the evidence of an important witness who had declined all offers to come home.
The old clerk was full of pride and self-importance at being thus selected, but secretly he shrank from the journey, the mere idea of which filled him with vague apprehension and alarm. His nature had lost all its adaptability; he trembled like a young girl at the prospect of new experiences. On the return voyage the vessel was quarantined at Liverpool for a fortnight, and Beechinor had an attack of low fever. Eight months afterwards he was ill again. Beechinor went to bed for the last time, cursing Providence, Wilbraham v. Wilbraham, and Rio.
Mark Beechinor was thirty, just nineteen years younger than his brother. Tall, uncouth, big-boned, he had a rather ferocious and forbidding aspect; yet all women seemed to like him, despite the fact that he seldom could open his mouth to them. There must have been something in his wild and liquid dark eyes which mutely appealed for their protective sympathy, something about him of shy and wistful romance that atoned for the huge awkwardness of this taciturn elephant. Mark was at present the manager of a small china manufactory at Longshaw, the farthest of the Five Towns in Staffordshire, and five miles from Bursley. He was an exceptionally clever potter, but he never made money. He had the dreamy temperament of the inventor. He was a man of ideas, the kind of man who is capable of forgetting that he has not had his dinner, and who can live apparently content amid the grossest domestic neglect. He had once spoilt a hundred and fifty pounds' worth of ware by firing it in a new kiln of his own contrivance; it cost him three years of atrocious parsimony to pay for the ware and the building of the kiln. He was impulsively and recklessly charitable, and his Saturday afternoons and Sundays were chiefly devoted to the passionate propagandism of the theories of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
'Is it true as thou'rt for marrying Sammy Mellor's daughter over at Hanbridge?' Edward Beechinor asked, in the feeble, tremulous voice of one agonized by continual pain.
Among relatives and acquaintances he commonly spoke the Five Towns dialect, reserving the other English for official use.
Mark stood at the foot of the bed, leaning with his elbows on the brass rail. Like most men, he always felt extremely nervous and foolish in a sick-room, and the delicacy of this question, so bluntly put, added to his embarrassment. He looked round timidly in the direction of the girl at the window; her back was towards him.
'It's possible,' he replied. 'I haven't asked her yet.'
'Her'll have no money?'
'Thou'lt want some brass to set up with. Look thee here, Mark: I made my will seven years ago i' thy favour.'
'Thank ye,' said Mark gratefully.
'But that,' the dying man continued with a frown—'that was afore thou'dst taken up with these socialistic doctrines o' thine. I've heard as thou'rt going to be th' secretary o' the Hanbridge Labour Church, as they call it.'
Hanbridge is the metropolis of the Five Towns, and its Labour Church is the most audacious and influential of all the local activities, half secret, but relentlessly determined, whose aim is to establish the new democratic heaven and the new democratic earth by means of a gradual and bloodless revolution. Edward Beechinor uttered its abhorred name with a bitter and scornful hatred characteristic of the Toryism of a man who, having climbed high up out of the crowd, fiercely resents any widening or smoothing of the difficult path which he himself has conquered.
'They've asked me to take the post,' Mark answered.
'What's the wages?' the older man asked, with exasperated sarcasm.
'Mark, lad,' the other said, softening, 'I'm worth seven hundred pounds and this freehold house. What dost think o' that?'
Even in that moment, with the world and its riches slipping away from his dying grasp, the contemplation of this great achievement of thrift filled Edward Beechinor with a sublime satisfaction. That sum of seven hundred pounds, which many men would dissipate in a single night, and forget the next morning that they had done so, seemed vast and almost incredible to him.
'I know you've always been very careful,' said Mark politely.
'Give up this old Labour Church'—again old Beechinor laid a withering emphasis on the phrase—'give up this Labour Church, and its all thine—house and all.'
Mark shook his head.
'Think twice,' the sick man ordered angrily. 'I tell thee thou'rt standing to lose every shilling.'
'I must manage without it, then.'
A silence fell.
Each brother was absolutely immovable in his decision, and the other knew it. Edward might have said: 'I am a dying man: give up this thing to oblige me.' And Mark could have pleaded: 'At such a moment I would do anything to oblige you—except this, and this I really can't do. Forgive me.' Such amenities would possibly have eased the cord which was about to snap; but the idea of regarding Edward's condition as a factor in the case did not suggest itself favourably to the grim Beechinor stock, so stern, harsh, and rude. The sick man wiped from his sunken features the sweat which continually gathered there. Then he turned upon his side with a grunt.
'Thou must fetch th' lawyer,' he said at length, 'for I'll cut thee off.'
It was a strange request—like ordering a condemned man to go out and search for his executioner; but Mark answered with perfect naturalness:
'Yes. Mr. Ford, I suppose?'
'Ford? No! Dost think I want him meddling i' my affairs? Go to young Baines up th' road. Tell him to come at once. He's sure to be at home, as it's Saturday night.'
Mark turned to leave the room.
'And, young un, I've done with thee. Never pass my door again till thou know'st I'm i' my coffin. Understand?'
Mark hesitated a moment, and then went out, quietly closing the door. No sooner had he done so than the girl, hitherto so passive at the window, flew after him.
There are some women whose calm, enigmatic faces seem always to suggest the infinite. It is given to few to know them, so rare as they are, and their lives usually so withdrawn; but sometimes they pass in the street, or sit like sphinxes in the church or the theatre, and then the memory of their features, persistently recurring, troubles us for days. They are peculiar to no class, these women: you may find them in a print gown or in diamonds. Often they have thin, rather long lips and deep rounded chins; but it is the fine upward curve of the nostrils and the fall of the eyelids which most surely mark them. Their glances and their faint smiles are beneficent, yet with a subtle shade of half-malicious superiority. When they look at you from under those apparently fatigued eyelids, you feel that they have an inward and concealed existence far beyond the ordinary—that they are aware of many things which you can never know. It is as though their souls, during former incarnations, had trafficked with the secret forces of nature, and so acquired a mysterious and nameless quality above all the transient attributes of beauty, wit, and talent. They exist: that is enough; that is their genius. Whether they control, or are at the mercy of, those secret forces; whether they have in fact learnt, but may not speak, the true answer to the eternal Why; whether they are not perhaps a riddle even to their own simple selves: these are points which can never be decided.
Everyone who knew Mary Beechinor, in her cousin's home, or at chapel, or on Titus Price's earthenware manufactory, where she worked, said or thought that 'there was something about her ...' and left the phrase unachieved. She was twenty-five, and she had lived under the same roof with Edward Beechinor for seven years, since the sudden death of her parents. The arrangement then made was that Edward should keep her, while she conducted his household. She had insisted on permission to follow her own occupation, and in order that she might be at liberty to do so she personally paid eighteenpence a week to a little girl who came in to perform sundry necessary duties every day at noon. Mary Beechinor was a paintress by trade. As a class the paintresses of the Five Towns are somewhat similar to the more famous mill-girls of Lancashire and Yorkshire—fiercely independent by reason of good wages earned, loving finery and brilliant colours, loud-tongued and aggressive, perhaps, and for the rest neither more nor less kindly, passionate, faithful, than any other Saxon women anywhere. The paintresses, however, have some slight advantage over the mill-girls in the outward reticences of demeanour, due no doubt to the fact that their ancient craft demands a higher skill, and is pursued under more humane and tranquil conditions. Mary Beechinor worked in the 'band-and-line' department of the painting-shop at Price's. You may have observed the geometrical exactitude of the broad and thin coloured lines round the edges of a common cup and saucer, and speculated upon the means by which it was arrived at. A girl drew those lines, a girl with a hand as sure as Giotto's, and no better tools than a couple of brushes and a small revolving table called a whirler. Forty-eight hours a week Mary Beechinor sat before her whirler. Actuating the treadle, she placed a piece of ware on the flying disc, and with a single unerring flip of the finger pushed it precisely to the centre; then she held the full brush firmly against the ware, and in three seconds the band encircled it truly; another brush taken up, and the line below the band also stood complete. And this process was repeated, with miraculous swiftness, hour after hour, week after week, year after year. Mary could decorate over thirty dozen cups and saucers in a day, at three halfpence the dozen. 'Doesn't she ever do anything else?' some visitor might curiously inquire, whom Titus Price was showing over his ramshackle manufactory. 'No, always the same thing,' Titus would answer, made proud for the moment of this phenomenon of stupendous monotony. 'I wonder how she can stand it—she has a refined face,' the visitor might remark; and Mary Beechinor was left alone again. The idea that her work was monotonous probably never occurred to the girl. It was her work—as natural as sleep, or the knitting which she always did in the dinner-hour. The calm and silent regularity of it had become part of her, deepening her original quiescence, and setting its seal upon her inmost spirit. She was not in the fellowship of the other girls in the painting-shop. She seldom joined their more boisterous diversions, nor talked their talk, and she never manoeuvred for their men. But they liked her, and their attitude showed a certain respect, forced from them by they knew not what. The powers in the office spoke of Mary Beechinor as 'a very superior girl.'
She ran downstairs after Mark, and he waited in the narrow hall, where there was scarcely room for two people to pass. Mark looked at her inquiringly. Rather thin, and by no means tall, she seemed the merest morsel by his side. She was wearing her second-best crimson merino frock, partly to receive the doctor and partly because it was Saturday night; over this a plain bibless apron. Her cold gray eyes faintly sparkled in anger above the cheeks white with watching, and the dropped corners of her mouth showed a contemptuous indignation. Mary Beechinor was ominously roused from the accustomed calm of years. Yet Mark at first had no suspicion that she was disturbed. To him that pale and inviolate face, even while it cast a spell over him, gave no sign of the fires within.
She took him by the coat-sleeve and silently directed him into the gloomy little parlour crowded with mahogany and horsehair furniture, white antimacassars, wax flowers under glass, and ponderous gilt-clasped Bibles.
'It's a cruel shame!' she whispered, as though afraid of being overheard by the dying man upstairs.
'Do you think I ought to have given way?' he questioned, reddening.
'You mistake me,' she said quickly; and with a sudden movement she went up to him and put her hand on his shoulder. The caress, so innocent, unpremeditated, and instinctive, ran through him like a voltaic shock. These two were almost strangers; they had scarcely met till within the past week, Mark being seldom in Bursley. 'You mistake me—it is a shame of him! I'm fearfully angry.'
'Angry?' he repeated, astonished.
'Yes, angry.' She walked to the window, and, twitching at the blind-cord, gazed into the dim street. It was beginning to grow dark. 'Shall you fetch the lawyer? I shouldn't if I were you. I won't.'
'I must fetch him,' Mark said.
She turned round and admired him. 'What will he do with his precious money?' she murmured.
'Leave it to you, probably.'
'Not he. I wouldn't touch it—not now; it's yours by rights. Perhaps you don't know that when I came here it was distinctly understood I wasn't to expect anything under his will. Besides, I have my own money ... Oh dear! If he wasn't in such pain, wouldn't I talk to him—for the first and last time in my life!'
'You must please not say a word to him. I don't really want the money.'
'But you ought to have it. If he takes it away from you he's unjust.'
'What did the doctor say this afternoon?' asked Mark, wishing to change the subject.
'He said the crisis would come on Monday, and when it did Edward would be dead all in a minute. He said it would be just like taking prussic acid.'
'Not earlier than Monday?'
'He said he thought Monday.'
'Of course I shall take no notice of what Edward said to me—I shall call to-morrow morning—and stay. Perhaps he won't mind seeing me. And then you can tell me what happens to-night.'
'I'm sure I shall send that lawyer man about his business,' she threatened.
'Look here,' said Mark timorously as he was leaving the house, 'I've told you I don't want the money—I would give it away to some charity; but do you think I ought to pretend to yield, just to humour him, and let him die quiet and peaceful? I shouldn't like him to die hating——'
'Never—never!' she exclaimed.
* * * * *
'What have you and Mark been talking about?' asked Edward Beechinor apprehensively as Mary re-entered the bedroom.
'Nothing,' she replied with a grave and soothing kindliness of tone.
'Because, miss, if you think——'
'You must have your medicine now, Edward.'
But before giving the patient his medicine she peeped through the curtain and watched Mark's figure till it disappeared up the hill towards Bleakridge. He, on his part, walked with her image always in front of him. He thought hers was the strongest, most righteous soul he had ever encountered; it seemed as if she had a perfect passion for truth and justice. And a week ago he had deemed her a capable girl, certainly—but lackadaisical!
* * * * *
The clock had struck ten before Mr. Baines, the solicitor, knocked at the door. Mary hesitated, and then took him upstairs in silence while he suavely explained to her why he had been unable to come earlier. This lawyer was a young Scotsman who had descended upon the town from nowhere, bought a small decayed practice, and within two years had transformed it into a large and flourishing business by one of those feats of energy, audacity, and tact, combined, of which some Scotsmen seem to possess the secret.
'Here is Mr. Baines, Edward,' Mary said quietly; and then, having rearranged the sick man's pillow, she vanished out of the room and went into the kitchen.
The gas-jet there showed only a point of blue, but she did not turn it up. Dragging an old oak rush-seated rocking-chair near to the range, where a scrap of fire still glowed, she rocked herself gently in the darkness.
After about half an hour Mr. Baines's voice sounded at the head of the stairs:
'Miss Beechinor, will ye kindly step up? We shall want some asseestance.'
She obeyed, but not instantly.
In the bedroom Mr. Baines, a fountain-pen between his fine white teeth, was putting some coal on the fire. He stood up as she entered.
'Mr. Beechinor is about to make a new will,' he said, without removing the pen from his mouth, 'and ye will kindly witness it.'
The small room appeared to be full of Baines—he was so large and fleshy and assertive. The furniture, even the chest of drawers, was dwarfed into toy-furniture, and Beechinor, slight and shrunken-up, seemed like a cadaverous manikin in the bed.
'Now, Mr. Beechinor.' Dusting his hands, the lawyer took a newly-written document from the dressing-table, and, spreading it on the lid of a cardboard box, held it before the dying man. 'Here's the pen. There! I'll help ye to hold it.'
Beechinor clutched the pen. His wrinkled and yellow face, flushed in irregular patches as though the cheeks had been badly rouged, was covered with perspiration, and each difficult movement, even to the slightest lifting of the head, showed extreme exhaustion. He cast at Mary a long sinister glance of mistrust and apprehension.
'What is there in this will?'
Mr. Baines looked sharply up at the girl, who now stood at the side of the bed opposite him. Mechanically she smoothed the tumbled bed-clothes.
'That's nowt to do wi' thee, lass,' said Beechinor resentfully.
'It isn't necessary that a witness to a will should be aware of its contents,' said Baines. 'In fact, it's quite unusual.'
'I sign nothing in the dark,' she said, smiling. Through their half-closed lids her eyes glimmered at Baines.
'Ha! Legal caution acquired from your cousin, I presume.' Baines smiled at her. 'But let me assure ye, Miss Beechinor, this is a mere matter of form. A will must be signed in the presence of two witnesses, both present at the same time; and there's only yeself and me for it.'
Mary looked at the dying man, whose features were writhed in pain, and shook her head.
'Tell her,' he murmured with bitter despair, and sank down into the pillows, dropping the fountain-pen, which had left a stain of ink on the sheet before Baines could pick it up.
'Well, then, Miss Beechinor, if ye must know,' Baines began with sarcasm, 'the will is as follows: The testator—that's Mr. Beechinor—leaves twenty guineas to his brother Mark to show that he bears him no ill-will and forgives him. The rest of his estate is to be realized, and the proceeds given to the North Staffordshire Infirmary, to found a bed, which is to be called the Beechinor bed. If there is any surplus, it is to go to the Law Clerks' Provident Society. That is all.'
'I shall have nothing to do with it,' Mary said coldly.
'Young lady, we don't want ye to have anything to do with it. We only desire ye to witness the signature.'
'I won't witness the signature, and I won't see it signed.'
'Damn thee, Mary! thou'rt a wicked wench,' Beechinor whispered in hoarse, feeble tones. He saw himself robbed of the legitimate fruit of all those interminable years of toilsome thrift. This girl by a trick would prevent him from disposing of his own. He, Edward Beechinor, shrewd and wealthy, was being treated like a child. He was too weak to rave, but from his aggrieved and furious heart he piled silent curses on her. 'Go, fetch another witness,' he added to the lawyer.
'Wait a moment,' said Baines. 'Miss Beechinor, do ye mean to say that ye will cross the solemn wish of a dying man?'
'I mean to say I won't help a dying man to commit a crime.'
'Yes,' she answered, 'a crime. Seven years ago Mr. Beechinor willed everything to his brother Mark, and Mark ought to have everything. Mark is his only brother—his only relation except me. And Edward knows it isn't me wants any of his money. North Staffordshire Infirmary indeed! It's a crime!... What business have you,' she went on to Edward Beechinor, 'to punish Mark just because his politics aren't——'
'That's beside the point,' the lawyer interrupted. 'A testator has a perfect right to leave his property as he chooses, without giving reasons. Now, Miss Beechinor, I must ask ye to be judeecious.'
Mary shut her lips.
'Her'll never do it. I tell thee, fetch another witness.'
The old man sprang up in a sort of frenzy as he uttered the words, and then fell back in a brief swoon.
Mary wiped his brow, and pushed away the wet and matted hair. Presently he opened his eyes, moaning. Mr. Baines folded up the will, put it in his pocket, and left the room with quick steps. Mary heard him open the front-door and then return to the foot of the stairs.
'Miss Beechinor,' he called, 'I'll speak with ye a moment.'
She went down.
'Do you mind coming into the kitchen?' she said, preceding him and turning up the gas; 'there's no light in the front-room.'
He leaned up against the high mantelpiece; his frock-coat hung to the level of the oven-knob. She had one hand on the white deal table. Between them a tortoiseshell cat purred on the red-tiled floor.
'Ye're doing a verra serious thing, Miss Beechinor. As Mr. Beechinor's solicitor, I should just like to be acquaint with the real reasons for this conduct.'
'I've told you.' She had a slightly quizzical look.
'Now, as to Mark,' the lawyer continued blandly, 'Mr. Beechinor explained the whole circumstances to me. Mark as good as defied his brother.'
'That's nothing to do with it.'
'By the way, it appears that Mark is practically engaged to be married. May I ask if the lady is yeself?'
'If so,' he proceeded, 'I may tell ye informally that I admire the pluck of ye. But, nevertheless, that will has got to be executed.'
'The young lady is a Miss Mellor of Hanbridge.'
'I'm going to fetch my clerk,' he said shortly. 'I can see ye're an obstinate and unfathomable woman. I'll be back in half an hour.'
When he had departed she bolted the front-door top and bottom, and went upstairs to the dying man.
Nearly an hour elapsed before she heard a knock. Mr. Baines had had to arouse his clerk from sleep. Instead of going down to the front-door, Mary threw up the bedroom window and looked out. It was a mild but starless night. Trafalgar Road was silent save for the steam-car, which, with its load of revellers returning from Hanbridge—that centre of gaiety—slipped rumbling down the hill towards Bursley.
'What do you want—disturbing a respectable house at this time of night?' she called in a loud whisper when the car had passed. 'The door's bolted, and I can't come down. You must come in the morning.'
'Miss Beechinor, ye will let us in—I charge ye.'
'It's useless, Mr. Baines.'
'I'll break the door down. I'm a strong man, and a determined. Ye are carrying things too far.'
In another moment the two men heard the creak of the bolts. Mary stood before them, vaguely discernible, but a forbidding figure.
'If you must—come upstairs,' she said coldly.
'Stay here in the passage, Arthur,' said Mr. Baines; 'I'll call ye when I want ye;' and he followed Mary up the stairs.
Edward Beechinor lay on his back, and his sunken eyes stared glassily at the ceiling. The skin of his emaciated face, stretched tightly over the protruding bones, had lost all its crimson, and was green, white, yellow. The mouth was wide open. His drawn features wore a terribly sardonic look—a purely physical effect of the disease; but it seemed to the two spectators that this mean and disappointed slave of a miserly habit had by one superb imaginative effort realized the full vanity of all human wishes and pretensions.
'Ye can go; I shan't want ye,' said Mr. Baines, returning to the clerk.
The lawyer never spoke of that night's business. Why should he? To what end? Mark Beechinor, under the old will, inherited the seven hundred pounds and the house. Miss Mellor of Hanbridge is still Miss Mellor, her hand not having been formally sought. But Mark, secretary of the Labour Church, is married. Miss Mellor, with a quite pardonable air of tolerant superiority, refers to his wife as 'a strange, timid little creature—she couldn't say Bo to a goose.'
* * * * *
This is a scandalous story. It scandalized the best people in Bursley; some of them would wish it forgotten. But since I have begun to tell it I may as well finish. Moreover, like most tales whispered behind fans and across club-tables, it carries a high and valuable moral. The moral—I will let you have it at once—is that those who love in glass houses should pull down the blinds.
He had got his collar on safely; it bore his name—Ellis Carter. Strange name for a dog, perhaps; and perhaps it was even more strange that his collar should be white. But such dogs are not common dogs. He tied his necktie exquisitely; caressed his hair again with two brushes; curved his young moustache, and then assumed his waistcoat and his coat; the trousers had naturally preceded the collar. He beheld the suit in the glass, and saw that it was good. And it was not built in London, either. There are tailors in Bursley. And in particular there is the dog's tailor. Ask the dog's tailor, as the dog once did, whether he can really do as well as London, and he will smile on you with gentle pity; he will not stoop to utter the obvious Yes. He may casually inform you that, if he is not in London himself, the explanation is that he has reasons for preferring Bursley. He is the social equal of all his clients. He belongs to the dogs' club. He knows, and everybody knows, that he is a first-class tailor with a first-class connection, and no dog would dare to condescend to him. He is a great creative artist; the dogs who wear his clothes may be said to interpret his creations. Now, Ellis was a great interpretative artist, and the tailor recognised the fact. When the tailor met Ellis on Duck Bank greatly wearing a new suit, the scene was impressive. It was as though Elgar had stopped to hear Paderewski play 'Pomp and Circumstance' on the piano.
Ellis descended from his bedroom into the hall, took his straw hat, chose a stick, and went out into the portico of the new large house on the Hawkins, near Oldcastle. In the neighbourhood of the Five Towns no road is more august, more correct, more detached, more umbrageous, than the Hawkins. M.P.'s live there. It is the link between the aristocratic and antique aloofness of Oldcastle and the solid commercial prosperity of the Five Towns. Ellis adorned the portico. Young (a bare twenty-two), fair, handsome, smiling, graceful, well-built, perfectly groomed, he was an admirable and a characteristic specimen of the race of dogs which, with the modern growth of luxury and the Luxurious Spirit, has become so marked a phenomenon in the social development of the once barbarous Five Towns.
When old Jack Carter (reputed to be the best turner that Bursley ever produced) started a little potbank near St. Peter's Church in 1861—he was then forty, and had saved two hundred pounds—he little dreamt that the supreme and final result after forty years would be the dog. But so it was. Old Jack Carter had a son John Carter, who married at twenty-five and lived at first on twenty-five shillings a week, and enthusiastically continued the erection of the fortune which old Jack had begun. At thirty-three, after old Jack's death, John became a Town Councillor. At thirty-six he became Mayor and the father of Ellis, and the recipient of a silver cradle. Ellis was his wife's maiden name. At forty-two he built the finest earthenware manufactory in Bursley, down by the canal-side at Shawport. At fifty-two he had been everything that a man can be in the Five Towns—from County Councillor to President of the Society for the Prosecution of Felons. Then Ellis left school and came to the works to carry on the tradition, and his father suddenly discovered him. The truth was that John Carter had been so laudably busy with the affairs of his town and county that he had nearly forgotten his family. Ellis, in the process of achieving doghood, soon taught his father a thing or two. And John learnt. John could manage a public meeting, but he could not manage Ellis. Besides, there was plenty of money; and Ellis was so ingratiating, and had curly hair that somehow won sympathy. And, after all, Ellis was not such a duffer as all that at the works. John knew other people's sons who were worse. And Ellis could keep order in the paintresses' 'shops' as order had never been kept there before.
John sometimes wondered what old Jack would have said about Ellis and his friends, those handsome dogs, those fine dandies, who taught to the Five Towns the virtue of grace and of style and of dash, who went up to London—some of them even went to Paris—and brought back civilization to the Five Towns, who removed from the Five Towns the reproach of being uncouth and behind the times. Was the outcome of two generations of unremitting toil merely Ellis? (Ellis had several pretty sisters, but they did not count.) John could only guess at what old Jack's attitude might have been towards Ellis—Ellis, who had his shirts made to measure. He knew exactly what was Ellis's attitude towards the ideals of old Jack, old Jack the class-leader, who wore clogs till he was thirty, and dined in his shirt-sleeves at one o'clock to the end of his life.
Ellis quitted the portico, ran down the winding garden-path, and jumped neatly and fearlessly on to an electric tramcar as it passed at the rate of fifteen miles an hour. The car was going to Hanbridge, and it was crowded with the joy of life; Ellis had to stand on the step. This was the Saturday before the first Monday in August, and therefore the formal opening of Knype Wakes, the most carnivalesque of all the carnivals which enliven the four seasons in the Five Towns. It is still called Knype Wakes, because once Knype overshadowed Hanbridge in importance; but its headquarters are now quite properly at Hanbridge, the hub, the centre, the Paris of the Five Towns—Hanbridge, the county borough of sixty odd thousand inhabitants. It is the festival of the masses that old Jack sprang from, and every genteel person who can leaves the Five Towns for the seaside at the end of July. Nevertheless, the district is never more crammed than at Knype Wakes. And, of course, genteel persons, whom circumstances have forced to remain in the Five Towns, sally out in the evening to 'do' the Wakes in a spirit of tolerant condescension. Ellis was in this case. His parents and sisters were at Llandudno, and he had been left in charge of the works and of the new house. He was always free; he could always pity the bondage of his sisters; but now he was more free than ever—he was absolutely free. Imagine the delicious feeling that surged in his heart as he prepared to plunge himself doggishly into the wild ocean of the Wakes. By the way, in that heart was the image of a girl.
He stepped off the car on the outskirts of Hanbridge, and strolled gently and spectacularly into the joyous town. The streets became more and more crowded and noisy as he approached the market-place, and in Crown Square tramcars from the four quarters of the earth discharged tramloads of humanity at the rate of two a minute, and then glided off again empty in search of more humanity. The lower portion of Crown Square was devoted to tramlines; in the upper portion the Wakes began, and spread into the market-place, and thence by many tentacles into all manner of streets.
No Wakes is better than Knype Wakes; that is to say, no Wakes is more ear-splitting, more terrific, more dizzying, or more impassable. When you go to Knype Wakes you get stuck in the midst of an enormous crowd, and you see roundabouts, swings, switchbacks, myrioramas, atrocity booths, quack dentists, shooting-galleries, cocoanut-shies, and bazaars, all around you. Every establishment is jewelled, gilded, and electrically lighted; every establishment has an orchestra, most often played by steam and conducted by a stoker; every establishment has a steam—whistle, which shrieks at the beginning and at the end of each round or performance. You stand fixed in the multitude listening to a thousand orchestras and whistles, with the roar of machinery and the merry din of car-bells, and the popping of rifles for a background of noise. Your eyes are charmed by the whirling of a million lights and the mad whirling of millions of beautiful girls and happy youths under the lights. For the roundabouts rule the scene; the roundabouts take the money. The supreme desire of the revellers is to describe circles, either on horseback or in yachts, either simple circles or complex circles, either up and down or straight along, but always circles. And it is as though inventors had sat up at nights puzzling their brains how best to make revellers seasick while keeping them equidistant from a steam-orchestra.... Then the crowd solidly lurches, and you find yourself up against a dentist, or a firm of wrestlers, or a roundabout, or an ice-cream refectory, and you take what comes. You have begun to 'do' the Wakes. The splendid insanity seizes you. The lights, the colours, the explosions, the shrieks, the feathered hats, the pretty faces as they fly past, the gilding, the statuary, the August night, and the mingling of a thousand melodies in a counterpoint beyond the dreams of Wagner—these things have stirred the sap of life in you, have shown you how fine it is to be alive, and, careless and free, have caught up your spirit into a heaven from which you scornfully survey the year of daily toil between one Wakes and another as the eagle scornfully surveys the potato-field. Your nostrils dilate—nay, matters reach such a pass that, even if you are genteel, you forget to condescend.
After Ellis had had the correct drink in the private bar up the passage at the Turk's Head, and after he had plunged into the crowd and got lost in it, and submitted good-humouredly to the frequent ordeal of the penny squirt as administered by adorable creatures in bright skirts, he found himself cast up by the human ocean on the macadam shore near a shooting-gallery. This was no ordinary shooting-gallery. It was one of Jenkins's affairs (Jenkins of Manchester), and on either side of it Jenkins's Venetian gondalas and Jenkins's Mexican mustangs were whizzing round two of Jenkins's orchestras at twopence a time, and taking thirty-two pounds an hour. This gallery was very different from the old galleries, in which you leaned against a brass bar and shot up a kind of a drain. This gallery was a large and brilliant room, with the front-wall taken out. It was hung with mirrors and cretonnes, it was richly carpeted, and, of course, it was lighted by electricity. Carved and gilded tables bore a whole armoury of weapons. You shot at tobacco-pipes, twisting and stationary, at balls poised on jets of water, and at proper targets. In the corners of the saloon, near the open, were large crimson plush lounges, on which you lounged after the fatigue of shooting.
A pink-clad girl, young and radiant, had the concern in charge.
She was speeding a party of bankrupt shooters, when she caught sight of Ellis. Ellis answered her smile, and strolled up to the booth with a countenance that might have meant anything. You can never tell what a dog is thinking.
''Ello!' said the girl prettily (or, rather, she shouted prettily, having to compete with the two orchestras). 'You here again?'
The truth was that Ellis had been there on the previous night, when the Wakes was only half opened, and he had come again to-night expressly in order to see her; but he would not have admitted, even to himself, that he had come expressly in order to see her; in his mind it was just a chance that he might see her. She was a jolly girl. (We are gradually approaching the scandalous part.)
'What a jolly frock!' he said, when he had shot five celluloid balls in succession off a jet of water.
Smiling, she mechanically took a ball out of the basket and let it roll down the conduit to the fountain.
'Do you think so?' she replied, smoothing the fluffy muslin apron with her small hands, black from contact with the guns. 'That one I wore last night was my second-best. I only wear this on Saturdays and Mondays.'
He nodded like a connoisseur. The sixth ball had sprung up to the top of the jet. He removed it with the certainty of a King's Prize winner, and she complimented him.
'Ah!' he said, 'you should have seen me before I took to smoking and drinking!'
She laughed freely. She was always showing her fine teeth. And she had such a frank, jolly countenance, not exactly pretty—better than pretty. She was a little short and a little plump, and she wore a necklace round her neck, a ring on her dainty, dirty finger, and a watch-bracelet on her wrist.
'Why!' she exclaimed. 'How old are you?'
'How old are you?' he retorted.
Dogs do not give things away like that.
'I'm nineteen,' she said submissively. 'At least, I shall be come Martinmas.'
And she yawned.
'Well,' he said, 'a little girl like you ought to be in bed.'
'Sunday to-morrow,' she observed.
'Aren't you glad you're English?' he remarked. 'If you were in Paris you'd have to work Sundays too.'
'Not me!' she said. 'Who told you that? Have you been to Paris?'
'No,' he admitted cautiously; 'but a friend of mine has, and he told me. He came back only last week, and he says they keep open Sundays, and all night sometimes. Sunday is the great day over there.'
'Well,' said the girl kindly, 'don't you believe it. The police wouldn't allow it. I know what the police are.'
More shooters entered the saloon. Ellis had finished his dozen; he sank into a lounge, and elegantly lighted a cigarette, and watched her serve the other marksmen. She was decidedly charming, and so jolly—with him. He noticed with satisfaction that with the other marksmen she showed a certain high reserve.
They did not stay long, and when they were gone she came across to the lounge and gazed at him provocatively.
'Dashed if she hasn't taken a fancy to me!'
The thought ran through him like lightning.
'Well?' she said.
'What do you do with yourself Sundays?' he asked her.
'What do you do in the afternoon?'
She laughed gaily.
'Come out with me, eh?'
'To-morrow? Oh, I should LOVE TO!' she cried.
Her voice expanded into large capitals because by a singular chance both the neighbouring orchestras stopped momentarily together, and thus gave her shout a fair field. The effect was startling. It startled Ellis. He had not for an instant expected that she would consent. Never, dog though he was, had he armed a girl out on any afternoon, to say nothing of Sunday afternoon, and Knype's Wakes Sunday at that! He had talked about girls at the club. He understood the theory. But the practice——
The foundation of England's greatness is that Englishmen hate to look fools. The fear of being taken for a ninny will spur an Englishman to the most surprising deeds of courage. Ellis said 'Good!' with apparent enthusiasm, and arranged to be waiting for her at half-past two at the Turk's Head. Then he left the saloon and struck out anew into the ocean. He wanted to think it over.