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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 1 - Chapter 6. Lord Woldo And Lady Woldo
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The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 1 - Chapter 6. Lord Woldo And Lady Woldo Post by :Michele_G Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1252

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The Regent: A Five Towns Story Of Adventure In London - Part 1 - Chapter 6. Lord Woldo And Lady Woldo

PART I CHAPTER VI. LORD WOLDO AND LADY WOLDO

I

The next morning, Joseph, having opened wide the window, informed his master that the weather was bright and sunny, and Edward Henry arose with just that pleasant degree of fatigue which persuades one that one is if anything rather more highly vitalized than usual. He sent for Mr. Bryany, as for a domestic animal, and Mr. Bryany, ceremoniously attired, was received by a sort of jolly king who happened to be trimming his beard in the royal bathroom but who was too good-natured to keep Mr. Bryany waiting. It is remarkable how the habit of royalty, having once taken root, will flourish in the minds of quite unmonarchical persons. Edward Henry first inquired after the health of Mr. Seven Sachs, and then obtained from Mr. Bryany all remaining papers and trifles of information concerning the affair of the option. Whereupon Mr. Bryany, apparently much elated by the honour of an informal reception, effusively retired. And Edward Henry too was so elated, and his faith in life so renewed and invigorated, that he said to himself:

"It might be worth while to shave my beard off, after all!"

As in his electric brougham he drove along muddy and shining Piccadilly, he admitted that Joseph's account of the weather had been very accurate. The weather was magnificent; it presented the best features of summer combined with the salutary pungency of autumn. And flags were flying over the establishments of tobacconists, soothsayers and insurance companies in Piccadilly. And the sense of Empire was in the very air, like an intoxication. And there was no place like London. When, however, having run through Piccadilly into streets less superb, he reached the Majestic, it seemed to him that the Majestic was not a part of London, but a bit of the provinces surrounded by London. He was very disappointed with the Majestic, and took his letters from the clerk with careless condescension. In a few days the Majestic had sunk from being one of "London's huge caravanserais" to the level of a swollen Turk's Head. So fragile are reputations!

From the Majestic Edward Henry drove back into the regions of Empire, between Piccadilly and Regent Street, and deigned to call upon his tailors. A morning-suit which he had commanded being miraculously finished, he put it on, and was at once not only spectacularly but morally regenerated. The old suit, though it had cost five guineas in its time, looked a paltry and a dowdy thing as it lay, flung down anyhow, on one of Messrs Quayther & Cuthering's cane chairs in the mirrored cubicle where baronets and even peers showed their braces to the benign Mr. Cuthering.

"I want to go to Piccadilly Circus now. Stop at the fountain," said Edward Henry to his chauffeur. He gave the order somewhat defiantly, because he was a little self-conscious in the new and gleaming suit, and because he had an absurd idea that the chauffeur might guess that he, a provincial from the Five Towns, was about to venture into West End theatrical enterprise and sneer at him accordingly.

But the chauffeur merely touched his cap with an indifferent and lofty gesture, as if to say:

"Be at ease. I have driven persons more moon-struck even than you. Human eccentricity has long since ceased to surprise me."

The fountain in Piccadilly Circus was the gayest thing in London. It mingled the fresh tinkling of water with the odour and flame of autumn blossoms and the variegated colours of shawled women who passed their lives on its margin engaged in the commerce of flowers. Edward Henry bought an aster from a fine bold, red-cheeked, blowsy, dirty wench with a baby in her arms, and left some change for the baby. He was in a very tolerant and charitable mood, and could excuse the sins and the stupidity of all mankind. He reflected forgivingly that Rose Euclid and her friends had perhaps not displayed an abnormal fatuity in discussing the name of the theatre before they had got the lease of the site for it. Had not he himself bought all the option without having even seen the site? The fact was that he had had no leisure in his short royal career for such details as seeing the site. He was now about to make good the omission.

It is a fact that as he turned northwards from Piccadilly Circus, to the right of the County Fire Office, in order to spy out the land upon which his theatre was to be built, he hesitated, under the delusion that all the passers-by were staring at him! He felt just as he might have felt had he been engaged upon some scheme nefarious. He even went back and pretended to examine the windows of the County Fire Office. Then, glancing self-consciously about, he discerned--not unnaturally--the words "Regent Street" on a sign.

"There you are!" he murmured, with a thrill. "There you are! There's obviously only one name for that theatre--'The Regent.' It's close to Regent Street. No other theatre is called 'The Regent.' Nobody before ever had the idea of 'Regent' as a name for a theatre. 'Muses' indeed!... 'Intellectual'! ... 'The Regent Theatre'! How well it comes off the tongue! It's a great name! It'll be the finest name of any theatre in London! And it took yours truly to think of it!"

Then he smiled privately at his own weakness.... He too, like the despised Rose, was baptizing the unborn! Still, he continued to dream of the theatre, and began to picture to himself the ideal theatre. He discovered that he had quite a number of startling ideas about theatre-construction, based on his own experience as a playgoer.

When, with new courage, he directed his feet towards the site, upon which he knew there was an old chapel known as Queen's Glasshouse Chapel, whose ownership had slipped from the nerveless hand of a dying sect of dissenters, he could not find the site and he could not see the chapel. For an instant he was perturbed by a horrid suspicion that he had been victimized by a gang of swindlers posing as celebrated persons. Everything was possible in this world and century! None of the people who had appeared in the transaction had resembled his previous conceptions of such people! And confidence-thieves always operated in the grandest hotels! He immediately decided that if the sequel should prove him to be a simpleton and gull, he would at any rate be a silent simpleton and gull. He would stoically bear the loss of two hundred pounds and breathe no word of woe.

But then he remembered with relief that he had genuinely recognized both Rose Euclid and Seven Sachs; and also that Mr. Bryany, among other documents, had furnished him with a photograph of the Chapel and surrounding property. The Chapel therefore existed. He had a plan in his pocket. He now opened this plan and tried to consult it in the middle of the street, but his agitation was such that he could not make out on it which was north and which was south. After he had been nearly prostrated by a taxi-cab, a policeman came up to him and said, with all the friendly disdain of a London policeman addressing a provincial:

"Safer to look at that on the pavement, sir!"

Edward Henry glanced up from the plan.

"I was trying to find the Queen's Glasshouse Chapel, officer," said he. "Have you ever heard of it?"

(In Bursley, members of the Town Council always flattered members of the Force by addressing them as "officer"; and Edward Henry knew exactly the effective intonation.)

"It _was there_, sir," said the policeman, less disdainful, pointing to a narrow hoarding behind which could be seen the back-walls of high buildings in Shaftesbury Avenue. "They've just finished pulling it down."

"Thank you," said Edward Henry, quietly, with a superb and successful effort to keep as much colour in his face as if the policeman had not dealt him a dizzying blow.

He then walked towards the hoarding, but could scarcely feel the ground under his feet. From a wide aperture in the palisades a cart full of earth was emerging; it creaked and shook as it was dragged by a labouring horse over loose planks into the roadway; a whip-cracking carter hovered on its flank. Edward Henry approached the aperture and gazed within. An elegant young man stood solitary inside the hoarding and stared at a razed expanse of land in whose furthest corner some navvies were digging a hole....

The site!

But what did this sinister destructive activity mean? Nobody was entitled to interfere with property on which he, Alderman Machin, held an unexpired option! But was it the site? He perused the plan again with more care. Yes, there could be no doubt that it was the site. His eye roved round and he admitted the justice of the boast that an electric sign displayed at the southern front corner of the theatre would be visible from Piccadilly Circus, Lower Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, etc., etc. He then observed a large notice-board, raised on posts above the hoardings, and read the following:

SITE

OF THE

FIRST NEW THOUGHT CHURCH

to be opened next Spring.

Subscriptions invited.

Rollo Wrissell: _Senior Trustee_. Ralph Alloyd: _Architect_.
Dicks & Pato: _Builders_.

 

The name of Rollo Wrissell seemed familiar to him, and after a few moments' searching he recalled that Rollo Wrissell was one of the trustees and executors of the late Lord Woldo, the other being the widow--and the mother of the new Lord Woldo. In addition to the lettering the notice-board held a graphic representation of the First New Thought Church as it would be when completed.

"Well," said Edward Henry, not perhaps unjustifiably, "this really is a bit thick! Here I've got an option on a plot of land for building a theatre, and somebody else has taken it to put up a church!"

He ventured inside the hoarding, and addressing the elegant young man asked:

"You got anything to do with this, mister?"

"Well," said the young man, smiling humorously, "I'm the architect. It's true that nobody ever pays any attention to an architect in these days."

"Oh! You're Mr. Alloyd?"

"I am."

Mr. Alloyd had black hair, intensely black, changeful eyes, and the expressive mouth of an actor.

"I thought they were going to build a theatre here," said Edward Henry.

"I wish they had been!" said Mr. Alloyd. "I'd just like to design a theatre! But of course I shall never get the chance."

"Why not?"

"I know I shan't," Mr. Alloyd insisted with gloomy disgust. "Only obtained this job by sheer accident! ... You got any ideas about theatres?"

"Well, I have," said Edward Henry.

Mr. Alloyd turned on him with a sardonic and half-benevolent gleam.

"And what are your ideas about theatres?"

"Well," said Edward Henry, "I should like to meet an architect who had thoroughly got it into his head that when people pay for seats to see a play they want to be able to _see it, and not just get a look at it now and then over other people's heads and round corners of boxes and things. In most theatres that I've been in the architects seemed to think that iron pillars and wooden heads are transparent. Either that, or the architects were rascals! Same with hearing! The pit costs half-a-crown, and you don't pay half-a-crown to hear glasses rattled in a bar or motor-omnibuses rushing down the street. I was never yet in a London theatre where the architect had really understood that what the people in the pit wanted to hear was the play and nothing but the play."

"You're rather hard on us," said Mr. Alloyd.

"Not so hard as you are on _us_!" said Edward Henry. "And then draughts! I suppose you think a draught on the back of the neck is good for us!... But of course you'll say all this has nothing to do with architecture!"

"Oh, no, I shan't! Oh, no, I shan't!" exclaimed Mr. Alloyd. "I quite agree with you!"

"You _do_?"

"Certainly. You seem to be interested in theatres?"

"I am a bit."

"You come from the north?"

"No, I don't," said Edward Henry. Mr. Alloyd had no right to be aware that he was not a Londoner.

"I beg your pardon."

"I come from the Midlands."

"Oh!... Have you seen the Russian Ballet?"

Edward Henry had not--nor heard of it. "Why?" he asked.

"Nothing," said Mr. Alloyd. "Only I saw it the night before last in Paris. You never saw such dancing. It's enchanted--enchanted! The most lovely thing I ever saw in my life. I couldn't sleep for it. Not that I ever sleep very well!--I merely thought, as you were interested in theatres--and Midland people are so enterprising!... Have a cigarette?"

Edward Henry, who had begun to feel sympathetic, was somewhat repelled by these odd last remarks. After all the man, though human enough, was an utter stranger.

"No thanks," he said. "And so you're going to put up a church here?"

"Yes."

"Well, I wonder whether you are."

He walked abruptly away under Alloyd's riddling stare, and he could almost hear the man saying, "Well, he's a queer lot, if you like."

At the corner of the site, below the spot where his electric sign was to have been, he was stopped by a well-dressed middle-aged lady who bore a bundle of papers.

"Will you buy a paper for the cause?" she suggested in a pleasant, persuasive tone. "One penny."

He obeyed, and she handed him a small blue-printed periodical of which the title was "_Azure_, the Organ of the New Thought Church." He glanced at it, puzzled, and then at the middle-aged lady.

"Every penny of profit goes to the Church Building Fund," she said, as if in defence of her action.

Edward Henry burst out laughing; but it was a nervous, half-hysterical laugh that he laughed.


II

In Carey Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, he descended from his brougham in front of the offices of Messrs Slosson, Hodge, Budge, Slosson, Maveringham, Slosson & Vulto--solicitors--known in the profession by the compendious abbreviation of Slossons. Edward Henry, having been a lawyer's clerk some twenty-five years earlier, was aware of Slossons. Although on the strength of his youthful clerkship he claimed, and was admitted, to possess a very special knowledge of the law--enough to silence argument when his opponent did not happen to be an actual solicitor--he did not in truth possess a very special knowledge of the law--how should he, seeing that he had only been a practitioner of shorthand?--but the fame of Slossons he positively was acquainted with! He had even written letters to the mighty Slossons.

Every lawyer and lawyer's clerk in the realm knew the greatness of Slossons, and crouched before it, and also, for the most part, impugned its righteousness with sneers. For Slossons acted for the ruling classes of England, who only get value for their money when they are buying something that they can see, smell, handle, or intimidate--such as a horse, a motor-car, a dog, or a lackey. Slossons, those crack solicitors, like the crack nerve specialists in Harley Street and the crack fortune-tellers in Bond Street, sold their invisible, inodorous and intangible wares of advice at double, treble, or decuple their worth, according to the psychology of the customer. They were great bullies. And they were, further, great money-lenders--on behalf of their wealthier clients. In obedience to a convenient theory that it is imprudent to leave money too long in one place, they were continually calling in mortgages, and re-lending the sums so collected on fresh investments, thus achieving two bills of costs on each transaction, and sometimes three, besides employing an army of valuers, surveyors and mortgage-insurance brokers. In short, Slossons had nothing to learn about the art of self-enrichment.

Three vast motor-cars waited in front of their ancient door, and Edward Henry's hired electric vehicle was diminished to a trifle.

He began by demanding the senior partner, who was denied to him by an old clerk with a face like a stone wall. Only his brutal Midland insistence, and the mention of the important letter which he had written to the firm in the middle of the night, saved him from the ignominy of seeing no partner at all. At the end of the descending ladder of partners he clung desperately to Mr. Vulto, and he saw Mr. Vulto--a youngish and sarcastic person with blue eyes, lodged in a dark room at the back of the house. It occurred fortunately that his letter had been allotted to precisely Mr. Vulto for the purpose of being answered.

"You got my letter?" said Edward Henry, cheerfully, as he sat down at Mr. Vulto's flat desk on the side opposite from Mr. Vulto.

"We got it, but frankly we cannot make head or tail of it!... _What option?" Mr. Vulto's manner was crudely sarcastic.

"_This option!" said Edward Henry, drawing papers from his pocket, and putting down the right paper in front of Mr. Vulto with an uncompromising slap.

Mr. Vulto picked up the paper with precautions, as if it were a contagion, and, assuming eyeglasses, perused it with his mouth open.

"We know nothing of this," said Mr. Vulto, and it was as though he had added: "Therefore this does not exist." He glanced with sufferance at the window, which offered a close-range view of a whitewashed wall.

"Then you weren't in the confidence of your client?"

"The late Lord Woldo?"

"Yes."

"Pardon me."

"Obviously you weren't in his confidence as regards this particular matter."

"As you say," said Mr. Vulto, with frigid irony.

"Well, what are you going to do about it?"

"Well--nothing." Mr. Vulto removed his eyeglasses and stood up.

"Well, good morning. I'll walk round to _my solicitors." Edward Henry seized the option.

"That will be simpler," said Mr. Vulto. Slossons much preferred to deal with lawyers than, with laymen, because it increased costs and vitalized the profession.

At that moment a stout, red-faced and hoary man puffed very authoritatively into the room.

"Vulto," he cried sharply. "Mr. Wrissell's here. Didn't they tell you?"

"Yes, Mr. Slosson," answered Vulto, suddenly losing all his sarcastic quality, and becoming a very junior partner. "I was just engaged with Mr."--(he paused to glance at his desk)--"Machin, whose singular letter we received this morning about an alleged option on the lease of the Chapel site at Piccadilly Circus--the Woldo estate, sir. You remember, sir?"

"This the man?" inquired Mr. Slosson, ex-president of the Law Society, with a jerk of the thumb.

Edward Henry said, "This is the man."

"Well," said Mr. Slosson, lifting his chin, and still puffing, "it would be extremely interesting to hear his story at any rate. I was just telling Mr. Wrissell about it. Come this way, sir. I've heard some strange things in my time, but--" He stopped. "Please follow me, sir," he ordained.

"I'm dashed if I'll follow you!" Edward Henry desired to say, but he had not the courage to say it. And because he was angry with himself he determined to make matters as unpleasant as possible for the innocent Mr. Slosson, who was so used to bullying, and so well paid for bullying that really no blame could be apportioned to him. It would have been as reasonable to censure an ordinary person for breathing as to censure Mr. Slosson for bullying. And so Edward Henry was steeling himself: "I'll do him in the eye for that, even if it costs me every cent I've got." (A statement characterized by poetical license!)


III

Mr. Slosson, senior, heard Edward Henry's story, but seemingly did not find it quite as interesting as he had prophesied it would be. When Edward Henry had finished the old man drummed on an enormous table, and said:

"Yes, yes. And then?" His manner was far less bullying than in the room of Mr. Vulto.

"It's your turn now, Mr. Slosson," said Edward Henry.

"My turn? How?"

"To go on with the story." He glanced at the clock. "I've brought it up to date--11.15 o'clock this morning _anno domini_." And as Mr. Slosson continued to drum on the table and to look out of the window, Edward Henry also drummed on the table and looked out of the window.

The chamber of the senior partner was a very different matter from Mr. Vulto's. It was immense. It was not disfigured by japanned boxes inartistically lettered in white, as are most lawyer's offices. Indeed in aspect it resembled one of the cosier rooms in a small and decaying but still comfortable club. It had easy chairs and cigar boxes. Moreover, the sun got into it, and there was a view of the comic yet stately Victorian Gothic of the Law Courts. The sun enheartened Edward Henry. And he felt secure in an unimpugnable suit of clothes; in the shape of his collar, the colour of his necktie, the style of his creaseless boots; and in the protuberance of his pocket-book in his pocket.

As Mr. Slosson had failed to notice the competition of his drumming, he drummed still louder. Whereupon Mr. Slosson stopped drumming. Edward Henry gazed amiably around. Right at the back of the room--before a back-window that gave on the whitewashed wall--a man was rapidly putting his signature to a number of papers. But Mr. Slosson had ignored the existence of this man, treating him apparently as a figment of the disordered brain or as an optical illusion.

"I've nothing to say," said Mr. Slosson.

"Or to do?"

"Or to do."

"Well, Mr. Slosson," said Edward Henry, "your junior partner has already outlined your policy of masterly inactivity. So I may as well go. I did say I'd go to my solicitors. But it's occurred to me that as I'm a principal I may as well first of all see the principals on the other side. I only came here because it mentions in the option that the matter is to be completed here--that's all."

"You a principal!" exclaimed Mr. Slosson. "It seems to me you're a long way removed from a principal. The alleged option is given to a Miss Rose Euclid--"

"Excuse me--_the Miss Rose Euclid."

"Miss Rose Euclid. She divides up her alleged interest into fractions, and sells them here and there, and you buy them up one after another." Mr. Slosson laughed, not unamiably. "You're a principal about five times removed."

"Well," said Edward Henry, "whatever I am, I have a sort of idea I'll go and see this Mr. Gristle or Wrissell. Can you--"

The man at the distant desk turned his head. Mr. Slosson coughed. The man rose.

"This is Mr. Wrissel," said Mr. Slosson, with a gesture from which confusion was not absent.

"Good morning," said the advancing Mr. Rollo Wrissell, and he said it with an accent more Kensingtonian than any accent that Edward Henry had ever heard. His lounging and yet elegant walk assorted well with the accent. His black clothes were loose and untidy. Such boots as his could not have been worn by Edward Henry even in the Five Towns without blushing shame, and his necktie looked as if a baby or a puppy had been playing with it. Nevertheless, these shortcomings made absolutely no difference whatever to the impressivness of Mr. Rollo Wrissell, who was famous for having said once, "I put on whatever comes to hand first, and people don't seem to mind."

Mr. Rollo Wrissell belonged to one of the seven great families which once governed--and by the way still do govern--England, Scotland and Ireland. The members of these families may be divided into two species: those who rule, and those who are too lofty in spirit even to rule--those who exist. Mr. Rollo Wrissell belonged to the latter species. His nose and mouth had the exquisite refinement of the descendant of generations of art-collectors and poet-patronizers. He enjoyed life--but not with rude activity, like the grosser members of the ruling caste--rather with a certain rare languor. He sniffed and savoured the whole spherical surface of the apple of life with those delicate nostrils, rather than bit into it. His one conviction was that in a properly--managed world nothing ought to occur to disturb or agitate the perfect tranquillity of his existing. And this conviction was so profound, so visible even in his lightest gesture and glance, that it exerted a mystic influence over the entire social organism--with the result that practically nothing ever did occur to disturb or agitate the perfect tranquillity of Mr. Rollo Wrissell's existing. For Mr. Rollo Wrissell the world was indeed almost ideal.

Edward Henry breathed to himself, "This is the genuine article."

And, being an Englishman, he was far more impressed by Mr. Wrissell than he had been by the much vaster reputations of Rose Euclid, Seven Sachs and Mr. Slosson, senior. At the same time he inwardly fought against Mr. Wrissell's silent and unconscious dominion over him, and all the defiant Midland belief that one body is as good as anybody else surged up in him--but stopped at his lips.

"Please don't rise," Mr. Wrissell entreated, waving both hands. "I'm very sorry to hear of this unhappy complication," he went on to Edward Henry, with the most adorable and winning politeness. "It pains me." (His martyred expression said, "And really I ought not to be pained!") "I'm quite convinced that you are here in absolute good faith--the most absolute good faith--Mr.--"

"Machin," suggested Mr. Slosson.

"Ah! pardon me! Mr. Machin. And naturally in the management of enormous estates such as Lord Woldo's little difficulties are apt to occur.... I'm sorry you've been put in a false position. You have all my sympathies. But of course you understand that in this particular case ... I myself have taken up the lease from the estate. I happen to be interested in a great movement. The plans of my church have been passed by the County Council. Building operations have indeed begun."

"Oh! chuck it!" said Edward Henry, inexcusably--but such were his words. A surfeit of Mr. Wrissell's calm egotism and accent and fatigued harmonious gestures drove him to commit this outrage upon the very fabric of civilization.

Mr. Wrissell, if he had ever met with the phrase--which is doubtful--had certainly never heard it addressed to himself; conceivably he might have once come across it in turning over the pages of a slang dictionary. A tragic expression traversed his bewildered features--and then he recovered himself somewhat.

"I--"

"Go and bury yourself!" said Edward Henry, with increased savagery.

Mr. Wrissell, having comprehended, went. He really did go. He could not tolerate scenes, and his glance showed that any forcible derangement of his habit of existing smoothly would nakedly disclose the unyielding adamantine selfishness that was the basis of the Wrissell philosophy. His glance was at least harsh and bitter. He went in silence, and rapidly. Mr. Slosson, senior, followed him at a great pace.

Edward Henry was angry. Strange though it may seem, the chief cause of his anger was the fact that his own manners and breeding were lower, coarser, clumsier, more brutal than Mr. Wrissell's.

After what appeared to be a considerable absence Mr. Slosson, senior, returned into the room. Edward Henry, steeped in peculiar meditations, was repeating:

"So this is Slosson's!"

"What's that?" demanded Mr. Slosson with a challenge in his ancient but powerful voice.

"Nowt!" said Edward Henry.

"Now, sir," said Mr. Slosson, "we'd better come to an understanding about this so-called option. It's not serious, you know."

"You'll find it is."

"It's not commercial."

"I fancy it is--for me!" said Edward Henry.

"The premium mentioned is absurdly inadequate, and the ground-rent is quite improperly low."

"That's just why I look on it as commercial--from my point of view," said Edward Henry.

"It isn't worth the paper it's written on," said Mr. Slosson.

"Why?"

"Because, seeing the unusual form of it, it ought to be stamped, and it isn't stamped."

"Listen here, Mr. Slosson," said Edward Henry, "I want you to remember that you're talking to a lawyer."

"A lawyer?"

"I was in the law for years," said Edward Henry. "And you know as well as I do that I can get the option stamped at any time by paying a penalty--which at worst will be a trifle compared to the value of the option."

"Ah!" Mr. Slosson paused, and resumed his puffing, which exercise--perhaps owing to undue excitement--he had pretermitted. "Then further, the deed isn't drawn up."

"That's not my fault."

"Further, the option is not transferable."

"We shall see about that."

"And the money ought to be paid down to-day, even on your own showing--every cent of it, in cash."

"Here is the money," said Edward Henry, drawing his pocket-book from his breast. "Every cent of it, in the finest brand of bank-notes!"

He flung down the notes with the impulsive gesture of an artist; then, with the caution of a man of the world, gathered them in again.

"The whole circumstances under which the alleged option is alleged to have been given would have to be examined," said Mr. Slosson.

"I shan't mind," said Edward Henry. "Others might."

"There is such a thing as undue influence."

"Miss Euclid is fifty if she's a day," replied Edward Henry.

"I don't see what Miss Euclid's age has to do with the matter."

"Then your eyesight must be defective, Mr. Slosson."

"The document might be a forgery."

"It might. But I've got an autograph letter written entirely in the late Lord Woldo's hand, enclosing the option."

"Let me see it, please."

"Certainly--but in a court of law," said Edward Henry. "You know you're hungry for a good action, followed by a bill of costs as long as from here to Jericho."

"Mr. Wrissell will assuredly fight," said Mr. Slosson. "He has already given me the most explicit instructions. Mr. Wrissell's objection to a certain class of theatres is well known."

"And does Mr. Wrissell settle everything?"

"Mr. Wrissell and Lady Woldo settle everything between them, and Lady Woldo is guided by Mr. Wrissell. There is an impression abroad that because Lady Woldo was originally connected--er--with the stage, she and Mr. Wrissell are not entirely at one in the conduct of her and her son's interests. Nothing could be further from the fact."

Edward Henry's thoughts dwelt for a few moments upon the late Lord Woldo's picturesque and far-resounding marriage.

"Can you give me Lady Woldo's address?"

"I can't," said Mr. Slosson, after an instant's hesitation.

"You mean you won't!"

Mr. Slosson pursed his lips.

"Well, you can do the other thing!" said Edward Henry, insolent to the last.

As he left the premises he found Mr. Rollo Wrissell, and his own new acquaintance, Mr. Alloyd, the architect, chatting in the portico. Mr. Wrissell was calm, bland and attentive; Mr. Alloyd was eager, excited and deferential.

Edward Henry caught the words "Russian Ballet." He reflected upon an abstract question oddly disconnected with the violent welter of his sensations: "Can a man be a good practical architect who isn't able to sleep because he's seen a Russian Ballet?"

The alert chauffeur of the electric brougham, who had an excellent idea of effect, brought the admirable vehicle to the kerb exactly in front of Edward Henry as Edward Henry reached the edge of the pavement. Ejaculating a brief command, Edward Henry disappeared within the vehicle and was whirled away in a style whose perfection no scion of a governing family could have bettered.


IV

The next scene in the exciting drama of Edward Henry's existence that day took place in a building as huge as Wilkins's itself. As the brougham halted at its portals an old and medalled man rushed forth, touched his cap, and assisted Edward Henry to alight. Within the groined and echoing hall of the establishment a young boy sprang out and, with every circumstance of deference, took Edward Henry's hat and stick. Edward Henry then walked a few steps to a lift, and said "smoking-room" to another menial, who bowed humbly before him, and at the proper moment bowed him out of the lift. Edward Henry, crossing a marble floor, next entered an enormous marble apartment chiefly populated by easy-chairs and tables. He sat down to a table and fiercely rang a bell which reposed thereon. Several of her menials simultaneously appeared out of invisibility, and one of them hurried obsequiously towards him.

"Bring me a glass of water and a peerage," said Edward Henry.

"I beg pardon, sir. A glass of water and--"

"A peerage. P double e, r, a, g, e."

"I beg your pardon, sir. I didn't catch. Which peerage, sir? We have several."

"All of them."

In a hundred seconds, the last menial having thanked him for kindly taking the glass and the pile of books, Edward Henry was sipping water and studying peerages. In two hundred seconds he was off again. A menial opened the swing-doors of the smoking-room for him and bowed. The menial of the lift bowed, wafted him downwards and bowed. The infant menial produced his hat and stick and bowed. The old and medalled menial summoned his brougham with a frown at the chauffeur and a smile at Edward Henry, bowed, opened the door of the brougham, helped Edward Henry in, bowed, and shut the door.

"Where to, sir?"

"262 Eaton Square," said Edward Henry.

"Thank you, sir," said the aged menial, and repeated in a curt and peremptory voice to the chauffeur, "262 Eaton Square!" Lastly he touched his cap.

And Edward Henry swiftly left the precincts of the headquarters of political democracy in London.


V

As he came within striking distance of 262 Eaton Square he had the advantage of an unusual and brilliant spectacle.

Lord Woldo was one of the richest human beings in England--and incidentally he was very human. If he had been in a position to realize all his assets and go to America with the ready money, his wealth was such that even amid the luxurious society of Pittsburg he could have cut quite a figure for some time. He owned a great deal of the land between Oxford Street and Regent Street, and again a number of the valuable squares north of Oxford Street were his, and as for Edgware Road--just as auctioneers advertise a couple of miles of trout-stream or salmon-river as a pleasing adjunct to a country estate, so, had Lord Woldo's estate come under the hammer, a couple of miles of Edgware Road might have been advertised as among its charms. Lord Woldo owned four theatres, and to each theatre he had his private entrance and in each theatre his private box, over which the management had no sway. The Woldos in their leases had always insisted on this.

He never built in London; his business was to let land for others to build upon, the condition being that what others built should ultimately belong to him. Thousands of people in London were only too delighted to build on these terms; he could pick and choose his builders. (The astute Edward Henry himself, for example, wanted furiously to build for him, and was angry because obstacles stood in the path of his desire.) It was constantly happening that under legal agreements some fine erection put up by another hand came into the absolute possession of Lord Waldo without one halfpenny of expense to Lord Woldo. Now and then a whole street would thus tumble all complete into his hands. The system, most agreeable for Lord Woldo and about a dozen other landlords in London, was called the leasehold system; and when Lord Woldo became the proprietor of some bricks and mortar that had cost him nothing, it was said that one of Lord Woldo's leases had "fallen in," and everybody was quite satisfied by this phrase.

In the provinces, besides castles, forests and moors, Lord Woldo owned many acres of land under which was coal, and he allowed enterprising persons to dig deep for this coal, and often explode themselves to death in the adventure, on the understanding that they paid him sixpence for every ton of coal brought to the surface, whether they made any profit on it or not. This arrangement was called "mining rights," another phrase that apparently satisfied everybody.

It might be thought that Lord Woldo was, as they say, on velvet. But the velvet, if it could be so described, was not of so rich and comfortable a pile after all. For Lord Woldo's situation involved many and heavy responsibilities and was surrounded by grave dangers. He was the representative of an old order going down in the unforeseeable welter of twentieth-century politics. Numbers of thoughtful students of English conditions spent much of their time in wondering what would happen one day to the Lord Woldos of England. And when a really great strike came, and a dozen ex-artisans met in a private room of a West End hotel, and decided, without consulting Lord Woldo or the Prime Minister or anybody, that the commerce of the country should be brought to a standstill, these thoughtful students perceived that even Lord Woldo's situation was no more secure than other people's; in fact that it was rather less so.

There could be no doubt that the circumstances of Lord Woldo furnished him with food for thought--and very indigestible food too.... Why, at least one hundred sprightly female creatures were being brought up in the hope of marrying him. And they would all besiege him, and he could only marry one of them--at once!

Now as Edward Henry stopped as near to No. 262 as the presence of a waiting two-horse carriage permitted, he saw a grey-haired and blue-cloaked woman solemnly descending the steps of the portico of No. 262. She was followed by another similar woman, and watched by a butler and a footman at the summit of the steps and by a footman on the pavement and by the coachman on the box of the carriage. She carried a thick and lovely white shawl, and in this shawl was Lord Woldo and all his many and heavy responsibilities. It was his fancy to take the air thus, in the arms of a woman. He allowed himself to be lifted into the open carriage, and the door of the carriage was shut; and off went the two ancient horses, slowly, and the two adult fat men and the two mature spinsters, and the vehicle weighing about a ton; and Lord Woldo's morning promenade had begun.

"Follow that!" said Edward Henry to the chauffeur and nipped into his brougham again. Nobody had told him that the being in the shawl was Lord Woldo, but he was sure that it must be so.

In twenty minutes he saw Lord Woldo being carried to and fro amid the groves of Hyde Park (one of the few bits of London earth that did not belong to him or to his more or less distant connections) while the carriage waited. Once Lord Woldo sat on a chair, but the chief nurse's lap was between him and the chair-seat. Both nurses chattered to him in Kensingtonian accents, but he offered no replies.

"Go back to 262," said Edward Henry to his chauffeur.

Arrived again in Eaton Square, he did not give himself time to be imposed upon by the grandiosity of the square in general, nor of No. 262 in particular. He just ran up the steps and rang the visitors' bell.

"After all," he said to himself as he waited, "these houses aren't even semi-detached! They're just houses in a row, and I bet every one of 'em can hear the piano next door!"

The butler whom he had previously caught sight of opened the great portal.

"I want to see Lady Woldo."

"Her ladyship--" began the formidable official.

"Now, look here, my man," said Edward Henry, rather in desperation, "I must see Lady Woldo instantly. It's about the baby--"

"About his lordship?"

"Yes. And look lively, please."

He stepped into the sombre and sumptuous hall.

"Well," he reflected, "I _am going it--no mistake!"


VI

He was in a large back drawing-room, of which the window, looking north, was in rich stained glass. "No doubt because they're ashamed of the view," he said to himself. The size of the chimneypiece impressed him, and also its rich carving. "But what an old-fashioned grate!" he said to himself. "They need gilt radiators here." The doorway was a marvel of ornate sculpture, and he liked it. He liked, too, the effect of the oil-paintings--mainly portraits--on the walls, and the immensity of the brass fender, and the rugs, and the leather-work of the chairs. But there could be no question that the room was too dark for the taste of any householder clever enough to know the difference between a house and a church.

There was a plunging noise at the door behind him.

"What's amiss?" he heard a woman's voice. And as he heard it he thrilled with sympathetic vibrations. It was not a North Staffordshire voice, but it was a South Yorkshire voice, which is almost the same thing. It seemed to him to be the first un-Kensingtonian voice to soothe his ear since he had left the Five Towns. Moreover, nobody born south of the Trent would have said, "What's amiss?" A southerner would have said, "What's the matter?" Or, more probably, "What's the mattah?"

He turned and saw a breathless and very beautiful woman, of about twenty-nine or thirty, clothed in black, and she was in the act of removing from her lovely head what looked like a length of red flannel. He noticed, too, simultaneously, that she was suffering from a heavy cold. A majestic footman behind her closed the door and disappeared.

"Are you Lady Woldo?" Edward Henry asked.

"Yes," she said. "What's this about my baby?"

"I've just seen him in Hyde Park," said Edward Henry. "And I observed that a rash had broken out all over his face."

"I know that," she replied. "It began this morning, all of a sudden like. But what of it? I was rather alarmed myself, as it's the first rash he's had and he's the first baby I've had--and he'll be the last too. But everybody said it was nothing. He's never been out without me before, but I had such a cold. Now you don't mean to tell me that you've come down specially from Hyde Park to inform me about that rash. I'm not such a simpleton as all that." She spoke in one long breath.

"I'm sure you're not," said he. "But we've had a good deal of rash in our family, and it just happens that I've got a remedy--a good sound north-country remedy--and it struck me you might like to know of it. So if you like I'll telegraph to my missis for the recipe. Here's my card."

She read his name, title and address.

"Well," she said, "it's very kind of you, I'm sure, Mr. Machin. I knew you must come from up there the moment ye spoke. It does one good above a bit to hear a plain north-country voice after all this fal-lalling."

She blew her lovely nose.

"Doesn't it!" Edward Henry agreed. "That was just what I thought when I heard you say 'Bless us!' Do you know, I've been in London only a two-three days, and I assure you I was beginning to feel lonely for a bit of the Midland accent!"

"Yes," she said, "London's lonely!" And sighed.

"My eldest was bitten by a dog the other day," he went on, in the vein of gossip.

"Oh, don't!" she protested.

"Yes. Gave us a lot of anxiety. All right now! You might like to know that cyanide gauze is a good thing to put on a wound--supposing anything should happen to yours--"

"Oh, don't!" she protested. "I do hope and pray Robert will never be bitten by a dog. Was it a big dog?"

"Fair," said Edward Henry. "So his name's Robert! So's my eldest's!"

"Really now! They wanted him to be called Robert Philip Stephen Darrand Patrick. But I wouldn't have it. He's just Robert. I did have my own way _there_! You know he was born six months after his father's death."

"And I suppose he's ten months now?"

"No. Only six."

"Great Scott! He's big!" said Edward Henry.

"Well," said she, "he is. I am, you see."

"Now, Lady Woldo," said Edward Henry in a new tone, "as we're both from the same part of the country I want to be perfectly straight and above-board with you. It's quite true--all that about the rash. And I did think you'd like to know. But that's not really what I came to see you about. You understand, not knowing you, I fancied there might be some difficulty in getting at you--"

"Oh! no!" she said simply. "Everybody gets at me."

"Well, I didn't know, you see. So I just mentioned the baby to begin with, like!"

"I hope you're not after money," she said, almost plaintively.

"I'm not," he said. "You can ask anybody in Bursley or Hanbridge whether I'm the sort of man to go out on the cadge."

"I once was in the chorus in a panto at Hanbridge," she said. "Don't they call Bursley 'Bosley' down there--'owd Bosley'?"

Edward Henry dealt suitably with these remarks, and then gave her a judicious version of the nature of his business, referring several times to Mr. Rollo Wrissell.

"Mr. Wrissell!" she murmured, smiling.

"In the end I told Mr. Wrissell to go and bury himself," said Edward Henry. "And that's about as far as I've got."

"Oh, don't!" she said, her voice weak from suppressed laughter, and then the laughter burst forth uncontrollable.

"Yes," he said, delighted with himself and her. "I told him to go and bury himself!" "I suppose you don't like Mr. Wrissell?"

"Well--" he temporized.

"I didn't at first," she said. "I hated him. But I like him now, though I must say I adore teasing him. Mr. Wrissell is what I call a gentleman. You know he was Lord Woldo's heir. And when Lord Woldo married me it was a bit of a blow for him! But he took it like a lamb. He never turned a hair, and he was more polite than any of them. I daresay you know Lord Woldo saw me in a musical comedy at Scarborough--he has a place near there, ye know. Mr. Wrissell had made him angry about some of his New Thought fads, and I do believe he asked me to marry him just to annoy Mr. Wrissell. He used to say to me, my husband did, that he'd married me in too much of a hurry, and that it was too bad on Mr. Wrissell. And then he laughed, and I laughed too. 'After all,' he used to say, my husband did, 'To marry an actress is an accident that might happen to any member of the House of Lords--and it does happen to a lot of 'em--but they don't marry anything as beautiful as you, Blanche,' he used to say. 'And you stick up for yourself, Blanche,' he used to say. 'I'll stand by you,' he said. He was a straight 'un, my husband was. They left me alone until he died. And then they began--I mean his folks. And when Bobbie was born it got worse. Only I must say even then Mr. Wrissell never turned a hair. Everybody seemed to make out that I ought to be very grateful to them, and I ought to think myself very lucky. Me--a peeress of the realm! They wanted me to change. But how could I change? I was Blanche Wilmot--on the road for ten years--never got a show in London--and Blanche Wilmot I shall ever be--peeress or no peeress! It was no joke being Lord Woldo's wife, I can tell you, and it's still less of a joke being Lord Woldo's mother! You imagine it. It's worse than carrying about a china vase all the time on a slippery floor! Am I any happier now than I was before I married? Well, I _am_! There's more worry in one way, but there's less in another. And of course I've got Bobbie! But it isn't all beer and skittles, and I let 'em know it, too. I can't do what I like! And I'm just a sort of exile, you know. I used to enjoy being on the stage and showing myself off. A hard life, but one does enjoy it. And one gets used to it. One gets to need it. Sometimes I feel I'd give anything to be able to go on the stage again--Oh--oh--!"

She sneezed; then took breath.

"Shall I put some more coal on the fire?" Edward Henry suggested.

"Perhaps I'd better ring," she hesitated.

"No, I'll do it."

He put coal on the fire.

"And if you'd feel easier with that flannel round your head, please do put it on again."

"Well," she said, "I will. My mother used to say there was naught like red flannel for a cold."

With an actress's skill she arranged the flannel, and from its encircling folds her face emerged bewitching--and she knew it. Her complexion had suffered in ten years of the road, but its extreme beauty could not yet be denied. And Edward Henry thought:

"All the _really pretty girls come from the Midlands!"

"Here I am rambling on," she said. "I always was a rare rambler. What do you want me to do?"

"Exert your influence," he replied. "Don't you think it's rather hard on Rose Euclid--treating her like this? Of course people say all sorts of things about Rose Euclid--"

"I won't hear a word against Rose Euclid," cried Lady Woldo. "Whenever she was on tour, if she knew any of us were resting in the town where she was she'd send us seats. And many's the time I've cried and cried at her acting. And then she's the life and soul of the Theatrical Ladies' Guild."

"And isn't that your husband's signature?" he demanded, showing the precious option.

"Of course it is."

He did not show her the covering letter.

"And I've no doubt my husband _wanted a theatre built there, and he wanted to do Rose Euclid a good turn. And I'm quite positive certain sure that he didn't want any of Mr. Wrissell's rigmaroles on his land. He wasn't that sort, my husband wasn't.... You must go to law about it," she finished.

"Yes," said Edward Henry, protestingly. "And a pretty penny it would cost me! And supposing I lost, after all?... You never know. There's a much easier way than going to law,"

"What is it?"

"As I say--you exert your influence, Lady Woldo. Write and tell them I've seen you and you insist--"

"Eh! Bless you! They'd twist me round their little finger. I'm not a fool, but I'm not very clever--I know that. I shouldn't know whether I was standing on my head or my heels by the time they'd done with me. I've tried to face them out before--about things."

"Who--Mr. Wrissell, or Slossons?"

"Both? Eh, but I should like to put a spoke in Mr. Wrissell's wheel--gentleman as he is. You see he's just one of those men you can't help wanting to tease. When you're on the road you meet lots of 'em."

"I tell you what you can do!"

"What?"

"Write and tell Slossons that you don't wish them to act for you any more, and you'll go to another firm of solicitors. That would bring 'em to their senses."

"Can't! They're in the will. _He settled that. That's why they're so cocky."

Edward Henry persisted--and this time with an exceedingly impressive and conspiratorial air:

"I tell you another thing you could do--you really _could do--and it depends on nobody but yourself."

"Well," she said with decision. "I'll do it."

"Whatever it is?"

"If it's straight."

"Of course it's straight. And it would be a grand way of teasing Mr. Wrissell and all of 'em! A simply grand way! I should die of laughing."

"Well--"

At this critical point the historic conversation was interrupted by phenomena in the hall which Lady Woldo recognized with feverish excitement. Lord Woldo had safely returned from Hyde Park. Starting up, she invited Edward Henry to wait a little. A few moments later they were bending over the infant together, and Edward Henry was offering his views on the cause and cure of rash.


VII

Early on the same afternoon Edward Henry managed by a somewhat excessive obstreperousness to penetrate once more into the private room of Mr. Slosson, senior, who received him in silence.

He passed a document to Mr. Slosson.

"It's only a copy," he said. "But the original is in my pocket, and to-morrow it will be duly stamped. I'll give you the original in exchange for the stamped lease of my Piccadilly Circus plot of land. You know the money is waiting."

Mr. Slosson perused the document; and it was certainly to his credit that he did so without any superficial symptoms of dismay.

"What will Mr. Wrissell and the Woldo family say about that, do you think?" asked Edward Henry.

"Lady Woldo will never be allowed to carry it out," said Mr. Slosson.

"Who's going to stop her? She must carry it out. She wants to carry it out. She's dying to carry it out. Moreover, I shall communicate it to the papers to-night--unless you and I come to an arrangement. And if by any chance she doesn't carry it out--well, there'll be a fine society action about it, you can bet your boots, Mr. Slosson."

The document was a contract made between Blanche Lady Woldo of the one part and Edward Henry Machin of the other part, whereby Blanche Lady Woldo undertook to appear in musical comedy at any West End Theatre to be named by Edward Henry, at a salary of two hundred pounds a week for a period of six months.

"You've not got a theatre," said Mr. Slosson.

"I can get half a dozen in an hour--with that contract in my hand," said Edward Henry.

And he knew from Mr. Slosson's face that he had won.


VIII

That evening, feeling that he had earned a little recreation, he went to the Empire Theatre--not in Hanbridge, but in Leicester Square, London. The lease, with a prodigious speed hitherto unknown at Slossons', had been drawn up, engrossed and executed. The Piccadilly Circus land was his for sixty-four years.

"And I've got the old Chapel pulled down for nothing," he said to himself.

He was rather happy as he wandered about amid the brilliance of the Empire Promenade. But after half an hour of such exercise and of vain efforts to see or hear what was afoot on the stage, he began to feel rather lonely. Then it was that he caught sight of Mr. Alloyd, the architect, also lonely.

"Well," said Mr. Alloyd, curtly, with a sardonic smile. "They've telephoned me all about it. I've seen Mr. Wrissell. Just my luck! So you're the man! He pointed you out to me this morning. My design for that church would have knocked the West End! Of course Mr. Wrissell will pay me compensation, but that's not the same thing. I wanted the advertisement of the building.... Just my luck! Have a drink, will you?"

Edward Henry ultimately went with the plaintive Mr. Alloyd to his rooms in Adelphi Terrace. He quitted those rooms at something after two o'clock in the morning. He had practically given Mr. Alloyd a definite commission to design the Regent Theatre. Already he was practically the proprietor of a first-class theatre in the West End of London!

"I wonder whether Master Seven Sachs could have bettered my day's work to-day!" he reflected as he got into a taxi-cab. He had dismissed his electric brougham earlier in the evening. "I doubt if even Master Seven Sachs himself wouldn't be proud of my little scheme in Eaton Square!" said he.... "Wilkins's Hotel, please, driver."

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