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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 1 - Chapter 2. The Bank-Note
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The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 1 - Chapter 2. The Bank-Note Post by :ccain Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :901

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The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 1 - Chapter 2. The Bank-Note

PART I CHAPTER II. THE BANK-NOTE

I

Alderman Machin had to stand at the back, and somewhat towards the side, of that part of the auditorium known as the Grand Circle at the Empire Music Hall, Hanbridge. The attendants at the entrance, and in the lounge, where the salutation "Welcome" shone in electricity over a large cupid-surrounded mirror, had compassionately and yet exultingly told him that there was not a seat left in the house. He had shared their exultation. He had said to himself, full of honest pride in the Five Towns: "This music-hall, admitted by the press to be one of the finest in the provinces, holds over two thousand five hundred people. And yet we can fill it to overflowing twice every night! And only a few years ago there wasn't a decent music-hall in the entire district!"

The word "Progress" flitted through his head.

It was not strictly true that the Empire was or could be filled to overflowing twice every night, but it was true that at that particular moment not a seat was unsold; and the aspect of a crowded auditorium is apt to give an optimistic quality to broad generalizations. Alderman Machin began instinctively to calculate the amount of money in the house, and to wonder whether there would be a chance for a second music-hall in the dissipated town of Hanbridge. He also wondered why the idea of a second music-hall in Hanbridge had never occurred to him before.

The Grand Circle was so called because it was grand. Its plush fauteuils cost a shilling, no mean price for a community where seven pounds of potatoes can be bought for sixpence, and the view of the stage therefrom was perfect. But the Alderman's view was far from perfect, since he had to peer as best he could between and above the shoulders of several men, each apparently, but not really, taller than himself. By constant slight movements, to comply with the movements of the rampart of shoulders, he could discern fragments of various advertisements of soap, motor-cars, whisky, shirts, perfume, pills, bricks and tea--for the drop-curtain was down. And, curiously, he felt obliged to keep his eyes on the drop-curtain and across the long intervening vista of hats and heads and smoke to explore its most difficult corners again and again, lest when it went up he might not be in proper practice for seeing what was behind it.

Nevertheless, despite the marked inconveniences of his situation, he felt brighter, he felt almost happy in this dense atmosphere of success. He even found a certain peculiar and perverse satisfaction in the fact that he had as yet been recognized by nobody. Once or twice the owners of shoulders had turned and deliberately glared at the worrying fellow who had the impudence to be all the time peeping over them and between them; they had not distinguished the fellow from any ordinary fellow. Could they have known that he was the famous Alderman Edward Henry Machin, founder and sole proprietor of the Thrift Club, into which their wives were probably paying so much a week, they would most assuredly have glared to another tune, and they would have said with pride afterwards: "That chap Machin o'Bursley was standing behind me at the Empire to-night!" And though Machin is amongst the commonest names in the Five Towns, all would have known that the great and admired Denry was meant ... It was astonishing that a personage so notorious should not have been instantly "spotted" in such a resort as the Empire. More proof that the Five Towns was a vast and seething concentration of cities, and no longer a mere district where everybody knew everybody!

The curtain rose, and as it did so a thunderous, crashing applause of greeting broke forth; applause that thrilled and impressed and inspired; applause that made every individual in the place feel right glad that he was there. For the curtain had risen on the gigantic attraction, which many members of the audience were about to see for the fifth time that week; in fact, it was rumoured that certain men of fashion, whose habit was to refuse themselves nothing, had attended every performance of the gigantic attraction since the second house on Monday.

The scene represented a restaurant of quiet aspect, into which entered a waiter bearing a pile of plates some two feet high. The waiter being intoxicated the tower of plates leaned this way and that as he staggered about, and the whole house really did hold its breath in the simultaneous hope and fear of an enormous and resounding smash. Then entered a second intoxicated waiter, also bearing a pile of plates some two feet high, and the risk of destruction was thus more than doubled--it was quadrupled, for each waiter, in addition to the risks of his own inebriety, was now subject to the dreadful peril of colliding with the other. However, there was no catastrophe.

Then arrived two customers, one in a dress suit and an eyeglass, and the other in a large violet hat, a diamond necklace and a yellow satin skirt. The which customers, seemingly well used to the sight of drunken waiters tottering to and fro with towers of plates, sat down at a table and waited calmly for attention. The popular audience, with that quick mental grasp for which popular audiences are so renowned, soon perceived that the table was in close proximity to a lofty sideboard, and that on either hand of the sideboard were two chairs, upon which the two waiters were trying to climb in order to deposit their plates on the topmost shelf of the sideboard. The waiters successfully mounted the chairs and successfully lifted their towers of plates to within half an inch of the desired shelf, and then the chairs began to show signs of insecurity. By this time the audience was stimulated to an ecstasy of expectation, whose painfulness was only equalled by its extreme delectability. The sole unmoved persons in the building were the customers awaiting attention at the restaurant table.

One tower was safely lodged on the shelf. But was it? It was not! Yes? No! It curved; it straightened; it curved again. The excitement was as keen as that of watching a drowning man attempt to reach the shore. It was simply excruciating. It could not be borne any longer, and when it could not be borne any longer the tower sprawled irrevocably and seven dozen plates fell in a cascade on the violet hat, and so with an inconceivable clatter to the floor. Almost at the same moment the being in the dress-suit and the eyeglass, becoming aware of phenomena slightly unusual even in a restaurant, dropped his eyeglass, turned round to the sideboard and received the other waiter's seven dozen plates in the face and on the crown of his head.

No such effect had ever been seen in the Five Towns, and the felicity of the audience exceeded all previous felicities. The audience yelled, roared, shrieked, gasped, trembled, and punched itself in a furious passion of pleasure. They make plates in the Five Towns. They live by making plates. They understand plates. In the Five Towns a man will carry not seven but twenty-seven dozen plates on a swaying plank for eight hours a day up steps and down steps, and in doorways and out of doorways, and not break one plate in seven years! Judge, therefore, the simple but terrific satisfaction of a Five Towns audience in the hugeness of the calamity. Moreover, every plate smashed means a demand for a new plate and increased prosperity for the Five Towns. The grateful crowd in the auditorium of the Empire would have covered the stage with wreaths, if it had known that wreaths were used for other occasions than funerals; which it did not know.

Fresh complications instantly ensued, which cruelly cut short the agreeable exercise of uncontrolled laughter. It was obvious that one of the waiters was about to fall. And in the enforced tranquillity of a new dread every dyspeptic person in the house was deliciously conscious of a sudden freedom from indigestion due to the agreeable exercise of uncontrolled laughter, and wished fervently that he could laugh like that after every meal. The waiter fell; he fell through the large violet hat and disappeared beneath the surface of a sea of crockery. The other waiter fell too, but the sea was not deep enough to drown a couple of them. Then the customers, recovering themselves, decided that they must not be outclassed in this competition of havoc, and they overthrew the table and everything on it, and all the other tables and everything on all the other tables. The audience was now a field of artillery which nothing could silence. The waiters arose, and, opening the sideboard, disclosed many hundreds of unsuspected plates of all kinds, ripe for smashing. Niagaras of plates surged on to the stage. All four performers revelled and wallowed in smashed plates. New supplies of plates were constantly being produced from strange concealments, and finally the tables and chairs were broken to pieces, and each object on the walls was torn down and flung in bits on to the gorgeous general debris, to the top of which clambered the violet hat, necklace and yellow petticoat, brandishing one single little plate, whose life had been miraculously spared. Shrieks of joy in that little plate played over the din like lightning in a thunderstorm. And the curtain fell.

It was rung up fifteen times, and fifteen times the quartette of artists, breathless, bowed in acknowledgment of the frenzied and boisterous testimony to their unique talents. No singer, no tragedian, no comedian, no wit could have had such a triumph, could have given such intense pleasure. And yet none of the four had spoken a word. Such is genius.

At the end of the fifteenth call the stage-manager came before the curtain and guaranteed that two thousand four hundred plates had been broken.

The lights went up. Strong men were seen to be wiping tears from their eyes. Complete strangers were seen addressing each other in the manner of old friends. Such is art.

"Well, that was worth a bob, that was!" muttered Edward Henry to himself. And it was. Edward Henry had not escaped the general fate. Nobody, being present, could have escaped it. He was enchanted. He had utterly forgotten every care.

"Good evening, Mr. Machin," said a voice at his side. Not only he turned but nearly everyone in the vicinity turned. The voice was the voice of the stout and splendid managing director of the Empire, and it sounded with the ring of authority above the rising tinkle of the bar behind the Grand Circle.

"Oh! How d'ye do, Mr. Dakins?" Edward Henry held out a cordial hand, for even the greatest men are pleased to be greeted in a place of entertainment by the managing director thereof. Further, his identity was now recognized.

"Haven't you seen those gentlemen in that box beckoning to you?" said Mr. Dakins, proudly deprecating complimentary remarks on the show.

"Which box?"

Mr. Dakins' hand indicated a stage-box. And Henry, looking, saw three men, one unknown to him, the second, Robert Brindley, the architect, of Bursley, and the third, Dr. Stirling.

Instantly his conscience leapt up within him. He thought of rabies. Yes, sobered in the fraction of a second, he thought of rabies. Supposing that, after all, in spite of Mr. Long's Muzzling Order, as cited by his infant son, an odd case of rabies should have lingered in the British Isles, and supposing that Carlo had been infected ...! Not impossible ...! Was it providential that Dr. Stirling was in the auditorium?

"You know two of them?" said Mr. Dakins.

"Yes."

"Well, the third's a Mr. Bryany. He's manager to Mr. Seven Sachs." Mr. Dakins' tone was respectful.

"And who's Mr. Seven Sachs?" asked Edward Henry, absently. It was a stupid question.

He was impressively informed that Mr. Seven Sachs was the arch-famous American actor-playwright, now nearing the end of a provincial tour, which had surpassed all records of provincial tours, and that he would be at the Theatre Royal, Hanbridge, next week. Edward Henry then remembered that the hoardings had been full of Mr. Seven Sachs for some time past.

"They keep on making signs to you," said Mr. Dakins, referring to the occupants of the stage-box.

Edward Henry waved a reply to the box.

"Here! I'll take you there the shortest way," said Mr. Dakins.


II

"Welcome to Stirling's box, Machin!" Robert Brindley greeted the alderman with an almost imperceptible wink. Edward Henry had encountered this wink once or twice before; he could not decide precisely what it meant; it was apt to make him reflective. He did not dislike Robert Brindley, his habit was not to dislike people; he admitted Brindley to be a clever architect, though he objected to the "modern" style of the fronts of his houses and schools. But he did take exception to the man's attitude towards the Five Towns, of which, by the way, Brindley was just as much a native as himself. Brindley seemed to live in the Five Towns like a highly-cultured stranger in a savage land, and to derive rather too much sardonic amusement from the spectacle of existence therein. Brindley was a very special crony of Stirling's, and had influenced Stirling. But Stirling was too clever to submit unduly to the influence. Besides, Stirling was not a native; he was only a Scotchman, and Edward Henry considered that what Stirling thought of the district did not matter. Other details about Brindley which Edward Henry deprecated were his necktie, which, for Edward Henry's taste, was too flowing, his scorn of the Pianisto (despite the man's tremendous interest in music) and his incipient madness on the subject of books--a madness shared by Stirling. Brindley and the doctor were for ever chattering about books--and buying them.

So that, on the whole, Dr. Stirling's box was not a place where Edward Henry felt entirely at home. Nevertheless, the two men, having presented Mr. Bryany, did their best, each in his own way, to make him feel at home.

"Take this chair, Machin," said Stirling, indicating a chair at the front.

"Oh! I can't take the front chair!" Edward Henry protested.

"Of course you can, my dear Machin!" said Brindley, sharply. "The front chair in a stage-box is the one proper seat in the house for you. Do as your doctor prescribes."

And Edward Henry accordingly sat down at the front, with Mr. Bryany by his side, and the other two sat behind. But Edward Henry was not quite comfortable. He faintly resented that speech of Brindley's. And yet he did feel that what Brindley had said was true, and he was indeed glad to be in the front chair of a brilliant stage-box on the grand tier, instead of being packed away in the nethermost twilight of the Grand Circle. He wondered how Brindley and Stirling had managed to distinguish his face among the confusion of faces in that distant obscurity; he, Edward Henry, had failed to notice them, even in the prominence of their box. But that they had distinguished him showed how familiar and striking a figure he was. He wondered, too, why they should have invited him to hob-nob with them. He was not of their set. Indeed, like many very eminent men, he was not to any degree in anybody's set. Of one thing he was sure--because he had read it on the self-conscious faces of all three of them--namely, that they had been discussing him. Possibly he had been brought up for Mr. Bryany's inspection as a major lion and character of the district. Well, he did not mind that; nay, he enjoyed that. He could feel Mr. Bryany covertly looking him over. And he thought: "Look, my boy! I make no charge." He smiled and nodded to one or two people who with pride saluted him from the stalls.... It was meet that he should be visible there on that Friday night!

"A full house!" he observed, to break the rather awkward silence of the box, as he glanced round at the magnificent smoke-veiled pageant of the aristocracy and the democracy of the Five Towns, crowded together, tier above gilded tier, up to the dim roof where ragged lads and maids giggled and flirted while waiting for the broken plates to be cleared away and the moving pictures to begin.

"You may say it!" agreed Mr. Bryany, who spoke with a very slight American accent. "Dakins positively hadn't a seat to offer me. I happened to have the evening free. It isn't often I do have a free evening. And so I thought I'd pop in here. But if Dakins hadn't introduced me to these gentlemen my seat would have had to be a standing one."

"So that's how they got to know him, is it?" thought Edward Henry.

And then there was another short silence.

"Hear you've been doing something striking in rubber shares, Machin?" said Brindley at length.

Astonishing how these things got abroad!

"Oh! very little, very little!" Edward Henry laughed modestly. "Too late to do much! In another fortnight the bottom will be all out of the rubber market."

"Of course I'm an Englishman"--Mr. Bryany began.

"Why 'of course'?" Edward Henry interrupted him.

"Hear! Hear! Alderman. Why 'of course'?" said Brindley, approvingly, and Stirling's rich laugh was heard. "Only it does just happen," Brindley added, "that Mr. Bryany did us the honour to be born in the district."

"Yes! Longshaw," Mr. Bryany admitted, half proud and half apologetic. "Which I left at the age of two."

"Oh, Longshaw!" murmured Edward Henry with a peculiar inflection.

Longshaw is at the opposite end of the Five Towns from Bursley, and the majority of the inhabitants of Bursley have never been to Longshaw in their lives, have only heard of it, as they hear of Chicago or Bangkok. Edward Henry had often been to Longshaw, but, like every visitor from Bursley, he instinctively regarded it as a foolish and unnecessary place.

"As I was saying," resumed Mr. Bryany, quite unintimidated, "I'm an Englishman. But I've lived eighteen years in America, and it seems to me the bottom will soon be knocked out of pretty nearly all the markets in England. Look at the Five Towns!"

"No, don't, Mr. Bryany!" said Brindley. "Don't go to extremes!"

"Personally, I don't mind looking at the Five Towns," said Edward Henry. "What of it?"

"Well, did you ever see such people for looking twice at a five-pound note?"

Edward Henry most certainly did not like this aspersion on his native district. He gazed in silence at Mr. Bryany's brassy and yet simple face, and did not like the face either.

And Mr. Bryany, beautifully unaware that he had failed in tact, continued: "The Five Towns is the most English place I've ever seen, believe me! Of course it has its good points, and England has her good points; but there's no money stirring. There's no field for speculation on the spot, and as for outside investment, no Englishman will touch anything that really--is--good." He emphasized the last three words.

"What d'ye do yeself, Mr. Bryany?" inquired Dr Stirling.

"What do I do with my little bit?" cried Mr. Bryany. "Oh! I know what to do with my little bit. I can get ten per cent in Seattle and twelve to fifteen in Calgary on my little bit; and security just as good as English railway stock--_and better!"

The theatre was darkened and the cinematograph began its restless twinkling.

Mr. Bryany went on offering to Edward Henry, in a suitably lowered voice, his views on the great questions of investment and speculation, and Edward Henry made cautious replies.

"And even when there _is a good thing going at home," Mr. Bryany said, in a wounded tone, "what Englishman'd look at it?"

"I would," said Edward Henry with a blandness that was only skin-deep. For all the time he was cogitating the question whether the presence of Dr Stirling in the audience ought or ought not to be regarded as providential.

"Now, I've got the option on a little affair in London," said Mr. Bryany, while Edward Henry glanced quickly at him in the darkness. "And can I get anybody to go into it? I can't."

"What sort of a little affair?"

"Building a theatre in the West End."

Even a less impassive man than Edward Henry would have started at the coincidence of this remark. And Edward Henry started. Twenty minutes ago he had been idly dreaming of theatrical speculation, and now he could almost see theatrical speculation shimmering before him in the pale shifting rays of the cinematograph that cut through the gloom of the mysterious auditorium.

"Oh!" And in this new interest he forgot the enigma of the ways of Providence.

"Of course, you know, I'm in the business," said Mr. Bryany. "I'm Seven Sachs's manager." It was as if he owned and operated Mr. Seven Sachs.

"So I heard," said Edward Henry, and then remarked with mischievous cordiality, "and I suppose these chaps told you I was the sort of man you were after. And you got them to ask me in, eh, Mr. Bryany?"

Mr. Bryany gave an uneasy laugh, but seemed to find naught to say.

"Well, what _is your little affair?" Edward Henry encouraged him.

"Oh, I can't tell you now," said Mr. Bryany. "It would take too long. The thing has to be explained."

"Well, what about to-morrow?"

"I have to leave for London by the first train in the morning."

"Well, some other time?"

"After to-morrow will be too late."

"Well, what about to-night?"

"The fact is, I've half promised to go with Dr Stirling to some club or other after the show. Otherwise we might have had a quiet, confidential chat in my rooms over at the Turk's Head. I never dreamt--" Mr. Bryany was now as melancholy as a greedy lad who regards rich fruit at arm's length through a plate-glass window, and he had ceased to be patronizing.

"I'll soon get rid of Stirling for you," said Edward Henry, turning instantly towards the doctor. The ways of Providence had been made plain to Edward Henry. "I say, doc!" But the doctor and Brindley were in conversation with another man at the open door of the box.

"What is it?" said Stirling.

"I've come to fetch you. You're wanted at my place."

"Well, you're a caution!" said Stirling.

"Why am I a caution?" Edward Henry smoothly protested. "I didn't tell you before because I didn't want to spoil your fun."

Stirling's mien was not happy.

"Did they tell you I was here?" he asked.

"You'd almost think so, wouldn't you?" said Edward Henry in a playful, enigmatic tone. After all, he decided privately, his wife was right; it was better that Stirling should see the infant. And there was also this natural human thought in his mind; he objected to the doctor giving an entire evening to diversions away from home--he considered that a doctor, when not on a round of visits, ought to be for ever in his consulting-room, ready for a sudden call of emergency. It was monstrous that Stirling should have proposed, after an escapade at the music-hall, to spend further hours with chance acquaintances in vague clubs! Half the town might fall sick and die while the doctor was vainly amusing himself. Thus the righteous lay-man in Edward Henry!

"What's the matter?" asked Stirling.

"My eldest's been rather badly bitten by a dog, and the missis wants it cauterized."

"Really?"

"Well, you bet she does!"

"Where's the bite?"

"In the calf."

The other man at the door having departed Robert Brindley abruptly joined the conversation at this point.

"I suppose you've heard of that case of hydrophobia at Bleakridge?" said Brindley.

Edward Henry's heart jumped.

"No, I haven't!" he said anxiously. "What is it?"

He gazed at the white blur of Brindley's face in the darkened box, and he could hear the rapid clicking of the cinematograph behind him.

"Didn't you see it in the _Signal_?"

"No."

"Neither did I," said Brindley.

At the same moment the moving pictures came to an end, the theatre was filled with light, and the band began to play "God Save the King." Brindley and Stirling were laughing. And, indeed, Brindley had scored, this time, over the unparalleled card of the Five Towns.

"I make you a present of that," said Edward Henry. "But my wife's most precious infant has to be cauterized, doctor," he added firmly.

"Got your car here?" Stirling questioned.

"No. Have you?"

"No."

"Well, there's the tram. I'll follow you later. I've some business round this way. Persuade my wife not to worry, will you?"

And when a discontented Dr. Stirling had made his excuses and adieux to Mr. Bryany, and Robert Brindley had decided that he could not leave his crony to travel by tram-car alone, and the two men had gone, then Edward Henry turned to Mr. Bryany.

"That's how I get rid of the doctor, you see!"

"But _has your child been bitten by a dog?" asked Mr. Bryany, acutely perplexed.

"You'd almost think so, wouldn't you?" Edward Henry replied, carefully non-committal. "What price going to the Turk's Head now?"

He remembered with satisfaction, and yet with misgiving, a remark made to him, a judgment passed on him, by a very old woman very many years before. This discerning hag, the Widow Hullins by name, had said to him briefly, "Well, you're a queer 'un!"


III

Within five minutes he was following Mr. Bryany into a small parlour on the first floor of the Turk's Head--a room with which he had no previous acquaintance, though, like most industrious men of affairs in metropolitan Hanbridge, he reckoned to know something about the Turk's Head. Mr. Bryany turned up the gas--the Turk's Head took pride in being a "hostelry," and, while it had accustomed itself to incandescent mantles (on the ground floor), it had not yet conquered a natural distaste for electricity--and Edward Henry saw a smart dispatch-box, a dress-suit, a trouser-stretcher and other necessaries of theatrical business life at large in the apartment.

"I've never seen this room before," said Edward Henry.

"Take your overcoat off and sit down, will you?" said Mr. Bryany, as he turned to replenish the fire from a bucket. "It's my private sitting-room. Whenever I am on my travels I always take a private sitting-room. It pays, you know.... Of course I mean if I'm alone. When I'm looking after Mr. Sachs, of course we share a sitting-room."

Edward Henry agreed lightly:

"I suppose so."

But the fact was that he was much impressed. He himself had never taken a private sitting-room in any hotel. He had sometimes felt the desire, but he had not had the "face"--as they say down there--to do it. To take a private sitting-room in a hotel was generally regarded in the Five Towns as the very summit of dashing expensiveness and futile luxury.

"I didn't know they had any private sitting-rooms in this shanty," said Edward Henry.

Mr. Bryany, having finished with the fire, fronted him, shovel in hand, with a remarkable air of consummate wisdom, and replied:

"You can generally get what you want, if you insist on having it, even in this 'shanty.'"

Edward Henry regretted his use of the word "shanty." Inhabitants of the Five Towns may allow themselves to twit the historic and excellent Turk's Head, but they do not extend the privilege to strangers. And in justice to the Turk's Head it is to be clearly stated that it did no more to cow and discourage travellers than any other provincial hotel in England. It was a sound and serious English provincial hotel, and it linked century to century.

Said Mr. Bryany:

"'Merica's the place for hotels."

"Yes, I expect it is."

"Been to Chicago?"

"No, I haven't."

Mr. Bryany, as he removed his overcoat, could be seen politely forbearing to raise his eyebrows.

"Of course you've been to New York?"

Edward Henry would have given all he had in his pockets to be able to say that he had been to New York. But by some inexplicable negligence he had hitherto omitted to go to New York, and being a truthful person (except in the gravest crises) he was obliged to answer miserably:

"No, I haven't."

Mr. Bryany gazed at him with amazement and compassion, apparently staggered by the discovery that there existed in England a man of the world who had contrived to struggle on for forty years without perfecting his education by a visit to New York.

Edward Henry could not tolerate Mr. Bryany's look. It was a look which he had never been able to tolerate on the features of anybody whatsoever. He reminded himself that his secret object in accompanying Mr. Bryany to the Turk's Head was to repay Mr. Bryany--in what coin he knew not yet--for the aspersions which at the music-hall he had cast upon England in general and upon the Five Towns in particular, and also to get revenge for having been tricked into believing, even for a moment, that there was really a case of hydrophobia at Bleakridge. It is true that Mr. Bryany was innocent of this deception, which had been accomplished by Robert Brindley, but that was a detail which did not trouble Edward Henry, who lumped his grievances together--for convenience.

He had been reflecting that some sentimental people, unused to the ways of paternal affection in the Five Towns, might consider him a rather callous father; he had been reflecting, again, that Nellie's suggestion of blood-poisoning might not be as entirely foolish as feminine suggestions in such circumstances too often are. But now he put these thoughts away, reassuring himself against hydrophobia anyhow, by the recollection of the definite statement of the _Encyclopedia_. Moreover, had he not inspected the wound--as healthy a wound as you could wish for?

And he said in a new tone, very curtly:

"Now, Mr. Bryany, what about this little affair of yours?"

He saw that Mr.. Bryany accepted the implied rebuke with the deference properly shown by a man who needs something towards the man in possession of what he needs. And studying the fellow's countenance, he decided that, despite its brassiness and simple cunning, it was scarcely the countenance of a rascal.

"Well, it's like this," said Mr.. Bryany, sitting down opposite Edward Henry at the centre table, and reaching with obsequious liveliness for the dispatch-box.

He drew from the dispatch-box, which was lettered "W.C.B.," first a cut-glass flask of whisky with a patent stopper, and then a spacious box of cigarettes.

"I always travel with the right sort," he remarked, holding the golden liquid up to the light. "It's safer and it saves any trouble with orders after closing-time.... These English hotels, you know--!"

So saying he dispensed whisky and cigarettes, there being a siphon and glasses, and three matches in a match-stand, on the table.

"Here's looking!" he said, with raised glass.

And Edward Henry responded, in conformity with the changeless ritual of the Five Towns:

"I looks!"

And they sipped.

Whereupon Mr. Bryany next drew from the dispatch-box a piece of transparent paper.

"I want you to look at this plan of Piccadilly Circus and environs," said he.

Now there is a Piccadilly in Hanbridge; also a Pall Mall and a Chancery Lane. The adjective "metropolitan," applied to Hanbridge, is just.

"London?" questioned Edward Henry, "I understood London when we were chatting over there." With his elbow he indicated the music-hall, somewhere vaguely outside the room.

"London," said Mr. Bryany.

And Edward Henry thought:

"What on earth am I meddling with London for? What use should I be in London?"

"You see the plot marked in red?" Mr. Bryany proceeded. "Well, that's the site. There's an old chapel on it now."

"What do all these straight lines mean?" Edward Henry inquired, examining the plan. Lines radiated from the red plot in various directions.

"Those are the lines of vision," said Mr. Bryany.

"They show just where an electric sign at the corner of the front of the proposed theatre could be seen from. You notice the site is not in the Circus itself--a shade to the north." Mr. Bryany's finger approached Edward Henry's on the plan, and the clouds from their cigarettes fraternally mingled. "Now you see by those lines that the electric sign of the proposed theatre would be visible from nearly the whole of Piccadilly Circus, parts of Lower Regent Street, Coventry Street and even Shaftesbury Avenue. You see what a site it is--absolutely unique."

Edward Henry asked coldly:

"Have you bought it?"

"No," Mr. Bryany seemed to apologize. "I haven't exactly bought it. But I've got an option on it."

The magic word "option" wakened the drowsy speculator in Edward Henry. And the mere act of looking at the plan endowed the plot of land with reality! There it was! It existed!

"An option to buy it?"

"You can't buy land in the West End of London," said Mr. Bryany, sagely. "You can only lease it."

"Well, of course!" Edward Henry concurred.

"The freehold belongs to Lord Woldo, now aged six months."

"Really!" murmured Edward Henry.

"I've got an option to take up the remainder of the lease, with sixty-four years to run, on the condition I put up a theatre. And the option expires in exactly a fortnight's time."

Edward Henry frowned and then asked:

"What are the figures?"

"That is to say," Mr. Bryany corrected himself, smiling courteously, "I've got half the option."

"And who's got the other half?"

"Rose Euclid's got the other half."

At the mention of the name of one of the most renowned star-actresses in England, Edward Henry excusably started.

"Not _the_--?" he exclaimed.

Mr. Bryany nodded proudly, blowing out much smoke.

"Tell me," asked Edward Henry, confidentially, leaning forward, "where do those ladies get their names from?"

"It happens in this case to be her real name," said Mr. Bryany. "Her father kept a tobacconist's shop in Cheapside. The sign was kept up for many years, until Rose paid to have it changed."

"Well, well!" breathed Edward Henry, secretly thrilled by these extraordinary revelations. "And so you and she have got it between you?"

Mr. Bryany said:

"I bought half of it from her some time ago. She was badly hard up for a hundred pounds and I let her have the money." He threw away his cigarette half-smoked, with a free gesture that seemed to imply that he was capable of parting with a hundred pounds just as easily.

"How did she _get the option?" Edward Henry inquired, putting into the query all the innuendo of a man accustomed to look at great worldly affairs from the inside.

"How did she get it? She got it from the late Lord Woldo. She was always very friendly with the late Lord Woldo, you know." Edward Henry nodded. "Why, she and the Countess of Chell are as thick as thieves! You know something about the Countess down here, I reckon?"

The Countess of Chell was the wife of the supreme local magnate.

Edward Henry answered calmly, "We do."

He was tempted to relate a unique adventure of his youth, when he had driven the Countess to a public meeting in his mule-carriage, but sheer pride kept him silent.

"I asked you for the figures," he added, in a manner which requested Mr. Bryany to remember that he was the founder, chairman and proprietor of the Five Towns Universal Thrift Club, one of the most successful business organizations in the Midlands.

"Here they are!" said Mr. Bryany, passing across the table a sheet of paper.

And as Edward Henry studied them he could hear Mr. Bryany faintly cooing into his ear: "Of course Rose got the ground-rent reduced. And when I tell you that the demand for theatres in the West End far exceeds the supply, and that theatre rents are always going up ... When I tell you that a theatre costing L25,000 to build can be let for L11,000 a year, and often L300 a week on a short term ...!" And he could hear the gas singing over his head ... And also, unhappily, he could hear Dr. Stirling talking to his wife and saying to her that the bite was far more serious than it looked, and Nellie hoping very audibly that nothing had "happened" to him, her still absent husband ...! And then he could hear Mr. Bryany again:

"When I tell you ..."

"When you tell me all this, Mr. Bryany," he interrupted with that ferocity which in the Five Towns is regarded as mere directness, "I wonder why the devil you want to sell your half of the option--if you _do want to sell it. Do you want to sell it?"

"To tell you the truth," said Mr. Bryany, as if up to that moment he had told naught but lies, "I do."

"Why?"

"Oh, I'm always travelling about, you see. England one day--America the next." (Apparently he had quickly abandoned the strictness of veracity.) "All depends on the governor's movements! I couldn't keep a proper eye on an affair of that kind."

Edward Henry laughed:

"And could I?"

"Chance for you to go a bit oftener to London," said Mr. Bryany, laughing too. Then, with extreme and convincing seriousness, "You're the very man for a thing of that kind. And you know it!"

Edward Henry was not displeased by this flattery.

"How much?"

"How much? Well, I told you frankly what I paid. I made no concealment of that, did I now? Well, I want what I paid. It's worth it!"

"Got a copy of the option, I hope!"

Mr. Bryany produced a copy of the option.

"I am nothing but an infernal ass to mix myself up in a mad scheme like this," said Edward Henry to his soul, perusing the documents. "It's right off my line, right bang off it ...! But what a lark!" But even to his soul he did not utter the remainder of the truth about himself, namely: "I should like to cut a dash before this insufferable patronizer of England and the Five Towns."

Suddenly something snapped within him and he said to Mr. Bryany:

"I'm on!"

Those words and no more!

"You are?" Mr. Bryany exclaimed, mistrusting his ears.

Edward Henry nodded.

"Well, that's business anyway!" said Mr. Bryany, taking a fresh cigarette and lighting it.

"It's how we do business down here," said Edward Henry, quite inaccurately; for it was not in the least how they did business down there.

Mr. Bryany asked, with a rather obvious anxiety:

"But when can you pay?"

"Oh, I'll send you a cheque in a day or two." And Edward Henry in his turn took a fresh cigarette.

"That won't do! That won't do!" cried Mr. Bryany. "I absolutely must have the money to-morrow morning in London. I can sell the option in London for eighty pounds--I know that."

"You must have it?"

"Must!"

They exchanged glances. And Edward Henry, rapidly acquiring new knowledge of human nature on the threshold of a world strange to him, understood that Mr. Bryany, with his private sitting-room and his investments in Seattle and Calgary, was at his wits' end for a bag of English sovereigns, and had trusted to some chance encounter to save him from a calamity. And his contempt for Mr. Bryany was that of a man to whom his bankers are positively servile.

"Here!" Mr. Bryany almost shouted. "Don't light your cigarette with my option!"

"I beg pardon!" Edward Henry apologized, dropping the document which he had creased into a spill. There were no matches left on the table.

"I'll find you a match!"

"It's of no consequence," said Edward Henry, feeling in his pockets. Having discovered therein a piece of paper he twisted it and rose to put it to the gas.

"Could you slip round to your bank and meet me at the station in the morning with the cash?" suggested Mr. Bryany.

"No, I couldn't," said Edward Henry.

"Well, then, what--?"

"Here, you'd better take this," the "Card," reborn, soothed his host and, blowing out the spill which he had just ignited at the gas, he offered it to Mr. Bryany.

"What?"

"This, man!"

Mr. Bryany, observing the peculiarity of the spill, seized it and unrolled it--not without a certain agitation.

He stammered:

"Do you mean to say it's genuine?"

"You'd almost think so, wouldn't you?" said Edward Henry. He was growing fond of this reply, and of the enigmatic, playful tone that he had invented for it.

"But--"

"We may, as you say, look twice at a fiver," continued Edward Henry. "But we're apt to be careless about hundred-pound notes in this district. I daresay that's why I always carry one."

"But it's burnt!"

"Only just the edge. Not enough to harm it. If any bank in England refuses it, return it to me and I'll give you a couple more in exchange. Is that talking?"

"Well, I'm dashed!" Mr. Bryany attempted to rise, and then subsided back into his chair. "I am simply and totally dashed!" He smiled weakly, hysterically.

And in that instant Edward Henry felt all the sweetness of a complete and luscious revenge.

He said commandingly:

"You must sign me a transfer. I'll dictate it!"

Then he jumped up.

"You're in a hurry?"

"I am. My wife is expecting me. You promised to find me a match." Edward Henry waved the unlit cigarette as a reproach to Mr. Bryany's imperfect hospitality.


IV

The clock of Bleakridge Church, still imperturbably shining in the night, showed a quarter to one when he saw it again on his hurried and guilty way home. The pavements were drying in the fresh night wind and he had his overcoat buttoned up to the neck. He was absolutely solitary in the long, muddy perspective of Trafalgar Road. He walked because the last tram-car was already housed in its shed at the other end of the world, and he walked quickly because his conscience drove him onwards. And yet he dreaded to arrive, lest a wound in the child's leg should have maliciously decided to fester in order to put him in the wrong. He was now as apprehensive concerning that wound as Nellie herself had been at tea-time.

But, in his mind, above the dark gulf of anxiety, there floated brighter thoughts. Despite his fears and his remorse as a father, he laughed aloud in the deserted street when he remembered Mr. Bryany's visage of astonishment upon uncreasing the note. Indubitably he had made a terrific and everlasting impression upon Mr. Bryany. He was sending Mr. Bryany out of the Five Towns a different man. He had taught Mr. Bryany a thing or two. To what brilliant use had he turned the purely accidental possession of a hundred-pound note! One of his finest inspirations--an inspiration worthy of the great days of his youth! Yes, he had had his hour that evening, and it had been a glorious one. Also, it had cost him a hundred pounds, and he did not care; he would retire to bed with a net gain of two hundred and forty-one pounds instead of three hundred and forty-one pounds--that was all!

For he did not mean to take up the option. The ecstasy was cooled now and he saw clearly that London and theatrical enterprises therein would not be suited to his genius. In the Five Towns he was on his own ground; he was a figure; he was sure of himself. In London he would be a provincial, with the diffidence and the uncertainty of a provincial. Nevertheless, London seemed to be summoning him from afar off, and he dreamt agreeably of London as one dreams of the impossible East.

As soon as he opened the gate in the wall of his property he saw that the drawing-room was illuminated and all the other front rooms in darkness. Either his wife or his mother, then, was sitting up in the drawing-room. He inserted a cautious latch-key into the door and entered the silent home like a sinner. The dim light in the hall gravely reproached him. All his movements were modest and restrained. No noisy rattling of his stick now!

The drawing-room door was slightly ajar. He hesitated, and then, nerving himself, pushed against it.

Nellie, with lowered head, was seated at a table, mending, the image of tranquillity and soft resignation. A pile of children's garments lay by her side, but the article in her busy hands appeared to be an under-shirt of his own. None but she ever reinforced the buttons on his linen. Such was her wifely rule, and he considered that there was no sense in it. She was working by the light of a single lamp on the table, the splendid chandelier being out of action. Her economy in the use of electricity was incurable, and he considered that there was no sense in that either.

She glanced up, with a guarded expression that might have meant anything.

He said:

"Aren't you trying your eyes?"

And she replied:

"Oh, no!"

Then, plunging, he came to the point:

"Well, doctor been?"

She nodded.

"What does he say?"

"It's quite all right. He did nothing but cover up the place with a bit of cyanide gauze."

Instantly, in his own esteem, he regained perfection as a father. Of course the bite was nothing! Had he not said so from the first? Had he not been quite sure throughout that the bite was nothing?

"Then why did you sit up?" he asked, and there was a faint righteous challenge in his tone.

"I was anxious about you. I was afraid--"

"Didn't Stirling tell you I had some business?"

"I forget--"

"I told him to, anyhow.... Important business."

"It must have been," said Nellie, in an inscrutable voice.

She rose and gathered together her paraphernalia, and he saw that she was wearing the damnable white apron. The close atmosphere of the home enveloped and stifled him once more. How different was this exasperating interior from the large jolly freedom of the Empire Music Hall, and from the whisky, cigarettes and masculinity of that private room at the Turk's Head!

"It was!" he repeated grimly and resentfully. "Very important! And I'll tell you another thing. I shall probably have to go to London."

He said this just to startle her.

"It will do you all the good in the world," she replied angelically, but unstartled. "It's just what you need!" And she gazed at him as though his welfare and felicity were her sole preoccupation.

"I meant I might have to stop there quite a while," he insisted.

"If you ask me," she said, "I think it would do us all good."

So saying, she retired, having expressed no curiosity whatever as to the nature of the very important business in London.

For a moment, left alone, he was at a loss. Then, snorting, he went to the table and extinguished the lamp. He was now in darkness. The light in the hall showed him the position of the door.

He snorted again. "Oh, very well then!" he muttered. "If that's it!... I'm hanged if I don't go to London!... I'm hanged if I don't go to London!"

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