Ada was just crossing the hall to the drawing-room, a telegram on a salver in her red hand.
“Here you are, Ada,” said Edwin, stopping her, with a gesture towards the telegram.
“It’s for Mr. Tom Swetnam, sir.”
Edwin and Hilda followed the starched and fussy girl into the drawing-room, in which were about a dozen people, including Fearns, the lawyer, and his wife, the recently married Stephen and Vera Cheswardine, several Swetnams, and Janet Orgreave, who sat at the closed piano, smiling vaguely.
Tom Swetnam, standing up, took the telegram.
“I never knew they delivered telegrams at this time o’ night,” said Fearns sharply, looking at his watch. He was wont to keep a careful eye on the organisation of railways, ships, posts, and other contrivances for the shifting of matter from one spot to another. An exacting critic of detail, he was proud of them in the mass, and called them civilisation.
“They don’t,” said Tom Swetnam naughtily, glad to plague a man older than himself, and the father of a family. Tom was a mere son, but he had travelled, and was, indeed, just returned from an excursion through Scandinavia. “Observe there’s no deception. The envelope’s been opened. Moreover, it’s addressed to Ben Clewlow, not to me. Ben’s sent it up. I asked him to. Now, we’ll see.”
Having displayed the envelope like a conjurer, he drew forth the telegram, and prepared to read it aloud. One half of the company was puzzled; the other half showed an instructed excitement. Tom read the message:
“‘Twenty-seven pounds ten nine. Philosophers tell us that there is nothing new under the sun. Nevertheless it may well be doubted whether the discovery of gold at Barmouth, together with two earthquake shocks following each other in quick succession in the same district, does not constitute, in the history of the gallant little Principality, a double event of unique —’” He stopped.
Vera Cheswardine, pretty, fluffy, elegant, cried out with all the impulsiveness of her nature:
“Whatever is it all about?” mildly asked Mrs. Fearns, a quiet and dignified, youngish woman whom motherhood had made somewhat absent-minded when she was away from her children.
“Missing-word competition,” Fearns explained to her with curt, genial superiority. He laughed outright. “You do go it, some of you chaps,” he said. “Why, that telegram cost over a couple of bob, I bet!”
“Well, you see,” said Tom Swetnam, “three of us share it. We get it thirty-six hours before the paper’s out — fellow in London — and there’s so much more time to read the dictionary. No use half doing a thing! Twenty-seven pounds odd! Not a bad share this week, eh?”
“Rather. We had the wire about the winning word this morning. We’d sent it in four times. That makes about £110, doesn’t it? Between three of us. We sent in nearly two hundred postal orders. Which leaves £100 clear. Thirty-three quid apiece, net.”
He tried to speak calmly and nonchalantly, but his excitement was extreme. The two younger Swetnams regarded him with awe. Everybody was deeply impressed by the prodigious figures, and in many hearts envy, covetousness, and the wild desire for a large, free life of luxury were aroused.
“Seems to me you’ve reduced this game to a science,” said Edwin.
“Well, we have,” Tom Swetnam admitted. “We send in every possible word.”
“It’s a mere thousand per cent profit per week,” murmured Fearns. “At the rate of fifty thousand per cent per annum.”
Albert Benbow, entering, caught the last phrase, which very properly whetted his curiosity as a man of business. Clara followed him closely. On nearly all ceremonial occasions these two had an instinctive need of each other’s presence and support; and if Albert did not run after Clara, Clara ran after Albert.
Then came the proof of the genius, the cynicism and the insight of the leviathan newspaper-proprietor who had invented the dodge of inviting his readers to risk a shilling and also to buy a coupon for the privilege of supplying a missing word, upon the understanding that the shillings of those who supplied the wrong word should be taken for ever away from them and given to those who supplied the right word. The entire company in the Clayhanger drawing-room was absorbed in the tremendous missing-word topic, and listened to Swetnam as to a new prophet bearing the secret of eternal felicity. The rumour of Swetnam’s triumph drew people out of the delectable dining-room to listen to his remarks; and among these was Auntie Hamps. So it was in a thousand, in ten thousand, in hundreds of thousands of homes of all kinds throughout the kingdom. The leviathan journalist’s readers (though as a rule they read nothing in his paper save the truncated paragraph and the rules of the competition) had grown to be equivalent to the whole British public. And he not only held them but he had overshadowed all other interests in their minds. Upon honeymoons people thought of the missing-word amid caresses, and it is a fact that people had died with the missing word on their lips. Sane adults of both sexes read the dictionary through from end to end every week with an astounding conscientiousness. The leviathan newspaper-proprietor could not buy enough paper, nor hire sufficient presses, to meet the national demands. And no wonder, seeing that any small news-agent in a side street was liable at any moment to receive an order from an impassioned student of periodical literature for more copies of one issue of the journal than the whole town had been used to buy before the marvellous invention of the missing-word. The post office was incommoded; even the Postmaster General was incommoded, and only by heroical efforts and miraculous feats of resourcefulness did he save himself from the ignominy of running out of shilling postal orders. Post office girls sold shilling postal orders with a sarcastic smile, with acerbity, with reluctance — it was naught to them that the revenue was benefited and the pressure on taxpayers eased. Employers throughout the islands suffered vast losses owing to the fact that for months their offices and factories were inhabited not by clerks and other employees, but by wage-paid monomaniacs who did naught but read dictionaries and cut out and fill up coupons. And over all the land there hung the dark incredible menace of an unjust prosecution under the Gambling Laws, urged by interfering busybodies who would not let a nation alone.
“And how much did you make last week, Mr. Swetnam?” judicially asked Albert Benbow, who was rather pleased and flattered, as an active Wesleyan, to rub shoulders with frank men of the world like Tom. As an active Wesleyan he had hitherto utterly refused to listen to the missing-word; but now it seemed to be acquiring respectability enough for his ears.
Swetnam replied with a casual air:
“We didn’t make much last week. We won something, of course. We win every week; that’s a mathematical certainty — but sometimes the expenses mount up a bit higher than the receipts. It depends on the word. If it’s an ordinary word that everybody chooses, naturally the share is a small one because there are so many winners.” He gave no more exact details.
Clara breathed a disillusioned “Oh!” implying that she had known there must be some flaw in the scheme — and her husband had at once put his finger on it.
But her husband, with incipient enthusiasm for the word, said: “Well, it stands to reason they must take one week with another, and average it out.”
“Now, Albert! Now, Albert!” Edwin warned him. “No gambling.”
Albert replied with some warmth: “I don’t see that there’s any gambling in it. Appears to me that it’s chiefly skill and thoroughness that does the trick.”
“Gambling!” murmured Tom Swetnam shortly. “Of course it’s not gambling.”
“Well,” said Vera Cheswardine, “I say ‘novelty.’ ‘A double event of unique novelty.’ That’s it.”
“I shouldn’t go nap on ‘novelty,’ if I were you,” said Tom Swetnam, the expert.
Tom read the thing again.
“Novelty,” Vera repeated. “I know it’s novelty. I’m always right, aren’t I, Stephen?” She looked round. “Ask Stephen.”
“You were right last week but one, my child,” said Stephen.
“And did you make anything?” Clara demanded eagerly.
“Only fifteen shillings,” said Vera discontentedly. “But if Stephen had listened to me we should have made lots.”
Albert Benbow’s interest in the word was strengthened.
Fearns, leaning carefully back in his chair, asked with fine indifference: “By the way, what is this week’s word, Tom? I haven’t your secret sources of information. I have to wait for the paper.”
“‘Unaccountably,’” said Tom. “Had you anything on it?”
“No,” Fearns admitted. “I’ve caught a cold this week, it seems.”
Albert Benbow stared at him. Here was another competitor — and as acute a man of business as you would find in the Five Towns!
“Me, too!” said Edwin, smiling like a culprit.
Hilda sprang up gleefully, and pointed at him a finger of delicious censure.
“Oh! You wicked sinner! You never told me you’d gone in! You deceitful old thing!”
“Well, it was a man at the shop who would have me try,” Edwin boyishly excused himself.
Hilda’s vivacity enchanted Edwin. The charm of her reproof was simply exquisite in its good-nature and in the elegance of its gesture. The lingering taste of the feverish kiss she had given him a few minutes earlier bemused him and he flushed. To conceal his inconvenient happiness in the thought of his wife he turned to open the new enlarged window that gave on the garden. (He had done away with the old garden-entrance of the house, and thrown the side corridor into the drawing-room.) Then he moved towards Janet Orgreave, who was still seated at the closed piano.
“Your father isn’t coming, I suppose?” he asked her.
The angelic spinster, stylishly dressed in white, and wearing as usual her kind heart on her sleeve, smiled with soft benignity, and shook her head.
“He told me to tell you he was too old. He is, you know.”
“And how’s your mother?”
“Oh, pretty well, considering. . . . I really ought not to leave them.”
“Oh, yes!” Edwin protested. The momentary vision of Mr. and Mrs. Orgreave in the large house close by, now practically deserted by all their children except Janet, saddened him.
Then a loud voice dominated the general conversation behind him:
“I say, this is a bit stiff. I did think I should be free of it here. But no! Same old missing-word everywhere! What is it this week, Swetnam?”
It was Johnnie Orgreave, appreciably younger than his sister, but a full-grown man of the world, and somewhat dandiacal. After shaking hands with Hilda he came straight to Edwin.
“Awfully sorry I’m so late, old chap. How do, Jan?”
“Of course you are,” Edwin quizzed him like an uncle.
“Not come! He said he should be here at eight. Just like him!” said Johnnie. “I expect he’s had a puncture.”
“I’ve been looking out for him every minute,” Edwin muttered.
In the middle of the room Albert Benbow, stocky and vulgar, but feeling himself more and more a man of the world among men and women of the world, was proclaiming, not without excitement:
“Well, I agree with Mrs. Cheswardine. ‘Novelty’ ‘s much more likely than ‘interest.’ ‘Interest’ ‘s the wrong kind of word altogether. It doesn’t agree with the beginning of the paragraph.”
“That’s right, Mr. Benbow,” Vera encouraged him with flirtatious dimples. “You put your money on me, even if my own husband won’t.” Albert as a dowdy dissenter was quite out of her expensive sphere, but to Vera any man was a man.
“Now, Albert,” Clara warned him, “if you win anything, you must give it to me for the new perambulator.”
(“Dash that girl’s infernal domesticity!” thought Edwin savagely.)
“Who says I’m going in for it, missis?” Albert challenged.
“I only say if you do, dear,” Clara said smoothly.
“Then I will!” Albert announced the great decision. “Just for the fun of the thing, I will. Thank ye, Mrs. Cheswardine.”
He glanced at Mrs. Cheswardine as a knight at his unattainable mistress. Indeed the decision had in it something of the chivalrous; the attention of slim provocative Vera, costliest and most fashionably dressed woman in Bursley, had stirred his fancy to wander far beyond its usual limits.
“Albert! Well, I never!” exclaimed Mrs. Hamps.
“You don’t mind, do you Auntie?” said Albert jovially, standing over her.
“Not if it’s not gambling,” said Mrs. Hamps stoutly. “And I hope it isn’t. And it would be very nice for Clara, I’m sure, if you won.”
“Hurrah for Mrs. Hamps!” Johnnie Orgreave almost yelled.
At the same moment, Janet Orgreave, swinging round on the music-stool, lifted the lid of the piano, and, still with her soft, angelic smile, played loudly and dashingly the barbaric, Bacchic, orgiastic melody which had just recently inflamed England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the Five Towns — the air which was unlike anything ever heard before by British ears, and which meant nothing whatever that could be avowed, the air which heralded social revolutions and inaugurated a new epoch. And as the ringed fingers of the quiet, fading spinster struck out the shocking melody, Vera Cheswardine and one or two others who had been to London and there seen the great legendary figure, Lottie Collins, hummed more or less brazenly the syllables heavy with mysterious significance:
Upon this entered Mr. Peartree, like a figure of retribution, and silence fell.
“I’m afraid . . . ” he began. “Mr. Benbow.”
They spoke together.
A scared servant-girl had come up from the Benbow home with the affrighting news that Bert Benbow, who had gone to bed with the other children as usual, was not in his bed and could not be discovered in the house. Mr. Peartree, being in the hall, had chosen himself to bear the grievous tidings to the drawing-room. In an instant Albert and Clara were parents again. Both had an idea that the unprecedented, incomprehensible calamity was a heavenly dispensation to punish them for having trifled with the missing-word. Their sudden seriousness was terrific. They departed immediately, without ceremony of any sort. Mrs. Hamps said that she really ought to go too, and Maggie said that as Auntie Hamps was going she also would go. The parson said that he had already stayed longer than he ought, in view of another engagement, and he followed. Edwin and Hilda dutifully saw them off and were as serious as the circumstances demanded. But those who remained in the drawing-room sniggered, and when Hilda rejoined them she laughed. The house felt lighter. Edwin, remaining longest at the door, saw a bicyclist on one of the still quaint pneumatic-tyred “safety” bicycles, coming along behind a “King of the Road” lamp. The rider dismounted at the corner.
“That you, Mr. Ingpen?”
Said a blithe voice:
“How d’ye do, host? When you’ve known me a bit longer you’ll learn that I always manage to arrive just when other people are leaving.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51