WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Arnold Bennett (1911) Country of origin: UK
Available texts by the same author here
Chapter 10: His Infamy
When Denry at a single stroke "wherreted" his mother and proved his adventurous spirit by becoming the possessor of one of the first motor-cars ever owned in Bursley, his instinct naturally was to run up to Councillor Cotterill's in it. Not that he loved Councillor Cotterill, and therefore wished to make him a partaker in his joy; for he did not love Councillor Cotterill. He had never been able to forgive Nellie's father for those patronising airs years and years before at Llandudno, airs indeed which had not even yet disappeared from Cotterill's attitude towards Denry. Though they were Councillors on the same Town Council, though Denry was getting richer and Cotterill was assuredly not getting richer, the latter's face and tone always seemed to be saying to Denry: "Well, you are not doing so badly for a beginner." So Denry did not care to lose an opportunity of impressing Councillor Cotterill. Moreover, Denry had other reasons for going up to the Cotterills. There existed a sympathetic bond between him and Mrs Cotterill, despite her prim taciturnity and her exasperating habit of sitting with her hands pressed tight against her body and one over the other. Occasionally he teased her--and she liked being teased. He had glimpses now and then of her secret soul; he was perhaps the only person in Bursley thus privileged. Then there was Nellie. Denry and Nellie were great friends. For the rest of the world she had grown up, but not for Denry, who treated her as the chocolate child; while she, if she called him anything, called him respectfully "Mr."
The Cotterills had a fairly large old house with a good garden "up Bycars Lane," above the new park and above all those red streets which Mr Cotterill had helped to bring into being. Mr Cotterill built new houses with terra-cotta facings for others, but preferred an old one in stucco for himself. His abode had been saved from the parcelling out of several Georgian estates. It was dignified. It had a double entrance gate, and from this portal the drive started off for the house door, but deliberately avoided reaching the house door until it had wandered in curves over the entire garden. That was the Georgian touch! The modern touch was shown in Councillor Cotterill's bay windows, bath-room and garden squirter. There was stabling, in which were kept a Victorian dogcart and a Georgian horse, used by the Councillor in his business. As sure as ever his wife or daughter wanted the dogcart, it was either out or just going out, or the Georgian horse was fatigued and needed repose. The man who groomed the Georgian also ploughed the flowerbeds, broke the windows in cleaning them, and put blacking on brown boots. Two indoor servants had differing views as to the frontier between the kingdom of his duties and the kingdom of theirs, in fact, it was the usual spacious household of successful trade in a provincial town.
Denry got to Bycars Lane without a breakdown. This was in the days, quite thirteen years ago, when automobilists made their wills and took food supplies when setting forth. Hence Denry was pleased. The small but useful fund of prudence in him, however, forbade him to run the car along the unending sinuous drive. The May night was fine, and he left the loved vehicle with his new furs in the shadow of a monkey-tree near the gate.
As he was crunching towards the door, he had a beautiful idea: "I'll take 'em all out for a spin. There'll just be room!" he said.
Now even to-day, when the very cabman drives his automobile, a man who buys a motor cannot say to a friend: "I've bought a motor. Come for a spin," in the same self-unconscious accents as he would say: "I've bought a boat. Come for a sail," or "I've bought a house. Come and look at it." Even to-day and in the centre of London there is still something about a motor--well something.... Everybody who has bought a motor, and everybody who has dreamed of buying a motor, will comprehend me. Useless to feign that a motor is the most banal thing imaginable. It is not. It remains the supreme symbol of swagger. If such is the effect of a motor in these days and in Berkeley Square, what must it have been in that dim past, and in that dim town three hours by the fastest express from Euston? The imagination must be forced to the task of answering this question. Then will it be understood that Denry was simply tingling with pride.
"Master in?" he demanded of the servant, who was correctly starched, but unkempt in detail.
"No, sir. He ain't been in for tea."
("I shall take the women out then," said Denry to himself.)
"Come in! Come in!" cried a voice from the other side of the open door of the drawing-room, Nellie's voice! The manners and state of a family that has industrially risen combine the spectacular grandeur of the caste to which it has climbed with the ease and freedom of the caste which it has quitted.
"Such a surprise!" said the voice. Nellie appeared, rosy.
Denry threw his new motoring cap hastily on to the hall-stand. No! He did not hope that Nellie would see it. He hoped that she would not see it. Now that the moment was really come to declare himself the owner of a motor-car, he grew timid and nervous. He would have liked to hide his hat. But then Denry was quite different from our common humanity. He was capable even of feeling awkward in a new suit of clothes. A singular person.
"Hello!" she greeted him.
"Hello!" he greeted her.
Their hands touched.
"Father hasn't come yet," she added. He fancied she was not quite at ease.
"Well," he said, "what's this surprise."
She motioned him into the drawing-room.
The surprise was a wonderful woman, brilliant in black--not black silk, but a softer, delicate stuff. She reclined in an easy-chair with surpassing grace and self-possession. A black Egyptian shawl, spangled with silver, was slipping off her shoulders. Her hair was dressed--that is to say, it was dressed; it was obviously and thrillingly a work of elaborate art. He could see her two feet and one of her ankles. The boots, the open-work stocking--such boots, such an open-work stocking, had never been seen in Bursley, not even at a ball! She was in mourning, and wore scarcely any jewellery, but there was a gleaming tint of gold here and there among the black, which resulted in a marvellous effect of richness.
The least experienced would have said, and said rightly: "This must be a woman of wealth and fashion." It was the detail that finished the demonstration. The detail was incredible. There might have been ten million stitches in the dress. Ten sempstresses might have worked on the dress for ten years. An examination of it under a microscope could but have deepened one's amazement at it.
She was something new in the Five Towns, something quite new.
Denry was not equal to the situation. He seldom was equal to a small situation. And although he had latterly acquired a considerable amount of social savoir, he was constantly mislaying it, so that he could not put his hand on it at the moment when he most required it, as now.
"Well, Denry!" said the wondrous creature in black, softly.
And he collected himself as though for a plunge, and said:
This was the woman whom he had once loved, kissed, and engaged himself to marry. He was relieved that she had begun with Christian names, because he could not recall her surname. He could not even remember whether he had ever heard it. All he knew was that, after leaving Bursley to join her father in Birmingham, she had married somebody with a double name, somebody well off, somebody older than herself; somebody apparently of high social standing; and that this somebody had died.
She made no fuss. There was no implication in her demeanour that she expected to be wept over as a lone widow, or that because she and he had on a time been betrothed, therefore they could never speak naturally to each other again. She just talked as if nothing had ever happened to her, and as if about twenty-four hours had elapsed since she had last seen him. He felt that she must have picked up this most useful diplomatic calmness in her contacts with her late husband's class. It was a valuable lesson to him: "Always behave as if nothing had happened --no matter what has happened."
To himself he was saying:
"I'm glad I came up in my motor."
He seemed to need something in self-defence against the sudden attack of all this wealth and all this superior social tact, and the motor-car served excellently.
"I've been hearing a great deal about you lately," said she with a soft smile, unobtrusively rearranging a fold of her skirt.
"Well," he replied, "I'm sorry I can't say the same of you."
Slightly perilous perhaps, but still he thought it rather neat.
"Oh!" she said. "You see I've been so much out of England. We were just talking about holidays. I was saying to Mrs Cotterill they certainly ought to go to Switzerland this year for a change."
"Yes, Mrs Capron-Smith was just saying--" Mrs Cotterill put in.
(So that was her name.)
"It would be something too lovely!" said Nellie in ecstasy.
Switzerland! Astonishing how with a single word she had marked the gulf between Bursley people and herself. The Cotterills had never been out of England. Not merely that, but the Cotterills had never dreamt of going out of England. Denry had once been to Dieppe, and had come back as though from Timbuctoo with a traveller's renown. And she talked of Switzerland easily!
"I suppose it is very jolly," he said.
"Yes," she said, "it's splendid in summer. But, of course, the time is winter, for the sports. Naturally, when you aren't free to take a bit of a holiday in winter, you must be content with summer, and very splendid it is. I'm sure you'd enjoy it frightfully, Nell."
"I'm sure I should--frightfully!" Nellie agreed. "I shall speak to father. I shall make him--"
"Now, Nellie--" her mother warned her.
"Yes, I shall, mother," Nellie insisted.
"There is your father!" observed Mrs Cotterill, after listening.
Footsteps crossed the hall, and died away into the dining-room.
"I wonder why on earth father doesn't come in here. He must have heard us talking," said Nellie, like a tyrant crossed in some trifle.
A bell rang, and then the servant came into the drawing-room and remarked: "If you please, mum," at Mrs Cotterill, and Mrs Cotterill disappeared, closing the door after her.
"What are they up to, between them?" Nellie demanded, and she, too, departed, with wrinkled brow, leaving Denry and Ruth together. It could be perceived on Nellie's brow that her father was going "to catch it."
"I haven't seen Mr Cotterill yet," said Mrs Capron-Smith.
"When did you come?" Denry asked.
"Only this afternoon."
She continued to talk.
As he looked at her, listening and responding intelligently now and then, he saw that Mrs Capron-Smith was in truth the woman that Ruth had so cleverly imitated ten years before. The imitation had deceived him then; he had accepted it for genuine. It would not have deceived him now--he knew that. Oh yes! This was the real article that could hold its own anywhere.... Switzerland! And not simply Switzerland, but a refinement on Switzerland! Switzerland in winter! He divined that in her opinion Switzerland in summer was not worth doing--in the way of correctness. But in winter...
Nellie had announced a surprise for Denry as he entered the house, but Nellie's surprise for Denry, startling and successful though it proved, was as naught to the surprise which Mr Cotterill had in hand for Nellie, her mother, Denry, the town of Bursley, and various persons up and down the country.
Mrs Cotterill came hysterically in upon the duologue between Denry and Ruth in the drawing-room. From the activity of her hands, which, instead of being decently folded one over the other, were waving round her head in the strangest way, it was clear that Mrs Cotterill was indeed under the stress of a very unusual emotion.
"It's those creditors--at last! I knew it would be! It's all those creditors! They won't let him alone, and now they've done it."
So Mrs Cotterill! She dropped into a chair. She had no longer any sense of shame, of what was due to her dignity. She seemed to have forgotten that certain matters are not proper to be discussed in drawing-rooms. She had left the room Mrs Councillor Cotterill; she returned to it nobody in particular, the personification of defeat. The change had operated in five minutes.
Mrs Capron-Smith and Denry glanced at each other, and even Mrs Capron-Smith was at a loss for a moment. Then Ruth approached Mrs Cotterill and took her hand. Perhaps Mrs Capron-Smith was not so astonished after all. She and Nellie's mother had always been "very friendly." And in the Five Towns "very friendly" means a lot.
"Perhaps if you were to leave us," Ruth suggested, twisting her head to glance at Denry.
It was exactly what he desired to do. There could be no doubt that Ruth was supremely a woman of the world. Her tact was faultless.
He left them, saying to himself: "Well, here's a go!"
In the hall, through an open door, he saw Councillor Cotterill standing against the dining-room mantelpiece.
When Cotterill caught sight of Denry he straightened himself into a certain uneasy perkiness.
"Young man," he said in a counterfeit of his old patronising tone, "come in here. You may as well hear about it. You're a friend of ours. Come in and shut the door."
Nellie was not in view.
Denry went in and shut the door.
"Sit down," said Cotterill.
And it was just as if he had said: "Now, you're a fairly bright sort of youth, and you haven't done so badly in life; and as a reward I mean to admit you to the privilege of hearing about our ill-luck, which for some mysterious reason reflects more credit on me than your good luck reflects on you, young man."
And he stroked his straggling grey beard.
"I'm going to file my petition to-morrow," said he, and gave a short laugh.
"Really!" said Denry, who could think of nothing else to say. His name was not Capron-Smith.
"Yes; they won't leave me any alternative," said Mr Cotterill.
Then he gave a brief history of his late commercial career to the young man. And he seemed to figure it as a sort of tug-of-war between his creditors and his debtors, he himself being the rope. He seemed to imply that he had always done his sincere best to attain the greatest good of the greatest number, but that those wrong-headed creditors had consistently thwarted him.
However, he bore them no grudge. It was the fortune of the tug-of-war. He pretended, with shabby magnificence of spirit, that a bankruptcy at the age of near sixty, in a community where one has cut a figure, is a mere passing episode.
"Are you surprised?" he asked foolishly, with a sheepish smile.
Denry took vengeance for all the patronage that he had received during a decade.
"No!" he said. "Are you?"
Instead of kicking Denry out of the house for an impudent young jackanapes, Mr Cotterill simply resumed his sheepish smile.
Denry had been surprised for a moment, but he had quickly recovered. Cotterill's downfall was one of those events which any person of acute intelligence can foretell after they have happened. Cotterill had run the risks of the speculative builder, built and mortgaged, built and mortgaged, sold at a profit, sold without profit, sold at a loss, and failed to sell; given bills, second mortgages, and third mortgages; and because he was a builder and could do nothing but build, he had continued to build in defiance of Bursley's lack of enthusiasm for his erections. If rich gold deposits had been discovered in Bursley Municipal Park, Cotterill would have owned a mining camp and amassed immense wealth; but unfortunately gold deposits were not discovered in the Park. Nobody knew his position; nobody ever does know the position of a speculative builder. He did not know it himself. There had been rumours, but they had been contradicted in an adequate way. His recent refusal of the mayoral chain, due to lack of spare coin, had been attributed to prudence. His domestic existence had always been conducted on the same moderately lavish scale. He had always paid the baker, the butcher, the tailor, the dressmaker.
And now he was to file his petition in bankruptcy, and to-morrow the entire town would have "been seeing it coming" for years.
"What shall you do?" Denry inquired in amicable curiosity.
"Well," said Cotterill, "that's the point. I've got a brother a builder in Toronto, you know. He's doing very well; building is building over there. I wrote to him a bit since, and he replied by the next mail --by the next mail--that what he wanted was just a man like me to overlook things. He's getting an old man now, is John. So, you see, there's an opening waiting for me."
As if to say, "The righteous are never forsaken."
"I tell you all this as you're a friend of the family like," he added.
Then, after an expanse of vagueness, he began hopefully, cheerfully, undauntedly:
"Even now if I could get hold of a couple of thousand I could pull through handsome--and there's plenty of security for it."
"Bit late now, isn't it?"
"Not it. If only some one who really knows the town, and has faith in the property market, would come down with a couple of thousand--well, he might double it in five years."
"Yes," said Cotterill. "Look at Clare Street."
Clare Street was one of his terra-cotta masterpieces.
"You, now," said Cotterill, insinuating. "I don't expect anyone can teach you much about the value o' property in this town. You know as well as I do. If you happened to have a couple of thousand loose--by gosh! it's a chance in a million."
"Yes," said Denry. "I should say that was just about what it was."
"I put it before you," Cotterill proceeded, gathering way, and missing the flavour of Denry's remark. "Because you're a friend of the family. You're so often here. Why, it's pretty near ten years...."
Denry sighed: "I expect I come and see you all about once a fortnight fairly regular. That makes two hundred and fifty times in ten years. Yes...."
"A couple of thou'," said Cotterill, reflectively.
"Two hundred and fifty into two thousand--eight. Eight pounds a visit. A shade thick, Cotterill, a shade thick. You might be half a dozen fashionable physicians rolled into one."
Never before had he called the Councillor "Cotterill" unadorned. Me Cotterill flushed and rose.
Denry does not appear to advantage in this interview. He failed in magnanimity. The only excuse that can be offered for him is that Mr Cotterill had called him "young man" once or twice too often in the course of ten years. It is subtle.
"No," whispered Ruth, in all her wraps. "Don't bring it up to the door. I'll walk down with you to the gate, and get in there."
They were off, together. Ruth, it had appeared, was actually staying at the Five Towns Hotel at Knype, which at that epoch was the only hotel in the Five Towns seriously pretending to be "first-class" in the full-page advertisement sense. The fact that Ruth was staying at the Five Towns Hotel impressed Denry anew. Assuredly she did things in the grand manner. She had meant to walk down by the Park to Bursley Station and catch the last loop-line train to Knype, and when Denry suddenly disclosed the existence of his motor-car, and proposed to see her to her hotel in it, she in her turn had been impressed. The astonishment in her tone as she exclaimed: "Have you got a motor?" was the least in the world naïve.
Thus they departed together from the stricken house, Ruth saying brightly to Nellie, who had reappeared in a painful state of demoralisation, that she should return on the morrow.
And Denry went down the obscure drive with a final vision of the poor child, Nellie, as she stood at the door to speed them. It was extraordinary how that child had remained a child. He knew that she must be more than half-way through her twenties, and yet she persisted in being the merest girl. A delightful little thing; but no savoir vivre, no equality to a situation, no spectacular pride. Just a nice, bright girl, strangely girlish.... The Cotterills had managed that bad evening badly. They had shown no dignity, no reserve, no discretion; and old Cotterill had been simply fatuous in his suggestion. As for Mrs Cotterill, she was completely overcome, and it was due solely to Ruth's calm, managing influence that Nellie, nervous and whimpering, had wound herself up to come and shut the front door after the guests.
It was all very sad.
When he had successfully started the car, and they were sliding down the Moorthorne hill together, side by side, their shoulders touching, Denry threw off the nightmarish effect of the bankrupt household. After all, there was no reason why he should be depressed. He was not a bankrupt. He was steadily adding riches to riches. He acquired wealth mechanically now. Owing to the habits of his mother, he never came within miles of living up to his income. And Ruth--she, too, was wealthy. He felt that she must be wealthy in the strict significance of the term. And she completed wealth by experience of the world. She was his equal. She understood things in general. She had lived, travelled, suffered, reflected--in short, she was a completed article of manufacture. She was no little, clinging, raw girl. Further, she was less hard than of yore. Her voice and gestures had a different quality. The world had softened her. And it occurred to him suddenly that her sole fault--extravagance-- had no importance now that she was wealthy.
He told her all that Mr Cotterill had said about Canada. And she told him all that Mrs Cotterill had said about Canada. And they agreed that Mr Cotterill had got his deserts, and that, in its own interest, Canada was the only thing for the Cotterill family; and the sooner the better. People must accept the consequences of bankruptcy. Nothing could be done.
"I think it's a pity Nellie should have to go," said Denry.
"Oh! Do you?" replied Ruth.
"Yes; going out to a strange country like that. She's not what you may call the Canadian kind of girl. If she could only get something to do here. ...If something could be found for her."
"Oh, I don't agree with you at all," said Ruth. "Do you really think she ought to leave her parents just now? Her place is with her parents. And besides, between you and me, she'll have a much better chance of marrying there than in this town--after all this. Of course I shall be very sorry to lose her--and Mrs Cotterill, too. But...."
"I expect you're right," Denry concurred.
And they sped on luxuriously through the lamp-lit night of the Five Towns. And Denry pointed out his house as they passed it. And they both thought much of the security of their positions in the world, and of their incomes, and of the honeyed deference of their bankers; and also of the mistake of being a failure.... You could do nothing with a failure.
On a frosty morning in early winter you might have seen them together in a different vehicle--a first-class compartment of the express from Knype to Liverpool. They had the compartment to themselves, and they were installed therein with every circumstance of luxury. Both were enwrapped in furs, and a fur rug united their knees in its shelter. Magazines and newspapers were scattered about to the value of a labourer's hire for a whole day; and when Denry's eye met the guard's it said "shilling." In short, nobody could possibly be more superb than they were on that morning in that compartment.
The journey was the result of peculiar events.
Mr Cotterill had made himself a bankrupt, and cast away the robe of a Town Councillor. He had submitted to the inquisitiveness of the Official Receiver, and to the harsh prying of those rampant baying beasts, his creditors. He had laid bare his books, his correspondence, his lack of method, his domestic extravagance, and the distressing fact that he had continued to trade long after he knew himself to be insolvent. He had for several months, in the interests of the said beasts, carried on his own business as manager at a nominal salary. And gradually everything that was his had been sold. And during the final weeks the Cotterill family had been obliged to quit their dismantled house and exist in lodgings. It had been arranged that they should go to Canada by way of Liverpool, and on the day before the journey of Denry and Ruth to Liverpool they had departed from the borough of Bursley (which Mr Cotterill had so extensively faced with terra-cotta) unhonoured and unsung. Even Denry, though he had visited them in their lodgings to say good-bye, had not seen them off at the station; but Ruth Capron-Smith had seen them off at the station. She had interrupted a sojourn to Southport in order to come to Bursley, and despatch them therefrom with due friendliness. Certain matters had to be attended to after their departure, and Ruth had promised to attend to them.
Now immediately after seeing them off Ruth had met Denry in the street.
"Do you know," she said brusquely, "those people are actually going steerage? I'd no idea of it. Mr and Mrs Cotterill kept it from me, and I should not have heard of it only from something Nellie said. That's why they've gone to-day. The boat doesn't sail till to-morrow afternoon."
"Steerage?" and Denry whistled.
"Yes," said Ruth. "Nothing but pride, of course. Old Cotterill wanted to have every penny he could scrape, so as to be able to make the least tiny bit of a show when he gets to Toronto, and so--steerage! Just think of Mrs Cotterill and Nellie in the steerage. If I'd known of it I should have altered that, I can tell you, and pretty quickly too; and now it's too late."
"No, it isn't," Denry contradicted her flatly.
"But they've gone."
"I could telegraph to Liverpool for saloon berths--there's bound to be plenty at this time of year--and I could run over to Liverpool to-morrow and catch 'em on the boat, and make 'em change."
She asked him whether he really thought he could, and he assured her.
"Second-cabin berths would be better," said she.
"Well, because of dressing for dinner, and so on. They haven't got the clothes, you know."
"Of course," said Denry.
"Listen," she said, with an enchanting smile. "Let's halve the cost, you and I. And let's go to Liverpool together, and--er--make the little gift, and arrange things. I'm leaving for Southport to-morrow, and Liverpool's on my way."
Denry was delighted by the suggestion, and telegraphed to Liverpool with success.
Thus they found themselves on that morning in the Liverpool express together. The work of benevolence in which they were engaged had a powerful influence on their mood, which grew both intimate and tender. Ruth made no concealment of her regard for Denry; and as he gazed across the compartment at her, exquisitely mature (she was slightly older than himself), dressed to a marvel, perfect in every detail of manner, knowing all that was to be known about life, and secure in a handsome fortune--as he gazed, Denry reflected, joyously, victoriously:
"I've got the dibs, of course. But she's got 'em too--perhaps more. Therefore she must like me for myself alone. This brilliant creature has been everywhere and seen everything, and she comes back to the Five Towns and comes back to me."
It was his proudest moment. And in it he saw his future far more glorious than he had dreamt.
"When shall you be out of mourning?" he inquired.
"In two months," said she.
This was not a proposal and acceptance, but it was very nearly one. They were silent, and happy.
Then she said:
"Do you ever have business at Southport?"
And he said, in a unique manner:
"I shall have."
Another silence. This time he felt he would marry her.
The White Star liner, Titubic, stuck out of the water like a row of houses against the landing-stage. There was a large crowd on her promenade-deck, and a still larger crowd on the landing-stage. Above the promenade-deck officers paced on the navigating deck, and above that was the airy bridge, and above that the funnels, smoking, and somewhere still higher a flag or two fluttering in the icy breeze. And behind the crowd on the landing-stage stretched a row of four-wheeled cabs and rickety horses. The landing-stage swayed ever so slightly on the tide. Only the ship was apparently solid, apparently cemented in foundations of concrete.
On the starboard side of the promenade-deck, among a hundred other small groups, was a group consisting of Mr and Mrs Cotterill and Ruth and Denry. Nellie stood a few feet apart, Mrs Cotterill was crying. People naturally thought she was crying because of the adieux; but she was not. She wept because Denry and Ruth, by sheer force of will, had compelled them to come out of the steerage and occupy beautiful and commodious berths in the second cabin, where the manner of the stewards was quite different. She wept because they had been caught in the steerage. She wept because she was ashamed, and because people were too kind. She was at once delighted and desolated. She wanted to outpour psalms of gratitude, and also she wanted to curse.
Mr Cotterill said stiffly that he should repay--and that soon.
An immense bell sounded impatiently.
"We'd better be shunting," said Denry. "That's the second."
In exciting crises he sometimes employed such peculiar language as this. And he was very excited. He had done a great deal of rushing about. The upraising of the Cotterill family from the social Hades of the steerage to the respectability of the second cabin had demanded all his energy, and a lot of Ruth's.
Ruth kissed Mrs Cotterill and then Nellie. And Mrs Cotterill and Nellie acquired rank and importance for the whole voyage by reason of being kissed in public by a woman so elegant and aristocratic as Ruth Capron-Smith.
And Denry shook hands. He looked brightly at the parents, but he could not look at Nellie; nor could she look at him; their handshaking was perfunctory. For months their playful intimacy had been in abeyance.
The horrible bell continued to insist.
"All non-passengers ashore! All ashore!"
The numerous gangways were thronged with people obeying the call, and handkerchiefs began to wave. And there was a regular vibrating tremor through the ship.
Mr and Mrs Cotterill turned away.
Ruth and Denry approached the nearest gangway, and Denry stood aside, and made a place for her to pass. And, as always, a number of women pushed into the gangways immediately after her, and Denry had to wait, being a perfect gentleman.
His eye caught Nellie's. She had not moved.
He felt then as he had never felt in his life. No, absolutely never. Her sad, her tragic glance rendered him so uncomfortable, and yet so deliciously uncomfortable, that the symptoms startled him. He wondered what would happen to his legs. He was not sure that he had legs.
However, he demonstrated the existence of his legs by running up to Nellie. Ruth was by this time swallowed in the crowd on the landing-stage. He looked at Nellie. Nellie looked at him. Her lips twitched.
"What am I doing here?" he asked of his soul.
She was not at all well dressed. She was indeed shabby--in a steerage style. Her hat was awry; her gloves miserable. No girlish pride in her distraught face. No determination to overcome Fate. No consciousness of ability to meet a bad situation. Just those sad eyes and those twitching lips.
"Look here," Denry whispered, "you must come ashore for a second. I've something I want to give you, and I've left it in the cab."
"But there's no time. The bell's..."
"Bosh!" he exclaimed gruffly, extinguishing her timid, childish voice. "You won't go for at least a quarter of an hour. All that's only a dodge to get people off in plenty of time. Come on, I tell you."
And in a sort of hysteria he seized her thin, long hand and dragged her along the deck to another gangway, down whose steep slope they stumbled together. The crowd of sightseers and handkerchief-wavers jostled them. They could see nothing but heads and shoulders, and the great side of the ship rising above. Denry turned her back on the ship.
"This way." He still held her hand.
He struggled to the cab-rank.
"Which one is it?" she asked.
"Any one. Never mind which. Jump in." And to the first driver whose eye met his, he said: "Lime Street Station."
The gangways were being drawn away. A hoarse boom filled the air, and then a cheer.
"But I shall miss the boat," the dazed girl protested.
He pushed her in.
"But I shall miss the..."
"I know you will," he replied, as if angrily. "Do you suppose I was going to let you go by that steamer? Not much."
"But mother and father..."
"I'll telegraph. They'll get it on landing."
"And where's Ruth?"
"Be hanged to Ruth!" he shouted furiously.
As the cab rattled over the cobbles the Titubic slipped away from the landing-stage. The irretrievable had happened.
Nellie burst into tears.
"Look here," Denry said savagely. "If you don't dry up, I shall have to cry myself."
"What are you going to do with me?" she whimpered.
"Well, what do you think? I'm going to marry you, of course."
His aggrieved tone might have been supposed to imply that people had tried to thwart him, but that he had no intention of being thwarted, nor of asking permissions, nor of conducting himself as anything but a fierce tyrant.
As for Nellie, she seemed to surrender.
Then he kissed her--also angrily. He kissed her several times--yes, even in Lord Street itself--less and less angrily.
"Where are you taking me to?" she inquired humbly, as a captive.
"I shall take you to my mother's," he said.
"Will she like it?"
"She'll either like it or lump it," said Denry. "It'll take a fortnight."
"The notice, and things."
In the train, in the midst of a great submissive silence, she murmured:
"It'll be simply awful for father and mother."
"That can't be helped," said he. "And they'll be far too sea-sick to bother their heads about you."
"You can't think how you've staggered me," said she.
"You can't think how I've staggered myself," said he.
"When did you decide to..."
"When I was standing at the gangway, and you looked at me," he answered.
"It's no use butting," he said. "I'm like that.... That's me, that is."
It was the bare truth that he had staggered himself. But he had staggered himself into a miraculous, ecstatic happiness. She had no money, no clothes, no style, no experience, no particular gifts. But she was she. And when he looked at her, calmed, he knew that he had done well for himself. He knew that if he had not yielded to that terrific impulse he would have done badly for himself. Mrs Machin had what she called a ticklish night of it.
The next day he received a note from Ruth, dated Southport, inquiring how he came to lose her on the landing-stage, and expressing concern. It took him three days to reply, and even then the reply was a bad one. He had behaved infamously to Ruth; so much could not be denied. Within three hours of practically proposing to her, he had run off with a simple girl, who was not fit to hold a candle to her. And he did not care. That was the worst of it; he did not care.
Of course the facts reached her. The facts reached everybody; for the singular reappearance of Nellie in the streets of Bursley immediately after her departure for Canada had to be explained. Moreover, the infamous Denry was rather proud of the facts. And the town inevitably said: "Machin all over, that! Snatching the girl off the blooming lugger. Machin all over." And Denry agreed privately that it was Machin all over.
"What other chap," he demanded of the air, "would have thought of it? Or had the pluck?..."
It was mere malice on the part of destiny that caused Denry to run across Mrs Capron-Smith at Euston some weeks later. Happily they both had immense nerve.
"Dear me," said she. "What are you doing here?"
"Only honeymooning," he said.