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   Chapter 13 No.13

Tales of the Five Towns By Arnold Bennett Characters: 7049

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In the boudoir of the magnificent flat on the first floor, shielded from the noise and the inclemency of the world by four silk-hung walls and a double window, and surrounded by all the multitudinous and costly luxury that a stockbroker with brains and taste can obtain for the wife of his love, May was leisurely finishing her toilette. And every detail in the long, elaborate process was accomplished with a passionate intention to bewitch the man at Winchester House.

These two had first met seven years before, when May, the daughter of a successful wholesale draper at Hanbridge, in the Five Towns district of Staffordshire, was aged twenty-two. Mr. Scarratt went to Manchester each Tuesday to buy, and about once a month he took May with him. One day, when they were lunching at the Exchange Restaurant, a young man came up whom her father introduced as Mr. Edward Norris, his stockbroker. Mr. Norris, whose years were thirty, glanced keenly at May, and accepted Mr. Scarratt's invitation to join them. Ever afterwards May vividly remembered the wonderful sensation, joyous yet disconcerting, which she then experienced-the sensation of having captivated her father's handsome and correct stockbroker. The three talked horses with a certain freedom, and since May was accustomed to drive the Scarratt dogcart, so famous in the Five Towns, she could bring her due share to the conversation. The meal over, Mr. Norris discussed business matters with his client, and then sedately departed, but not without the obviously sincere expression of a desire to meet Miss Scarratt again. The wholesale draper praised Edward's financial qualities behind his back, and wondered that a man of such aptitude should remain in Manchester while London existed. As for May, she decided that she would have a new frock before she came to Manchester in the following month.

She had a new frock, but not of the colour intended. By the following month her father was enclosed in a coffin, and it happened to his estate, as to the estates of many successful men who employ stockbrokers, that the liabilities far more than covered the assets. May and her mother were left without a penny. The mother did the right thing, and died-it was best. May went direct to Brunt's, the largest draper in the Five Towns, and asked for a place under 'Madame' in the dress-making department. Brunt's daughter, who was about to be married, gave her the place instantly. Three years later, when 'Madame' returned to Paris, May stepped into the French-woman's shoes.

On Sundays and on Thursday afternoons, and sometimes (but not too often) at the theatre, May was the finest walking advertisement that Brunt's ever had. Old Brunt would have proposed to her, it was rumoured, had he not been scared by her elegance. Sundry sons of prosperous manufacturers, unabashed by this elegance, did in fact secretly propose, but with what result was known only to themselves.

Later, as May waxed in importance at Brunt's, she was sent to Manchester to buy. She lunched at the Exchange Restaurant. The world and Manchester are very small. The first man she set eyes on was Edward Norris. Another week, Norris said to her with a thrill, and he would have been gone for ever to London. Chance is not to be flouted. The sequel was inevitable. They loved. And all the select private bars in Hanbridge tinkled to the news that May Scarratt had been and hooked a stockbroker!

When the toilette was done, and the maid gone, she wound a thin black scarf round her

olive neck and shoulders, and sat down negligently on a Chippendale settee in the attitude of a portrait by Boldini; her little feet were tucked up sideways on the settee; the perforated lace ends of the scarf fell over her low corsage to the level of the seat. And she waited, still the bride. He was late, but she knew he would be late. Sure in the conviction that he was a strong man, a man of imagination and of deeds, she could easily excuse this failing in him, as she did that other habit of impulsive action in trifles. Nay, more, she found keen pleasure in excusing it. 'Dear thing!' she reflected, 'he forgets so.' Therefore she waited, content in enjoying the image in the glass of her dark face, her small plump person, and her Paris gown-that dream! She thought with assuaged grief of her father's tragedy; she would have liked him to see her now, the jewel in the case-her father and she had understood each other.

All around, and above and below, she felt, without hearing it, the activity of the opulent, complex life of the mansions. Her mind dwelt with satisfaction on long carpeted corridors noiselessly paraded by flunkeys, mahogany lifts continually ascending and descending like the angels of the ladder, the great entrance hall with its fire always burning and its doors always swinging, the salle à manger sown with rose-shaded candles, and all the splendid privacies rising stage upon stage to the attics, where the flunkeys philosophized together. She confessed the beauty and distinction achieved by this extravagant organization for gratifying earthly desires. Often, in the pinching days of her servitude, she had murmured against the injustice of things, and had called wealth a crime while poverty starved. But now she perceived that society was what it was inevitably, and could not be altered. She accepted it in profound peace of mind, gaily fraternal towards the fortunate, compassionate towards those in adversity.

In the next flat someone began to play very brilliantly a Hungarian Rhapsody of Liszt's. And even the faint sound of that riotous torrent of melody, so arrogantly gorgeous, intoxicated her soul. She shivered under the sudden vision of the splendid joy of being alive. And how she envied the player! French she had learned from 'Madame,' but she had no skill on the piano; it was her one regret.

She touched the bell.

'Has your master come in yet?' she inquired of the maid.

'No, madam, not yet.'

She knew he had not come in, but she could not resist the impulse to ask.

Ten minutes later, when the piano had ceased, she jumped up, and, creeping to the front-door of the flat, gazed foolishly across the corridor at the grille of the lift. She heard the lift in travail. It appeared and passed out of sight above. No, he had not come! Glancing aside, she saw the tall slender figure of a girl in a green tea-gown-a mere girl: it was the player of the Hungarian Rhapsody. And this girl, too, she thought, was expectant and disappointed! They shut their doors simultaneously, she and May, who also had her girlish moments. Then the rhapsody recommenced.

'Oh, madam!' screamed the maid, almost tumbling into the boudoir.

'What is it?' May demanded with false calm.

The maid lifted the corner of her black apron to her eyes, as though she had been a stage soubrette in trouble.

'The master, madam! He's fell out of his cab-just in front of the mansions-and they're bringing him in-such blood I never did see!'

The maid finished with hysterics.

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