The Matador of the Five Towns and Other Stories
Part 5 out of 6
aunt's spending the night wi' her."
"Then she's left the stage."
"Of course she's left th' stage. What 'ud be th' sense o' her painting
her face and screeching her chest out night after night for a crowd o'
blockheads, when I can keep her like a lady. Dost think her's a fool?
Her's the only woman wi' any sense as ever I met in all my life."
"And you want to come here and live?"
"No, us dunna! At least her dunna. Her says her hates th' Five Towns.
Her says Hanbridge is dirty and too religious for her. Says its nowt but
chapels and public-houses and pot-banks. So her ladyship wunna' come
here. No, nephew, thou shalt buy this house for six hundred, and be d--d
to thy foreclosure! And th' furniture for a hundred. It's a dead
bargain. Us'll settle at Scarborough, Liz and me. Now this water's
getting chilly. I'll nip up to thy room and find some other clothes."
"You can't go up just now," said Herbert.
"But I mun go at once, nephew. Th' water's chilly, and I've had enough
"The fact is we're using my old bedroom for a sort of a nursery, and
Alice and Jane Sarah are just giving the baby its bath."
"Babby!" cried Silas. "Shake hands, nephew. Give us thy fist. I may as
well out wi' it. I've gotten one mysen. Pour some more hot water in
THE TIGHT HAND
The tight hand was Mrs Garlick's. A miser, she was not the ordinary
miser, being exceptional in the fact that her temperament was joyous.
She had reached the thirtieth year of her widowhood and the sixtieth of
her age, with cheerfulness unimpaired. The people of Bursley, when they
met her sometimes of a morning coming down into the town from her
singular house up at Toft End, would be conscious of pleasure in her
brisk gait, her slightly malicious but broad-minded smile, and her
cheerful greeting. She was always in black. She always wore one of those
nodding black bonnets which possess neither back nor front, nor any clue
of any kind to their ancient mystery. She always wore a mantle which hid
her waist and spread forth in curves over her hips; and as her skirts
stuck stiffly out, she thus had the appearance of one who had been to
sleep since 1870, and who had got up, thoroughly refreshed and bright,
into the costume of her original period. She always carried a reticule.
It was known that she suffered from dyspepsia, and this gave real value
to her reputation for cheerfulness.
Her nearness, closeness, stinginess, close-fistedness--as the quality
was variously called--was excused to her, partly because it had been at
first caused by a genuine need of severe economy (she having been "left
poorly off" by a husband who had lived "in a large way"), partly because
it inconvenienced nobody save perhaps her servant Maria, and partly
because it was so picturesque and afforded much excellent material for
gossip. Mrs Garlick's latest feat of stinginess was invariably a safe
card to play in the conversational game. Each successive feat was
regarded as funnier than the one before it.
Maria, who had a terrific respect for appearances, never disclosed her
mistress's peculiarities. It was Mrs Garlick herself who humorously
ventilated and discussed them; Mrs Garlick, being a philosopher, got
quite as much amusement as anyone out of her most striking quality.
"Is there anything interesting in the _Signal_ to-night?" she had
innocently asked one of her sons.
"No," said Sam Garlick, unthinkingly.
"Well, then," said she, "suppose I turn out the gas and we talk in the
Soon afterwards Sam Garlick married; his mother remarked drily that she
was not surprised.
It was supposed that this feat of turning out the gas when the _Signal_
happened to fail in interest would remain unparalleled in the annals of
Five Towns skin-flintry. But in the summer after her son's marriage, Mrs
Garlick was discovered in the evening habit of pacing slowly up and down
Toft Lane. She said that she hated sitting in the dark alone, that Maria
would not have her in the kitchen, and that she saw no objection to
making harmless use of the Corporation gas by strolling to and fro under
the Corporation gas-lamps on fine nights. Compared to this feat the
previous feat was as naught. It made Mrs Garlick celebrated even as far
as Longshaw. It made the entire community proud of such an inventive
Once Mrs Garlick, before what she called her dinner, asked Maria, "Will
there be enough mutton for to-morrow?" And Maria had gloomily and firmly
said, "No." "Will there be enough if I don't have any to-day?" pursued
Mrs Garlick. And Maria had said, "Yes." "I won't have any then," said
Mrs Garlick. Maria was offended; there are some things that a servant
will not stand. She informed Mrs Garlick that if Mrs Garlick meant "to
go on going on like that" she should leave; she wouldn't stay in such a
house. In vain Mrs Garlick protested that the less she ate the better
she felt; in vain she referred to her notorious indigestion. "Either you
eats your dinner, mum, or out I clears!" Mrs Garlick offered her a rise
of L1 a year to stay. She was already, because she would stop and most
servants wouldn't, receiving L18, a high wage. She refused the
increment. Pushed by her passion for economy in mutton, Mrs Garlick then
offered her a rise of L2 a year. Maria accepted, and Mrs Garlick went
without mutton. Persons unacquainted with the psychology of
parsimoniousness may hesitate to credit this incident. But more advanced
students of humanity will believe it without difficulty. In the Five
Towns it is known to be true.
The supreme crisis, to which the foregoing is a mere prelude, in the
affairs of Mrs Garlick and Maria, was occasioned by the extraordinary
performances of the Mayor of Bursley. This particular mayor was invested
with the chain almost immediately upon the conclusion of a great series
of revival services in which he had conspicuously figured. He had an
earthenware manufactory half-way up the hill between Bursley and its
loftiest suburb, Toft End, and the smoke of his chimneys and kilns was
generally blown by a favourable wind against the windows of Mrs
Garlick's house, which stood by itself. Mrs Garlick made nothing of
this. In the Five Towns they think no more of smoke than the world at
large used to think of small-pox. The smoke plague is exactly as
curable as the small-pox plague. It continues to flourish, not because
smokiness is cheaper than cleanliness--it is dearer--but because a
greater nuisance than smoke is the nuisance of a change, and because
human nature in general is rather like Mrs Garlick: its notion of
economy is to pay heavily for the privilege of depriving itself of
something--mutton or cleanliness.
However, this mayor was different. He had emerged from the revival
services with a very tender conscience, and in assuming the chain of
office he assumed the duty of setting an example. It was to be no excuse
to him that in spite of bye-laws ten thousand other chimneys and kilns
were breathing out black filth all over the Five Towns. So far as he
could cure it the smoke nuisance had to be cured, or his conscience
would know the reason why! So he sat on the borough bench and fined
himself for his own smoke, and then he installed gas ovens. The town
laughed, of course, and spoke of him alternately as a rash fool, a
hypocrite, and a mere pompous ass. In a few months smoke had practically
ceased to ascend from the mayoral manufactory. The financial result to
the mayor was such as to encourage the tenderness of consciences. But
that is not the point. The point is that Mrs Garlick, re-entering her
house one autumn morning after a visit to the market, paused to look at
the windows, and then said to Maria:
"Maria, what have you to do this afternoon?"
Now Mrs Garlick well knew what Maria had to do.
"I'm going to change the curtains, mum."
"Well, you needn't," said Mrs Garlick. "It's made such a difference up
here, there being so much less smoke, that upon my word the curtains
will do another three months quite well!"
"Well, mum, I never did!" observed Maria, meaning that so shocking a
proposal was unprecedented in her experience. Yet she was thirty-five.
"Quite well!" said Mrs Garlick, gaily.
Maria said no more. But in the afternoon Mrs Garlick, hearing sounds in
the drawing-room, went into the drawing-room and discovered Maria
balanced on a pair of steps and unhooking lace curtains.
"Maria," said she, "what are you doing?"
Maria answered as busy workers usually do answer unnecessary questions
"I should ha' thought you could see, mum," she said tartly, insolently,
One curtain was already down.
"Put that curtain back," Mrs Garlick commanded.
"I shall put no curtain back!" said Maria, grimly; her excited
respiration shook the steps. "All to save the washing of four pair o'
curtains! And you know you beat the washerwoman down to tenpence a pair
last March! Three and fo'pence, that is! For the sake o' three and
fo'pence you're willing for all Toft End to point their finger at these
"Put that curtain back," Mrs Garlick repeated haughtily.
She saw that she had touched Maria in a delicate spot--her worship of
appearances. The mutton was simply nothing to these curtains.
Nevertheless, as there seemed to be some uncertainty in Maria's mind as
to who was the mistress of the house, Mrs Garlick's business was to
dispel that uncertainty. It may be said without exaggeration that she
succeeded in dispelling it. But she did not succeed in compelling Maria
to re-hang the curtain. Maria had as much force of character as Mrs
Garlick herself. The end of the scene, whose details are not
sufficiently edifying to be recounted, was that Maria went upstairs to
pack her box, and Mrs Garlick personally re-hung the curtain. One's
dignity is commonly an expensive trifle, and Mrs Garlick's dignity was
expensive. To avoid prolonging the scene she paid Maria a month's wages
in lieu of notice--L1, 13s, 4d. Then she showed her the door. Doubtless
(Mrs Garlick meditated) the girl thought she would get another rise of
wages. If so, she was finely mistaken. A nice thing if the servant is to
decide when curtains are to go to the wash! She would soon learn, when
she went into another situation, what an easy, luxurious place she had
lost by her own stupid folly! Three and fourpences might be picked up in
the street, eh? And so on.
After Maria's stormy departure Mrs Garlick regained her sense of humour
and her cheerfulness; but the inconveniences of being without Maria were
On the second day following, Mrs Garlick received a letter from "young
Lawton," the solicitor. Young Lawton, aged over forty, was not so-called
because in the Five Towns youthfulness is supposed to extend to the
confines of forty-five, but because he had succeeded his father, known
as "old Lawton"; it is true that the latter had been dead many years.
The Five Towns, however, is not a country of change. This letter pointed
out that Maria's wages were not L1, 13s. 4d. a month, but L1, 13s. 4d. a
month plus her board and lodging, and that consequently, in lieu of a
month's notice, Maria demanded L1, 13s. 4d. plus the value of a month's
There was more in this letter than met the eye of Mrs Garlick. Young
Lawton's offices were cleaned by a certain old woman; this old woman had
a nephew; this nephew was a warehouseman at the Mayor's works, and lived
up in Toft End, and at least twice every day he passed by Mrs Garlick's
house. He was a respectful worshipper of Maria's, and it had been
exclusively on his account that Maria had insisted on changing the
historic curtains. Nobody else of the slightest importance ever passed
in front of the house, for important people have long since ceased to
live at Toft End. The subtle flattering of an unspoken love had impelled
Maria to leave her situation rather than countenance soiled curtains.
She could not bear that the warehouseman should suspect her of
tolerating even the semblances of dirt. She had permitted the
warehouseman to hear the facts of her departure from Mrs Garlick's. The
warehouseman was nobly indignant, advising an action for assault and
battery. Through his aunt's legal relations Maria had been brought into
contact with the law, and, while putting aside as inadvisable an action
for assault and battery, the lawyer had counselled a just demand for
more money. Hence the letter.
Mrs Garlick called at Lawton's office, and, Mr Lawton being out, she
told an office-boy to tell him with her compliments that she should not
Then the County Court bailiff paid her a visit, and left with her a blue
summons for L2, 8s., being four weeks of twelve shillings each.
Many house-mistresses in Bursley sympathized with Mrs Garlick when she
fought this monstrous claim. She fought it gaily, with the aid of a
solicitor. She might have won it, if the County Court Judge had not
happened to be in one of his peculiar moods--one of those moods in which
he felt himself bound to be original at all costs. He delivered a
judgment sympathizing with domestic servants in general, and with Maria
in particular. It was a lively trial. That night the _Signal_ was very
interesting. When Mrs Garlick had finished with the action she had two
and threepence change out of a five-pound note.
Moreover, she was forced to employ a charwoman--a charwoman who had made
a fine art of breaking china, of losing silver teaspoons down sinks, and
of going home of a night with vast pockets full of things that belonged
to her by only nine-tenths of the law. The charwoman ended by tumbling
through a window, smashing panes to the extent of seventeen and
elevenpence, and irreparably ripping one of the historic curtains.
Mrs Garlick then dismissed the charwoman, and sat down to count the cost
of small economics. The privilege of half-dirty curtains had involved
her in an expense of _L9, 19s._, (call it L10). It was in the afternoon.
The figure of Maria crossed the recently-repaired window. Without a
second's thought Mrs Garlick rushed out of the house.
"Maria!" she cried abruptly--with grim humour. "Come here. Come right
Maria stopped, then obeyed.
"Do you know how much you've let me in for, with your wicked,
"I'd have you know, mum--" Maria retorted, putting her hands on the hips
and forwarding her face.
Their previous scene together was as nothing to this one in sound and
fury. But the close was peace. The next day half Bursley knew that Maria
had gone back to Mrs Garlick, and there was a facetious note about the
episode in the "Day by Day" column of the _Signal_. The truth was that
Maria and Mrs Garlick were "made for each other." Maria would not look
at the ordinary "place." The curtains, as much as remained, were sent to
the wash, but as three months had elapsed the mistress reckoned that she
had won. Still, the cleansing of the curtains had run up to appreciably
more than a sovereign per curtain.
The warehouseman did not ask for Maria's hand. The stridency of her
behaviour in court had frightened him.
Mrs Garlick's chief hobby continues to be the small economy. Happily,
owing to a rise in the value of a land and a fortunate investment, she
is in fairly well-to-do circumstances.
As she said one day to an acquaintance, "It's a good thing I can afford
to keep a tight hand on things."
WHY THE CLOCK STOPPED
Mr Morfe and Mary Morfe, his sister, were sitting on either side of
their drawing-room fire, on a Friday evening in November, when they
heard a ring at the front door. They both started, and showed symptoms
of nervous disturbance. They both said aloud that no doubt it was a
parcel or something of the kind that had rung at the front door. And
they both bent their eyes again on the respective books which they were
reading. Then they heard voices in the lobby--the servant's voice and
another voice--and a movement of steps over the encaustic tiles towards
the door of the drawing-room. And Miss Morfe ejaculated:
As though she was unwilling to believe that somebody on the other side
of that drawing-room door contemplated committing a social outrage, she
nevertheless began to fear the possibility.
In the ordinary course it is not considered outrageous to enter a
drawing-room--even at nine o'clock at night--with the permission and
encouragement of the servant in charge of portals. But the case of the
Morfes was peculiar. Mr Morfe was a bachelor aged forty-two, and looked
older. Mary Morfe was a spinster aged thirty-eight, and looked
thirty-seven. Brother and sister had kept house together for twenty
years. They were passionately and profoundly attached to each other--and
did not know it. They grumbled at each other freely, and practised no
more conversation, when they were alone, than the necessities of
existence demanded (even at meals they generally read), but still their
mutual affection was tremendous. Moreover, they were very firmly fixed
in their habits. Now one of these habits was never to entertain company
on Friday night. Friday night was their night of solemn privacy. The
explanation of this habit offers a proof of the sentimental relations
Mr Morfe was an accountant. Indeed, he was _the_ accountant in Bursley,
and perhaps he knew more secrets of the ledgers of the principal
earthenware manufacturers than some of the manufacturers did themselves.
But he did not live for accountancy. At five o'clock every evening he
was capable of absolutely forgetting it. He lived for music. He was
organist of Saint Luke's Church (with an industrious understudy--for he
did not always rise for breakfast on Sundays) and, more important, he
was conductor of the Bursley Orpheus Glee and Madrigal Club. And herein
lay the origin of those Friday nights. A glee and madrigal club
naturally comprises women as well as men; and the women are apt to be
youngish, prettyish, and somewhat fond of music. Further, the
conductorship of a choir involves many and various social encounters.
Now Mary Morfe was jealous. Though Richard Morfe ruled his choir with
whips, though his satiric tongue was a scorpion to the choir, though he
never looked twice at any woman, though she was always saying that she
wished he would marry, Mary Morfe was jealous. It was Mary Morfe who had
created the institution of the Friday night, and she had created it in
order to prove, symbolically and spectacularly, to herself, to him, and
to the world, that he and she lived for each other alone. All their
friends, every member of the choir, in fact the whole of the respectable
part of barsley, knew quite well that in the Morfes' house Friday was
And yet a caller!
"It's a woman," murmured Mary. Until her ear had assured her of this
fact she had seemed to be more disturbed than startled by the stir in
And it was a woman. It was Miss Eva Harracles, one of the principal
contraltos in the glee and madrigal club. She entered richly blushing,
and excusably a little nervous and awkward. She was a tall, agreeable
creature of fewer than thirty years, dark, almost handsome, with fine
lips and eyes, and an effective large hat and a good muff. In every
physical way a marked contrast to the thin, prim, desiccated brother and
Richard Morfe flushed faintly. Mary Morfe grew more pallid.
"I really must apologize for coming in like this," said Eva, as she
shook hands cordially with Mary Morfe. She knew Mary very well indeed.
For Mary was the "librarian" of the glee and madrigal club; Mary never
missed a rehearsal, though she cared no more for music than she cared
for the National Debt. She was a perfect librarian, and very good at
unofficially prodding indolent members into a more regular attendance
"Not at all!" said Mary. "We were only reading; you aren't disturbing us
in the least." Which, though polite, was a lie.
And Eva Harracles sat down between them. And brother and sister
abandoned their literature.
"I can't stop," said she, glancing at the clock immediately in front of
her eyes. "I must catch the last car for Silverhays."
"You've got twenty minutes yet," said Mr Morfe.
"Because," said Eva, "I don't want that walk from Turnhill to Silverhays
on a dark night like this."
"No, I should think not, indeed!" said Mary Morfe.
"You've got a full twenty minutes," Mr Morfe repeated. The clock showed
three minutes past nine.
The electric cars to and from the town of Turnhill were rumbling past
the very door of the Morfes every five minutes, and would continue to
do so till midnight. But Silverhays is a mining village a couple of
miles beyond Turnhill, and the service between Turnhill and Silverhays
ceases before ten o'clock. Eva's father was a colliery manager who lived
on the outskirts of Silverhays.
"I've got a piece of news," said Eva.
"Yes?" said Mary Morfe
Mr Morfe was taciturn. He stooped to nourish the fire.
"About Mr Loggerheads," said Eva, and stared straight at Mary Morfe.
"About Mr Loggerheads!" Mary Morfe echoed, and stared back at Eva. And
the atmosphere seemed to have been thrown into a strange pulsation.
Here perhaps I ought to explain that it was not the peculiarity of Mr
Loggerheads' name that produced the odd effect. Loggerheads is a local
term for a harmless plant called the knapweed _(centaurea nigra_), and
it is also the appellation of a place and of quite excellent people, and
no one regards it as even the least bit odd.
"I'm told," said Eva, "that he's going into the Hanbridge Choir!"
Mr Loggerheads was the principal tenor of the Bursley Glee and Madrigal
Club. And he was reckoned one of the finest "after-dinner tenors" in the
Five Towns. The Hanbridge Choir was a rival organization, a vast and
powerful affair that fascinated and swallowed promising singers from all
the choirs of the vicinity. The Hanbridge Choir had sung at Windsor, and
since that event there had been no holding it. All other choirs hated it
with a homicidal hatred.
"I'm told," Eva proceeded, "that the Birmingham and Sheffield Bank will
promote him to the cashiership of the Hanbridge Branch on the
understanding that he joins the Hanbridge Choir. Shows what influence
they have! And it shows how badly the Hanbridge Choir wants him."
(Mr Loggerheads was cashier of the Bursley branch of the Birmingham and
"Who told you?" asked Mary Morfe, curtly.
Richard Morfe said nothing. The machinations of the manager of the
Hanbridge Choir always depressed and disgusted him into silence.
"Oh!" said Eva Harracles. "It's all about." (By which she meant that it
was in the air.) "Everyone's talking of it."
"And do they say Mr Loggerheads has accepted?" Mary demanded.
"Yes," said Eva.
"Well," said Mary, "it's not true!... A mistake!" she added.
"How do you know it isn't true?" Mr Morfe inquired doubtfully.
"Since you're so curious," said Mary, defiantly, "Mr Loggerheads told me
"The other day."
"You never said anything to me," protested Mr Morfe.
"It didn't occur to me," Mary replied.
"Well, I'm very glad!" remarked Eva Harracles. "But I thought I ought to
let you know at once what was being said."
Mary Morfe's expression conveyed the fact that in her opinion Eva
Harracles' evening call was a vain thing, too lightly undertaken, and
conceivably lacking in the nicest discretion. Whereupon Mr Morfe was
evidently struck by the advisability of completely changing the subject.
And he did change it. He began to talk about certain difficulties in the
choral parts of Havergal Brian's _Vision of Cleopatra_, a work which he
meant the Bursley Glee and Madrigal Club to perform though it should
perish in the attempt. Growing excited, in his dry way, concerning the
merits of this composition, he rose from his easy chair and went to
search for it. Before doing so he looked at the clock, which indicated
twenty minutes past nine.
"Am I all right for time?" asked Eva.
"Yes, you're all right," said he. "If you go when that clock strikes
half-past, and take the next car down, you'll make the connection easily
at Turnhill. I'll put you into the car."
"Oh, thanks!" said Eva.
Mr Morfe kept his modern choral music beneath a broad seat under the bow
window. The music was concealed by a low curtain that ran on a rod--the
ingenious device of Mary. He stooped down to find the _Vision of
Cleopatra_, and at first he could not find it. Mary walked towards that
end of the drawing-room with a vague notion of helping him, and then Eva
did the same, and then Mary walked back, and then Mr Morfe happily put
his hand on the _Vision of Cleopatra_.
He opened the score for Eva's inspection, and began to hum passages and
to point out others, and Eva also began to hum, and they hummed in
concert, at intervals exclaiming against the wantonness with which
Havergal Brian had invented difficulties. Eva glanced at the clock.
"You're all right," Mr Morfe assured her somewhat impatiently. And he,
too, glanced at the clock: "You've still nearly ten minutes."
And proceeded with his critical and explanatory comments on the _Vision
He was capable of becoming almost delirious about music. Mary Morfe had
seated herself in silence.
At last Eva and Mr Morfe approached the fire and the mantelpiece again.
Mr Morfe shut up the score, dismissed his delirium, and looked at the
clock, quite prepared to see it pointing to twenty-nine and a half
minutes past nine. Instead, the clock pointed to only twenty-two
minutes past nine.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed. He went nearer.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed again rather more loudly. "I do believe that
It had. The pendulum hung perpendicular, motionless, dead.
He was astounded. For the clock had never been known to stop. It was a
presentation clock, of the highest guaranteed quality, offered to him as
a small token of regard and esteem by the members of the Bursley Orpheus
Glee and Madrigal Club to celebrate the twelfth anniversary of his
felicitous connection with the said society. It had stood on his
mantelpiece for four years and had earned an absolutely first-class
reputation for itself. He wound it up on the last day of every month,
for it was a thirty-odd day clock, specially made by a famous local
expert; and he had not known it to vary more than ten minutes a month at
the most. And lo! it had stopped in the very middle of the month.
"Did you wind it up last time?" asked Mary.
"Of course," he snapped. He had taken out his watch and was gazing at
it. He turned to Eva. "It's twenty to ten," he said. "You've missed your
connection at Turnhill--that's a certainty. I'm very sorry."
Obviously there was only one course open to a gallant man whose clock
was to blame: namely, to accompany Eva Harracles to Turnhill by car, to
accompany her on foot to Silverhays, then to walk back to Turnhill and
come home again by car. A young woman could not be expected to perform
that bleak and perhaps dangerous journey from Turnhill to Silverhays
alone after ten o'clock at night in November. Such was the clear course.
But he dared scarcely suggest it. He dared scarcely suggest it because
of his sister. He was afraid of Mary. The names of Richard Morfe and Eva
Harracles had already been coupled in the mouth of gossip. And
naturally Eva Harracles herself could not suggest that Richard should
sally out and leave his sister alone on this night specially devoted to
sisterliness and brotherliness. And of course, Eva thought, Mary will
never, never suggest it.
But Eva was wrong there.
To the amazement of both Richard and Eva, Mary calmly said:
"Well, Dick, the least you can do now is to see Miss Harracles home.
You'll easily be able to catch the last car back from Turnhill if you
start at once. I daresay I shall go to bed."
And in three minutes Richard Morfe and Eva Harracles were being sped
into the night by Mary Morfe.
The Morfes' house was at the corner of Trafalgar Road and Beech Street.
The cars stopped at that corner in their wild course towards the town
and towards Turnhill. A car was just coming. But instead of waiting for
it Richard Morfe and Eva Harracles deliberately turned their backs on
Trafalgar Road, and hurried side by side down Beech Street. Beech Street
is a short street, and ends in a nondescript unlighted waste patch of
ground. They arrived in the gloom of this patch, safe from all human
inquisitiveness, and then Richard Morfe warmly kissed Eva Harracles in
the mathematical centre of those lips of hers. And Eva Harracles showed
no resentment of any kind, nor even shame. Yet she had been very
carefully brought up. The sight would have interested Bursley immensely;
it would have appealed strongly to Bursley's strong sense of the
piquant.... That dry old stick Dick Morfe kissing one of his contraltos
in the dark at the bottom end of Beech Street.
"Then you hadn't told her!" murmured Eva Harracles.
"No!" said Richard, with a slight hesitation. "I was just going to begin
to tell her when you called."
Another woman might have pouted to learn that her lover had exhibited
even a little cowardice in informing his family that he was engaged to
be married. But Eva did not pout. She comprehended the situation, and
the psychology of the relations between brothers and sisters. (She
herself possessed both brothers and sisters.) All the courting had been
singularly secret and odd.
"I shall tell her to-morrow morning at breakfast," said Richard, firmly.
"Unless, after all, she isn't gone to bed when I get back."
By a common impulse they now returned towards Trafalgar Road.
"I say," said Richard, "what made you call?"
"I was passing," said the beloved. "And somehow I couldn't help it. Of
course, I knew it wasn't true about Mr Loggerheads. But I had to think
Richard was in ecstasy; had never been in such ecstasy.
"I say," he said again. "I suppose _you_ didn't put your finger against
the pendulum of that clock?"
"Oh, _no_!" she replied with emphasis.
"Well, I'm jolly glad it did stop, anyway," said Richard. "What a lark,
She agreed that the lark was ideal. They walked down the road till a car
should overtake them.
"Do you think she suspects anything?" Eva asked.
"I'll swear she doesn't," said Richard, positively. "It'll be a bit of a
startler for the old girl."
"No doubt you've heard," said Eva, haltingly, "that Mr Loggerheads has
cast eyes on Mary."
"And do you think there's anything _in_ that?" Richard questioned
"Well," she said, "I really don't know." Meaning that she decidedly
thought that Mary _had_ been encouraging advances from Mr Loggerheads.
"Well," said Richard, superiorly, "you may just take it from me that
there's nothing in it at all.... Ha!" He laughed shortly. He knew Mary.
Then they got on a car, and tried to behave as though their being
together was a mere accident, as though they had not become engaged to
one another within the previous twenty-four hours.
Immediately after the departure of Richard Morfe and Eva Harracles, his
betrothed, from the front door of the former, Mr Simon Loggerheads
arrived at the same front door, and rang thereat, and was a little
surprised, and also a little unnerved, when the door opened instantly,
as if by magic. Mr Simon Loggerheads said to himself, as he saw the door
move on its hinges, that Miss Morfe must have discovered a treasure of a
servant who, when she had nothing else to do, spent her time on the
inner door-mat waiting to admit possible visitors--even on Friday night.
Nevertheless, Mr Simon Loggerheads regretted that prompt opening, as one
regrets the prompt opening of the door of a dentist.
And it was no servant who stood in front of him, under the flickering
beam of the lobby-lamp. It was Mary Morfe herself. The simple
explanation was that she had just sped her brother and Eva Harracles,
and had remained in the lobby for the purpose of ascertaining by means
of her finger whether the servant had, as usual, forgotten to dust the
tops of the picture-frames.
"Oh!" said Mr Loggerheads, when he saw Mary Morfe. For the cashier of
the Bursley branch of the Birmingham and Sheffield Bank it was not a
very able speech, but it was all he could accomplish.
And Miss Mary Morfe said:
She was thirty-eight, and he was quite that (for the Bank mentioned
does not elevate its men to the august situation of cashier under less
than twenty years' service), and yet they neither of them had enough
worldliness to behave in a reasonable manner. Then Miss Morfe, to whom
it did at last occur that something must be done, produced an
"Do come in!" And she added, "Richard has just gone out."
"Oh!" commented Mr Simon Loggerheads again. (After all, it must be
admitted that tenors as a class have never been noted for their
conversational powers.) But he was obviously more at ease, and he went
in, and Mary Morfe shut the door. At this very instant her brother and
Eva were in secret converse at the back end of Beech Street.
"Do take your coat off!" Mary suggested to Simon. Simultaneously the
servant appeared at the kitchen extremity of the lobby, and Mary thrust
her out of sight again with the cold words: "It's all right, Susan."
Mr Loggerheads took his coat off, and Mary Morfe watched him as he did
He made a pretty figure. He was something of a dandy. The lapels of the
overcoat would have showed that, not to mention the correctly severe
necktie. All his clothes, in fact, had "cut and style," even to his
boots. In the Five Towns many a young man is a dandy down to the edge of
his trousers, but not down to the ground. Mr Loggerheads looked a young
man. The tranquillity of his career and the quietude of his tastes had
preserved his youthfulness. And, further, he had the air of a
successful, solid, much-respected individual. To be a cashier, though
worthy, is not to be a nabob, but a bachelor can save a lot out of over
twenty years of regular salary. And Mr Loggerheads had saved quite a
lot. And he had had opportunities of advantageously investing his
savings. Then everybody knew him, and he knew everybody. He handed out
gold at least once a week to nearly half the town, and you cannot help
venerating a man who makes a practice of handing out gold to you. And he
had thrilled thousands with the wistful beauty of his voice in "The
Sands of Dee." In a word, Simon Loggerheads was a personage, if not
They went into the drawing-room. Mary Morfe closed the door gently.
Simon Loggerheads strolled vaguely and self-consciously up to the
"So he's gone out?"
"Yes," said Mary Morfe, in confirmation of her first statement.
"I'm sorry!" said Simon Loggerheads. A statement which was absolutely
contrary to the truth. Simon Loggerheads was deeply relieved and glad
that Richard Morfe was out.
The pair, aged slightly under and slightly over forty, seemed to hover
for a fraction of a second uncertainly near each other, and then,
somehow, mysteriously, Simon Loggerheads had kissed Mary Morfe. She
blushed. He blushed. The kiss was repeated. Mary gazed up at him. Mary
could scarcely believe that he was hers. She could scarcely believe that
on the previous evening he had proposed marriage to her--rather
suddenly, so it seemed to her, but delightfully. She could comprehend
his conduct no better than her own. They two, staid, settled-down, both
of them "old maids," falling in love and behaving like lunatics! Mary, a
year ago, would have been ready to prophesy that if ever Simon
Loggerheads--at his age!--did marry, he would assuredly marry something
young, something ingenuous, something cream-and-rose, and probably
something with rich parents. For twenty years Simon Loggerheads had been
marked down for capture by the marriageable spinsters and widows, and
the mothers with daughters, of Bursley. And he had evaded capture,
despite the special temptations to which an after-dinner tenor is
necessarily subject. And now Mary Morfe had caught him--caught him,
moreover, without having had the slightest intention of catching him.
She was one of the most spinsterish spinsters in the Five Towns; and she
had often said things about men and marriage of which the recollection
now, as an affianced woman, was very disturbing to her. However, she did
not care. She did not understand how Simon Loggerheads had had the wit
to perceive that she would be an ideal wife. And she did not care. She
did not understand how, as a result of Simon Loggerheads falling in love
with her, she had fallen in love with him. And she did not care. She did
not care a fig for anything. She _was_ in love with him, and he with
her, and she was idiotically joyous, and so was he. And that was all.
On reflection, I have to admit that she did in fact care for one thing.
That one thing was the look on her brother's face when he should learn
that she, the faithful sardonic sister, having incomprehensibly become
indispensable and all in all to a bank cashier, meant to desert him. She
was afraid of that look. She trembled at the fore-vision of it.
Still, Richard had to be informed, and the world had to be informed, for
the silken dalliance between Mary and Simon had been conducted with a
discretion and a secrecy more than characteristic of their age and
dispositions. It had been arranged between the lovers that Simon should
call on that Friday evening, when he would be sure to catch Richard in
his easy chair, and should, in presence of Mary, bluntly communicate to
Richard the blunt fact.
"What's he gone out for? Anything special?" asked Simon.
Mary explained the circumstances.
"The truth is," she finished, "that girl is just throwing herself at
Dick's head. There's no doubt of it. I never saw such work!"
"Well," said Simon Loggerheads, "of course, you know, there's been a
certain amount of talk about them. Some folks say that your
"And do you believe that?" demanded Mary.
"I don't know," said Simon. By which he meant diplomatically to convey
that he had had a narrow escape of believing it, at any rate.
"Well," said Mary, with conviction, "you may take it from me that it
isn't so. I know Dick. Eva Harracles may throw herself at his head till
there's no breath left in her body, and it'll make no difference to
Dick. Do _you_ see Dick a married man? I don't. I only wish he _would_
take it into his head to get married. It would make me much easier in my
mind. But all the same I do think it's downright wicked that a girl
should fling herself _at_ him, right _at_ him. Fancy her calling
to-night! It's the sort of thing that oughtn't to be encouraged."
"But I understood you to say that you yourself had told him to see her
home," Simon Loggerheads put in. "Isn't that encouraging her, as it
"Ah!" said Mary, with a smile. "I only suggested it to him because it
came over me all of a sudden how nice it would be to have you here all
alone! He can't be back much before twelve."
To such a remark there is but one response. A sofa is, after all, made
for two people, and the chance of the servant calling on them was small.
"And so the clock stopped!" observed Simon Loggerheads.
"Yes," said Mary. "If it hadn't been for the sheer accident of that
clock stopping, we shouldn't be sitting here on this sofa now, and Dick
would be in that chair, and you would just be beginning to tell him that
we are engaged." She sighed. "Poor Dick! What on earth will he do?"
"Strange how things happen!" Simon reflected in a low voice. "But I'm
really surprised at that clock stopping like that. It's a clock that you
ought to be able to depend on, that clock is."
He got up to inspect the timepiece. He knew all about the clock, because
he had been chairman of the presentation committee which had gone to
Manchester to buy it.
"Why!" he murmured, after he had toyed a little with the pendulum, "it
goes all right. Its tick is as right as rain."
"How odd!" responded Mary.
Simon Loggerheads set the clock by his own impeccable watch, and then
sat down again. And he drew something from his waistcoat pocket and slid
it on to Mary's finger.
Mary regarded her finger in silent ecstasy, and then breathed "How
lovely!"--not meaning her finger.
"Shall I stay till he comes back?" asked Simon.
"If I were you I shouldn't do that," said Mary. "But you can safely stay
till eleven-thirty. Then I shall go to bed. He'll be tired and short
[curt] when he gets back. I'll tell him myself to-morrow morning at
breakfast. And you might come to-morrow afternoon early, for tea."
Simon did stay till half-past eleven. He left precisely when the clock,
now convalescent, struck the half-hour. At the door Mary said to him:
"I won't have any secrets from you, Simon. It was I who stopped that
clock. I stopped it while they were bending down looking for music. I
wanted to be as sure as I could of a good excuse for me suggesting that
he ought to take her home. I just wanted to get him out of the house."
"But why?" asked Simon.
"I must leave that to you to guess," said Mary, with a hint of tartness,
Loggerheads and Richard Morfe met in Trafalgar Road.
And each passed on, without having stopped.
You can picture for yourself the breakfast of the brother and sister.
It was considered by certain people to be a dramatic moment in the
history of musical enterprise in the Five Towns when Mrs Swann opened
the front door of her house at Bleakridge, in the early darkness of a
November evening, and let forth her son Gilbert. Gilbert's age was
nineteen, and he was wearing evening dress, a form of raiment that had
not hitherto happened to him. Over the elegant suit was his winter
overcoat, making him bulky, and round what may be called the rim of the
overcoat was a white woollen scarf, and the sleeves of the overcoat were
finished off with white woollen gloves. Under one arm he carried a vast
inanimate form whose extremity just escaped the ground. This form was
his violoncello, fragile as a pretty woman, ungainly as a navvy, and
precious as honour. Mrs Swann looked down the street, which ended to the
east in darkness and a marl pit, and up the street, which ended to the
west in Trafalgar Road and electric cars; and she shivered, though she
had a shawl over her independent little shoulders. In the Five Towns,
and probably elsewhere, when a woman puts her head out of her front
door, she always looks first to right and then to left, like a scouting
Iroquois, and if the air nips she shivers--not because she is cold, but
merely to express herself.
"For goodness sake, keep your hands warm," Mrs Swann enjoined her son.
"Oh!" said Gilbert, with scornful lightness, as though his playing had
never suffered from cold hands, "it's quite warm to-night!" Which it was
"And mind what you eat!" added his mother. "There! I can hear the car."
He hurried up the street. The electric tram slid in thunder down
Trafalgar Road, and stopped for him with a jar, and he gingerly climbed
into it, practising all precautions on behalf of his violoncello. The
car slid away again towards Bursley, making blue sparks. Mrs Swann
stared mechanically at the flickering gas in her lobby, and then closed
her front door. He was gone! The boy was gone!
Now, the people who considered the boy's departure to be a dramatic
moment in the history of musical enterprise in the Five Towns were Mrs
Swann, chiefly, and the boy, secondarily.
And more than the moment--the day, nay, the whole week--was dramatic in
the history of local musical enterprise.
It had occurred to somebody in Hanbridge, about a year before, that
since York, Norwich, Hereford, Gloucester, Birmingham, and even
Blackpool had their musical festivals, the Five Towns, too, ought to
have its musical festival. The Five Towns possessed a larger population
than any of these centres save Birmingham, and it was notorious for its
love of music. Choirs from the Five Towns had gone to all sorts of
places--such as Brecknock, Aberystwyth, the Crystal Palace, and even a
place called Hull--and had come back with first prizes--cups and
banners--for the singing of choruses and part-songs. There were three
(or at least two and a half) rival choirs in Hanbridge alone. Then also
the brass band contests were famously attended. In the Five Towns the
number of cornet players is scarcely exceeded by the number of
public-houses. Hence the feeling, born and fanned into lustiness at
Hanbridge, that the Five Towns owed it to its self-respect to have a
Musical Festival like the rest of the world! Men who had never heard of
Wagner, men who could not have told the difference between a sonata and
a sonnet to save their souls, men who spent all their lives in
manufacturing tea-cups or china door-knobs, were invited to guarantee
five pounds a-piece against possible loss on the festival; and they
bravely and blindly did so. The conductor of the largest Hanbridge
choir, being appointed to conduct the preliminary rehearsals of the
Festival Chorus, had an acute attack of self-importance, which, by the
way, almost ended fatally a year later.
Double-crown posters appeared magically on all the hoardings announcing
that a Festival consisting of three evening and two morning concerts
would be held in the Alexandra Hall, at Hanbridge, on the 6th, 7th and
8th November, and that the box-plan could be consulted at the principal
stationers. The Alexandra Hall contained no boxes whatever, but
"box-plan" was the phrase sacred to the occasion, and had to be used.
And the Festival more and more impregnated the air, and took the lion's
share of the columns of the _Staffordshire Signal_. Every few days the
_Signal_ reported progress, even to intimate biographical details of the
singers engaged, and of the composers to be performed, together with
analyses of the latter's works. And at last the week itself had dawned
in exhilaration and excitement. And early on the day before the opening
day John Merazzi, the renowned conductor, and Herbert Millwain, the
renowned leader of the orchestra, and the renowned orchestra itself, all
arrived from London. And finally sundry musical critics arrived from
the offices of sundry London dailies. The presence of these latter
convinced an awed population that its Festival was a real Festival, and
not a local make-believe. And it also tranquillized in some degree the
exasperating and disconcerting effect of a telegram from the capricious
Countess of Chell (who had taken six balcony seats and was the official
advertised high patroness of the Festival) announcing at the last moment
that she could not attend.
Mrs Swann's justification for considering (as she in fact did consider)
that her son was either the base or the apex of the splendid pyramid of
the Festival lay in the following facts:--
From earliest infancy Gilbert had been a musical prodigy, and the circle
of his fame had constantly been extending. He could play the piano with
his hands before his legs were long enough for him to play it with his
feet. That is to say, before he could use the pedals. A spectacle
formerly familiar to the delighted friends of the Swanns was Gilbert, in
a pinafore and curls, seated on a high chair topped with a large Bible
and a bound volume of the _Graphic_, playing "Home Sweet Home" with
Thalberg's variations, while his mother, standing by his side on her
right foot, put the loud pedal on or off with her left foot according to
the infant's whispered orders. He had been allowed to play from
ear--playing from ear being deemed especially marvellous--until some
expert told Mrs Swann that playing solely from ear was a practice to be
avoided if she wished her son to fulfil the promise of his babyhood.
Then he had lessons at Knype, until he began to teach his teacher. Then
he said he would learn the fiddle, and he did learn the fiddle; also
the viola. He did not pretend to play the flute, though he could. And at
school the other boys would bring him their penny or even sixpenny
whistles so that he might show them of what wonderful feats a common tin
whistle is capable.
Mr Swann was secretary for the Toft End Brickworks and Colliery Company
(Limited). Mr Swann had passed the whole of his career in the offices of
the prosperous Toft End Company, and his imagination did not move freely
beyond the company's premises. He had certainly intended that Gilbert
should follow in his steps; perhaps he meant to establish a dynasty of
Swanns, in which the secretaryship of the twenty per cent. paying
company should descend for ever from father to son. But Gilbert's
astounding facility in music had shaken even this resolve, and Gilbert
had been allowed at the age of fifteen to enter, as assistant, the shop
of Mr James Otkinson, the piano and musical instrument dealer and
musicseller, in Crown Square, Hanbridge. Here, of course, he found
himself in a musical atmosphere. Here he had at once established a
reputation for showing off the merits of a piano, a song, or a waltz, to
customers male and female. Here he had thirty pianos, seven harmoniums,
and all the new and a lot of classical music to experiment with. He
would play any "piece" at sight for the benefit of any lady in search of
a nice easy waltz or reverie. Unfortunately ladies would complain that
the pieces proved much more difficult at home than they had seemed under
the fingers of Gilbert in the shop. Here, too, he began to give lessons
on the piano. And here he satisfied his secret ambition to learn the
violoncello, Mr Otkinson having in stock a violoncello that had never
found a proper customer. His progress with the 'cello had been such that
the theatre people offered him an engagement, which his father and his
own sense of the enormous respectability of the Swanns compelled him to
refuse. But he always played in the band of the Five Towns Amateur
Operatic Society, and was beloved by its conductor as being utterly
reliable. His connection with choirs started through his merits as a
rehearsal accompanist who could keep time and make his bass chords heard
against a hundred and fifty voices. He had been appointed (_nem. con._)
rehearsal accompanist to the Festival Chorus. He knew the entire
Festival music backwards and upside down. And his modestly-expressed
desire to add his 'cello as one of the local reinforcements of the
London orchestra had been almost eagerly complied with by the Advisory
Nor was this all. He had been invited to dinner by Mrs Clayton Vernon,
the social leader of Bursley. In the affair of the Festival Mrs Clayton
Vernon loomed larger than even she really was. And this was due to an
accident, to a sheer bit of luck on her part. She happened to be a
cousin of Mr Herbert Millwain, the leader of the orchestra down from
London. Mrs Clayton Vernon knew no more about music than she knew about
the North Pole, and cared no more. But she was Mr Millwain's cousin, and
Mr Millwain had naturally to stay at her house. And she came in her
carriage to fetch him from the band rehearsals; and, in short, anyone
might have thought from her self-satisfied demeanour (though she was a
decent sort of woman at heart) that she had at least composed "Judas
Maccabeus." It was at a band rehearsal that she had graciously commanded
Gilbert Swann to come and dine with her and Mr Millwain between the
final rehearsal and the opening concert. This invitation was, as it
were, the overflowing drop in Mrs Swann's cup. It was proof, to her,
that Mr Millwain had instantly pronounced Gilbert to be the equal of
London 'cellists, and perhaps their superior. It was proof, to her, that
Mr Millwain relied on him particularly to maintain the honour of the
band in the Festival.
Gilbert had dashed home from the final rehearsal, and his mother had
helped him with the unfamiliarities of evening dress, while he gave her
a list of all the places in the music where, as he said, the band was
"rocky," and especially the 'cellos, and a further list of all the smart
musical things that the players from London had said to him and he had
said to them. He simply knew everything from the inside. And not even
the great Merazzi, the conductor, was more familiar with the music than
he. And the ineffable Mrs Clayton Vernon had asked him to dinner with Mr
Millwain! It was indubitable to Mrs Swann that all the Festival rested
on her son's shoulders.
"It's freezing, I think," said Mr Swann, when he came home at six
o'clock from his day's majestic work at Toft End. This was in the
bedroom. Mrs Swann, a comely little thing of thirty-nine, was making
herself resplendent for the inaugural solemnity of the Festival, which
began at eight. The news of the frost disturbed her.
"How annoying!" she said.
"Annoying?" he questioned blandly. "Why?"
"Now you needn't put on any of your airs, John!" she snapped. She had a
curt way with her at critical times. "You know as well as I do that I'm
thinking of Gilbert's hands.... No! you must wear your frock-coat, of
course!... All that drive from the other end of the town right to
Hanbridge in a carriage! Perhaps outside the carriage, because of the
'cello! There'll never be room for two of them and the 'cello and Mrs
Clayton Vernon in her carriage! And he can't keep his hands in his
pockets because of holding the 'cello. And he's bound to pretend he
isn't cold. He's so silly. And yet he knows perfectly well he won't do
himself justice if his hands are cold. Don't you remember last year at
the Town Hall?"
"Well," said Mr Swann, "we can't do anything; anyway, we must hope for
"That's all very well," said Mrs Swann. And it was.
Shortly afterwards, perfect in most details of her black silk, she left
the bedroom, requesting her husband to be quick, as tea was ready. And
she came into the little dining-room where the youthful servant was
poking up the fire.
"Jane," she said, "put two medium-sized potatoes in the oven to bake."
"Yes, potatoes," said Mrs Swann, tartly.
It was an idea of pure genius that had suddenly struck her; the genius
of common sense.
She somewhat hurried the tea; then rang.
"Jane," she inquired, "are those potatoes ready?"
"Potatoes?" exclaimed Mr Swann.
"Yes, hot potatoes," said Mrs Swann, tartly. "I'm going to run up with
them by car to Mrs Vernon's. I can slip them quietly over to Gil. They
keep your hands warm better than anything. Don't I remember when I was a
child! I shall leave Mrs Vernon's immediately, of course, but perhaps
you'd better give me my ticket and I will meet you at the hall. Don't
you think it's the best plan, John?"
"As you like," said Mr Swann, with the force of habit.
He was supreme in most things, but in the practical details of their
son's life and comfort she was supreme. Her decision in such matters had
never been questioned. Mr Swann had a profound belief in his wife as a
uniquely capable and energetic woman. He was tremendously loyal to her,
and he sternly inculcated the same loyalty to her in Gilbert.
Just as the car had stopped at the end of the street for Gilbert and his
violoncello, so--more than an hour later--it stopped for Mrs Swann and
her hot potatoes.
They were hot potatoes--nay, very hot potatoes--of a medium size,
because Mrs Swann's recollections of youth had informed her that if a
potato is too large one cannot get one's fingers well around it, and if
it is too small it cools somewhat rapidly. She had taken two, not in the
hope that Gilbert would be able to use two at once, for one cannot
properly nurse either a baby or a 'cello with two hands full of
potatoes, but rather to provide against accident. Besides, the inventive
boy might after all find a way of using both simultaneously, which would
be all the better for his playing at the concert, and hence all the
better for the success of the Musical Festival.
It never occurred to Mrs Swann that she was doing anything in the least
unusual. There she was, in her best boots, and her best dress, and her
best hat, and her sealskin mantle (not easily to be surpassed in the
town), and her muff to match (nearly), and concealed in the muff were
the two very hot potatoes. And it did not strike her that women of
fashion like herself, wives of secretaries of flourishing companies, do
not commonly go about with hot potatoes concealed on their persons. For
she was a self-confident woman, and after a decision she did not
reflect, nor did she heed minor consequences. She was always sure that
what she was doing was the right and the only thing to do. And, to give
her justice, it was; for her direct, abrupt common sense was indeed
remarkable. The act of climbing up into the car warned her that she must
be skilful in the control of these potatoes; one of them nearly fell out
of the right end of her muff as she grasped the car rail with her right
hand. She had to let go and save the potato, and begin again, while the
car waited. The conductor took her for one of those hesitating,
hysterical women who are the bane of car conductors. "Now, missis!" he
said. "Up with ye!" But she did not care what manner of woman the
conductor took her for.
The car was nearly full of people going home from their work, of people
actually going in a direction contrary to the direction of the Musical
Festival. She sat down among them, shocked by this indifference to the
Musical Festival. At the back of her head had been an idea that all the
cars for Hanbridge would be crammed to the step, and all the cars from
Hanbridge forlorn and empty. She had vaguely imagined that the thoughts
of a quarter of a million of people would that evening be centred on the
unique Musical Festival. And she was shocked also by the
conversation--not that it was in the slightest degree improper--but
because it displayed no interest whatever in the Musical Festival. And
yet there were several Festival advertisements adhering to the roof of
the car. Travellers were discussing football, soap, the weather, rates,
trade; travellers were dozing; travellers were reading about starting
prices; but not one seemed to be occupied with the Musical Festival.
"Nevertheless," she reflected with consoling pride, "if they knew that
our Gilbert was playing 'cello in the orchestra and dining at this very
moment with Mr Millwain, some of them would be fine and surprised, that
they would!" No one would ever have suspected, from her calm, careless,
proud face, that such vain and two-penny thoughts were passing through
her head. But the thoughts that do pass through the heads of even the
most common-sensed philosophers, men and women, are truly astonishing.
In four minutes she was at Bursley Town Hall, where she changed into
another car--full of people equally indifferent to the Musical
Festival--for the suburb of Hillport, where Mrs Clayton Vernon lived.
"Put me out opposite Mrs Clayton Vernon's, will you?" she said to the
conductor, and added, "you know the house?"
He nodded as if to say disdainfully in response to such a needless
question: "Do I know the house? Do I know my pocket?"
As she left the car she did catch two men discussing the Festival, but
they appeared to have no intention of attending it. They were
earthenware manufacturers. One of them raised his hat to her. And she
said to herself: "He at any rate knows how important my Gilbert is in
It was at the instant she pushed open Mrs Clayton Vernon's long and
heavy garden gate, and crunched in the frosty darkness up the short
winding drive, that the notion of the peculiarity of her errand first
presented itself to her. Mrs Clayton Vernon was a relatively great lady,
living in a relatively great house; one of the few exalted or peculiar
ones who did not dine in the middle of the day like other folk. Mrs
Clayton Vernon had the grand manner. Mrs Clayton Vernon instinctively
and successfully patronized everybody. Mrs Clayton Vernon was a
personage with whom people did not joke. And lo! Mrs Swann was about to
invade her courtly and luxurious house, uninvited, unauthorized, with a
couple of hot potatoes in her muff. What would Mrs Clayton Vernon think
of hot potatoes in a muff? Of course, the Swanns were "as good as
anybody." The Swanns knelt before nobody. The Swanns were of the cream
of the town, combining commerce with art, and why should not Mrs Swann
take practical measures to keep her son's hands warm in Mrs Clayton
Vernon's cold carriage? Still, there was only one Mrs Clayton Vernon in
Bursley, and it was impossible to deny that she inspired awe, even in
the independent soul of Mrs Swann.
Mrs Swann rang the bell, reassuring herself. The next instant an
electric light miraculously came into existence outside the door,
illuminating her from head to foot. This startled her. But she said to
herself that it must be the latest dodge, and that, at any rate, it was
a very good dodge, and she began again the process of reassuring
herself. The door opened, and a prim creature stiffly starched stood
before Mrs Swann. "My word!" reflected Mrs Swann, "she must cost her
mistress a pretty penny for getting up aprons!" And she said aloud
"Will you please tell Mr Gilbert Swann that someone wants to speak to
him a minute at the door?"
"Yes," said the servant, with pert civility. "Will you please step in?"
She had not meant to step in. She had decidedly meant not to step in,
for she had no wish to encounter Mrs Clayton Vernon; indeed, the
reverse. But she immediately perceived that in asking to speak to a
guest at the door she had socially erred. At Mrs Clayton Vernon's
refined people did not speak to refined people at the door. So she
stepped in, and the door was closed, prisoning her and her potatoes in
the imposing hall.
"I only want to see Mr Gilbert Swann," she insisted.
"Yes," said the servant. "Will you please step into the breakfast-room?
There's no one there. I will tell Mr Swann."
As Mrs Swann was being led like a sheep out of the hall into an
apartment on the right, which the servant styled the breakfast-room,
another door opened, further up the hall, and Mrs Clayton Vernon
appeared. Magnificent though Mrs Swann was, the ample Mrs Clayton
Vernon, discreetly _decolletee_, was even more magnificent. Dressed as
she meant to show herself at the concert, Mrs Clayton Vernon made a
resplendent figure worthy to be the cousin of the leader of the
orchestra--and worthy even to take the place of the missing Countess of
Chell. Mrs Clayton Vernon had a lorgnon at the end of a shaft of
tortoise-shell; otherwise, a pair of eye-glasses on a stick. She had the
habit of the lorgnon; the lorgnon seldom left her, and whenever she was
in any doubt or difficulty she would raise the lorgnon to her eyes and
stare patronizingly. It was a gesture tremendously effective. She
employed it now on Mrs Swann, as who should say, "Who is this
insignificant and scarcely visible creature that has got into my noble
hall?" Mrs Swann stopped, struck into immobility by the basilisk glance.
A courageous and even a defiant woman, Mrs Swann was taken aback. She
could not possibly tell Mrs Clayton Vernon that she was the bearer of
hot potatoes to her son. She scarcely knew Mrs Clayton Vernon, had only
met her once at a bazaar! With a convulsive unconscious movement her
right hand clenched nervously within her muff and crushed the rich mealy
potato it held until the flesh of the potato was forced between the
fingers of her glove. A horrible sticky mess! That is the worst of a
high-class potato, cooked, as the Five Towns phrase it, "in its jacket."
It will burst on the least provocation. There stood Mrs Swann, her right
hand glued up with escaped potato, in the sober grandeur of Mrs Clayton
Vernon's hall, and Mrs Clayton Vernon bearing down upon her like a
Steam actually began to emerge from her muff.
"Ah!" said Mrs Clayton Vernon, inspecting Mrs Swann. "It's Mrs Swann!
How do you do, Mrs Swann?"
She seemed politely astonished, as well she might be. By a happy chance
she did not perceive the wisp of steam. She was not looking for steam.
People do not expect steam from the interior of a visitor's muff.
"Oh!" said Mrs Swann, who was really in a pitiable state. "I'm sorry to
trouble you, Mrs Clayton Vernon. But I want to speak to Gilbert for one
She then saw that Mrs Clayton Vernon's hand was graciously extended.
She could not take it with her right hand, which was fully engaged with
the extremely heated sultriness of the ruined potato. She could not
refuse it, or ignore it. She therefore offered her left hand, which Mrs
Clayton Vernon pressed with a well-bred pretence that people always
offered her their left hands.
"Nothing wrong, I do hope!" said she, gravely.
"Oh no," said Mrs Swann. "Only just a little matter which had been
forgotten. Only half a minute. I must hurry off at once as I have to
meet my husband. If I could just see Gilbert--"
"Certainly," said Mrs Clayton Vernon. "Do come into the breakfast-room,
will you? We've just finished dinner. We had it very early, of course,
for the concert. Mr Millwain--my cousin--hates to be hurried. Maria, be
good enough to ask Mr Swann to come here. Tell him that his mother
wishes to speak to him."
In the breakfast-room Mrs Swann was invited, nay commanded by Mrs
Clayton Vernon, to loosen her mantle. But she could not loosen her
mantle. She could do nothing. In clutching the potato to prevent bits of
it from falling out of the muff, she of course effected the precise
opposite of her purpose, and bits of the luscious and perfect potato
began to descend the front of her mantle. The clock struck seven, and
ages elapsed, during which Mrs Swann could not think of anything
whatever to say, but the finger of the clock somehow stuck motionless at
seven, though the pendulum plainly wagged.
"I'm not too warm," she said at length, feebly but obstinately resisting
Mrs Clayton Vernon's command. This, to speak bluntly, was an untruth.
She was too warm.
"Are you sure that nothing is the matter?" urged Mrs Clayton Vernon,
justifiably alarmed by the expression of her visitor's features. "I beg
you to confide in me if--"
"Not at all," said Mrs Swann, trying to laugh. "I'm only sorry to
disturb you. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"What on earth is that?" cried Mrs Clayton Vernon.
The other potato, escaping Mrs Swann's vigilance, had run out of the
muff and come to the carpet with a dull thud. It rolled half under Mrs
Swann's dress. Almost hysterically she put her foot on it, thus making
pulp of the second potato.
"What?" she inquired innocently.
"Didn't you hear anything? I trust it isn't a mouse! We have had them
Mrs Clayton Vernon thought how brave Mrs Swann was, not to be frightened
by the word "mouse."
"I didn't hear anything," said Mrs Swann. Another untruth.
"If you aren't too warm, won't you come a little nearer the fire?"
But not for a thousand pounds would Mrs Swann have exposed the mush of
potato on the carpet under her feet. She could not conceive in what
ignominy the dreadful affair would end, but she was the kind of woman
that nails her colours to the mast.
"Dear me!" Mrs Clayton Vernon murmured. "How delicious those potatoes do
smell! I can smell them all over the house."
This was the most staggering remark that Mrs Swann had ever heard.
"Potatoes? very weakly.
"Yes," said Mrs Clayton Vernon, smiling. "I must tell you that Mr
Millwain is very nervous about getting his hands cold in driving to
Hanbridge. And he has asked me to have hot potatoes prepared. Isn't it
amusing? It seems hot potatoes are constantly used for this purpose in
winter by the pupils of the Royal College of Music, and even by the
professors. My cousin says that even a slight chilliness of the hands
interferes with his playing. So I am having potatoes done for your son
too. A delightful boy he is!"
"Really!" said Mrs Swann. "How queer! But what a good idea!"
She might have confessed then. But you do not know her if you think she
did. Gilbert came in, anxious and alarmed. Mrs Clayton Vernon left them
together. The mother explained matters to the son, and in an instant of
time the ruin of two magnificent potatoes was at the back of the fire.
Then, without saluting Mrs Clayton Vernon, Mrs Swann fled.
The scene was the up-platform of Knype railway station on a summer
afternoon, and, more particularly, that part of the platform round about
the bookstall. There were three persons in the neighbourhood of the
bookstall. The first was the principal bookstall clerk, who was folding
with extraordinary rapidity copies of the special edition of the
_Staffordshire Signal_; the second was Mr Sandbach, an earthenware
manufacturer, famous throughout the Five Towns for his ingenious
invention of teapots that will pour the tea into the cup instead of all
over the table; and a very shabby man, whom Mr Sandbach did not know.
This very shabby man was quite close to the bookstall, while Mr Sandbach
stood quite ten yards away. Mr Sandbach gazed steadily at the man, but
the man, ignoring Mr Sandbach, allowed dreamy and abstracted eyes to
rest on the far distance, where a locomotive or so was impatiently
pushing and pulling waggons as an excitable mother will drag and shove
an inoffensive child. The platform as a whole was sparsely peopled; the
London train had recently departed, and the station was suffering from
the usual reaction; only a local train was signalled.
Mr Gale, a friend of Mr Sandbach's, came briskly on to the platform from
the booking-office, caught sight of Mr Sandbach, and accosted him.
"How do, Gale?"
To a slight extent they were rivals in the field of invention. But both
had succeeded in life, and both had the alert and prosperous air of
success. Born about the same time, they stood nearly equal after forty
years of earthly endeavour.
"What are you doing here?" asked Gale, casually.
"I've come to meet someone off the Crewe train."
"And I'm going by it--to Derby," said Mr Gale. "They say it's thirteen
"Look here," said Mr Sandbach, taking no notice of this remark, "you see
that man there?"
"Which one--by the bookstall?"
"Well, what about him?"
"I bet you you can't make him move from where he is--no physical force,
Mr Gale hesitated an instant, and then his eye glistened with response
to the challenge, and he replied:
"I bet you I can."
"Well, try," said Mr Sandbach.
Mr Sandbach and Mr Gale frequently threw down the glove to each other in
this agreeable way. Either they asked conundrums, or they set test
questions, or they suggested feats. When Mr Sandbach discovered at a
Christmas party that you cannot stand with your left side close against
a wall and then lift your right leg, his first impulse was to confront
Mr Gale with the trick. When Mr Gale read in a facetious paper an
article on the lack of accurate observation in the average man,
entitled, "Do 'bus horses wear blinkers?" his opening remark to Mr
Sandbach at their next meeting was: "I say, Sandbach, do 'bus horses
wear blinkers? Answer quick!" And a phrase constantly in their mouths
was, "I'll try that on Gale;" or, "I wonder whether Sandbach knows
that?" All that was required to make their relations artistically
complete was an official referee for counting the scores. Such a basis
of friendship may seem bizarre, but it is by no means uncommon in the
Five Towns, and perhaps elsewhere.
So that when Mr Sandbach defied Mr Gale to induce the shabby man to
move from where he stood, the nostrils of the combatants twitched with
the scent of battle.
Mr Gale conceived his tactics instantly and put them into execution. He
walked along the platform some little distance, then turned, and taking
a handful of silver from his pocket, began to count it. He passed slowly
by the shabby man, almost brushing his shoulder; and, just as he passed,
he left fall half-a-crown. The half-crown rolled round in a circle and
lay down within a yard and a half of the shabby man. The shabby man
calmly glanced at the half-crown and then at Mr Gale, who, strolling on,
magnificently pretended to be unaware of his loss; and then the shabby
man resumed his dreamy stare into the distance.
"Hi!" cried Mr Sandbach after Mr Gale. "You've dropped something."
It was a great triumph for Mr Sandbach.
"I told you you wouldn't get him to move!" said Mr Sandbach, proudly,
having rejoined his friend at another part of the platform.
"What's the game?" demanded Mr Gale, frankly acknowledging by tone and
gesture that he was defeated.
"Perfectly simple," answered Mr Sandbach, condescendingly, "when you
know. I'll tell you--it's really very funny. Just as everyone was
rushing to get into the London express I heard a coin drop on the
platform, and I saw it rolling. It was half-a-sovereign. I couldn't be
sure who dropped it, but I think it was a lady. Anyhow, no one claimed
it. I was just going to pick it up when that chap came by. He saw it,
and he put his foot on it as quick as lightning, and stood still. He
didn't notice that I was after it too. So I drew back. I thought I'd
wait and see what happens."
"He looks as if he could do with half-a-sovereign," said Mr Gale.
"Yes; he's only a station loafer."
"Then why doesn't he pick up his half-sovereign and hook it?"
"Can't you see why?" said Mr Sandbach, patronizingly. "He's afraid of
the bookstall clerk catching him at it. He's afraid it's the bookstall
clerk that has dropped that half-sovereign. You wait till the bookstall
clerk finishes those papers and goes inside, and you'll see."
At this point Mr Gale made the happy involuntary movement of a man who
has suddenly thought of something really brilliant.
"Look here," said he. "You said you'd bet. But you didn't bet. I'll bet
you a level half-crown I get him to shift this time."
"But you mustn't say anything to him."
"No--of course not."
"Very well, I'll bet you."
Mr Gale walked straight up to the shabby man, drew half-a-sovereign from
his waistcoat pocket, and held it out. At the same time he pointed to
the shabby man's boots, and then in the most unmistakable way he pointed
to the exit of the platform. He said nothing, but his gestures were
expressive, and what they clearly expressed was: "I know you've got a
half-sovereign under your foot; here's another half-sovereign for you to
clear off and ask no questions."
Meanwhile the ingenious offerer of the half-sovereign was meditating
thus: "I give half-a-sovereign, but I shall gather up the other
half-sovereign, and I shall also win my bet. Net result: Half-a-crown to
The shabby man, who could not have been a fool, comprehended at once,
accepted the half-sovereign, and moved leisurely away--not, however,
without glancing at the ground which his feet had covered. The result
of the scrutiny evidently much surprised him, as it surprised, in a
degree equally violent, both Mr Gale and Mr Sandbach. For there was no
sign of half-a-sovereign under the feet of the shabby man. There was not
even nine and elevenpence there.
Mr Gale looked up very angry and Mr Sandbach looked very foolish.
"This is all very well," Mr Gale exploded in tones low and fierce. "But
I call it a swindle." And he walked, with an undecided, longing,
shrinking air, in the wake of the shabby man who had pocketed his
"I'm sure I saw him put his foot on it," said Mr Sandbach in defence of
himself (meaning, of course, the other half-sovereign), "and I've never
taken my eyes off him."
"Well, then, how do you explain it?"
"I don't explain it," said Mr Sandbach.
"I think some explanation is due to me," said Mr Gale, with a peculiar
and dangerous intonation. "If this is your notion of a practical joke."
"There was no practical joke about it at all," Mr Sandbach protested.
"If the half-sovereign has disappeared it's not my fault. I made a bet
with you, and I've lost it. Here's your half-crown."
He produced two-and-six, which Mr Gale accepted, though he had a strange
impulse to decline it with an air of offended pride.
"I'm still seven-and-six out," said Mr Gale.
"And if you are!" snapped Mr Sandbach, "you thought you'd do me down by
a trick. Offering the man ten shillings to go wasn't at all a fair way
of winning the bet, and you knew it, my boy. However, I've paid up; so
that's all right."
"All I say is," Mr Gale obstinately repeated, "if this is your notion of
a practical joke--"
"Didn't I tell you--" Mr Sandbach became icily furious.
The friendship hitherto existing between these two excellent
individuals might have been ruined and annihilated for a comparative
trifle, had not a surprising and indeed almost miraculous thing
happened, by some kind of freak of destiny, in the nick of time. Mr
Sandbach was sticking close to Mr Gale, and Mr Gale was following in the
leisurely footsteps of the very shabby man, possibly debating within
himself whether he should boldly demand the return of his
half-sovereign, when lo! a golden coin seemed to slip from the boot of
the very shabby man. It took the stone-flags of the platform with
scarcely a sound, and Mr Sandbach and Mr Gale made a simultaneous,
superb and undignified rush for it. Mr Sandbach got it. The very shabby
man passed on, passed eternally out of the lives of the other two. It
may be said that he was of too oblivious and dreamy a nature for this
world. But one must not forget that he had made a solid gain of ten
"The soles of the fellow's boots must have been all cracks, and it must
have got lodged in one of them," cheerfully explained Mr Sandbach as he
gazed with pleasure at the coin. "I hope you believe me now. You thought
it was a plant. I hope you believe me now."
Mr Gale made no response to this remark. What Mr Gale said was:
"Don't you think that in fairness that half-sovereign belongs to me?"
"Why?" asked Mr Sandbach, bluntly.
"Well," Mr Gale began, searching about for a reason.
"You didn't find it," Mr Sandbach proceeded firmly. "You didn't see it
first. You didn't pick it up. Where do you come in?"
"I'm seven and sixpence out," said Mr Gale.
"And if I give you the coin, which I certainly shall not do, I should be
Friendship was again jeopardized, when a second interference of fate
occurred, in the shape of a young and pretty woman who was coming from
the opposite direction and who astonished both men considerably by
stepping in front of them and barring their progress.
"Excuse me," said she, in a charming voice, but with a severe air. "But
may I ask if you have just picked up that coin?"
Mr Sandbach, after looking vaguely, as if for inspiration, at Mr Gale,
was obliged to admit that he had.
"Well," said the young lady, "if it's dated 1898, and if there's an 'A'
scratched on it, it's mine. I've lost it off my watch-chain." Mr
Sandbach examined the coin, and then handed it to her, raising his hat.
Mr Gale also raised his hat. The young lady's grateful smile was
enchanting. Both men were bachelors and invariably ready to be
"It was the first money my husband ever earned," the young lady
explained, with her thanks.
The interest of the bachelors evaporated.
"Not a profitable afternoon," said Mr Sandbach, as the train came in and
"I think we ought to share the loss equally," said Mr Gale.
"Do you?" said Mr Sandbach. "That's like you."
THE BLUE SUIT
I was just going into my tailor's in Sackville Street, when who should
be coming out of the same establishment but Mrs Ellis! I was startled,
as any man might well have been, to see a lady emerging from my
tailor's. Of course a lady might have been to a tailor's to order a
tailor-made costume. Such an excursion would be perfectly legal and not
at all shocking. But then my tailor did not "make" for ladies. And
moreover, Mrs Ellis was not what I should call a tailor-made woman. She
belonged to the other variety--the fluffy, lacy, flowing variety. I had
made her acquaintance on one of my visits to the Five Towns. She was
indubitably elegant, but in rather a Midland manner. She was a fine
specimen of the provincial woman, and that was one of the reasons why I
liked her. Her husband was a successful earthenware manufacturer.
Occasionally he had to make long journeys--to Canada, to Australia and
New Zealand--in the interests of his business; so that she was sometimes
a grass-widow, with plenty of money to spend. Her age was about
thirty-five; bright, agreeable, shrewd, downright, energetic; a little
short and a little plump. Wherever she was, she was a centre of
interest! In default of children of her own she amused herself with the
children of her husband's sister, Mrs Carter. Mr Carter was another
successful earthenware manufacturer. Her favourite among nephews and
nieces was young Ellis Carter, a considerable local dandy and "dog."
Such was Mrs Ellis.
"Are you a widow just now?" I asked her, after we had shaken hands.
"Yes," she said. "But my husband touched at Port Said yesterday, thank
"Are you ordering clothes for him to wear on his arrival?" I adopted a
"Can you picture Henry in a Sackville Street suit?" she laughed.
I could not. Henry's clothes usually had the appearance of having been
picked up at a Jew's.
"Then what _are_ you doing here?" I insisted.
"I came here because I remembered you saying once that this was your
tailor's," she said, "so I thought it would be a pretty good place."
Now I would not class my tailor with the half-dozen great tailors of the
world, but all the same he is indeed a, pretty good tailor.
"That's immensely flattering," I said. "But what have you been doing
"Business," said she. "And if you want to satisfy your extraordinary
inquisitiveness any further, don't you think you'd better come right
away now and offer me some tea somewhere?"
"Splendid," I said. "Where?"
"Oh! The Hanover, of course!" she answered.
"Where's that?" I inquired.
"Don't you know the Hanover Tea-rooms in Regent Street?" she exclaimed,
I have often noticed that metropolitan resorts which are regarded by
provincials as the very latest word of London style, are perfectly
unknown to Londoners themselves. She led me along Vigo Street to the
Hanover. It was a huge white place, with a number of little alcoves and
a large band. We installed ourselves in one of the alcoves, with
supplies of China tea and multitudinous cakes, and grew piquantly
intimate, and then she explained her visit to my tailor's. I propose to
give it here as nearly in her own words as I can.
I wouldn't tell you anything about it (she said) if I didn't know from
the way you talk sometimes that you are interested in _people_. I mean
any people, anywhere. Human nature! Everybody that I come across is
frightfully interesting to me. Perhaps that's why I've got so many
friends--and enemies. I _have_, you know. I just like watching people to
see what they do, and then what they'll do next. I don't seem to mind so
much whether they're good or naughty--with me it's their interestingness
that comes first. Now I suppose you don't know very much about my
nephew, Ellis Carter. Just met him once, I think, and that's all. Don't
you think he's handsome? Oh! I do. I think he's very handsome. But then
a man and a woman never do agree about what being handsome is in a man.
Ellis is only twenty, too. He has such nice curly hair, and his
eyes--haven't you noticed his eyes? His father says he's idle. But all
fathers say that of their sons. I suppose you'll admit anyhow that he's
one of the best-dressed youths in the Five Towns. Anyone might think he
got his clothes in London, but he doesn't. It seems there's a simply
marvellous tailor in Bursley, and Ellis and all his friends go to him.
His father is always grumbling at the bills, so his mother told me.
Well, when I was at their house in July, there happened to come for
Ellis one of those fiat boxes that men's tailors always pack suits in,
and so I thought I might as well show a great deal of curiosity about
it, and I did. And Ellis undid it in the breakfast-room (his father
wasn't there) and showed me a lovely blue suit. I asked him to go
upstairs and put it on. He wouldn't at first, but his sisters and I
worried him till he gave way.
He came downstairs again like Solomon in all his glory. It really was a
lovely suit. No--seriously, I'm not joking. It was a dream. He was very
shy in it. I must say men are funny. Even when they really _like_
having new clothes and cutting a figure, they simply hate putting them
on for the first time. Ellis is that way. I don't know how many suits
that boy hasn't got--sheer dandyism!--and yet he'll keep a new suit in
the house a couple of months before wearing it! Now that's the sort of
thing that I call "interesting." So curious, isn't it? Ellis wouldn't
keep that suit on. No; as soon as we'd done admiring it he disappeared
and changed it.
Now I'd gone that day to ask Ellis to escort me to Llandudno the week
after. He likes going about with his auntie, and his auntie likes to
have him. And of course she sees that it doesn't cost _him_ anything.
But his father has to be placated first. There's another funny thing!
His father is always grumbling that Ellis is absolutely no good at all
at the works, but the moment there's any question of Ellis going away
for a holiday--even if it's only a week-end--then his father turns right
round and wants to make out that Ellis is absolutely indispensable.
Well, I got over his father. I always do, naturally. And it was settled
that Ellis and I should go on the next Saturday.
I said to Ellis:
"You must be sure to bring that suit with you."
And then--will you believe me?--he stuck to it he wouldn't! Truly I was
under the impression that I could argue either Ellis or his father into
any mortal thing. But no! I couldn't argue Ellis into agreeing to bring
that suit with him to Llandudno. He said he should wear whites. He said
it was a September suit. He said that everybody wore blue at Llandudno,
and he didn't want to be mistaken for a schoolmaster! Imagine him being
mistaken for a schoolmaster! He even said there were some things I
didn't understand! I told him there was a very particular reason why I
wanted him to take that suit. And there _was_. He said:
"What is the reason?"
But I wouldn't tell him that. I wasn't going to knuckle down to him
altogether. So it ended that we didn't either of us budge. However, I
didn't mean to be beaten by a mere curly-headed boy. I can do what I
please with his mother, though she _is_ my eldest sister-in-law. And
before he started in the dogcart to meet me at the station on our way to
Llandudno she gave Ellis a bonnet-box to hand to me, and told him to
take great care of it. He handed it over to me, and I also told him to
take great care of it. Of course he became very curious to know what was
in it. I said to him:
"You may see it on the pier on Monday. In fact, I believe you will."
He said: "It's heavy for a hat."
So I informed him that hats were both heavy and large this summer.
He said, "Well, I pity you, auntie!"
Naturally it was his blue suit that was in the box. His mother had
burgled it after he'd done his packing, while he was having lunch.
I was determined he _should_ wear that suit. And I felt pretty sure that
when he saw my _reason_ for asking him to bring it he'd be glad at the
bottom of his heart that I'd brought it in spite of him. There is one
good thing about Ellis--he can see a joke against himself.... Have
another cake. Well, I will, then.... Yes, I'm coming to the reason.
A girl, you say? Well, of course. But you mustn't look so proud of
yourself. A body needn't be anything like so clever as you are to be
able to guess that there's a girl in it. Do you suppose I should have
imagined for a moment that it would interest you if there hadn't been a
girl in it? Not exactly! Well, it's a girl from Winnipeg. Came to
England in June with her parents. Or rather, perhaps, her parents came
with _her_. I'd never seen any of the three before--didn't know them
from Adam and Eve. But my husband had made friends with them out there
last year--great friends. And they wanted to make the acquaintance of my
husband's wife. I'd gathered from Harry that they were quite my sort....
What _is_ my sort? You know perfectly well what my sort is. There are
only two sorts of people--the decent sort and the other sort. Well, they
were doing England--you know, like Colonial people do--seriously,
leaving nothing out. By the way, their name was only "Smith," without
even a "y" in it or an "e" at the end. They wished to try a good seaside
place, so I wrote to them and suggested Llandudno as a fair specimen,
and it was arranged that we should meet there and spend at least a week
together, and afterwards they were to come to the Five Towns. I
suggested we should all stay at Hawthornden's ... Hawthornden's? Don't
you know--it's easily the best private hotel in Llandudno. Lift and a
French chef and all kinds of things; but surely you must have seen all
about it in the papers!
Now that was why I took Ellis with me. I hate travelling about alone,
especially when my husband's away. And it was particularly on account of
the girl that I stole the blue suit. But I didn't tell Ellis a word
about the girl, and I only just mentioned the father and mother--and not
even that until we were safely in the train. These young dandies are
really very nervous and timid at bottom, you know, in spite of their
airs. Ellis would walk ten miles sooner than have to meet a stranger of
the older generation. And he's just as shy about girls too. I believe
most men are, if you ask _me_.
The great encounter occurred in the hall, just before dinner. They were
late, and so were we. I tell you, we were completely outshone. I tell
you, we were not _in_ it, not anywhere near being in it! For one thing,
they were in evening-dress. Now at Hawthornden's you never dress for
dinner. There isn't a place in Llandudno where it's the exception not to
dress for dinner. They seemed rather surprised; not put out, not ashamed
of themselves for being too swagger, but just mildly disappointed with
Hawthornden's. The fact is, they didn't think much of Hawthornden's. I
learnt all manner of things during dinner. They'd been in Scotland when
I corresponded with them, but before that they'd stayed at the Ritz in
London, and at the Hotel St Regis in New York, and the something else--I
forget the name--at Chicago. I was expecting to meet "Colonials," but it
was Ellis and I who were "colonial." I could have borne it better if
they hadn't been so polite, and so anxious to hide their opinion of
Hawthornden's. The girl--oh! the girl.... Her name is Nellie. Really
very pretty. Only about eighteen, but as self-possessed as twenty-eight.
Evidently she had always been used to treating her parents as equals;
she talked quite half the time, and contradicted her mother as flatly as
Ellis contradicts me. Mr Smith didn't talk much. And Ellis didn't at
first--he was too timid and awkward--really not at all like himself.
However, Miss Nellie soon made him talk, and they got quite friendly and
curt with each other. Curious thing--Ellis never notices women's
clothes; very interested in his own, and in other men's, but not in
women's! So I expect Nellie's didn't make much impression on him. But
truly they were stylish. Much too gorgeous for a young girl--oh! you've
no idea!--but not vulgar. They'd been bought in London, in Dover Street.
Better than mine, and better than her mother's. I will say this for
her--she wore them without any self-consciousness, though she came in
for a good deal of staring. Heaven knows what they cost! I'd be afraid
to guess. But then you see the Smiths had come to England to spend
money, and--well--they were spending it. All their ideas were larger
When dinner was over Nellie wanted to know what we could do to amuse
ourselves. Well, it was a showery night, and of course there was
nothing. Then Ellis said, in his patronizing way:
"Suppose we go and knock the balls about a bit?"
And Nellie said, "Knock the balls about a bit?"
"Yes," said Master Ellis, "billiards--you know."
All four of us went to the billiard-room. And Ellis began to knock the
balls about a bit. His father installed a billiard-table in his own
house a few years ago. The idea was to "keep the boy at home." It
didn't, of course, not a bit. Ellis is a pretty good player, but he did
nearly all his practising at his club. I've often heard his mother
regret the eighty pounds odd that that billiard-table cost.... _I_ play
a bit, you know. Nellie Smith would not try at first, and Papa Smith was
smoking a cigar and he said he couldn't do justice to a cigar and a cue
at the same time. So Ellis and I had a twenty-five up. He gave me ten
and I beat him--probably because he would keep on smoking cigarettes,
just to show Papa Smith how well he could keep the smoke out of his
eyes. Then he asked Nellie if she'd "try." She said she would if her pa
would. And she and her pa put themselves against Ellis and me.
Well, I'll cut it short. That girl, with her pink-and-white
complexion--she began right off with a break of twenty-eight. You should
have seen Ellis's face. It was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life.
I can't remember anything that ever struck me as half so funny. It seems
that they have plenty of time for billiards out in Winnipeg, and a very
high-class table. After a while Ellis saw the funniness of it too. He
made a miss and then he said:
"Will someone kindly take me out and bury me?"
That kind of speech is supposed to be very smart at his club. And the
Smiths thought it was very smart too. Nellie and her pa beat us hollow,
and then Nellie began to take her pa to task for showing off with too
much screw instead of using the natural angle!
Ellis went to bed. He was very struck by Nellie's talents. But he went
to bed. Probably he wanted to think things over, and consider how he
could be impressive with her. I should like to have broken it to him
about his blue suit, because it was Sunday the next day, and Nellie was
bound to be gorgeous for chapel and the pier, and I felt sure he'd be
really glad to have that suit--whatever he might _say_ to me. And I
wanted him to wear it too. But there was no chance for me to tell him.
He went off to bed like a streak of lightning. And usually, you know, he
simply will not go to bed. Nothing will induce him to go to bed, just as
nothing will induce him to get up. I said to myself I would send the
suit into his room early in the morning with a note. I did want him to
look his best.
And then of course there was the fire. The fire was that very night.
Do you actually mean to sit there and tell me you never heard about the
fire at Hawthornden's Hotel last July? Why, it was the sensation of the
season. There was over a column about it in the _Manchester Guardian_.
Everybody talked of it for weeks.... And no one ever told you that we
were in it? Half the annexe was burnt down. We were in the annexe, all
four of us. I fancy the Smiths had chosen it because the rooms in the
annexe are larger. Have you ever been in a fire?... Well, thank your
stars! We were wakened up at three o'clock. It was getting light, even.
Somehow that made it worse. The confusion--you can't imagine it. We got
out all right. Oh! there was no special danger to life and limb. But
after all we only _did_ get out just in time. And with practically
nothing but our dressing-gowns--some not even that! It's queer, in a
fire, how at first you try to save things, and keep calm, and pretend
you _are_ calm, until the thing gets hold of you. I actually began to
shovel clothes into my trunks. Somebody said we should have time for
that. Well--we hadn't. And it was a very good thing there wasn't a lift
in the annexe. It seems a lift well acts like a chimney, and half of us
might have been burnt alive.
I must say the fire-brigade was pretty good. They got the fire out very
well--very quickly in fact. We women, or most of us, had been bundled
into private parlours and things in the main part of the hotel, which
wasn't threatened, and when we knew that the fire was out we naturally
wanted to go back and see whether any of our things could be saved out
of the wreck.
Oh! what a sight it was! What a sight it was! You'd never believe that
so much damage could be done in an hour or so. Chiefly by water, of
course. All the ground floor was swimming in water. In fact there was a
river of it running across the promenade into the sea. About five-sixths
of Llandudno, dressed nohow, was on the promenade. However, policemen
kept the people outside the gates.
The firemen began bringing trunks down the stairs; they wouldn't let us
go up at first. It really was a wonderful scene, at the foot of the
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