WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Arnold Bennett (1911) Country of origin: UK
Available texts by the same author here
Chapter 8: Raising a Wigwam
A still young man--his age was thirty--with a short, strong beard peeping out over the fur collar of a vast overcoat, emerged from a cab at the snowy corner of St Luke's Square and Brougham Street, and paid the cabman with a gesture that indicated both wealth and the habit of command. And the cabman, who had driven him over from Hanbridge through the winter night, responded accordingly. Few people take cabs in the Five Towns. There are few cabs to take. If you are going to a party you may order one in advance by telephone, reconciling yourself also in advance to the expense, but to hail a cab in the street without forethought and jump into it as carelessly as you would jump into a tram--this is by very few done. The young man with the beard did it frequently, which proved that he was fundamentally ducal.
He was encumbered with a large and rather heavy parcel as he walked down Brougham Street, and, moreover, the footpath of Brougham Street was exceedingly dirty. And yet no one acquainted with the circumstances of his life would have asked why he had dismissed the cab before arriving at his destination, because every one knew. The reason was that this ducal person, with the gestures of command, dared not drive up to his mother's door in a cab oftener than about once a month. He opened that door with a latch-key (a modern lock was almost the only innovation that he had succeeded in fixing on his mother), and stumbled with his unwieldy parcel into the exceedingly narrow lobby.
"Is that you, Denry?" called a feeble voice from the parlour.
"Yes," said he, and went into the parlour, hat, fur coat, parcel, and all.
Mrs Machin, in a shawl and an antimacassar over the shawl, sat close to the fire and leaning towards it. She looked cold and ill. Although the parlour was very tiny and the fire comparatively large, the structure of the grate made it impossible that the room should be warm, as all the heat went up the chimney. If Mrs Machin had sat on the roof and put her hands over the top of the chimney, she would have been much warmer than at the grate.
"You aren't in bed?" Denry queried.
"Can't ye see?" said his mother. And, indeed, to ask a woman who was obviously sitting up in a chair whether she was in bed, did seem somewhat absurd. She added, less sarcastically: "I was expecting ye every minute. Where have ye had your tea?"
"Oh!" he said lightly, "in Hanbridge."
An untruth! He had not had his tea anywhere. But he had dined richly at the new Hôtel Métropole, Hanbridge.
"What have ye got there?" asked his mother.
"A present for you," said Denry. "It's your birthday to-morrow."
"I don't know as I want reminding of that," murmured Mrs Machin.
But when he had undone the parcel and held up the contents before her, she exclaimed:
The staggered tone was an admission that for once in a way he had impressed her.
It was a magnificent sealskin mantle, longer than sealskin mantles usually are. It was one of those articles the owner of which can say: "Nobody can have a better than this--I don't care who she is." It was worth in monetary value all the plain, shabby clothes on Mrs Machin's back, and all her very ordinary best clothes upstairs, and all the furniture in the entire house, and perhaps all Denry's dandiacal wardrobe too, except his fur coat. If the entire contents of the cottage, with the aforesaid exception, had been put up to auction, they would not have realised enough to pay for that sealskin mantle.
Had it been anything but a sealskin mantle, and equally costly, Mrs Machin would have upbraided. But a sealskin mantle is not "showy." It "goes with" any and every dress and bonnet. And the most respectable, the most conservative, the most austere woman may find legitimate pleasure in wearing it. A sealskin mantle is the sole luxurious ostentation that a woman of Mrs Machin's temperament--and there are many such in the Five Towns and elsewhere--will conscientiously permit herself.
"Try it on," said Denry.
She rose weakly and tried it on. It fitted as well as a sealskin mantle can fit.
"My word--it's warm!" she said. This was her sole comment.
"Keep it on," said Denry.
His mother's glance withered the suggestion.
"Where are you going?" he asked, as she left the room.
"To put it away," said she. "I must get some moth-powder to-morrow."
He protested with inarticulate noises, removed his own furs, which he threw down on to the old worn-out sofa, and drew a Windsor chair up to the fire. After a while his mother returned, and sat down in her rocking-chair, and began to shiver again under the shawl and the antimacassar. The lamp on the table lighted up the left side of her face and the right side of his.
"Look here, mother," said he, "you must have a doctor."
"I shall have no doctor."
"You've got influenza, and it's a very tricky business--influenza is; you never know where you are with it."
"Ye can call it influenza if ye like," said Mrs Machin. "There was no influenza in my young days. We called a cold a cold."
"Well," said Denry, "you aren't well, are you?"
"I never said I was," she answered grimly.
"No," said Denry, with the triumphant ring of one who is about to devastate an enemy. "And you never will be in this rotten old cottage."
"This was reckoned a very good class of house when your father and I came into it. And it's always been kept in repair. It was good enough for your father, and it's good enough for me. I don't see myself flitting. But some folks have gotten so grand. As for health, old Reuben next door is ninety-one. How many people over ninety are there in those gimcrack houses up by the Park, I should like to know?"
Denry could argue with any one save his mother. Always, when he was about to reduce her to impotence, she fell on him thus and rolled him in the dust. Still, he began again.
"Do we pay four-and-sixpence a week for this cottage, or don't we?" he demanded.
"And always have done," said Mrs Machin. "I should like to see the landlord put it up," she added, formidably, as if to say: "I'd landlord him, if he tried to put my rent up!"
"Well," said Denry, "here we are living in a four-and-six-a-week cottage, and do you know how much I'm making? I'm making two thousand pounds a year. That's what I'm making."
A second wilful deception of his mother! As Managing Director of the Five Towns Universal Thrift Club, as proprietor of the majority of its shares, as its absolute autocrat, he was making very nearly four thousand a year. Why could he not as easily have said four as two to his mother? The simple answer is that he was afraid to say four. It was as if he ought to blush before his mother for being so plutocratic, his mother who had passed most of her life in hard toil to gain a few shillings a week. Four thousand seemed so fantastic! And in fact the Thrift Club, which he had invented in a moment, had arrived at a prodigious success, with its central offices in Hanbridge and its branch offices in the other four towns, and its scores of clerks and collectors presided over by Mr Penkethman. It had met with opposition. The mighty said that Denry was making an unholy fortune under the guise of philanthropy. And to be on the safe side the Countess of Chell had resigned her official patronage of the club and given her shares to the Pirehill Infirmary, which had accepted the high dividends on them without the least protest. As for Denry, he said that he had never set out to be a philanthropist nor posed as one, and that his unique intention was to grow rich by supplying a want, like the rest of them, and that anyhow there was no compulsion to belong to his Thrift Club. Then letters in his defence from representatives of the thousands and thousands of members of the club rained into the columns of the Signal, and Denry was the most discussed personage in the county. It was stated that such thrift clubs, under various names, existed in several large towns in Yorkshire and Lancashire. This disclosure rehabilitated Denry completely in general esteem, for whatever obtains in Yorkshire and Lancashire must be right for Staffordshire; but it rather dashed Denry, who was obliged to admit to himself that after all he had not invented the Thrift Club. Finally the hundreds of tradesmen who had bound themselves to allow a discount of twopence in the shilling to the club (sole source of the club's dividends) had endeavoured to revolt. Denry effectually cowed them by threatening to establish co-operative stores--there was not a single co-operative store in the Five Towns. They knew he would have the wild audacity to do it.
Thenceforward the progress of the Thrift Club had been unruffled. Denry waxed amazingly in importance. His mule died. He dared not buy a proper horse and dogcart, because he dared not bring such an equipage to the front door of his mother's four-and-sixpenny cottage. So he had taken to cabs. In all exterior magnificence and lavishness he equalled even the great Harold Etches, of whom he had once been afraid; and like Etches he became a famous habitué of Llandudno pier. But whereas Etches lived with his wife in a superb house at Bleakridge, Denry lived with his mother in a ridiculous cottage in ridiculous Brougham Street. He had a regiment of acquaintances and he accepted a lot of hospitality, but he could not return it at Brougham Street. His greatness fizzled into nothing in Brougham Street. It stopped short and sharp at the corner of St Luke's Square, where he left his cabs. He could do nothing with his mother. If she was not still going out as a sempstress the reason was, not that she was not ready to go out, but that her old clients had ceased to send for her. And could they be blamed for not employing at three shillings a day the mother of a young man who wallowed in thousands sterling? Denry had essayed over and over again to instil reason into his mother, and he had invariably failed. She was too independent, too profoundly rooted in her habits; and her character had more force than his. Of course, he might have left her and set up a suitably gorgeous house of his own.
But he would not.
In fact, they were a remarkable pair.
On this eve of her birthday he had meant to cajole her into some step, to win her by an appeal, basing his argument on her indisposition. But he was being beaten off once more. The truth was that a cajoling, caressing tone could not be long employed towards Mrs Machin. She was not persuasive herself, nor; favourable to persuasiveness in others.
"Well," said she, "if you're making two thousand a year, ye can spend it or save it as ye like, though ye'd better save it. Ye never know what may happen in these days. There was a man dropped half-a-crown down a grid opposite only the day before yesterday."
"Ay!" she said; "ye can laugh."
"There's no doubt about one thing," he said, "you ought to be in bed. You ought to stay in bed for two or three days at least."
"Yes," she said. "And who's going to look after the house while I'm moping between blankets?"
"You can have Rose Chudd in," he said.
"No," said she. "I'm not going to have any woman rummaging about my house, and me in bed."
"You know perfectly well she's been practically starving since her husband died, and as she's going out charing, why can't you have her and put a bit of bread into her mouth?"
"Because I won't have her! Neither her nor any one. There's naught to prevent you giving her some o' your two thousand a year if you've a mind. But I see no reason for my house being turned upside down by her, even if I have got a bit of a cold."
"You're an unreasonable old woman," said Denry.
"Happen I am!" said she. "There can't be two wise ones in a family. But I'm not going to give up this cottage, and as long as I am standing on my feet I'm not going to pay any one for doing what I can do better myself." A pause. "And so you needn't think it! You can't come round me with a fur mantle." She retired to rest. On the following morning he was very glum.
"You needn't be so glum," she said.
But she was rather pleased at his glumness. For in him glumness was a sign that he recognised defeat.
The next episode between them was curiously brief. Denry had influenza. He said that naturally he had caught hers.
He went to bed and stayed there. She nursed him all day, and grew angry in a vain attempt to force him to eat. Towards night he tossed furiously on the little bed in the little bedroom, complaining of fearful headaches. She remained by his side most of the night. In the morning he was easier. Neither of them mentioned the word "doctor." She spent the day largely on the stairs. Once more towards night he grew worse, and she remained most of the second night by his side.
In the sinister winter dawn Denry murmured in a feeble tone:
"Mother, you'd better send for him."
"Doctor?" she said. And secretly she thought that she had better send for the doctor, and that there must be after all some difference between influenza and a cold.
"No," said Denry; "send for young Lawton."
"Young Lawton!" she exclaimed. "What do you want young Lawton to come here for?"
"I haven't made my will," Denry answered.
"Pooh!" she retorted.
Nevertheless she was the least bit in the world frightened. And she sent for Dr Stirling, the aged Harrop's Scotch partner.
Dr Stirling, who was full-bodied and left little space for anybody else in the tiny, shabby bedroom of the man with four thousand a year, gazed at Mrs Machin, and he gazed also at Denry.
"Ye must go to bed this minute," said he.
"But he's in bed," cried Mrs Machin.
"I mean yerself," said Dr Stirling.
She was very nearly at the end of her resources. And the proof was that she had no strength left to fight Dr Stirling. She did go to bed. And shortly afterwards Denry got up. And a little later, Rose Chudd, that prim and efficient young widow from lower down the street, came into the house and controlled it as if it had been her own. Mrs Machin, whose constitution was hardy, arose in about a week, cured, and duly dismissed Rose with wages and without thanks. But Rose had been. Like the Signal's burglars, she had "effected an entrance." And the house had not been turned upside down. Mrs Machin, though she tried, could not find fault with the result of Rose's uncontrolled activities.
One morning--and not very long afterwards, in such wise did Fate seem to favour the young at the expense of the old--Mrs Machin received two letters which alarmed and disgusted her. One was from her landlord, announcing that he had sold the house in which she lived to a Mr Wilbraham of London, and that in future she must pay the rent to the said Mr Wilbraham or his legal representatives. The other was from a firm of London solicitors announcing that their client, Mr Wilbraham, had bought the house, and that the rent must be paid to their agent, whom they would name later.
Mrs Machin gave vent to her emotion in her customary manner: "Bless us!"
And she showed the impudent letters to Denry.
"Oh!" said Denry. "So he has bought them, has he? I heard he was going to."
"Them?" exclaimed Mrs Machin. "What else has he bought?"
"I expect he's bought all the five--this and the four below, as far as Downes's. I expect you'll find that the other four have had notices just like these. You know all this row used to belong to the Wilbrahams. You surely must remember that, mother?"
"Is he one of the Wilbrahams of Hillport, then?"
"Yes, of course he is."
"I thought the last of 'em was Cecil, and when he'd beggared himself here he went to Australia and died of drink. That's what I always heard. We always used to say as there wasn't a Wilbraham left."
"He did go to Australia, but he didn't die of drink. He disappeared, and when he'd made a fortune he turned up again in Sydney, so it seems. I heard he's thinking of coming back here to settle. Anyhow, he's buying up a lot of the Wilbraham property. I should have thought you'd have heard of it. Why, lots of people have been talking about it."
"Well," said Mrs Machin, "I don't like it."
She objected to a law which permitted a landlord to sell a house over the head of a tenant who had occupied it for more than thirty years. In the course of the morning she discovered that Denry was right--the other tenants had received notices exactly similar to hers.
Two days later Denry arrived home for tea with a most surprising article of news. Mr Cecil Wilbraham had been down to Bursley from London, and had visited him, Denry. Mr Cecil Wilbraham's local information was evidently quite out of date, for he had imagined Denry to be a rent-collector and estate agent, whereas the fact was that Denry had abandoned this minor vocation years ago. His desire had been that Denry should collect his rents and watch over his growing interests in the district.
"So what did you tell him?" asked Mrs Machin.
"I told him I'd do it." said Denry.
"I thought it might be safer for you," said Denry, with a certain emphasis. "And, besides, it looked as if it might be a bit of a lark. He's a very peculiar chap."
"For one thing, he's got the largest moustaches of any man I ever saw. And there's something up with his left eye. And then I think he's a bit mad."
"Well, touched. He's got a notion about building a funny sort of a house for himself on a plot of land at Bleakridge. It appears he's fond of living alone, and he's collected all kind of dodges for doing without servants and still being comfortable."
"Ay! But he's right there!" breathed Mrs Machin in deep sympathy. As she said about once a week, "She never could abide the idea of servants." "He's not married, then?" she added.
"He told me he'd been a widower three times, but he'd never had any children," said Denry.
"Bless us!" murmured Mrs Machin.
Denry was the one person in the town who enjoyed the acquaintance and the confidence of the thrice-widowed stranger with long moustaches. He had descended without notice on Bursley, seen Denry (at the branch office of the Thrift Club), and then departed. It was understood that later he would permanently settle in the district. Then the wonderful house began to rise on the plot of land at Bleakridge. Denry had general charge of it, but always subject to erratic and autocratic instructions from London. Thanks to Denry, who, since the historic episode at Llandudno, had remained very friendly with the Cotterill family, Mr Cotterill had the job of building the house; the plans came from London. And though Mr Cecil Wilbraham proved to be exceedingly watchful against any form of imposition, the job was a remunerative one for Mr Cotterill, who talked a great deal about the originality of the residence. The town judged of the wealth and importance of Mr Cecil Wilbraham by the fact that a person so wealthy and important as Denry should be content to act as his agent. But then the Wilbrahams had been magnates in the Bursley region for generations, up till the final Wilbraham smash in the late seventies. The town hungered to see those huge moustaches and that peculiar eye. In addition to Denry, only one person had seen the madman, and that person was Nellie Cotterill, who had been viewing the half-built house with Denry one Sunday morning when the madman had most astonishingly arrived upon the scene, and after a few minutes vanished. The building of the house strengthened greatly the friendship between Denry and the Cotterills. Yet Denry neither liked Mr Cotterill nor trusted him. The next incident in these happening was that Mrs Machin received notice from the London firm to quit her four-and-sixpence-a-week cottage. It seemed to her that not merely Brougham Street, but the world, was coming to an end. She was very angry with Denry for not protecting her more successfully. He was Mr Wilbraham's agent, he collected the rent, and it was his duty to guard his mother from unpleasantness. She observed, however, that he was remarkably disturbed by the notice, and he assured her that Mr Wilbraham had not consulted him in the matter at all. He wrote a letter to London, which she signed, demanding the reason of this absurd notice flung at an ancient and perfect tenant. The reply was that Mr Wilbraham intended to pull the houses down, beginning with Mrs Machin's, and rebuild.
"Pooh!" said Denry. "Don't you worry your head, mother; I shall arrange it. He'll be down here soon to see his new house--it's practically finished, and the furniture is coming in--and I'll just talk to him."
But Mr Wilbraham did not come, the explanation doubtless being that he was mad. On the other hand, fresh notices came with amazing frequency. Mrs Machin just handed them over to Denry. And then Denry received a telegram to say that Mr Wilbraham would be at his new house that night and wished to see Denry there. Unfortunately, on the same day, by the afternoon post, while Denry was at his offices, there arrived a sort of supreme and ultimate notice from London to Mrs Machin, and it was on blue paper. It stated, baldly, that as Mrs Machin had failed to comply with all the previous notices, had, indeed, ignored them, she and her goods would now be ejected into the street, according to the law. It gave her twenty-four hours to flit. Never had a respectable dame been so insulted as Mrs Machin was insulted by that notice. The prospect of camping out in Brougham Street confronted her. When Denry reached home that evening, Mrs Machin, as the phrase is, "gave it him."
Denry admitted frankly that he was nonplussed, staggered and outraged. But the thing was simply another proof of Mr Wilbraham's madness. After tea he decided that his mother must put on her best clothes, and go up with him to see Mr Wilbraham and firmly expostulate--in fact, they would arrange the situation between them; and if Mr Wilbraham was obstinate they would defy Mr Wilbraham. Denry explained to his mother that an Englishwoman's cottage was her castle, that a landlord's minions had no right to force an entrance, and that the one thing that Mr Wilbraham could do was to begin unbuilding the cottage from the top outside.... And he would like to see Mr Wilbraham try it on!
So the sealskin mantle (for it was spring again) went up with Denry to Bleakridge.
The moon shone in the chill night. The house stood back from Trafalgar Road in the moonlight--a squarish block of a building.
"Oh!" said Mrs Machin, "it isn't so large."
"No! He didn't want it large. He only wanted it large enough," said Denry, and pushed a button to the right of the front door. There was no reply, though they heard the ringing of the bell inside. They waited. Mrs Machin was very nervous, but thanks to her sealskin mantle she was not cold.
"This is a funny doorstep," she remarked, to kill time.
"It's of marble," said Denry.
"What's that for?" asked his mother.
"So much easier to keep clean," said Denry.
"Well," said Mrs Machin, "it's pretty dirty now, anyway."
"Quite simple to clean," said Denry, bending down. "You just turn this tap at the side. You see, it's so arranged that it sends a flat jet along the step. Stand off a second."
He turned the tap, and the step was washed pure in a moment.
"How is it that that water steams?" Mrs Machin demanded.
"Because it's hot," said Denry. "Did you ever know water steam for any other reason?"
"Hot water outside?"
"Just as easy to have hot water outside as inside, isn't it?" said Denry.
"Well, I never!" exclaimed Mrs Machin. She was impressed.
"That's how everything's dodged up in this house," said Denry. He shut off the water.
And he rang once again. No answer! No illumination within the abode!
"I'll tell you what I shall do," said Denry at length. "I shall let myself in. I've got a key of the back door."
"Are you sure it's all right?"
"I don't care if it isn't all right," said Denry, defiantly. "He asked me to be up here, and he ought to be here to meet me. I'm not going to stand any nonsense from anybody."
In they went, having skirted round the walls of the house.
Denry closed the door, pushed a switch, and the electric light shone. Electric light was then quite a novelty in Bursley. Mrs Machin had never seen it in action. She had to admit that it was less complicated than oil-lamps. In the kitchen the electric light blazed upon walls tiled in grey and a floor tiled in black and white. There was a gas range and a marble slopstone with two taps. The woodwork was dark. Earthenware saucepans stood on a shelf. The cupboards were full of gear chiefly in earthenware. Denry began to exhibit to his mother a tank provided with ledges and shelves and grooves, in which he said that everything except knives could be washed and dried automatically.
"Hadn't you better go and find your Mr Wilbraham?" she interrupted.
"So I had," said Denry; "I was forgetting him."
She heard him wandering over the house and calling in divers tones upon Mr Wilbraham. But she heard no other voice. Meanwhile she examined the kitchen in detail, appreciating some of its devices and failing to comprehend others.
"I expect he's missed the train," said Denry, coming back. "Anyhow, he isn't here. I may as well show you the rest of the house now."
He led her into the hall, which was radiantly lighted.
"It's quite warm here," said Mrs Machin.
"The whole house is heated by steam," said Denry. "No fireplaces."
"No! No fireplaces. No grates to polish, ashes to carry down, coals to carry up, mantelpieces to dust, fire-irons to clean, fenders to polish, chimneys to sweep."
"And suppose he wants a bit of fire all of a sudden in summer?"
"Gas stove in every room for emergencies," said Denry.
She glanced into a room.
"But," she cried, "it's all complete, ready! And as warm as toast."
"Yes," said Denry, "he gave orders. I can't think why on earth he isn't here."
At that moment an electric bell rang loud and sharp, and Mrs Machin jumped.
"There he is!" said Denry, moving to the door.
"Bless us! What will he think of us being here like?" Mrs Machin mumbled.
"Pooh!" said Denry, carelessly. And he opened the door.
Three persons stood on the newly-washed marble step--Mr and Mrs Cotterill and their daughter.
"Oh! Come in! Come in! Make yourselves quite at home. That's what we're doing," said Demo in blithe greeting; and added, "I suppose he's invited you too?"
And it appeared that Mr Cecil Wilbraham had indeed invited them too. He had written from London saying that he would be glad if Mr and Mrs Cotterill would "drop in" on this particular evening. Further, he had mentioned that, as be had already had the pleasure of meeting Miss Cotterill, perhaps she would accompany her parents.
"Well, he isn't here," said Denry, shaking hands. "He must have missed his train or something. He can't possibly be here now till to-morrow. But the house seems to be all ready for him...."
"Yes, my word! And how's yourself, Mrs Cotterill?" put in Mrs Machin.
"So we may as well look over it in its finished state. I suppose that's what he asked us up for," Denry concluded.
Mrs Machin explained quickly and nervously that she had not been comprised in any invitation; that her errand was pure business.
"Come on upstairs," Denry called out, turning switches and adding radiance to radiance.
"Denry!" his mother protested, "I'm sure I don't know what Mr and Mrs Cotterill will think of you! You carry on as if you owned everything in the place. I wonder at you!"
"Well," said Denry, "if anybody in this town is the owner's agent I am. And Mr Cotterill has built the blessed house. If Wilbraham wanted to keep his old shanty to himself, he shouldn't send out invitations. It's simple enough not to send out invitations. Now, Nellie!"
He was hanging over the balustrade at the curve of the stairs.
The familiar ease with which he said, "Now, Nellie," and especially the spontaneity of Nellie's instant response, put new thoughts into the mind of Mrs Machin. But she neither pricked up her ears, nor started back, nor accomplished any of the acrobatic feats which an ordinary mother of a wealthy son would have performed under similar circumstances. Her ears did not even tremble. And she just said:
"I like this balustrade knob being of black china."
"Every knob in the house is of black china," said Denry. "Never shows dirt. But if you should take it into your head to clean it, you can do it with a damp cloth in a second."
Nellie now stood beside him. Nellie had grown up since the Llandudno episode. She did not blush at a glance. When spoken to suddenly she could answer without torture to herself. She could, in fact, maintain a conversation without breaking down for a much longer time than, a few years ago, she had been able to skip without breaking down. She no longer imagined that all the people in the street were staring at her, anxious to find faults in her appearance. She had temporarily ruined the lives of several amiable and fairly innocent young men by refusing to marry them. (For she was pretty, and her father cut a figure in the town, though her mother did not.) And yet, despite the immense accumulation of her experiences and the weight of her varied knowledge of human nature, there was something very girlish and timidly roguish about her as she stood on the stairs near Denry, waiting for the elder generation to follow. The old Nellie still lived in her.
The party passed to the first floor.
And the first floor exceeded the ground floor in marvels. In each bedroom two aluminium taps poured hot and cold water respectively into a marble basin, and below the marble basin was a sink. No porterage of water anywhere in the house. The water came to you, and every room consumed its own slops. The bedsteads were of black enamelled iron and very light. The floors were covered with linoleum, with a few rugs that could be shaken with one hand. The walls were painted with grey enamel. Mrs Cotterill, with her all-seeing eye, observed a detail that Mrs Machin had missed. There were no sharp corners anywhere. Every corner, every angle between wall and floor or wall and wall, was rounded, to facilitate cleaning. And every wall, floor, ceiling, and fixture could be washed, and all the furniture was enamelled and could be wiped with a cloth in a moment instead of having to be polished with three cloths and many odours in a day and a half. The bath-room was absolutely waterproof; you could spray it with a hose, and by means of a gas apparatus you could produce an endless supply of hot water independent of the general supply. Denry was apparently familiar with each detail of Mr Wilbraham's manifold contrivances, and he explained them with an enormous gusto.
"Bless us!" said Mrs Machin.
"Bless us!" said Mrs Cotterill (doubtless the force of example).
They descended to the dining-room, where a supper-table had been laid by order of the invisible Mr Cecil Wilbraham. And there the ladies lauded Mr Wilbraham's wisdom in eschewing silver. Everything of the table service that could be of earthenware was of earthenware. The forks and spoons were electro-plate.
"Why," Mrs Cotterill said, "I could run this house without a servant and have myself tidy by ten o'clock in a morning."
And Mrs Machin nodded.
"And then when you want a regular turn-out, as you call it," said Denry, "there's the vacuum-cleaner."
The vacuum-cleaner was at that period the last word of civilisation, and the first agency for it was being set up in Bursley. Denry explained the vacuum-cleaner to the housewives, who had got no further than a Ewbank. And they again called down blessings on themselves.
"What price this supper?" Denry exclaimed. "We ought to eat it. I'm sure he'd like us to eat it. Do sit down, all of you. I'll take the consequences."
Mrs Machin hesitated even more than the other ladies.
"It's really very strange, him not being here." She shook her head.
"Don't I tell you he's quite mad," said Denry.
"I shouldn't think he was so mad as all that," said Mrs Machin, dryly. "This is the most sensible kind of a house I've ever seen."
"Oh! Is it?" Denry answered. "Great Scott! I never noticed those three bottles of wine on the sideboard."
At length he succeeded in seating them at the table. Thenceforward there was no difficulty. The ample and diversified cold supper began to disappear steadily, and the wine with it. And as the wine disappeared so did Mr Cotterill (who had been pompous and taciturn) grow talkative, offering to the company the exact figures of the cost of the house, and so forth. But ultimately the sheer joy of life killed arithmetic.
Mrs Machin, however, could not quite rid herself of the notion that she was in a dream that outraged the proprieties. The entire affair, for an unromantic spot like Bursley, was too fantastically and wickedly romantic.
"We must be thinking about home, Denry," said she.
"Plenty of time," Denry replied. "What! All that wine gone! I'll see if there's any more in the sideboard."
He emerged, with a red face, from bending into the deeps of the enamelled sideboard, and a wine-bottle was in his triumphant hand. It had already been opened.
"Hooray!" he proclaimed, pouring a white wine into his glass and raising the glass: "here's to the health of Mr Cecil Wilbraham."
He made a brave tableau in the brightness of the electric light.
Then he drank. Then he dropped the glass, which broke.
"Ugh! What's that?" he demanded, with the distorted features of a gargoyle.
His mother, who was seated next to him, seized the bottle. Denry's hand, in clasping the bottle, had hidden a small label, which said:
"POISON--Nettleship's Patent Enamel-Cleaning Fluid. One wipe does it."
Confusion! Only Nellie Cotterill seemed to be incapable of realising that a grave accident had occurred. She had laughed throughout the supper, and she still laughed, hysterically, though she had drunk scarcely any wine. Her mother silenced her.
Denry was the first to recover.
"It'll be all right," said he, leaning back in his chair. "They always put a bit of poison in those things. It can't hurt me, really. I never noticed the label."
Mrs Machin smelt at the bottle. She could detect no odour, but the fact that she could detect no odour appeared only to increase her alarm.
"You must have an emetic instantly," she said.
"Oh no!" said Denry. "I shall be all right." And he did seem to be suddenly restored.
"You must have an emetic instantly," she repeated.
"What can I have?" he grumbled. "You can't expect to find emetics here."
"Oh yes, I can," said she. "I saw a mustard tin in a cupboard in the kitchen. Come along now, and don't be silly."
Nellie's hysteric mirth surged up again.
Denry objected to accompanying his mother into the kitchen. But he was forced to submit. She shut the door on both of them. It is probable that during the seven minutes which they spent mysteriously together in the kitchen, the practicability of the kitchen apparatus for carrying off waste products was duly tested. Denry came forth, very pale and very cross, on his mother's arm.
"There's no danger now," said his mother, easily.
Naturally the party was at an end. The Cotterills sympathised, and prepared to depart, and inquired whether Denry could walk home.
Denry replied, from a sofa, in a weak, expiring voice, that he was perfectly incapable of walking home, that his sensations were in the highest degree disconcerting, that he should sleep in that house, as the bedrooms were ready for occupation, and that he should expect his mother to remain also.
And Mrs Machin had to concur. Mrs Machin sped the Cotterills from the door as though it had been her own door. She was exceedingly angry and agitated. But she could not impart her feelings to the suffering Denry. He moaned on a bed for about half-an-hour, and then fell asleep. And in the middle of the night, in the dark, strange house, she also fell asleep.
The next morning she arose and went forth, and in about half-an-hour returned. Denry was still in bed, but his health seemed to have resumed its normal excellence. Mrs Machin burst upon him in such a state of complicated excitement as he had never before seen her in.
"Denry," she cried, "what do you think?"
"What?" said he.
"I've just been down home, and they're--they're pulling the house down. All the furniture's out, and they've got all the tiles off the roof, and the windows out. And there's a regular crowd watching."
Denry sat up.
"And I can tell you another piece of news," said he. "Mr Cecil Wilbraham is dead."
"Dead!" she breathed.
"Yes," said Denry. "I think he's served his purpose. As we're here, we'll stop here. Don't forget it's the most sensible kind of a house you've ever seen. Don't forget that Mrs Cotterill could run it without a servant and have herself tidy by ten o'clock in a morning."
Mrs Machin perceived then, in a flash of terrible illumination, that there never had been any Cecil Wilbraham; that Denry had merely invented him and his long moustaches and his wall eye for the purpose of getting the better of his mother. The whole affair was an immense swindle upon her. Not a Mr Cecil Wilbraham, but her own son had bought her cottage over her head and jockeyed her out of it beyond any chance of getting into it again. And to defeat his mother the rascal had not simply perverted the innocent Nellie Cotterill to some co-operation in his scheme, but he had actually bought four other cottages, because the landlord would not sell one alone, and he was actually demolishing property to the sole end of stopping her from re-entering it!
Of course, the entire town soon knew of the upshot of the battle, of the year-long battle, between Denry and his mother, and the means adopted by Denry to win. The town also had been hoodwinked, but it did not mind that. It loved its Denry the more, and seeing that he was now properly established in the most remarkable house in the district, it soon afterwards made him a Town Councillor as some reward for his talent in amusing it.
And Denry would say to himself:
"Everything went like clockwork, except the mustard and water. I didn't bargain for the mustard and water. And yet, if I was clever enough to think of putting a label on the bottle and to have the beds prepared, I ought to have been clever enough to keep mustard out of the house." It would be wrong to mince the unpleasant fact that the sham poisoning which he had arranged to the end that he and his mother should pass the night in the house had finished in a manner much too realistic for Denry's pleasure. Mustard and water, particularly when mixed by Mrs Machin, is mustard and water. She had that consolation.