WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Arnold Bennett (1911) Country of origin: UK
Available texts by the same author here
Chapter 5: The Merchantile Marine
The decisive scene, henceforward historic, occurred in the shanty known as "John's cabin"--John being the unacknowledged leader of the long-shore population under the tail of Llandudno pier. The cabin, festooned with cordage, was lighted by an oil-lamp of a primitive model, and round the orange case on which the lamp was balanced sat Denry, Cregeen, the owner of the lifeboat, and John himself (to give, as it were, a semi-official character to whatever was afoot).
"Well, here you are," said Denry, and handed to Cregeen a piece of paper.
"What's this, I'm asking ye?" said Cregeen, taking the paper in his large fingers and peering at it as though it had been a papyrus.
But he knew quite well what it was. It was a cheque for twenty-five pounds. What he did not know was that, with the ten pounds paid in cash earlier in the day, it represented a very large part indeed of such of Denry's savings as had survived his engagement to Ruth Earp. Cregeen took a pen as though it had been a match-end and wrote a receipt. Then, after finding a stamp in a pocket of his waistcoat under his jersey, he put it in his mouth and lost it there for a long time. Finally Denry got the receipt, certifying that he was the owner of the lifeboat formerly known as Llandudno, but momentarily without a name, together with all her gear and sails.
"Are ye going to live in her?" the rather curt John inquired.
"Not in her. On her," said Denry.
And he went out on to the sand and shingle, leaving John and Cregeen to complete the sale to Cregeen of the Fleetwing, a small cutter specially designed to take twelve persons forth for "a pleasant sail in the bay." If Cregeen had not had a fancy for the Fleetwing and a perfect lack of the money to buy her, Denry might never have been able to induce him to sell the lifeboat.
Under another portion of the pier Denry met a sailor with a long white beard, the aged Simeon, who had been one of the crew that rescued the Hjalmar, but whom his colleagues appeared to regard rather as an ornament than as a motive force.
"It's all right," said Demo.
And Simeon, in silence, nodded his head slowly several times.
"I shall give you thirty shilling for the week," said Denry.
And that venerable head oscillated again in the moon-lit gloom and rocked gradually to a stand-still.
Presently the head said, in shrill, slow tones:
"I've seen three o' them Norwegian chaps. Two of 'em can no more speak English than a babe unborn; no, nor understand what ye say to 'em, though I fair bawled in their ear-holes."
"So much the better," said Denry.
"I showed 'em that sovereign," said the bearded head, wagging again.
"Well," said Denry, "you won't forget. Six o'clock to-morrow morning."
"Ye'd better say five," the head suggested. "Quieter like."
"Five, then," Denry agreed.
And he departed to St Asaph's Road burdened with a tremendous thought.
The thought was:
"I've gone and done it this time!"
Now that the transaction was accomplished and could not be undone, he admitted to himself that he had never been more mad. He could scarcely comprehend what had led him to do that which he had done. But he obscurely imagined that his caprice for the possession of sea-going craft must somehow be the result of his singular adventure with the pantechnicon in the canal at Bursley. He was so preoccupied with material interests as to be capable of forgetting, for a quarter of an hour at a stretch, that in all essential respects his life was wrecked, and that he had nothing to hope for save hollow worldly success. He knew that Ruth would return the ring. He could almost see the postman holding the little cardboard cube which would contain the rendered ring. He had loved, and loved tragically. (That was how he put it--in his unspoken thoughts; but the truth was merely that he had loved something too expensive.) Now the dream was done. And a man of disillusion walked along the Parade towards St Asaph's Road among revellers, a man with a past, a man who had probed women, a man who had nothing to learn about the sex. And amid all the tragedy of his heart, and all his apprehensions concerning hollow, worldly success, little thoughts of absurd unimportance kept running about like clockwork mice in his head. Such as that it would be a bit of a bore to have to tell people at Bursley that his engagement, which truly had thrilled the town, was broken off. Humiliating, that! And, after all, Ruth was a glittering gem among women. Was there another girl in Bursley so smart, so effective, so truly ornate?
Then he comforted himself with the reflection: "I'm certainly the only man that ever ended an engagement by just saying 'Rothschild!'" This was probably true. But it did not help him to sleep.
The next morning at 5.20 the youthful sun was shining on the choppy water of the Irish Sea, just off the Little Orme, to the west of Llandudno Bay. Oscillating on the uneasy waves was Denry's lifeboat, manned by the nodding bearded head, three ordinary British longshoremen, a Norwegian who could speak English of two syllables, and two other Norwegians who by a strange neglect of education could speak nothing but Norwegian.
Close under the headland, near a morsel of beach lay the remains of the Hjalmar in an attitude of repose. It was as if the Hjalmar, after a long struggle, had lain down like a cab-horse and said to the tempest: "Do what you like now!"
"Yes," the venerable head was piping. "Us can come out comfortable in twenty minutes, unless the tide be setting east strong. And, as for getting back, it'll be the same, other way round, if ye understand me."
There could be no question that Simeon had come out comfortable. But he was the coxswain. The rowers seemed to be perspiringly aware that the boat was vast and beamy.
"Shall we row up to it?" Simeon inquired, pointing to the wreck.
Then a pale face appeared above the gunwale, and an expiring, imploring voice said: "No. We'll go back." Whereupon the pale face vanished again.
Denry had never before been outside the bay. In the navigation of pantechnicons on the squall-swept basins of canals he might have been a great master, but he was unfitted for the open sea. At that moment he would have been almost ready to give the lifeboat and all that he owned for the privilege of returning to land by train. The inward journey was so long that Denry lost hope of ever touching his native island again. And then there was a bump. And he disembarked, with hope burning up again cheerfully in his bosom. And it was a quarter to six.
By the first post, which arrived at half-past seven, there came a brown package. "The ring!" he thought, starting horribly. But the package was a cube of three inches, and would have held a hundred rings. He undid the cover, and saw on half a sheet of notepaper the words:--
"Thank you so much for the lovely time you gave me. I hope you will like this, NELLIE."
He was touched. If Ruth was hard, mercenary, costly, her young and ingenuous companion could at any rate be grateful and sympathetic. Yes, he was touched. He had imagined himself to be dead to all human affections, but it was not so. The package contained chocolate, and his nose at once perceived that it was chocolate impregnated with lemon--the surprising but agreeable compound accidentally invented by Nellie on the previous day at the pier buffet. The little thing must have spent a part of the previous afternoon in preparing it, and she must have put the package in the post at Crewe. Secretive and delightful little thing! After his recent experience beyond the bay he had imagined himself to be incapable of ever eating again, but it was not so. The lemon gave a peculiar astringent, appetising, settling quality to the chocolate. And he ate even with gusto. The result was that, instead of waiting for the nine o'clock boarding-house breakfast, he hurried energetically into the streets and called on a jobbing printer whom he had seen on the previous evening. As Ruth had said, "There is nothing like chocolate for sustaining you."
At ten o'clock two Norwegian sailors, who could only smile in answer to the questions which assailed them, were distributing the following handbill on the Parade:--
WRECK OF THE HJALMAR
HEROISM AT LLANDUDNO
Every hour, at 11, 12, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 o'oclock,[sic] THE IDENTICAL (guaranteed) LIFEBOAT which rescued the crew of the HJALMAR
will leave the beach for the scene of the wreck Manned by Simeon Edwards, the oldest boatman in LLANDUDNO, and by members of the rescued crew, genuine Norwegians (guaranteed)
SIMEON EDWARDS, Coxswain.
Return Fare, with use of Cork Belt and Life-lines if desired, 2s. 6d.
A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY
A UNIQUE EXPERIENCE P.S.--The bravery of the lifeboatmen has been the theme of the Press throughout the Principality and neighbouring counties.
At eleven o'clock there was an eager crowd down on the beach where, with some planks and a piece of rock, Simeon had arranged an embarkation pier for the lifeboat. One man, in overalls, stood up to his knees in the water and escorted passengers up the planks, while Simeon's confidence-generating beard received them into the broad waist of the boat. The rowers wore sou'westers and were secured to the craft by life-lines, and these conveniences were also offered, with life-belts, to the intrepid excursionists. A paper was pinned in the stern: "Licensed to carry Fourteen." (Denry had just paid the fee.) But quite forty people were anxious to make the first voyage.
"No more," shrilled Simeon, solemnly. And the wader scrambled in and the boat slid away.
"Fares, please!" shrilled Simeon.
He collected one pound fifteen, and slowly buttoned it up in the right-hand pocket of his blue trousers.
"Now, my lads, with a will," he gave the order. And then, with deliberate method, he lighted his pipe. And the lifeboat shot away.
Close by the planks stood a young man in a negligent attitude, and with a look on his face as if to say: "Please do not imagine that I have the slightest interest in this affair." He stared consistently out to sea until the boat had disappeared round the Little Orme, and then he took a few turns on the sands, in and out amid the castles. His heart was beating in a most disconcerting manner. After a time he resumed his perusal of the sea. And the lifeboat reappeared and grew larger and larger, and finally arrived at the spot from which it had departed, only higher up the beach because the tide was rising. And Simeon debarked first, and there was a small blue and red model of a lifeboat in his hand, which he shook to a sound of coins.
"For the Lifeboat Fund! For the Lifeboat Fund!" he gravely intoned.
Every debarking passenger dropped a coin into the slit.
In five minutes the boat was refilled, and Simeon had put the value of fourteen more half-crowns into his pocket.
The lips of the young man on the beach moved, and he murmured:
"That makes over three pounds! Well, I'm dashed!"
At the hour appointed for dinner he went to St Asaph's Road, but could eat nothing. He could only keep repeating very softly to himself, "Well, I'm dashed!"
Throughout the afternoon the competition for places in the lifeboat grew keener and more dangerous. Denry's craft was by no means the sole craft engaged in carrying people to see the wreck. There were dozens of boats in the business, which had suddenly sprung up that morning, the sea being then fairly inoffensive for the first time since the height of the storm. But the other boats simply took what the lifeboat left. The guaranteed identity of the lifeboat, and of the Norsemen (who replied to questions in gibberish), and of Simeon himself; the sou'westers, the life-belts and the lines; even the collection for the Lifeboat Fund at the close of the voyage: all these matters resolved themselves into a fascination which Llandudno could not resist.
And in regard to the collection, a remarkable crisis arose. The model of a lifeboat became full, gorged to the slot. And the Local Secretary of the Fund had the key. The model was despatched to him by special messenger to open and to empty, and in the meantime Simeon used his sou'-wester as a collecting-box. This contretemps was impressive. At night Denry received twelve pounds odd at the hands of Simeon Edwards. He showered the odd in largesse on his heroic crew, who had also received many tips. By the evening post the fatal ring arrived from Ruth, as he anticipated. He was just about to throw it into the sea, when he thought better of the idea, and stuck it in his pocket. He tried still to feel that his life had been blighted by Ruth. But he could not. The twelve pounds, largely in silver, weighed so heavy in his pocket. He said to himself: "Of course this can't last!"
Then came the day when he first heard some one saying discreetly behind him:
"That's the lifeboat chap!"
Or more briefly:
Implying that in all Llandudno "him" could mean only one person.
And for a time he went about the streets self-consciously. However, that self-consciousness soon passed off, and he wore his fame as easily as he wore his collar.
The lifeboat trips to the Hjalmar became a feature of daily life in Llandudno. The pronunciation of the ship's name went through a troublous period. Some said the "j" ought to be pronounced to the exclusion of the "h," and others maintained the contrary. In the end the first two letters were both abandoned utterly, also the last--but nobody had ever paid any attention to the last. The facetious had a trick of calling the wreck Inkerman. This definite settlement of the pronunciation of the name was a sign that the pleasure-seekers of Llandudno had definitely fallen in love with the lifeboat-trip habit. Denry's timid fear that the phenomenon which put money into his pocket could not continue, was quite falsified. It continued violently. And Denry wished that the Hjalmar had been wrecked a month earlier. He calculated that the tardiness of the Hjalmar in wrecking itself had involved him in a loss of some four hundred pounds. If only the catastrophe had happened early in July, instead of early in August, and he had been there. Why, if forty Hjalmars had been wrecked, and their forty crews saved by forty different lifeboats, and Denry had bought all the lifeboats, he could have filled them all!
Still, the regularity of his receipts was extremely satisfactory and comforting. The thing had somehow the air of being a miracle; at any rate of being connected with magic. It seemed to him that nothing could have stopped the visitors to Llandudno from fighting for places in his lifeboat and paying handsomely for the privilege. They had begun the practice, and they looked as if they meant to go on with the practice eternally. He thought that the monotony of it would strike them unfavourably. But no! He thought that they would revolt against doing what every one had done. But no! Hundreds of persons arrived fresh from the railway station every day, and they all appeared to be drawn to that lifeboat as to a magnet. They all seemed to know instantly and instinctively that to be correct in Llandudno they must make at least one trip in Denry's lifeboat.
He was pocketing an income which far exceeded his most golden visions. And therefore naturally his first idea was to make that income larger and larger still. He commenced by putting up the price of the afternoon trips. There was a vast deal too much competition for seats in the afternoon. This competition led to quarrels, unseemly language, and deplorable loss of temper. It also led to loss of time. Denry was therefore benefiting humanity by charging three shillings after two o'clock. This simple and benign device equalised the competition throughout the day, and made Denry richer by seven or eight pounds a week.
But his fertility of invention did not stop there. One morning the earliest excursionists saw a sort of Robinson Crusoe marooned on the strip of beach near the wreck. All that heartless fate had left him appeared to be a machine on a tripod and a few black bags. And there was no shelter for him save a shallow cave. The poor fellow was quite respectably dressed. Simeon steered the boat round by the beach, which shelved down sharply, and as he did so the Robinson Crusoe hid his head in a cloth, as though ashamed, or as though he had gone mad and believed himself to be an ostrich. Then apparently he thought the better of it, and gazed boldly forth again. And the boat passed on its starboard side within a dozen feet of him and his machine. Then it put about and passed on the port side. And the same thing occurred on every trip. And the last trippers of the day left Robinson Crusoe on the strip of beach in his solitude.
The next morning a photographer's shop on the Parade pulled down its shutters and displayed posters all over the upper part of its windows. And the lower part of the windows held sixteen different large photographs of the lifeboat broad-side on. The likenesses of over a hundred visitors, many of them with sou'-westers, cork belts, and life-lines, could be clearly distinguished in these picturesque groups. A notice said:--
"Copies of any of these magnificent permanent holographs can be supplied, handsomely mounted, at a charge of two shillings each. Orders executed in rotation, and delivered by post if necessary. It is respectfully requested that cash be paid with order. Otherwise orders cannot be accepted."
Very few of those who had made the trip could resist the fascination of a photograph of themselves in a real lifeboat, manned by real heroes and real Norwegians on real waves, especially if they had worn the gear appropriate to lifeboats. The windows of the shop were beset throughout the day with crowds anxious to see who was in the lifeboat, and who had come out well, and who was a perfect fright. The orders on the first day amounted to over fifteen pounds, for not everybody was content with one photograph. The novelty was acute and enchanting, and it renewed itself each day. "Let's go down and look at the lifeboat photographs," people would say, when they were wondering what to do next. Some persons who had not "taken nicely" would perform a special trip in the lifeboat and would wear special clothes and compose special faces for the ordeal. The Mayor of Ashby-de-la-Zouch for that year ordered two hundred copies of a photograph which showed himself in the centre, for presentation as New Year's cards. On the mornings after very dull days or wet days, when photography had been impossible or unsatisfactory, Llandudno felt that something lacked. Here it may be mentioned that inclement weather (of which, for the rest, there was little) scarcely interfered with Denry's receipts. Imagine a lifeboat being deterred by rain or by a breath of wind! There were tarpaulins. When the tide was strong and adverse, male passengers were allowed to pull, without extra charge, though naturally they would give a trifle to this or that member of the professional crew.
Denry's arrangement with the photographer was so simple that a child could have grasped it. The photographer paid him sixpence on every photograph sold. This was Denry's only connection with the photographer. The sixpences totalled over a dozen pounds a week. Regardless of cost, Denry reprinted his article from the Staffordshire Signal descriptive of the night of the wreck, with a photograph of the lifeboat and its crew, and presented a copy to every client of his photographic department.
Llandudno was next titillated by the mysterious "Chocolate Remedy," which made its first appearance in a small boat that plied off Robinson Crusoe's strip of beach. Not infrequently passengers in the lifeboat were inconvenienced by displeasing and even distressing sensations, as Denry had once been inconvenienced. He felt deeply for them. The Chocolate Remedy was designed to alleviate the symptoms while captivating the palate. It was one of the most agreeable remedies that the wit of man ever invented. It tasted like chocolate and yet there was an astringent flavour of lemon in it--a flavour that flattered the stomach into a good opinion of itself, and seemed to say, "All's right with the world." The stuff was retailed in sixpenny packets, and you were advised to eat only a very little of it at a time, and not to masticate, but merely to permit melting. Then the Chocolate Remedy came to be sold on the lifeboat itself, and you were informed that if you "took" it before starting on the wave, no wave could disarrange you. And, indeed, many persons who followed this advice suffered no distress, and were proud accordingly, and duly informed the world. Then the Chocolate Remedy began to be sold everywhere. Young people bought it because they enjoyed it, and perfectly ignored the advice against over-indulgence and against mastication. The Chocolate Remedy penetrated like the refrain of a popular song to other seaside places. It was on sale from Morecambe to Barmouth, and at all the landing-stages of the steamers for the Isle of Man and Anglesey. Nothing surprised Denry so much as the vogue of the Chocolate Remedy. It was a serious anxiety to him, and he muddled both the manufacture and distribution of the remedy, from simple ignorance and inexperience. His chief difficulty at first had been to obtain small cakes of chocolate that were not stamped with the maker's name or mark. Chocolate manufacturers seemed to have a passion for imprinting their Quakerly names on every bit of stuff they sold. Having at length obtained a supply, he was silly enough to spend time in preparing the remedy himself in his bedroom! He might as well have tried to feed the British Army from his mother's kitchen. At length he went to a confectioner in Rhyl and a greengrocer in Llandudno, and by giving away half the secret to each, he contrived to keep the whole secret to himself. But even then he was manifestly unequal to the situation created by the demand for the Chocolate Remedy. It was a situation that needed the close attention of half a dozen men of business. It was quite different from the affair of the lifeboat.
One night a man who had been staying a day or two in the boarding-house in St Asaph's Road said to Denry:
"Look here, mister. I go straight to the point. What'll you take?"
And he explained what he meant. What would Denry take for the entire secret and rights of the Chocolate Remedy and the use of the name "Machin" ("without which none was genuine").
"What do you offer?" Denry asked.
"Well, I'll give you a hundred pounds down, and that's my last word."
Denry was staggered. A hundred pounds for simply nothing at all--for dipping bits of chocolate in lemon-juice!
He shook his head.
"I'll take two hundred," he replied.
And he got two hundred. It was probably the worst bargain that he ever made in his life. For the Chocolate Remedy continued obstinately in demand for ten years afterwards. But he was glad to be rid of the thing; it was spoiling his sleep and wearing him out.
He had other worries. The boatmen of Llandudno regarded him as an enemy of the human race. If they had not been nature's gentlemen they would have burned him alive at a stake. Cregeen, in particular, consistently referred to him in terms which could not have been more severe had Denry been the assassin of Cregeen's wife and seven children. In daring to make over a hundred pounds a week out of a ramshackle old lifeboat that Cregeen had sold to him for thirty-five pounds, Denry was outraging Cregeen's moral code. Cregeen had paid thirty-five pounds for the Fleetwinz, a craft immeasurably superior to Denry's nameless tub. And was Cregeen making a hundred pounds a week out of it? Not a hundred shillings! Cregeen genuinely thought that he had a right to half Denry's profits. Old Simeon, too, seemed to think that he had a right to a large percentage of the same profits. And the Corporation, though it was notorious that excursionists visited the town purposely to voyage in the lifeboat, the Corporation made difficulties--about the embarking and disembarking, about the photographic strip of beach, about the crowds on the pavement outside the photograph shop. Denry learnt that he had committed the sin of not being a native of Llandudno. He was a stranger, and he was taking money out of the town. At times he wished he could have been born again. His friend and saviour was the Local Secretary of the Lifeboat Institution, who happened to be a Town Councillor. This worthy man, to whom Denry paid over a pound a day, was invaluable to him. Further, Denry was invited--nay commanded--to contribute to nearly every church, chapel, mission, and charity in Carnarvonshire, Flintshire, and other counties. His youthfulness was not accepted as an excuse. And as his gross profits could be calculated by any dunce who chose to stand on the beach for half a day, it was not easy for him to pretend that he was on the brink of starvation. He could only ward off attacks by stating with vague, convinced sadness that his expenses were much greater than any one could imagine.
In September, when the moon was red and full, and the sea glassy, he announced a series of nocturnal "Rocket Fêtes." The lifeboat, hung with Chinese lanterns, put out in the evening (charge five shillings) and, followed by half the harbour's fleet of rowing-boats and cutters, proceeded to the neighbourhood of the strip of beach, where a rocket apparatus had been installed by the help of the Lifeboat Secretary. The mortar was trained; there was a flash, a whizz, a line of fire, and a rope fell out of the sky across the lifeboat. The effect was thrilling and roused cheers. Never did the Lifeboat Institution receive such an advertisement as Denry gave it--gratis.
After the rocketing Denry stood alone on the slopes of the Little Orme and watched the lanterns floating home over the water, and heard the lusty mirth of his clients in the still air. It was an emotional experience for him.
"By Jove!" he said, "I've wakened this town up!"
One morning, in the very last sad days of the dying season, when his receipts had dropped to the miserable figure of about fifty pounds a week, Denry had a great and pleasing surprise. He met Nellie on the Parade. It was a fact that the recognition of that innocent, childlike blushing face gave him joy. Nellie was with her father, Councillor Cotterill, and her mother. The Councillor was a speculative builder, who was erecting several streets of British homes in the new quarter above the new municipal park at Bursley. Denry had already encountered him once or twice in the way of business. He was a big and portly man of forty-five, with a thin face and a consciousness of prosperity. At one moment you would think him a jolly, bluff fellow, and at the next you would be disconcerted by a note of cunning or of harshness. Mrs Councillor Cotterill was one of these women who fail to live up to the ever-increasing height of their husbands. Afflicted with an eternal stage-fright, she never opened her close-pressed lips in society, though a few people knew that she could talk as fast and as effectively as any one. Difficult to set in motion, her vocal machinery was equally difficult to stop. She generally wore a low bonnet and a mantle. The Cotterills had been spending a fortnight in the Isle of Man, and they had come direct from Douglas to Llandudno by steamer, where they meant to pass two or three days. They were staying at Craig-y-don, at the eastern end of the Parade.
"Well, young man!" said Councillor Cotterill.
And he kept on young-manning Denry with an easy patronage which Denry could scarcely approve of. "I bet I've made more money this summer than you have with all your jerrying!" said Denry silently to the Councillor's back while the Cotterill family were inspecting the historic lifeboat on the beach. Councillor Cotterill said frankly that one reason for their calling at Llandudno was his desire to see this singular lifeboat, about which there had really been a very great deal of talk in the Five Towns. The admission comforted Denry. Then the Councillor recommenced his young-manning.
"Look here," said Demo, carelessly, "you must come and dine with me one night, all of you--will you?"
Nobody who has not passed at least twenty years in a district where people dine at one o'clock, and dining after dark is regarded as a wild idiosyncrasy of earls, can appreciate the effect of this speech.
The Councillor, when he had recovered himself, said that they would be pleased to dine with him; Mrs Cotterill's tight lips were seen to move, but not heard; and Nellie glowed.
"Yes," said Denry, "come and dine with me at the Majestic."
The name of the Majestic put an end to the young-manning. It was the new hotel by the pier, and advertised itself as the most luxurious hotel in the Principality. Which was bold of it, having regard to the magnificence of caravanserais at Cardiff. It had two hundred bedrooms, and waiters who talked English imperfectly; and its prices were supposed to be fantastic.
After all, the most startled and frightened person of the four was perhaps Denry. He had never given a dinner to anybody. He had never even dined at night. He had never been inside the Majestic. He had never had the courage to go inside the Majestic. He had no notion of the mysterious preliminaries to the offering of a dinner in a public place.
But the next morning he contracted to give away the lifeboat to a syndicate of boatmen, headed by John their leader, for thirty-five pounds. And he swore to himself that he would do that dinner properly, even if it cost him the whole price of the boat. Then he met Mrs Cotterill coming out of a shop. Mrs Cotterill, owing to a strange hazard of fate, began talking at once. And Denry, as an old shorthand writer, instinctively calculated that not Thomas Allen Reed himself could have taken Mrs Cotterill down verbatim. Her face tried to express pain, but pleasure shone out of it. For she found herself in an exciting contretemps which she could understand.
"Oh, Mr Machin," she said, "what do you think's happened? I don't know how to tell you, I'm sure. Here you've arranged for that dinner to-morrow and it's all settled, and now Miss Earp telegraphs to our Nellie to say she's coming to-morrow for a day or two with us. You know Ruth and Nellie are such friends. It's like as if what must be, isn't it? I don't know what to do, I do declare. What ever will Ruth say at us leaving her all alone the first night she comes? I really do think she might have----"
"You must bring her along with you," said Denry.
"But won't you--shan't you--won't she--won't it----"
"Not at all," said Denry. "Speaking for myself, I shall be delighted."
"Well, I'm sure you're very sensible," said Mrs Cotterill. "I was but saying to Mr Cotterill over breakfast--I said to him----"
"I shall ask Councillor Rhys-Jones to meet you," said Denry. "He's one of the principal members of the Town Council here; Local Secretary of the Lifeboat Institution. Great friend of mine."
"Oh!" exclaimed Mrs Cotterill, "it'll be quite an affair."
Denry found to his relief that the only difficult part of arranging a dinner at the Majestic was the steeling of yourself to enter the gorgeous portals of the hotel. After that, and after murmuring that you wished to fix up a little snack, you had nothing to do but listen to suggestions, each surpassing the rest in splendour, and say "Yes." Similarly with the greeting of a young woman who was once to you the jewel of the world. You simply said, "Good-afternoon, how are you?" And she said the same. And you shook hands. And there you were, still alive!
The one defect of the dinner was that the men were not in evening dress. (Denry registered a new rule of life: Never travel without your evening dress, because you never know what may turn up.) The girls were radiantly white. And after all there is nothing like white. Mrs Cotterill was in black silk and silence. And after all there is nothing like black silk. There was champagne. There were ices. Nellie, not being permitted champagne, took her revenge in ice. Denry had found an opportunity to relate to her the history of the Chocolate Remedy. She said, "How wonderful you are!" And he said it was she who was wonderful. Denry gave no information about the Chocolate Remedy to her father. Neither did she. As for Ruth, indubitably she was responsible for the social success of the dinner. She seemed to have the habit of these affairs. She it was who loosed tongues. Nevertheless, Denry saw her now with different eyes, and it appeared incredible to him that he had once mistaken her for the jewel of the world.
At the end of the dinner Councillor Rhys-Jones produced a sensation by rising to propose the health of their host. He referred to the superb heroism of England's lifeboatmen, and in the name of the Institution thanked Denry for the fifty-three pounds which Denry's public had contributed to the funds. He said it was a noble contribution and that Denry was a philanthropist. And he called on Councillor Cotterill to second the toast. Which Councillor Cotterill did, in good set terms, the result of long habit. And Denry stammered that he was much obliged, and that really it was nothing.
But when the toasting was finished, Councillor Cotterill lapsed somewhat into a patronising irony, as if he were jealous of a youthful success. And he did not stop at "young man." He addressed Denry grandiosely as "my boy."
"This lifeboat--it was just an idea, my boy, just an idea," he said.
"Yes," said Denry, "but I thought of it."
"The question is," said the Councillor, "can you think of any more ideas as good?"
"Well," said Denry, "can you?"
With reluctance they left the luxury of the private dining-room, and Denry surreptitiously paid the bill with a pile of sovereigns, and Councillor Rhys-Jones parted from them with lively grief. The other five walked in a row along the Parade in the moonlight. And when they arrived in front of Craig-y-don, and the Cotterills were entering, Ruth, who loitered behind, said to Denry in a liquid voice:
"I don't feel a bit like going to sleep. I suppose you wouldn't care for a stroll?"
"I daresay you're very tired," she said.
"No," he replied, "it's this moonlight I'm afraid of."
And their eyes met under the door-lamp, and Ruth wished him pleasant dreams and vanished. It was exceedingly subtle.
The next afternoon the Cotterills and Ruth Earp went home, and Denry with them. Llandudno was just settling into its winter sleep, and Denry's rather complex affairs had all been put in order. Though the others showed a certain lassitude, he himself was hilarious. Among his insignificant luggage was a new hat-box, which proved to be the origin of much gaiety.
"Just take this, will you?" he said to a porter on the platform at Llandudno Station, and held out the new hat-box with an air of calm. The porter innocently took it, and then, as the hat-box nearly jerked his arm out of the socket, gave vent to his astonishment after the manner of porters.
"By gum, mister!" said he, "that's heavy!"
It, in fact, weighed nearly two stone.
"Yes," said Denry, "it's full of sovereigns, of course."
And everybody laughed.
At Crewe, where they had to change, and again at Knype and at Bursley, he produced astonishment in porters by concealing the effort with which he handed them the hat-box, as though its weight was ten ounces. And each time he made the same witticism about sovereigns.
"What have you got in that hat-box?" Ruth asked.
"Don't I tell you?" said Denry, laughing. "Sovereigns!"
Lastly, he performed the same trick on his mother. Mrs Machin was working, as usual, in the cottage in Brougham Street. Perhaps the notion of going to Llandudno for a change had not occurred to her. In any case, her presence had been necessary in Bursley, for she had frequently collected Denry's rents for him, and collected them very well. Denry was glad to see her again, and she was glad to see him, but they concealed their feelings as much as possible. When he basely handed her the hat-box she dropped it, and roundly informed him that she was not going to have any of his pranks.
After tea, whose savouriness he enjoyed quite as much as his own state dinner, he gave her a key and asked her to open the hat-box, which he had placed on a chair.
"What is there in it?"
"A lot of jolly fine pebbles that I've been collecting on the beach," he said.
She got the hat-box on to her knee, and unlocked it, and came to a thick cloth, which she partly withdrew, and then there was a scream from Mrs Machin, and the hat-box rolled with a terrific crash to the tiled floor, and she was ankle-deep in sovereigns. She could see sovereigns running about all over the parlour. Gradually even the most active sovereigns decided to lie down and be quiet, and a great silence ensued. Denry's heart was beating.
Mrs Machin merely shook her head. Not often did her son deprive her of words, but this theatrical culmination of his home-coming really did leave her speechless.
Late that night rows of piles of sovereigns decorated the oval table in the parlour.
"A thousand and eleven," said Denry, at length, beneath the lamp. "There's fifteen missing yet. We'll look for 'em to-morrow."
For several days afterwards Mrs Machin was still picking up sovereigns. Two had even gone outside the parlour, and down the two steps into the backyard, and finding themselves unable to get back, had remained there.
And all the town knew that the unique Denry had thought of the idea of returning home to his mother with a hat-box crammed with sovereigns.
This was Denry's "latest," and it employed the conversation of the borough for I don't know how long.