Tales of the Five Towns Part 14

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'I'm glad of this opportunity--very glad,' he proceeded. 'I've been wanting to ... You must know, my dear girl, how I feel....'

She gave a gesture, charming in its sweet humility, as if to say: 'Who am I that I should dare----'

And then he proposed to her, asked her to share his life, and all that sort of thing; and when he had finished he thought, 'It's done now, anyway.'

Strange to relate, she offered no immediate reply, but she bent a little towards him with s.h.i.+ning, happy eyes. He had an impulse to seize her in his arms and kiss her, but prudence suggested that he should defer the rite. She turned and began to walk slowly and meditatively towards the pit-shaft. He followed almost at her side, but a foot or so behind, waiting for her to speak. And as he waited, expectant, he looked at her profile and reflected how well the name May suited her, with its significances of shyness and dreamy hope, and hidden fire and the modesty of spring.

And while he was thus savouring her face, and they were still ten yards from the pit-shaft, she suddenly disappeared from his vision, as it were by a conjuring trick. He had a horrible sensation in his spinal column.

He was not the man to mistrust the evidence of his senses, and he knew, therefore, that he had been proposing to a phantom.

V

The next morning--early, because of Jim's early breakfast--when May Deane's disappearance became known to the members of the household, Jim had the idea of utilizing Carlo in the search for her. The retriever went straight, without a fault, to the pit-shaft, and May was discovered alive and unscathed, save for a contusion of the face and a sprain in the wrist.

Her suicidal plunge had been arrested, at only a few feet from the top of the shaft, by a cross-stay of timber, upon which she lay p.r.o.ne. There was no reason why the affair should be made public, and it was not. It was suppressed into one of those secrets which embed themselves in the history of families, and after two or three generations blossom into romantic legends full of appropriate circ.u.mstantial detail.

Lionel Woolley spent a woeful night at his rooms. He did not know what to do, and on the following day May Lawton encountered him again, and proved by her demeanour that the episode of the previous afternoon had caused no estrangement. Lionel vacillated. The sway of the schoolmistress was almost restored, and it would have been restored fully had he not been preoccupied by a feverish curiosity--the curiosity to know whether or not May Deane was dead. He felt that she must indeed be dead, and he lived through the day expectant of the news of her sudden decease. Towards night his state of mind was such that he was obliged to call at the Deanes'. May heard him, and insisted on seeing him; more, she insisted on seeing him alone in the breakfast-room, where she reclined, interestingly white, on the sofa. Her father and brothers objected strongly to the interview, but they yielded, afraid that a refusal might induce hysteria and worse things.

And when Lionel Woolley came into the room, May, steeped in felicity, related to him the story of her impulsive crime.

'I was so happy,' she said, 'when I knew that Miss Lawton had deceived me.' And before he could inquire what she meant, she continued rapidly: 'I must have been unconscious, but I felt you were there, and something of me went out towards you. And oh! the answer to your question--I heard your question; the real _me_ heard it, but that _something_ could not speak.'

'My question?'

'You asked a question, didn't you?' she faltered, sitting up.

He hesitated, and then surrendered himself to her immense love and sank into it, and forgot May Lawton.

'Yes,' he said.

'The answer is yes. Oh, you must have known the answer would be yes! You did know, didn't you?'

He nodded grandly.

She sighed with delicious and overwhelming joy.

In the ecstasy of the achievement of her desire the girl gave little thought to the psychic aspect of the possibly unique wooing.

As for Lionel, he refused to dwell on it even in thought. And so that strange, magic, yearning effluence of a soul into a visible projection and shape was ignored, slurred over, and, after ten years of domesticity in the bank premises, is gradually being forgotten.

He is a man of business, and she, with her fading beauty, her ardent, continuous wors.h.i.+p of the idol, her half-dozen small children, the eldest of whom is only eight, and the white window-curtains to change every week because of the s.m.u.ts--do you suppose she has time or inclination to ponder upon the theory of the subliminal consciousness and kindred mysteries?

TIDDY-FOL-LOL

It was the dinner-hour, and a group of ragged and clay-soiled apprentice boys were making a great noise in the yard of Henry Mynors and Co.'s small, compact earthenware manufactory up at Toft End. Toft End caps the ridge to the east of Bursley; and Bursley, which has been the home of the potter for ten centuries, is the most ancient of the Five Towns in Staffords.h.i.+re. The boys, dressed for the most part in s.h.i.+rt, trousers, and boots, all equally ragged and insecure, were playing at prison-bars.

Soon the game ended abruptly in a clamorous dispute upon a point of law, and it was not recommenced. The dispute dying a natural death, the tireless energies of the boys needed a fresh outlet. Inspired by a common instinct, they began at once to bait one of their number, a slight youngster of twelve years, much better clothed than the rest, who had adventurously strolled in from a neighbouring manufactory. This child answered their jibes in an amiable, silly, drawling tone which seemed to justify the epithet 'Loony,' frequently applied to him. Now and then he stammered; and then companions laughed loud, and he with them. It was known that several years ago he had fallen down a flight of stone steps, alighting on the back of his head, and that ever since he had been deaf of one ear and under some trifling mental derangement. His sublime calmness under their jests baffled them until the terrible figure of Mr. Machin, the engine-man, standing at the door of the slip-house, caught their attention and suggested a plan full of joyous possibilities. They gathered round the lad, and, talking in subdued murmurs, unanimously urged him with many persuasions to a certain course of action. He declined the scheme, and declined again. Suddenly a boy shouted:

'Thee dars' na'!'

'I dare,' was the drawled, smiling answer.

'I tell thee thee dars' na'!'

'I tell thee I dare.' And thereupon he slowly but resolutely set out for the slip-house door and Mr. Machin.

Eli Machin was beyond doubt the most considerable employe on Clarke's 'bank' (manufactory). Even Henry Clarke approached him with a subtly-indicated deference, and whenever Silas Emery, the immensely rich and miserly sleeping partner in the firm, came up to visit the works, these two old men chatted as old friends. In a modern earthenware manufactory the engine-room is the source of all activity, for, owing to the inventive genius of a famous and venerable son of the Five Towns, steam now presides at nearly every stage in the long process of turning earth into ware. It moves the pug-mill, the jollies, and the marvellous batting machines, dries the unfired clay, heats the printers' stoves, and warms the offices where the 'jacket-men' dwell. Coal is a tremendous item in the cost of production, and a competent, economical engine-man can be sure of good wages and a choice of berths; he is desired like a good domestic servant. Eli Machin was the prince of engine-men. His engine never went wrong, his coal bills were never extravagant, and (supreme virtue!) he was never absent on Mondays. From his post in the slip-house he watched over the whole works like a father, stern, gruff, forbidding, but to be trusted absolutely. He was sixty years old, and had been 'putting by' for nearly half a century. He lived in a tiny villa-cottage with his bed-ridden, cheerful wife, and lent small sums on mortgage of approved freeholds at 5 per cent.--no more and no less.

Secure behind this rampart of saved money, he was the equal of the King on the throne. Not a magnate in all the Five Towns who would dare to be condescending to Eli Machin. He had been a sidesman at the old church. A trades-union had once asked him to become a working-man candidate for the Bursley Town Council, but he had refused because he did not care for the possibility of losing caste by being concerned in a strike. His personal respectability was entirely unsullied, and he wors.h.i.+pped this abstract quality as he wors.h.i.+pped G.o.d.

There was only one blot--but how foul!--on Eli Machin's career, and that had been dropped by his daughter Miriam, when, defying his authority, she married a scene-s.h.i.+fter at Hanbridge Theatre. The atrocious idea of being connected with the theatre had rendered him speechless for a time. He could but endure it in the most awful silence that ever hid pa.s.sionate feeling. Then one day he had burst out, 'The wench is no better than a tiddy-fol-lol!' Only this solitary phrase--nothing else.

What a tiddy-fol-lol was no one quite knew; but the word, getting about, stuck to him, and for some weeks boys used to shout it after him in the streets, until he caught one of them, and in thirty seconds put an end to the practice. Thenceforth Miriam, with all hers, was dead to him.

When her husband expired of consumption, Eli Machin saw the avenging arm of the Lord in action; and when her boy grew to be a source of painful anxiety to her, he said to himself that the wrath of Heaven was not yet cooled towards this impious daughter. The pa.s.sage of fifteen years had apparently in no way softened his resentment.

The challenged lad in Mynors' yard slowly approached the slip-house door, and halted before Eli Machin, grinning.

'Well, young un,' the old man said absently, 'what dost want?'

'Tiddy-fol-lol, grandfeyther,' the child drawled in his silly, irritating voice, and added: 'They said I darena say it to ye.'

Without and instant's hesitation Eli Machin raised his still powerful arm, and, catching the boy under the ear, knocked him down. The other boys yelled with unaffected pleasure and ran away.

'Get up, and be off wi' ye. Ye dunna belong to this bank,' said Eli Machin in cold anger to the lad. But the lad did not stir; the lad's eyes were closed, and he lay white on the stones.

Eli Machin bent down, and peered through his spectacles at the p.r.o.ne form upon which the mid-day sun was beating.

'It's Miriam's boy!' he e.j.a.c.u.l.a.t.ed under his breath, and looked round as if in inquiry--the yard was empty. Then with quick decision he picked up this limp and inconvenient parcel of humanity and hastened--ran--with it out of the yard into the road.

Down the road he ran, turned to the left into Clowes Street, and stopped before a row of small brown cottages. At the open door of one of these cottages a woman sat sewing. She was rather stout and full-bosomed, with a fair, fresh face, full of sense and peace; she looked under thirty, but was older.

'Here's thy Tommy, Miriam,' said Eli Machin shortly. 'He give me some of his sauce, and I doubt I've done him an injury.'

The woman dropped her sewing.

'Eh, dear!' she cried, 'is that lad o' mine in mischief again? I do hope he's no limb brokken.'

'It in'na that,' said the old man, 'but he's dazed-like. Better lay him on th' squab.'

She calmly took Tommy and placed him gently down on the check-covered sofa under the window. 'Come in, father, do.'

Tales of the Five Towns Part 14

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Tales of the Five Towns Part 14 summary

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