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   Chapter 3 No.3

Denry the Audacious By Arnold Bennett Characters: 6906

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The Countess was late; some trouble with a horse. Happily the Earl had been in Bursley all day and had dressed at the Conservative Club; and his lordship had ordered that the programme of dances should be begun. Denry learned this as soon as he emerged, effulgent, from the gentlemen's cloak-room into the broad red-carpeted corridor which runs from end to end of the ground-floor of the Town Hall. Many important townspeople were chatting in the corridor-the innumerable Sweetnam family, the Stanways, the great Etches, the Fearnses, Mrs. Clayton Vernon, the Suttons, including Beatrice Sutton. Of course everybody knew him for Duncalf's shorthand clerk and the son of the incomparable flannel-washer; but universal white kid gloves constitute a democracy, and Sillitoe could put more style into a suit than any other tailor in the Five Towns.

"How do?" the eldest of the Sweetnam boys nodded carelessly.

"How do, Sweetnam?" said Denry with equal carelessness.

The thing was accomplished! That greeting was like a masonic initiation, and henceforward he was the peer of no matter whom. At first he had thought that four hundred eyes would be fastened on him, their glance saying: "This youth is wearing a dress-suit for the first time, and it is not paid for, either." But it was not so. And the reason was that the entire population of the Town Hall was heartily engaged in pretending that never in its life had it been seen after seven o'clock of a night apart from a dress-suit. Denry observed with joy that, while numerous middle-aged and awkward men wore red or white silk handkerchiefs in their waistcoats, such people as Charles Fearns, the Sweetnams, and Harold Etches did not. He was, then, in the shyness of his handkerchief, on the side of the angels.

He passed up the double staircase (decorated with white or pale frocks of unparalleled richness) and so into the grand hall. A scarlet orchestra was on the platform, and many people strolled about the floor in attitudes of expectation. The walls were festooned with flowers. The thrill of being magnificent seized him, and he was drenched in a vast desire to be truly magnificent himself. He dreamt of magnificence, boot-brushes kept sticking out of this dream like black mud out of snow. In his reverie he looked about for Ruth Earp, but she was invisible. Then he went down-stairs again, idly; gorgeously feigning that he spent six evenings a week in ascending and descending monumental staircases, appropriately clad. He was determined to be as sublime as any one.

There was a stir in the corridor, and the sublimest consented to be excited.

The Countess was announced to be imminent. Everybody was grouped round the main portal, careless of temperatures. Six times was the Countess announced to be imminent before she actually appeared, expanding from the narrow gloom of her black carriage like a magic vision. Aldermen received her, and they did not do it with any excess of gracefulness. They seemed afraid of her, as though she was recovering from influenza and they feared to catch it. She had precisely the same high voice, and precisely the same efficient smile as she had employed to Denry, and these instruments worked marvels on Aldermen; they were as melting as salt on snow. The Countess disappeared up-stairs in a cloud of shrill apologies and trailing Aldermen. She seemed to have greeted everybody except Denry. Somehow he was relieved that she had not

drawn attention to him. He lingered, hesitating, and then he saw a being in a long yellow overcoat, with a bit of peacock's feather at the summit of a shiny high hat. This being held a lady's fur mantle. Their eyes met. Denry had to decide instantly. He decided.

"Hello, Jock!" he said.

"Hello, Denry!" said the other, pleased.

"What's been happening?" Denry enquired, friendly.

Then Jock told him about the antics of one of the Countess's horses.

He went up-stairs again, and met Ruth Earp coming down. She was glorious in white. Except that nothing glittered in her hair, she looked the very equal of the Countess, at a little distance, plain though her features were.

"What about that waltz?" Denry began, informally.

"That waltz is nearly over," said Ruth Earp, with chilliness. "I suppose you 've been staring at her ladyship with all the other men."

"I 'm awfully sorry," he said. "I did n't know the waltz was--"

"Well, why did n't you look at your programme?"

"Have n't got one," he said na?vely.

He had omitted to take a programme. Ninny! Barbarian!

"Better get one," she said, cuttingly, somewhat in her r?le of dancing mistress.

"Can't we finish the waltz?" he suggested, crestfallen.

"No!" she said, and continued her solitary way downwards.

She was hurt. He tried to think of something to say that was equal to the situation, and equal to the style of his suit. But he could not. In a moment he heard her, below him, greeting some male acquaintance in the most effusive way.

Yet, if Denry had not committed a wicked crime for her, she could never have come to the dance at all!

He got a programme, and with terror gripping his heart he asked sundry young and middle-aged women whom he knew by sight and by name for a dance. (Ruth had taught him how to ask.) Not one of them had a dance left. Several looked at him as much as to say: "You must be a goose to suppose that my programme is not filled up in the twinkling of my eye!"

Then he joined a group of despisers of dancing near the main door. Harold Etches was there, the wealthiest manufacturer of his years (barely twenty-four) in the Five Towns. Also Sillitoe, cause of another of Denry's wicked crimes. The group was taciturn, critical, and very doggish.

The group observed that the Countess was not dancing. The Earl was dancing (need it be said with Mrs. Jos. Curtenly, second wife of the Deputy Mayor?), but the Countess stood resolutely smiling, surrounded by Aldermen. Possibly she was getting her breath; possibly nobody had had the pluck to ask her. Anyhow she seemed to be stranded there, on a beach of Aldermen. Very wisely she had brought with her no members of a house-party from Sneyd Hall. Members of a house-party, at a municipal ball, invariably operate as a bar between greatness and democracy; and the Countess desired to participate in the life of the people.

"Why don't some of those johnnies ask her?" Denry burst out. He had hitherto said nothing in the group, and he felt that he must be a man with the rest of them.

"Well, you go and do it. It's a free country," said Sillitoe.

"So I would, for two pins!" said Denry.

Harold Etches glanced at him, apparently resentful of his presence there. Harold Etches was determined to put the extinguisher on him.

"I 'll bet you a fiver you don't," said Etches, scornfully.

"I 'll take you," said Denry very quickly, and very quickly walked off.

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