WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Arnold Bennett (1911) Country of origin: UK
Available texts by the same author here
Chapter 3: The Pantechnicon
"How do you do, Miss Earp?" said Denry, in a worldly manner, which he had acquired for himself by taking the most effective features of the manners of several prominent citizens, and piecing them together so that, as a whole, they formed Denry's manner.
"Oh! How do you do, Mr Machin?" said Ruth Earp, who had opened her door to him at the corner of Tudor Passage and St Luke's Square.
It was an afternoon in July. Denry wore a new summer suit, whose pattern indicated not only present prosperity but the firm belief that prosperity would continue. As for Ruth, that plain but piquant girl was in one of her simpler costumes; blue linen; no jewellery. Her hair was in its usual calculated disorder; its outer fleeces held the light. She was now at least twenty-five, and her gaze disconcertingly combined extreme maturity with extreme candour. At one moment a man would be saying to himself: "This woman knows more of the secrets of human nature than I can ever know." And the next he would be saying to himself: "What a simple little thing she is!" The career of nearly every man is marked at the sharp corners with such women. Speaking generally, Ruth Earp's demeanour was hard and challenging. It was evident that she could not be subject to the common weaknesses of her sex. Denry was glad.
A youth of quick intelligence, he had perceived all the dangers of the mission upon which he was engaged, and had planned his precautions.
"May I come in a minute?" he asked in a purely business tone. There was no hint in that tone of the fact that once she had accorded him a supper-dance.
"Please do," said Ruth.
An agreeable flouncing swish of linen skirts as she turned to precede him down the passage! But he ignored it. That is to say, he easily steeled himself against it.
She led him to the large room which served as her dancing academy--the bare-boarded place in which, a year and a half before, she had taught his clumsy limbs the principles of grace and rhythm. She occupied the back part of a building of which the front part was an empty shop. The shop had been tenanted by her father, one of whose frequent bankruptcies had happened there; after which his stock of the latest novelties in inexpensive furniture had been seized by rapacious creditors, and Mr Earp had migrated to Birmingham, where he was courting the Official Receiver anew. Ruth had remained solitary and unprotected, with a considerable amount of household goods which had been her mother's. (Like all professional bankrupts, Mr Earp had invariably had belongings which, as he could prove to his creditors, did not belong to him.) Public opinion had justified Ruth in her enterprise of staying in Bursley on her own responsibility and renting part of the building, in order not to lose her "connection" as a dancing-mistress. Public opinion said that "there would have been no sense in her going dangling after her wastrel of a father."
"Quite a long time since we saw anything of each other," observed Ruth in rather a pleasant style, as she sat down and as he sat down.
It was. The intimate ecstasy of the supper-dance had never been repeated. Denry's exceeding industry in carving out his career, and his desire to graduate as an accomplished clubman, had prevented him from giving to his heart that attention which it deserved, having regard to his tender years.
"Yes, it is, isn't it?" said Denry.
Then there was a pause, and they both glanced vaguely about the inhospitable and very wooden room. Now was the moment for Denry to carry out his pre-arranged plan in all its savage simplicity. He did so. "I've called about the rent, Miss Earp," he said, and by an effort looked her in the eyes.
"The rent?" exclaimed Ruth, as though she had never in all her life heard of such a thing as rent; as though June 24 (recently past) was an ordinary day like any other day.
"Yes," said Denry.
"What rent?" asked Ruth, as though for aught she guessed it might have been the rent of Buckingham Palace that he had called about.
"Yours," said Denry.
"Mine!" she murmured. "But what has my rent got to do with you?" she demanded. And it was just as if she had said, "But what has my rent got to do with you, little boy?"
"Well," he said, "I suppose you know I'm a rent-collector?"
"No, I didn't," she said.
He thought she was fibbing out of sheer naughtiness. But she was not. She did not know that he collected rents. She knew that he was a card, a figure, a celebrity; and that was all. It is strange how the knowledge of even the cleverest woman will confine itself to certain fields.
"Yes," he said, always in a cold, commercial tone, "I collect rents."
"I should have thought you'd have preferred postage-stamps," she said, gazing out of the window at a kiln that was blackening all the sky.
If he could have invented something clever and cutting in response to this sally he might have made the mistake of quitting his rôle of hard, unsentimental man of business. But he could think of nothing. So he proceeded sternly:
"Mr Herbert Calvert has put all his property into my hands, and he has given me strict instructions that no rent is to be allowed to remain in arrear."
No answer from Ruth. Mr Calvert was a little fellow of fifty who had made money in the mysterious calling of a "commission agent." By reputation he was really very much harder than Denry could even pretend to be, and indeed Denry had been considerably startled by the advent of such a client. Surely if any man in Bursley were capable of unmercifully collecting rents on his own account, Herbert Calvert must be that man!
"Let me see," said Denry further, pulling a book from his pocket and peering into it, "you owe five quarters' rent--thirty pounds."
He knew without the book precisely what Ruth owed, but the book kept him in countenance, supplied him with needed moral support.
Ruth Earp, without the least warning, exploded into a long peal of gay laughter. Her laugh was far prettier than her face. She laughed well. She might, with advantage to Bursley, have given lessons in laughing as well as in dancing, for Bursley laughs without grace. Her laughter was a proof that she had not a care in the world, and that the world for her was naught but a source of light amusement.
Denry smiled guardedly.
"Of course, with me it's purely a matter of business," said he.
"So that's what Mr Herbert Calvert has done!" she exclaimed, amid the embers of her mirth. "I wondered what he would do! I presume you know all about Mr Herbert Calvert," she added.
"No," said Denry, "I don't know anything about him, except that he owns some property and I'm in charge of it. Stay," he corrected himself, "I think I do remember crossing his name off your programme once."
And he said to himself: "That's one for her. If she likes to be so desperately funny about postage-stamps, I don't see why I shouldn't have my turn." The recollection that it was precisely Herbert Calvert whom he had supplanted in the supper-dance at the Countess of Chell's historic ball somehow increased his confidence in his ability to manage the interview with brilliance.
Ruth's voice grew severe and chilly. It seemed incredible that she had just been laughing.
"I will tell you about Mr Herbert Calvert;" she enunciated her words with slow, stern clearness. "Mr Herbert Calvert took advantage of his visits here for his rent to pay his attentions to me. At one time he was so far--well--gone, that he would scarcely take his rent."
"Really!" murmured Denry, genuinely staggered by this symptom of the distance to which Mr Herbert Calvert was once "gone."
"Yes," said Ruth, still sternly and inimically. "Naturally a woman can't make up her mind about these things all of a sudden," she continued. "Naturally!" she repeated.
"Of course," Denry agreed, perceiving that his experience of life, and deep knowledge of human nature were being appealed to.
"And when I did decide definitely, Mr Herbert Calvert did not behave like a gentleman. He forgot what was due to himself and to me. I won't describe to you the scene he made. I'm simply telling you this, so that you may know. To cut a long story short, he behaved in a very vulgar way. And a woman doesn't forget these things, Mr Machin." Her eyes threatened him. "I decided to punish Mr Herbert Calvert. I thought if he wouldn't take his rent before--well, let him wait for it now! I might have given him notice to leave. But I didn't. I didn't see why I should let myself be upset because Mr Herbert Calvert had forgotten that he was a gentleman. I said, 'Let him wait for his rent,' and I promised myself I would just see what he would dare to do."
"I don't quite follow your argument," Denry put in.
"Perhaps you don't," she silenced him. "I didn't expect you would. You and Mr Herbert Calvert...! So he didn't dare to do anything himself, and he's paying you to do his dirty work for him! Very well! Very well!..." She lifted her head defiantly. "What will happen if I don't pay the rent?"
"I shall have to let things take their course," said Denry with a genial smile.
"All right, then," Ruth Earp responded. "If you choose to mix yourself up with people like Mr Herbert Calvert, you must take the consequences! It's all the same to me, after all."
"Then it isn't convenient for you to pay anything on account?" said Denry, more and more affable.
"Convenient!" she cried. "It's perfectly convenient, only I don't care to. I won't pay a penny until I'm forced. Let Mr Herbert Calvert do his worst, and then I'll pay. And not before! And the whole town shall hear all about Mr Herbert Calvert!"
"I see," he laughed easily.
"Convenient!" she reiterated, contemptuously. "I think everybody in Bursley knows how my clientèle gets larger and larger every year!... Convenient!"
"So that's final, Miss Earp?"
"Perfectly!" said Miss Earp.
He rose. "Then the simplest thing will be for me to send round a bailiff to-morrow morning, early." He might have been saying: "The simplest thing will be for me to send round a bunch of orchids."
Another man would have felt emotion, and probably expressed it. But not Denry, the rent-collector and manager of estates large and small. There were several different men in Denry, but he had the great gift of not mixing up two different Denrys when he found himself in a complicated situation.
Ruth Earp rose also. She dropped her eyelids and looked at him from under them. And then she gradually smiled.
"I thought I'd just see what you'd do," she said, in a low, confidential voice from which all trace of hostility had suddenly departed. "You're a strange creature," she went on curiously, as though fascinated by the problems presented by his individuality. "Of course, I shan't let it go as far as that. I only thought I'd see what you'd say. I'll write you to-night."
"With a cheque?" Denry demanded, with suave, jolly courtesy. "I don't collect postage-stamps."
(And to himself: "She's got her stamps back.")
She hesitated. "Stay!" she said. "I'll tell you what will be better. Can you call to-morrow afternoon? The bank will be closed now."
"Yes," he said, "I can call. What time?"
"Oh!" she answered, "any time. If you come in about four, I'll give you a cup of tea into the bargain. Though you don't deserve it!" After an instant, she added reassuringly: "Of course I know business is business with you. But I'm glad I've told you the real truth about your precious Mr Herbert Calvert, all the same."
And as he walked slowly home Denry pondered upon the singular, erratic, incalculable strangeness of woman, and of the possibly magic effect of his own personality on women.
It was the next afternoon, in July. Denry wore his new summer suit, but with a necktie of higher rank than the previous day's. As for Ruth, that plain but piquant girl was in one of her more elaborate and foamier costumes. The wonder was that such a costume could survive even for an hour the smuts that lend continual interest and excitement to the atmosphere of Bursley. It was a white muslin, spotted with spots of opaque white, and founded on something pink. Denry imagined that he had seen parts of it before--at the ball; and he had; but it was now a tea-gown, with long, languishing sleeves; the waves of it broke at her shoulders, sending lacy surf high up the precipices of Ruth's neck. Denry did not know it was a tea-gown. But he knew that it had a most peculiar and agreeable effect on himself, and that she had promised him tea. He was glad that he had paid her the homage of his best necktie.
Although the month was July, Ruth wore a kind of shawl over the tea-gown. It was not a shawl, Denry noted; it was merely about two yards of very thin muslin. He puzzled himself as to its purpose. It could not be for warmth, for it would not have helped to melt an icicle. Could it be meant to fulfil the same function as muslin in a confectioner's shop? She was pale. Her voice was weak and had an imploring quality.
She led him, not into the inhospitable wooden academy, but into a very small room which, like herself, was dressed in muslin and bows of ribbon. Photographs of amiable men and women decorated the pinkish-green walls. The mantelpiece was concealed in drapery as though it had been a sin. A writing-desk as green as a leaf stood carelessly in one corner; on the desk a vase containing some Cape gooseberries. In the middle of the room a small table, on the table a spirit-lamp in full blast, and on the lamp a kettle practising scales; a tray occupied the remainder of the table. There were two easy chairs; Ruth sank delicately into one, and Denry took the other with precautions.
He was nervous. Nothing equals muslin for imparting nervousness to the naïve. But he felt pleased.
"Not much of the Widow Hullins touch about this!" he reflected privately.
And he wished that all rent-collecting might be done with such ease, and amid such surroundings, as this particular piece of rent-collecting. He saw what a fine thing it was to be a free man, under orders from nobody; not many men in Bursley were in a position to accept invitations to four o'clock tea at a day's notice. Further 5 per cent. on thirty pounds was thirty shillings, so that if he stayed an hour--and he meant to stay an hour--he would, while enjoying himself, be earning money steadily at the rate of sixpence a minute.
It was the ideal of a business career.
When the kettle, having finished its scales, burst into song with an accompaniment of castanets and vapour, and Ruth's sleeves rose and fell as she made the tea, Denry acknowledged frankly to himself that it was this sort of thing, and not the Brougham Street sort of thing, that he was really born for. He acknowledged to himself humbly that this sort of thing was "life," and that hitherto he had had no adequate idea of what "life" was. For, with all his ability as a card and a rising man, with all his assiduous frequenting of the Sports Club, he had not penetrated into the upper domestic strata of Bursley society. He had never been invited to any house where, as he put it, he would have had to mind his p's and q's. He still remained the kind of man whom you familiarly chat with in the street and club, and no more. His mother's fame as a flannel-washer was against him; Brougham Street was against him; and, chiefly, his poverty was against him. True, he had gorgeously given a house away to an aged widow! True, he succeeded in transmitting to his acquaintances a vague idea that he was doing well and waxing financially from strength to strength! But the idea was too vague, too much in the air. And save by a suit of clothes, he never gave ocular proof that he had money to waste. He could not. It was impossible for him to compete with even the more modest of the bloods and the blades. To keep a satisfactory straight crease down the middle of each leg of his trousers was all he could accomplish with the money regularly at his disposal. The town was wafting for him to do something decisive in the matter of what it called "the stuff."
Thus Ruth Earp was the first to introduce him to the higher intimate civilisations, the refinements lurking behind the foul walls of Bursley.
"Sugar?" she questioned, her head on one side, her arm uplifted, her sleeve drooping, and a bit of sugar caught like a white mouse between the claws of the tongs.
Nobody before had ever said "Sugar?" to him like that. His mother never said "Sugar?" to him. His mother was aware that he liked three pieces, but she would not give him more than two. "Sugar?" in that slightly weak, imploring voice seemed to be charged with a significance at once tremendous and elusive.
And the "Another?" was even more delicious.
He said to himself: "I suppose this is what they call flirting."
When a chronicler tells the exact truth, there is always a danger that he will not be believed. Yet, in spite of the risk, it must be said plainly that at this point Denry actually thought of marriage. An absurd and childish thought, preposterously rash; but it came into his mind, and--what is more--it stuck there! He pictured marriage as a perpetual afternoon tea alone with an elegant woman, amid an environment of ribboned muslin. And the picture appealed to him very strongly. And Ruth appeared to him in a new light. It was perhaps the change in her voice that did it. She appeared to him at once as a creature very feminine and enchanting, and as a creature who could earn her own living in a manner that was both original and ladylike. A woman such as Ruth would be a delight without being a drag. And, truly, was she not a remarkable woman, as remarkable as he was a man? Here she was living amid the refinements of luxury. Not an expensive luxury (he had an excellent notion of the monetary value of things), but still luxury. And the whole affair was so stylish. His heart went out to the stylish.
The slices of bread-and-butter were rolled up. There, now, was a pleasing device! It cost nothing to roll up a slice of bread-and-butter --her fingers had doubtless done the rolling--and yet it gave quite a different taste to the food.
"What made you give that house to Mrs Hullins?" she asked him suddenly, with a candour that seemed to demand candour.
"Oh," he said, "just a lark! I thought I would. It came to me all in a second, and I did."
She shook her head. "Strange boy!" she observed.
There was a pause.
"It was something Charlie Fearns said, wasn't it?" she inquired.
She uttered the name "Charlie Fearns" with a certain faint hint of disdain, as if indicating to Denry that of course she and Denry were quite able to put Fearns into his proper place in the scheme of things.
"Oh!" he said. "So you know all about it?"
"Well," said she, "naturally it was all over the town. Mrs Fearns's girl, Annunciata--what a name, eh?--is one of my pupils--the youngest, in fact."
"Well," said he, after another pause, "I wasn't going to have Fearns coming the duke over me!" She smiled sympathetically. He felt that they understood each other deeply.
"You'll find some cigarettes in that box," she said, when he had been there thirty minutes, and pointed to the mantelpiece.
"Sure you don't mind?" he murmured.
She raised her eyebrows.
There was also a silver match-box in the larger box. No detail lacked. It seemed to him that he stood on a mountain and had only to walk down a winding path in order to enter the promised land. He was decidedly pleased with the worldly way in which he had said: "Sure you don't mind?"
He puffed out smoke delicately. And, the cigarette between his lips, as with his left hand he waved the match into extinction, he demanded:
"Yes," she said, "but not in public. I know what you men are."
This was in the early, timid days of feminine smoking.
"I assure you!" he protested, and pushed the box towards her. But she would not smoke.
"It isn't that I mind you," she said, "not at all. But I'm not well. I've got a frightful headache."
He put on a concerned expression.
"I thought you looked rather pale," he said awkwardly.
"Pale!" she repeated the word. "You should have seen me this morning: I have fits of dizziness, you know, too. The doctor says it's nothing but dyspepsia. However, don't let's talk about poor little me and my silly complaints. Perhaps the tea will do me good."
He protested again, but his experience of intimate civilisation was too brief to allow him to protest with effectiveness. The truth was, he could not say these things naturally. He had to compose them, and then pronounce them, and the result failed in the necessary air of spontaneity. He could not help thinking what marvellous self-control women had. Now, when he had a headache--which happily was seldom--he could think of nothing else and talk of nothing else; the entire universe consisted solely of his headache. And here she was overcome with a headache, and during more than half-an-hour had not even mentioned it!
She began talking gossip about the Fearnses and the Swetnams, and she mentioned rumours concerning Henry Mynors (who had scruples against dancing) and Anna Tellwright, the daughter of that rich old skinflint Ephraim Tellwright. No mistake; she was on the inside of things in Bursley society! It was just as if she had removed the front walls of every house and examined every room at her leisure, with minute particularity. But of course a teacher of dancing had opportunities.... Denry had to pretend to be nearly as omniscient as she was.
Then she broke off, without warning, and lay back in her chair.
"I wonder if you'd mind going into the barn for me?" she murmured.
She generally referred to her academy as the barn. It had once been a warehouse.
He jumped up. "Certainly," he said, very eager.
"I think you'll see a small bottle of eau-de-Cologne on the top of the piano," she said, and shut her eyes.
He hastened away, full of his mission, and feeling himself to be a terrific cavalier and guardian of weak women. He felt keenly that he must be equal to the situation. Yes, the small bottle of eau-de-Cologne was on the top of the piano. He seized it and bore it to her on the wings of chivalry. He had not been aware that eau-de-Cologne was a remedy for, or a palliative of, headaches.
She opened her eyes, and with a great effort tried to be bright and better. But it was a failure. She took the stopper out of the bottle and sniffed first at the stopper and then at the bottle; then she spilled a few drops of the liquid on her handkerchief and applied the handkerchief to her temples.
"It's easier," she said.
"Sure?" he asked. He did not know what to do with himself--whether to sit down and feign that she was well, or to remain standing in an attitude of respectful and grave anxiety. He thought he ought to depart; yet would it not be ungallant to desert her under the circumstances? She was alone. She had no servant, only an occasional charwoman.
She nodded with brave, false gaiety. And then she had a relapse.
"Don't you think you'd better lie down?" he suggested in more masterful accents. And added; "And I'll go....? You ought to lie down. It's the only thing." He was now speaking to her like a wise uncle.
"Oh no!" she said, without conviction. "Besides, you can't go till I've paid you."
It was on the tip of his tongue to say, "Oh! don't bother about that now!" But he restrained himself. There was a notable core of common-sense in Denry. He had been puzzling how he might neatly mention the rent while departing in a hurry so that she might lie down. And now she had solved the difficulty for him.
She stretched out her arm, and picked up a bunch of keys from a basket on a little table.
"You might just unlock that desk for me, will you?" she said. And, further, as she went through the keys one by one to select the right key: "Each quarter I've put your precious Mr Herbert Calvert's rent in a drawer in that desk. ... Here's the key." She held up the whole ring by the chosen key, and he accepted it. And she lay back once more in her chair, exhausted by her exertions.
"You must turn the key sharply in the lock," she said weakly, as he fumbled at the locked part of the desk.
So he turned the key sharply.
"You'll see a bag in the little drawer on the right," she murmured.
The key turned round and round. It had begun by resisting, but now it yielded too easily.
"It doesn't seem to open," he said, feeling clumsy.
The key clicked and slid, and the other keys rattled together.
"Oh yes," she replied. "I opened it quite easily this morning. It is a bit catchy."
The key kept going round and round.
"Here! I'll do it," she said wearily.
"Oh no!" he urged.
But she rose courageously, and tottered to the desk, and took the bunch from him.
"I'm afraid you've broken something in the lock," she announced, with gentle resignation, after she had tried to open the desk and failed.
"Have I?" he mumbled. He knew that he was not shining.
"Would you mind calling in at Allman's," she said, resuming her chair, "and tell them to send a man down at once to pick the lock? There's nothing else for it. Or perhaps you'd better say first thing to-morrow morning. And then as soon as he's done it I'll call and pay you the money myself. And you might tell your precious Mr Herbert Calvert that next quarter I shall give notice to leave."
"Don't you trouble to call, please," said he. "I can easily pop in here."
She sped him away in an enigmatic tone. He could not be sure whether he had succeeded or failed, in her estimation, as a man of the world and a partaker of delicate teas.
"Don't forget Allman's!" she enjoined him as he left the room. He was to let himself out.
He was coming home late that night from the Sports Club, from a delectable evening which had lasted till one o'clock in the morning, when just as he put the large door-key into his mother's cottage he grew aware of peculiar phenomena at the top end of Brougham Street, where it runs into St Luke's Square. And then in the gas-lit gloom of the warm summer night he perceived a vast and vague rectangular form in the slow movement towards the slope of Brougham Street.
It was a pantechnicon van.
But the extraordinary thing was, not that it should be a pantechnicon van, but that if should be moving of its own accord and power. For there were no horses in front of it, and Denry saw that the double shafts had been pushed up perpendicularly, after the manner of carmen when they outspan. The pantechnicon was running away. It had perceived the wrath to come and was fleeing. Its guardians had evidently left it imperfectly scotched or braked, and it had got loose.
It proceeded down the first bit of Brougham Street with a dignity worthy of its dimensions, and at the same time with apparently a certain sense of the humour of the situation. Then it seemed to be saying to itself: "Pantechnicons will be pantechnicons." Then it took on the absurd gravity of a man who is perfectly sure that he is not drunk. Nevertheless it kept fairly well to the middle of the road, but as though the road were a tight-rope.
The rumble of it increased as it approached Denry. He withdrew the key from his mother's cottage and put it in his pocket. He was always at his finest in a crisis. And the onrush of the pantechnicon constituted a clear crisis. Lower down the gradient of Brougham Street was more dangerous, and it was within the possibilities that people inhabiting the depths of the street might find themselves pitched out of bed by the sharp corner of a pantechnicon that was determined to be a pantechnicon. A pantechnicon whose ardour is fairly aroused may be capable of surpassing deeds. Whole thoroughfares might crumble before it.
As the pantechnicon passed Denry, at the rate of about three and a half miles an hour, he leaped, or rather he scrambled, on to it, losing nothing in the process except his straw hat, which remained a witness at his mother's door that her boy had been that way and departed under unusual circumstances. Denry had the bright idea of dropping the shafts down to act as a brake. But, unaccustomed to the manipulation of shafts, he was rather slow in accomplishing the deed, and ere the first pair of shafts had fallen the pantechnicon was doing quite eight miles an hour and the steepest declivity was yet to come. Further, the dropping of the left-hand shafts jerked the van to the left, and Denry dropped the other pair only just in time to avoid the sudden uprooting of a lamp-post. The four points of the shafts digging and prodding into the surface of the road gave the pantechnicon something to think about for a few seconds. But unfortunately the precipitousness of the street encouraged its head-strong caprices, and a few seconds later all four shafts were broken, and the pantechnicon seemed to scent the open prairie. (What it really did scent was the canal.) Then Denry discovered the brake, and furiously struggled with the iron handle. He turned it and turned it, some forty revolutions. It seemed to have no effect. The miracle was that the pantechnicon maintained its course in the middle of the street. Presently Denry could vaguely distinguish the wall and double wooden gates of the canal wharf. He could not jump off; the pantechnicon was now an express, and I doubt whether he would have jumped off, even if jumping off had not been madness. His was the kind of perseverance that, for the fun of it, will perish in an attempt. The final fifty or sixty yards of Brougham Street were level, and the pantechnicon slightly abated its haste. Denry could now plainly see, in the radiance of a gas-lamp, the gates of the wharf, and on them the painted letters:--
SHROPSHIRE UNION CANAL COY., LTD..
GENERAL CARRIERS. No Admittance except on Business
He was heading straight for those gates, and the pantechnicon evidently had business within. It jolted over the iron guard of the weighing-machine, and this jolt deflected it, so that instead of aiming at the gates it aimed for part of a gate and part of a brick pillar. Denry ground his teeth together and clung to his seat. The gate might have been paper, and the brick pillar a cardboard pillar. The pantechnicon went through them as a sword will go through a ghost, and Denry was still alive. The remainder of the journey was brief and violent, owing partly to a number of bags of cement, and partly to the propinquity of the canal basin. The pantechnicon jumped into the canal like a mastodon, and drank.
Denry, clinging to the woodwork, was submerged for a moment, but, by standing on the narrow platform from which sprouted the splintered ends of the shafts, he could get his waist clear of the water. He was not a swimmer.
All was still and dark, save for the faint stream of starlight on the broad bosom of the canal basin. The pantechnicon had encountered nobody whatever en route. Of its strange escapade Denry had been the sole witness.
"Well, I'm dashed!" he murmured aloud.
And a voice replied from the belly of the pantechnicon:
"Who is there?"
All Denry's body shook.
"It's me!" said he.
"Not Mr Machin?" said the voice.
"Yes," said he. "I jumped on as it came down the street--and here we are!"
"Oh!" cried the voice. "I do wish you could get round to me."
Ruth Earp's voice.
He saw the truth in a moment of piercing insight. Ruth had been playing with him! She had performed a comedy for him in two acts. She had meant to do what is called in the Five Towns "a moonlight flit." The pantechnicon (doubtless from Birmingham, where her father was) had been brought to her door late in the evening, and was to have been filled and taken away during the night. The horses had been stabled, probably in Ruth's own yard, and while the carmen were reposing the pantechnicon had got off, Ruth in it. She had no money locked in her unlockable desk. Her reason for not having paid the precious Mr Herbert Calvert was not the reason which she had advanced.
His first staggered thought was:
"She's got a nerve! No mistake!"
Her duplicity, her wickedness, did not shock him. He admired her tremendous and audacious enterprise; it appealed strongly to every cell in his brain. He felt that she and he were kindred spirits.
He tried to clamber round the side of the van so as to get to the doors at the back, but a pantechnicon has a wheel-base which forbids leaping from wheel to wheel, especially, when the wheels are under water. Hence he was obliged to climb on to the roof, and so slide down on to the top of one of the doors, which was swinging loose. The feat was not simple. At last he felt the floor of the van under half a yard of water.
"Where are you?"
"I'm here," said Ruth, very plaintively. "I'm on a table. It was the only thing they had put into the van before they went off to have their supper or something. Furniture removers are always like that. Haven't you got a match?"
"I've got scores of matches," said Denry. "But what good do you suppose they'll be now, all soaked through?"
A short silence. He noticed that she had offered no explanation of her conduct towards himself. She seemed to take it for granted that he would understand.
"I'm frightfully bumped, and I believe my nose is bleeding," said Ruth, still more plaintively. "It's a good thing there was a lot of straw and sacks here."
Then, after much groping, his hand touched her wet dress.
"You know you're a very naughty girl," he said.
He heard a sob, a wild sob. The proud, independent creature had broken down under the stress of events. He climbed out of the water on to the part of the table which she was not occupying. And the van was as black as Erebus.
Gradually, out of the welter of sobs, came faint articulations, and little by little he learnt the entire story of her difficulties, her misfortunes, her struggles, and her defeats. He listened to a frank confession of guilt. But what could she do? She had meant well. But what could she do? She had been driven into a corner. And she had her father to think of! Honestly, on the previous day, she had intended to pay the rent, or part of it. But there had been a disappointment! And she had been so unwell. In short...
The van gave a lurch. She clutched at him and he at her. The van was settling down for a comfortable night in the mud.
(Queer that it had not occurred to him before, but at the first visit she had postponed paying him on the plea that the bank was closed, while at the second visit she had stated that the actual cash had been slowly accumulating in her desk! And the discrepancy had not struck him. Such is the influence of a teagown. However, he forgave her, in consideration of her immense audacity.)
"What can we do?" she almost whispered.
Her confidence in him affected him.
"Wait till it gets light," said he.
So they waited, amid the waste of waters. In a hot July it is not unpleasant to dangle one's feet in water during the sultry dark hours. She told him more and more.
When the inspiring grey preliminaries of the dawn began, Denry saw that at the back of the pantechnicon the waste of waters extended for at most a yard, and that it was easy, by climbing on to the roof, to jump therefrom to the wharf. He did so, and then fixed a plank so that Ruth could get ashore. Relieved of their weight the table floated out after them. Denry seized it, and set about smashing it to pieces with his feet.
"What are you doing?" she asked faintly. She was too enfeebled to protest more vigorously.
"Leave it to me," said Denry. "This table is the only thing that can give your show away. We can't carry it back. We might meet some one."
He tied the fragments of the table together with rope that was afloat in the van, and attached the heavy iron bar whose function was to keep the doors closed. Then he sank the faggot of wood and iron in a distant corner of the basin.
"There!" he said. "Now you understand. Nothing's happened except that a furniture van's run off and fallen into the canal owing to the men's carelessness. We can settle the rest later--I mean about the rent and so on."
They looked at each other.
Her skirts were nearly dry. Her nose showed no trace of bleeding, but there was a bluish lump over her left eye. Save that he was hatless, and that his trousers clung, he was not utterly unpresentable.
They were alone in the silent dawn.
"You'd better go home by Acre Lane, not up Brougham Street," he said. "I'll come in during the morning."
It was a parting in which more was felt than said.
They went one after the other through the devastated gateway, baptising the path as they walked. The Town Hall clock struck three as Denry crept up his mother's stairs. He had seen not a soul.
The exact truth in its details was never known to more than two inhabitants of Bursley. The one thing clear certainly appeared to be that Denry, in endeavouring to prevent a runaway pantechnicon from destroying the town, had travelled with it into the canal. The romantic trip was accepted as perfectly characteristic of Denry. Around this island of fact washed a fabulous sea of uninformed gossip, in which assertion conflicted with assertion, and the names of Denry and Ruth were continually bumping against each other.
Mr Herbert Calvert glanced queerly and perhaps sardonically at Denry when Denry called and handed over ten pounds (less commission) which he said Miss Earp had paid on account.
"Look here," said the little Calvert, his mean little eyes gleaming. "You must get in the balance at once."
"That's all right," said Denry. "I shall."
"Was she trying to hook it on the q.t.?" Calvert demanded.
"Oh, no!" said Denry. "That was a very funny misunderstanding. The only explanation I can think of is that that van must have come to the wrong house."
"Are you engaged to her?" Calvert asked, with amazing effrontery.
Denry paused. "Yes," he said. "Are you?"
Mr Calvert wondered what he meant.
He admitted to himself that the courtship had begun in a manner surpassingly strange.