Part 2 out of 7
And he took it out, holding his head back as he marched, so that the
smoke of the cigarette between his lips should not obscure his eyes.
Rachel followed with some oddments. Behold those two away together in
the seclusion of the kitchen; and Mrs. Maldon and Julian alone in the
"Very fine!" muttered Julian, fingering the magnificent case of pipes.
Now that there were fewer spectators, his tongue was looser, and he
"I'm so glad you like it," Mrs. Maldon responded eagerly.
The world was brighter to her, and she accepted Julian's amiability as
Heaven's reward for her renewal of courage.
"Auntie-" began Louis, with a certain formality.
Mrs. Maldon had turned her chair a little towards the fire. The two
visitants to the kitchen had reappeared. Rachel with a sickle-shaped
tool was sedulously brushing the crumbs from the damask into a silver
tray. Louis had taken the poker to mend the fire.
He said, nonchalantly--
"If you'd care for me to stay the night here instead of Julian, I
"Well--" Mrs. Maldon was unprepared for this apparently quite natural
and kindly suggestion. It perturbed, even frightened her by its
implications. Had it been planned in the kitchen between those two?
She wanted to accept it; and yet another instinct in her prompted her
to decline it absolutely and at once. She saw Rachel flushing as the
girl industriously continued her task without looking up. To Mrs.
Maldon it seemed that those two, under the impulsion of Fate, were
rushing towards each other at a speed far greater than she had
Julian stirred on his chair, under the sharp irritation caused
by Louis' proposal. He despised Louis as a boy of no ambition--a
butterfly being who had got no farther than the adolescent
will-to-live, the desire for self-indulgence, whereas he, Julian, was
profoundly conscious of the will-to-dominate, the hunger for influence
and power. And also he was jealous of Louis on various counts.
Louis had come to the Five Towns years after Julian, and had almost
immediately cut a figure therein; Julian had never cut a figure.
Julian had been the sole resident great-nephew of a benevolent aunt,
and Louis had arrived and usurped at least half the advantages of the
relationship, if not more; Louis lived several miles nearer to his
aunt. Julian it was who, through his acquaintance with Rachel's father
and her masterful sinister brother, had brought her into touch with
Mrs. Maldon. Rachel was Julian's creation, so far as his aunt was
concerned. Julian had no dislike for Rachel; he had even been thinking
of her favourably. But Louis had, as it were, appropriated her ...
From the steely conning-tower of his brows Julian had caught their
private glances at the table. And Louis was now carrying trays for
her, and hobnobbing with her in the kitchen! Lastly, because Julian
could not pass the night in the house, Louis, the interloper, had the
effrontery to offer to fill his place--on some preposterous excuse
about burglars! And the fellow was so polite and so persuasive, with
his finicking eloquence. By virtue of a strange faculty not uncommon
in human nature Julian loathed Louis' good manners and appearance--and
acutely envied them.
He burst out with scarcely controlled savagery--
"A lot of good you'd be with burglars!"
The women were outraged by his really shocking rudeness. Rachel bit
her lip and began to fold up the cloth. Mrs. Maldon's head slightly
trembled. Louis alone maintained a perfect equanimity. It was as if he
"You never know!" he smiled amiably, and shrugged his shoulders. Then
he finished his operation on the fire.
"I'm sure it's very kind and thoughtful of you, Louis," said Mrs.
Maldon, driven to acceptance by Julian's monstrous behaviour.
"Moreover," Louis urbanely continued, smoothing down his trousers
with a long perpendicular caress as he usually did after any
bending--"moreover, there's always my revolver."
He gave a short laugh.
"Revolver!" exclaimed Mrs. Maldon, intimidated by the mere name. Then
she smiled, in an effort to reassure herself. "Louis, you are a tease.
You really shouldn't tease me."
"I'm not," said Louis, with that careful air of false blank
casualness which he would invariably employ for his more breath-taking
announcements. "I always carry a loaded revolver."
The fearful word "loaded" sank into the heart of the old woman, and
thrilled her. It was a fact that for some weeks past Louis had been
carrying a revolver. At intervals the craze for firearms seizes the
fashionable youth of a provincial town, like the craze for marbles
at school, and then dies away. In the present instance it had been
originated by the misadventure of a dandy with an out-of-work artisan
on the fringe of Hanbridge. Nothing could be more correct than for
a man of spirit and fashion thus to arm himself in order to cow the
lower orders and so cope with the threatened social revolution.
"You _don't_, Louis!" Mrs. Maldon deprecated.
"I'll show you," said Louis, feeling in his hip pocket.
"_Please_!" protested Mrs. Maldon, and Rachel covered her face
with her hands and drew back from Louis' sinister gesture. "Please
don't _show_ it to us!" Mrs. Maiden's tone was one of imploring
entreaty. For an instant she was just like a sentimentalist who
resents and is afraid of hearing the truth. She obscurely thought that
if she resolutely refused to see the revolver it would somehow cease
to exist. With a loaded revolver in the house the situation seemed
more dangerous and more complicated than ever. There was something
absolutely terrifying in the conjuncture of a loaded revolver and a
secret hoard of bank-notes.
"All right! All right!" Louis relented.
Julian cut across the scene with a gruff and final--
"I must clear out of this!"
"Must you?" said his aunt.
She did not unduly urge him to delay, for the strain of family life
was exhausting her.
"I must catch the 9.48," said Julian, looking at the clock and at his
Herein was yet another example of the morbid reticence which so pained
Mrs. Maldon. He must have long before determined to catch the 9.48;
yet he had said nothing about it till the last moment! He had said
nothing even about South Africa until the news was forced from him. It
had been arranged that he should come direct to Bursley station from
his commercial journey in Yorkshire and Derbyshire, pass the night at
his aunt's house, which was conveniently near the station, and proceed
refreshed to business on the morrow. A neat arrangement, well suiting
the fact of his birthday! And now he had broken it in silence, without
a warning, with the baldest possible explanation! His aunt, despite
her real interest in him, could never extract from him a clear account
of his doings and his movements. And this South African excursion was
the last and worst illustration of his wilful cruel harshness to her.
Nevertheless, the extreme and unimaginable remoteness of South Africa
seemed to demand a special high formality in bidding him adieu, and
she rendered it. If he would not permit her to superintend his packing
(he had never even let her come to his rooms!), she could at least
superintend the putting on of his overcoat. And she did. And instead
of quitting him as usual at the door of the parlour, she insisted on
going to the front door and opening it herself. She was on her mettle.
She was majestic and magnificent. By refusing to see his ill-breeding
she actually did terminate its existence. She stood at the open front
door with the three young ones about her, and by the force of her
ideal the front door became the portal of an embassy and Julian's
departure a ceremony of state. He had to shake hands all round. She
raised her cheek, and he had to kiss. She said, "God bless you!" and
he had to say, "Thank you."
As he was descending the outer steps, the pipe-case clipped under his
arm, Louis threw at him--
"I say, old man!"
"What?" He turned round with sharp defiance beneath the light of the
"How are you going to get to London to-morrow morning in time for the
boat-train at Waterloo, if you're staying at Knype to-night."
Louis travelled little, but it was his foible to be learned in
boat-trains and "connections."
"A friend o' mine's motoring me to Stafford at five to-morrow morning,
if you want to know. I shall catch the Scotch express. Anything else?"
"Oh!" muttered Louis, checked.
Julian clanked the gate and vanished up the street, Mrs. Maldon
"What friend? What motor?" reflected Mrs. Maldon sadly. "He is
incorrigible with his secretiveness."
"Mrs. Maldon," said Rachel anxiously, "you look pale. Is it being in
this draught?" She shut the door.
Mrs. Maldon sighed and moved away. She hesitated at the parlour door
and then said--
"I must go upstairs a moment."
IN THE NIGHT
Louis stood hesitant and slightly impatient in the parlour, alone. A
dark blue cloth now covered the table, and in the centre of it was
a large copper jar containing an evergreen plant. Of the feast no
material trace remained except a few crumbs on the floor. But the room
was still pervaded by the emotional effluence of the perturbed souls
who had just gone; and Louis felt it, though without understanding.
Throughout the evening he had of course been preoccupied by the
consciousness of having in his pocket bank-notes to a value unknown.
Several times he had sought for a suitable opportunity to disclose his
exciting secret. But he had found none. In practice he could not say
to his aunt, before Julian and Rachel: "Auntie, I picked up a lot of
bank-notes on the landing. You really ought to be more careful!" He
could not even in any way refer to them. The dignity of Mrs. Maldon
had intimidated him. He had decided, after Julian's announcement
of departure, that he would hand them over to her, simply and
undramatically and with no triumphant air, as soon as he and she
should for a moment be alone together. Then Mrs. Maldon vanished
upstairs. And she had not returned. Rachel also had vanished. And he
He desired to examine the notes, to let his eyes luxuriously rest upon
them, but he dared not take them from his pocket lest one or other of
the silent-footed women might surprise him by a sudden entrance. He
fingered them as they lay in their covert, and the mere feel of them,
raised exquisite images in his mind; and at the same time the whole
room and every object in the room was transformed into a secret
witness which spied upon him, disquieted him, and warned him. But
the fact that the notes were intact, that nothing irremediable had
occurred, reassured him and gave him strength, so that he could defy
the suspicions of those senseless surrounding objects.
Within the room there was no sound but the faint regular hiss of the
gas and an occasional falling together of coal in the weakening fire.
Overhead, from his aunt's bedroom, vague movements were perceptible.
Then these ceased, absolutely. The tension, increasing, grew too much
for him, and with a curt gesture, and a self-conscious expression
between a smile and a frown, he left the parlour and stood to listen
in the lobby. Not for several seconds did he notice the heavy ticking
of the clock, close to his ear, nor the chill draught that came under
the front door. He gazed up into the obscurity at the top of the
stairs. The red glow of the kitchen fire, in the distance to the right
of the stairs, caught his attention at intervals. He was obsessed,
almost overpowered, by the mysteriousness of the first floor. What had
happened? What was happening? And suddenly an explanation swept into
his brain--the obvious explanation. His aunt had missed the bank-notes
and was probably at that very instant working herself into an anguish.
What ought he to do? Should he run up and knock at her door? He was
spared a decision by the semi-miraculous appearance of Rachel at the
top of the stairs. She started.
"Oh! How you frightened me!" she exclaimed in a low voice.
He answered weakly, charmingly--
"Will you please come and speak to Mrs. Maldon? She wants you."
"In her room?"
Rachel nodded and disappeared before he could ask another question.
With heart beating he ascended the stairs by twos. Through the
half-open door of the faintly lit room which he himself would occupy
he could hear Rachel active. And then he was at the closed door of his
aunt's room. "I must be jolly careful how I do it!" he thought as he
He was surprised, and impressed, to see Mrs. Maldon in bed. She lay
on her back, with her striking head raised high on several pillows.
Nothing else of her was visible; the purple eider-down covered the
whole bed without a crease.
"Hello, auntie!" he greeted her, instinctively modifying his voice to
the soft gentleness proper to the ordered and solemn chamber.
Mrs. Maldon, moving her head, looked at him in silence. He tiptoed to
the foot of the bed and leaned on it gracefully. And as in the parlour
his shadow had fallen on the table, so now, with the gas just
behind him, it fell on the bed. The room was chilly and had a slight
Mrs. Maldon said, with a weak effort--
"I was feeling faint, and Rachel thought I'd better get straight to
bed. I'm an old woman, Louis."
"She hasn't missed them!" he thought in a flash, and said, aloud--
"Nothing of the sort, auntie."
He was aware of the dim reflection of himself in the mirror of the
immense Victorian mahogany wardrobe to his left.
Mrs. Maldon again hesitated before speaking.
"You aren't ill, are you, auntie?" he said in a cheerful, friendly
whisper. He was touched by the poignant pathos of her great age and
her debility. It rent his heart to think that she had no prospect but
She murmured, ignoring his question--
"I just wanted to tell you that you needn't go down home for your
night things--unless you specially want to, that is. I have all that's
necessary here, and I've given orders to Rachel."
"Certainly, auntie. I won't leave the house. That's all right."
No, she assuredly had not missed the notes! He was strangely uplifted.
He felt almost joyous in his relief. Could he tell her now as she lay
in her bed? Impossible! He would tell her in the morning. It would be
cruel to disturb her now with such a revelation of her own negligence.
He vibrated with sympathy for her, and he was proud to think that she
appreciated the affectionate, comprehending, subdued intimacy of his
attitude towards her as he leaned gracefully on the foot of the bed,
and that she admired him. He did not know, or rather he absolutely did
not realize, that she was acquainted with aught against his good fame.
He forgot his sins with the insouciance of an animal.
"Don't stay up too late," said Mrs. Maldon, as it were dismissing him.
"A long night will do you no harm for once in a way." She smiled. "I
know you'll see that everything's locked up."
He nodded soothingly, and stood upright.
"You might turn the gas down, rather low."
He tripped to the gas-bracket and put the room in obscurity. The
light of the street lamp irradiated the pale green blinds of the two
"Nicely, thank you! Good-night, my dear. No, I'm not ill. But you know
I have these little attacks. And then bed's the best place for me."
Her voice seemed to expire.
He crept across the wide carpet and departed with the skill of a
trained nurse, and inaudibly closed the door.
From the landing the whole of the rest of the house seemed to offer
itself to him in the night as an enigmatic and alluring field of
adventure ... Should he drop the notes under the chair on the landing,
where he had found them?... He could not! He could not!... He moved to
the head of the stairs, past the open door of the spare bedroom,
which was now dark. He stopped at the head of the stairs, and then
descended. The kitchen was lighted.
"Are you there?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Rachel.
"May I come?"
"Why, of course!" Her voice trembled.
He went towards the other young creature in the house. The old one lay
above, in a different world remote and foreign. He and Rachel had the
ground floor and all its nocturnal enchantment to themselves.
Mechanically, as he went into the kitchen, he drew his cigarette-case
from his pocket. It was the proper gesture of a man in any minor
crisis. He was not a frequenter of kitchens, and this visit, even more
than the brief first one, seemed to him to be adventurous.
Mrs. Maldon's kitchen--or rather Rachel's--was small, warm (though the
fire was nearly out), and agreeable to the eye. On the left wall was a
deal dresser full of crockery, and on the right, under the low window,
a narrow deal table. In front, opposite the door, gleamed the range,
and on either side of the range were cupboards with oak-grained
doors. There was a bright steel fender before the range, and then
a hearth-rug on which stood an oak rocking-chair. The floor was a
friendly chequer of red and black tiles. On the high mantelpiece were
canisters and an alarm-clock and utensils; sundry other utensils hung
on the walls, among the coloured images of sweet girls and Norse-like
men offered by grocers and butchers under the guise of almanacs; and
cupboard doors ajar dimly disclosed other utensils still, so that the
kitchen had the effect of a novel, comfortable kind of workshop; which
effect was helped by the clothes-drier that hung on pulley-ropes from
the ceiling, next to the gas-pendant and to a stalactite of onions.
The uncurtained window, instead of showing black, gave on another
interior, whitewashed, and well illuminated by the kitchen gas. This
other interior had, under a previous tenant of the property, been
a lean-to greenhouse, but Mrs. Maldon esteeming a scullery before a
greenhouse, it had been modified into a scullery. There it was that
Julian Maldon had preferred to make his toilet. One had to pass
through the scullery in order to get from the kitchen into the yard.
And the light of day had to pass through the imperfectly transparent
glass roof of the scullery in order to reach the window of the unused
room behind the parlour; and herein lay the reason why that room was
unused, it being seldom much brighter than a crypt.
At the table stood Rachel, in her immense pinafore-apron, busy with
knives and forks and spoons, and an enamel basin from which steam rose
gently. Louis looked upon Rachel, and for the first time in his life
liked an apron! It struck him as an exceedingly piquant addition to
the young woman's garments. It suited her; it set off the tints of her
notable hair; and it suited the kitchen. Without delaying her work,
Rachel made the protector of the house very welcome. Obviously she
was in a high state of agitation. For an instant Louis feared that the
agitation was due to anxiety on account of Mrs. Maldon.
"Nothing serious up with the old lady, is there?" he asked, pinching
the cigarette to regularize the tobacco in it.
The exclamation in its absolute sincerity dissipated every trace of
his apprehension. He felt gay, calmly happy, and yet excited too. He
was sure, then, that Rachel's agitation was a pleasurable agitation.
It was caused solely by his entrance into the kitchen, by the
compliment he was paying to her kitchen! Her eyes glittered; her face
shone; her little movements were electric; she was intensely conscious
of herself--all because he had come into her kitchen! She could not
conceal--perhaps she did not wish to conceal--the joy that his near
presence inspired. Louis had had few adventures, very few, and this
experience was exquisite and wondrous to him. It roused, not the
fatuous coxcomb, nor the Lothario, but that in him which was honest
and high-spirited. A touch of the male's vanity, not surprising, was
to be excused.
"Mrs. Maldon," said Rachel, "had an idea that it was _me_ who
suggested your staying all night instead of your cousin." She raised
her chin, and peered at nothing through the window as she rubbed away
at a spoon.
"But when?" Louis demanded, moving towards the fire. It appeared to
him that the conversation had taken a most interesting turn.
"When?... When you brought the tray in here for me, I suppose."
"And I suppose you explained to her that I had the idea all out of my
own little head?"
"I told her that I should never have dreamed of asking such a thing!"
The susceptible and proud young creature indicated that the suggestion
was one of Mrs. Maldon's rare social errors, and that Mrs. Maldon had
had a narrow escape of being snubbed for it by the woman of the world
now washing silver. "I'm no more afraid of burglars than you are,"
Rachel added. "I should just like to catch a burglar here--that I
Louis indulgently doubted the reality of this courage. He had been
too hastily concluding that what Rachel resented was an insinuation of
undue interest in himself, whereas she now made it seem that she was
objecting merely to any reflection upon her valour: which was much
less exciting to him. Still, he thought that both causes might have
contributed to her delightful indignation.
"Why was she so keen about having one of us to sleep here to-night?"
"Well, I don't know that she was," answered Rachel. "If you hadn't
"Oh, but do you know what she said to me upstairs?"
"She didn't want me even to go back to my digs for my things.
Evidently she doesn't care for the house to be left even for half an
"Well, of course old people are apt to get nervous, you
know--especially when they're not well."
"Funny, isn't it?"
There was perfect unanimity between them as to the irrational
singularity and sad weakness of aged persons.
"She said you would make everything right for me upstairs."
"I have done--I hope," said Rachel.
One part of the table was covered with newspaper. Suddenly Rachel
tore a strip off the newspaper, folded the strip into a spill, and,
lighting it at the gas, tendered it to Louis' unlit cigarette.
The climax of the movement was so quick and unexpected as almost to
astound Louis. For he had been standing behind her, and she had not
turned her head before making the spill. Perhaps there was a faint
reflection of himself in the window. Or perhaps she had eyes in her
hair. Beyond doubt she was a strange, rare, angelic girl. The gesture
with which she modestly offered the spill was angelic; it was divine;
it was one of those phenomena which persist in a man's memory for
decades. At the very instant of its happening he knew that he should
never forget it.
The man of fashion blushed as he inhaled the first smoke created by
Rachel dropped the heavenly emblem, all burning, into the ash-bin of
the range, and resumed her work.
Louis coughed. "Any law against sitting down?" he asked.
"You're very welcome," she replied primly.
"I didn't know I might smoke," he said.
She made no answer at first, but just as Louis had ceased to expect an
answer, she said--
"I should think if you can smoke in the sitting-room you can smoke in
the kitchen--shouldn't you?"
"I should," said he.
There was silence, but silence not disagreeable. Louis, lolling in
the chair, and slightly rocking it, watched Rachel at her task. She
completely immersed spoons and forks in the warm water, and then
rubbed them with a brush like a large nail-brush, giving particular
attention to the inside edges of the prongs of the forks; and then she
laid them all wet on a thick cloth to the right of the basin. But of
the knives she immersed only the blades, and took the most meticulous
care that no drop of water should reach the handles.
"I never knew knives and forks and things were washed like that,"
"They generally aren't," said Rachel. "But they ought to be. I leave
all the other washing-up for the charwoman in the morning, but I
wouldn't trust these to her." (The charwoman had been washing up
cutlery since before Rachel was born.) "They're all alike," said
Louis acquiesced sagely in this broad generalization as to charwomen.
"Why don't you wash the handles of the knives?" he queried.
"It makes them come loose."
"Do you mean to say you didn't know that water, especially warm water
with soda in it, loosens the handles?" She showed astonishment, but
her gaze never left the table in front of her.
"Well, I should have thought that everybody knew that. Some people use
a jug, and fill it up with water just high enough to cover the blades,
and stick the knives in to soak. But I don't hold with that because
of the steam, you see. Steam's nearly as bad as water for the handles.
And then some people drop the knives wholesale into a basin just for a
second, to wash the handles. But I don't hold with that, either. What
I say is that you can get the handles clean with the cloth you wipe
them dry with. That's what I say."
"And so there's soda in the water?"
"Well, I never knew that either! It's quite a business, it seems to
Without doubt Louis' notions upon domestic work were being modified
with extreme rapidity. In the suburb from which he sprang domestic
work--and in particular washing up--had been regarded as base, foul,
humiliating, unmentionable--as toil that any slut might perform
anyhow. It would have been inconceivable to him that he should admire
a girl in the very act of washing up. Young ladies, even in exclusive
suburban families, were sometimes forced by circumstances to wash
up--of that he was aware--but they washed up in secret and in shame,
and it was proper for all parties to pretend that they never had
washed up. And here was Rachel converting the horrid process into
a dignified and impressive ritual. She made it as fine as fine
needlework--so exact, so dainty, so proud were the motions of her
fingers and her forearms. Obviously washing up was an art, and the
delicate operation could not be scamped nor hurried ...
The triple pile of articles on the cloth grew slowly, but it grew; and
then Rachel, having taken a fresh white cloth from a hook, began to
wipe, and her wiping was an art. She seemed to recognize each fork as
a separate individuality, and to attend to it as to a little animal.
Whatever her view of charwomen, never would she have said of forks
that they were all alike.
Louis felt in his hip pocket for his reserve cigarette-case.
And Rachel immediately said, with her back to him--
"Have you really got a revolver, or were you teasing--just now in the
It was then that he perceived a small unframed mirror, hung at the
height of her face on the broad, central, perpendicular bar of the
old-fashioned window-frame. Through this mirror the chit--so he named
her in his mind at the instant--had been surveying him!
"Yes," he said, producing the second cigarette-case, "I was only
teasing." He lit a fresh cigarette from the end of the previous one.
"Well," she said, "you did frighten Mrs. Maldon. I was so sorry for
"And what about you? Weren't you frightened?"
"Oh no! I wasn't frightened. I guessed, somehow, you were only
"Well, I just wasn't teasing, then!" said Louis, triumphantly yet with
benevolence. And he drew a revolver from his pocket.
She turned her head now, and glanced neutrally at the incontestable
revolver for a second. But she made no remark whatever, unless the
pouting of her tightly shut lips and a mysterious smile amounted to a
Louis adopted an indifferent tone--
"Strange that the old lady should be so nervous just to-night--isn't
it?--seeing these burglars have been knocking about for over a
fortnight. Is this the first time she's got excited about it?"
"Yes, I think it is," said Rachel faintly, as it were submissively,
with no sign of irritation against him.
With their air of worldliness and mature wisdom they twittered on like
a couple of sparrows--inconsequently, capriciously; and nothing that
they said had the slightest originality, weight, or importance. But
they both thought that their conversation was full of significance;
which it was, though they could not explain it to themselves. What
they happened to say did not matter in the least. If they had recited
the Koran to each other the inexplicable significance of their words
would have been the same.
Rachel faced him again, leaning her hands behind her on the table, and
said with the most enchanting, persuasive friendliness--
"I wasn't frightened--truly! I don't know why I looked as though I
"You mean about the revolver--in the sitting-room?" He jumped nimbly
back after her to the revolver question.
"Yes. Because I'm quite used to revolvers, you know. My brother had
one. Only his was a Colt--one of those long things."
"Your brother, eh?"
"Yes. Did you know him?"
"I can't say I did," Louis replied, with some constraint.
Rachel said with generous enthusiasm--
"He's a wonderful shot, my brother is!"
Louis was curiously touched by the warmth of her reference to her
brother. In the daily long monotonous column of advertisements headed
succinctly "Money" in the _Staffordshire Signal_, there once
used to appear the following invitation: "WE NEVER REFUSE a loan to
a responsible applicant. No fussy inquiries. Distance no objection.
Reasonable terms. Strictest privacy. L3 to L10,000. Apply personally
or by letter. Lovelace Curzon, 7 Colclough Street, Knype." Upon a day
Louis had chosen that advertisement from among its rivals, and had
written to Lovelace Curzon. But on the very next day he had come
into his thousand pounds, and so had lost the advantage of business
relations with Lovelace Curzon. Lovelace Curzon, as he had learnt
later, was Reuben Fleckring, Rachel's father. Or, more accurately,
Lovelace Curzon was Reuben Fleckring, junior, Rachel's brother, a
young man in a million. Reuben, senior, had been for many years an
entirely mediocre and ambitionless clerk in a large works where
Julian Maldon had learnt potting, when Reuben, junior (whom he blindly
adored), had dragged him out of clerkship, and set him up as
the nominal registered head of a money-lending firm. An amazing
occurrence! At that time Reuben, junior, was a minor, scarcely
eighteen. Yet his turn for finance had been such that he had
already amassed reserves, and--without a drop of Jewish blood in his
veins--possessed confidence enough to compete in their own field with
the acutest Hebrews of the district. Reuben, senior, was the youth's
In a few years Lovelace Curzon had made a mighty and terrible
reputation in the world where expenditures exceed incomes. And
then the subterranean news of the day--not reported in the
_Signal_--was that something serious had happened to Lovelace
Curzon. And the two Fleckrings went to America, the father, as usual,
hypnotized by the son. And they left no wrack behind save Rachel.
It was at this period--only a few months previous to the opening of
the present narrative--that the district had first heard aught of the
womenfolk of the Fleckrings. An aunt--Reuben, senior's, sister, it
appeared--had died several years earlier, since when Rachel had alone
kept house for her brother and her father. According to rumour
the three had lived in the simplicity of relative poverty, utterly
unvisited except by clients. No good smell of money had ever escaped
from the small front room which was employed as an office into the
domestic portion of the house. It was alleged that Rachel had existed
in perfect ignorance of all details of the business. It was also
alleged that when the sudden crisis arrived, her brother had told her
that she would not be taken to America, and that, briefly, she must
shift for herself in the world. It was alleged further that he had
given her forty-five pounds. (Why forty-five pounds and not fifty,
none knew.) The whole affair had begun and finished--and the house was
sold up--in four days. Public opinion in the street and in Knype blew
violently against the two Reubens, but as they were on the Atlantic
it did not affect them. Rachel, with scarcely an acquaintance in the
world in which she was to shift for herself, found that she had a
streetful of friends! It transpired that everybody had always divined
that she was a girl of admirable efficient qualities. She behaved as
though her brother and father had behaved in quite a usual and proper
manner. Assistance in the enterprise of shifting for herself she
welcomed, but not sympathy. The devotion of the Fleckring women began
to form a legend. People said that Rachel's aunt had been another such
creature as Rachel.
Hence the effect on Louis, who, through his aunt and his cousin,
was acquainted with the main facts and surmises, of Rachel's glowing
reference to the vanished Reuben.
"Where did your brother practise?" he asked.
"In the cellar."
"Of course it's easier with a long barrel."
"Is it?" she said incredulously. "You should see my brother's
score-card the first time he shot at that new miniature rifle-range in
"Why? Is it anything special?"
"Well, you should see it. Five bulls, all cutting into each other."
"I should have liked to see that."
"I've got it upstairs in my trunk," said she proudly. "I dare say I'll
show you it some time."
"I wish you would," he urged.
Such loyalty moved him deeply. Louis had had no sisters, and his
youthful suburban experience of other people's sisters had not
fostered any belief that loyalty was an outstanding quality of
sisters. Like very numerous young men of the day, he had passed an
unfavourable judgment upon young women. He had found them greedy for
diversion, amazingly ruthless in their determination to exact the
utmost possible expensiveness of pleasure in return for their casual
society, hard, cruelly clever in conversation, efficient in certain
directions, but hating any sustained effort, and either socially or
artistically or politically snobbish. Snobs all! Money-worshippers
all!... Well, nearly all! It mattered not whether you were one of the
dandies or one of the hatless or Fletcherite corps that lolled on foot
or on bicycles, or shot on motor-cycles, through the prim streets of
the suburb--the young women would not remain in dalliance with you
for the mere sake of your beautiful eyes. Because they were girls
they would take all that you had and more, and give you nothing but
insolence or condescension in exchange. Such was Louis' judgment, and
scores of times he had confirmed it in private saloon-lounge talk
with his compeers. It had not, however, rendered the society of these
unconscionable and cold female creatures distasteful to him. Not a
bit! He had even sought it and been ready to pay for that society in
the correct manner--even to imperturbably beggaring himself of his
final sixpence in order to do the honours of the latest cinema. Only,
he had a sense of human superiority. It certainly did not occur to
him that in the victimized young men there might exist faults which
complemented those of the parasitic young women.
And now he contrasted these young women with Rachel! And he fell
into a dreamy mood of delight in her.... Her gesture in lighting his
cigarette! Marvellous! Tear-compelling!... Flippancy dropped away from
him.... She liked him. With the most alluring innocence, she did not
conceal that she liked him. He remembered that the last time he called
at his aunt's he had remarked something strange, something disturbing,
in Rachel's candid demeanour towards himself. He had made an
impression on her! He had given her the lightning-stroke! No shadow of
a doubt as to his own worthiness crossed his mind.
What did cross his mind was that she was not quite of his own class.
In the suburb, where "sets" are divided one from another by unscalable
barriers, she could not have aspired to him. But in the kitchen, now
become the most beautiful and agreeable and romantic interior that he
had ever seen--in the kitchen he could somehow perceive with absolute
clearness that the snobbery of caste was silly, negligible, laughable,
contemptible. Yes, he could perceive all that! Life in the kitchen
seemed ideal--life with that loyalty and that candour and that charm
and that lovely seriousness! Moreover, he could teach her. She had
already blossomed--in a fortnight. She was blossoming. She would
Odd that, when he had threatened to pull out a revolver, she, so
accustomed to revolvers, should have taken a girlish alarm! That queer
detail of her behaviour was extraordinarily seductive. But far beyond
everything else it was the grand loyalty of her nature that drew him.
He wanted to sink into it as into a bed of down. He really needed
it. Enveloped in that loving loyalty of a creature who gave all and
demanded nothing, he felt that he could truly be his best self, that
he could work marvels. His eyes were moist with righteous ardour.
The cutlery reposed in a green-lined basket. She had doffed the apron
and hung it behind the scullery door. With all the delicious curves of
her figure newly revealed, she was reaching the alarm-clock down from
the mantelpiece, and then she was winding it up. The ratchet of the
wheel clacked, and the hurried ticking was loud. In the grate of the
range burned one spot of gloomy red.
"Your bedtime, I suppose?" he murmured, rising elegantly.
She smiled. She said--
"Shall you lock up, or shall I?"
"Oh! I think I know all the tricks," he replied, and thought, "She's a
pretty direct sort of girl, anyway!"
About an hour later he went up to his room. It was a fact that
everything had been made right for him. The gas burned low. He raised
it, and it shone directly upon the washstand, which glittered with
the ivory glaze of large earthenware, and the whiteness of towels that
displayed all the creases of their folding. There was a new cake of
soap in the ample soap-dish, and a new tooth-brush in a sheath of
transparent paper lay on the marble. "Rather complete this!" he
reflected. The nail-brush--an article in which he specialized--was
worn, but it was worn evenly and had cost good money. The water-bottle
dazzled him; its polished clarity was truly crystalline. He could
not remember ever having seen a toilet array so shining with strict
cleanness. Indeed, it was probable that he had never set eyes on an
absolutely clean water-bottle before; the qualities associated with
water-bottles in his memory were semi-opacity and spottiness.
The dressing-table matched the washstand. A carriage clock in leather
had been placed on the mantelpiece. In front of the mantelpiece was an
old embroidered fire-screen. Peeping between the screen and the grate,
he saw that a fire had been scientifically laid, ready for lighting;
but some bits of paper and oddments on the top of the coal showed that
it was not freshly laid. The grate had a hob at one side, and on
this was a small, bright tin kettle. The bed was clearly a good bed,
resilient, softly garnished. On it was stretched a long, striped
garment of flannel, with old-fashioned pearl buttons at neck and
sleeves. An honest garment, quite surely unshrinkable! No doubt in the
sixties, long before the mind of man had leaped to the fine perverse
conception of the decorated pyjama, this garment had enjoyed the
fullest correctness. Now, after perhaps forty years in the cupboards
of Mrs. Maldon, it seemed to recall the more excellent attributes of
an already forgotten past, and to rebuke what was degenerate in the
Louis, ranging over his experiences in the disorderly and mean
pretentiousness of the suburban home, and in the discomfort of
various lodgings, appreciated the grave, comfortable benignity of that
bedroom. Its appeal to his senses was so strong that it became for
him almost luxurious. The bedroom at his latest lodgings was full
of boot-trees and trouser-stretchers and coat-holders, but it was a
paltry thing and a grimy. He saw the daily and hourly advantages of
marriage with a loving, simple woman whose house was her pride. He had
a longing for solidities, certitudes, and righteousness.
Musing delectably, he drew aside the crimson curtain from the window
and beheld the same prospect that Rachel had beheld on her walk
towards Friendly Street--the obscurity of the park, the chain of lamps
down the slope of Moorthorne Road, and the distant fires of industry
still farther beyond, towards Toft End. He had hated the foul, sordid,
ragged prospects and vistas of the Five Towns when he came new to them
from London, and he had continued to hate them. They desolated him.
But to-night he thought of them sympathetically. It was as if he was
divining in them for the first time a recondite charm. He remembered
what an old citizen named Dain had said one evening at the
Conservative Club: "People may say what they choose about Bursley.
I've just returned from London and I tell thee I was glad to get back.
I _like_ Bursley." A grotesque saying, he had thought, then.
Yet now he positively felt himself capable of sharing the sentiment.
Rachel in the kitchen, and the kitchen in town, and the town amid
those scarred and smoking hillocks!... Invisible phenomena! Mysterious
harmonies! The influence of the night solaced and uplifted him and
bestowed on him new faculties of perception.
At length, deciding, after characteristic procrastination, that
he must really go to bed, he wound up his watch and put it on the
dressing-table. His pockets had to be emptied and his clothes hung or
folded. His fingers touched the notes in the left-hand outside pocket
of his coat. Not for one instant had the problem of the bank-notes
been absent from his mind. Throughout the conversation with Rachel,
throughout the interval between her retirement and his own, throughout
his meditations in the bedroom, he had not once escaped from the
obsession of the bank-notes and their problem. He knew now how the
problem must be solved. There was, after all, only one solution, and
it was extremely simple. He must put the notes back where he had found
them, underneath the chair on the landing. If advisable, he might
rediscover them in the morning and surrender them immediately. But
they must not remain in his room during the night. He must not examine
them--he must not look at them.
He approached the door quickly, lest he might never reach the door.
But he was somehow forced to halt at the wardrobe, to see if it
had coat-holders. It had one coat-holder.... His hand was on the
door-knob. He turned it with every species of precaution--and it
complained loudly in the still night. The door opened with a terrible
explosive noise of protest. He gazed into the darkness of the landing,
and presently, by the light from the bedroom, could distinguish the
vague boundaries of it. The chair, invisible, was on the left. He
opened the door wider to the nocturnal riddle of the house. His hand
clasped the notes in his pocket. No sound! He listened for the ticking
of the lobby clock and could not catch it. He listened more intently.
It was impossible that he should not hear the ticking of the lobby
clock. Was he dreaming? Was he under some delusion? Then it occurred
to him that the lobby clock must have run down or otherwise stopped.
Clocks did stop.... And then his heart bounded and his flesh crept. He
had heard footsteps somewhere below. Or were the footsteps merely in
Alone in the parlour, after Rachel had gone to bed, he had spent some
time in gazing at the _Signal_; for there had been absolutely
nothing else to do, and he could not have thought of sleep at such an
early hour. It is true that, with his intense preoccupations, he had
for the most part gazed uncomprehendingly at the _Signal_. The
tale of the latest burglaries, however, had by virtue of its intrinsic
interest reached his brain through his eyes, and had impressed him,
despite preoccupations. And now, as he stood in the gloom at the door
of his bedroom and waited feverishly for the sound of more footsteps,
it was inevitable that visions of burglars should disturb him.
The probability of burglars visiting any particular house in the
town was infinitely slight--his common sense told him that. But
supposing--just supposing that they actually had chosen his aunt's
abode for their prey!... Conceivably they had learnt that Mrs. Maldon
was to have a large sum of money under her roof. Conceivably a complex
plan had been carefully laid. Conceivably one of the great burglaries
of criminal history might be in progress. It was not impossible. No
wonder that, with bank-notes loose all over the place, his shockingly
negligent auntie should have special qualms concerning burglars on
that night of all nights! Fortunate indeed that he carried a revolver,
that the revolver was loaded, and that he had some skill to use it! A
dramatic surprise--his gun and the man behind it--for burglars who had
no doubt counted on having to deal with a mere couple of women! He
had but to remove his shoes and creep down the stairs. He felt at the
revolver in his pocket. Often had he pictured himself in the act of
calmly triumphing over burglars or other villains.
Then, with no further hesitation, he silently closed the door--on the
inside!... How could there be burglars in the house? The suspicion was
folly. What he had heard could be naught but the nocturnal cracking
and yielding of an old building at night. Was it not notorious that
the night was full of noises? And even if burglars had entered!...
Better, safer, to ignore them! They could not make off with a great
deal, for the main item of prey happened to be in his own pocket.
Let them search for the treasure! If they had the effrontery to come
searching in his bedroom, he would give them a reception! Let them
try! He looked at the revolver, holding it beneath the gas. Could he
aim it at a human being?...
Or--another explanation--possibly Rachel, having forgotten something
or having need of something, had gone downstairs for it. He had not
thought of that. But what more natural? Sudden toothache--a desire for
laudanum--a visit to a store cupboard: such was the classic order of
He listened, secure within the four walls of his bedroom. He smiled.
He could have fancied that he heard an electric bell ring ever so
faintly at a distance--in the next house, in the next world.
He laughed to himself.
Then at length he moved again towards the door; and he paused in front
of it. There were no burglars! The notion of burglars was idiotic! He
must put the notes back under the chair. His whole salvation depended
upon his putting the notes back under the chair on the landing!...
An affair of two seconds!... With due caution he opened the door. And
simultaneously, at the very selfsame instant, he most distinctly heard
the click of the latch of his aunt's bedroom door, next his own! Now,
in a horrible quandary, trembling and perspiring, he felt completely
nonplussed. He pushed his own door to, but without quite closing it,
for fear of a noise; and edged away from it towards the fireplace.
Had his aunt wakened up, and felt a misgiving about the notes, and
found that they were not where they ought to be?
No further sound came though the crack of his door. In the dwelling
absolute silence seemed to be established. He stood thus for an
indefinite period in front of the fireplace, the brain's action
apparently suspended, until his agitation was somewhat composed. And
then, because he had no clear plan in his head, he put his hand into
the pocket containing the notes and drew them out. And immediately he
was aware of a pleasant feeling of relief, as one who, after battling
against a delicious and shameful habit, yields and is glad. The beauty
of the notes was eternal; no use could stale it. Their intoxicating
effect on him was just as powerful now as before supper. And now, as
then, the mere sight of them filled him with a passionate conviction
that without them he would be ruined. His tricks to destroy the
suspicions of Horrocleave could not possibly be successful. Within
twenty-four hours he might be in prison if he could not forthwith
command a certain sum of money. And even possessing the money, he
would still have an extremely difficult part to play. It would be
necessary for him to arrive early at the works, to change notes for
gold in the safe, to erase many of his pencilled false additions,
to devise a postponement of his crucial scene with Horrocleave, and
lastly to invent a plausible explanation of the piling up of a cash
If he had not been optimistic and an incurable procrastinator and a
believer in luck at the last moment, he would have seen that nothing
but a miracle could save him if Horrocleave were indeed suspicious.
Happily for his peace of mind, he was incapable of looking a fact
in the face. Against all reason he insisted to himself that with the
notes he might reach salvation. He did not trouble even to estimate
the chances of the notes being traced by their numbers. Such is the
magic force of a weak character.
But he powerfully desired not to steal the notes, or any of them.
The image of Rachel rose between him and his temptation. Her honesty,
candour, loyalty, had revealed to him the beauty of the ways of
righteousness. He had been born again in her glance. He swore he would
do nothing unworthy of the ideal she had unconsciously set up in him.
He admitted that it was supremely essential for him to restore the
notes to the spot whence he had removed them.... And yet--if he did
so, and was lost? What then? For one second he saw himself in the
dock at the police-court in the town hall. Awful hallucination! If it
became reality, what use, then, his obedience to the new ideal? Better
to accomplish this one act of treason to the ideal in order to be able
for ever afterwards to obey it and to look Rachel in the eyes! Was
it not so? He wanted advice, he wanted to be confirmed in his own
opportunism, as a starving beggar may want food.
And in the midst of all this torture of his vacillations, he was
staggered and overwhelmed by the sudden noise of Mrs. Maldon's door
brusquely opening, and of an instant loud, firm knock on his own door.
The silence of the night was shattered as by an earthquake.
Almost mechanically he crushed the notes in his left hand--crushed
them into a ball; and the knuckles of that hand turned white with the
"Are you up?" a voice demanded. It was Rachel's voice.
"Ye-es," he answered, and held his left hand over the screen in front
of the fireplace.
"May I come in?"
And with the word she came in. She was summarily dressed, and very
pale, and her hair, more notable than ever, was down. As she entered
he opened his hand and let the ball of notes drop into the littered
"Anything the matter?" he asked, moving away from the region of the
She glanced at him with a kind of mild indulgence, as if to say:
"Surely you don't suppose I should be wandering about in the night
like this if nothing was the matter!"
She replied, speaking quickly and eagerly--"I'm so glad you aren't in
bed. I want you to go and fetch the doctor--at once."
She gave him another glance like the first, as if to say: "_I'm_
not ill, and _you_ aren't. And Mrs. Maldon is the only other
person in the house--"
"I'll go instantly," he added in haste. "Which doctor?"
"Yardley in Park Road. It's near the corner of Axe Street. You'll know
it by the yellow gate--even if his lamp isn't lighted."
"I thought old Hawley up at Hillport was auntie's doctor."
"I believe he is, but you couldn't get up to Hillport in less than
half an hour, could you?"
"Not so serious as all that, is it?"
"Well, you never know. Best to be on the safe side. It's not quite
like one of her usual attacks. She's been upset. She actually went
"I thought I heard somebody. Did you hear her, then?"
"No, she rang for me afterwards. There's a little electric bell over
my bed, from her room."
"And I heard that too," said Louis.
"Will you ask Dr. Yardley to come at once?"
"I'm off," said he. "What a good thing I wasn't in bed!"
"What a good thing you're here at all!" Rachel murmured, suddenly
He was waiting anxiously for her to leave the room again. But instead
of leaving it she came to the fireplace and looked behind the screen.
"Oh! That kettle _is_ there! I thought it must be!" And picked it
Then, with the kettle in one hand, she went to a large cupboard let
into the wall opposite the door, and opened it.
"You know Park Road, I suppose?" she turned to him.
"Yes, yes, I'm off!"
He was obliged to go, surrendering the room to her. As he descended
the stairs he heard her come out of the room. She was following him
downstairs. "Don't bang the door," she whispered. "I'll come and shut
it after you."
The next moment he had undone the door and was down the front steps
and in the solitude of Bycars Lane. He ran up the street, full of the
one desire to accomplish his errand and be back again in the spare
bedroom alone. The notes were utterly safe where they lay, and
yet--astounding events might happen. Was it not a unique coincidence
that on this very night and no other his aunt should fall ill, and
that as a result Rachel should take him unawares at the worst moment
of his dilemma? And further, could it be the actual fact, as he had
been wildly guessing only a few minutes earlier, that his aunt had at
last missed the notes? Could it be that it was this discovery which
had upset her and brought on an attack?... An attack of what?
He swerved at the double into Park Road, which was a silent desert
watched over by forlorn gaslamps. He saw the yellow gate. The yellow
gate clanked after him. He searched in the deep shadow of the porch
for the button of the night bell, and had to strike a match in order
to find it. He rang; waited and waited, rang again; waited; rang a
third time, keeping his finger hard on the button. Then arose and
expired a flickering light in the hall of the house.
"That'll do! That'll do! You needn't wear the bell out." He could hear
the irritated accents through the glazed front door.
A dim figure in a dressing-gown opened.
"Are you Dr. Yardley?" Louis gasped between rapid breaths.
"What is it?" The question was savage.
With his extraordinary instinctive amiability Louis smiled naturally
"You're wanted at Mrs. Maldon's, Bycars. Awfully sorry to disturb
"Oh!" said the dressing-gown in a changed, interested tone. "Mrs.
Maldon's! Right. I'll follow you."
"You'll come at once?" Louis urged.
"I shall come at once."
The door was curtly closed.
"So that's how you call a doctor in the middle of the night!" thought
Louis, and ran off. He had scarcely deciphered the man's face.
The return, being chiefly downhill, was less exhausting. As he
approached his aunt's house he saw that there was a light on the
ground floor as well as in the front bedroom. The door opened as he
swung the gate. The lobby gas had been lighted. Rachel was waiting for
him. Her hair was tied up now. The girl looked wise, absurdly so.
It was as though she was engaged in the act of being equal to the
"He's coming," said Louis.
"You've been frightfully quick!" said she, as if triumphantly. She
appeared to glory in the crisis.
He passed within as she held the door. He was frantic to rush upstairs
to the fireplace in his room; but he had to seem deliberate.
"And what next?" he inquired.
"Well, nothing. It'll be best for you to sit in your bedroom for
a bit. That's the only place where there's a fire--and it's rather
chilly at this time of night."
"A fire?" he repeated, incredulous and yet awe-struck.
"I knew you wouldn't mind," said she. "It just happened there wasn't
two drops of methylated spirits left in the house, and as there was
a fire laid in your room, I put a match to it. I must have hot water
ready, you see. And Mrs. Maldon only has one of those old-fashioned
gas-stoves in her bedroom--"
"I see," he agreed.
They mounted the steps together. The grate in his room was a mass of
pleasant flames, in the midst of which gleamed the bright kettle.
"How is she now?" He asked in a trance. And he felt as though it was
another man in his own body who was asking.
"Oh! It's not very serious, I hope," said Rachel, kneeling to coax the
fire with a short, wiry poker. "Only you never know. I'm just going
in again.... She seems to lose all her vitality--that's what's apt to
The girl looked wise--absurdly, deliciously wise. The spectacle of her
engaged in the high act of being equal to the occasion was exquisite.
But Louis had no eye for it.
NEWS OF THE NIGHT
The next morning, Mrs. Tarns, the charwoman whom Rachel had expressly
included in the dogma that all charwomen are alike, was cleaning the
entranceway to Mrs. Maldon's house. She had washed and stoned the
steep, uneven flight of steps leading up to the front door, and the
flat space between them and the gate; and now, before finishing the
step down to the footpath, she was wiping the grimy ledges of the
green iron gate itself.
Mrs. Tarns was a woman of nearly sixty, stout and--in
appearance--untidy and dirty. The wet wind played with grey wisps of
her hair, and with her coarse brown apron, beneath which her skirt was
pinned up. Human eye so seldom saw her without a coarse brown apron
that, apronless, she would have almost seemed (like Eve) to be
unattired. It and a pail were the insignia of her vocation.
She was accomplished and conscientious; she could be trusted; despite
appearances, her habits were cleanly. She was also a woman of immense
experience. In addition to being one of the finest exponents of the
art of step-stoning and general housework that the Five Towns could
show, she had numerous other talents. She was thoroughly accustomed
to the supreme spectacles of birth and death, and could assist
thereat with dignity and skill. She could turn away the wrath of
rent-collectors, rate-collectors, school-inspectors, and magistrates.
She was an adept in enticing an inebriated husband to leave a
public-house. She could feed four children for a day on sevenpence,
and rise calmly to her feet after having been knocked down by one
stroke of a fist. She could go without food, sleep, and love, and yet
thrive. She could give when she had nothing, and keep her heart sweet
amid every contagion. Lastly, she could coax extra sixpences out of
a pawnbroker. She had never had a holiday, and almost never failed in
her duty. Her one social fault was a tendency to talk at great length
about babies, corpses, and the qualities of rival soaps. All her
children were married. Her husband had gone in a box to a justice
whose anger Mrs. Tam's simple tongue might not soothe. She lived
alone. Six half-days a week she worked about the house of Mrs.
Maldon from eight to one o'clock, for a shilling per half-day and her
breakfast. But if she chose to stay for it she could have dinner--and
a good one--on condition that she washed up afterwards. She often
stayed. After over forty years of incessant and manifold expert labour
she was happy and content in this rich reward.
A long automobile came slipping with noiseless stealth down the hill,
and halted opposite the gate, in silence, for the engine had been
stopped higher up. Mrs. Tams, intimidated by the august phenomenon,
ceased to rub, and in alarm watched the great Thomas Batchgrew
struggle unsuccessfully with the handle of the door that imprisoned
him. Mrs. Tams was a born serf, and her nature was such that she
wanted to apologize to Thomas Batchgrew for the naughtiness of the
door. For her there was something monstrous in a personage like Thomas
Batchgrew being balked in a desire, even for a moment, by a perverse
door-catch. Not that she really respected Thomas Batchgrew! She
did not, but he was a member of the sacred governing class. The
chauffeur--not John's Ernest, but a professional--flashed round the
front of the car and opened the door with obsequious haste. For Thomas
Batchgrew had to be appeased. Already a delay of twenty minutes--due
to a defective tire and to the inexcusable absence of the spanner with
which the spare wheel was manipulated--had aroused his just anger.
Mrs. Tarns pulled the gate towards herself and, crushed behind it,
curtsied to Thomas Batchgrew. This curtsy, the most servile of all
Western salutations, and now nearly unknown in Five Towns, consisted
in a momentary shortening of the stature by six inches, and in nothing
else. Mrs. Tams had acquired it in her native village of Sneyd, where
an earl held fast to that which was good, and she had never been able
to quite lose it. It did far more than the celerity of the chauffeur
to appease Thomas Batchgrew.
Snorting and self-conscious, and with his white whiskers flying behind
him, he stepped in his two overcoats across the narrow, muddy pavement
and on to Mrs. Tarn's virgin stonework, and with two haughty black
footmarks he instantly ruined it. The tragedy produced no effect on
Mrs. Tams. And indeed nobody in the Five Towns would have been moved
by it. For the social convention as to porticoes enjoined, not that
they should remain clean, but simply that they should show evidence
of having been clean at some moment early in each day. It mattered not
how dirty they were in general, provided that the religious and futile
rite of stoning had been demonstrably performed during the morning.
Mrs. Tams adroitly moved her bucket, aside, though there was plenty
of room for feet even larger than those of Thomas Batchgrew, and then
waited to be spoken to. She was not spoken to. Mr. Batchgrew, after
hesitating and clearing his throat, proceeded up the steps, defiling
them. As he did so Mrs. Tams screwed together all her features and
clenched her hands as if in agony, and stared horribly at the open
front door, which was blowing to. It seemed that she was trying to
arrest the front door by sheer force of muscular contraction. She did
not succeed. Gently the door closed, with a firm click of its latch,
in face of Mr. Batchgrew.
"Nay, nay!" muttered Mrs. Tarns, desolated.
And Mr. Batchgrew, once more justly angered, raised his hand to the
"Dunna' knock, mester! Dunna' knock!" Mrs. Tarns implored in a
whisper. "Missis is asleep. Miss Rachel's been up aw night wi' her,
seemingly, and now her's gone off in a doze like, and Miss Rachel's
resting, too, on th' squab i' th' parlor. Doctor was fetched."
Apparently charging Mrs. Tarns with responsibility for the illness,
Mr. Batchgrew demanded severely--
"What was it?"
"One o' them attacks as her has," said Mrs. Tarns with a meekness that
admitted she could offer no defence, "only wuss!"
"Hurry round to th' back door and let me in."
"I doubt back door's bolted on th' inside," said Mrs. Tarns with deep
"This is ridiculous," said Mr. Batchgrew, truly. "Am I to stand here
all day?" And raised his hand to the knocker.
Mrs. Tarns with swiftness darted up the steps and inserted a large,
fat, wet hand between the raised knocker and its bed. It was
the sublime gesture of a martyr, and her large brown eyes gazed
submissively, yet firmly, at Mr. Batchgrew with the look of a martyr.
She had nothing to gain by the defiance of a great man, but she could
not permit her honoured employer to be wakened. She was accustomed to
emergencies, and to desperate deeds therein, and she did not fail
now in promptly taking the right course, regardless of consequences.
Somewhat younger than Mr. Batchgrew in years, she was older in
experience and in wisdom. She could do a thousand things well; Mr.
Batchgrew could do nothing well. At that very moment she conquered,
and he was beaten. Yet her brown eyes and even the sturdy uplifted arm
cringed to him, and asked in abasement to be forgiven for the impiety
committed. From her other hand a cloth dripped foul water on to the
And then the door yielded. Thomas Batchgrew and Mrs. Tarns both
abandoned the knocker. Rachel, pale as a lily, stern, with dilated
eyes, stood before them. And Mr. Batchgrew realized, as he looked
at her against the dark, hushed background of the stairs, that Mrs.
Maldon was indeed ill. Mrs. Tams respectfully retired down the steps.
A mightier than she, the young, naive, ignorant girl, to whom she
could have taught everything save possibly the art of washing cutlery,
had relieved her of responsibility.
"You can't see her," said Rachel in a low tone, trembling.
"But--but--" Thomas Batchgrew spluttered, ineffectively. "D'you know
I'm her trustee, miss? Let me come in."
Rachel would not take her hand off the inner knob.
There was the thin, far-off sound of an electric bell, breaking the
silence of the house. It was the bell in Rachel's bedroom, rung from
Mrs. Maldon's bedroom. And at this mysterious signal from the invalid,
this faint proof that the hidden sufferer had consciousness and
volition, Rachel started and Thomas Batchgrew started.
"Her bell!" Rachel exclaimed, and fled upstairs.
In the large bedroom Mrs. Maldon lay apparently at ease.
"Did they waken you?" cried Rachel, distressed.
"Who is there, dear?" Mrs. Maldon asked, in a voice that had almost
recovered from the weakness of the night, Rachel was astounded.
"I must see him," said the old lady.
"I must see him at once," Mrs. Maldon repeated. "At once. Kindly bring
him up." And she added, in a curiously even and resigned tone, "I've
lost all that money!"
"Nay," said Mrs. Maldon to Thomas Batchgrew, "I'm not going to die
Her voice was cheerful, even a little brisk, and she spoke with a
benign smile in the tranquil accents of absolute conviction. But she
did not move her head; she waited to look at Thomas Batchgrew until
he came within her field of vision at the foot of the bed. This
quiescence had a disconcerting effect, contradicting her voice.
She was lying on her back, in the posture customary to her, the arms
being stretched down by the sides under the bed-quilt. Her features
were drawn slightly askew; the skin was shiny; the eyes stared as
though Mrs. Maldon had been a hysterical subject. It was evident that
she had passed through a tremendous physical crisis. Nevertheless,
Rachel was still astounded at the change for the better in her,
wrought by sleep and the force of her obstinate vitality.
The contrast between the scene which Thomas Batchgrew now saw and
the scene which had met Rachel in the night was so violent as to seem
nearly incredible. Not a sign of the catastrophe remained, except in
Mrs. Maldon's face, and in some invalid gear on the dressing-table,
for Rachel had gradually got the room into order. She had even closed
and locked the wardrobe.
On answering Mrs. Maldon's summons in the night, Rachel had found the
central door of the wardrobe swinging and the sacred big drawer at the
bottom of that division only half shut, and Mrs. Maldon in a peignoir
lying near it on the floor, making queer inhuman noises, not moans,
but a kind of anxious, inarticulate entreaty, and shaking her head
constantly to the left--never to the right. Mrs. Maldon had recognized
Rachel, and had seemed to implore with agonized intensity her
powerful assistance in some nameless and hopeless tragic dilemma. The
sight--especially of the destruction of the old woman's dignity--was
dreadful to such an extent that Rachel did not realize its effect on
herself until several hours afterwards. At the moment she called on
the immense reserves of her self-confidence to meet the situation--and
she met it, assisting her pride with the curious pretence,
characteristic of the Five Towns race, that the emergency was
insufficient to alarm in the slightest degree a person of sagacity and
She had restored Mrs. Maldon to her bed and to some of her dignity.
But the horrid symptoms were not thereby abated. The inhuman
noises and the distressing, incomprehensible appeal had continued.
Immediately Rachel's back was turned Mrs. Maldon had fallen out of
bed. This happened three times, so that clearly the sufferer was
falling out of bed under the urgency of some half-conscious purpose.
Rachel had soothed her. And once she had managed to say with some
clearness the words, "I've been downstairs." But when Rachel went back
to the room from dispatching Louis for the doctor, she was again on
the floor. Louis' absence from the house had lasted an intolerable
age, but the doctor had followed closely on the messenger, and already
the symptoms had become a little less acute. The doctor had diagnosed
with rapidity. Supervening upon her ordinary cardiac attack after
supper, Mrs. Maldon had had, in the night, an embolus in one artery
of the brain. The way in which the doctor announced the fact showed to
Rachel that nothing could easily have been more serious. And yet
the mere naming of the affliction eased her, although she had no
conception of what an embolus might be. Dr. Yardley had remained until
four o'clock, when Mrs. Maldon, surprisingly convalescent, dropped off
to sleep. He remarked that she might recover.
At eight o'clock he had come back. Mrs. Maldon was awake, but had
apparently no proper recollection of the events of the night, which
even to Rachel had begun to seem unreal, like a waning hallucination.
The doctor gave orders, with optimism, and left, sufficiently
reassured to allow himself to yawn. At a quarter past eight Louis had
departed to his own affairs, on Rachel's direct suggestion. And when
Mrs. Tams had been informed of the case so full of disturbing enigmas,
while Rachel and she drank tea together in the kitchen, the daily
domestic movement of the house was partly resumed, from vanity,
because Rachel could not bear to sit idle nor to admit to herself that
she had been scared to a standstill.
And now Mrs. Maldon, in full possession of her faculties, faced Thomas
Batchgrew for the interview which she had insisted on having. And
Rachel waited with an uncanny apprehension, her ears full of the
mysterious and frightful phrase, "I've lost all that money."
Mrs. Maldon, after a few words had passed as to her illness, used
exactly the same phrase again--"I've lost all that money!"
Mr. Batchgrew snorted, and glanced at Rachel for an explanation.
"Yes. It's all gone," proceeded Mrs. Maldon with calm resignation.
"But I'm too old to worry. Please listen to me. We lost my serviette
and ring last evening at supper. Couldn't find it anywhere. And in
the night it suddenly occurred to me where it was. I've remembered
everything now, almost, and I'm quite sure. You know you first told
me to put the money in my wardrobe. Now before you said that, I had
thought of putting it on the top of the cupboard to the right of the
fireplace in the back room downstairs. I thought that would be a good
place for it in case burglars _did_ come. No burglar would ever
think of looking there."
"God bless me!" Mr. Batchgrew muttered, scornfully protesting.
"It couldn't possibly be seen, you see. However, I thought I ought to
respect your wish, and so I decided I'd put part of it on the top of
the cupboard, and part of it underneath a lot of linen at the bottom
of the drawer in my wardrobe. That would satisfy both of us."
"Would it!" exclaimed Mr. Batchgrew, without any restraint upon his
heavy, rolling voice.
"Well, I must have picked up the serviette and ring with the
bank-notes, you see. I fear I'm absent-minded like that sometimes. I
know I went out of the sitting-room with both hands full. I know both
hands were occupied, because I remember when I went into the back room
I didn't turn the gas up, and I pushed a chair up to the cupboard with
my knee, for me to stand on. I'm certain I put some of the notes
on the top of the cupboard. Then I came upstairs. The window on the
landing was rattling, and I put the other part of the money on the
chair while I tried to fasten the window. However, I couldn't fasten
it. So I left it. And then I thought I picked up the money again off
the chair and came in here and hid it at the bottom of the drawer and
locked the wardrobe."
"You thought!" said Thomas Batchgrew, gazing at the aged weakling as
at an insane criminal. "Was this just after I left?"
Mrs. Maldon nodded apologetically.
"When I woke up the first time in the night, it struck me like
a flash: Had I taken the serviette and ring up with the notes? I
_am_ liable to do that sort of thing. I'm an old woman--it's
no use denying it." She looked plaintively at Rachel, and her voice
trembled. "I got up. I was bound to get up, and I turned the gas on,
and there the serviette and ring were at the bottom of the drawer, but
no money! I took everything out of the drawer, piece by piece, and put
it back again. I simply cannot tell you how I felt! I went out to
the landing with a match. There was no money there. And then I went
downstairs in the dark. I never knew it to be so dark, in spite of the
street-lamp. I knocked against the clock. I nearly knocked it over.
I managed to light the gas in the back room. I made sure that I must
have left _all_ the notes on the top of the cupboard instead of
only part of them. But there was nothing there at all. Nothing! Then
I looked all over the sitting-room floor with a candle. When I got
upstairs again I didn't know what I was doing. I knew I was going to
be ill, and I just managed to ring the bell for dear Rachel, and
the next thing I remember was I was in bed here, and Rachel putting
something hot to my feet--the dear child!"
Her eyes glistened with tears. And Rachel too, as she pictured
the enfeebled and despairing incarnation of dignity colliding with
grandfather's clocks in the night and climbing on chairs and groping
over carpets, had difficulty not to cry, and a lump rose in her
throat. She was so moved by compassion that she did not at first feel
the full shock of the awful disappearance of the money.
Mr. Batchgrew, for the second time that morning unequal to a
situation, turned foolishly to the wardrobe, clearing his throat and
"It's on one of the sliding trays," said Mrs. Maldon.
"What's on one of the sliding trays?"
Rachel, who was nearest, opened the wardrobe and immediately
discovered the missing serviette and ring, which had the appearance of
a direct dramatic proof of Mrs. Maldon's story.
Mr. Batchgrew exclaimed, indignant--
"I never heard such a rigmarole in all my born days." And then,
angrily to Rachel, "Go down and look on th' top o' th' cupboard,
"I'm quite resigned," said Mrs. Maldon placidly. "It's a punishment on
me for hardening my heart to Julian last night. It's a punishment for
"Now, then!" Mr. Batchgrew glared bullyingly at Rachel, who vanished.
In a few moments she returned.
"There's nothing at all on the top of the cupboard."
"But th' money must be somewhere," said Mr. Batchgrew savagely. "Nine
hundred and sixty-five pun. And I've arranged to lend out that money
again, at once! What am I to say to th' mortgagor? Am I to tell him as
I've lost it?... No! I never!"
Mrs. Maldon murmured--
"Nay, nay! It's no use looking at me. I thought I should never get
over it in the night. But I'm quite resigned now."
Rachel, standing near the door, could observe both Mrs. Maldon and
Thomas Batchgrew, and was regarded by neither of them. And while,
in the convulsive commotion of her feelings, her sympathy for and
admiration of Mrs. Maldon became poignant, she was thrilled by the
most intense scorn and disgust for Thomas Batchgrew. The chief reason
for her abhorrence was the old man's insensibility to the angelic
submission, the touching fragility, the heavenly meekness and
tranquillity, of Mrs. Maldon as she lay there helpless, victimized by
a paralytic affliction. (Rachel wanted to forget utterly the souvenir
of Mrs. Maldon's paroxysm in the night, because it slurred the
unmatched dignity of the aged creature.) Another reason was the mere
fact that Mr. Batchgrew had insisted on leaving the money in the
house. Who but Mr. Batchgrew would have had the notion of saddling
poor old Mrs. Maldon with the custody of a vast sum of money? It was a
shame; it was positively cruel! Rachel was indignantly convinced that
he alone ought to be made responsible for the money. And lastly, she
loathed and condemned him for the reason that he was so obviously
unequal to the situation. He could not handle it. He was found out. He
was disproved, He did not know what to do. He could only mouth, strut,
bully, and make rude noises. He could not even keep decently around
him the cloak of self-importance. He stood revealed to Mrs. Maldon and
Rachel as he had sometimes stood revealed to his dead wife and to his
elder children and to some of his confidential, faithful employees.
He was an offence in the delicacy of the bedroom. If the rancour of
Rachel's judgment had been fierce enough to strike him to the floor,
assuredly his years would not have saved him! And yet Mrs. Maldon
gazed at him with submissive and apologetic gentleness! Foolish saint!
Fancy _her_ (thought Rachel) hardening her heart to Julian!
Rachel longed to stiffen her with some backing of her own harsh common
sense. And her affection for Mrs. Maldon grew passionate and half
Thomas Batchgrew was saying--
"It beats me how anybody in their senses could pick up a serviette and
put it way for a pile o' bank-notes." He scowled. "However, I'll go
and see Snow. I'll see what Snow says. I'll get him to come up with
one of his best men--Dickson, perhaps."
"Thomas Batchgrew!" cried Mrs. Maldon with sudden disturbing febrile
excitement. "You'll do no such thing. I'll have no police prying into
this affair. If you do that I shall just die right off."
And her manner grew so imperious that Mr. Batchgrew was intimidated.
"I'd sooner lose all the money!" said Mrs. Maldon, almost wildly.
She blushed. And Rachel also felt herself to be blushing, and was
not sure whether she knew why she was blushing. An atmosphere of
constraint and shame seemed to permeate the room.
Mr. Batchgrew growled--
"The money must be in the house. The truth is, Elizabeth, ye don't
know no more than that bedpost where ye put it."
And Rachel agreed eagerly--
"Of course it _must_ be in the house! I shall set to and turn
everything out. Everything!"
"Ye'd better!" said Thomas Batchgrew.
"That will be the best thing, dear--perhaps," said Mrs. Maldon,
indifferent, and now plainly fatigued.
Every one seemed determined to be convinced that the money was in the
house, and to employ this conviction as a defence against horrible dim
suspicions that had inexplicably emerged from the corners of the room
and were creeping about like menaces.
"Where else should it be?" muttered Batchgrew, sarcastically, after a
pause, as if to say, "Anybody who fancies the money isn't in the house
is an utter fool."
Mrs. Maldon had closed her eyes.
There was a faint knock at the door. Rachel turned instinctively to
prevent a possible intruder from entering and catching sight of
those dim suspicions before they could be driven back into their dark
corners. Then she remembered that she had asked Mrs. Tams to bring up
some Revalenta Arabica food for Mrs. Maldon as soon as it should be
ready. And she sedately opened the door. Mrs. Tams, with her usual
serf-like diffidence, remained invisible, except for the hand holding
forth the cup. But her soft voice, charged with sensational news, was
"Mrs. Grocott's boy next door but one has just been round to th' back
to tell me as there was a burglary down the Lane last night."
As Rachel carried the food across to the bed, she could not help
saying, though with feigned deference, to Mr. Batchgrew--
"You told us last night that there wouldn't _be_ any more
burglaries, Mr. Batchgrew."
The burning tightness round the top of her head, due to fatigue and
lack of sleep, seemed somehow to brace her audacity, and to make her
careless of consequences.
The trustee and celebrity, though momentarily confounded, was
recovering himself now. He determined to crush the pert creature whose
glance had several times incommoded him. He said severely--
"What's a burglary down the Lane got to with us and this here money?"
"Us and the money!" Rachel repeated evenly. "Nothing, only when I came
downstairs in the night the greenhouse door was open." (The scullery
was still often called the greenhouse.) "And I'd locked it myself!"
A troubling silence followed, broken by Mr. Batchgrew's uneasy grunts
as he turned away to the window, and by the clink of the spoon as
Rachel helped Mrs. Maldon to take the food.
At length Mr. Batchgrew asked, staring through the window--
"Did ye notice the dust on top o' that cupboard? Was it disturbed?"
Hesitating an instant, Rachel answered firmly, without turning her
"I did ... It was ... Of course."
Mrs. Maldon made no sign of interest.
Mr. Batchgrew's boots creaked to and fro in the room.
"And what's Julian got to say for himself?" he asked, not addressing
either woman in particular.
"Julian wasn't here. He didn't stay the night. Louis stayed instead,"
answered Mrs. Maldon, faintly, without opening her eyes.
"What? What? What's this?"
"Tell him, dear, how it was," said Mrs. Maldon, still more faintly.
Rachel obeyed, in agitated, uneven tones.
THEORIES OF THE THEFT
The inspiring and agreeable image of Rachel floated above vast
contending forces of ideas in the mind of Louis Fores as he bent
over his petty-cash book amid the dust of the vile inner office at
Horrocleave's; and their altercation was sharpened by the fact that
Louis had not had enough sleep. He had had a great deal more sleep
than Rachel, but he had not had what he was in the habit of calling
his "whack" of it. Although never in a hurry to go to bed, he
appreciated as well as any doctor the importance of sleep in the
economy of the human frame, and his weekly average of repose was high;
he was an expert sleeper.
He thirsted after righteousness, and the petty-cash book was permeated
through and through with unrighteousness; and it was his handiwork. Of
course, under the unconscious influence of Rachel, seen in her kitchen
and seen also in various other striking aspects during the exciting
night, he might have bravely exposed the iniquity of the petty-cash
book to Jim Horrocleave, and cleared his conscience, and then gone and
confessed to Rachel, and thus prepared the way for the inner peace and
a new life. He would have suffered--there was indeed a possibility of
very severe suffering--but he would have been a free man--yes, free
even if in prison, and he would have followed the fine tradition of
rectitude, exhorting the respect and admiration of all true souls,
etc. He had read authentic records of similar deeds. What stopped him
from carrying out the programme of honesty was his powerful worldly
common sense. Despite what he had read, and despite the inspiring
image of Rachel, his common sense soon convinced him that confession
would be an error of judgment and quite unremunerative for, at any
rate, very many years. Hence he abandoned regretfully the notion of
confession, as a beautifully impossible dream. But righteousness was
not thereby entirely denied to him; his thirst for it could still be
assuaged by the device of an oath to repay secretly to Horrocleave
every penny that he had stolen from Horrocleave, which oath he
took--and felt better and worthier of Rachel.
He might, perhaps, have inclined more effectually towards confession
had not the petty-cash book appeared to him in the morning light as an
admirably convincing piece of work. It had the most innocent air,
and was markedly superior to his recollection of it. On many pages he
himself could scarcely detect his own traces. He began to feel that he
could rely pretty strongly on the cleverness of the petty-cash book.
Only four blank pages remained in it. A few days more and it would be
filled up, finished, labelled with a gummed white label showing
its number and the dates of its first and last entries, shelved and
forgotten. A pity that Horrocleave's suspicions had not been delayed
for another month or so, for then the book might have been mislaid,
lost, or even consumed in a conflagration! But never mind! A certain
amount of ill luck fell to every man, and he would trust to his
excellent handicraft in the petty-cash book. It was his only hope in
the world, now that the mysterious and heavenly bank-notes were gone.
His attitude towards the bank-notes was, quite naturally, illogical
and self-contradictory. While the bank-notes were in his pocket he had
in the end seen three things with clearness. First, the wickedness of
appropriating them. Second, the danger of appropriating them--having
regard to the prevalent habit of keeping the numbers of bank-notes.
Third, the wild madness of attempting to utilize them in order to
replace the stolen petty cash, for by no ingenuity could the presence
of a hoard of over seventy pounds in the petty-cash box have been
explained. He had perfectly grasped all that; and yet, the notes
having vanished, he felt forlorn, alone, as one who has lost his best
friend--a prop and firm succour in a universe of quicksands.
In the matter of the burning of the notes his conscience did not
accuse him. On the contrary, he emerged blameless from the episode. It
was not he who first had so carelessly left the notes lying about. He
had not searched for them, he had not purloined them. They had been
positively thrust upon him. His intention in assuming charge of them
for a brief space was to teach some negligent person a lesson. During
the evening Fate had given him no opportunity to produce them. And
when in the night, with honesty unimpeachable, he had decided to
restore them to the landing, Fate had intervened once more. At
each step of the affair he had acted for the best in difficult
circumstances. Persons so ill-advised as to drop bank-notes under
chairs must accept all the consequences of their act. Who could have
foreseen that while he was engaged on the philanthropic errand of
fetching a doctor for an aged lady Rachel would light a fire under
the notes?... No, not merely was he without sin in the matter of the
bank-notes, he was rather an ill-used person, a martyr deserving of
sympathy. And, further, he did not regret the notes; he was glad they
were gone. They could no longer tempt him now, and their disappearance
would remain a mystery for ever. So far as they were concerned, he
could look his aunt or anybody else in the face without a tremor. The
mere destruction of the immense, undetermined sum of money did not
seriously ruffle him. As an ex-bank clerk he was aware that though an
individual would lose, the State, through the Bank of England,
would correspondingly gain, and thus for the nonce he had the large
sensation of a patriot.
Axon, the factotum of the counting-house, came in from the outer
office, with a mien composed of mirth and apprehension in about equal
parts. If Axon happened to be a subject of a conversation and there
was any uncertainty as to which Axon out of a thousand Axons he
might be, the introducer of the subject would always say, "You
know--sandy-haired fellow." This described him--hair, beard,
moustache. Sandy-haired men have no age until they are fifty-five, and
Axon was not fifty-five. He was a pigeon-flyer by choice, and a clerk
in order that he might be a pigeon-flyer. His fault was that, with
no moral right whatever to do so, he would treat Louis Fores as a
business equal in the office and as a social equal in the street.
He sprang upon Louis now as one grinning valet might spring upon
another, enormous with news, and whispered--
"I say, guv'nor's put his foot through them steps from painting-shop
and sprained his ankle. Look out for ructions, eh? Thank the Lord it's
a half-day!" and then whipped back to his own room.
On any ordinary Saturday morning Louis by a fine frigidity would
have tried to show to the obtuse Axon that he resented such demeanour
towards himself on the part of an Axon, assuming as it did that the
art-director of the works was one of the servile crew that scuttled
about in terror if the ferocious Horrocleave happened to sneeze. But
to-day the mere sudden information that Horrocleave was on the works
gave him an unpleasant start and seriously impaired his presence of
mind. He had not been aware of Horrocleave's arrival. He had been
expecting to hear Horrocleave's step and voice, and the rustle of
him hanging up his mackintosh outside (Horrocleave always wore a
mackintosh instead of an overcoat), and all the general introductory
sounds of his advent, before he finally came into the inner room. But,
now, for aught Louis knew, Horrocleave might already have been in the
inner room, before Louis. He was upset. The enemy was not attacking
him in the proper and usual way.
And the next instant, ere he could collect and reorganize his forces,
he was paralysed by the footfall of Horrocleave, limping, and the bang
of a door.
And Louis thought--
"He's in the outer office. He's only got to take his mackintosh off,
and then I shall see his head coming through this door, and perhaps
he'll ask me for the petty-cash book right off."
But Horrocleave did not even pause to remove his mackintosh. In
defiance of immemorial habit, being himself considerably excited and
confused, he stalked straight in, half hopping, and sat down in his
frowsy chair at his frowsy desk, with his cap at the back of his head.
He was a spare man, of medium height, with a thin, shrewd face and a
constant look of hard, fierce determination.
And there was Louis staring like a fool at the open page of the
petty-cash book, incriminating himself every instant.
"Hello!" said Louis, without looking round. "What's up?"
"What's up?" Horrocleave scowled. "What d'ye mean?"
"I thought you were limping just the least bit in the world," said
Louis, whose tact was instinctive and indestructible.
"Oh, _that_!" said Horrocleave, as though nothing was farther
from his mind than the peculiarity of his gait that morning. He bit
"Slipped over something?" Louis suggested.
"Aye!" said Horrocleave, somewhat less ominously, and began to open
Louis saw that he had done well to feign ignorance of the sprain and
to assume that Horrocleave had slipped, whereas in fact Horrocleave
had put his foot through a piece of rotten wood. Everybody in the
works, upon pain of death, would have to pretend that the employer had
merely slipped, and that the consequences were negligible. Horrocleave
had already nearly eaten an old man alive for the sin of asking
whether he had hurt himself!
And he had not hurt himself because two days previously he had
ferociously stopped the odd-man of the works from wasting his time in
mending just that identical stair, and had asserted that the stair was
in excellent condition. Horrocleave, though Napoleonic by disposition,
had a provincial mind, even a Five Towns mind. He regarded as sheer
loss any expenditure on repairs or renewals or the processes of
cleansing. His theory was that everything would "do" indefinitely. He
passed much of his time in making things "do." His confidence in the
theory that things could indeed be made to "do" was usually justified,
but the steps from the painting-shop--a gimcrack ladder with
hand-rail, attached somehow externally to a wall--had at length
betrayed it. That the accident had happened to himself, and not to a
lad balancing a plankful of art-lustre ware on one shoulder, was sheer
luck. And now the odd-man, with the surreptitious air of one engaged
in a nefarious act, was putting a new tread on the stairs. Thus
devoutly are the Napoleonic served!
Horrocleave seemed to weary of his correspondence.
"By the by," he said in a strange tone, "let's have a look at that
Louis rose, and with all his charm, with all the elegance of a man
intended by Nature for wealth and fashion instead of a slave on a foul
pot-bank, gave up the book. It was like giving up hope to the last
vestige, like giving up the ghost. He saw with horrible clearness that
he had been deceiving himself, that Horrocleave's ruthless eye could
not fail to discern at the first glance all his neat dodges, such as
additions of ten to the shillings, and even to the pounds here and
there, and ingenious errors in carrying forward totals from the bottom
of one page to the top of the next. He began to speculate whether
Horrocleave would be content merely to fling him out of the office, or
whether he would prosecute. Prosecution seemed much more in accordance
with the Napoleonic temperament, and yet Louis could not, then,
conceive himself the victim of a prosecution.... Anybody else, but not
Horrocleave, his elbow on the table, leaned his head on his hand and
began to examine the book. Suddenly he looked up at Louis, who could
not move and could not cease from agreeably smiling.
Said Horrocleave in a still more peculiar tone--
"Just ask Axon whether he means to go fetch wages to-day or to-morrow.
Has he forgotten it's Saturday morning?"
Louis shot away into the outer office, where Axon was just putting on
his hat to go to the bank.
Alone in the outer office Louis wondered. The whole of his vitality
was absorbed in the single function of wondering. Then through the
thin slit of the half-open door between the top and the middle hinges,
he beheld Horrocleave bending in judgment over the book. And he
gazed at the vision in the fascination of horror. In a few moments
Horrocleave leaned back, and Louis saw that his face had turned paler.
It went almost white. Horrocleave was breathing strangely, his arms
dropped downward, his body slipped to one side, his cap fell off, his
eyes shut, his mouth opened, his head sank loosely over the back
of the chair like the head of a corpse. He had fainted. The
thought passed through Louis' mind that stupefaction at the complex
unrighteousness of the petty-cash records had caused Horrocleave to
lose consciousness. Then the true explanation occurred to him. It was
the pain in his ankle that had overcome the heroic sufferer. Louis