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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Regent By Arnold Bennett Characters: 12794

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Welcome to Stirling's box, Machin!" Robert Brindley greeted the alderman with an almost imperceptible wink. Edward Henry had encountered this wink once or twice before; he could not decide precisely what it meant; it was apt to make him reflective. He did not dislike Robert Brindley, his habit was not to dislike people; he admitted Brindley to be a clever architect, though he objected to the "modern" style of the fronts of his houses and schools. But he did take exception to the man's attitude towards the Five Towns, of which, by the way, Brindley was just as much a native as himself. Brindley seemed to live in the Five Towns like a highly-cultured stranger in a savage land, and to derive rather too much sardonic amusement from the spectacle of existence therein. Brindley was a very special crony of Stirling's, and had influenced Stirling. But Stirling was too clever to submit unduly to the influence. Besides, Stirling was not a native; he was only a Scotchman, and Edward Henry considered that what Stirling thought of the district did not matter. Other details about Brindley which Edward Henry deprecated were his necktie, which, for Edward Henry's taste, was too flowing, his scorn of the Pianisto (despite the man's tremendous interest in music) and his incipient [37] madness on the subject of books-a madness shared by Stirling. Brindley and the doctor were for ever chattering about books-and buying them.

So that, on the whole, Dr. Stirling's box was not a place where Edward Henry felt entirely at home. Nevertheless, the two men, having presented Mr. Bryany, did their best, each in his own way, to make him feel at home.

"Take this chair, Machin," said Stirling, indicating a chair at the front.

"Oh! I can't take the front chair!" Edward Henry protested.

"Of course you can, my dear Machin!" said Brindley, sharply. "The front chair in a stage-box is the one proper seat in the house for you. Do as your doctor prescribes."

And Edward Henry accordingly sat down at the front, with Mr. Bryany by his side, and the other two sat behind. But Edward Henry was not quite comfortable. He faintly resented that speech of Brindley's. And yet he did feel that what Brindley had said was true, and he was indeed glad to be in the front chair of a brilliant stage-box on the grand tier, instead of being packed away in the nethermost twilight of the Grand Circle. He wondered how Brindley and Stirling had managed to distinguish his face among the confusion of faces in that distant obscurity; he, Edward Henry, had failed to notice them, even in the prominence of their box. But that they had distinguished him showed how familiar and striking a figure he was. He wondered, too, why they should have invited him to hob-nob with them. He was not of their set. Indeed, like many very eminent men, he was not to any degree in anybody's set. Of one thing he was sure-because he had read it on the [38] self-conscious faces of all three of them-namely, that they had been discussing him. Possibly he had been brought up for Mr. Bryany's inspection as a major lion and character of the district. Well, he did not mind that; nay, he enjoyed that. He could feel Mr. Bryany covertly looking him over. And he thought: "Look, my boy! I make no charge." He smiled and nodded to one or two people who with pride saluted him from the stalls.... It was meet that he should be visible there on that Friday night!

"A full house!" he observed, to break the rather awkward silence of the box, as he glanced round at the magnificent smoke-veiled pageant of the aristocracy and the democracy of the Five Towns, crowded together, tier above gilded tier, up to the dim roof where ragged lads and maids giggled and flirted while waiting for the broken plates to be cleared away and the moving pictures to begin.

"You may say it!" agreed Mr. Bryany, who spoke with a very slight American accent. "Dakins positively hadn't a seat to offer me. I happened to have the evening free. It isn't often I do have a free evening. And so I thought I'd pop in here. But if Dakins hadn't introduced me to these gentlemen my seat would have had to be a standing one."

"So that's how they got to know him, is it?" thought Edward Henry.

And then there was another short silence.

"Hear you've been doing something striking in rubber shares, Machin?" said Brindley at length.

Astonishing how these things got abroad!

"Oh! very little, very little!" Edward Henry laughed modestly. "Too late to do much! In another fortnight the bottom will be all out of the rubber market."

"Of course I'm an Englishman"-Mr. Bryany began.

[39] "Why 'of course'?" Edward Henry interrupted him.

"Hear! Hear! Alderman. Why 'of course'?" said Brindley, approvingly, and Stirling's rich laugh was heard. "Only it does just happen," Brindley added, "that Mr. Bryany did us the honour to be born in the district."

"Yes! Longshaw," Mr. Bryany admitted, half proud and half apologetic. "Which I left at the age of two."

"Oh, Longshaw!" murmured Edward Henry with a peculiar inflection.

Longshaw is at the opposite end of the Five Towns from Bursley, and the majority of the inhabitants of Bursley have never been to Longshaw in their lives, have only heard of it, as they hear of Chicago or Bangkok. Edward Henry had often been to Longshaw, but, like every visitor from Bursley, he instinctively regarded it as a foolish and unnecessary place.

"As I was saying," resumed Mr. Bryany, quite unintimidated, "I'm an Englishman. But I've lived eighteen years in America, and it seems to me the bottom will soon be knocked out of pretty nearly all the markets in England. Look at the Five Towns!"

"No, don't, Mr. Bryany!" said Brindley. "Don't go to extremes!"

"Personally, I don't mind looking at the Five Towns," said Edward Henry. "What of it?"

"Well, did you ever see such people for looking twice at a five-pound note?"

Edward Henry most certainly did not like this aspersion on his native district. He gazed in silence at Mr. Bryany's brassy and yet simple [40] face, and did not like the face either.

And Mr. Bryany, beautifully unaware that he had failed in tact, continued: "The Five Towns is the most English place I've ever seen, believe me! Of course it has its good points, and England has her good points; but there's no money stirring. There's no field for speculation

on the spot, and as for outside investment, no Englishman will touch anything that really-is-good." He emphasized the last three words.

"What d'ye do yeself, Mr. Bryany?" inquired Dr Stirling.

"What do I do with my little bit?" cried Mr. Bryany. "Oh! I know what to do with my little bit. I can get ten per cent in Seattle and twelve to fifteen in Calgary on my little bit; and security just as good as English railway stock-and better!"

The theatre was darkened and the cinematograph began its restless twinkling.

Mr. Bryany went on offering to Edward Henry, in a suitably lowered voice, his views on the great questions of investment and speculation, and Edward Henry made cautious replies.

"And even when there is a good thing going at home," Mr. Bryany said, in a wounded tone, "what Englishman'd look at it?"

"I would," said Edward Henry with a blandness that was only skin-deep. For all the time he was cogitating the question whether the presence of Dr Stirling in the audience ought or ought not to be regarded as providential.

[41] "Now, I've got the option on a little affair in London," said Mr. Bryany, while Edward Henry glanced quickly at him in the darkness. "And can I get anybody to go into it? I can't."

"What sort of a little affair?"

"Building a theatre in the West End."

Even a less impassive man than Edward Henry would have started at the coincidence of this remark. And Edward Henry started. Twenty minutes ago he had been idly dreaming of theatrical speculation, and now he could almost see theatrical speculation shimmering before him in the pale shifting rays of the cinematograph that cut through the gloom of the mysterious auditorium.

"Oh!" And in this new interest he forgot the enigma of the ways of Providence.

"Of course, you know, I'm in the business," said Mr. Bryany. "I'm Seven Sachs's manager." It was as if he owned and operated Mr. Seven Sachs.

"So I heard," said Edward Henry, and then remarked with mischievous cordiality, "and I suppose these chaps told you I was the sort of man you were after. And you got them to ask me in, eh, Mr. Bryany?"

Mr. Bryany gave an uneasy laugh, but seemed to find naught to say.

"Well, what is your little affair?" Edward Henry encouraged him.

"Oh, I can't tell you now," said Mr. Bryany. "It would take too long. The thing has to be explained."

"Well, what about to-morrow?"

"I have to leave for London by the first train in the morning."

"Well, some other time?"

"After to-morrow will be too late."

"Well, what about to-night?"

"The fact is, I've half promised to go with Dr Stirling to some club or other after the show. Otherwise we might have had a quiet, confidential chat in my rooms over at the Turk's Head. I never [42] dreamt-" Mr. Bryany was now as melancholy as a greedy lad who regards rich fruit at arm's length through a plate-glass window, and he had ceased to be patronizing.

"I'll soon get rid of Stirling for you," said Edward Henry, turning instantly towards the doctor. The ways of Providence had been made plain to Edward Henry. "I say, doc!" But the doctor and Brindley were in conversation with another man at the open door of the box.

"What is it?" said Stirling.

"I've come to fetch you. You're wanted at my place."

"Well, you're a caution!" said Stirling.

"Why am I a caution?" Edward Henry smoothly protested. "I didn't tell you before because I didn't want to spoil your fun."

Stirling's mien was not happy.

"Did they tell you I was here?" he asked.

"You'd almost think so, wouldn't you?" said Edward Henry in a playful, enigmatic tone. After all, he decided privately, his wife was right; it was better that Stirling should see the infant. And there was also this natural human thought in his mind; he objected to the doctor giving an entire evening to diversions away from home-he considered that a doctor, when not on a round of visits, ought to be for ever in his consulting-room, ready for a sudden call of emergency. It was monstrous that Stirling should have proposed, after an escapade at the music-hall, to spend further hours with chance acquaintances in vague clubs! Half the town might fall sick and die while the doctor was vainly amusing himself. Thus the righteous lay-man in Edward Henry!

"What's the matter?" asked Stirling.

[43] "My eldest's been rather badly bitten by a dog, and the missis wants it cauterized."

"Really?"

"Well, you bet she does!"

"Where's the bite?"

"In the calf."

The other man at the door having departed Robert Brindley abruptly joined the conversation at this point.

"I suppose you've heard of that case of hydrophobia at Bleakridge?" said Brindley.

Edward Henry's heart jumped.

"No, I haven't!" he said anxiously. "What is it?"

He gazed at the white blur of Brindley's face in the darkened box, and he could hear the rapid clicking of the cinematograph behind him.

"Didn't you see it in the Signal?"

"No."

"Neither did I," said Brindley.

At the same moment the moving pictures came to an end, the theatre was filled with light, and the band began to play "God Save the King." Brindley and Stirling were laughing. And, indeed, Brindley had scored, this time, over the unparalleled card of the Five Towns.

"I make you a present of that," said Edward Henry. "But my wife's most precious infant has to be cauterized, doctor," he added firmly.

"Got your car here?" Stirling questioned.

"No. Have you?"

"No."

"Well, there's the tram. I'll follow you later. I've some business round this way. Persuade my wife not to worry, will you?"

And when a discontented Dr. Stirling had made his excuses and adieux to Mr. Bryany, and Robert Brindley had decided that he could not leave [44] his crony to travel by tram-car alone, and the two men had gone, then Edward Henry turned to Mr. Bryany.

"That's how I get rid of the doctor, you see!"

"But has your child been bitten by a dog?" asked Mr. Bryany, acutely perplexed.

"You'd almost think so, wouldn't you?" Edward Henry replied, carefully non-committal. "What price going to the Turk's Head now?"

He remembered with satisfaction, and yet with misgiving, a remark made to him, a judgment passed on him, by a very old woman very many years before. This discerning hag, the Widow Hullins by name, had said to him briefly, "Well, you're a queer 'un!"

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