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E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM

THE MAYOR ON HORSEBACK

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First US edition: Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1937

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-02-28
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"The Mayor on Horseback," Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1937



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"The Mayor on Horseback," Dutch Edition



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Chapter XVI
Chapter XVII
Chapter XVIII
Chapter XIX
Chapter XX
Chapter XXI
Chapter XXII
Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIV
Chapter XXV
Chapter XXVI
Chapter XXVII
Chapter XXVIII
Chapter XXIX
Chapter XXX
Chapter XXXI
Chapter XXXII
Chapter XXXIII



CHAPTER I

BOREDOM came to the Mayor of Mechester, as it had done several times before, seated in his high-backed oak chair in the famous apartment well known to antiquarians entitled the Mayor's Parlour. He was receiving a deputation who were seated around the long table at which he presided. They were a dull and uninspiring-looking lot of men. Most of them he remembered had been school fellows of his in the Grammar School of the old town and they seemed to have plodded their way through life with uncertain and cumbersome footsteps. Alderman Alfred Mason, a bespectacled, anaemic looking man on his right who was reading from a sheet of foolscap, had once been head boy of the school. Probably his scholarly gifts had driven from his brain every element of imagination and enterprise. There were others there of the same type—complacent, prosperous in their walks of life simply because they were too easily satisfied. It was without a doubt a dull affair.

Alderman Mason brought his reading to an end, resumed his seat and looked expectantly towards His Worship the Mayor. The smothered murmur of applause which had greeted his last sentence faded spasmodically away. The Mayor, whose name was Daniel Poynton, pushed back a mass of thickly-growing, unruly black hair from his forehead and showed himself in no hurry to frame his reply. He was a heavily-built but well- proportioned man with a power and significance in his features which distinguished him in that somewhat mediocre company. He clasped his hands together and leaned slightly forward. He spoke deliberately and firmly.

"My old friends," he said, "and fellow townsmen, I am about to disappoint you. I have given this matter of open spaces my careful consideration. In my opinion, for a borough of our size, enough space is already given up for recreation grounds devoted to the pursuit of sport pure and simple. You are most of you, I see, town councillors and I shall be divulging no confidences if I tell you that before very long a housing scheme will come before you officially which will need all the spare land we can lay our hands upon even when we have demolished certain districts in the town which, in my opinion and the opinion of the Borough Surveyor, are unsanitary. My answer to you gentlemen, therefore, I regret to say is in the negative."

There was a blank silence, a feeling of dissatisfaction which made itself felt more by frowning faces and the rustling of papers than in any other way. The Mayor rang the bell.

"Is it useless for us to hope, sir," Mason asked, rising to his feet, "that you will give this matter your further consideration?"

"It would be a figure of speech, my dear Alderman," the Mayor replied, "purely a figure of speech. My mind is made up. Your scheme is an excellent one, but it is largely intended to benefit a class of our townspeople who are very well able to look after themselves. I need the land for those who are not in that fortunate position. I wish you all good day, gentlemen, and a more successful visit the next time you come to see me."

They filed out discomfited, a little annoyed and with plenty to say when they found themselves in the street outside. The Mayor rang for his secretary—a pallid young man with a brown smudge of a moustache and gold-rimmed spectacles.

"Anything else in the book for me to-day, Young?" he enquired.

"You are free for the rest of the day, sir," the secretary replied. "To-morrow I am afraid is not quite so easy. You have a bazaar to open at De Montfort Hall, you have to take the chair at the Literary Society—Mr. Fulton, the lecturer, is, I believe, to be your guest. There is also a memorandum to make an appointment with the architects in London who are displaying the model houses and reports to look through concerning the various water schemes."

"And nothing more to-day?"

"Nothing more to-day, your worship."

Daniel Poynton rose to his feet, strolled out to the coat closet, put on a soft felt hat and overcoat and made his way to the street where his car was waiting—a large limousine driven by a chauffeur in undress uniform.

"The factory, Chambers," he directed.

He was driven rapidly away, pretending to read a newspaper to escape a multitude of greetings from passers-by but really seeing not a line. The automobile was brought to a standstill before a very imposing pile of buildings about a couple of miles out of the town. Here he alighted and made his way swiftly, although with no apparent haste, across the busy entrance hall past the rows of offices to his own private room. Arrived there he took off his coat and his hat, turned back his cuffs and rang for his manager. Whilst he waited he went hastily through a pile of selected correspondence which had been put on one side for his attention. There was throughout the whole of the businesslike routine in which he engaged a somewhat curious impassivity of action and expression. Papers were glanced through and laid methodically on one side, a few consigned in the wastepaper basket, one or two placed neatly in a basket. There was never any hesitation, not a moment's doubt. His behaviour was that of a man who had the gift of making up his mind quickly.

"Well, Burden," he remarked as the manager made his appearance, "anything fresh?"

Mark Burden, a young, capable-looking man, wearing a long overall, answered with a crispness of speech which was perhaps derived from long association with his chief.

"Nothing particular, sir. Two large orders telephoned down from Manchester for the ladies' department. Several shipments of American glazed kids which will have to be returned and a thousand sides Mr. Purvis is doubtful about. They are left over until the day you select for looking through the imports."

Poynton nodded.

"That will be Wednesday this week," he decided. "Advise the shippers that the goods are in suspense, have costings of numbers six and seven looked through again. Those are the numbers which seem to be selling too readily. I didn't see the daybook this morning. What was the output?"

"Something just under five thousand pounds, sir. Today's will be heavier."

"Returns?"

"Of no importance."

"Do you require my advice upon any subject whatever?"

"No decisions are necessary to-day in any department, sir."

"Send in Miss Gray, please."

Burden took his leave. His place was taken almost immediately by a quietly-dressed young woman who entered the room and sank into her chair with scarcely a sound. She opened her book and sat expectantly. Poynton handed her a sheaf of letters.

"Refuse all these," he enjoined. "Polite as possible— pressure of business and that sort of thing. Accept the luncheon with the Bishop and the dinner with the President of the Board of Trade."

She glanced at the calendar.

"You promised to reply to-day, Mr. Poynton, about those three fields near The Grange."

"Quite right," he answered. "I won't have them. Too damp. They're on the wrong side."

"The owners suggested that they might be open to an offer," she reminded him.

"I won't have them at any price," he decided. "They are no use to me. They are on the wrong side of the estate. Telephone to The Grange. Tell them I shall be home in half-an-hour and to have Grey Prince saddled. Anything else?"

The girl rose to her feet. She hesitated for a moment, standing in the full blaze of light which streamed in from the huge window. Her eyes seemed a little lustreless and her complexion over-pallid. Her fingers touched her throat nervously.

"May I take a liberty before I go, sir?"

He looked up in quick surprise.

"At your own risk," he replied. "I am not fond of that sort of thing, you know."

"The last time I telephoned for Grey Prince the groom who answered said that the horse had not been out for a week and that he ought to be galloped round the fields before he was taken on the roads."

"What business is that of yours?" Poynton asked coldly.

The girl showed an unexpected spirit. She wheeled round and looked her employer in the face.

"None at all, sir, except that I should hate going over to The Grange to take the letters whilst you were recovering from a broken leg or something of that sort."

"I promise that shan't happen," he assured her. "The day I break my leg I will get another secretary. Many thanks for your consideration, Miss Gray, but don't interfere with such matters in the future, please. The horse is quite all right, but a little high-spirited and short of exercise."

"Very good, sir, I spoke as much on behalf of the staff as personally."

She turned away, a silent, swiftly moving young woman with a probably inherited grace of carriage. At the door he stopped her.

"What do you mean on behalf of the staff, Miss Gray?" he asked.

She answered him with the slightest possible shrug of the shoulders—as though the matter indeed were of very small concern.

"The business doesn't do quite so well when you are not here, sir," she reminded him. "Your mayoral duties and public work take up a great deal of your time as it is. It seems a pity to risk anything."

"Close the door, please," he ordered curtly.

He leaned back in his chair for a moment listening to the muffled roar of the machinery. Three thousand men and women hard at work and all the best machinery human skill had been able to devise slaving away towards production. Fifty clerks, a hundred in the warehouses, perhaps, a great capital being built up and ministered to. He detached himself momentarily from this monster of commerce for which he was responsible. How much of it, he wondered, was due to his own individuality? How much of it was Poynton and how much of it was robot-generated progress forging its way through the crowded hours? His work in the town. His thoughts flashed back to that. His public work. His schemes for the betterment of the people. His political devotions. He was giving all a man could give but he could not flatter himself that this small corner of the world would even falter at his passing. Funny that a man should work so hard, bring such a variety of gifts into such a barren vineyard.

A word or two on the telephone, with Priestley, the Town Clerk, a few decisions easily arrived at, a few signatures, and on went his coat and hat again. He passed quickly out of the place and stepped into the car.

"Home," he directed.


Odd, Daniel Poynton reflected, that in so short a space of time the world could change so completely. No real reason for it either. A quarter-of-an-hour's determined battling with a high-spirited but not ill-tempered horse, a long gentle canter along the grassy drives of Beaumanor Chase through an air rain-soaked and aromatic with the odour of the naked earth seemed to have brought about a miracle. That distasteful half-an-hour in company with those schoolfellows of his youth, grown from gawky and unlovely boyhood into pudgy and narrow-minded manhood, seemed to lie far back in the past. The factory with its roar of life, its hordes of busy workers left its taint upon the memory too. A commercial machine, a hotbed of utilitarianism turning out goods for human needs, without beauty or permanent existence, yet with the lives and energies of three thousand living beings concentrated solely upon their production. What was there in it at the end of the day and the year, at the end of life even? Money—heaps of money. And the cemeteries fuller than ever of men and women who had lived and died upon the treadmill. His own position—the Mayor. There was humour in that strong unreadable face of Daniel Poynton's but there were times, just such times as these, when that telltale line at the corner of his mouth deepened into grimness.

"Silence, ladies and gentlemen, for His Worshipful the Mayor."

The thumping of hands upon the table. The rustle as napkins were unfolded and conversation commenced. The wine— the heaps of food—jokes instead of humour—over-profusion instead of selection. Plenty of wine for His Worshipful the Mayor. More to eat—more to drink. Smiles from the Town Clerk's daughter who was accounted a beauty. Smiles from the Councillors' wives and daughters, the everlasting jests as to a bachelor Mayor. The man's whole being seemed suddenly to respond to an impulse of gratitude as he thought of the empty house behind him, the freedom of life, the dignity of solitude. He unhooked a gate with his riding crop, loosened his rein and began to mount the long twisting path which led through clumps of heather and gorse to the crest of Beacon Hill. They mounted, horse and man, by a circular path until they reached the summit. Around them the rhododendron shrubs were void of blossom but there were gaunt fragments of prehistoric lichen-covered rock and turf as soft as velvet. Poynton brought Grey Prince to a standstill and sat perfectly still with his eyes wandering downwards. The fields were becoming patchworky, the coppices and woods little more than smudges of black. In the distance were the lights of Lowtown, around the other side the reflected glare in the skies from his own town. He kept his back turned to it. It was the quiet places he had come to visit, the silence he loved. There was nothing dramatic about the landscape. There was no roaring of wind or sea to awaken tumultuous thoughts. Over the level fields there seemed to rest a Wordsworthian calm. There was something infinitely peaceful about the square patches of fields each with their limitation of closely cropped hedges. One by one lights crept out from the cottages and homesteads....

Poynton was after all a man of instincts and he swung his horse round, despite his deep fit of abstraction, at precisely the right moment. Standing within a few yards of him, clutching an ugly-looking stick in his hand, was the tall threatening figure of a man. His clothes were shabby— might well have been the clothes of an ex-gamekeeper fallen upon evil times. His complexion was dark, his gipsy descent was obvious. His eyes were fixed upon Poynton and the latter knew even as though he had seen it that that stick would have descended upon the back of his head in another moment if he had not felt that thrill of consciousness.

"Got a light, guv'nor?" the man demanded.

"I have not," was the prompt reply. "What the devil are you doing up here and what do you mean by stealing up behind me with that club?"

The man hesitated. He came a step nearer.

"Got as much right here as you, ain't I?" he demanded.

"I should doubt it. This is a private road."

"What are you doing on it then?"

"That's no affair of yours but I have permission to go where I choose on this Estate," Poynton vouchsafed. "Be off! I'm not turning my back on you again."

"Pretty sure of yourself sitting up there, ain't you?" the gipsy sneered.

Poynton touched Grey Prince on the neck. The horse plunged forward and the man jumped hastily on one side.

"My horse is high-spirited," Poynton warned him, "and my riding crop is as good as your club. I said be off and I meant it."

"To hell with you," was the surly retort.

Discretion came suddenly to the gipsy. He saw something which was almost terrifying in his adversary's face. Without a word he turned round and scrambled down the side of the hill towards the back approach. Poynton watched him disappear over the gate into the little plantation which led to the road, then he dismounted, lit a cigarette and took his final look around. The lights of Beaumanor, the great house in the valley, were glimmering now through the trees. Twilight was coming on in earnest. An owl made melancholy sounds from the coppice just below and in the distance a dog began to bark. Poynton, however, failed to gain from his favourite vantage ground its usual meed of inspiration. His brief encounter with that most unpleasant and dangerous wayfarer seemed to have left upon him a curious effect of uneasiness. He mounted Grey Prince, who knew very well the way homeward and had already swung to the left, when his master suddenly checked him. Poynton sat in the saddle for a moment listening intently. Then he jammed down his hat, flourished his riding crop and galloped along the bridle path in the opposite direction.


CHAPTER II

AS the probable rescuer of a young woman in very serious trouble there is no doubt but that Daniel Poynton, notwithstanding his well-balanced brain and large fund of commonsense, made a tactical error from the moment when he thundered in upon the tragedy around the corner of the lane and found his would-be assailant of a short time before holding in his arms a young woman whose shrieks he was endeavouring to stifle by dragging her hat down over her mouth. In a fit of ferocity Poynton threw away the advantage of his position, leaped from his horse and attacked the pedestrian on foot. The latter released his grip of the girl and turned around to receive a staggering blow upon the jaw and a moment later a second one from Poynton's riding crop which unfortunately missed his head and descended upon his shoulder. The pain, however, made him relinquish his hold of the young woman. He turned and faced Poynton and the latter, though utterly unafraid, knew that he might have a difficult if not a dangerous task before him. Keeping his eyes fixed upon his unpleasant-looking opponent he spoke quickly to the girl:

"Get into the car and drive off," he ordered. "Do you hear? I will keep this fellow busy."

Even in that wild moment Poynton realised perfectly well the extraordinary gameness of the girl's attitude.

"Thank you," she replied, "I shall do nothing of the sort. I shall remain here and do what I can."

She pressed her finger upon the electric horn of the car and its shrill warning rang out into the twilight. The man, with a brutal oath, knocked up her arm. The next moment he was lying on his back and Daniel Poynton, with a suddenly awakened savage desire to kill, was bending over him, riding crop in hand. He spoke to the girl once more without turning his head.

"Go on sounding the horn," he directed, and to his surprise his voice was almost as well under control as hers. "It may bring someone along and we'll get this fellow down to the police station."

Probably if Daniel Poynton had had a little more experience in the sort of work upon which he was at this moment engaged he would not have allowed such a very dangerous opponent those few seconds to regain his breath. Coupled with this, perhaps the invincible objection of a brave man even in a moment of crisis to hitting an adversary upon the ground had its weight. The result was disastrous. With a most amazing spring the latter was upon his feet. He closed with Poynton who had for a moment believed that the affair was over. The gipsy laughed harshly as his fingers found their way to Poynton's throat.

"Better 'ave stuck to yer 'oss, guv'nor," he shouted. "You might 'ave done me in from the top of 'im but I've got you now and I'm going to twist the life out of yer. Interfering between a gent and his sport, eh? That's you."

There was a single moment when Poynton nearly lost consciousness. He had a faint vision of a woman's face transfigured with passion, a pair of blazing eyes, a flash of white teeth; then he heard the dull scrunch of furiously wielded metal meeting flesh, saw the spanner red with blood once more uplifted and, most blessed thing of all, felt the grip on his throat relax. The man turned to face this unexpected attack but he seemed for a moment off his balance, uncertain which way to strike, pawing the air, and that in a sense was the fatal moment of his life. His opponent, who had been fighting all the time, moved a step nearer and drove his fist mercilessly into the other's jaw. The gipsy tottered and reeled over upon the damp grass. Poynton stood over him for a moment, his fists clenched, breathless yet ready to strike again. There was no need. The man was unconscious.

"That was magnificent of you," Poynton gasped, still without moving, still without turning his head.

The spanner dropped from her hands. She too had been waiting.

"I think that we need not worry any more," she said breathlessly. "He is unconscious. I hope that he is dead!"

Her rescuer leaned down and shook the doubled-up figure. He convinced himself that the man was actually insensible. Then he drew himself upright once more.

"I don't think the ruffian is dead," he confided, "but he's past giving us any more trouble."

He straightened himself and looked across those few yards of wet turf to where the girl was standing. For the first time he had a clear view of her. The rain was pattering down upon the leaves of the elm tree under which they were standing. He felt it cool and refreshing upon his cheeks, mingling with the blood which was flowing from a wound upon the temple. The girl had thrown her hat from her and was standing—a slim motionless figure, her body still quivering, her pale blue eyes glowing with the passion of the fight. No trace of fear anywhere, only a still faintly contemptuous curve to her trembling lips.

"He should have been dead," she cried. "I wish that you had killed him. He held me as though I had been some foul plaything."

Dimly and notwithstanding his ignorance he understood the virginal torrent of repulsion which had transformed her almost into a mad creature. It was the first time in his life he had been brought into contact with a woman like this. The splendid fury of her held him spellbound. With it all she was beautiful. Dim joyous thoughts and shattering desires were suddenly born in the man which outlived that night and many others to follow.

There were footsteps climbing up the lane, the footsteps of hastening men. The atmosphere of so narrowly averted tragedy still held Poynton spellbound but second by second the woman relaxed into life. It was she who first recovered. She turned to face their tardy rescuers and there was a smile upon her lips.

"Eh, but what's wrong here?" a man dressed like a farm labourer exclaimed.

She pointed to the ditch and to the prostrate figure lying on the bridle path.

"That man stopped my car," she explained. "He jumped in and attempted to rob me. This gentleman got off his horse and rescued me."

"I reckon that be the horse, Mister, that just went trotting through the village?" another of the newcomers put in.

Poynton nodded.

"He'll find his way home."

The last of the little group of rescuers came puffing up wearing a hastily donned policeman's coat over ordinary civilian clothes. He saluted the young woman obsequiously and leaned over the gipsy's motionless body.

"I'm thankful, milady, we were in time," he said with rustic inconsequence. "He's a nasty character that. One of them gipsies on Swithland Common. I know him well. This will put him out of mischief for a bit. I heared that horn just as I was doing a bit of gardening—my day off this is—"

"Yes, yes," the young lady interrupted. "That will do, sergeant. You must get a cart or something to take him to the police station. I won't have him near my car. I will see after this gentleman."

"Would you give me your name, sir?" the sergeant demanded producing a pocketbook and a stump of pencil.

"Daniel Poynton."

"Address?"

"Belgrave Grange, Mechester."

"If so be as the young lady's taking care of you, sir, we'll look after he then," the sergeant promised. "You be a powerful man to have dropped him like that," he went on with an admiring glance. "He's a fair wicked one when he gets in one of his tantrums."

"What are you going to do with him?" Poynton asked shortly.

"To judge by his looks we had best drop him at the cottage hospital," the sergeant decided. "Sam," he went on to one of the lads who had followed, "fetch your father's cart and we'll get him down there. Make way for her ladyship, you fellows."

The girl backed her car and motioned to her rescuer.

"Get in," she invited. "You must come back with me to Beaumanor and then I'll send you home."

"Can't I get a cart or something?" Poynton suggested. "I am scarcely fit—"

"Get in at once please," she interrupted.

The sergeant stood to attention, looking in his queer attire and intense solemnity more like a scarecrow than a human being.

"I'll be down at the House to-night when we've got him settled over along," he promised. "I'm right glad I heard that horn, your ladyship."

She smiled faintly.

"I'm glad you did, sergeant," she admitted, "but I'm still more glad that my friend here chose to ride this way."

She slipped in her clutch and soon they were whirling down the lane, the hedges flying by, the rain a soft stinging tonic on their cheeks. Poynton, who was feeling a little dizzy, made no attempt at speech. The sound of her last words echoed in his ears.

Three miles of drive through avenues at which Daniel Poynton had looked and marvelled since the days of his boyhood but had certainly never expected to approach in such a fashion. They drew up at the great front door. The Marquis of Bledbury, when in residence and in funds, kept up a certain amount of state at his various establishments and there were several servants in the hall behind the astonished butler when the doors were opened and the lights flashed out. The girl brought the car to a standstill and beckoned to one of the men from the background as they crossed the threshold.

"Grover," she said, "I want you to take care of this gentleman. He has saved me from a very bad accident and I am afraid he is a little damaged. If you have any clothes to fit let him have them—and a bath. You would like a bath, I'm sure, Mr.—"

"Poynton," the latter said.

"Mr. Poynton."

"Really, I don't see," he protested, "why you don't lend me a car, if you would be so kind, and let me get straight back to Mechester. It is only about fifteen miles."

"My dear Knight Errant," she said, "I have not yet attempted to express my gratitude and my father would never forgive me if I let you go without a word or two from him. I will see that someone telephones from here—Belgrave Grange I think you said—and explains that you are all right in case your riderless horse gets home first. Hurry off now. Your head hasn't stopped bleeding, you know, and you must be nearly wet through. Annette," she called out, summoning the maid who had just appeared, "I'm coming upstairs at once. A bath and fresh clothes. There has been a slight accident."


A hiatus of insignificant but unfamiliar happenings. Poynton's clothes were taken away from him and he understood for the first time in his life the services of an efficient valet. A woman who seemed to appear as though by magic dressed his wounds and bound up his head. In a strange dressing-gown he was led to a bathroom—a bachelor's bathroom he judged from its many rough towels, its penetrating aromatic odours and the gymnastic appliances upon the wall. A strong whisky and soda had tasted like nectar but the pain of his head wound was beginning to make itself felt. Nevertheless, in a grey tweed suit, a little tight for him but not ill fitting, he was soon in a position to descend. At the top of the stairs he hesitated. Below in the great hall he could see men and women lounging and moving about. There was a tinkling of teacups, a pleasant murmur of conversation chiefly consisting of feminine voices. He stopped short.

"Grover," he said turning to the butler. "Didn't I hear that your name was Grover?"

"Yes, sir," the man replied.

"Look here," Poynton continued. "I don't feel like facing a crowd. The young lady was very kind but I should like to get home. Couldn't you get me a car and let me slip down those back stairs?"

Grover was a very human person and he was on the last lap of saving up to buy a most desirable public house. The sound of rustling paper had a marvellous effect upon him.

"I could start you off, sir," he agreed, "easily enough. There's plenty of cars in the garage and a chauffeur always ready but I'm afraid Her Ladyship would not like it. She is rather a high-spirited young lady is Lady Ursula, as I daresay you know, sir. I'll have a car round in half-an- hour, sir, If that would do."

There was a sudden vision at the bottom of the broad staircase. A girl in a dull scarlet negligée, with her deep brown hair brushed simply away from her pale forehead, was standing there with one hand upon the banister. She called softly up.

"Mr. Poynton. Please come this way—please."

Daniel Poynton, with a sigh, abandoned his project. He waved on one side the proffered arm of the servant who had assisted him and descended the stairs stiffly but without apparent difficulty. The girl who was waiting welcomed him with an entrancing smile.

"I believe," she remonstrated, as she led him down the hall, "that you were planning to escape."

"Very ungrateful of me if I was," he confessed. "Of course you know that it was you who saved the whole situation so magnificently with that spanner, and I am scarcely fit—"

"Don't be silly," she interrupted. "This is my father, Lord Bledbury. Dad, this gentleman saved me from a very uncomfortable adventure this afternoon. He was a little damaged himself, I'm afraid. He has lost his horse and had to fight at a moment's notice with a madman, so I think the least we can do is to give him some tea before we send him home."

Bledbury, who had been one of the handsomest and best- mannered men of his day, smiled gravely and held out his hand.

"Immensely obliged to you I'm sure, Mr. Poynton," he said. "My daughter has been telling me of her adventure. You see we have kept you an easy chair near the fire. We'll take it for granted that you know everybody whether you do or not. Tea and hot toast, James," he ordered from one of the footmen.

It was a wonderful custom this, Poynton thought afterwards, this casual way of taking everything for granted, this curiously tactful manner of making a stranger feel as though his arrival in a borrowed suit of clothes several sizes too small for him and a bandaged head was after all a thing that might happen any afternoon. Lady Ursula herself sank into the chair by the side of her rescuer and the Marquis stood opposite with his back to the fire.

"I hear that our local Sherlock Holmes turned up a little late," the latter observed with a smile. "They will be rather glad to get hold of that fellow, I can assure you. He is one of a small gang of gipsies who have always given my keepers a lot of trouble."

"A most unpleasant person," Poynton replied, surprised that his voice should be so easily at his command. "I should think too that he had been drinking."

"Precisely," the Marquis agreed. "Hedges told me that he was just recovering from a week's drinking bout and at such times it is not safe to go near him. You must be a difficult fellow to tackle, Mr. Poynton. He is reputed to be a famous bruiser."

"I know the fellow well by sight," another of the little group, a tall sandy-haired man observed. "My people have been watching him all the season. We all owe you our heartfelt thanks, sir."

"We must get you on the bench to-morrow or whenever they bring him up," the Marquis continued. "I think this time we can put him out of danger for a time. Do you live in these parts, Mr. Poynton?"

"I live in Mechester," the latter answered.

"You hunt, sir?" one of the younger men who were standing round enquired politely.

"Never," Poynton replied. "I ride for exercise only. I'm afraid I don't find very much time for amusement."

Lady Ursula sighed gently.

"Tell me how do you occupy yourself?" she asked. "Nowadays when we are all trying to find work if we can get it the question has ceased to be an impertinence."

"I am a manufacturer," he told them. "A manufacturer of boots and shoes."

Ursula lifted the hem of her flowing gown and displayed a very attractive foot with red high-heeled slippers.

"Do you make anything like that?" she queried.

"Nothing in the least like it. We don't cater to that class of trade. We make for the millions."

"I should like to see things made," a very pretty girl with amazingly fair hair declared, moving over from the other side of the circle. "Couldn't we see over your factory some day, Mr. Poynton?"

"If you promise not to copy my models," he answered with a faint smile. "We all have our secrets, you know."

"How intriguing," Ursula murmured. "Is yours a big factory?"

"Oh, I suppose so in its way," he acknowledged.

"How many people do you employ?" the girl with the strangely blond hair demanded.

"About three thousand in Mechester and about the same number in the villages around."

There was a chorus of exclamations. An elderly lady of distinguished appearance, the only one not in hunting kit, leaned forward with interest.

"How wonderful!" she cried. "I suppose you have welfare departments and all that sort of thing, Mr. Poynton?"

"Each branch has its own staff manager who looks after such matters," he replied, accepting a cigarette.

"It must take you all your time to look after a business like that," Ursula remarked.

"Pretty well," he admitted. "You see, I am also Mayor of the town. That takes up some of my time."

There was a further commotion. The Marquis dropped his eyeglass.

"Mayor?" he repeated. "Most interesting."

"How extraordinary!" Ursula exclaimed, looking at him with wondering eyes.

"Why?" he asked.

"I don't know," she confessed. "It seems quaint—that's all I can tell you. Fancy a Mayor riding an animal as big as a dray horse and fighting like you did."

"Mayors are very ordinary human beings," he assured her.

"I can only fancy them," the so-near platinum-haired young woman who had manoeuvred into a chair close at hand remarked, "sitting in gilded coaches and eating and drinking a great deal more than is good for them. You don't look as though you did either of those things, Mr. Poynton."

"I don't," he answered shortly. "But then you see I am only a Mayor—not a Lord Mayor. I don't think our activities are particularly exciting but they certainly do not lead to overindulgence."

A good-looking young man in pink, whom Ursula had Introduced as her brother Freddy, rose abruptly from the easy-chair in which he had been sprawling and approached his father on the hearthrug. He drew him on one side and spoke to him earnestly for a minute or two. Whatever it was that he said his father seemed to find it interesting. A moment later he turned round once more to Poynton. His manner was more amiable than ever.

"You will pardon my ignorance, Mr. Poynton," he said. "I have been Lord Lieutenant of this County a great many years ago but I have had no experience as to how far civic authority extends. Tell me, what are your chief responsibilities as Mayor of a town like Mechester?"

"There would be no connection whatever between the picturesque duties of a Lord Lieutenant and the duties of a working Mayor of an industrial town," Poynton explained a little drily. "I take the chair on the magistrates' bench whenever the cases are important. I have an interest myself in all the charitable works of the borough. I am on the committee of all the schemes that work for the town's development and together with the town clerk and the borough accountant superintend its finances."

"It sounds—er—strenuous," the Marquis observed. "I read the local paper occasionally and I have noticed reference to a proposed new water scheme."

"There are two or three under consideration."

The Marquis nodded thoughtfully.

"The one in which I am interested," he confided, "is the Burton Valley, the Derbyshire scheme."

"I have heard it well spoken of," Poynton acknowledged.

The Marquis toyed with his gold cigarette case.

"Would it be an indiscretion, Mr. Poynton, to ask which claim is finding most favour with your council?"

"I don't know about its being an indiscretion, sir," Poynton replied, "but it is a question I couldn't very well answer. That reminds me," he went on, rising to his feet, "I have a committee meeting to attend to-night. I must ask to be excused."

"You are not going away already," the young lady with the shining hair, whose name was Joyce Bellamy, protested. "You see I have changed my place so as to come and talk to you. I wanted to hear all about making boots and shoes."

"I will send you a handbook from the Technical College," Poynton replied without any particular enthusiasm.

"That wouldn't be the same thing at all," the young lady complained with a most attractive pout.

"Then I'm afraid I must tell you all about it some other time," he regretted. "I hope you will be none the worse, Lady Ursula, for your adventure."

She laid her fingers lightly upon his arm and looked up at him. He towered amongst the little circle in which he was standing.

"Don't bother about saying good-bye to everyone," she begged as she noticed his momentary embarrassment. "You must shake hands with Father because he has not thanked you properly for saving ray life."

The Marquis held out his hand urbanely.

"This adventure grows in importance," he remarked. "You must persuade Mr. Poynton to dine with us one night, Ursula, and then we'll hear the whole story."

Poynton took leave of the little gathering stiffly perhaps, but without any particular awkwardness. Ursula herself walked with him to the outer hall. The servants fell respectfully back.

"Of course, Mr. Mayor," she confided, taking his arm, "I have not thanked you half enough."

"Nothing to thank me for," he answered. "I was there—the thing happened—I just did my best, as any other man would have done. It was your courage with the motor horn and your adroitness with the spanner," he added, "which saved the situation. We have a lot of bad characters brought up before us in Mechester but I don't think I ever saw a more blackguardly-looking fellow than that. He ought to get hard labour."

"He'll get all they can give him." Ursula assured him smiling. "The Duke of Exminster, our Lord Lieutenant, you know, the tall man with the yellow hair and the kind eyes who spoke so nicely to you, has already made Grover telephone to say that he will be in the chair the day the man is brought up."

"A great friend of yours?"

She looked up at him with a curious smile. How strange it seemed, she thought, to be talking to someone who did not know that Exminster had been in love with her for the last three years.

"Yes, that's just what he is," she agreed. "A great friend of mine. Tell me, will you really show us over your factory some time, Mr. Poynton, when we are in Mechester?"

"I should be delighted if you choose a day on which I am free," he answered.

"What do you mean choose a day on which you are free?" she repeated with a show of indignation. "You saved my life and you saved me from the horrible indignity of that wretched man's hands about me and you say you will show me over your factory if you are free. Don't be absurd. It will take me years of devotion to repay you. And you—well, I hate owing people things and you have made me owe you an awful lot, and I don't hate you at all, Mr. Poynton. Please be a tittle nicer."

"I'm sorry," he apologised, "but you see I am not quite used even in my sacred position as Mayor of Mechester—"

She held up her finger.

"Not another word," she insisted. "You are going to be sarcastic and it won't suit you. I shall telephone or write and tell you when we are coming. And Mr. Mayor—by-the-by, what is your Christian name?"

"Daniel."

She forced him to look down at her. He had known already exactly what would happen if he did. He realised that he was looking at the most beautiful woman he had ever approached, beautiful too of a type of which he knew nothing. He realised, too, the changed world of emotions into which he was passing.

"I want to say thank you very much, Mr. Daniel Poynton," she whispered with a faint trembling of her lips. "I have my peculiar prejudices and my great horrors, however well I conceal them. You have done me an immense service and although I know you would do it at any time—you are that sort—you did tackle that fellow splendidly. You made me feel something I have never felt before in my life."

There was an unexpected revelation to her in the twinkle of his eyes as he accepted her hand. Instead of becoming a little awkward he seemed suddenly to have gained confidence and to have taken the situation into his own keeping.

"My dear young lady," he said, "even a Mayor, you know—"

"Don't," she interrupted.

"Well, even a manufacturer then," he recommenced, "remains a man, I hope, and I hadn't a decent chance to run away, had I? Come and see the factory one day with pleasure."

The door was thrown open. He accepted his hat, responded to her wave of the hand and stepped into the waiting limousine.

"Main road to Mechester," he told the chauffeur, "and turn off when I tell you."

The Marquis welcomed his daughter's return with an approving smile.

"A most interesting adventure, my dear Ursula," he observed. "Most interesting. I very much enjoyed meeting your gallant cavalier."

"Interesting be hanged," Ursula exclaimed indignantly. "That brute of a man might have killed me. Annette and I emptied all sorts of perfumes into my bath but I still smell or imagine I smell horrible things around me when I think of him. Heaven spare me from another adventure like that."

"All's well that ends well," her father said pleasantly. "Just at this particular juncture it is an incident of considerable interest to me to have met the Mayor of Mechester."

"Dad can't get away from the fact," his youngest son who had resumed his easy chair remarked, "that supposing the Mechester people decided upon the Burton Valley scheme it would put a cool half million into the family finances. I could do with a little of that myself."

The Marquis coughed.

"It is, of course, impossible for us to approach a respectable person in Mr. Poynton's position in any way upon the subject," he said, "but I think, my dear Ursula, that it would be only a graceful action, considering his services to-day, if you were to invite him to dinner one evening next week—or sooner if you choose."

"I should love to see him again," Joyce Bellamy observed.

"A real man I call him—not a weak-kneed stripling like Freddy there. Wouldn't I love to get someone to fight brawny gipsies for me and save me from having my clothes torn off my back? Of course it must be Ursula. She always gets the luck."

Ursula was leaning back in her chair looking through the smoke of the cigarette she held between her fingers up to the raftered roof.

"I am not so sure, child," she reflected, "that during five or ten minutes of that adventure you would have envied me particularly."

"Tell me how he looked when he was fighting," Joyce demanded. "Did he look as savage as I believe he could? What a chin and jaw the man has!"

"He is, I should imagine," Ursula commented, "an unemotional person. He went into the fight with very much the same expression he had when I brought him in here and he found all you gasbags chattering away. The only time I have seen him look as though he might have a spark of humanity was—"

"When I spoke to him?" Joyce interrupted.

"Not at all," Ursula told her. "It was when I said goodbye to him in the hall just now. His eyes twinkled. I believe that underneath it all he has a sense of humour."

"Ye gods!" the son of the house murmured from his easy chair. "A mayor who rides on horseback and fights with gipsies possessed of a sense of humour!"


CHAPTER III

JOYCE BELLAMY fluttered into the little circle who were drinking cocktails in the lounge at Beaumanor before dinner that evening—a fairy-like apparition in white chiffon, the silken threads of her hair agleam in the shaded lights.

"I don't care what anyone says," she declared, holding out her hand for a glass, "I think Daniel Poynton, Mayor of Mechester, is the handsomest man I have ever seen in my life."

"Revolting taste," Freddy sighed.

"Where does the child get her standards from?" Exminster asked despairingly.

"It is quite useless your giving yourself away like this, dear Joyce," Ursula murmured from the depths of her easy chair. "The man is mine. It is I whom he saved from unmentionable horrors and the loss of a purse containing I believe one ten shilling note. You don't come in, my dear. You are not in the picture."

Joyce accepted her cocktail and a seat on the divan.

"I don't know why I ever stay in this house," she complained. "Every possible man who comes to it is in love with Ursula and when something a little out of the ordinary comes along she wants him too! I shall end by being a night hostess at the Hammersmith Supper Club!"

"I doubt whether your certificates of respectability would be sufficient," Lord Frederick warned her.

"I should discard all the friends who tried to make a butterfly of me," Joyce announced. "My reputation would soon become unimpeachable. Lord Bledbury," she went on, turning towards her host, "tell me seriously—don't you admire Mr. Poynton?"

"A striking figure of a man," the former admitted.

"I could picture him more as a stone mason than a cobbler," his son declared.

"You are all very rude about him," Ursula interposed "It is not as though we did not all understand. Freddy is annoyed because he thinks Mr. Poynton possesses a nonconformist conscience. Confess, Freddy, isn't that the truth?"

"It's not far from it," the young man declared candidly. "I could feel the oil of sanctity bubbling up in him when he sheered off the question of the water supply. Why couldn't he be reasonable and let us make him one of the family? Anything to get that water scheme passed."

The Marquis, who had been pacing the lounge with his hands in his pockets, turned and faced his family.

"I am not at all sure," he confided, "that after all it would be of much service to the Bledbury finances."

His son looked at him aghast. Even Ursula removed her cigarette from her mouth and frowned.

"What on earth are you talking about, Father?" she asked. "The Burton Valley property is ours, isn't it?"

"It's been ours for something like four hundred years," he assented. "Unfortunately, however, when I succeeded it was necessary to raise the death duties somehow or other and our lawyers, realising that the house was let and most of the land unprofitable, selected this part of the family property for a mortgage."

"We can pay it off," Freddy exclaimed.

Bledbury smiled dourly.

"What with?"

"Any bank would lend us the money if they knew that the Corporation of Mechester were ready to buy the land surely," Ursula ventured.

"No doubt," her father agreed. "The only trouble is that we don't know for certain that the town of Mechester is willing to buy it. They may yet adopt one of the other schemes."

"And that divine man knows," Joyce Bellamy murmured. "I think Ursula and I between us, or separately, ought to be able to make him tell us."

There was a somewhat wistful silence. Ursula broke into it brusquely.

"Of course we can't do anything of the sort."

"Might get him into serious trouble," Exminster agreed.

"There are even further complications," the Marquis sighed as he helped himself to another cocktail from the tray. "The interest on the mortgages is—er—considerably overdue."

"Who are the mortgagees?" Exminster enquired.

"Some insurance company, I believe."

"That, of course, is a pity. A corporate body is always so much more difficult to negotiate with. Insurance companies have no hearts," Exminster sighed. "Wish I could help. I'll talk to my lawyers if you like."

"Couldn't think of it, my dear fellow," his host insisted. "You have all the trouble in the world, I know, to keep your own estates together. In any case Pleydell came down from town to-night to let us know the worst. He's changing now."

"Here he is," Ursula observed looking up the broad staircase. "He looks rather like a figure of fate."

Sir Gervase Pleydell, tall, lantern-jawed and bespectacled, made his apologies to Ursula as dinner was announced.

"It is entirely your father's fault that I am here, you know, Lady Ursula," he explained. "He steadfastly refuses to answer letters and there is a certain matter which has reached the state of urgency—"

"The Burton Valley lands?" she ventured.

Pleydell coughed.

"It is a matter which I must discuss with your father tonight without fail. Do you know," he went on, as he unfolded his napkin, "of all His Lordship's family seats this is the one I admire the most?"

Ursula looked around meditatively at the tapestried walls, perfectly proportioned high ceiling and up at the quaint musicians' gallery.

"I quite agree with you," she said. "You must see that we never lose it."

For a polite man Pleydell, after his first glass of port, was almost brutally insistent.

"I am compelled, your lordship," he said, turning to his host, "in your interests to forget my manners. I must catch the ten-thirty train to London. I have a car waiting and the express will be stopped at Lewborough. May I beg for a few minutes with you, Lady Ursula and Lord Frederick?"

"Certainly, my dear Pleydell," the Marquis acknowledged graciously. "There's no need, however, to break up this little gathering. The Duke is almost one of the family and knows all my affairs. Miss Bellamy, I think, we can ignore. I will have coffee served afterwards in the lounge. Now I am coming over to your side. Here we all are. You can look upon us as a family party. Let's hear the worst."

Sir Gervase adjusted his eyeglass and drew a paper from his pocket.

"I am going to spare you all the legal phraseology," he said. "The mortgagees of your Burton Valley property have given notice that they wish to foreclose. The interest is overdue. The utmost extension of time we have been able to get is until Thursday fortnight. If the money is not paid by then the estates will go."

"How much?" the Marquis asked.

"Eighty-seven thousand pounds odd."

"Do these fellows who want the land know about the Mechester water scheme?"

"I very much fear that they do."

"Is there any chance of borrowing the money and paying off the present mortgagees?" Ursula asked.

"Not unless we can obtain certain information from someone officially connected with the Borough of Mechester as to their intentions."

Sir Gervase folded up his paper and looked around the little group.

"Anything to suggest beyond that, Sir Gervase?" the Marquis enquired.

"Only that if you could possibly find the money through a friend," the lawyer replied, "I should do it. The property itself is worth a great deal more than the eighty-seven thousand pounds. With the water rights, if the town of Mechester adopts the Burton Valley scheme, the property should be worth at least a quarter of a million."

There was a somewhat dreary silence.

"You wouldn't like to take a shot at it yourself, I suppose, Sir Gervase?" Freddy suggested.

The lawyer shook his head.

"My dear Lord Frederick," he remonstrated, "the emoluments of my profession do not leave us with such sums; added to which, I have seven partners."

"It scarcely comes within the scope of the family solicitor's activities to provide money for impecunious clients, Freddy," his father reminded him, "Sir Gervase has done a friendly action in placing the matter before us."

"I thank your lordship," Sir Gervase said rising to his feet. "If upon reflection there is anything you are able to do in the matter I shall be in London all the month and you have until Thursday fortnight to find the money."

Sir Gervase took leave of his fellow guests. They all strolled out together into the lounge where coffee was waiting. The Marquis himself saw his guest off. He returned to find a disconsolate party awaiting him.

"To think of a quarter of a million going west," Freddy groaned.

The Marquis coughed. He glanced benignly towards Ursula.

"I am afraid after all," he said, "that our suggestion half in jest of a short time ago must be taken seriously. We must invite this new hero of yours, Ursula, to dine."


CHAPTER IV

POYNTON dismissed the limousine at the lodge gates of his own suburban residence with a munificent tip to the chauffeur. He walked up the well-kept avenue, let himself in with his latchkey and was met in the hall by his entire household consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Greatson, an elderly couple who filled the posts of butler and housekeeper, and Hannah, a sort of maid of all work. Mrs. Greatson, who looked at the world with watery eyes through steel-rimmed spectacles, threw up her hands at his unusual appearance.

"Well, how on earth did you come by them clothes, sir?" the demanded.

"A slight mishap," Poynton explained. "Nothing serious. Has anything been seen or heard of Grey Prince?"

"They telephoned from Rothleigh half-an-hour ago, sir," Greatson replied. "He trotted into the stable-yard there and they want to know whether they are to send a man along with him."

"Get him back by all means," Poynton ordered. "Don't let anyone from there bring him, though. Send Harrison over. Tell him to start at once. Dinner at the usual time."

"Well, I'm thankful you ain't 'urt anyhow," Mrs. Greatson declared, her curiosity entirely unsatisfied. "Did you have a fall, sir?"

"I did not," was the curt reply. "You should have learnt by this time, Mrs. Greatson, that I don't fall off horses."

"I beg your pardon, sir, I'm sure. We couldn't help thinking that something had happened and it seemed somehow mysterious being rung up from the Marquis of Bledbury's place. Dinner will be ready when you are, sir. The young person from the Works is in the study."

"I had forgotten all about her," Poynton admitted, swinging round. "Keep dinner back quarter-of-an-hour."

"And you're not hurt anywhere, sir?" the woman asked over her shoulder, as she turned unwillingly away. "That there bandage on your head—"

"It's nothing," he interrupted. "Nothing at all to worry about, Mrs. Greatson."

He made his way into the plainly but comfortably furnished room he called his study. Miss Gray was patiently awaiting his arrival with a little pile of letters before her and a satchel on the table. She rose to her feet at his entrance.

"Sorry to have kept you waiting," Poynton apologised shortly. "A slight mishap on the road. Nothing of any account. You have the important letters there for signature, I see. Anything else?"

"There are one or two matters Mr. Burden asked me to speak about, sir," she confided. "Perhaps you would like to sign the letters first."

She laid them on his desk in neat order. Again in her movements she gave the impression of absolute noiselessness. She examined his fountain pen, found it in order and handed it to him as he took his scat. She stood like a shadow by his side while he read the letters one by one and signed them. In only one out of the score or so did he make any alteration and that a trifling one. He made no comment upon the fact however.

"The other things, Miss Gray?" he invited, as he leaned back in his seat.

"A Mr. Phillipson from the office of the Commissioner of Works in Whitehall will arrive at the Grand Hotel tonight and will call upon you at ten o'clock with reference to the water works scheme," she announced. "We were asked to telephone the same message to the Borough Surveyor. Mr. Harbutt himself, I believe, or someone in the Borough Surveyor's office promised to meet him."

"We are not ready yet, of course," Poynton reflected, "but another conference might be desirable."

"There are two large shipments from America," the girl continued, "which the upper leather section has refused to pass in."

He nodded.

"Friday is my day in the warehouse," he said. "I will go into it."

She commenced to place the letters in their envelopes. Although she had contrived to banish all curiosity from her expression he was conscious that she had taken note of his bandaged head and unaccustomed attire.

"I had to borrow some clothes," he confided. "A slight accident on the road."

"Nothing serious, I hope?"

"Not in the least."

"The clothes are rather nice," she remarked.

Poynton's eyebrows were uplifted. In the first place, although the remark was almost in the nature of a soliloquy, it was the nearest attempt at familiarity which the young lady had ever essayed, and, secondly, it was a new idea to him that any other form of apparel could be more desirable than that which he usually selected. He looked downwards at himself. The suit itself was of somewhat light-grey tweed with an almost invisible herringbone pattern. It was not the sort of material which as a serious man of affairs he generally chose.

"You like them better than the things I ordinarily wear?" he asked.

"I'm afraid I do," she admitted.

He took off the coat and looked at the label.

"Savile Row," he muttered.

"They look like it."

"What do you know about where men get their clothes?" he demanded.

"I used to know one or two young men," she confided, "who didn't belong to Mechester. I knew one especially who got his clothes in Savile Row. It is supposed to be the best neighbourhood."

He grunted and abandoned the subject. Miss Gray had a few more remarks to make upon various business matters, to which her employer listened but to which he gave only vague attention. Somehow or other the factory, his day-by-day life seemed suddenly a phase of existence partially obscured, removed from him by some Olympian force. He could scarcely believe, for instance, that to-morrow morning he was taking his place as chief magistrate upon the bench, that after a certain number of hours in the factory he would have to be present at the opening of a bazaar, that later on he was expected to spend half-an-hour in the board-room at the infirmary. He reflected upon these things without enthusiasm. He was suddenly aware that they were all a tremendous bore....

Miss Gray looked round from the mirror to which she had momentarily retreated and brushed back a wisp of hair which had strayed from beneath her hat. Poynton found himself with a new interest in her personal appearance. Odd that something seemed to have happened that day which had pushed back the barriers of his life. Perhaps he had been shortsighted. Perhaps the chief joys of life lay in the hands of these young women. He had never thought that possible before those few staccato moments of excitement in the gently falling rain with the blood trickling down his face and that queer smell of the freshly-turned earth in his nostrils.

"Well, I suppose that's all, Miss Gray," he said a little doubtfully.

She was quick to notice the change in him, to notice that he had looked at her for the first time as though she were a human being. In some subtle manner she seemed to feel the disturbance of the moment.

"If there is anything more I can do," she said, "I am in no hurry."

He made no immediate reply. He walked across the room and back again.

"In what part of London is this Savile Row?" he asked unexpectedly.

"Savile Row?" she repeated. "Well, it's close to Burlington Gardens, just off Bond Street."

He nodded. She found herself suddenly intensely curious as to the nature of his afternoon's accident.

"Does that bandage want changing at all?" she enquired. "I am quite good at first-aid work. If I could be of any assistance—"

He put his hand to his head. He had forgotten all about it. "Oh, I can manage it myself, I expect," he said doubtfully.

She withdrew her gloves at once and tossed off her hat.

"You couldn't do it so well as I can," she declared. "Where can we get some hot water and clean linen and lint and disinfectant of some sort?"

He led the way somewhat ungraciously across the hall into a lavatory and rang the bell. Miss Gray was already unwinding the bandage when Mrs. Greatson appeared.

"I am going to have my bandage changed," Poynton announced. "Ask her for what you want, Miss Gray."

"Well, that was the first thing I said to you when you came in," Mrs. Greatson expostulated. "Of course your head needs seeing to. Why not send for a doctor, Mr. Poynton? He would fix you up properly."

"Believe me, I am quite capable of doing this," Miss Gray assured the housekeeper. "I nearly became a hospital nurse instead of doing typing. If only you could let me have some lint, carbolic and iodine."

Mrs. Greatson opened a cupboard.

"Here's all them things," she said, "and there's any amount of hot water running. Looks a nasty mess. Why don't you have the doctor, Mr. Poynton?"

"I will if it's not better in the morning," he promised. "It's little more than a scratch anyway. That will do, Mrs. Greatson, thank you."

The woman departed. The touch of the girl's fingers, miraculously soft upon his forehead, was delightfully soothing.

"Why, you have several smaller places," she exclaimed, "and a bruise here too. Did you have a fall?"

"No, I had a fight," he acknowledged. "Couldn't be helped. I am not quarrelsome by nature. Now you get on with the bandaging, that's a good girl, and don't ask me any questions."

She made him sit down and take off his collar. In ten minutes he looked and felt a very different person. He felt his forehead. It seemed hot where her fingers had been; he would have liked them back again.

"I hope you will be all right now," she said. "You seem to have had a rough time, though. Is there any trouble anywhere else?"

"Only bruises."

"Shall I come and change the bandages in the morning?" she asked wistfully.

"Certainly not," he answered. "I did not engage you as a hospital nurse, although I am very much obliged for what you have done. You be at the office in good time to-morrow morning. Looks as though I might have a busy day. Run and get your hat on now."

She was wise in her generation and she did exactly as she was told, bidding him the briefest of good-nights. Nevertheless she left with a smile upon her lips. A backward glance from the door had displayed the fact that for the first time during seven years of her service as his very competent secretary, the man whom she secretly adored had shown a certain amount of human interest in her.


Daniel Poynton dined alone, the simplest of meals, plainly served. He found himself with an unexpected appetite and he drank two glasses of claret. With the daily papers in his hand he subsided afterwards into an easy-chair. Just as he was unfolding them, however, the telephone bell rang. He turned to Greatson with a frown.

"See who that is," he directed. "I don't want to be bothered by people to-night unless it is something very important—or unless," he added with a sudden change of tone, "it's from someone out in the country. Pass the line over to me if you don't understand it."

"Very good, sir."

Poynton shook out his paper but left it unread. He found himself listening intently. He could hear Greatson's voice mumbling but he could form no idea as to the person with whom he might be talking. The telephone call seemed suddenly to have attained an immense significance. His thoughts were back again in that wonderful hall—the roaring fire of heaped-up logs, the crowd of lazy well-bred people so kindly and courteous and yet with that definite air of superiority, maddening but hopelessly intangible.... He tried to think of what the Borough Surveyor might have to say to him before the arrival of the delegate from London. There were certain papers that they ought to have gone over once more but in his heart he knew perfectly well that he cared nothing for any of those things. The town's business could go hang! What he wanted was to be called to the telephone and to bear that sweet lazy voice at the other end of the wire. When Greatson opened the door he was still sitting with die opened newspaper in his hand.

"Can't make head nor tail of it, sir," the man admitted. "It's a young lady speaking but by what I can gather she seems to have forgotten your name but she wants the Mayor. She said she was speaking from Beaumanor Hall, but that ain't likely. I have put the telephone through."

Poynton scarcely recognised his own voice when he took up the receiver and spoke.

"Daniel Poynton speaking," he said. "Sorry, but my servant does not seem to be able to understand who you are."

A happy little laugh which he recognised at once solved that problem. It was the pretty girl with the laughing eyes and the almost platinum hair.

"Mr. Daniel Poynton?" she asked. "Of course. I had forgotten the name for the moment. We were all so excited about your being the Mayor of Mechester and yet fighting for Ursula so wonderfully. Can you hear me?"

"Quite well," he assured her.

"Well, Ursula is coming to speak to you herself in a moment. She asked me to get you. I was so afraid that she would be back before I succeeded and then I shouldn't have a word myself."

"Well, here I am," he announced, "and only too anxious to hear what you have to say. Is the firelight still shining on your hair?"

"Fancy your noticing that," she crooned. "Tell me, is your head better?"

"Just had it dressed," he confided. "It feels wonderful. Have you heard anything from the police station?"

"The sergeant has been up. You will be gratified to know that your victim has had to have the doctor."

"Serves him right."

"They think that he will have to go into the prison infirmary."

"Hope they keep him there for a year," Poynton said fervently. "The one thing I am not looking forward to is the enquiry."

"Shy man," she mocked. "You don't fancy playing the hero to a beautiful damsel in distress?"

"I would like to do it in earnest," he replied, "but that was nothing."

"I can hear Ursula coming," the girl with the platinum hair sighed plaintively. "She will snatch the receiver away from me. Good-night, Mr. Daniel Poynton. I hope you will be seeing us all soon."

"Good-night, fairy," he answered. "The sooner the better."

Then there came another voice. This time it was the voice which Daniel almost feared. Nothing before of the sort had ever troubled him like this. A voice and he was in another world. It must be something of the fever which had got into his blood.

"Is that Mr. Daniel Poynton, Mayor of Mechester?"

"Don't make fun of me," he replied almost gruffly. "It is Daniel Poynton. How are you? All right, I hope?"

"Stiff," she complained. "Sore, aching all over and yet laughing to myself when I think of those wonderful few minutes. I thanked you for being so brave, Mr. Poynton, but I never thanked you for the most important thing. You gave me a real thrill. I have not had such a thing, it seems to me, for years. Life does need something of the sort now and then, doesn't it?"

"I suppose so," he admitted.

"You didn't feel it," she reproached him.

"I felt everything you wanted me to feel," he told her. "And if you want to know it was not only the happiness of fighting—I think all men feel that when they are put to it—but it was just knowing that I was doing it—"

He stopped short.

'"Well?"

"Oh, I'm talking nonsense," he said. "Very nice of you to ring up, Lady Ursula."

"I want to know what you felt," she persisted.

"I can't tell you," he replied. "I had a moment of courage and it's gone."

"I don't believe you felt anything," she complained. "You are used to doing these sort of marvellous deeds. How many girls have you ever rescued from danger like that before, I wonder?"

"Not one," he insisted. "Never had a chance. Don't let's talk about it any more."

"Oh, I must," she begged. "I lead such a humdrum life it was quite an event. What about your horse?"

"He trotted into an hotel yard in Rothleigh. I have sent over for him."

"When can we come and see the factory, please?"

"Not to-morrow," he answered. "I have a man down from the Water Board to discuss one of the new schemes. Wednesday or Thursday are free."

"Thursday, then, at eleven o'clock?"

"That will do."

"Dad may come," she confided. "You won't mind?"

"Bring anyone you please," he invited. "It's a dull affair, though, looking over factories."

"Don't be silly, we shall all love it. I'm looking forward to seeing you make a boot or shoe, whichever it is, all by yourself."

"You are making fun of me."

"I wouldn't dare."

"I'm not sure," he reflected, "that I couldn't do it. I should have to hurry from one machine to the other and there are one or two new ones I should have to take a chance on, but I think I could do it."

"I shan't let you try," she promised. "I would sooner you explained. At eleven o'clock on Thursday morning then."

"We'll have the flags out," he promised.

Then came the cold silence. He set down the receiver and went back to his easy chair.

"Greatson," he ordered the man who had just entered the room.

"Yes, sir."

"Bring me a whisky and soda."

Greatson glanced at the clock. "It's not time yet. It wants a half-an-hour."

"Never mind what it wants. Bring me a whisky and soda."

"All right, if you says so, Mr. Poynton."

The drink answered no useful purpose. He added more whisky and it still tasted like water. A man of commonsense he had called himself. Well, he might get back where he belonged but just at present he had lost his bearings all right. He faced his problem gallantly enough. A man of commonsense he had always been and such he must remain. He had a great business to direct. The destinies of an important town depended largely upon his efforts. A great crowd of human beings were looking towards him for direction, for support to give them a lead through the difficult places. He could do it because he was a man of commonsense. In those more susceptible moments of his when, pitiably out of place, he had spent that brief period of his youth at Oxford he had realised that there were other things in life against which some day he might have to put up a strenuous fight. Mirages—will o' the wisps—leading always to the dangerous places. He had built up his own idea of how a man should live and he had kept to it. There were other worlds for other men, worlds where men frittered away the time and brain God had given them in dreaming about beauty and art and the strange ways and fascinations of the life indolent. Nothing to do with him, Daniel Poynton, Mayor of Mechester. He was out for what he was winning. Climbing, but climbing unchanged, climbing from the humble places where he had been born but seeking only the solid things of life. It was odd to think that at thirty-eight he had never felt the riotous disturbance which had driven other men crazy, about which the books, even classics, which he sometimes read contemptuously were written, that to some of his weaker fellows seemed to be the only seasoning and the only inspiration of their being. He understood k now for the first time. Perhaps it would teach him a larger measure of tolerance, he thought, as he took a long drink. If it brought battle so much the better. Lately conquest had been too easy, his upward progress too ensured. That was because he had kept free from all these fetters men forge for themselves.... He was going to face life now with new enemies to fight, new ideas to pull up like weeds and he was not going to belittle the chasms which had suddenly opened at his feet. The thing had come at which he had mocked. It had been born in the softly falling rain with the damp smell of the fields around, born in ugliness, in ferocity, in savagery, in beauty and in passion. For the rest of his life he knew that he would be conscious of woman. He had known it only an hour ago in the same room when he had talked with this little secretary who until that moment had been nothing but one of the small pegs he moved day by day to help and further his progress. A week ago she might have been a marionette. To-day she carried with her the same poison....

He was a very moderate man. There were many days when he forgot to take a drink altogether but to-night he moved to the sideboard and helped himself again generously. He didn't need strength. It was not that. He didn't need courage—he had a man's portion of that—but he wanted something to keep his thoughts and all those old dreams and purposes singing in his blood, something to remind him that he was not a man to falter. Even in those moments of clear-sighted sanity when for the first time he called up the reserves to his battle with life, he did it under no false pretences. He offered up no false vows. If ever the time came when he should realise that women were the natural but insignificant playthings of successful men, if ever there was use to be made or joy to be derived from them, he would help himself freely enough, but of Daniel Poynton, the man, they would become no part.

It was Mrs. Greatson who broke the spell. She presented herself without apology. Her tone was almost harsh. She had apparently already commenced the disintegration of her toilette.

"You will excuse me, Mr. Poynton," she said, "but I think you are forgetting the time. It's nearly twelve o'clock. As is our custom, Greatson and me, we like to see these lights out before we go to bed—and that's where you ought to be after your accident and all."

He rose to his feet, finished his drink and marched out of the room.

"Quite right, Mrs. Greatson," he said with a very rare but mirthless smile. "Good-night to you. I shall not ride in I lie morning, but I shall want breakfast at half past seven. A busy day."

"I'll tell the girl to call you a quarter-of-an-hour earlier, sir," the housekeeper promised. "Lazy bones as she is it will do her good."


CHAPTER V

DANIEL POYNTON awoke one morning a few days later with a curious sense of exhilaration. Every day of the week was more or less stimulating to him. There was always something fresh doing. From his own standpoint a richly changing succession of hours each with their own peculiar interest. This one was different. The Deputy Mayor was taking his place on the bench. It was his intention to spend the whole day in the factory. There were no meetings, no committees, no tiresome interviews; yet there was something in the background which atoned for all this. He dressed with more care than usual, gave more time to the selection of his tie and linen. His breakfast he ate absently. The news in the paper seemed flat. His instructions to Mrs. Greatson were perfunctory. He left her with far more latitude than usual as to the simple meal which he called dinner. He drove himself down to the works with his accustomed skill and his morning greeting to Miss Gray was curt as usual. He looked with a frown at the heavy mass of correspondence awaiting him.

"I am afraid it is rather a heavy post, Mr. Poynton," she said. "The American mail came in last night."

The usual routine followed. She laid a very sharp envelope-opener by his side, a huge waste-paper basket on his left, two flat baskets in front—one for letters requiring to be transmitted to the heads of departments, the others for his own consideration. In half-an-hour his task was done. There was a seething mass of empty envelopes in the waste-paper receptacle, a pile of letters in the baskets from which he began to dictate replies. His mind was now thoroughly upon his work. Well within the time allotted his task was finished. He leaned back with a sigh of relief and glanced at the clock which stood upon his table.

"Twenty-five minutes past ten," he remarked. "Right time. Miss Gray?"

"Your clock never varies, sir," she replied. "I checked it as usual, though. It is exactly right."

He tapped upon the table absently. About eleven she had suggested as a good time. Miss Gray looked at him curiously as she closed her notebook.

"You have almost a clear day, Mr. Poynton," she told him. "I have crossed off or postponed everything you mentioned. Unless you go to the Directors' Meeting at the bank you are without any appointment."

He nodded.

"I may have some people coming to see over the factory," he announced. "Let the sergeant below be told that I am expecting them."

"Any special orders?" she asked.

He smiled slightly. There was a certain type of inquisitive foreign visitor to whom various departments of the works were closed.

"These are not business people," he confided. "The visit is only one of curiosity."

Miss Gray left the room in silence. There was a perplexed frown upon her forehead, and a vague sense of irritation underneath her unruffled calm. Nevertheless, she fulfilled her commissions conscientiously, and retired to her office. Daniel Poynton occupied himself by interviewing two or three members of the staff. At a few minutes before eleven he had finished. From that time on there was a subtle change in the man. He was apparently patient. He was apparently sufficiently occupied. As a matter of fact every five minutes which passed brought with it a larger measure of disturbance. He rose to his feet and walked to the window. His very imposing factory stood some distance back from the road and was approached by a double avenue. It was empty at the present moment except for his own car parked in the middle. He even went so far as to walk up and down the room with his hands behind his back. Still the expected visitors failed to arrive. He rang the bell for Miss Gray.

"You gave my messages?" he asked when she came in.

"Certainly, sir," she replied. "I left word both in the office and with John. No one has arrived yet."

He nodded.

"Anybody been wanting me?"

"Mr. Harbutt, the Borough Surveyor, sir. I promised to ring him up directly you were free."

"You can put him through now," Poynton decided. "Wants to tell me about his visit to London I suppose."

"He was very anxious to speak to you as soon as possible."

Miss Gray took her leave and a moment later the telephone buzzer sounded. Poynton took up the receiver and spoke.

"How are you, Harbutt?" he said. "When did you get back?"

A rather nervous but very eager voice answered him.

"Last night, Mr. Poynton. I had a most interesting time and I am anxious for an hour's conversation with you as soon as possible."

"The water scheme. I suppose?"

"Naturally. The board are leaving it very largely to us but I gather that they have a distinct preference for one of the three schemes."

"Is that so?" Poynton grunted. "Which one is it?"

"I would rather not discuss the matter over the telephone," was the apologetic reply. "I don't suppose there is anyone listening in but the matter is of great importance and anything in the way of a premature disclosure of our intentions would be fatal."

"Quite right, Harbutt," Poynton agreed, a shade of patronage in his tone. "I have some business on hand—it won't detain me too long. You will be at the office, I suppose?"

"All day until ten o'clock to-night," was the prompt reply. "I may be in at the Club for lunch from one to two. That's all."

"Perhaps I'll join you," Poynton promised. "Anyhow you shall hear from me. I shall have some time to spare later on."

Finished with the telephone conversation Poynton paced the room again. There was plenty to think about in these various schemes. A million pounds was something of a sum to handle and a million pounds was what they had to spend. They could talk about it forever, the councils and the committee, but he knew very well that the final word would rest with him. Harbutt was anxious. That meant that he was prejudiced in favour of one of the schemes. Poynton was keeping his mind open. He had not as yet heard the last word. He had a scheme by means of which the town was to become its own contractor. Might save forty or fifty thousand pounds if the thing was carefully handled.... Why the hell didn't those people come—if they were coming? At one o'clock, amidst a screaming of sirens, he washed his hands, put on his coat and rang for the lift.

"I shall be out precisely one hour," he left word. "If anyone arrives they can wait or come back."

He drove himself down into the heart of the town and made his way to the luncheon room of the Club. His usual table had been kept vacant for him. He called Harbutt over and ordered a simple meal. The latter was an intelligent-looking man, middle-aged, with thinning hair and rather a tired expression. He had come from a larger city because Mechester had been able to afford to pay him more, but he had not the air of a man at peace with life.

"No business," the Mayor insisted. "We will meet later on. Don't let this affair get on your nerves, Harbutt. You look tired."

"It is a big thing," the Borough Surveyor replied. "Frightens me sometimes when I think what our commitments will amount to."

"We won't commit ourselves to anything that we are not going to carry through," Poynton replied as he poured himself out a glass of water. "You have nothing to worry about, Harbutt. It is we poor devils who have to find the money who have the right to be anxious. What's London looking like?"

"Dreary," was the prompt reply. "It rained every moment and there was a fog in the City. I used to think I would like to live in London but I'm beginning to change my mind."

"How are the family?"

"All right in health but rather an anxiety. Five boys to start in life. Means something nowadays. You haven't an opening for one of them, I suppose? Jim—he's the second you know—thinks he would rather like manufacturing."

"There are always openings," Poynton replied, "for a young fellow who means to work and who has the right stuff in him. Any good at languages?"

"You gave the lad a prize yourself the other day for French at the Grammar School Distribution," Harbutt reminded him.

"We're under-staffed on the Continent," Poynton reflected. "But he would have to learn his job first."

"He wouldn't mind that. He's not afraid of work at any rate. I'll talk to you again if I may when we get this water question settled. Are you going to be at the works all day?"

"Till seven o'clock. Don't come without ringing up. I have some visitors who may be taking up some of my time. If you don't hear anything come and dine at The Grange. I shall be quite alone."

"I will be there with pleasure," Harbutt assented eagerly. "Quite alone you said?"

"Absolutely. Dinner jacket if you like. I don't always bother about it."

Nearly everyone who came into the room paused to pay their respects to the Mayor. He held his own with them all— a little brusque perhaps, but with a certain latent geniality which carried him along. Mason, the chairman of the deputation who had visited him in the Mayor's Parlour the week before, was perhaps the one to whom he unbent the least.

"Sorry you could not see your way to help us in this playing fields scheme, Mr. Mayor," he said. "It was a great disappointment to us all."

"Can't all see alike," Poynton replied. "I am a great believer in open spaces but our acreage in the town is well up to the average. I am not going to spend a penny of the town's money until we have begun work on the housing problem."

"I'm with you there," Harbutt assented.

"Greedy fellows," Mason grumbled, turning away.

"I am surprised at Mason," Poynton observed. "I happen to know that he has a scheme in his pocket for what he calls an artisans' golf club. Personally I think artisans had better stick to cricket a little longer. See you later on, Harbutt, unless you hear from me."

At five minutes past one the Mayor had driven out from his works. At five minutes past two he re-entered the gates, parked his car and ascended to his suite of offices. There was no note, no message of any sort. He called in Miss Gray and dealt with a further basket of correspondence which had been left in abeyance, sent for a traveller who was just hack from a world tour and discussed with him the possibility of new markets. At four o'clock Miss Gray brought him in a cup of tea. She was discreet enough to make no allusion to the callers who had not arrived, but she did not fail in her admiration of his complete imperturbability.

"Come back in an hour's time," he directed. "I will see if there is anything more for you then."

It was an hour which he hated. No part of the composite scheme of the day, no set work, nothing but a game of make believe—doing things that didn't matter. At five o'clock he rang for Miss Gray and gave her a few letters which he had held back from the morning.

"Bring everything in to me to sign in half-an-hour's time," he enjoined. "I have some calls to make on my way home."

She returned in a few minutes.

"Someone has just telephoned from Beaumanor Hall," she announced. "They wished a message to be given to you. It was a servant who was speaking, I think. He said that Lady Ursula Manningham and her friends would be here to-morrow morning at half past eleven."

Poynton nodded curtly. Only Miss Gray, who knew every line of his face and recognised every inflection of his voice, could have realised that he was angry.

"Very good," he said. "Better tell Mr. Munt to be ready to receive visitors at that time and to show them round."

Miss Gray gave no sign but she rejoiced greatly. That was the way to treat people who dared to keep an important public man hanging around all day waiting for them. He would never have admitted that this had been the fact but she knew that it was the truth.

"You don't wish them announced to you at all, then?" she observed, determined to have the matter settled while her employer was in his present mood.

"Certainly not," he answered. "To-morrow is my day in the leather stores. I shall be too busy to see anyone."

Miss Gray admired him more than ever.

At eight o'clock the Borough Surveyor presented himself for dinner. He was wearing a somewhat shabby dinner coat, his manner was distinctly nervous and he carried a bulging portfolio of papers. Poynton glanced at them disparagingly.

"I have been all through those," he remarked. "All that we need really wait for is the Fernwall Valley contractors' estimate.

"I have it here," was the momentous reply.

Poynton's face cleared. After all, then, it might not be an entirely wasted day. The two men drank a glass of sherry and punctually at a quarter past eight sat down to their consommé. Greatson waited at table. The girl, lately promoted to that office, served the vegetables. The meal consisted of rather insipid soup, fillets of sole and chicken, the latter of which Poynton carved. Afterwards Harbutt accepted a cigar and Poynton lit his pipe. They made their way into the study and Harbutt unrolled the papers. With his forefinger he traced the course of the proposed water pipes and poured out a mass of technical details. Poynton listened with immovable face.

"And the total estimate," he asked, "from the start in Fernwall Hills into the reservoir?"

Harbutt pointed to a column of figures. His companion glanced at the total and resumed his armchair.

"Expensive work finding water for a couple of hundred thousand people," he remarked.

"It's got to be done and we ought to be at work in a lew months," the other replied. "As it is we should not have a comfortable summer if there were a drought. We have never been behindhand with these things and you are not the man, Poynton, to start being miserly."

"What's your trouble about this matter, Harbutt?" his host asked him abruptly. "There's something, I can see."

Harbutt knocked the ash from his cigar. His eyes kept watching his host almost furtively.

"I scarcely know how to put it to you, Poynton," he acknowledged. "You are rather a difficult fellow sometimes."

"I don't think you have ever found me hard to get along with," was the toneless reply. "Is there any flaw in the scheme? Ought we to place it in the running with the others and then vote or do you think there is room for further discussion.

"It isn't exactly that," Harbutt confessed uneasily. "None of these big things have come about in your year of office, you see, Poynton, and you are a trifle inexperienced."

Poynton removed his pipe from his mouth and looked steadily across at the other.

"Better get on with it," he said.

"I saw Sir Miles Fernwall privately last night. They want the contract."

"And so do the others, I suppose—especially if they have any part of the land to sell, the Burton Valley people, for instance, in which the land, after all, belongs to a local family, and the Welsh people. They are all pretty well in the running the way we have sorted them out. So far I am slightly inclined towards the Fernwall Company."

"Then Fernwall Company is heavily interested," Harbutt continued. "Their friends have been quietly buying the property for some time and they have a number of men for whom they must find work. If Robson, your predecessor, had had another year of office, if he had not died just when he did, they had his promise to adopt their scheme. They have rather gambled on it."

"Well?"

Harbutt was fiddling with a loose button on his dinner jacket. His eyes were fixed anxiously upon his companion.

"There would be a matter of ten thousand pounds in it if we could decide in their favour," he announced, his tone thinner and more reed-like than ever.

If Poynton was surprised he gave no indication of the

"So that's it," he observed.

"Yes, that's just it," Harbutt declared with the air of a man greatly relieved. "Now you know the truth, Poynton. I have been at this job for a great many years and I can assure you it is a perfectly usual offer. It does not cost the town one penny more. It does not mean slack work or anything of that sort. It is just a customary tax allowed for in the contract and paid to the men who give the job away. I have been unlucky, but Martin, who was here before me, he touched three times in his fifteen years. He had not a large family either. Only an extravagant wife to support. This thing means something to me. My family have been jolly expensive to bring up. I have never been able to sell and everything I have touched on the Stock Exchange has gone wrong. The Borough Surveyor and the Mayor generally share. The thing is done in such a way that scandal is impossible. This five thousand would just about set me on my legs again, and I had looked upon it as a certainty as Robson was all for it."

Poynton smoked on in silence for several moments. There was no change in his expression, no indication whatever as hi the nature of his thoughts. Then he rose to his feet, knocked out the ash from his pipe and crossed the room inwards his writing bureau. He unlocked a drawer, drew out a long oblong book and wrote for several moments. Presently he returned to the fireside. He folded up the slip of paper and passed it across to his guest.

"Harbutt," he said, "there's your five thousand pounds in lieu of that commission. In return I shall expect to receive from you to-morrow before twelve o'clock a request to leave the service of the corporation within twelve months."

Harbutt rose to his feet. He held the cheque in his hand. There it was—five thousand pounds. The thin blue veins in his forehead were showing more clearly than ever. He took off his spectacles and wiped his forehead.

"Poynton," he stammered, "I don't understand."

"It is simple enough," the Mayor observed. "I have always said that I think you professional men are badly underpaid. You are a proof of it or you would never have had the idea of stooping to a thing like this. I am no purifier of the world. I didn't come into office with that sort of idea. If you are only following the usual custom—well, you are only getting what is due to you."

"But it is the usual custom," Mr. Harbutt declared earnestly. "I am not robbing anyone. I am not asking you to rob anyone. Mechester doesn't suffer in any way. It is an established custom. You have not got hold of this matter properly, Poynton. Let me explain."

"Don't trouble," the other begged with his finger upon the bell. "I do not doubt that such arrangements exist. They may be part of the curriculum of municipal life. They are not going to exist in my Borough during my year of office That's all there is to it, Harbutt, except this—" he went on pressing the bell—"What has happened between you and me is finished and done with. I shall never open my mouth about it. Neither need you."

"I cannot accept this money from you," Harbutt protested. "It is ridiculous."

Greatson knocked at the door and stood upon the threshold.

"Mr. Harbutt is ready for his taxi," Poynton ordered "You must do as you think well about the matter," he went on as the door closed. "I have no more to say about it."

"But I don't want to leave Mechester," the other man objected feebly.

"Give me back the cheque then and I will report the matter to the Council to-morrow," Poynton enjoined. "Don't waste words, there's a good fellow. I can afford the money. I am too well paid for my work in the world and you are too little paid. I suppose that's where the mischief starts. Anyway Greatson's waiting outside with your coat and hat and, to be frank with you, the sooner you are gone the better. Good-night. Take another cigar to smoke on the way home. Good-night, Harbutt. Regards to your people. Don't forget your papers."

The Borough Surveyor collected his papers in silence, lingered for a moment and held out his hand. Poynton, however, happened to be looking the other way.


CHAPTER VI

"A YOUNG lady wishes to speak to you, I think, sir," Hemmings, one of his warehousemen, told Poynton, about the middle of the following morning.

Poynton turned round. Joyce Bellamy, looking more piquant and attractive than ever, was leaning over the iron banister of a circular staircase which led from the upper regions down into the cellars. Her black velvet tam o'shanter disclosed her sheath of glittering light hair. She wore a trim check walking-suit, the sheerest of silk stockings and patent shoes with ridiculously high heels. Poynton dropped the side of leather he was examining and, shaking the dust from his hands, walked over towards her.

"Miss Bellamy, isn't it?" he said. "For heaven's sake be careful with your heels on that staircase."

She raised her skirt and stood on tiptoe, leaning a little farther over the banister.

"I thought you were going to show us over the factory," she remonstrated.

"So I was—yesterday," he replied, "but none of you turned up. This is the day I become a warehouseman and go through my stocks. No, I won't come any nearer. I am dusty and dirty."

"Why couldn't you have changed your day?" she demanded.

"Well, I don't know," he answered. "You can't run a factory very well if you change days continually."

"And you run this one all by yourself?" she asked wonderingly. "It is the biggest I have ever seen in my life."

"Well, I have a certain amount of assistance from my employees," he replied. "Where are your friends?"

"Ursula is upstairs with Freddy and Exminster. They are in what I believe is called the upper leather department. I slipped away and found a nice elderly gentleman in one of the offices who told me where he thought I should find you."

"Well, what are you going to do now you are here?" he enquired.

"What are you going to do?" she rejoined smiling. He pointed to two bales of leather.

"I am going to have those opened and look them through," he announced. "We can't make good shoes here, you see, unless we get good leather."

"I should love to look at them too," she confided. "I might be able to help."

He laughed. Impossible to remain on his dignity with a child like this.

"Shall I come down?"

"You will be smothered with dust," he warned her.

"I don't mind," she replied. "I am coming slowly to keep my heels out cf these empty places."

He stood at the bottom of the circular staircase and held out his hands. She leaned smilingly forward and jumped the last few steps.

"This is great fun," she declared, as she reached the floor, "and I don't see how you keep everything so clean. I don't see any dust."

"You wait a few minutes! Do you really mean that you are going to stay here?"

"If you are," she answered.

He called to the warehouseman.

"Are those the last two bales of sides, Hemmings?" he enquired.

"The last two, sir. There is nothing more in sole leather that you need trouble about. The English bends went into consumption at once."

"Well, it won't take so very many minutes," he remarked. "Get on with it, Hemmings."

Two other men cut the cords. The sides were thrown down in front of Poynton. Once or twice he stooped down and felt the texture. When the last one was produced he nodded and turned away.

"That will do," he said. "Everything passed except the Australian sides. Ask Mr. Compton about those. We will pass them into stock if he says so, otherwise they had better go back to the station.... Now, where would you like to go to, young lady? Have you seen the machinery?"

"I am only just beginning to hear again distinctly," she shivered. "I never saw anything like those long rooms in my life. And such pretty girls in the upper ones!"

"Are they?"

"Do you mean to say you never go up and look at them?" she asked, taking his hand as they mounted the staircase. He laughed shortly.

"I don't think I have been in any of the machine-rooms for three weeks," he confided. "Pretty girls are no novelty in this town—at least they tell me not. I am no judge."

"But don't you like pretty girls?"

"Your type," he answered smiling. "I had to say that of course, but you are pretty, you know."

"I am good too," she assured him. "A little selfish, perhaps, but then one stops being a girl so soon nowadays one must make the best of things. What are you going to do with me, please?"

"I am going to sit you down in my office whilst I wash."

"You are going to trust me with your ledgers?"

"I don't keep ledgers in my private office," he told her.

"It looks like a bank," she observed, as they reached the carpeted corridor again. "Why do you have to keep all those girls and young men hammering away on typewriters?"

"Correspondence," he told her briefly. "About a thousand letters a day. They take some getting through."

"I used to think I should like to be a typist," she reflected, "but I shouldn't like to sit in a row like that."

"Probably you wouldn't be in a row very long," he remarked. "A great many businessmen are not old fogies like me. They would want you for a private secretary."

"Don't be an old fogy, please," she begged. "I will be your private secretary if you like. My father is always saying I ought to do something."

He led her into his suite of offices and called Miss Gray from her own little bureau.

"Look after Miss Bellamy for a few minutes, will you," he enjoined. "If the others come show them all up here."

He passed on to his own rooms, took off his duster, rolled up his shirt sleeves and washed. All the time he was wondering. If the little Bellamy girl could slip away why could not she have come? Probably she was annoyed with him. So much the better. That madness had to come out of his blood somehow or other, that particular form of madness anyhow. The Lady Ursulas of the world were not for him....


On his return he found Joyce Bellamy curled up in his easy-chair, smoking a cigarette. Miss Gray, who had been standing by her side, arranged some papers on Poynton's desk and prepared to leave.

"Wait a minute, Miss Gray," he said. "Tell me, what time did you people arrive?" he asked, turning to Joyce.

"Half past eleven punctually," she declared. "I'm aching for a cocktail."

"Well, see if you can send anyone to find the others, Miss Gray," he directed. "I'm sure they have seen enough by now. I can't offer you a cocktail or anything like it," he went on to his visitor, "but if you would like to see the Mayor's Parlour it is rather an interesting old place. It's only about five minutes' drive and I can give you something of the sort there."

"The Mayor's Parlour," she repeated. "How delightful it sounds. I hope the others will come. They want to rush you off to lunch somewhere I think."

There was a sound of unusual voices—Freddy Manningham's rather high pitched drawl, another pleasant masculine voice and Lady Ursula's chiming in. The three were shown into the office. Lady Ursula came forward with a slightly petulant frown.

"So that little cat found you first, did she?" she observed. "You know my brother, Mr. Poynton, and you met Exminster the other evening, I think."

The three men shook hands.

"We have had an exceedingly interesting time," the Duke declared. "Is all this magnificence really yours, Mr. Mayor?"

"Well, I haven't a partner, if that's what you mean," Poynton replied. "I am afraid it must have been rather a bore if you have been here since half past eleven."

"Not in the least," Lady Ursula put in. "I have enjoyed every minute of it. So have the others. I rather felt the responsibility of these two men up in the machine-rooms. What pretty girls, Mr. Poynton. Do you choose them for their looks?"

He laughed.

"I never see them from the moment they come to the moment they go," he confided, "unless they happen to marry anyone of the staff. Then they come in and get a small wedding present."

"Delightful," Joyce exclaimed from her chair. "Can I join the staff, Mr. Poynton, and will you give me a wedding present, and is it true that you are really a bachelor? Miss Gray told me so but I couldn't believe it."

"Why not?" he answered. "This factory and my duties as Mayor, at which you laugh so much, and the magistrate's bench keep me pretty busy."

"A woman—the right sort of woman," Joyce assured him earnestly, "would be a great help to you. Ursula, Mr. Poynton said something about taking us down to a wonderful place called the Mayor's Parlour where we can drink wines and cocktails and all sorts of things."

"I won't guarantee the cocktails," Poynton warned them, "but I have sherries that my predecessors laid down—very old stuff I believe. The cellarman there knows all about them."

"Cellarman?" Lord Freddy repeated. "That sounds intriguing."

"I vote we all go," Lady Ursula declared. "We are going to take you out to lunch, Mr. Poynton."

"That's very kind of you," he replied. "I'm not sure I can spare the time to-day. If you will come this way to the lift perhaps one or two of you would come in my car to the Mayor's Parlour and the others can follow. The streets are rather narrow."

"May I come?" Joyce Bellamy cried, springing up from the chair.

Lady Ursula took her host's arm.

"You may join in if you insist," she conceded, "but as this is the first time this morning I have had a word with the man who saved my life, I am coming in his car. It is a serious thing to save a young woman's life, Mr. Poynton. I am afraid you are scarcely living up to your responsibilities."

"In what way have I failed?" he asked, as they made their way down the broad staircase.

"No telephone message to ask after my health, no visit of any sort and when we come over to see you we find you in something that looked like an old nightshirt from the distance banging pieces of leather about down in the cellar."

"I thought it was only Miss Bellamy who discovered me."

"We saw you from one of the higher stories," she confided. "What were you doing there instead of waiting to receive us?"

"Well, you see," he reminded her, "I thought it was yesterday you were coming."

"Of course it was," she admitted. "You don't think I didn't know that. Is that your Rolls? Come on. Let's get in quickly. I want to talk to you."

They started off at once.

"I'm sorry about yesterday," she continued. "I didn't really think it mattered much which day."

"I don't suppose it did really," he reflected. "All the same you can't run a very large business without having your days planned for."

"And did you plan for us?" she asked softly.

"In a way I did," he confessed.

She drew off her gloves and touched his hand with her own.

"Rotten of me, wasn't it?" she answered. "And yet think. Father got the dates wrong for shooting the home covers and we had the guests arriving at nine o'clock. Fortunately the keepers had got it right so it didn't matter. We were the only sufferers but we couldn't very well come away. You see they like to meet at Beaumanor next week for the cubs and we had to go through the covers first."

"I see," he answered a little vaguely.

"You were not angry?"

"How could I be so ridiculous?" he replied, knowing all the time that she would never realise how angry he had really been.

"Or disappointed?"

"Yes, I was disappointed," he acknowledged.

"So was I," she told him. "If I had known that it made any real difference I would have rung up."

"It didn't matter," he assured her.

They passed through the streets in silence for a moment. She decided that he was a little difficult.

"Where is this Mayor's Parlour?" she asked.

"Just round that next corner," he pointed out. "You will find all about it in your guide to the town if you possess such a thing. It has been going pretty well as it is since the year 1400. It used really to be a part of the old castle. Now it is used by the Mayor for entertaining occasional guests."

They drew up, wandered into the disused chapel followed by the others and then on to the famous old parlour with its fine oak-panelled walls and diamond-paned windows. An efficient-looking butler with a young assistant was setting out the most marvellous cakes, biscuits and wines of every description upon a refectory table of great antiquity.

"Can you make cocktails, Henry?" the Mayor asked the younger of the two men.

"I have everything ready, sir," was the prompt reply.

"If the ladies and gentlemen will take my advice," the butler suggested respectfully, "they will try the sherry first. The Amoroso and the Amontillado are both of the vintage 1827."

After that the matter of cocktails lapsed. The two male visitors—especially the Duke—raved about the wine.

"It really is delicious," Lady Ursula pronounced, nibbling a biscuit. "And such glasses I never saw. What luxury you live in, Mr. Mayor. We shall never be able to give you wine like this at Beaumanor. How much of your day do you spend here?"

"About an hour once or twice a week," Poynton replied. "We hold several of the Municipal Committee Meetings here."

"And then drink wine like this," Lady Ursula exclaimed, holding out her glass to the butler who had just decanted another bottle.

"As a matter of fact we don't often drink these very choice wines," Poynton acknowledged. "I have never tasted them before myself."

There was a general exclamation.

"Oh, one falls into habits," he continued almost apologetically. "When I get home in the evening the first thing I do is to drink a cocktail and I can always manage a glass or two of wine with dinner but before then—somehow I think a lot of businessmen are the same—I very seldom touch anything."

"Are you a man of iron principle, Mr. Poynton?" Joyce asked.

"Weak as water," he assured her. "Look at me now. This is my second glass of sherry."

"And to think poor father is round at the Club drinking scrubby cocktails," Ursula sighed. "You must bring him here one day, Mr. Poynton."

"I shall be delighted," the latter promised.

Freddy looked at his watch.

"That reminds me," he said, "the Governor doesn't like being kept waiting and he's expecting us to take our guest round to the Club at a quarter past one. It's that now."

"You will come, won't you, Mr. Poynton?" Lady Ursula begged. "I shall think that you are still cross with us if you don't and I couldn't bear that."

He smiled. He was standing with his back to one of the oil paintings hanging upon the wall and for a moment Ursula was struck by some likeness in the man to the Puritan general of hundreds of years ago depicted there. There was the same straightforward look, the fine depth of features, the steady eyes.

"When you are no longer Mayor, Mr. Poynton, shall you have your portrait hanging here?" she enquired. "You ought to get this new man to paint you."

He looked at her in genuine horror.

"Why on earth should I do such a thing?" he asked. "I think when I finish my year of office my people will have had enough of me."

"How does it really feel to be a Mayor, Mr. Poynton?" Joyce Bellamy demanded, as they trooped out.

"Something like being the headmaster of a huge Grammar School," he replied. "Puts you on your best behaviour, you know. You have to be a disciplinarian."

"No time for human weaknesses, I suppose?" Lady Ursula suggested.

"Not a moment."

"And yet," she remarked, with that little smile at her lips which always intrigued him, "I expect you are like other men. You have your vulnerable spot if one knew how to get at it."

"Well, that may be so," he admitted as he handed her into the car. "Where did you say we were lunching?"

"Oh, at a little shanty Father goes to, a club in Market Street."

Poynton directed the man. There was a twinkle in his eyes as he took his place.

"A new experience for me," he confided. "I have never been in the County Club."

"There's a comfortable private room," she said. "Otherwise it is very shabby and out-of-date. Let's talk about something interesting. Don't you find it rather troublesome being a bachelor? I should think that all the daughters of your—what should you call it?—diocese, would want to become Mayoress."

"I have not noticed any rush," he assured her.

"Who does the honours for you when you give a party?"

"An official one?"

"Yes."

"Well, we change about," he replied. "Sometimes the wife of the Town Clerk, sometimes the wife of the senior Alderman."

"Always somebody's wife."

"Always."

"You might ask me sometime," she begged. "I should love it."

He shook his head.

"I don't think you would. I don't believe in mixing worlds. You can't speak the other language offhand."

"I wonder," she reflected. "Do you read novels?"

"Never."

"Then you miss a good deal," she told him. "They help you at least to understand how the relations between men and women are changing. So many affectations have gone and the vital things seem to have come more into the foreground."

"What are the vital things?" he asked.

He stepped past her to hand her out onto the pavement. She shook her head.

"I am not like Joyce," she said. "I cannot talk nonsense in the crowded places. Ask me later on. There's Dad standing in the window with his watch in his hand and that lean look upon his face which always means that he is hungry. Come along, you others," she added turning round. "We arc all right. Dad's smiling, He's forgotten all about his rheumatism."


Luncheon was a very pleasant meal. The Marquis had been noted in his younger days as being a wonderful host and he was evidently bent upon entertaining his guest to the best of his ability. Poynton sat at Lady Ursula's right but her father himself was directly opposite.

"I am delighted to see you again, Mr. Poynton," he said cordially. "Ursula and I were talking last night. We don't feel that either of us have sufficiently expressed our gratitude to you."

"I hope you won't say another word about it," Poynton begged. "There's not a man who passes along the street who would not have done what I did. The only thing is that I happen to be rather a big lumpy fellow so I can take a lot of knocking about."

"It seems to be the other fellow who got the knocking about," Freddy remarked with a grin. "They were going to bring him up before the magistrates on Monday but this morning we heard that he would not be able to leave the infirmary for a week or ten days."

"It will be the Assizes for him and a heavy sentence," the Marquis pronounced. "I don't wish anyone to be prejudiced by the fact that it was my daughter whom he attacked, but the fellow is a bad lot. He's been a terror to the neighbourhood for years."

"What sort of a shoot did you have yesterday?" Poynton asked.

"Ripping," Freddy declared. "Five hundred and forty- pheasants, mostly cocks, quite a nice lot of woodcock and I certainly didn't think there were as many partridges left as we saw during the last two drives."

"We're not supposed to be much of a game county," the Marquis observed, "but that's one thing I have to thank my predecessor for. He did preserve carefully and he reared pheasants even in the difficult months. Do you shoot, Mr. Poynton?"

"Not at all," the latter acknowledged.

"He doesn't even hunt," Lady Ursula complained, "and yet he sits that great war-horse of his like a centaur."

"It's queer how one has or has not the instinct for that sort of business," the Marquis reflected. "Now there's no one in the world could deny that our friend here is a sportsman and a fine sportsman. The way he tackled that gipsy fellow proved that all right, yet in the minor branches of the game, with every opportunity, he neither hunts nor shoots."

"What about golf?" Exminster enquired.

"I have never touched a club in my life."

"You must have some pleasures you don't talk about," Joyce Bellamy insisted. "Please consider yourself in the confessional."

"Well," Poynton related, "I went to the Grammar School here and I was captain of the cricket club, and the football club if it comes to that. They told me that if I had been able to stay up at Oxford I could have got my blue for cricket."

"You were at Oxford," Lady Ursula exclaimed.

"Dear me, that's very interesting," Exminster remarked.

"So you were at Oxford," the Marquis murmured.

The lines round Poynton's eyes deepened, his mouth twitched.

"I was," he admitted, "three terms. I won an exhibition scholarship from the Grammar School here. Just as I was settling down to work however, my father, who was a riveter in a boot factory here, died and I had to come rushing home to the family's support."

"I knew you were going to get very interesting sometime," Joyce declared. "So far you have been a little disappointing. You are so entirely unlike other men. When you pleaded guilty to Oxford my heart sank."

"Oh I'm different from other men," Poynton assure her. "I have never been in a London tailor's, for instance, or a London shirtmaker's for that matter. I make my own boots at the factory and men's wear is about our weakest point. On the other hand I did play cricket for the County twice and should have done so of oftener if I could have got away for the three days. I very nearly became a professional cricketer instead of a boot manufacturer."

"This is an awfully good hard-luck story," Freddy observed smiling. "I love it. But how did you get to the Grammar School at all, Mr. Poynton? That must have cost money."

Again Poynton smiled.

"I got an exhibition to the Grammar School from the local Board School."

"Are you still ambitious, Mr. Poynton?" Ursula asked abruptly.

He became serious again.

"Well, I expect so in a way," he admitted, "or obstinate. I don't know which. Why?"

"I was just wondering," she said, "where you are going to stop. Exhibitioner—Grammar School—Oxford—then the owner of the finest factory I have ever seen in my life—Mayor of the town. A regular Dick Whittington, you know. And what beyond?"

"I sometimes wonder," he told her. "What should you suggest? I might become a County Councillor but I don't think there is much in that."

"No advance at all," the Marquis insisted. "We must think of something better than that for you, Mr. Poynton. What is the next step up, I wonder?"

"A knighthood," the Duke suggested.

"Oh, I can get out of that," Poynton observed. "I haven't a wife. Every man who accepts a knighthood swears that he did it for his wife's sake."

"You're all stupid," Ursula declared. "It must be Parliament of course."

"Parliament by all means," Lord Bledbury agreed. "Why, you could be a Cabinet Minister in no time, Poynton."

"Politics it must be," Ursula insisted. "The only thing is that when the House is sitting, the hours are terrible. I don't see how you could manage that and your business as well. Couldn't you be made a peer straight away and then you could go to the House of Lords and have a quiet nap once or twice a year."

"But he is not the sort of man who goes in for quiet naps," Freddy pointed out. "If they made him a peer he would be hard at work reforming the House of Lords the day after he got there!"

"I think on the whole," Poynton decided, "I had better remain a shoe-manufacturer. It seems to be the job far which I am best fitted."

Lady Ursula was in a provocative turn of mind. She smiled up into his face.

"The trouble is," she reminded him, "that you have picked up a loose skein of romance and woven it into your life. You have entered into a field of adventure, Mr. Poynton. What are you going to do about that?"

He set down the glass of Rüdesheimer which he had been in the act of raising to his lips, and disposed of his neighbour's effort at banter by his obvious sincerity.

"That is what I ask myself all the time," he admitted.

There was a second's pause, the significance of which probably no one appreciated except Joyce. She laughed across the table at her vis-à-vis and threw him a kiss.

"I will offer myself as a sacrifice," she declared. "I will place myself in a perilous position before this new spirit of romance has died away. You shall save my life, Mr. Poynton, and you shall realise how wonderful a thing a woman's gratitude may be."

"You might be taking a risk," he smiled. "If I had slipped, for instance, the other day whilst that gipsy still had his balance—"

"I have confidence in you," she interrupted. "I don't think you are the sort of man who ever slips. Perhaps you might find life a little more exciting if you were not so sure-footed."

"Don't listen to that child, sir," Freddy begged. "She makes a cult of these double-entendres. Her precocity is really all on the surface. She will end up by marrying a Bishop—"

"A Missionary Bishop for choice," Ursula put in. "She claims to be an expert knitter. She could exercise her wiles upon the savages."

"I shall probably end up, as you call it," Joyce sighed, "as the dance hostess of a Hammersmith Night Club, and when I am brought up before the magistrate I shall attribute my position to the brutality of my friends."

"Upon which," Freddy promised, "I shall make a dramatic entrance with a world-renowned solicitor by my side and bail you out. I may not run the same risks that our friend Poynton did in his rescue of Ursula but at any rate the episode will try me sorely. I hate the inside of a Police Court."

"Mr. Mayor," Joyce appealed, "I don't see why you let them all attack me in this fashion. You ought to protect me."

"In my opinion," the Marquis grumbled, "you young people arc taking altogether too prominent a part in the conversation. I have serious matters connected with his borough to talk of with Mr. Poynton and I have scarcely been allowed to open my mouth. Mr. Poynton, I am sure, is not used to young women of your plain-spokenness."

"I find it all very agreeable," the guest of the morning declared, "but if there is any information I can give you about the town, Marquis, I shall certainly feel on surer ground.

"The water supply," the Marquis murmured.

"Yes, the water supply," Lord Frederick echoed eagerly.

Poynton glanced at the clock.

"Too big a subject," he pronounced. "In five minutes shall have to tear myself away. I can tell you one thing, however, which is an open secret. The Fernwall tender has been definitely refused. That leaves only two in the running. The last of the analysts' reports will be in by the end of the week and the contractors' estimates almost immediately after."

The Marquis sighed.

"It seems a lengthy business," he remarked. "You have no idea, I suppose, when the final judgment will be given."

"Some time in May I should think," Poynton replied, rising to his feet.

He excused himself after the usual leave-takings. Ursula walked out into the hall with him and the two lingered at the top of the steps. Several of the passers-by saluted him respectfully.

"You seem to know everyone in the town," she observed. He smiled.

"Everyone in the town has the right to salute the Mayor if he chooses," he said. "As a matter of fact I expect they're all a little surprised to see me coming out from this holy of holies."

"You must retaliate by giving us a luncheon at your club one day," she suggested.

"I'm afraid the Town Club doesn't boast of a ladies' room," he regretted.

"I hope you didn't mind Father bringing up that water question," she said a little abruptly. "I thought I saw you frown. I'll give him a hint to stop it. Of course it does make a frightful difference to us."

He nodded understandingly.

"I am sure," he said as he took his leave, "you understand that the less I know about that the better."


They all looked enquiringly at Ursula as she re-entered the room. She indulged in a little grimace.

"He didn't say a definite word and I didn't dare to ask him," she confided. "Somehow or other I don't fancy that if it rests with him water will ever flow down Burton Valley waterways."

The Marquis sighed as he pushed back his chair and lit a cigarette.

"I fear, my dear Ursula," he said, "that your gallant rescuer is one of those difficult people whom they call a man of principle."


CHAPTER VII

A LITTLE group of mud-stained weary equestrians drew rein on the byway which skirted the base of Beacon Hill, the byway, as a matter of fact, which was the scene of Ursula's adventure. Exminster pointed upwards with his riding crop.

"Will you ever be able to deny again, Ursula, that your friend and gallant rescuer is at heart something of a poseur?"

They all looked through the gathering twilight towards the top of the hill. Amongst the fragments of broken, prehistoric stone at the very summit a man on horseback was seated motionless. Both horse and man in the dim light seemed grotesquely oversized, fantastic in the rigidity of their pose still clearly defined against the open skies behind.

"Rather like one of those strange prehistoric representations in the Rocky Mountains," someone declared, "except that here is all the fineness of an empty background."

"But not empty for long," Freddy Manningham pointed out. "He will be lost in the clouds in a moment—the very clouds that are going to soak us to the skin."

"If you knew Mr. Poynton," Ursula remarked, "you would never suspect him of being a poseur. His great fault, alas, is that he is too much of a materialist. He won't listen to us even when Joyce whistles her magical music or when I try blandishments that have never failed before. For three weeks he has kept out of our way and each day has brought that water decision nearer. Freddy, lift the latch of that gate with your crop."

"You're not going to ride up the side of the Beacon after that fellow?" her brother demanded with a note of rare irritation in his tone.

"Precisely what I am going to do," she rejoined. "We arrive at an absolutely materialised allegory. The mountain will not come to Mahomet so Mademoiselle Mahomet is going to the mountain. Thanks, Freddy. Cleverly done."

The horse she was riding was her second mount which she had fallen in with late in the day and he responded at once to the touch of her whip. She cantered up the grassy path which led through the plantation and disappeared.

The little group, homeward bound from the last Meet of the season, made their way towards the wide-flung gates of Beaumanor Park.


Poynton swung his horse round at the sound of the opening gate and at Ursula's approach. She was riding rather a small mare, and man and horse alike appeared absolutely Gargantuan as she cantered up to his side.

"Well, what have you got to say for yourself?" she asked a little breathlessly.

"Am I on my defence?"

"Of course you are. Do you know that I have telephoned three times?"

"Twice I know of," he answered. "No more. You suggested coming to the factory. We had the Government Inspectors there. Another day I was just leaving for Wales. The third time, when you invited me to dinner, it was your butler who spoke."

"Wales—yes," she repeated. "I suppose you know that you have broken all our hearts."

"Not quite that, I hope," he protested a little stiffly. "The Burton Valley scheme always had its drawbacks. I was not in a position to discuss them fully with your father when we lunched at Mechester but as soon as the matter is finally decided he shall know everything there is to be known."

"Only," she remarked, "it will be too late."

It seemed to her that he had become entirely inaccessible. From his post of vantage he was watching the little cavalcade down in the lane wending their way homewards.

"You have been hunting?" he asked.

She nodded.

"The last day. Something sad about the last of anything, isn't there? I think we are all a little depressed. Will you come home and have some tea?"

He hesitated.

"I think I'd better not; thank you very much, Lady Ursula," he said.

"Then perhaps you will escort me to the gates?" she suggested. "We can go down by the keeper's lodge. I rode up the side of this mountain to come and speak to you but I prefer the easier way down."

"With pleasure," he agreed. "If I were you I would never come up through the plantation. There are too many rabbit- holes amongst the bracken and too many of the rocks half hidden. Shall we start?"

"Walk your horse, please," she begged. "I feel like talking. Why do you always choose such enormous animals that you seem to be perched up in the air?"

"Humanity," he replied. "I ride seventeen stone."

She pulled off a glove and held out her hand.

"Let me feel that we are friends," she invited. "I have fancied that you were offended with us."

He took the hand and held it for a moment. He had a wild impulse to raise it to his lips, for the glimmering twilight was all around them and the others had disappeared. He felt the gesture beyond him, however, and yielded back the passive fingers.

"It was a foolish idea," he said. "You have shown me nothing but kindness for a trifling service. I am only sorry that I could not help your father in what he wished."

"You are terribly conscientious, aren't you?"

"One does not remain long in an official position—not honourably—if one is not."

"What do you want to be Mayor of the silly town for?" she demanded. "They don't pay you anything, do they?"

He laughed huskily.

"Pay me!" he repeated. "It costs me several thousands a year. I like being Mayor because I am a townsman and it is a townsman's great ambition—"

"But you can't enjoy it," she persisted.

"I don't know," he answered. "I used to think I did."

"I was in Mechester twice last week," she said. "I was in what I suppose they call the fashionable quarter where the women's shops are and I looked about me wondering what sort of people you had to dance with and take in to dinner and dine with. They did not seem interesting. Of course they may be."

"They are not," he assured her. "They are dull. They are not glib of speech. They have not the daring, the directness of people who have lived in larger circles, but they are my people. You belong where you arc born more or less, you know."

"What a terrible speech!"

"I was born in a four-roomed house in a slum. My father was dragged away from Board School to work before he scarcely knew his alphabet."

"Those sort of things don't happen now," she objected. "You have been to Oxford."

"Socially that was an entire washout," he assured her, "No one ever spoke to me. I just worked, passed more examinations and made plans."

"Why don't you marry?"

"Because I don't belong to the world where I should like to look for my wife."

"Bless you," she exclaimed. "You have said a human thing. If I could reach you I should squeeze your arm. You would like a wife out of my world, Mr. Poynton?"

"If I made up my mind to marry at all I should," he admitted.

"I think I should like to marry someone in yours," she told him. "But he would have to be someone very exceptional—very much like you. Tell me again your Christian name, please."

"Daniel," he answered. "I don't think I was ever properly christened, but it is in the register."

"Well, your father and mother did you very well," she approved. "I ought to have remembered it. Daniel is quite a nice name. How should you like to marry Joyce?"

"I think Miss Bellamy is exceedingly attractive," he confessed, "but to tell you the truth I am rather afraid of her. I never know whether she is making fun of me or not."

"Oh, I don't think she ever is," Ursula replied. "She wanted to ride up with me to-night, pretended she did at any rate. I don't think Freddy would have let her."

"Is she fond of your brother?" he asked.

"Oh, we are all fond of one another in a way. We get into the habit of calling one another by nicknames, going about together just as much as we choose, talking the same shibboleth, going to the same places and spending our spare time scoffing at sentiment and marrying in the end, if we do marry, for convenience. Joyce is just waiting for some decent one of the gang to turn up who can afford to keep half-a-dozen hunters and is in the right set and I suppose I am doing about the same thing—only I would prefer a man in politics, or a judge or a soldier. I should not mind much which but I would like a man to be powerful."

They had reached the bottom gates and the gamekeeper's wife came out to open them and pay her respects. She curtsied to Ursula who smiled her thanks.

"How are the babes, Mrs. Green?" she asked.

"Doing fine, thank you, your ladyship," the woman replied.

Ursula reined in her horse and Poynton followed suit.

"And your husband?" the former continued.

"He's a wonderful man for health is John, your ladyship," the woman answered. "Scarcely ever knowed him with a day's illness."

"Any trouble with the poachers?"

"None to speak of, your ladyship. The worst of the lot— that man Marrables who annoyed your ladyship—is laid by the heels now. There's not a soul round here who isn't glad to have him out of the way."

"This is the gentleman," Lady Ursula confided, indicating Poynton, "who fought him and saved my life pretty well up in the lane there."

"I'm sure there's no one in the whole neighbourhood who don't bless and admire him for it, your ladyship," the woman answered fervently.

They rode on. The darkness had come on suddenly and the lights of Beaumanor looked very hospitable glimmering in the valley.

"Come in and have some tea," Ursula begged. "We were having such an interesting conversation and it got broken off somehow or other. You were going to tell me whether you really would like to marry Joyce."

He took the matter seriously.

"It sounds like an impertinence," he said. "I know she would not dream of having me if I did, but I don't want in marry Miss Bellamy. I admire her very much but—I never understand her."

"Would you like to marry me, Mr. Poynton?"

Their horses were almost touching. She could hear the long shivering breath he drew and she saw the sudden tightening of his lips—hard and straight they seemed—a man's vigorous mouth. The impulse was irresistible. She leaned towards him.

"I must not ask you that," she said, "for I don't suppose I could marry you but I owe you a good deal, Daniel Poynton, and I am beginning to owe you more. You may kiss me if you like."

His rough cheek brushed against her smooth delicate one. His lips for a moment, warm and firm though tender, burned upon hers. Then her mare reared and it was only by an effort that he kept his seat. He heard her laughing in the darkness a few yards in front. She swung half round and he caught the soft glitter of her eyes.

"To think that we should behave like this," she exclaimed. "Come along, my dangerous cavalier. This is the back way through the home farm. You can't refuse to stay and have tea with me now—besides, it's pouring with rain."


Poynton hated that heterogeneous gathering—the people who arrived without introduction and departed without anything more than a wave of the hand in lieu of leave- taking—all in their hunting clothes—most of the men in pink, some of them splashed with mud from head to foot. There seemed to be a sort of freemasonry amongst them all and he himself drinking tea in a corner, an imposing but solitary figure, would have been miserable enough but for Joyce. She singled him out the moment she entered, forced him into a chair, ministered to his wants and brought him cigarettes.

"Talk to me, my great man hero," she begged. "Ursula's fairly entrapped. Exminster has got hold of her. He's the Master, you know, and he'll never let her go if he can help it. Wants to marry her. I wonder why everyone wants to marry Ursula and no one wants to marry me."

"I can't imagine," he replied. "It seems to me you would be terribly easy to get on with."

"I am docility itself," she assured him, biting into a muffin and displaying the most wonderful teeth. "Mine is rather a pathetic case. I do all the spadework. I entertain everybody. I fill up odd spots. I take the place of an odd spinster at any sort of a party. Men like to take me out but they always bring me home again. They never talk about running away with me or anything romantic like that. I think it must be the colour of my hair. They're afraid people who don't know will think that I am on the films. Bob," she called out to a young man in very muddy pink who was just passing, "if you didn't know me should you think that I was on the films?"

He shook his head.

"You look too intelligent, my dear," he assured her with a curious glance at her companion. "Not the type at all. Too classy."

"Bob is always my friend," she murmured, as he passed on. "All the same there must be something about me men don't like. How old should you think I was, Mr. Poynton?"

"Nineteen," he ventured.

"I am twenty next birthday and I have never even been engaged. I have two sisters only a year or so older than I am—both of them married—and one three years older, full of experience. She is already being divorced. And here am I— practically an old maid!"

"Very hard luck," he admitted. "I wish there was something I could do about it."

"You could do the necessary thing about it," she replied laughing up at him. "If only you would look as though you wanted to! It's just what I said. I am the stopgap. Ursula's swept away from you. How she hates it I know but an M.F.H. is a sacred person in the house and so I am allowed just to keep you company for a little time. Have more tea?"

"Thanks, nothing more," he said. "You have looked after me marvellously. To tell you the truth I am used to crowds of people but I always feel a little shy when I am with people who walk in different places. I listened to the talk for a minute before you came up. There was not a single word about anything except hunting. I suppose it's worth while."

"Believe me it is a sort of slavery," she told him. "I am worse than any of them. I could talk about our run from Cropstone Wood round Bradcote and losing in Swithland Wood for an hour if anyone would listen to me. Dick Hartopp was all wrong. I know where that fox went and I don't mind. I think to wind up the season's sport without a kill is rather fun. Have a cigarette?" she concluded, passing him a box.

The Marquis detached himself from a little group and came up to them. He shook his head sadly at Poynton.

"Destroyer of our happiness," he exclaimed. "We were going to pay all our debts and lead a new life. I am sure the water from my Derbyshire hills is better than that Welsh stuff."

"The matter is still under discussion," Poynton replied a little shortly.

"You have not been with the young people, have you?" the Marquis enquired, changing the subject.

"I don't hunt," Poynton reminded him. "No, I just rode out to my favourite spot for exercise. I came across Lady Ursula and she was kind enough to ask me in to tea."

"I wonder where Ursula is," her father speculated.

"She is still talking to Exminster," Joyce explained. "That's why I have been allowed to look after Mr. Poynton."

"I'm afraid we must seem quite a lot of savages on a hunt evening," Bledbury remarked. "It is the only meal at which my young people really seem to get greedy. They never think of guests. They can only just talk about their exploits and the going. However, I am glad that Joyce has been looking after you. Would you care to come and have a quiet smoke in the billiard room? I expect you arc too good for me but we could have a game if you liked. I have not been out to-day— got a touch of this accursed gout."

"Another time I would love to," Poynton apologised. "Just now I was trying to persuade Miss Bellamy to help me slip away."

The Marquis smiled.

"You don't need any help," he said. "We are a shockingly informal lot. There is no one to thank for your tea and muffins. Come along. I will take you out myself."

Lady Ursula was the centre of a little group now. They were all laughing and talking and her back was towards them. Curiously enough Poynton's first impulse was one of relief. He would have found it, he felt, almost impossible to have spoken to her before all these people.

"I hope they have thrown a rug over that magnificent horse of yours, Mr. Mayor," his host said. "Perhaps they have put him in a loose box."

"I took the liberty of asking your groom to walk him up and down," Poynton replied. "We have not had a gallop all day, so he is not warm."

"Look in any time," Bledbury invited with a farewell nod. "I am not going to face this moist night air."

He turned away and sauntered off towards the billiard room. Joyce lingered with Poynton for a moment while his horse was brought round.

"That's almost the largest animal I ever saw," she said watching Poynton mount. "What does he stand—seventeen and a half? You looked like a colossal statue—Roman Emperor on horseback or something of that sort—at the top of the hill."

Poynton laughed almost gaily. The cool air was upon his burning cheeks. He was safe—away from that house and the sound of Ursula's rippling laughter. He had time to think. Memories were flooding in already. He waved his hat to the girl who stood at the top of the steps.

"Thank you for your kindness to a shy man, Miss Bellamy," he said.

"Ursula will hate having you go like this," she told him.

He rode away, a silent and rather unresponsive figure, and passed through the great gates into the famous avenue.


CHAPTER VIII

AT eleven o'clock precisely on the following morning the first chapter in Poynton's very methodical day was brought to an end. The huge correspondence of the firm had been opened and read. A certain number of letters had been dictated, a larger number sorted for transmission to the various heads of departments. Miss Gray, her fingers aching as the result of nearly two hours' rapid dictation, glanced it her employer as though expecting the usual signal for her to take her departure. For some reason or other, however, it was unduly delayed. Poynton himself, with a slightly relaxed air, was drumming with his finger tips upon the desk and to his secretary's increasing embarrassment his eyes seemed to be fixed speculatively upon her.

"Ever read novels, Miss Gray?" he asked.

"I beg your pardon, sir?"

"Novels—works of fiction," he repeated. "Mirrors of high life or criminal life—any sort of life different from this. Do you ever read them?"

"When I have time," she replied. "I'm generally pretty tired when I leave here. I always read part of Sundays and Saturday evenings."

"I have never read a really modern novel in my life," he confided.

A delicate bloom of colour stole softly into the girl's checks. Never before had he addressed a remark to her of a personal a nature. Her fingers fidgeted with the nun-like collar she wore around her throat. He looked at it approvingly.

"I suppose you are almost too busy," she remarked.

"I don't waste much time," he acknowledged. "I was just wondering. I suppose it is through novels that one gains some idea as to how people in other walks of life think and behave."

"That is one thing that makes reading novels interesting," she admitted.

"Buy me a dozen," he begged. "Go to Spencers after you have had your lunch and take a taxicab back. A dozen of the best modern novels—no out-and-out shockers—just novels of people, well, people in a good position of life. People we shoemakers are not likely to come in contact with. I just want to know their outlook if I can get it. You know the sort of authors to ask for, I suppose?"

"I think so," she confessed rather doubtfully. "You mean non-commercial people, I suppose—society people and that sort."

He nodded approvingly. The girl had intelligence. She was good-looking too in her soft, subdued way. Very likely a lady herself. He had never thought of that.

"You know what I mean," he went on. "It is outlook I want. I don't want a sort of super-guide to society. Nothing of that sort. The feelings underneath—how they express them. What their standards are likely to be."

"I see," she murmured.

He waved her away. The business of the day progressed. After luncheon—a meal which Poynton ate as usual, when he was not dining out, standing up in his office and reading the financial column of the Times—Miss Gray returned with a bulky brown paper parcel. He shook his head regretfully.

"No time till to-night," he told her. "See that they are put in my car."

"You know that you are dining with the Town Clerk sir," she reminded him.

He nodded.

"Eight o'clock," he reflected. "I shan't have time to go home. Telephone for Greatson to bring down my dinner clothes. I'll change here."

"Very good, Mr. Poynton."

He telephoned for the Works Manager, Mark Burden, one of the busiest men about the place but with his employer's habit of composure.

"Burden," he said abruptly, "you have seen this morning's orders?"

"I have indeed, sir," the man replied.

"We shall be a thousand gross behind capacity, what are we going to do about it?"

"I am waiting for your instructions, sir."

"You have ideas of your own, of course?"

"Nothing definite," Burden admitted.

"What about Blaby?"

"They're working to capacity. They could not handle the stuff, sir. It is the light ladies' wear we are in trouble about. The building is going on as fast as possible but we shall never get going in the new wing before midsummer."

"Post overtime notices throughout the factory," Poynton directed. "See the factory overseer and arrange matters with him. Take on all the hands you can find for the fine work. We can use them."

"Very good, sir."

"And go through the light-machinery department this afternoon yourself. Report on any machines we can duplicate."

The man produced a foreign newspaper from his pocket and pointed to a paragraph.

"I sec that great continental firm is on half time, sir," He pointed out. "I can't read the German myself but Miss Gray translated it for me."

Poynton nodded.

"I saw it in the Times. Same thing in the States, at Erpinghams. Can't help their troubles. If they won't learn how to make shoes they must fall behind."

Finished with Mr. Burden, who hurried back to his department, Poynton went off to another part of the factory. He hated overcrowding but there were ways and means. Human beings needed so many cubic feet of air. Leather didn't. Before the afternoon was gone three or four stock-rooms were emptied and engineers from the great shoe-machinery firm were taking measurements for installations. A busy day. No time to linger over memories of the first woman's kiss the Mayor of Mechester had ever received.


After all Poynton forgot his tea and had to dress in a hurry. He rang the bell.

"Is that Miss Gray?" he asked without turning round.

"Yes, sir," she replied.

"Come in," he said impatiently. "You have seen a man in his shirt sleeves before, I suppose. You know how to tie a dress tic?"

It was a day of shocks. She hurried forward without hesitation.

"Of course I do, Mr. Poynton. That's only a black one, though."

"What's it matter about the colour?" he growled.

She held up the coat and found it was a dinner jacket.

"That's quite all right, sir," she said. "I thought you meant a white one. If you don't mind turning your back to me before the mirror—just like that—I can do it in a minute."

"Good girl," he muttered. "Greatson sent me a ready-made one as well but I am told they are the wrong thing to wear. What should I care about things like that?"

"Other people do," she reminded him softly. "Miss Priestley is a very smart young lady and I'm sure she wouldn't like you in a ready-made tie. Is that all right?"

"Looks excellent," he declared, patting it. "You are a clever girl, Miss Gray."

"Am I, Mr. Poynton?" she said without moving.

He swung round and looked at her. With a slightly- heightened colour, fingers not too steady and a very alluring light in her eyes she had certainly, without being actually a pretty girl, subtle gifts of attraction.

"Thanks for tying the tie," he said gruffly. "I should like to kiss you for doing it but I am not sure."

"You arc not sure about what?" she asked with unabated composure.

"Well, I kissed another woman yesterday, you see," he explained. "When I have read those books you have brought me perhaps I shall understand more how people feel about that sort of thing. Ring up Bardells and order the largest box of chocolates they have."

"Bardells are closed, sir," she reminded him, the unusual sparkle still lingering in her eyes.

He took her by the shoulders and kissed her lightly on either cheek.

"You're a good girl," he said. "I'll remember it when the time for your wedding present come. Don't forget to ring them up to-morrow. Look out of the window, will you. Is the car there?"

"It's been waiting half-an-hour, sir."

"Time I was off," he declared, arranging his muffler and picking up his hat. "Lights out at eight, remember, Miss Gray. If you are behind leave the Indian letters. The mail doesn't really go until to-morrow afternoon."

"Thank you, Mr. Poynton," she said quietly. "I hope you will have a pleasant evening."


Dinner was almost a family affair. Poynton liked his Town Clerk, Tom Priestley, and his family as well as he liked anyone. He would have liked Mrs. Priestley exceedingly if she had not been so anxious to marry him to Laura, her elder daughter. He sat between the two at dinner and talked, for him, quite a great deal. Mrs. Priestley, who was quick to notice such things, was pleasurably interested.

"I never saw you look better, Mr. Poynton," she said, "and everyone says you work harder than any man in Mechester."

"Glad you think so," he answered. "As to working hard—no credit in that. I like it. By the by, Miss Laura," he added turning towards the attractive young woman who was seated on his other side, "do you read novels?"

"Of course I do," she replied. "How else should I know anything about life, living in Mechester?"

"I thought you younger people were all rather advanced here."

"That's because you're too busy ever to find out. Mechester is just about as provincial a town as you could find anywhere."

"You are a nice girl," he complained, "seeing that your father is the Town Clerk and I am the Mayor. We consider this a model borough."

"Maybe," she answered. "If it is I don't think I like model boroughs. There's never anything to do here."

"I'll give you something to do then," he suggested. "Make me out a list of twenty of the most advanced and amusing modern novels you have read lately."

"What, you—-the busiest man in Mechester—want to read novels!" she exclaimed.

"Got to be done. Life is not all making boots and shoes, you know. I am up against a problem."

"I have read all the modern novels," she told him. "I will solve your problem for you."

He smiled.

"You might find it difficult," he warned her. She had fine eyes and she knew how to make use of them. She leaned forward in her place.

"Try me," she begged.

"After dinner," he suggested. "Your mother is disapproving of us."

"Laura talks so much nonsense," Mrs. Priestley complained. "It's all very well with these boys and girls but I'm sure it must worry you."

"I am rather encouraging it," he declared.

"I don't believe Mr. Poynton is nearly so serious as he pretends to be," Laura's younger sister exclaimed from the other side of the table. "Do you know what I was told about you the other day, Mr. Poynton? I daresay it isn't true but it sounded most romantic."

"I don't think I am exactly a figure of romance," Poynton said, "so I expect it isn't true."

"I was told that you went to the help of the Marquis of Bledbury's daughter when she was attacked by a tramp, that you rescued her and did no end of heroic things."

"Where did you get hold of that?" he asked. "The case has not come on yet."

"The gamekeeper's niece over at Beaumanor works in a hat shop I go to," the girl explained. "They were not sure that it was you but nearly everyone thinks it was. Of course we shall know, when the man is well enough to go up before the magistrate."

"I hadn't heard anything about this," Mrs. Priestley remarked.

"There's nothing to hear about," Poynton assured them carelessly. "I was riding down a lane and found a man annoying a young woman. He soon made off when he saw me riding Grey Prince and that's about all there was to it. I'm afraid you will never make a romantic figure out of a shoe- maker, Miss Connie."

"Have you told the whole truth, Mr. Poynton?" Laura asked severely.

"All that's worth telling."

Mrs. Priestley coughed and rose to her feet.

"I know that your father wants to talk to Mr. Poynton," she said. "You can be making out your list of novels in the drawing room, Laura."

"All love stories?" the girl enquired, looking back over her shoulder.

"Every blessed one of them," Poynton insisted. "It's time I picked up something about that sort of business."

She lingered for another moment at the door.

"I know a much better way of picking it up," she told him.


"I'm rather glad to see you alone for ten minutes, Poynton," his fellow worker remarked as he passed the port. "You know we have applied for powers to adopt the scheme with the Cambrian Water Works people, provided the final investigations are satisfactory."

"Well?"

"I'm not sure that there is not going to be some trouble coming our way," Tom Priestley went on. "You remember of course that as Harbutt has sent in his resignation, and you yourself have vetoed the Fernwall scheme; we decided that it was better to have an independent surveyor's report upon some of the doubtful sections. As a matter of fact, it was your own suggestion."

"Yes, I remember that," Poynton admitted.

"Well, the reports arc not out yet," Priestley went on "You will have them first as a matter of course but my friend Major, who is in the Nottingham surveying department—you know the man by reputation I daresay—rang me up to-day with rather a serious piece of information. He said that they considered the Cambrian scheme some seven or eight years ago and they came across deleterious deposit barely ten feet under the surface in four of their sections. If this is so we are certain to hear about it in a few days from the man we are employing, as those are precisely the sections on which we asked for the most searching details."

"That's interesting," Poynton said calmly. "If it turns out to be serious there will only be the Derbyshire scheme left of the three we selected."

"That's quite true," Priestley admitted. "I am terrified that the news of this should leak out, although with the government powers, of course, there is not much room for speculation. Still, if the Society who holds most of the mortgages on the Derbyshire Estate were to get to know about this it might affect the situation very considerably."

Poynton was silent for an unusually long time.

"You know to whom most of the land belongs, I suppose," he said at last.

"To the Marquis of Bledbury, I believe," the Town Clerk replied. "I don't know how much he is interested."

"I think he is very considerably interested," Poynton confided. "As a matter of fact I had some conversations with him (very much against my will) on the subject of this water scheme."

"The devil," Tom Priestley murmured.

"He didn't realise, of course, that he was going against tradition," Poynton went on, "but there it is. He brought the subject up and I was obliged to tell him that I could not discuss it."

"That's why you have always opposed his scheme, I suppose," Priestley observed.

"I had to," Poynton assented. "What I was going to tell you was this, however. I don't know how much of a businessman he is but if what he told me was true, and I am sure he believed it was, the mortgages are really remarkably light considering the value of the property. It would mean I should think a matter of between two and three hundred thousand pounds for the Bledburys if we take their scheme after all."

"Someone must make money, of course," the Town Clerk remarked tolerantly. "We need the land, and land is hard to sell just now, but if you have to buy at a valuation you have to pay. I thought you ought to know the position, Poynton, in case this deleterious deposit business comes to anything, but in any case you are all right as from the first you were the strongest opponent of the Derbyshire purchase. I must confess," Priestley went on, refilling his guest's glass and his own, "I should be glad if we had to come to the Derbyshire scheme after all. Beaumanor is a very old Mechestershire estate and although the owners have not had much to spend in the County lately, this money would put them completely on their legs again. The old man was the best Lord Lieutenant we ever had and did the thing well too. There's another trouble to come though. Quite half of the mortgage land is liable to foreclosure at any moment."

"You mean that Bledbury's people are behind with the interest?" Poynton asked.

"They were when the Derbyshire affair was in the running," the Town Clerk explained, "and as you of course remember, I have always been rather in favour of it because of the quality of the land through which the water comes. I happened to be discussing some of the financial details and the Crown man told me that in all probability we, should only have the mortgagees to deal with as the Bledburys were trying to get an extension of the mortgage. That was three weeks ago. I believe the exact date when it is due is within a few days."

Poynton considered the matter for a moment.

"Pretty hard luck that would be on the Bledburys," he observed.

"Rotten," his host agreed. "If my memory serves me the latest day for paying their interest is somewhere about next Thursday, the seventeenth. That's after an extension. If they have not paid by then it is the mortgagees—one of these big Insurance Companies, I think—who will get the whole of the profit on the sale to us."

Poynton took a long and thoughtful sip of his wine.

"Listen to me, Priestley," he said. "You are a lawyer. I'm not. You and I are in possession of certain information. I can't see that it is a matter of privilege at all. Is there anything to prevent us giving Bledbury a hint?"

"For the moment I cannot see that there is," Priestley replied cautiously. "On the other hand, I am not sure that it would be any good. Bledbury could not possibly cough up about one hundred thousand pounds at twenty-four hours' notice on a rumour. There is no time to make certain about the truth of Major's information, and if he turns out to be mistaken, of course the Cambrian scheme would go through."

"Putting that on one side for a moment, what is your opinion on the matter of privilege?" Poynton urged.

"I don't think there is any," was the prompt reply.

"Supposing Lord Bledbury was an acquaintance of yours, would you feel justified in giving him a hint?"

"I certainly should," Priestley acquiesced. "At the same time, as I told you, I don't think it would be any use. I don't think he could raise the money. The whole thing is too chaotic."

"One more question," Poynton said. "Your friend Major is supposed to be, I know, a brilliant man at his job. Is he reliable?"

"Absolutely," was the confident reply. "And I don't mind telling you this, Poynton, I don't think he would have mentioned it at all if he had not been pretty certain. Now perhaps we had better go into the drawing room. Laura will have her list of books ready for you."

"I am going across to say good-night to Mrs. Priestley," the Mayor remarked as they crossed the hall, "but I am going to beg to be excused. I am thankful you people don't want to play bridge this evening and I am not breaking up anything."

"No, we don't want to play bridge," Priestley assured him, "but they will be awfully disappointed—Laura will at any rate—if you hurry off. They forget what a busy man you are and they are always complaining that you come to see us so seldom."

"We'll make that all right," Poynton promised.

He wasted no words in the drawing room.

"Mrs. Priestley," he said, as he held out his hand, "I am going to be one of the rudest of guests. I am going to ask you to excuse me. I have had a very serious problem put up to me at the Works this afternoon and I promised to reply to-morrow morning. I am going to have a quiet hour in my study."

Laura came over to him with a sheet of paper in her hand and a look of blank disappointment on her face.

"Mr. Poynton," she pleaded, "I've finished my list. I was going to tell you about the books. I have chosen them so carefully. There's one especially will tell you exactly how to act if you are face to face with a great love crisis. The hero of one of the others never looks at a woman until he is just your age and the way he deals with the problem is so clever. You can't hurry away like this. It may alter the whole course of your future life!"

"I invite the whole party," Poynton announced, "to dine with me on Monday night at eight o'clock at The Grange. I promise then that we will discuss all these wonderful problems, Miss Laura."

"You wouldn't like anything in the way of a rehearsal?" she asked. "I am a very good actress. I might pretend anything."

"Monday night," he persisted firmly. "You mustn't worry Mr. Poynton, my dear," her mother remonstrated. "Remember all that he has upon his shoulders. I sometimes think it's wonderful how he gets through it all."

"Don't worry," he said pleasantly as he made his way towards the door. "Believe me, there's only one secret in being a successful Mayor and that is to choose the right Town Clerk."


CHAPTER IX

DANIEL POYNTON, with the roar of machinery always in his ears and a couple of thousand people working around him, rose from the easy-chair in which he had sought a brief half-hour's relaxation and rang for Miss Gray. He looked up with a frown as she entered. His tone was aggrieved.

"Absolutely useless, every one of them," he declared, throwing a volume he had been glancing through onto the table. "Interesting in their way, but all full of blind alleys and closed passages. You can have the lot, Miss Gray."

"Thank you very much," she answered a little taken aback. "Shall I try another batch?"

"Don't bother," he replied gloomily. "I don't think there is anything to be learnt from them."

"What do you want to find out?" she asked.

He swung round in his chair, signed a dozen transfers, and held out towards her the pen which she had proffered.

"Consider this situation," he said. "A man and a girl alone together in a position where they could only converse under difficulties."

"On horseback?" she suggested innocently.

"Well, on horseback if you like," he assented. "It's a good example. They are talking about quite ordinary things, or not talking at all. The woman is everything she ought to be. The man is uncouth and unused to the ways of the world she lives in. She leans over, deliberately invites him to kiss her, puts her horse to a canter and avoids him for the rest of the day. What does she do it for? What's the idea? Why does she avoid him afterwards?"

"Did you buy twelve novels to find that out?" she asked.

"Well, not exactly," he admitted, frowning. "I thought they might help."

"You think she really does keep out of the way afterwards?"

"Certain."

"Well, I'll tell you what I should say about it," Miss Gray declared judicially. "She acted upon an impulse. People do sometimes. Then she was a little afraid that it might have been misunderstood and she went back into herself again."

"What should you do if you were the man?" he persisted.

"Ignore it," she replied. "It may give him confidence in his future relations with her, but he should ignore it."

He deliberated on the matter.

"It seems to me," he acknowledged, "that you may have been giving me good advice."

"I am sure of it."

"Have you ever done such a thing yourself?"

Grey eyes they were he found himself looking into. Rather sweet in their way. Not the eyes a man who had seen them as often as he had should have overlooked.

"No," she admitted, "but I have wanted to."

"If you wanted to why haven't you?"

"I might have been misunderstood. Besides, in my case the positions would have been reversed."

"Ring up the house," he directed, "and order a car to be here at four o'clock. You can take the books, Miss Gray. A little present for your trouble."

"I shall be very glad of them," she assured him demurely. "I'm sorry they were not of more use to you."

"You took their place," he said abruptly. "I suppose I was a fool to think that one might learn that way."


She left him with an uneasy sense of having somehow enlarged his responsibilities in life. He felt that he should have handled his brief duologue with this girl in a lighter fashion, that he should even—after her daring speech—have perhaps kissed her in a light-hearted, paternal sort of way, patted her shoulders and sent her cheerfully about her business. Even whilst he thought about it he understood why he had not. He was back again at school, learning from himself. He knew quite well that the reason he had not obeyed that impulse was because he was not absolutely sure that the proper paternal touch would have remained in that caress. He threw down his pen impatiently and rang the bell for his manager.

"Better stick to boots and shoes," he told himself angrily. He understood all about them as well as anyone in the world. This business of living was more difficult.

Burden, the one man whose advice he sometimes asked in matters of business, shortly presented himself. He was a man something of Poynton's own type, but younger and with more knowledge of the world. He was nominally Works Manager, but in reality he was more in his employer's confidence than anyone else in the place.

"Come here, Burden," he invited as the man entered. "What do you make of this letter? I haven't answered it yet. Read it out loud. Perhaps I may get another angle on it."

The young man obeyed.

"It is dated from the Savoy Hotel, sir," he said, "and written to you personally."


Dear Mr. Poynton,

We have, I regret to say, never met although I have tried on various occasions to make your acquaintance and I once, if you remember, wrote and asked you to visit my factory in Czechoslovakia.

You and I are, I think, the two largest manufacturers of boots and shoes in the world, with the possible exception of the Erpingham Corporation, the President of which—Mr. Frederick Erpingham—is staying at this hotel at the present moment. In the course of one of our business discussions it has occurred to us both that it might be highly advantageous if the three of us were to meet in conference on various matters connected with the trade.

I shall be here for another week or ten days, as will also Mr. Erpingham, and it would give us great pleasure if you would take luncheon or dinner with us here any day you choose to select next week. I am told that you stay here on your not very frequent visits to London, so you will probably find this location agreeable.

Sincerely yours,

Hermann Johann Bauer


"This might mean a very big thing," Burden declared as he passed back the letter.

Poynton thrust out his underlip—an indication with him of obstinacy.

"I shan't go," he announced. "I'm not going to give away any of the details of my business. I don't want to know how they run theirs. I don't want to sell and I certainly don't want to buy. Write him as politely as you can and say that I see no useful purpose in a conference."

Burden remained in his place for a moment. He was smooth- shaven with skin like a child's, his features were undistinguished, he had somehow or other an air of juvenility. Nevertheless he was Poynton's trusted right-hand man and Poynton seldom made mistakes.

"This is rather a big business to dispose of summarily, sir," he said. "You can play your own hand so perfectly, you can withhold information or give it as seems good to you, but after all there is something rather dramatic about a meeting like this. They have something to offer you. I should hear what it was if I were you."

Poynton handled the letter again and scowled at his manager.

"I suppose you are right as usual," he growled. "I make up my mind too quickly sometimes. I'll lunch on Tuesday at one o'clock."

"I think you are very wise, Mr. Poynton."

The telephone bell rang. Burden took off the receiver and listened for a moment.

"The Town Clerk wishes to speak to you, sir. Privately, he said."

Poynton leaned over the instrument.

"Is that you, Priestley?"

"Speaking. That's Poynton, isn't it?"

"Right."

"Last night," Priestley went on, dropping his voice a little, "you and I discussed the latest developments in these water schemes."

"Well?"

"The question of the mortgages on the Bledbury lands cropped up while we were discussing the Derbyshire scheme."

"Well?"

"If you are really interested, Poynton, something important has happened to-day in connection with them. I am perhaps stretching the limit to divulge it but I am going to ask you a question. Was yours a real interest in this matter of the mortgages? Does it matter anything to you, for instance, whether the Bledbury people touch a fortune or the Insurance Company?"

"It matters to me," Poynton replied. "Distinctly it matters to me."

"Got your car there?" Priestley asked.

"Never without it."

"You can be here in five or ten minutes?"

"Easily."

"Come along then. Break the traffic laws if you must. What's the good of being a Mayor if you don't break a law now and then?"

"I'll be with you in five minutes," Poynton promised.


A good many people turned their heads to look after his car and several policemen paused in the midst of their salute to gaze with astonishment at the chief magistrate's progress. Nevertheless he was at the Town Clerk's office within the five minutes stipulated. Priestley led him into his private room and closed the door.

"There's some sharp business at work, Poynton," he confided. "I don't know the Marquis of Bledbury myself from Adam but I have always looked upon the Insurance Company with a certain lack of enthusiasm. They have got to know that the Derbyshire scheme is likely to be adopted and they have written to Bledbury withdrawing their offer to wait a little longer at 7 ½% interest per annum on the mortgages. They gave him three days to pay up in full. If not they foreclose."

"Three days from when?" Poynton asked.

"Time's up at six o'clock to-night," Priestley answered.

"What did Bledbury say?"

"Never answered the letters. I suppose he knows he could not pay and that was the end of it."

"Where is the money to be paid?" Poynton asked.

"That's another interesting point," the Town Clerk replied. "This mortgage company did their business through lawyers in Mechester—Stoll, Harrison, Biddeford & Co. It seems the mortgage was carried through by them. They require the money to be handed over to these people by six o'clock this evening."

"Sharp practice," Poynton muttered.

"Well, there it is," Priestley continued. "There's big money at stake, of course, and Bledbury has not the faintest idea of the change in the circumstances. They're evidently hoping to take advantage of his ignorance. Unless he believes that there is still a chance of the water scheme being adopted, I don't suppose the Marquis cares very much if the company does foreclose. The land isn't worth a very great deal except for the water scheme. It's been so neglected."

"Busy?" Poynton asked.

"Not particularly."

"Have one of your clerks put me through to Beaumanor. I'll wait and speak here if I may."

The matter was easily arranged. In less than five minutes the receiver of the telephone was handed to Poynton.

"Is that Beaumanor?" he asked. "Good. I wish to speak to the Marquis of Bledbury."

The butler's voice answered—suave and regretful.

"His Lordship is unable to speak to anyone, sir," he announced. "May I enquire who is calling?"

"My name is Poynton," the Mayor said. "I have been to Beaumanor once or twice lately."

"I remember you quite well, sir," the man admitted. "You are the gentleman who helped Lady Ursula. I am sure the Marquis would speak to you with pleasure but he is confined to his room with a slight attack of bronchitis. The doctor has just left him. He has left orders that His Lordship is not to be disturbed and not to be allowed out for several days."

"Is Lady Ursula there?"

"I believe so, sir," the man answered a little doubtfully. "Her Ladyship is resting. She was at the Melton Ball last night. Rather a late affair, I believe."

"If I cannot speak to Lord Bledbury," Poynton insisted, "I must speak to Lady Ursula."

"Her maid has just said that she is sleeping," the butler regretted.

"It doesn't matter about that," Poynton continued. "You must go to Lady Ursula and tell her that it is most important that she speaks to Mr. Poynton within the next five minutes."

"You are asking me rather a difficult thing, sir," the man remonstrated. "Her Ladyship left the strictest orders."

"If you lose your place through doing what I tell you to do," Poynton promised, "I will set you up anywhere you like for life. I must speak to Her Ladyship and I will see that you are held guiltless."

"Very good, sir," the man conceded.

Poynton waited, holding the telephone a little away.

"I have heard these people called the unlucky Bledburys," he remarked to Priestley, "and I'm damned if I don't believe they are. Bledbury's ill—bronchitis—Lady Ursula is fast asleep and in an hour-and-a-half they look like losing the best part of half a million of money. Tell me, Priestley, have you a notary in the office?"

"I'm a notary myself," Priestley told him. "You know that."

"Of course," Poynton replied. "Get on your hat and coat please."

"I have an appointment at five," the Town Clerk observed.

"Cancel it. Priestley, you once called me a steam roller. I'm going over anything that stands in my way now. Hat and coat quick—a little parchment paper and fountain pen in your bag.... Hello!"

A feminine voice, very sweet but a little cross, sounded in his ear.

"Who is that please? Is it really Mr. Poynton?"

"It is."

"Well, since it is you—"

"Listen, Lady Ursula," he interrupted. "I speak in your interest and in your father's interest. Something of importance has transpired with regard to those mortgages."

"Oh, I know all about those," she lamented. "We have had a family conclave on the matter. They lapse at six o'clock to-night. Well, we can't pay them and that's the end of it."

"Will you listen to me and trust me?"

"Why, of course."

"Your father is ill, they tell me."

"He is in bed for several days," she replied.

"He is conscious, I suppose?"

"Oh, yes. He's not so ill as all that but he can't be worried about business."

"I am not going to worry him," Poynton said firmly. "Lady Ursula, please get up. I may need your help. I shall be over with another gentleman in twenty-five minutes."

"Flying?" she asked.

"Breaking the speed laws on the road," he answered. "It may be a little more but not much. Please prepare your father. If he says he won't see me he must. Is that understood?"

"Well, if I don't understand it's no fault of yours," she laughed. "Have it your own way, Mr. Mayor. We poor citizens await your pleasure."

Once on the main road, when they had been blocked for nearly two minutes, Priestley thought that he had never seen a grimmer sight than his companion's face. As they swung into the avenue at Beaumanor, however, it lightened just a little.

"Look at your watch, Priestley," Poynton begged. "We don't want to be misled by any of the clocks here. I noticed they were all wrong the other night."

"Ten minutes to five Greenwich," Priestley announced.

"Curse those wagons!" Poynton muttered.

He skidded at the second turning in the avenue but drew up unhurt before the great front door. It was opened even as they descended. Lady Ursula was standing in the hall talking to a bespectacled man carrying a black bag. She came forward to greet them.

"Mr. Poynton," she protested, "this is Dr. Magree. He is very anxious that whatever this business is it should be postponed. My father is not in a fit condition to discuss matters and he could not possibly be moved."

"Mr. Priestley, Town Clerk of Mechester," Poynton introduced brusquely. "Lady Ursula, I rely upon your trust in me. I am not going to worry your father with statements or trouble him unduly. All that I want is a power of attorney from him. He has to sign his name once on a paper we will draw up afterwards. We have to use that power of attorney in Mechester at ten minutes to six this evening."

"I must warn you, Mr. Poynton—" the doctor began. Poynton broke in harshly.

"Doctor," he interrupted, "there are big things at stake here. You are a friend of the family?"

"I trust I may be considered so," the other acknowledged.

"You will regret it all your life if you do not give me every possible assistance. After all, remember I am the Mayor of the Borough and this is the Town Clerk. We do not play practical jokes. We are here to save the family from a very serious loss. Lady Ursula—if you please."

Lady Ursula led the way to the stairs.

"If it is only to sign his name," she said, "I don't see why the doctor need make such a fuss. At the same time I am afraid that you are making a mistake, Mr. Poynton, out of kindness, of course. You perhaps have some scheme for helping Dad with this interest. It doesn't really matter. We have to lose the estates anyway. This is Father's room."

They trooped softly in. The Marquis was sitting up in bed looking a little flushed but otherwise very much as usual. Lady Ursula hastened to his side.

"Dad," she asked, "do you mind signing your name?"

He indulged in the feeblest of smiles.

"My dear," he said, "I have signed it many times too often for the welfare of my family, I'm afraid."

"This time, sir," Poynton assured him, "you are going to sign it very much to the benefit of your family."

"If it is that wretched interest," the Marquis began, "I would rather—you know I would really rather not pay it, Poynton. It won't do me any good."

"Get on with it, Priestley," Poynton begged. "Lady Ursula, please guide your father's hand if he's not strong enough to sign."

"Sign? I'm not as ill as all that," Bledbury protested. "Here, give me the pen."

Priestley mumbled a word or two and tapped with his forefinger on the sheet. Bledbury signed in sprawling characters. Poynton was already on his way to the door waving the parchment.

"I will explain later, Marquis," he said over his shoulder. "This is going to do you some good though, and you are not going to have any trouble or worry finding money for a time."

"You are a good chap, Poynton," Bledbury sighed, "but I'm afraid you don't understand this matter."

They left the doctor with his patient. Lady Ursula laid her hand upon her companion's shoulder.

"Look here," Poynton said, "I don't want to promise too much, Lady Ursula. There might be a slip."

"Of course."

"But the fact remains there is a chance of the water scheme. Now you know why we can't let the land slip away."

She drew a long shivering breath.

"You don't mean this," she exclaimed.

"There's a chance—that's all I can say," he repeated. He strode across the hall. The butler was waiting.

"Will you take some tea, Mr. Mayor?" he asked. "Or whisky and soda?"

"Another time," Poynton answered waving him away.

"Come on, Priestley. Forgive us, Lady Ursula. There is no time for manners, I'm afraid."

"Will you telephone?" she called out.

He nodded assent. Already he was in the driving seat of the car. A gleam of satisfaction was in his eyes as the engine throbbed to the touch of his foot. They swung away.

"What time is it, Priestley?"

"Five minutes past five."

"Quick work. You point to my privilege flag if any policeman tries to stop us. I'm taking no risks, though. I reckon we have a good ten minutes in hand."


At a quarter to six they entered the dignified offices of the principal lawyers in Mechester. Priestley gave a grunt of satisfaction as he followed his guide to the enquiry desk.

"If ever I sit in a car again with you, Poynton," he declared, "you can call me a madman."

"We are going to face the madmen now!"

A clerk came forward.

"I'm afraid there is no one here to receive you gentlemen at this hour," he regretted. "We are closing in a few minutes."

"Mr. Stoll is in his room?" Poynton began.

"Mr. Stoll is very particularly engaged, sir," the man replied.

"You can say I am here on behalf of the Marquis of Bledbury," Poynton announced. "You know who I am. I am the Mayor."

The clerk fell back.

"I beg your pardon, sir," he said, "but Mr. Stoll—"

Poynton brushed him gently on one side, crossed the office, knocked at the door opposite and promptly opened it. Mr. Stoll, an elderly gentleman with grey side whiskers and a surprised expression, rose to his feet in amazement. Two visitors who were seated by his side followed his example.

"Sorry to intrude, Stoll," Poynton declared. "I am here on a piece of rather unusual business. I am representing the Marquis of Bledbury. Here is Priestley with me, the Town Clerk. He has a power of attorney from the Marquis who is ill in bed."

"I really—" Mr. Stoll began. "But Mr. Mayor, how can; you be concerned in this matter?"

"I am concerned in it to this extent," Poynton continued, speaking more slowly but very seriously. "These two gentlemen, I presume, are here from the Insurance Company. Very well. They will get what they came for. I have a cheque for the arrears of interest on the Derbyshire mortgages— eighty-seven thousand, nine hundred pounds. My Town Clerk here has a power of attorney from the Marquis appointing me as agent for the payment."

Mr. Stoll, who had been half-standing, sat down heavily in his chair. One of the two strangers whispered in his ear. He nodded.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Mayor," he said, "but we have had trouble before with Lord Bledbury's cheques. I feel quite justified in refusing to accept them."

"There is no necessity for you to do anything of the sort," Poynton assured him. "The cheque as you will see is my own. The bank manager will remain in his office until seven o'clock to-night. If you doubt my responsibility I may mention that I have a balance of over two hundred thousand pounds at the moment. Send one of your clerks across the way. You can have the notes if you like. All the same I hold that my cheque is legal tender."

Mr. Stoll picked up the cheque and read it through word by word and figure by figure. He passed it over to his two clients.

"The amount is correct," one of them acknowledged.

"I am not sure whether a payment at this late hour," Mr. Stoll said, "will be acceptable."

"We are three minutes before the time, anyhow," Poynton observed, glancing towards the clock. "You have the chance to cash the cheque if you wish. We have complied with the terms of your letter precisely. Mr. Priestley will accept your receipt. Nothing more to be said about it that I can see, gentlemen."

The lawyer looked helplessly at the two representatives of the Insurance Company.

"I am not sure," one of them said, "whether it was the intention of the Company to compel the foreclosure. At any rate so far as I, from the nonlegal point, see the matter the Company's terms have been fulfilled and the money paid within the required time."

"You authorise me then to give a receipt for the sum?"

His client shrugged his shoulders.

"A cheque drawn by your own Mayor, Mr. Stoll, whose reputation as a man of wealth and integrity is so well- known, is quite as good as Bank of England notes," he admitted. "Certainly give a receipt."

The business was concluded. With the receipt in Mr. Priestley's possession the tension of the little party was over. Everyone shook hands. No one referred any more to the dramatic side of the incident.

"I trust that His Lordship is not seriously indisposed," Mr. Stoll said.

"A touch of bronchitis," Poynton confided. "The doctor would not let him get up so we thought it best to get a power of attorney."

"What—if I may be permitted to say so—astonishes me," the lawyer remarked, as he led the way to the door, "is how you became concerned in this affair, Mr. Mayor."

"I scarcely know myself. I just stumbled into it," the latter confessed. "You see," he concluded with a smile, "the matter would not have been so urgent but there was this little question of the water rights."


CHAPTER X

AT half past eight that evening Mrs. Greatson received the shock of her life. It was only very seldom that she answered the doorbell, but on that particular occasion her husband and the girl were both occupied with various tasks and the summons was, to say the least of it, imperative. She made her way down the hall and peered out into the darkness. A large automobile with flashing lights was standing in the drive and before her a young woman who, even to her inexperience, presented a sufficiently formidable appearance was waiting. Even her voice denoted what Mrs. Greatson was pleased to call quality.

"Can you tell me if this is Belgrave Grange, and does Mr. Poynton live here?"

"Yes, madam, but he is not in just now," the woman replied.

"Can you tell me how long he will be?" Ursula enquired.

"I am expecting him every minute for his supper," Mrs. Greatson answered, "but there's no telling. There's a council committee meeting or something he has had to stay for."

"I have come rather a long way," Ursula confided. "Do you think I could come in and wait for him?"

"Come in and welcome," Mrs. Greatson invited, opening the door wide. "There's a young woman, his secretary, here now brought some letters from the Works. He's a rare busy man is the Master. Will you come this way, madam?"

Ursula followed her guide across the hall into Poynton's study. Miss Gray, who was seated before a typewriter at the further end of the room, rose questioningly to her feet. Ursula smiled at her kindly.

"You are Mr. Poynton's secretary, the person at the door told me," she remarked. "Do you think that he will be very long?"

"I couldn't say, I'm sure," Miss Gray replied. "He is generally very punctual but he had to go out into the country unexpectedly this afternoon and they were obliged to postpone a committee meeting. I should think he would probably be here very shortly."

Ursula loosened her fur coat and threw herself into an easy chair. Miss Gray looked at her covertly but with appraising eyes. Nothing could be simpler than that black chiffon frock, or in a way more impressive. That fashion of doing the hair, too, was seldom seen, and real pearls were rather a novelty. Ursula, who was tired, had crossed her legs rather carelessly and her long silk-clad limbs were a revelation to the other girl.

"Was Mr. Poynton expecting you?" she asked.

"No, I am afraid he is in for a shock," Ursula answered. "He spoke to me on the telephone this evening but it was all so confusing that I could not understand. He rang off as though he were in a great hurry. I tried to get him at the Works but he was not there so I thought I would try his house."

"He doesn't usually see people without an appointment," Miss Gray volunteered a little indiscreetly.

Ursula's eyebrows were very slightly raised. Her voice, however, remained pleasant.

"Quite right of him," she remarked. "I suppose he must have a large number of calls upon his time."

"Too many," was the gentle but firm reply. "There are a great many people who say he is the most conscientious Mayor Mechester ever had. He has an enormous business to look after too."

"I know," Ursula assented. "I went over the Works the other day with some friends."

Then Miss Gray, who had already suspected, knew who she was. The revelation was rather a shock to her. "You are Lady Ursula Manningham, aren't you?" Ursula nodded.

"Do you think Mr. Poynton would mind if I smoke?" she asked.

"I don't suppose so," the other answered without enthusiasm. "He smokes himself in here."

Ursula produced her cigarette case, selected one, and lit it.

"I have had rather a tiring day," she confided. "My father is ill and men get so nervous when there is anything the matter with them, don't they?"

"I don't know, I'm sure." Miss Gray replied. "My father died when I was quite young and I have no brothers."

"Plenty of friends, though, I'm sure," Ursula remarked agreeably.

The girl shook her head.

"One day a week does not seem to give one much chance to make friends," she said. "I am not complaining. I love my work."

"Are you as late as this every night?" Ursula asked.

"Very seldom," Miss Gray replied. "To-night Mr. Poynton had to go to that postponed committee meeting and there were several letters which I thought might need attention."

"Do you find Mr. Poynton a kind employer?"

"I have never had any other," Miss Gray replied, "except for a few months during which I worked for a friend in London. I came straight to the Poynton Works from the Technical School where I learnt typing and shorthand. He is quite kind in his way but very strict. I have worked for him for seven years now and I don't think I know him any better than the day I first came to the Works. Just lately," she went on after a moment's hesitation, "there has been a slight change. I fancied that he was a little more human."

Ursula smiled. Somehow or other she found the thought pleasing.

"You heard of our great adventure, I suppose?" she asked. "You know that he rescued me from a terribly dangerous gipsy tramp?"

"We all read the short article in the papers," Miss Gray acknowledged. "Mr. Poynton has never spoken of it, though. He never speaks about anything to do with himself. I suppose when the man is brought up for trial we shall hear the whole story."

"Mr. Poynton was quite a hero," Ursula confided. "He fought splendidly. Have you ever seen two men fight, Miss Gray?"

"I don't think that I have," she answered.

"It's rather terrible yet it's a fine sight," Ursula reflected. "I hope I will never see anything like it again but I really believe that there were moments when I felt a sort of wicked enjoyment in watching them."

The girl at the typewriter shivered.

"I don't think I could have felt that," she admitted.

"Men who are in earnest, who are passionately in earnest, are rather splendid," Ursula continued. "Nowadays most of the men one meets seem to think it good form to belittle everything, to pretend they are bored with life even if they are not."

"I meet very few men," Miss Gray observed.

Ursula glided gracefully away from the conversation.

"Are you Mr. Poynton's only secretary?" she enquired,

"Oh, no. Mr. Poynton has a Works Secretary—a very clever man—the only person, I think, whose advice he ever asks. I am his only typist secretary. There arc twenty-five of us in the place but no one else does any work for Mr. Poynton himself."

"That is very nice for you."

"I suppose so,"

"Even if your hours are not so very long," Ursula remarked, "you do look tired to-night. Why do you wait for Mr. Poynton? I'm sure he wouldn't expect it."

"Oh, I never mind," the girl answered. "I started at half past eight this morning and I'm away an hour-and-a-half in the middle of the day. My actual hours, though, are inclined to be irregular. It depends upon the work. I have three girls under me now but it seems to get more and more."

"You like work?" Ursula enquired a little abruptly.

"I do, but then my post is a very interesting one," was the somewhat listless reply. "One has to work to live if one hasn't any money."

There was a shade more curiosity in Ursula's very beautiful eyes as she looked across at her vis-à- vis. The girl, she decided, was of her type attractive, with possibilities, too, Her body was slim but well-shaped. Her dress had no cut but it was not altogether unbecoming. She was in her way, so far as the possibilities went, soignée.

"Doesn't it rather stand in the way of your being married?" she asked.

"I shall never be married," Miss Gray replied.

"Why not?"

The girl looked up and for a moment Ursula felt a slight compunction.

"I hope you do not mind my talking to you like this," she went on. "You see, all the girls I meet are so stupid. None of them work. We are all the same, I suppose. We go to parties all the time in London and either hunt or play games or go out with the men whilst they shoot, in the country. It is rather a rotten life unless you are crazy about sport and I don't think I am."

"No, I don't mind your talking, of course," Miss Gray admitted. "I am afraid I can't feel very sympathetic, though. It seems to me that it is possible to be serious about life whether you are one of the idle rich or the starving poor."

"It is very hard," Ursula sighed.

Miss Gray ventured upon a slight impertinence.

"One knows that you come of a great family, Lady Ursula," she said, "but one also hears that you are very poor indeed, and yet you go to parties all the time and hunt and do everything that wealthy people can."

Ursula reflected for a minute.

"Well, if you are brought up in that way," she explained, "it doesn't matter whether you are poor or rich—you go on doing the things. Something generally turns up. With a girl, I suppose, it is marriage. Men nowadays seem always to be able to get some sort of job if they are driven to it."

"That means that you must marry for money?"

Ursula lit another cigarette and lolled back in her chair.

"Well, one must marry for something," she remarked. "Money is not a bad thing. Listen, isn't that a car?"

"That is Mr. Poynton's car," Miss Gray announced.

Poynton entered the room a moment or two later. He never even glanced towards Miss Gray and there was a considerable repression about his greeting of Lady Ursula.

"Your father is no worse, I hope?" he asked anxiously.

"Good news never killed anyone, did it?" she laughed. "He is lying in bed now wondering what it all means. He has asked so many questions I felt I had to come over. I hope you don't mind being taken by storm like this."

"Not in the least," he assured her. "It seems terrible to have kept you waiting all this time, though. I couldn't help it. Everyone seemed unutterably stupid to-day."

"And you have given up such a lot of time to our affairs," Ursula reminded him.

"That was nothing," he answered. "Great fun while it lasted. We gave those insurance men an awful shock. Anything special for me, Miss Gray?" he added, turning towards her.

"Two letters came by the evening express delivery," she said. "Mr. Burden thought you had better see them. He intended to bring them out himself but he was still working at seven o'clock."

"Mind if I look at these?" Poynton asked his guest.

"Of course not. Go and do anything you have to. I am very warm and comfortable. You can answer my questions afterwards."

Poynton glanced through the letters. His tone was as precise as usual and it was impossible to tell whether there was real kindness underneath his comment or whether it was indeed satisfaction.

"I am glad you brought this letter from Bloomdale's," he said. "I kept the car waiting. You can take down a reply and post it before eleven at the G.P.O., then the car can take you home. This one from Arrowsmith's, too, will need attention but that will do the first thing in the morning."

He leaned over the table, dropped his voice almost imperceptibly and dictated a terse, businesslike letter. Miss Gray took down straight onto the machine from, his dictation. He glanced through the result and signed it.

"Doesn't she ever make a mistake?" Ursula asked from the background.

He shook his head.

"Not often. People do not stay with me who make mistakes," he said. "I am afraid you will be late for your supper, Miss Gray."

"Not if you really mean me to take the car, Mr. Poynton."

"Of course I mean it," he replied. "Remember that I am going to town to-morrow morning by the nine-thirty. I shan't be able to tackle the whole correspondence but you and Young can have it thoroughly sorted before I come."

He turned away and walked over to Lady Ursula,

"You understood the gist of what I said on the telephone, I suppose?" he enquired.

"Pretty well," she answered. "What Father could not understand really, though, was why you changed so suddenly. When he asked you about it the other day you didn't give him the least idea that the Burton Valley scheme was in the running at all."

"I wasn't in a position to do so at that time," he told her tersely. "Are you going, Miss Gray?" he added, turning round. "You can find your way out, can't you? Chambers is waiting for you. Tell him where to go to."

Ursula waved her hand in farewell and Miss Gray with her satchel under her arm took her leave. The former looked after her thoughtfully.

"I think you ought to have asked her to have a glass of wine or something," she said. "The poor girl looks tired out. She has been waiting all this time for you. Do you make slaves of all your people?"

"Of course I don't," he answered. "Any secretary would expect to be late now and then. I don't suppose she takes wine or anything of that sort. Anyhow I have never thought of asking her."

"Well, would you mind asking me?" Ursula begged. "I have been sitting here waiting for half-an-hour."

He laughed.

"That's a different thing."

"I don't see that it is in the least," she objected. "The girl is as human as I am and she has been doing work and I haven't."

"Use is everything," he told her. "If you were in business and had a good many employees under you you would know that you had to treat them just a shade differently. What shall I order for you—good sherry or an indifferent cocktail?"

"Cocktail," she replied, "but it need not be indifferent. I can make it if you like. All that you want for the best cocktail in the world is dry gin and a fresh bottle of vermouth, plenty of ice and quick shaking."

He rang the bell.

"And can I have something to eat, please?" she asked. "I'm hungry."

"Good God!" he exclaimed. "You don't mean that you have come to dinner?"

"I don't expect impossibilities," she assured him plaintively, "but I am hungry. You can give me half of what they have prepared for yourself—unless you are too greedy."

He ordered the cocktails from Greatson and told him to bring in the bottles, the ice and glasses.

"What has Mrs. Greatson for my supper?" he enquired. "Is there enough for two?"

"Quite enough, sir," the man replied. "There's a sole and chicken. They will be ready as soon as you have drunk your cocktails. Any particular wine, sir?"

He glanced towards Ursula.

"Claret, if you please," she decided, "or, if you want to spoil me, one glass of champagne. All this excitement has given me rather a head."

"You will have to take your coat and hat off," he said. "Greatson, send Mrs. Greatson in to look after Her Ladyship. I will make the cocktails."

"Could I have one before I go, please?" she begged. "Don't think I'm greedy but I had no tea. Half and half, remember, and shake—whatever you do don't forget to shake.... Delicious," she sighed, as she set down her glass. "I won't be five minutes freshening up. Chicken! How good it sounds!"

"I shan't have time to change my clothes," he warned her.

"Don't bother," she answered. "I would rather have the chicken in ten minutes than wait a quarter-of-an-hour for you to make yourself as gorgeous as King Solomon."

Dinner was a simple but well-cooked meal. Curiously enough when it was over and they were back again in the study, Poynton felt less at ease than directly after the first shock of her arrival. He had never dined alone with a woman at The Grange in his life. He wondered—many things. She leaned back and sipped her coffee, which was tolerable, with an air of great relief.

"Tell me about it," she begged.

"One of the schemes went phut," he confided, lighting a cigarette. "The other one we heard involved great difficulties with the soil which we only discovered at the last moment. That left only the Burton Valley scheme unless we looked elsewhere. We went through the reports again. Everything seemed quite satisfactory so we decided finally upon the scheme which involves your land. Simultaneously I happened to hear that the solicitors acting for the Insurance Company who held the mortgages on the greater part of it had suddenly decided to foreclose, giving your father only until six o'clock to-night to pay. Rotten trick, but I suppose they had it planned out so that it was legally in order. I knew that your father was not attempting to pay the interest and had made up his mind to the foreclosure, never dreaming, of course, that the water business was to come off. Didn't leave a lot of time, as you can imagine. I got my Town Clerk to act as notary, we raced over to Beaumanor, got back into the town with ten minutes to spare and gave the two representatives of the Insurance Company the shock of their lives when we turned up with the money just in time."

"It sounds terribly dramatic." she admitted. "But listen, there's one thing Father didn't seem to worry about but I could not understand—where did the money come from?"

"What—the money for the interest?"

"Yes," she assented, looking at him steadily.

He set down his coffee cup with great care.

"You don't seem to understand," he said, "that the amount of the interest is nothing at all compared to what you will get for the property. I arranged the interest myself. Rather an impertinence, I suppose you will say, but even though it was not much of a sum there was no time to go rushing about to the banks."

"How much was it?"

"Eighty-seven thousand, nine hundred pounds. That includes, of course, all the arrears."

"And you found it?"

"What did it amount to?" he demanded. "There is not a bank in England would not have lent it to you on the new prospects only there wasn't time to go to them. Yon can pay me back out of the principal when you have realised your profits. If the deal goes through as it stands," he added, "I cannot interfere in it, of course, for obvious reasons but Priestley and I worked it out that your father will be able to pay off the mortgages and touch about a couple of hundred thousand pounds."

"All through you!"

"I have not done anything out of the way," he assured her uneasily. "If I had chosen I could have put my finger on the Derbyshire scheme at the first and said that was the one we were going for and I expect the others would have fallen in. I didn't do it because I didn't think it was the best. I didn't even think it was the second or third best until I happened to discover a piece of crooked business with regard to one of the schemes, which wiped it out altogether, and then we heard about these deposits of chalk in the next most favoured project. Directly I heard about that I saw there was a chance of being honest and helping your father at the same time. Nothing to thank me for. I just happen to be the chairman of the committee and that's alt."

"I wonder who else would have taken the trouble to do what you did to-day?" she meditated. "Why are you so kind to us, Mr. Poynton?"

"I don't know," he answered bluntly. "I never have time in life to stop and ask myself why I do things. I suppose I took a little trouble about this because I wanted to."

She sat gazing into the fire for several minutes. When she turned her head she looked directly at him. The light from the curling flames gleamed in her soft masses of beautifully braided hair. Her pale eyes looked bluer and more tender than he had ever seen them.

"I hoped you were going to say that you did it because you liked me."

"Well, I suppose I do like you," he admitted. "I half like you and I am half afraid of you."

"Why are you afraid of me?" she asked.

"You represent things I know nothing about," he said harshly, "things that I think I had better not try to know anything about. Life has developed for me on different lines. In my small way I have gained power. In a larger way I have established a great business, I have made money. I count for something amongst my fellow citizens, but," he added, and his face was set now in very grim lines, "I have not lost my sense of values. I know just what these things are worth."

"If you see other things that are worth more," she suggested, "why don't you broaden your horizon?"

"Yes, that's good," he admitted. "That may come. If it does I daresay I may gain more confidence."

"There was one evening," she reflected, leaning back in her chair with her hands behind her head and a visionary light in her eyes, "when I fancied that you were—perhaps the first man I had ever spoken to who needed confidence. I do not think I often act upon impulse but I did then. Even now I can hear the rain falling softly all round—that moist wind in the trees—the creaking of the branches—the soft splashing of the drops as they fell into the puddles—the ground oozing beneath our horses' hoofs. You have forgotten that moment, I believe, Mr. Worshipful, the Mayor."

"Never—so long as there is breath in my body," he answered. "I have asked myself a thousand times since what it meant. I have borrowed novels from most of the people I know who read novels, sat up all night trying to understand. It doesn't seem to me I have got much further."

"You are very thorough," she said. "I love the idea of your going to books to find out what words could have told you so much more easily. A kiss like that is meant to tell you that a woman cares enough to make the way easier for you if you wish to pursue it. It means the open gate."

He rose to his feet so slowly that as she watched him he seemed to have grown in stature into something huge. He came towards her. She felt herself shivering as she held out her hands.

"Not yet—please not yet," she begged. "I want you to be sure. You didn't know what you felt a few minutes ago You don't even know now. Perhaps—you might regret knowing. Fancy if you woke and your success seemed suddenly a dead thing and your great factories with their hordes of human beings toiling for you all something inferior—all a waste of energy. You might feel like that if you suddenly discovered that your values were not what you thought, that there were greater things in life. Let it come naturally. Plant your feet on the ground as they are now but keep your eyes searching that far horizon. I shall be here when you have found it."

"I didn't think that any woman could know so much of life," he said, arrested in his movement yet standing very near her, "but—but—"

"Ursula," she whispered.

"But, Ursula, I don't want to wait. I know all that I want to. Those factories suddenly seem," he added with an utterly unfamiliar smile, "as though they came out of a child's play-box and those men and women, all the streams and hordes of them, like dolls and puppets. I seem like a child who has been playing in the nursery and calling that game life. It is not worth while waiting, Ursula."

Still she remained aloof. Afterwards she rather despised herself for it. She was denying her own principles. She had opened the gate and she feared his passing through it.

"Ah, my dear," she said, touching that powerful wrist of his which was resting on her chair and feeling the fierce throb of his pulses, "happiness is always the more glorious for toying with it a little time. Do not think that this is sheer dilettantism. It is not. One should never grasp too soon. You have a great deal to learn and so have I. We can learn together and compare notes."

He leaned over her. She had seen passion in many men's faces. What she saw in his was different. It thrilled her with joy for her own inspiration. There was longing. There was, she fancied, already the beginning of what she sought most in life. She sprang lightly to her feet.

"That first kiss I gave you," she confessed, "was such a gamble. If I had made a mistake I should have felt ashamed forever and I made no mistake. I won."

"You are over my head," he complained. "Come back, please. Remember who I am. I need courage."

Her smile was the sweetest thing he had ever seen. She grasped his arm and led him towards the door.

"I am not the only one who loves the hilltops," she reminded him. "I shall always believe that your passion for riding up there amongst the clouds is just part of your search for the open gate."

Greatson was there holding the door open. The lights of the car were flashing on the drive. Her chauffeur, a tall immovable figure, was standing by the door of the limousine. The storm of words which trembled upon Poynton's lips remained unspoken. He stood on the steps, caught her farewell wave of the hand and watched the car disappear.


CHAPTER XI

"AND the novels?" Laura Priestley asked when the remaining members of the small Monday night's dinner party were settled down to bridge.

"Disappointing," her host confessed.

"In what way?"

"Too photographic," he observed after a moment's hesitation. "Of course, my criticism is not worth tuppence as I have never read novels, but the types in most of those you lent me were too definite. One knew exactly beforehand what they would do under certain circumstances. I thought novelists delighted in rarer types."

"So you have learnt nothing?"

He shook his head.

"I am going to trust to human beings," he confided.

"If you mean that you are going to live a little more with them and be more sociable," she said, "I congratulate you. It seems to me that you never go anywhere except to these formal civic banquets or receptions. What can you learn about people doing that?"

"Nothing," he admitted promptly. "And not having the time or opportunity to struggle out into a larger world I thought books might help me."

"You could make time if you chose," she declared. "You give too much thought to Betterment Schemes, Town Improvements, new schemes for making more money out of your factories."

"Some of those things become matters of absolute necessity," he pointed out. "You must remember that I have a very large business to look after besides my duties in the town. I have to keep in touch with modern methods of manufacturing, understand all about machinery, even study the production of the raw materials I use."

"You are so thorough," she complained.

"Necessary nowadays," he assured her, "if you don't want to be at a disadvantage."

"I am beginning to think," she said, "like all the rest of the town that you ought to marry. You would have to give a little time to amusement then for your wife's sake."

The very slightest of smiles played about his lips for a moment, a smile which Laura Priestley disliked because she failed to understand it.

"One has to think seriously before one takes a rash step like that," he observed.

"It isn't rash at all if you choose the right person," she; declared. "We are all beggar girls to your King Cophetua. You only have to throw the glove and we will sleep with it under our pillows all right."

"You are a very embarrassing young woman," he complained.

"Well," she answered coolly, "you confided in me that one of your troubles in life was that you could not understand our reactions. I am trying the experiment of being perfectly candid with you. If I thought that you were attracted by me I should not do it for fear of putting you off, but alas, I have almost given up hope. I rather like you all the same. I should not like you to make a bad mistake so you see I try to help. Have you talked to Dad since he got back from London this afternoon?"

"I have not seen him since he arrived to-night with you and your mother. I know he loves his bridge so I had coffee served in here."

"You're quite right," she said. "He adores it. There he is now looking as though the fate of the Universe or what is considerably more important to him—of all Mechester—rested upon that card he is fingering."

"You used to be fond of cards," he reminded her.

"I am now sometimes. If I go to a woman's party I would sooner play bridge than gossip.... I'm sorry the books were not any good. Shall I get you another lot?"

"Not for the world," he answered. "I can get the titles of a few from the Times Book Reviews."

Mr. Priestley, who was dummy, strolled over to them.

"I must have a word with you, Poynton, before we go," he said.

Poynton nodded.

"Everything all right in town?" he asked.

"Everything going swimmingly," Priestley answered. "Bledbury is very popular with everyone—quite a figure he must have been in London years ago—and they all seem delighted to think that our new scheme is going to put him on his legs again. I met Davidson coming out of a committee room in the House. He told me he believed we should have our charter within three months."

"What happens to Mr. Poynton when Mechester becomes a city?" Laura enquired.

"He will be offered a knighthood, of course," her father told her. "If he takes my advice, though, he won't accept it. Hello! I must get back again."

He hurried away to his place at the card table.

"Why shouldn't I be a knight?" Poynton asked. "Most mayors get knighted sooner or later."

"What Dad means is that they will offer you a baronetcy if you wait," she told him. "A Lord Mayor is a very important person and heaven knows you give away enough money. They tell me all those anonymous sums to the Infirmary and charities come from you. Tell me, shall you give me a wedding present if I marry Mr. Asher?"

"Of course I shall. You can choose for yourself if you like."

"Don't be over-eager," she begged. "I have not made up my mind yet. Perhaps he hasn't. Still it is a thing that might happen. Promise me you won't send me silver entrée dishes if you do get a card!"

"I'll promise that with pleasure," he agreed, "but you can't be secure against anything unless you tell me what you want."

"I should like you to take a little trouble about it," she meditated, leaning back in her chair and reaching out for a cigarette. "I should like you to go to Florence and buy a picture for me and I should like to go with you to be sure that I had what I wanted."

"Clive Asher for a young man is a very formal person," he reminded her. "I am not quite sure—"

"I am," she interrupted with a laugh. "He scarcely approves of a woman crossing the street by herself. I don't fancy that these modern prenuptial expeditions would appeal to him at all—or to you if it comes to that. I see they're cutting out at the other table. Shall I play?"

"I would like you to amuse yourself," he answered rising.

She sighed as they crossed the room.

"I could amuse myself very well with you," she murmured, "if you were not so hardhearted. Dad," she added as they passed Mr. Priestley's chair, "I have just been proposing something to Mr. Poynton that would involve even a Lord Mayor in a scandal."

"I'm not worrying," the Town Clerk replied, as he arranged his cards. "I'm perfectly certain Poynton would not listen to you."

"That's the mistake these modern parents make," she told her companion. "They trust us too much."

Greatson shuffled up to his master as Laura took her place at the table.

"You are wanted on the telephone, sir," he announced. "A private message, I believe. I left the connection in the study."

Poynton made his way there and raised the receiver. A queer sense of excitement crept over him as he heard the voice,—seductive as always,—the slight drawl even, down the telephone wires.

"Is that the Mayor of Mechester?"

"I am he."

"I have just read in the evening paper that you cannot receive a deputation to-morrow morning about something or other owing to your absence in London."

"Quite right," he replied. "I am leaving by the 7.30

"You will be very busy?"

"I have to call in the City, lunch at the Savoy Grill and be at a committee room in the House of Commons during the afternoon. Being busy is always a relative thing."

"So glad you are philosophical about it because you have to be at the Embassy in Bond Street, a few doors up from Scotts, the hatters, at half past twelve."

"Wonderful," he answered.

"True politeness I call that, Mr. Mayor. What are you doing now? Thinking of me?"

"I am entertaining a few friends," he replied. "Fortunately they are all playing bridge."

"And you?"

"No such wild dissipation for me. I am strolling round seeing what they want to drink and that they are enjoying themselves according to their limitations."

"Perfect host. Good night, Mr. Mayor."

"Good night—Ursula."

"Brave man!"


The Town Clerk's few words were interesting but far less inspiring. They came when the other guests were preparing for departure.

"Look here, Poynton," he said, "now that the charter is a certainty I do wish you could change your mind about that fifty thousand pounds you are giving to the Infirmary. To give it as the first Lord Mayor would be a splendid gesture. That's the way we should like to have it announced."

"Well, I would rather not," was Poynton's firm reply. "I prefer it to be as I offered it—anonymous."

"You don't want a baronetcy?"

"I have not the faintest ambition for anything of the sort," Poynton confided.

"Lunch with me to-morrow and talk about it," Priestley begged.

"I am going to a luncheon in town to-morrow," Poynton regretted, "which I very nearly refused. Since then I have been thinking about it, though, and I have come to the conclusion that it might be one of the most interesting luncheons of my life."

"Town business?"

The Mayor shook his head.

"I am going to meet the two men who are the largest manufacturers of boots and shoes in the world," he confided. "That doesn't mean much to you I suppose but it is rather a romance to me."

"Are they Americans?"

"One is an American and the other is a Hungarian—or a Swiss—I'm not sure which. His factories are in Czechoslovakia anyway."

"Very interesting," Priestley admitted, "But you are wrong about the other matter."

"Why?"

"Supposing you married," his friend argued. "Women are only human after all. A title means more to them than it does perhaps to a man. You can't get away from it. Sir Daniel Poynton, Bart., is a bigger person in the world than Mr. Daniel Poynton, ex-Mayor of Mechester."

"I'll tell you what I think of the whole business," Poynton declared. "And after that you had better get back to your bridge. I have no fancy for anything in my life that I have not fought for and deserved. That fifty thousand pounds won't cost me a finger-ache. If I had invented a machine that would lighten the labours of the world or performed some great action at a personal risk which had done service to the country, I would accept a title all right and I would not be ashamed of it. As it is I should hate the sound of my name. My personal opinion is that titles are not worth a snap of the fingers unless they are inherited."

"But your wife may not think so," Priestley persisted.

"That depends," Poynton smiled as he thrust his arm through his friend's and led him towards the door.


CHAPTER XII

AT twenty minutes past twelve on the following morning, the Mayor of Mechester descended from a taxicab at the corner of Bond Street and Piccadilly and strolled slowly along the former thoroughfare. As he passed a wide opening which looked as though it might have been an arcade and wasn't, someone touched him on the shoulder.

"Dear punctual man," a familiar voice murmured. "This way."

Poynton recovered from his first shock. He had never seen Ursula in anything but country clothes before, and Ursula knew how to dress. From the tips of her patent shoes to the sable tie and the shapely hat she was a delicately framed epitome of the world of fashion and beauty.

"Well, how did the party go off?" she asked as she beckoned him to follow her down some stairs on the other side of the swing door.

The party suddenly seemed to him to have been the dullest function at which he had ever assisted, but he summoned such enthusiasm as he could.

"Very nicely thank you," he answered. "My Town Clerk's a really good fellow and I always rather enjoy having him to dine."

"Who were the others?"

"Oh, his wife and daughters, Hartopp, our Mechester doctor, and his wife—all people you wouldn't know and who would not interest you very much."

"I am in for a dull luncheon myself," she sighed, as they sank into comfortable chairs in the small bar. "What cocktail do you like?"

"I have no choice,"

"Two dry Martinis, Andrew," she ordered from the barman. "Tell me, Daniel," she went on, "why did I want to see you so much to-day?"

"It's very good to hear it," he answered. "I cannot tell you why. I cannot even imagine why. Perhaps if I could I should know why I want to see you every day."

She nibbled delicately at an almond.

"I read the local papers now," she confided. "How they all worship you in Mechester."

"Poor journalism," he replied. "You ought not to read that twaddle."

"It may be twaddle, but it's honest," she reflected. "It is more important, you know, to be seen as others see you than to be seen as you see yourself."

"If you are going to talk like that," he said, "I shall want two cocktails."

"It was a clumsy speech," she acknowledged, "but it meant something. Where are you lunching, my man of affairs? I suppose even you creatures of iron and sinew lunch somewhere."

"I am lunching," he told her, "with the two other largest manufacturers of boots and shoes in the world. I have come up to meet them at their request. I cannot quite make out what they want. To pick my brains, I suppose, but why they should think that I'd let them do it I can't imagine."

"So much more interesting than what I am going to do," she sighed. "I wish I could come and hear you talk."

"You would not understand a word of it,"

"Well, you could help me. Between us I am sure we should be more than a match for them."

The cocktails were brought—light-coloured, clear and potent. Poynton, who had risen at six and except for the hour-and-a-half in the train had had a busy time, drank the first half of his with a little sigh of satisfaction.

"Good?" she asked.

"Best I ever tasted," he assured her.

She sipped her own and agreed.

"What have you done since you arrived in town?"

"Been down to see the lawyers about the Bledbury Estates business, Paid two calls in Bermondsey where all the leather comes from. After I have had lunch I am going to a committee room in the House of Commons—more civic business. They are thinking of making Mechester a city. She ought to be a city and the people seem to want it."

"That all sounds like a man's work," she remarked. "I didn't come up until hours later than you but I found time to go and see my dressmaker and to buy a hat. Daniel, will you tell me something?"

"I will if I can," he promised her.

"The most trite thing I ever heard you say," she declared, half closing her eyes. "I want to know how much you have had to do with buying all these Bledbury lands for your water scheme?"

"Personally, nothing whatever," he assured her. "There were three plans. The first one I vetoed because I found out that there had been something going on which was not quite straight. It would have been a good enough arrangement for the town but no better than the present one. I was left with the Bledbury scheme and one other. I personally selected the other one."

"But why?" she demanded.

"I thought it was slightly the more advantageous," he answered. "There was very little in it but it looked the safer for the town. Then at the last minute we discovered certain drawbacks concerning it. We were left with the alternative of looking for others or of choosing yours. We chose yours."

"It was not really an act of charity on your part then?" she asked.

He finished his cocktail. There was something very dry and direct about his speech.

"I should never have presumed to offer charity to you or your family," he assured her, "nor in the interests of the town which are in my keeping should I have chosen any scheme except the one I believed to be the best."

She looked at him thoughtfully. A fine, strong face, she decided. A slight lack of imagination, perhaps. Eyes that had dwelt so long on the practical that they had lost their visionary gleam, if ever they had had it. She believed him.

"Well, I wanted to know," she said. "Perhaps on the whole I am glad. Nothing can do away with the fact that when you did decide upon the Bledbury scheme you made a tremendous effort to see that we were the people who benefited."

"I plead guilty to that," he admitted. "I don't think you had anyone looking after your interests who amounted to much or they would not have let you get into that position. I admit that I had a tussle with the mortgagees. I am not sure that they played the game altogether," he went on. "However, it is all right now."

"All right! I should think it is," she murmured ecstatically. "Father is like a boy again. We didn't want those lands. We never dreamed they would be worth anything. It is really like a fairy story. I like to think of your racing about that day for our salvation, Daniel."

"It didn't seem a great deal to do for you," he said quietly.

"Why for me?" she asked.

"I suppose I shall tell you that some day. I only know that it gave me great happiness."

She nodded and waved her hand to friends who had just entered. Her greetings, however, lacked any gesture of invitation. They were left alone in their corner. A good many of the small crowd who were gathering wondered as to her companion. The general verdict was that he was a Colonial. The women thought he was handsome. The men wondered why, with a figure like his, he didn't go to a decent tailor.

"Are you looking forward to your luncheon?" she asked him rather abruptly.

"With a certain amount of curiosity," he answered. "Nothing more."

"You might call it interest, I suppose."

"Supposing you were going to lunch alone with me—how should you feel about that?"

"Happier than I have ever felt before in my life," he assured her.

"Then why don't you ask me to lunch with you or do things?" she enquired.

He reflected for a moment.

"You seem to me," he confided, "to have an almost divine gift of sweet manners tinged, so far as I am concerned, with an excessive sense of gratitude. I did help you out of what might have been a most unpleasant business last month. It was the greatest stroke of luck that ever happened to me in a way."

"Listen," she said, "do you think that it was gratitude which made me do what I have never done before in my life— lean over to you in that slippery lane and risk all sorts of things to gratify that wild impulse?"

"It is the first prayer of my life," he assured her, "that it was not only gratitude. The second prayer is that some day you will be in my arms and I shall watch your lips while they tell me why you gave it to me."

She laughed nervously.

"Sometimes you frighten me," she confessed. "You are so gloriously direct. Well, it was not only gratitude, Daniel. Men have told me sometimes—men who have asked me to marry them—that I have not the right sort of feeling—that I lack something in life. They may have been right. I am beginning to feel something which makes me think that they were right. I am beginning to believe that if ever I do feel the things I want to feel in life they will come to me through you. You must not look like that, Daniel. You look like Zeus rising to claim a victim!"

"I look as you make me feel," he declared.

"I should like to hear you make a speech," she wandered on, "about something I understood. You seem to find words so naturally when you are interested. I hate men who stutter. Now, listen to me, please. Be as direct as you were a minute ago. Do you hate me: No, I won't say that. Do you mind my being rather—what shall I call it—stupid with you? I am not offering you or giving you anything like as much as you have almost the right to claim. I adore your attitude, really, but are you resenting me?"

"Not one little bit," he assured her. "You know that I am not an imaginative person but I must tell you this. It seems as though you had drawn up a curtain only to show me a sweet dark world full of shadows and when I am not with you I grope my way about in it and I feel that some day you will lean over towards me and from somewhere out of the darkness you will bring the light, then the gate will open and I shall smell the rain on the wet earth and on the rustling leaves, and Paradise will come."

He suddenly felt her hand—tender warm fingers they were—in his.

"Before all this little world of mine, you sec—that is my luncheon party in that corner," she pointed out, "I give myself away like this... You won't have another cocktail, I know, and you can't pay for them because this is a club. Now you must go and lunch with your two business giants, and I must go over to my friends and hear all the latest London gossip, which really doesn't amuse me any more. I shall come back to Mechestershire on Monday in next week."

A wonderful smile and she was gone. The bantering greetings of her friends reached his ears as he mounted the stairs.

CHAPTER XIII

IN the small lounge attached to the Savoy Grill Room Daniel Poynton found his two hosts awaiting him—Erpingham, a tall, powerful-looking man with the traditional horn- rimmed spectacles, and Hermann Bauer, a smaller, more dapper type, carefully-dressed and with much attention to detail. The porter had escorted Poynton towards the two men but Erpingham had risen from his seat at once with outstretched hand.

"I guess we three don't need to get acquainted," he said. "Your photographers have been busy on us ever since we crossed from Paris together. I guess they'll have another turn to-day if they can get us. 'The Boot Kings meet the Boot Emperor' or something of that sort!"

"I'm not claiming any such title myself," Poynton replied, "but I am very glad to meet you both."

A hovering maître d'hôtel led the way to a prominent table. Erpingham spread himself out as host and handed round the card.

"There you are," he said. "Every man to his taste. I don't believe in these table d'hôte meals," he went on. "I like my food straight from the grill or the joint, and I am handing it to these people all right that when they get to know your tastes they're pretty slick at giving you what you want. You know mine, Henry. I haven't got to order."

"I shall take a grilled sole and two iamb cutlets," Mr. Bauer decided.

"I'll take the same," Poynton agreed.

"We'll start with double Martinis," Erpingham continued, "then we'll choose the wine. Well, this is some meeting, Mr. Poynton. Come up from Mechester this morning?"

"Left there at half past seven."

"They tell me that your Plant down there is a great sight."

"You're welcome to come and see it," Poynton invited. "We shall be opening the new wing in three months' time."

"You cover a few acres of ground, I guess."

"Not so much," Poynton replied. "My factories are all built on the two-storey principle with overlooking chambers."

"Dear land near Mechester, I suppose," Bauer observed. "Where I build they give me the land. They give me the land to make houses for my work-people, I have my own stores twenty miles from a town."

Poynton smiled faintly. He had heard of his vis-à- vis's stores for the work-people where fifty per cent, profit for everything sold was the minimum.

"We are very differently situated in that respect," Poynton remarked. "Your labour, of course, costs you half mine. On the other hand, Mechester is a town of shoemakers. They become skilled operatives at a very early age."

"That's very true," Bauer sighed. "You can scat my people at the machines but they work slow—very slow—very clumsy, too."

"America has shown the world what can be got out of work- people properly supervised," Erpingham declared, twirling his cocktail glass between his fingers. "We have had a long fight with the unions but we arc masters of our own show now. If a man can't produce what he should, out he goes. In economical production," he went on, "I think of the three of us our friend Hermann Bauer wins. In the handling of labour and the manipulation of machinery I'd say the United States still leads the way, but in shoemaking you've got us, Poynton. Either you sell your shoes for no profit or you've got hold of some secret methods of production we others lack."

Poynton smiled.

"I can assure you," he said drily, "that I do not sell without a profit. I have never been accused in my life of cutting prices. We take a great deal of care in the selection of our materials and our stuff wears. That is why, once we are established, we hold our markets."

Erpingham dug into the huge side pockets of his voluminous coat, produced a woman's shoe and laid it upon the table.

"Recognise that, Friend Poynton?" he asked. Poynton handled it for a moment with experienced fingers.

"Of course I do," he answered. "That is one of our women's small sizes in medium quality."

"Well, it's the shoe that's brought me over from the other side this trip," Erpingham declared. "I sent for Hermann Bauer. He met me in Paris over here and I found that he was in the same boat. That shoe is gradually whipping us out of every market we used to control."

"For me," Bauer pronounced angrily, as he fingered his military moustache, "it is a nightmare, that shoe. My travellers and agents they write and talk of nothing else. In Europe, except in one or two countries where we have special tariffs, we are losing our trade."

"I never knew that you made a similar class article," Poynton observed as he watched the filleting of his sole by a skilful maître d'hôtel. "Your goods always seem to me to be a little lighter."

"No wear in them," Mr. Erpingham affirmed cheerfully, falling upon his steak. "Mine are not put together to last a lifetime, I'll admit that all right, but Bauer's stuff—darn clever stuff if you get what I mean, but quick wearing. He likes to see his customers back again soon!"

"What I want to say to you, Mr. Poynton," the manufacturer from Eastern Europe declared solemnly, "is that you give too good value in this one particular shoe. No one can compete. We make that shoe—yes. Hundreds of thousands of pairs, but not with materials like that. Best English chrome tanned soles, French or American glazed kid at ninepence a foot. Why, your costings, your costings, Mr. Poynton, must be wrong!"

"You see where it gets us," Mr. Erpingham explained, "is that the person who would wear just this class of shoe is just the person we are all out to cater to—the small-sized woman spending more on her clothes than later on in life when her feet get bulgy and no one cares what she wears. This is to fit the girls just when they are out for a bit of style and except for the men's heavy that is the biggest trade there is!"

"And you think I am selling that shoe too cheap?" Poynton remarked with a smile.

"My foreman and I," Bauer declared, "have cut to pieces a dozen pair of these shoes of yours. We know that they can't be made at the price you sell them at."

"That's the long and short of it," Mr. Erpingham chimed in. "You are underselling the world, Mayor Poynton. Anyone may be able to do that for six months but no man breathing can go on doing it."

Poynton's sense of humour was difficult to reach but it was without a doubt existent. He smiled at his two companions.

"What do you want me to do about it?" he asked. "I cannot close my factories, because I am doing a very large and prosperous business and keeping thousands of people employed. I cannot leave off making that particular shoe, because it shows me a profit well up to the average. I am all for co-operation in manufacturers and employees alike, I am Chairman of the Boot and Shoe Federation of Great Britain, and directly you fellows from outside asked me to come along and have a chat—well, I have shown you how willing I am. I would do anything in reason to meet you but you are both men with a great reputation for intelligence, you arc both successful manufacturers. Neither of you could suggest to me seriously that I should leave off making a line of shoes simply because they are better than anything you could produce at the price."

"You miss our point," Bauer declared vigorously. "Our point is that you cannot produce it at the price. You must be losing. You sell this line cheap, perhaps, to help you sell others not so cheap. That pays sometimes—not always. With you it could not pay. The line is too big. Meanwhile you starve our trade."

Poynton took up the shoe.

"Please do not think that I am intending for a moment to criticise your judgment," he said, "but listen, Mr. Erpingham. You tell me that these soles are made of English oak-tanned chrome leather which is one of the most expensive sole leathers existent. They are not. They are made from the lowest-priced accepted sole leather in the world. They are made from American hemlock-tanned sides."

"Tell your grandmother," Erpingham scoffed.

"I will tell any relative you choose to produce," Poynton continued, "You don't know your own market so well as you should, Mr. Erpingham. These are made from Gennessee and Greenwood sides."

Mr. Erpingham had all the appearance of a man about to explode into a fit of temper.

"We asked you up here to talk business, Mr. Mayor," he said, "not to make fun of us. Why, the weight of the sole alone makes such a statement ridiculous."

"Have you ever heard," Poynton asked gently, "of chicken sides?"

"Chickens?" Mr. Erpingham repeated. "Oh, they're all very well of course but there's no quantity of them."

"You underestimate your own country's production," Poynton reproved him, "and besides the tannages I have mentioned there are half-a-dozen others producing chickens. You perhaps have not considered these small sides in relation to this particular shoe. That's a pity because it's exactly what they arc made of."

Mr. Erpingham called to a maître d'hôtel.

"Just send me a messenger," he ordered, "with a roll of Western Union Cablegram forms."

The maître d'hôtel hurried away. Poynton smiled once more.

"You arc just a little impetuous, Mr. Erpingham," he said. "I know we English manufacturers are a trifle simple, but with every desire to be of assistance to you I should scarcely give away the secrets of my manufacture unless I was safe in doing so. You can wire to the Gennessee Tannery or the Greenwood Tannery or any of the others producing those special small-sized sides. You can't get any, I have a five years' contract at market prices for all that are produced."

Erpingham smiled, although it was not a pleasant smile.

"I'll make 'em break it," he said savagely.

"You can't do that either," Poynton assured him. "I happen to hold the controlling shares in both the chief companies I have mentioned and the other companies are only tanning for them at present."

Mr. Erpingham had forgotten even his steak.

"Listen here, Poynton," he expostulated, "you can bluff up to a point but no more than that. The capital of the Gennessee Company is five million dollars."

"And I am the holder of three million dollars' worth of the stock," Poynton told him. "Those things are not kept secret in your country. You can verify the truth of what I say when you return. Hemlock-tanned chicken sides, as you know, are worth about eightpence a pound. English bark- tanned chrome would be worth about one and twopence. That's a good deal of difference to start with, you know. Then you spoke of these glacé kids. You are all wrong in the value of those. It is just a matter of the selection of a certain sort of raw pelts. There I am going to stop but I can tell you that I have contracts with all the principal manufacturers of American glazed kids for all they get of the pelts from certain countries. In labour I cannot compare with Mr. Bauer here. On the other hand I can manufacture much quicker and the work put in is much better."

Erpingham recommenced his masticatory efforts. Bauer, who had eaten fast, pushed his plate to one side impatiently.

"We are being taught strange lessons," he declared a trifle venomously. "You are teaching my friend Erpingham, who is an American born, about his own leathers and you are teaching me, who have built up a business which I commenced with twenty work-people and now pay four thousand, how to handle labour. Can you teach us, too, how to make money?"

"I have never seen your balance sheets," Poynton remarked. "I make as much money as I am entitled to upon the capital invested in my business. No one can ask for more."

"What is the market price of your shares?" Erpingham demanded.

"There is no market price because there are no shares," Poynton replied. "It has often been suggested to me that I should incorporate, and if I had a family it would be necessary. As it is, mine is a one-man business. There are no shareholders."

The American also pushed his plate away. He occupied himself for a minute by writing a cablegram, for which action he offered no apology. Then he collected a small mountain of cheese, helped himself lavishly to celery and recommenced the discussion.

"Well, Bauer," he said, "we came here to learn something and we have had our lesson all right. Now we come to the serious part of the business. Take some coffee and a cordial, Mayor Poynton. The cigars will be along directly."

"No liqueur in the middle of the day, thank you," was the firm reply, "I'll smoke a cigar with you with pleasure."

"My friend Bauer and I," Erpingham confided, "have a suggestion to make to you."

"Wait one moment, my friend," Bauer interrupted. "One thing must be clearly understood. In my business there is a capital which would amount in English money to something like four million pounds. Mr. Erpingham here is President of the Erpingham Shoe Company, which has a capital with reserves of at least ten million dollars. Our friend Mayor Poynton has a business but he keeps the world in the dark entirely so far as regards its value. He is not even incorporated. Any scheme such as we had in our minds, Erpingham, must be subject to the production of official figures."

"You leave me to take care of that," was the confident reply. "I have carried through one or two business deals in my time, Bauer. You understand, Poynton, that what I am going to say to you depends naturally upon the production of figures. The long and short of it is this, We three could practically control the shoe markets of the world. We each work on slightly different lines. What about joining up, eh? What about a boot and shoe business with the largest turnover in history—-the biggest concern in the world? If any of the small fry kick we will take 'cm over at our own price or sell 'em out of the market. We will be in a position to smash anyone whose prices or mode of business we don't fancy. How does the idea get you, eh, Poynton? The three of us on the top of the world, eh?"

"The idea," Poynton said deliberately, "does not appeal to me at all."

Erpingham was speechless. He sat holding his cigar a little away from rim, staring at his companion. Bauer, too, seemed thunderstruck.

"You realise what we are offering you, Mr. Poynton?" the latter said. "You have got it in your head right, yes? I'm Bauer. In boots and shoes I rule Europe. Our friend here— President of the Erpingham Boot Company. There's not a finer institution in the United States. You are an Englishman whose goods are only just beginning to penetrate outside your own islands. You have no name, no what you call prestige. We arc willing to take you in with us on practically equal terms subject to your figures being examined. Such ah offer has never been made to a man in your position by anyone."

"That's all very well," Poynton rejoined, speaking temperately but with decision. "I don't want an amalgamation with anyone, neither with Bauer nor even with the Erpingham Boot Company. I am satisfied with my present position. I prefer to be master and sole master of my own business. If you two gentlemen care to honour me by coming down to look over my Plant I shall be delighted to have you, and our Chamber of Commerce would be proud to give you a luncheon. I know very well that I should be, and am, very flattered by the offer you have made me."

"You don't even want to look into it?" Erpingham protested.

"It would be only a waste of time," Poynton assured them. "My business is my plaything, although it has grown like a snowball of late years and I sometimes do wonder what I am going to do with it if we continue to increase. Whatever I decide to do, however, would be more in the nature of lessening my responsibilities than increasing them."

"I guess this idea came upon you like a thunderclap, eh, Mayor Poynton?" Erpingham observed tentatively.

"Absolutely," Poynton admitted. "It was a great surprise to me and as I have already told you, I feel very flattered. That docs not affect the fact, however, that I intend to retain control of my own factories, my own system of manufacture and my own capital."

"That reminds me, we never mentioned capital," Mr. Bauer reflected.

"You use credit a lot, I guess, Mr. Mayor," Erpingham ventured. "They say your bankers are chock full of money."

"They may be," Poynton observed. "I have never owed them a penny in my life nor at our yearly stocktaking does our business ever owe a penny to any of the merchants or manufacturers from whom I buy. I am not proposing to tell you what figures you would find upon the credit side of my balance sheet in any one year but I will assure you of this: on the debit side there is nothing."

"It's not possible," Erpingham gasped.

Poynton smiled.

"It is not the American system, I know," he said. "You believe that you can use money and make a profit on it and where you can, why of course you are right to be borrowers. I admit that our principle is insular but there it is. I have a hatred of debt of any sort and except for a few trivial amounts which may be in dispute and for which we make a reserve, I have at no time any creditors."

"But that great Plant of yours and all the machinery?" Bauer demanded.

"All paid for," Poynton assured him. "My new factory, which will double the size of my present one, will be paid for on the day it is opened."

The American signed his bill and deposited a generous tip upon the table.

"My friend," he said to his guest, "I don't understand your facts and I don't understand your line of thought. Maybe we will come down and give you a look-over one day next week—Bauer and I. Any objection if we bring a lawyer?"

"Anyone you like," Poynton invited. "You can sec over every square yard of my factory and every square yard of the new one. I am not so narrow-minded amongst my fellow manufacturers as you might think from my conversation, Mr. Erpingham. We don't fear honest competition and there is nothing secret about our methods of business."

Poynton shook hands with his great competitors and took his leave.

"There goes the only man I ever met," Erpingham declared, "who could not use money."

"He is either," Bauer reflected, "a great man or a great fool."

"I'll tell you what I think he is," Erpingham concluded. "I think he's the biggest bluffer that God Almighty ever made."


CHAPTER XIV

FOR some reason or other a slight weariness with life seemed to depress Daniel Poynton as he turned his back upon London. The hall of the Savoy had seemed so gay and cheerful half-an-hour ago when he had called, after concluding his business in the City, to fetch his bag which he had brought with him in case of emergency. The lights had just been lit. People were telephoning for seats at the theatre. Men and women were meeting all the time and discussing their plans for the evening in a light-hearted spirit. There was a sense of pleasant companionable warmth in the lounge. More than one of the women who passed through the lounge had looked with interest at the tall man of commanding appearance who, notwithstanding his utter lack of self-consciousness, had seemed a little aloof in the busy crowd. For a moment or two he had wished he had been staying up, yet there was nothing much that he could have done, With ail London waiting to pour out its treasures, with a banking account which would have staggered even his millionaire friends at lunch time, with a choice of musical comedies for gay people, a long list of plays for the more serious, a vast choice of restaurants, amusements of every sort to be had for the asking, Poynton was conscious of a curious sense of ineptitude as he stood outside for a few moments waiting for his taxi. There seemed to be some indefinable barrier between him and all these things, A lack of knowledge, perhaps the want of a twin enthusiasm. He thought about it on his way through the uninviting streets northwards, thought about it as he followed the porter who was carrying his bag up the gloomy platform under the smoke-stained arch at St. Pancras Station. He felt a sudden revulsion towards the crowded Pullman in which he knew that his easy-chair would be carefully guarded, the little crowd of returning townspeople with their respectful greetings, a few brother manufacturers without a doubt anxious to sit round with the Mayor and talk business. He called his porter and selected an empty first-class carriage in place of the Pullman. He sank into a corner with a sigh of relief and unfolded an evening paper which he held in front of him until the familiar whistle sounded. Then he let it drop. The Stock Exchange news he had heard in the City. There was nothing else of interest—nothing that interested him at any rate. He drew out his pipe and commenced slowly to fill it. A tall young man who had been passing outside stooped and swung open the door.

"Hello, Mr. Mayor!" he cried cheerfully. "May I come in with you?"

The voice brought its little twist of memory. The carriage of the head, too, was reminiscent. Poynton waved his hand to the opposite seat.

"Come in by all means," he invited.

Frederick Manningham disposed of his graceful person in the indicated place and produced his cigarette case.

"I hate turning my back on London at this time in the evening," he confided. "All the fun of the fair going on and I am due for Beaumanor. By-the-by, when is your case coming on, sir—yours and Ursula's, I mean?"

"At the County Assizes next month," Poynton told him.

"Serve the fellow right if he gets a jolly stiff sentence," Freddy declared. "Try one of my cigarettes, sir."

"I would rather smoke my pipe if you don't mind," Poynton answered.

"Wish I could smoke a pipe," the young man sighed. "My doctor looked me over the day after I got that toss at Reresby Brook. Whisky and soda instead of cocktails and champagne, and a pipe instead of so many cigarettes was part of his regime. By-the-by, let's have a drink, shall we?"

"I don't mind encouraging you to the extent of a whisky and soda," Poynton assented.

The young man rang the bell. A very respectful waiter, who welcomed Poynton with surprise, arranged a table, brought a bottle of whisky, a syphon and two glasses. Freddy Manningham chuckled.

"He knows I won't take whisky unless I see the bottle," he remarked. "Besides, I like to help myself. Say when. You like them light, I see," he went on, giving himself nearly double the quantity. "As a matter of fact, come to think of it, I have not had a drink since lunch. Were you at Tattersall's this morning? Oh, I forgot, you don't hunt, do you?"

"I am fond of a horse," Poynton confessed, "but I have never had time to hunt. We get some very good animals at the Repository at Mechester."

"The best in the world," Freddy agreed. "Most of the young Irish stock goes there. I'm glad to have seen you, Mr. Mayor," he continued, raising his glass, "You are a little god in our household just now, you know. Thundering good luck for us you people chose the Derbyshire water scheme. We had given the whole thing up."

"I think you were rather fortunate," Poynton admitted. "We had to discard one of the schemes owing to outside circumstances. Then we had practically decided upon another one but we had a baddish report just as we were closing."

"Well, it's given us all a tremendous leg up," Manningham acknowledged. "I expect they have all been falling round your neck. Count me in—won't you? I am terribly grateful."

"I am very glad it has been helpful to you," Poynton said stiffly. "You have nothing whatever to thank me for, though. My job was only to choose the scheme that was best for the town and I could not have affected the result in the slightest if yours had not come out on top. Your father is getting on all right, I hope?"

"Wonderfully well. Ursula is not quite so fit as usual. She's like all these brainy people—a trifle jumpy at times. I'm trying to persuade her to come out to Cannes for a fortnight. There's not much to do now till the Spring Meetings."

"I suppose not," Poynton answered a little vaguely.

"Take any interest in racing?" the young man asked.

"Not the slightest," his companion confessed. "I used to go to a Point-to-Point now and then and always enjoyed them but I don't find much time nowadays."

"I don't wonder at it with a place like yours to look after. Sometimes," Freddy went on, fitting a cigarette into his amber tube, "I wish I had a job myself. Every one of my pals seems to be doing something nowadays—even Teddy Lyndhurst—you know him I expect—has just become secretary to that new flying place. I wouldn't mind that sort of job at all if I could get it."

"Who manages the Beaumanor property since Colonel Allen's death?" Poynton asked. "I often think your Estates Office is one of the most charming-looking places. An old Dower House, wasn't it?"

The young man nodded assent.

"I have no head for figures," he regretted. "I could do anything out-of-doors within reason. Ursula has got all the brains in our family, though. She is musical, she could write devilish well if she would take the trouble, three of her water colours have been in the Academy and everyone says she ought to have a show for her pastels. She's got what I haven't and never shall have. She's got ideas. The only trouble about her is that she won't marry."

"I have only read half-a-dozen novels in my life," Poynton observed, "and that was within the last month. The theme of one I remember was the tendency of the modern woman with brains to neglect matrimony."

"Something in it," the other meditated. "I wouldn't marry a girl with brains myself because I'm too much of an ass and I can quite understand that a woman with brains would not want to marry me. All the same I don't see why clever people should not marry amongst themselves. The idea of Ursula as the Society Matron seems a bit out of the picture, somehow, but she would make a wonderful wife for an ambitious man who wanted to climb up into the big places. She has a fearfully sympathetic way with these ambitious young politicians. I don't fancy she hits it off with artists quite so well—with writers and painters and actors and all that sort. She likes real action. You never knew my other sister—Susan—did you?"

"No."

"Well, she married Amersby. They're talking of him for Canada. He's a brainy fellow but as he said last Christmas, he would much rather be a plain ambassador in a civilised country. Have a spot more whisky, sir?"

"Not for me, thanks," Poynton replied. "Help yourself, though."

The young man did as he was invited.

"I wonder," he asked after a moment's pause, "have you any idea when we shall touch for this Burton Valley land?"

"I'm signing the contracts next Tuesday," Poynton told him. "I should think about a fortnight after that the money will be released. It might be longer. One can't tell. These lawyers have a way of dragging things out."

Freddy indulged in a characteristic grimace.

"I suppose there's no way," he suggested, "by which one could hurry things up."

"What exactly do you mean?" Poynton asked.

"Well, I'll tell you," his vis-a-vis explained confidentially. "I'm afraid it is rather my chronic state but I am a trifle shorter than usual just now. A thousand within the next few days would be a godsend to me."

Poynton reflected for a moment.

"The money will come to your father, you know," he reminded the young man.

"I know," the latter assented, "but we are all going to be in it. That's a promise from the old man. I can be sure of handling at least a couple of thousand the day after he gets the cheque, but the trouble is I owe the best part of a thousand which I ought to pay this week."

Poynton looked at his travelling companion thoughtfully. A new type this. An aristocrat in all the small things that count, even to the loose well-fitting tweeds he wore and the well-polished not too new tan shoes. The perfect type of his class—a class of which Poynton himself knew so little. Yet he was swift to grip the essentials. He felt the charm of the young man, the easy grace of his manner made him a pleasant companion, yet he knew very well that if he yielded to this almost irresistible impulse it was doubtful whether he should ever see his money again.

"I can let you have the thousand until your father gets the money, if you like," he offered.

Freddy beamed across at his prospective benefactor.

"I say, that's awfully good of you," he said. "I'll have a spot more whisky on that. Sure it isn't a nuisance to you?"

"I think I can manage it," Poynton assured him. "Naturally I don't carry so much money about with me. If you come round to the Works any time between twelve and half past to-morrow you can have it."

"It's frightfully kind of you," Freddy continued in unabated gratitude. "If there is at any time anything I can do in return—introduce you to the Hunt if you care to take up the game—put you in amongst our guns for the big shoots if that pleases you more—well, you've only got to say the word. Jolly lucky I saw you and stumbled into this carriage."

The waiter entered with the bill, which Poynton promptly paid.

"Shall I bring your lordship's bag in here?" he asked.

"Do, there's a good fellow," Manningham replied. "There's a coat and some parcels in the other carriage."

The train attendant hurried off. Lord Frederick watched for a minute or two the suburbs of the town which were fast assuming shape.

"I say," he ventured, turning to his companion, "don't say anything to my sister about this little affair if you should happen to come across her. She would think I was an awful rotter to be borrowing money from you."

"I don't suppose I'm likely to see her," Poynton replied. "Still, if I do I'll remember."

"Depends whether she goes to Cannes or not," her brother remarked. "If she doesn't you and she seem to have a fancy for the same line of country. You will look us up sometime at Beaumanor, perhaps, won't you?"

"Thanks," Poynton answered.

The train glided into Mechester station.

"Can I drop you anywhere?" the young man asked. "I expect they have sent a bus of some sort out for me."

"I shall have something here too," Poynton assured him. "I won't take you out of your way. I shall expect you down at the Works between twelve and half past."

Freddy held out his hand.

"I can see myself being late!" he chuckled.


CHAPTER XV

THE Mayor's car had premier place amongst those drawn up to receive the passengers streaming out from the station. An inspector hastened to open the door. The Station Master came out with uplifted cap. Amongst the little crowd there was scarcely one who didn't raise his hat as Poynton stepped into his automobile.

"Pleasant day in town, sir?" the Station Master asked.

"Pretty fair," Poynton told him. "Not like Mechester air, though, Atkins. How is the Orphanage going?"

"First-class, sir," the man replied. "I don't think we shall be round to trouble you again before Christmas. Where shall I tell your chauffeur to go, sir?"

"Home."

The car rolled comfortably away through the well-lit streets. There were crowds at every corner, plenty of bustle, a pleasant odour of the coming spring as they passed into the suburbs and reached the garden-city type of houses with their plots of gardens in front, the type which had been so greatly encouraged by the presiding genius of the town. Poynton watched the thinning crowds with speculative eyes. There were men and girls promenading, some of them with tennis rackets, neighbours leaning over their walls— chatting, smoking, flirting. It was the end of the day's work. The sexes had drifted together. His town, his people, for whose welfare he was more or less responsible. To-night the thrill of self-satisfaction was absent—a cold lifeless thing. Was he losing ambition, he wondered. Perhaps he was weary of working for others. He was dimly conscious even as he turned in at his drive of a desire for a more personal hold on life. He suddenly saw the truth with new eyes. He had spent years striving passionately to bring out just such a panorama as that through which he had a few minutes ago passed. He had entirely ignored himself and his own desires. Perhaps they were now coming to a tardy growth. It was companionship that he wanted. He thought of his day-by-day associates and nothing in him responded to the visions he conjured up. Life with one of the Laura Priestleys of the world—all wrong! There was something—-something he wanted beyond that. He was suddenly a little weary of his great success—how great few people knew. Weary of being always right, of being always the strong pillar against which others leaned....

He saw the lights stream out in the hall as his chauffeur blew the horn. With a flash of prophetic inspiration he visualised Mrs. Greatson with a complaint of some sort to make, looking at him over her steel-rimmed spectacles, breathing out that curiously chilling air of sanctity and cleanliness. Greatson, a trifle sloppy, much too familiar for a first-class servant. The girl who helped, drilled into an unwilling neatness, rebellious of the few decencies of life, which included a cap and apron, imposed upon her. He handed his coat and hat mechanically to Greatson and scarcely found spirit to reply to the man's polite hope, expressed in too familiar a fashion, that he had had a pleasant journey. Damn it, what business was it of his whether the journey had been pleasant or not? He opened the door of his study and swung it to behind him. Then he stopped short. A metallic unpleasant sound—yet for a queer moment it fell upon his ears almost like music. Miss Gray was seated behind a small typewriter at the far end of his study table—neat, restrained, yet with that curious glow in her eyes which seemed to come and go unbidden. She was smiling deprecatingly, even a little timidly.

"I hope you don't mind," she exclaimed. "While I was waiting I typed a letter that I knew had to be sent off. It was just an engagement."

"I was surprised to see you," he admitted. "Why didn't you send Johnson up with the letters?"

"I didn't mind bringing them," she assured him. "I had nothing else to do and then, if I brought them myself, supposing there was a reply, I could see to it."

"Very good of you," he acknowledged. "You work well in the day, though. There's no reason why you should lose your evenings."

She struck off a final sentence on the machine.

"I have nothing to do in the evenings," she repeated. "I like to come."

"And earn for me the reputation of being a slave-driver," he retorted, as he threw himself wearily into his easy chair.

"You arc tired?" she murmured in that soothing low voice of hers.

"Tired with no reason," he confessed. "Tired after a comfortable railway journey with a pleasant companion, a spin up here in the Rolls with plenty of fresh air. What the mischief have I to be tired about?"

"You saw those shoe men?" she asked.

He smiled reminiscently.

"Yes, I saw them."

Greatson entered with a silver salver in his hand.

"A glass of sherry, sir," he enquired, "or would you prefer a cocktail? Mrs. Greatson says dinner will be ready in ten minutes. You would like to wash downstairs, perhaps, sir?"

The inevitable routine. A brief visit to the lavatory, wash his hands, scrub his nails, brush his mass of unruly hair, kick off his boots while Greatson brought him some slippers, sit down to dinner with the local evening paper propped up in front of him. He used to welcome such evenings as a contrast to the civic banquets, the heavy conversation, the dull dinner parties—too much to eat and too much wine. Suddenly he hated them. There was a germ in solitude. Perhaps it had got hold of him. He made up his mind that he would break away from routine. To-morrow night—he would begin to-morrow night. He would change for dinner as soon as he came home, drink cocktails instead of sherry, read a novel instead of this eternal local gossip and never a night when there was not a column of adulation of their wonderful popular-spirited mayor. Ugh! Damnation! He made his way back to his study.

"Have a glass of sherry, Miss Gray?" he invited.

Her eyes seemed to grow larger as she looked at him.

"N-no, thank you, sir."

"Cocktail then?"

"I have never tasted one."

"You shall then," he rejoined, ringing the bell. "Here, Greatson," he ordered, as the man answered. "Two cocktails— dry. I'll finish the sherry as well. Have you had your supper, Miss Gray?"

She hesitated.

"I don't bother much about supper, Mr. Poynton," she said. "I generally take a cup of Ovaltine."

"Rubbish! You can stay and have something with me," he insisted. "Tell Mrs. Greatson to lay for another."

"I'm not sure—" Greatson began doubtfully.

"Go and make sure, then," Poynton interrupted irritably. "Hurry up and close the door."

"I beg your pardon, sir," the man mumbled aghast.

"I'm sick of those people," Poynton declared, throwing a log on the fire.

"It's very kind of you to ask me, Mr. Poynton," the girl acknowledged gratefully, "but I really don't need any supper."

"Well, have some without needing it then. No reason why you should starve. You are too thin as it is."

"Don't you like thin girls?" she asked.

She felt his eyes travel over her slim but really rather elegant body, small breasts and delicately outlined hips. She shivered slightly. If only there could have been something a little more personal in those stern, clear eyes, something to justify the blush which she felt burning in her cheeks.

"Oh, you're very well as you are, so far as appearance goes," he admitted. "Tell me, has anything happened down at the Works?"

"Things are always happening there," she replied. "I think that is one reason why I love it so much. What I have brought up won't worry you, though. I have a selection of twelve letters from the late posts and there are three or four cablegrams with to-day's American prices. Mr. Burden told me to say that there were some large orders in from Manchester by telephone. The Bishop's secretary, too, asked you to take the Chair at the preliminary meeting of the Diocesan Conference next Thursday, at three o'clock."

"Scarcely worth sacrificing your evening, Miss Gray," he remarked.

"I was afraid you would say that," she sighed. "I felt a fool for coming. I was just bored, that's what it was, and I wanted to feel that I was doing something useful."

"What do you mean by being bored?" he asked incisively.

"Just that there was not anything in life I wanted to do or think about."

He stood with his hands in his trouser pockets, frowning.

"I felt rather like that myself, driving home from the station to-night," he confessed.

She looked at him in astonishment.

"You? Why, Mr. Poynton, you can't be in earnest. Your life is full of thrills and marvellous happenings. Look at to-day. You went up to London. That in itself is an adventure. You went to the Savoy and you have had lunch with the two other largest manufacturers of boots and shoes in the world! Why, there's something dramatic in the very thought. I should have loved to have been there to have heard how you talked and what you said. It's so large—all of it. And then your drive from the station. Didn't you feel when you looked out and saw the crowds in the streets that these were the people you were responsible for? You came through the new garden-suburb, I suppose. Didn't you realise that that was practically your gift to the town, that the people who were living there and doing their gardening and having families owed everything to you? It is not only wealth you possess, it is power you have here, too."

Greatson made a despondent entrance.

"Dinner is served, sir," he announced.

"Want to go and wash or anything?" Poynton asked his guest.

She shook her head.

"I called at home and powdered my nose," she said. "It was not out of the way and I knew what time your train was due."

"Come along, then," he invited.

She came shyly across the room. His indifference seemed to reassure her. Greatson, manifestly disapproving, held her chair.

"A bottle of claret," his master ordered, "the St. Emilion. Burden didn't say who the Manchester orders were from, I suppose, Miss Gray?"

"He mentioned no names, Mr. Poynton," she replied.

"It doesn't really matter,"

"There are some things that puzzle me about our business," she went on. "How is it, Mr. Poynton, that we are always working full time and overtime when many of the other factories in the town are short?"

"We're cleverer than they are," he told her.

"I know you must be," she admitted, "but it takes more than one man to run a great business."

"It doesn't," he contradicted her sharply. "As soon as you have two or three muddling about with it the business loses poise. That's what people fail to understand. You take a directory and look through the list of firms who make any commodity. You will find in nearly every case a one-man business is the most prosperous. I should be terrible myself at departmental work, I should always want to be pushing into the other fellow's job. With all the strings in my hands I can blend. That Hungarian fellow I had lunch with to-day, Bauer his name is, he told me that he has twenty-six heads of departments who have a share in the business. God bless my soul! That's the sort of thing would send me crazy."

"But you give back a share of your own profits," she reminded him.

"Yes, I give, but that's voluntary," he pointed out. "Every department gets a grant according to the profit it shows. That's a different matter. The business belongs to Daniel Poynton."

Greatson served them with wine. Poynton leaned back in his chair. Except for his dinner with Lady Ursula he had never dined with a girl in his own house alone in his life— scarcely anywhere else, as a matter of fact. It was a queer experience. On the whole he liked it. There was none of that stupid triangular talk, adapting your intelligence or your knowledge of a subject to someone else's. This was utterly unlike dinner party conversation, which he loathed. If there was powder upon his companion's cheeks it was invisible. The light in her eyes he knew came from the cocktail she had drunk and the pleasure she was experiencing. She looked very much the same as when she was taking down letters, except that her small, delicately- defined breasts rose and fell a little quicker. Her gown pleased him. It was as usual high in the neck, with a plain white ruffle. He laughed softly to himself. She looked at him questioningly.

"Well?"

"I am just wondering what I am up to, that's all," he replied. "You sec, this is an experience for me."

"What do you suppose it is for me then? You are a great man. Any girl would rush here to come and dine with you— especially alone. I never dreamed that it could happen to me in this world and yet here I am—excited but hungry, nervous but thirsty. Do you realize that I am trembling?"

He felt her hand. Greatson, who was in the room, nearly dropped a vegetable dish.

"I should say that your pulse was perfectly normal," he said.

"What about my heart?" she asked.

"You can't expect me to know anything about that," he expostulated. "You may have a weak one for anything I know. I have seen you look very tired sometimes when you go away at night."

"If I do, it's because I am fed-up," she confided. "If one is a little tired and yet you feel that you have done a good day's work and there is nothing to go home for—well, that takes it out of you rather."

"Your mother and father arc alive?" he asked,

"Neither of them," she answered. "I have a room of my own—a bed-sitting room—in a very nice house in Hartford Street. That's quite close to the Works and high up."

"Engaged?"

She shook her head.

"No one has ever asked me," she confessed. "If anyone did, so long as he were decent, I don't think I should hesitate."

"To get rid of this boredom?"

"To get rid of this boredom. If it comes to that, why don't you try the same remedy?"

"No good for a man," he replied. "His work takes all his time and thoughts."

"Then why were you bored driving home to-night?"

He chuckled.

"You have a pleasantly free tongue, my child," he said. "You don't bandy words with me like this at the Works."

"No, and I never shall," she assured him. "Here I try to believe that you are a different person. You are a human being, and it's a joy to talk to you."

"Aren't I a human being at the Works?"

"Not a bit. I suppose I admire you very much there but I also sometimes hate you."

"Why?"

"You never seem to care about other people's feelings. You never try to spare them anything."

"Business is different. In business I must have the best from everyone."

"Why isn't it the same out of business?" she asked. "Why shouldn't you expect the best out of me as a companion, since you have made me so proud as to let me be your companion for an hour?"

"Upon my word, it's an idea," he declared. "I suppose in a general way it is the pay sheet stands behind it all. People in the Works are paid for giving me their best."

"I should like to give you my best," she said, raising her eyes to his suddenly, "if I knew what you wanted."

For a single moment there was that queer little psychic reaction to an unprobed emotion. He was a lad again scoffing at women, afevered for the running climb up to the greater world. A young man—the pulse of achievement beginning to beat. Mayor of Mechester now. The leading manufacturer of the town, with a balance sheet which had made his accountants wipe their spectacles and which no other man saw. That was Daniel Poynton. Was it likely that a chit of a girl typist, for all that she was sweet and pleasant and seemly, could do more than bring that vague tremor into his blood, could lead him even a yard nearer to the world whose secrets he yet had to probe? Why should this child make him think of this new upheaval in his life, the heaving and stumbling of his great horse in that mad gallop down the hill, the joy of throwing himself into the battle, the peace afterwards, the ride in that muddy lane with the scent of the raw newly-turned earth just the other side of the hedge?

"The Mayor has left his city," she murmured. "Where is he, I wonder?"

"The Mayor is on horseback and the walls of the room have fallen away," he told her. "I felt the still wet air for a moment on my cheeks. You know that I am fond of riding, of course."

"You passed me once," she reflected. "You were riding the biggest horse I ever saw."

"I always do," he answered. "I like the beasts that are hard to control."

"That's why the poor little girls fall down before you," she sighed, "just like the primroses you trample on."

He rose to his feet. Greatson had left the wine upon the table with the fruit and cigarettes. He stood upright—six foot three—and yet he could not escape from her eyes. She too rose slowly from her chair.

"We are to go?" she asked.

Her fingers played upon his wrist, rested lightly upon his arm. It was scarcely even a caress—just a touch—but somehow or other she seemed to be nearer and nearer to him. He leaned down.

"Miss Gray." he said.

"Mr. Poynton," she murmured.

"You are bored with my factory in the daytime and your empty room at night?"

"Just a little," she agreed,

"I am bored with my crowded streets and my garden city. Yours is a mood. Mine is a mood. And this comes from the mood and the mood only."

Her lips clung fervently to his. He held her for a moment gently as though she were a child, then very slowly, with a parting of the lips which had with it a curious absence of all regret, he drew himself up. He opened the door and she slipped past him. In the study he had a sudden vision of Miss Gray on her way to the typewriter. He called to her. She looked round and there was content in her face which made its peculiar appeal to him.

"Miss Gray," he said, "once, not so long ago, a woman kissed me—the first time a woman has done such a thing in my life. I think that first opened the gates for me, but when they stand all the time open it will be she who will pass in. To-night I have kissed you. I feel quits with life. You are angry with me?"

There was not a tremor in her voice as she answered, but the light of heaven shone in her eyes.

"I am perfectly happy," she said. "My boredom is all gone and—see how clever I am! I felt what you were going to say to me. I loved your saying it. You did just what I wanted you to do. I am happy. I am proud. I believe in life."

He walked to the fireplace, drew a long breath and lit a cigarette. My God, the girl was right!

"Tell me about the letter we ought to send?" he asked.

She was suddenly fluent. She pointed to a sentence which was capable of a double meaning. She pointed out the necessity for having that sentence explained. He nodded, grasped the point and dictated. Her typewriter was clicking when the coffee came. It paused for five minutes during which Poynton glanced through the other letters, then once more there was the click, click of the machine. It went on unceasingly for twenty minutes, then Daniel Poynton scrawled his signature at the end of a sheet of paper. Miss Gray rose to her feet, put the cover on the typewriter, put the letters into her despatch case and was at the door before he could ring the bell. She turned and waved the tips of her fingers with a respectful and yet a charming gesture.

"Good night, Your Worship the Mayor," she laughed demurely, "I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed my dinner. Thank you—for everything."


CHAPTER XVI

DESPITE every effort to conceal the fact, Young, the imperturbable secretary, was impressed by the visitor whom it was his duty to announce on the following morning.

"Lord Frederick Manningham has called to see you, sir," he announced.

"Show him in," Poynton directed.

"Shall you be engaged for a long time, sir?" Young enquired. "There's Mr. Priestley at half past twelve and a representative from Brandpole's has been waiting some time."

"I want to see Brandpole's man," was the brusque reply. "Don't let him go. Show Lord Frederick up and as soon as he's gone I'll see Brandpole's man. If Mr. Priestley comes before, he must wait. I had no definite appointment with him, anyway."

"Very good, sir."

Freddy Manningham, very smart and debonair in riding clothes with breeches and leggings of the latest fashion, was shown in at once. He looked around him almost reverently as he hung up his stick and hat upon a row of pegs and strolled over to shake hands with Poynton.

"Come in, Lord Frederick," the latter invited. "You are a few minutes behind time, you know."

"Puncture," Freddy explained. "Half way up Grooby Hill, too. Haven't changed your mind, I hope, sir."

"I don't often do that," Poynton told him. "Count that little bundle."

He tossed an envelope across the big table to the further side, where the young man was already seated in a swivel chair. The latter whistled gaily as he broke the seal and looked at the packet of notes he drew out with something approaching reverence.

"Ten of them," he exclaimed. "All hundreds—all the best style. By Jove, sir, you're a great fellow."

"I'm nothing of the sort. I'm just an ordinary man who makes a promise and keeps it. That's a thousand pounds. Take my advice and be careful of it. The Burton Valley money won't last forever, you know. From what I know of your father he will find a hundred thousand or so of that pretty useful, and then there's Lady Ursula."

"Yes, there's Ursula," the young man reflected. "What about her?"

They looked at one another across the table for a moment and it seemed to Poynton that there was a curious expression of enquiry in the young man's face.

"Well, I suppose she has to have her share," Poynton ventured.

"She'll take good care of that. It's ripping of you, sir, to trust me like this," Freddy went on. "Let me write you out a receipt."

Poynton passed him a sheet of paper.

"You're just as likely to repay me without it," he remarked. "However, there you are."


Received from Daniel Poynton the sum of One Thousand Pounds Sterling loan to be repaid on payment of the Burton Valley money.


The young man sighed as he signed the paper.

"Don't spoil the fun," he begged. "So much nicer to handle money without remembering that you've got to pay it back again. Read your Times this morning?"

"Haven't looked at a newspaper," Poynton confessed. "Busy trying to talk through two telephones at the same time. Look here, young fellow," he went on, "I think you'd better be getting along if you don't mind. I'm busy."

"I'm going to wait and take you out to lunch," Manningham insisted.

"You will have to stay where you arc then and wait till I'm ready."

"Any objection to smoking?"

"Not the slightest."

Poynton hurried out. His visitor lit a cigarette, yawned and stretched out his hand for a newspaper. Violet Gray, coming in to announce a telephone call, looked at him in surprise. He was a most unusual type of visitor.

"Pardon me," the young man said, throwing down the paper and rising to his feet, "but you seem lost or worried or something. Anything I can do?"

"You can tell me what has become of Mr. Poynton," she replied. "He was here a moment ago."

"Strictly speaking he was not," the other confided. "He was here a minute ago, perhaps. Still, in a business like this detail is everything. He went out of that door in front of you. The place has swallowed him up."

The girl looked at this unusual caller once more, curiously, as she turned away.

"Don't hurry," he begged. "As you see, I have been put in possession here but I have strict orders to entertain every newcomer. You have, perhaps, heard the good news. I am the new partner in the firm."

"I don't believe it," she declared, struggling not to smile.

"That," he complained, "is unkind. What am I then? Guess. Why am I here holding the fort whilst His Worship the Mayor has gone out to roll in the shekels?"

"I don't know who you are," Violet Gray confessed, "but I think you are a very free and easy type of young man."

"I admit it," he acknowledged. "I am really waiting here to take the great man out to lunch. I think it would be much more fun if you and I stole off together."

"Well, we are not going to do anything of the sort," she told him, "and really I think that considering I don't even know your name, you are very familiar."

"I told you distinctly that I was the new partner in the firm," he expostulated. "It is your duty to meet me in the right spirit. I am afraid my stuffy old club here is not of the cock-and-hen variety but there's a very decent pub, The Bell, down in Galatea Gate. What do you say?"

"I think you are too absurd," she said moving towards the door, "I think—" She stopped short.

Poynton came swinging into the room. He gave one swift glance towards Freddy and looked back at Miss Gray, His expression was unchanged.

"What is it, Miss Gray, please?" he asked, throwing some samples of leather he was carrying onto his table. "Mr. Priestley has been overdue some ten minutes. I wish you would telephone and see if he is at the office."

"Mr. Priestley has rung up to say he will be unable to call before lunch. That's the message I just brought in," Miss Gray replied.

"A message," the young man intervened, rising and bowing politely to Violet, "which the young lady in her over- conscientious devotion to the interests of the firm declined to entrust to me."

"I don't know who this young gentleman is," Miss Gray said calmly, "but he has been making fun of me for the last five minutes. He assures me that he is a new partner in the firm."

Poynton smiled.

"I hadn't heard of it," he remarked. "This is my private secretary, Manningham, Lord Frederick Manningham—Miss Gray."

The young lady looked anything but overpowered. She seemed to see no reason why she should vouchsafe anything more than the slightest of greetings.

"I didn't imagine he had anything to do, Mr. Poynton, with an important business like this," she said. "What shall I tell Mr. Priestley's people? There's a Council Committee Meeting at three and a meeting of the Watch Committee at four."

"Tell Priestley I can't see him to-day at all," Poynton decided. "Or, look here, tell him at five o'clock if he likes—not earlier and not later."

Young came hurrying in as Miss Gray disappeared.

"Glad I caught you, sir," he exclaimed. "The secretary of Mr. Bauer—I believe he is the head of the great boot and shoe firm in Czechoslovakia—is ringing up from London to ask whether it would be convenient for you to see him and an American gentleman, Mr. Erpingham, to-morrow here."

"What about to-morrow, Young?"

"A light day for you, sir. Two or three small matters I can put off. A Public Parks Committee. Well, there are only three of you and that could be arranged at any time to suit yourself. I can manage to-morrow for you, sir."

"Tell them to let me know what time and I'll send a car to the station," Poynton enjoined.

The secretary hurried away. Poynton signed two or three letters that lay on his desk, then he turned to his visitor.

"I'm ready now," he announced. "Which would you prefer for lunch—the City Club or the Grand Hotel? Both of them a trifle provincial in the way of food, I'm afraid."

"I would like to go to the Club if you insist on being host," the young man decided. "I shall catch a glimpse of the City Fathers, I suppose."

"The Club has better food, anyway," Poynton observed as they made their way towards the lift....


"If I might say so without seeming impertinent, sir," Lord Frederick remarked, about halfway through an excellent plain meal, "I am beginning to understand what my sister means when she calls you a very surprising man."

Poynton was suddenly tongue-tied.

"Yes?"

"You do such a lot of things so jolly well," the young man continued. "You drove that Rolls Royce of yours through these crowded streets far better than I could have done. You ride that great horse of yours as though you had never done anything else in your life. You must have wrists of iron."

"Big horses have not always hard mouths," Poynton reminded him.

"That dark bay of yours has. Then the way you went for that savage gipsy. Why, they tell me he's half killed nearly every man he's had a scrap with."

"I have boxed more or less all my life," Poynton observed. "Then you must remember nature gave me long arms."

"She must have given you courage too," Freddy went on. "And I agree with Ursula—I rather like to see you in that wonderful factory of yours. Never any bluster, but there's no mistaking who owns the place. I hint at this little matter of a thousand pounds and you lend it to me as though it had been a thousand shillings."

"I didn't notice the hint," Poynton remarked smiling.

"A sense of humour, too," his companion chuckled. "I thought I was in for the biggest snubbing I have ever had when I asked you. I am an observant sort of chap, you know, and I like to see a man who gets his own way. I love the style you pushed off those fellows who wanted to come and lunch at our table. Curious devils, too. They wanted to know what young scrub you had got hold of. Then I read a speech of yours at some public dinner last week which sounded like the real stuff, and here you are, thirty-eight years old, with all your money and a huge business and you have managed to remain a bachelor."

"We arc not all marrying men," the Mayor reminded ha guest. "I daresay I shall fall some day."

"I don't know why you should," the other reflected. "You don't seem like a marrying man."

"I don't think I am."

"One of the greatest curses in the world is to be susceptible. You would not believe it but the sight of all those hundreds of young women trooping out of your Works as we left gave me the shivers. I could not keep my eyes off them. I have seen many a chorus at a West End theatre with uglier girls. Rows of them upstairs, too, in your typing rooms. One real platinum blonde I saw."

"If you saw them every day like I do, you wouldn't take any notice of them."

"Then there's that special secretary of yours," Freddy went on. "When I first saw her I confess that I thought she was almost plain. Shows what an ass I am. I tried hard to make her talk to me while you were away and she snubbed me in the most convincing fashion."

"When women work for their living," Poynton explained, "when they become part of a machine like my factory they are generally able, if they are any good at all, to forget about sex during business hours at any rate. They wouldn't be any good if they couldn't. I daresay all these girls you were speaking of—even Miss Gray—look at men with entirely different eyes in their homes or on holidays."

"I'm afraid it would take me a long time to get broken in," the young man confessed with a sigh. "Ursula could do it all right," he continued. "I sometimes think she positively dislikes men—except a chosen few."

Priestley, who was passing down the room, paused at their table.

"Five o'clock they tell me you will be free, Mr. Mayor," he said, looking hard at the young man.

"I'm keeping half-an-hour for you," Poynton replied.

"This is Lord Manningham, isn't it?" Priestley went on, addressing him with a smile. "I have met your father once or twice."

The young man rose politely to his feet and held out his hand.

"Dad doesn't come into the town so often now," he remarked. "I expect I have heard your name?"

"Priestley. I am Town Clerk."

"You are very popular in my family just now, then, I can tell you," Lord Frederick assured him.

"You mean about the water scheme?" Priestley said. "I can assure you that it was a great pleasure to be able to decide as we did. It was only when things were halfway through that we realised how much of the land belonged to your family. I am all for standing by our neighbours when there's a chance."

"Marvellous stroke of luck for us," Manningham confided. "We had to mortgage because of the two sets of death duties and I don't see how we could ever have got straight again but for getting rid of this land. We haven't the brains to build factories and make millions like Mr. Poynton here."

"Very few people in the world have the brains or the luck to build up a business like our Mayor's," his Town Clerk observed, smiling. "I hope we shall all meet again at the luncheon when the first sod is cut," he concluded as he prepared to turn away. "I don't know what you think about it, Mr. Mayor, but as the Lord Lieutenant is also a bachelor, I think we ought to ask Lady Ursula to cut the first sod."

"No one has a better claim," Poynton agreed.

"My sister would love it, I'm sure," her brother assured them. "She's fascinated with all sorts of civic business just now and I believe if he could put up with us she would be going over Mr. Poynton's factory once a week."

Priestley passed on with a farewell wave of the hand. Poynton smiled a little grimly.

"You will have to come to the luncheon, young fellow," he said, "and we will put you next to Priestley's daughter. She will make you—what is it you moderns call it?—sex- conscious if anyone can."

"Is she good-looking?"

"I suppose so. I'm not a judge. Sure you're ready? We'll have our coffee in the smoke room."

"Capital."

The young man strolled down the room in the wake of his host, a very distinguished and engaging figure. Poynton introduced him to a fellow manufacturer as they passed out into the hall, and Freddy was very amiable indeed.

"I have been hoping," he confided, "to persuade Mr. Poynton to give me a job at his factory but he won't. Do you by any chance also have a horde of pretty girls working for you, Mr. Fledges?"

"The Mayor gets all the good-looking ones," the other replied, smiling. "I'm only a Town Councillor so they don't troop up to my little place. They tell me Poynton's machine- room is a sight for the gods."

"It's no sight for a susceptible young man," Freddy declared. "I had to be pulled out with ropes when we went over the factory a week or so ago. I've just seen some of them coming out again this morning. They're so smart, too. I think the Mayor must overpay them."

"He overpays his typists," the other grumbled. "He's pretty well tied down with his machine girls."

Poynton glanced at his watch.

"I don't want to seem inhospitable, my young friend," he remarked to Manningham, "but I'm afraid I must get along."

The latter rose at once to his feet, shook hands with his new acquaintance and followed his host back into die Rolls Royce.

"Jolly nice club," he declared. "Nice friendly people too. Gives me shivers to go into Dad's old mausoleum here. I'm beginning to believe that a life of action is the right life. Everyone at our little hutch in Market Street looks wizened up, sharpened features, querulous voices just because they do nothing but sit on the bench and quarrel with one another. I think I shall come and ask you for a job someday, Mr. Mayor."

Poynton pulled up at the bank, where his young friend had asked to be dropped, and shook hands cordially.

"You will have to buy a pair of dark glasses and keep out of my machine room if I take you on," he warned him.

"I don't know what Ursula is really planning to do," her brother confided, as he lingered for a moment on the pavement. "If she chucks Cannes and comes down here, would you care to lunch with us one day?"

What a marvellous young man! Poynton had hard work to control those rigid features of his. Nevertheless his smile was more than ordinarily human.

"It would give me great pleasure," he acquiesced.

Freddy looked back at him from the steps of the bank with a smile upon his lips, which combined the unusual quality of humour and reverence.

"I believe I owe this thousand quid to Ursula," he rejected, as he patted his breast coat pocket and entered the bank in search of small change.


CHAPTER XVII

POYNTON received rather a shock on the following morning when he entered his office at a quarter of nine to find Miss Gray waiting for him with a certain momentous announcement.

"Three gentlemen have been here to see you, Mr. Poynton, since half past eight."

"Who are they?" he enquired.

"One is the Czechoslovakian shoe manufacturer Mr. Bauer, the other is Mr. Erpingham of Philadelphia and the third I think they said was a lawyer. He is from New York, too. Mr. Young saw the cards in my hand and mentioned that Bauer and Erpingham are two of the largest manufacturers of boots and shoes in the world. He believed that you were expecting them."

Poynton frowned.

"I was expecting them to make an appointment," he admitted, "not to descend on me like this. However, you had better fetch them. If they want to see over the place I can start them with Burden whilst I look through the correspondence."

Mr. Erpingham appeared in front as seemed only natural, Mr. Bauer, dapper and fashionable and a little bored, behind, and an almost too intelligent-looking Jew with pallid cheeks and black twinkling eyes, the acumen of which his horn-rimmed glasses utterly failed to conceal, brought up the rear.

"Taken you at your word, you see," Erpingham boomed out. "Here we are ready to look over your Plant. Some Plant too. When you have got those two wings finished you will be well ahead of anything in this country."

Poynton shook hands and Erpingham introduced the stranger.

"This is Mr. Joseph Chancellor," he announced, "from New York. Button up your pockets—he's a lawyer!"

The accused person grinned as the two men exchanged greetings.

"Mr. Erpingham is very hard upon our profession," he said. "All the same, he would find it difficult to get on without us."

"You don't need a lawyer when you're looking over a boot factory though, do you?" Poynton asked. "However, you are very welcome, Mr. Chancellor, if it interests you. Now, what's the idea, gentlemen—you want to see from top to bottom, eh?"

"We want to see everything you'll show us," Bauer declared.

"For an hour I shall be busy," Poynton confided. "During that hour you can pass through two of the departments and perhaps you will have had enough of it by then. If not, I'll take you on later and show you what's left."

"That's the stuff," Erpingham approved, "You aren't through with your mail yet, I see."

Poynton rang the bell which summoned Burden, and handed the visitors over to him.

"These gentlemen would like to see as much as you can show them of the Works," he said. "Take the machine- and clicking-rooms first and then the riveting and finishing departments. Probably I will be with you by the time you get there."

"Come on, Bauer," his fellow manufacturer exclaimed, patting his companion on the shoulder. "We're going to learn something."

"I'm not so sure of that," Poynton rejoined. "They tell me we are still behind some of your best factories in the States and that Mr. Bauer is turning out shoes faster than any of us. Still, I hope you will find something to interest you."

The door closed behind them. Miss Gray, with deft and skilful fingers, was already arranging the three rows of correspondence upon the writing table, Poynton watched her from under his rather heavy eyebrows. Neither her manner nor deportment showed the slightest sign of any change. She was precisely the same as ever—quiet, repressed, silent and swift.

"There arc a great many invitations, sir," she pointed out. "They're all on the right. Those you wish to accept you need only put the usual mark on and I will see to them and enter them in the diary. Those you wish to refuse you had better dictate the reason. Most of the middle pile, I think, will go to Mr. Young when you have looked them through. You will find one or two important ones on the left to which I imagine you may want to dictate personal replies. This small pile is purely legal and with the income tax enquiries might go straight into Mr. Crosby's office. I don't think you will want to intervene in them personally."

They were halfway through their task when Burden came in silently, closed the door carefully behind him and approached his employer's desk.

"Mr. Poynton," he announced, "these two visitors are the most inquisitive we have ever had here. I am really not quite sure how far you meant me to go in giving them information. They have already insisted on having a new clicking-machine taken to pieces and the little lawyer makes notes about everything."

Poynton smiled with gentle scorn.

"We have nothing to worry about, Burden," he said.

"Just as you say, sir. The only thing I wondered," the Manager went on, after a moment's hesitation, "was whether we had adapted any improvements of our own to some of the most modern machines, which might clash with American patents. I don't understand their bringing that little lawyer with them."

"Quite right to raise the point, young fellow," his employer approved, but we have a special contract, as you know, with the principle machinery company. Ours are nearly all non-royalty machines. They may get a little useful information about some of our stunts They're welcome to it. I will join you presently. There are one or two salesmen in the waiting-room I shall have to see and afterwards I shall come across.

"Very good, sir."

"Do you think, Mr. Poynton," Miss Gray asked as the door closed, "that these other people would treat you the same way if you went to their factories?"

"Perhaps not," he answered. "That doesn't matter."

He leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. The girl was sorting her correspondence.

"A very handsome man, the young lord, Miss Gray," he observed.

She glanced up indifferently.

"Of his type, marvellous," she assented.

"You don't seem enthusiastic."

"I don't like young men."

"That's odd," he reflected.

She went on with her work silently. He watched her. There was something rather fascinating in the swift, unhesitating movements of her fingers.

"So you think I have been too generous with these foreign visitors?" he asked.

"Yes, Mr. Poynton."

He leaned back and looked up at the disappearing cigarette smoke.

"There are very few of our methods that would bear transplanting," he meditated.

"I don't like their bringing that lawyer with them," she observed. "He doesn't look honest. They're here to get all the good out of it for themselves. Have they offered you any information worth having?"

"They haven't any," he answered. "We are too far ahead of them. They offered to buy my business."

"I thought they were after something of the sort," she remarked.

"Clever girl," he approved. "Well, I wouldn't have anything to say to them."

"I think they will probably have another try. Why did they bring the lawyer down?"

"You may be right," he agreed. "Burden seems uneasy. By- the-by, how do you and Burden get along?"

"We've never had any trouble," she replied. "I think he realises that I do my work well and I think he's quite wonderful."

"But personally?"

"Mr. Burden doesn't attract me," she acknowledged. "Besides he has a girl friend."

"You mean that he's engaged?"

"Not engaged exactly," she replied. "I don't think he ever means to marry. He has a girl-friend all the same."

Poynton frowned doubtfully.

"Does the girl friend know he doesn't mean to marry her?"

There was a slight tinge of pity in her smile.

"I don't suppose the question of marriage has ever arisen between them," she observed. "There are plenty of girls as well as men who prefer their liberty."

He pondered over her reply. When he would have spoken again she had been called away.


Poynton rang another bell and gave interviews to four salesmen. He was friendly, quick and decisive. He gave some orders and to the youngest of the quartet, who came last and who was terribly nervous, he showed more than usual consideration. He summoned a foreman and talked to him for a moment, then handed the young man an order that made him dizzy with delight.

"Come and see me again sometime," he invited, "but hurry along now as quickly as you can. I'm busy."

He put on a duster, telephoned to know the whereabouts of his visitors and very soon picked them up. They were loud in their praises of everything. Adjectives streamed out— especially from the little lawyer. Bauer was perplexed and thoughtful, Erpingham a little moody.

"I still don't quite understand that standard shoe," he confessed.

Poynton turned to the foreman who was in command for the moment.

"Fetch me a chicken side from the cellars," he directed, "and a bundle of Klof's number 100 glacé kids. Also one of the best finishers."

The man hurried off and returned in a few minutes.

"Show us what you can do with bottoming from this side," Poynton ordered. "It need not go through the machines. You can do the same with your pocket things."

The man cut a strip from the middle of the side, scraped it with a knife, using what seemed to be some sandpaper, poured some liquid from a small bottle and rubbed. Poynton took the strip of leather in his hands and bent it backwards and forwards.

"You see, Mr. Erpingham," he pointed out, "that's what you called our oak bark-tanned leather. These chicken sides cost eight pence three farthings the best of them."

Erpingham handled the strip and nodded appreciatively.

"Licked by our own country," he muttered. "We haven't a finisher who could do this."

"There are the glazed kids," Poynton went on, indicating the counter. "We have about ten thousand dozen in stock of different grades. They work out at what I told you in London. I won't show you the costing sheet because it would annoy my staff so, but you can work out for yourself that we are not retailing at a loss when you put those things together."

"I guess you're a pretty smart crowd down here," Mr. Erpingham decided.

They went on with their tour of inspection. At one o'clock Poynton took the three out to lunch at his club. They ate—especially Erpingham—noisily and heartily, but they were curiously dumb. Conversation, in fact, was almost nonexistent. At two o'clock they were itching to get back to the factory. Poynton, however, insisted upon introducing them to one or two of his brother manufacturers.

"These are new times for Mechester when you giants think it worthwhile to come down and look at our pigmy shows," one of the latter remarked.

"You may be right," Erpingham replied. "It's your Mayor here who has worked the miracle. He is being talked about all over the world where they sell boots and shoes. We had to come down and see about it."

"And Mr. Bauer, too," one of the others observed. "We read marvellous things about your factory, sir."

"Some of them true," the Czechoslovakian replied. "Some of them no doubt exaggerations."

"There's one thing about our friend Bauer," Erpingham confided. "He makes the quickest shoes in the world."

"Quickest?" someone queried.

"Quickest to make and quickest to wear out! That's why he's always busy. The mistake we others make is we put too much good stuff in."

There was a little more mild business chaff and a return to the factory. Poynton excused himself for a time but Erpingham, before starting off, gripped him by the shoulder.

"It's fixed up that you take dinner with us to-night, Mr. Poynton," he urged.

"You will dine with me," Poynton insisted. "At Mechester you must be my guests. In New York or Czechoslovakia I promise I shall be yours. You are going to take a simple meal at my house."

"You would not care to ask your lawyer to come along and meet our friend Chancellor, I suppose?" Erpingham suggested hesitatingly.

Poynton shook his head.

"He's a dull fellow—wouldn't interest any of you. I'll join you in about half-an-hour."

The tour of inspection recommenced in the far wing of the factory. Poynton threw himself into his easy-chair with an audible groan. He had never been tired in his life. It could not be that. He was bored—bored with the details of his own business, He remembered the time when he would have walked with these three men, would never have left their sides, would have shown no sign, but would have been all aglow with pride at their flattering amazement. He stretched out his hand and rang the bell for Miss Gray. In due course she made her appearance.

"Miss Gray," he confided brusquely, "I have these three men on my hands for dinner to-night. They wish for a quiet private meal. Heaven knows why. I suppose I must take them home. Do you know any place where I can hire a cook and a man to wait at table?"

The girl considered for a moment.

"Why not Midwood's, sir, the people who do your Mayoral banquets?"

There was a gleam of something which amounted almost to admiration in Poynton's eyes.

"Can't imagine why I didn't think of them myself." he exclaimed. "Ring them up, explain what I want to Midwood, tell him to bring a waiter and to buy everything required. Ring up the house, too, and tell Mrs. Greatson that they are coming to take over, and to be ready to help."

"What time dinner, sir?"

"Eight o'clock, I suppose," he answered. "There's plenty of wine, I know, in the house but I'm not sure about the stuff for cocktails. They had better see to that."

"Will you leave the small details to me?" she asked. "I'm quite used to this sort of thing."

"Certainly, Miss Gray. Certainly. You will be able to find time?"

"Plenty," she assured him.

She turned away. Then as though she had changed her mind, she looked round halfway to the door and returned.

"Mr. Poynton," she said.

"Well?"

"These three men rather puzzle me."

"Why?" he asked. "You know who they are,"

"Yes, I know who they are but I don't know what they want," she replied. "I can't imagine why they brought a lawyer down here and why they wanted you to ask your lawyer to come to dinner to-night."

Poynton shrugged his shoulders,

"I don't think they want anything except to pick my brains as thoroughly as they can," he declared. "I don't mind their doing that. They won't touch my trade. They did make some sort of an offer for amalgamation but I nipped that in the bud. I told them it would not appeal to me in the least."

"They're still after that amalgamation, Mr. Poynton."

He looked at her coldly.

"What do you mean?" he demanded. "I don't change my mind. Most people know that and what on earth gave you such an idea, anyway?"

"A word or two I overheard when they were waiting," she confided, "and instinct."

"Instinct is nothing but guesswork," he told her.

"Mine isn't," she replied, "and I don't like those men."

He laughed contemptuously.

"You seem to have a spasm of disliking people," he remarked. "You disliked the young fellow from Beaumanor the other day. Now you dislike these three men. What harm do you suppose they can do me?"

"I think they will try to make you change your mind about the amalgamation," she said. "If they do they will get the best of it because you are an honest man, and not one of them is."

"No one ever makes me change my mind," he declared. "You ought to know that. I am as obstinate as a mule and however clever you think they are, I'm not exactly a fool myself. Run away and ring up Midwood."

She moved away. With her fingers upon the handle of the door she looked back.

"May I wear a cap and apron and wait at table?" she pleaded.

"What do you want to do that for?" he asked.

"I want to hear what they have to say," she confessed.

He waved her away impatiently.

"Rubbish!"


CHAPTER XVIII

THE dinner at The Grange, so far as the dinner itself was concerned, was a great success. For the first time in his life in his own house Poynton was waited upon by an adequate butler, his wines were properly iced, the service was smooth and satisfactory. Nothing had been forgotten, even to the cigarettes between the courses. Mr. and Mrs. Greatson hurried about like a couple of flustered fowls but were allowed to take a very small share in the proceedings. Midwood had once been butler to a duke and had preserved the manners which enabled him to deal with his subordinates.

"For an unmarried man, Mr. Poynton," Bauer remarked, "yours is a wonderfully-run household. You have someone in the background—a housekeeper without a doubt—who understands the art of life, or perhaps your butler is exceptional."

"My secretary down at the office arranged this for me," Poynton confessed. "I do not as a rule entertain at home and when I do it is very simply. The butler who has waited upon us to-night is the man who runs my official lunches and dinners."

"And does he run them!" Erpingham remarked with enthusiasm. "We don't get that type of service in the States, Mr. Mayor. It don't matter whether you arc willing to pay for it or not. It ain't there."

"What about coffee in my study?" his host proposed.

Erpingham, who had drunk at least a bottle of champagne, shook his head vigorously.

"Let's have it here," he begged. "I like a table for a business talk."

Poynton, with slightly upraised eyebrows, gave the necessary order. The cloth was removed, fruit was placed upon the table, the coffee and brandy served. Erpingham, with a cigar well in the corner of his mouth, leaned back in his chair, unbuttoned his waistcoat, which concealed a somewhat too protuberant stomach, and presented the appearance of a man at peace with himself and the world.

"Friend Poynton," he said, "I'm going to tell you you've got one of the finest plants I have ever seen in any country in the world, not excepting the United States. I begin to understand why my travellers get excited when they try to open fresh markets and come across your stuff. You've made a tidy bit of money, I should say."

"I'm not a poor man," Poynton admitted. "We don't talk about those things quite so freely over here, though, as you people. I am satisfied. That's all there is to be said about it."

"Not by a long chalk," Erpingham objected. "Show me a satisfied man and I'll show you—well, the kind of jay that gets his wings shorn. There's no standing still in any sort of enterprise. You know that as well as we do, Poynton."

"One must progress," Chancellor intervened, his shrill voice sounding like a parrot's after the robust bass of his companion. "Forward or backward—-it must always be one or the other. No one can split the atom. No one can stand perfectly still. It is against nature."

"There are a few propositions," Erpingham continued, leaning over the table and removing his cigar for a moment from between his teeth, "to which I think it might be worth your while listening, Poynton. Take our friend Bauer's plant. If you were to go over it thoroughly, although I am not saying you would find anything absolutely new, still, you would find one or two stunts that might be useful to you. From the broad point of view your place is as near perfection as possible, Poynton, but I am not sure that you handle your help quite the best way."

"Labour conditions are bound to differ in different countries," Poynton observed tonelessly. "What I mean is that Englishmen and Englishwomen have to be treated a little differently from Mid-Europeans or even Americans."

"There are one or two things more I got to say to you, friend Poynton," Erpingham went on. "We three round this table—I'll leave out Chancellor, he knows all about the law but he's no shoemaker—we three represent the brains of the world in shoemaking. We are doing darned well as it is but we can do better still the more we crush competition. We can do that by being friendly together and exchanging ideas. I'll tell you one of mine, Poynton. I should like you to swop a hundred of your men from the patterns department and a hundred from the clicking room, with the same number from my factory. I should like you to do the same thing with Bauer here. Where I think you have got us beat a little, too, is in the handling of your finishing. Machinists I'm not so sure about. Those young women over at Bauer's place, they're a pretty warm lot—and they might upset the discipline of your rooms, and in my country the girls are a darned sight too independent. Then, I would like to exchange the foremen of the departments for six months or so, just so they could get a notion or two about the swing of the business. Where I'm not sure that we don't have you licked, Poynton, is in the pace your factory is run at. I wouldn't mind making a moderate bet that in the same number of hours we turn out more goods than you do and Bauer turns out more than either of us."

"Your ideas are excellent in their way," Poynton commented as Erpingham paused. "Personally I don't think they would work out. The way I look upon it is this—that my business is developed on the lines best suited to the English temperament and English conditions. The same with you and the same with Bauer. I am not at all sure that you would either of you gain any benefit by adopting my methods any more than I should yours."

"Listen," Mr. Chancellor intervened nervously, "let me speak before this goes further."

Erpingham stretched out his hand and half filled his glass with brandy.

"Yes, let Chancellor speak," he suggested. "He's only a lawyer but he has done as much as any man in the world to consolidate industry. Get it off your chest, Chancellor. You were eloquent enough on the way down."

"I feel inclined to be more so now," the lawyer declared emphatically, sipping some water from his glass. "What I am not sure you fellows don't sometimes lose sight of is the thing that stands behind it all. If I ask Mr. Poynton here 'What are you in business for?'—what is his reply? To make boots and shoes. He is wrong. He is in business to make money."

"That's right," Erpingham approved. "I don't care whether I ever see a boot or shoe again in my life except on my own feet. We are all in it to make money."

"So far as regards Mr. Erpingham and Mr. Bauer I can speak with knowledge," the lawyer continued. "Sam Erpingham here shows his stockholders a balance sheet with—well, a good many million dollars—on the credit side. Mr. Bauer's stock is something like the same amount. I guess if we knew the truth Mr. Poynton could better even their figures a bit."

Poynton made no sign. They waited for a moment, looking at him anxiously. He had the air of a host only politely interested in the conversation.

"Supposing, as our host is a bit shy, we put it at the same," Chancellor went on. "We are great people in the States, you know, Mr. Poynton, for looking into other people's business and there's a general idea over there that it would take more than a few million sterling to buy you. Pretty good travelling, that, for the time you've been in business. Anyhow, see what a chance you three have got. You carry out these ideas of exchanging labour, foremen, machinery. You can show prospective economies amounting to just as many millions as you like. Then we draw up a prospectus. I got a man in New York who is the sweetest writer on a bit of work of this sort that ever held a pen. He makes a prospectus bite you. You can't get away from it. You see those figures of his and hear those arguments in your sleep at night. The next morning you are telephoning to your bank to know what spare money you've got. Well, we get that prospectus written, we ask for the amalgamation of the three businesses, lump all the capital together plus the amount of economies which we prove can be made and what we like for the goodwill and the cutting out competition. Easy going—that. Do you want to know the end of the day's work? I'll tell you, not in actual figures because the thing isn't worked out yet, but I reckon that Sam Erpingham and Mr. Bauer here can double their capital without putting up another collar. Same with Mr. Daniel Poynton. What I put to you gentlemen is this: suppose you reckon yourselves worth three millions to-day, aren't six millions better worth having?"

Poynton watched the ash at the end of his cigar for a moment.

"Seems to me," lie remarked, "there's one loose end in your reckoning, Mr. Chancellor. Say the stock capital of the Erpingham Shoe Company is ten millions. Well, the price to- day I notice is seventy-two—that is twenty-eight dollars less than the hundred. Therefore, instead of being a ten- million-dollar man, so far as regards his stock in the business, I mean, Mr. Erpingham would come into such an arrangement as you suggest with something like seven millions. I don't know the value of Mr. Bauer's stock on the market so I could not make any comment on that. Mine, as you know, does not exist."

"That stock exchange business is no criterion for any honest show," Erpingham scoffed. "People who traffic in stocks and shares never stop to think of the value of the business or stocks they are dealing with. There's many a share quoted at thirty above par on our exchange that ain't worth thirty below it, and there's many quoted at fifty below that's more likely worth fifty above par. Besides, taking our stock, it fluctuates. It might be up fifteen points in a month's time, if trade took a turn for the better."

"Consider my business," Bauer observed. "They have been handling my stock pretty roughly on the bourses. It stands to-day at a discount of about thirty per cent. What does that matter? It is not the result of any deterioration in my business. It is the result of the scarcity of money."

Poynton leaned over and took a cigar from the box and calmly lit it. So far he had smoked only one cigarette during the progress of dinner.

"It has been very interesting," he said, "to talk over the technical details of our businesses with you two gentlemen but I do not see much object in discussing our finances. We are separate businesses, and separate concerns we shall continue to be. I told you in London that any idea of an amalgamation made no appeal to me whatever."

"We are here to talk you out of that," Erpingham declared bluntly. "I will be quite frank with you. The scheme Mr. Chancellor has worked out will mean that all three of us will come out of the deal rich men, rich enough to chuck business forever if we want to. There is money lying to our hands here on the British stock exchange. I propose that we help ourselves to it."

Poynton shook his head.

"I'm sorry if you have wasted any of your time with ideas of that sort, Mr. Erpingham. I cannot blame myself. I never gave you any encouragement. My business is not for sale nor am I a buyer of yours or Bauer's."

The three men exchanged glances. An expression of something like consternation was disfiguring Erpingham's bluff and genial poise.

"Say, Poynton," he argued. "I know you were against the idea at first but I thought when we got down here and you had had a talk with Chancellor you would see the matter differently. A single business can't live against an amalgamation. I am using no threats but I doubt if either one of our shows could hold up against an amalgamation of the other two and I see no reason why I should not tell you that Bauer and I have already come to an agreement."

"You are welcome to try and put me out of business if you think you can do it," Poynton challenged.

"There's only one respect," the lawyer piped on in his feeble treble, "in which we should be at a disadvantage. The United States of America and the bourses of Mid-Europe also are short of ready money. The bankers have withdrawn their help from practically all commercial enterprises. A business the head of which, Mr. Poynton, can afford to give away a hundred thousand pounds to his townspeople, as I am told you have done, is a business which would work extraordinarily well with our own just at present. I have a little abstract of figures, Mr. Poynton, I should like to bring before your notice."

"It would not be of the slightest use," was the firm reply. "I have had a great deal of interest and pleasure out of meeting my two fellow manufacturers and I have been glad to welcome them down: here. I think that they will admit that I have been more than ordinarily generous in showing them the inside workings of my Plant. At the same time I hold by what I said. I am not interested in any form of amalgamation on any terms."

Mr. Chancellor leaned back in his chair with a very grave expression. He looked towards Erpingham for inspiration. Erpingham, however, had very little to offer.

"We have been wasting our time then, eh?" Bauer asked peevishly.

"If you have it is your own fault," Poynton reminded him. "I never gave you the least encouragement."

"Come, come," Erpingham protested. "What is there in the scheme which don't fit in with your way of thinking, Poynton? Ours aren't jerry-made businesses. They were world- famous before you were turning out a hundred gross a week. There's nothing against your doing what we have done. You can go out to Bauer and see his plant and you can come out to Lynn and see mine. We have nothing to conceal. All we are aiming at is to cheapen manufacture and to get the big figures. There's plenty of money in the market to-day for investors and with Chancellor working the thing I'll guarantee we can get our price."

"Maybe," Poynton agreed indifferently. "The main point is, though, that I take too much personal interest in my business to hitch it onto two others—one the other side of the ocean and one in a difficult part of Europe. I like to have what's mine under my own eyes. Therefore, gentlemen, as I said before, amalgamation does not appeal to me; Erpingham, help yourself to brandy and you, Bauer, why don't you try one of my cigars?"

"I only smoke cigarettes, thanks," the latter replied a little sulkily.

"For a man who has a great reputation for intelligence, sir," Chancellor squeaked, "your attitude is astonishing."

"Criticise it as much as you like," Poynton invited, "but you can't alter it. I don't need to give you any further reasons than I have given you but I will suggest one thing if you like. Mr. Bauer here admits that on the market his shares are at a discount of thirty per cent. The Erpingham Shoe Company hundred-dollar shares were under seventy yesterday. If my business were incorporated, which it never will be, the shares would certainly be at a premium. What would be the sense, then, of our mixing our businesses up on level terms to each?"

"So that's it, is it?" Erpingham whispered, with an ugly gleam in his eyes.

"That is only a sideshow," their host assured them. "If your shares stood at par instead of at the discount they do, my reply to your offer would be the same."

"Listen," Chancellor interposed, "Mr. Poynton takes too much notice of the vagaries of the stock market, but, after all, I guess there's something to be said for his point of view. The way he puts it the deal is certainly not in his favour. Why shouldn't we be honest and admit it? On paper Poynton's is the stronger position. We might consider equalising this by giving Mr. Poynton an advantage in the distribution of the shares."

"That could be arranged, of course," Erpingham agreed grumpily. "At the same time, friend Poynton, it seems to me you are trying to drive too hard a bargain. Yours is after all only a mushroom business compared to ours."

"Then why the mischief," asked Poynton, "don't you leave me and my mushroom business alone? I have not asked you for offers. In fact I have told you straight that I am not considering any. Let it go at that. Leave me and my business alone. Such as it is it's good enough for me and I'm going to keep it."

There was a disagreeable pause. Chancellor began to roll up his papers.

"Seems to me," he said to Erpingham, "you fellows have got me down here under false pretences."

"False pretences be damned," was the angry retort. "Did you ever know a man before, even a gol-darned Britisher, with a big business deal before him and a million or two to be made, crab the whole thing before he had started to discuss it? I thought our friend here was a man like the rest of us."

"I could have warned you," Chancellor chuckled, as he lit a cigarette and allowed it to droop a little between his unpleasantly yellow teeth. "I have met this type of Britisher before. They don't know what's good for them—nor other people. We have wasted our time, gentlemen, except that you fellows who enjoy it have had an excellent dinner. I propose we catch the night train back to London."

"Might as well," Erpingham growled, finishing off his brandy.

"I'm sorry to seem obstinate," Poynton apologised, ringing the bell. "I made it clear from the first, however, that I was not looking for anything in the way of an amalgamation, and if I were I should not make it with two firms who are so far off that I could not keep the whole business under my eye. I don't like to have you hurry away but you can catch the train to London if you want to. I told my chauffeur to wait in case he was needed."

"We don't want any help of that sort, thank you," Erpingham declared ungraciously. "Bauer has his own machine here."

The perfect butler entered the room and looked enquiringly towards his master.

"These gentlemen would like to leave, Midwood," Poynton explained. "Is their car here?"

"It is at the door, sir," the man announced. "The chauffeur dined half-an-hour ago and is waiting for orders."

Poynton walked with his departing guests to the front entrance. The car was waiting there, the chauffeur at the wheel and the lights flashed out at their arrival.

"Thanks for a good dinner, anyway," Bauer said, with an effort at politeness.

"First drop of decent brandy I have drunk in months," Erpingham admitted. "Well, Mr. Poynton," he added, holding out his hand, "you had a great chance and, given the opportunity, I think we could have satisfied you as to terms. If you change your mind, let us hear from you."

"I certainly will," Poynton promised.

Chancellor scoffed acidly as he took his place in the car.

"I know his type," he confided. "He'll never change his mind. If the world becomes sandal-minded or decides to go barefoot, he will still go on making boots and shoes."

"Something monumental about the fellow, anyway," Bauer commented, as they waved halfhearted farewells.


CHAPTER XIX

POYNTON, little addicted in a general way to self- analysis, began to wonder whether, notwithstanding the confidence with which he had faced life, there was not in his nature a streak of shyness. He had spent his usual hour- and-a-half with Miss Gray and she stood now on the eve of departure, her notebook and the piles of assorted letters in her hands. Throughout the whole of the time, she had made no reference to the previous evening. He realised with a touch of irritation that it was he who would have to cross the seldom traversed borders of their rigidly-preserved relations.

"Your arrangements for last night, Miss Gray," he said, with a shade of added coldness in his tone, "were most successful."

"I am very glad to hear it," she rejoined. "I hope that the three gentlemen have gone back to London."

"They caught the night train," he confided.

"I didn't like them," she said.

"Why?"

"I felt from the first they were only down here to pick your brains. I was terrified lest you might have been induced to enter into some sort of business negotiations with them."

"There was no fear of that," he assured her.

"It was what they wanted, wasn't it?" she persisted.

He nodded.

"Yes," he admitted. "You were quite right. They would have liked an amalgamation. They actually had the cheek to bring their lawyer down to draw up what they called a provisional agreement. It would not, however, have appealed to me on any terms, so the matter is ended."

Her fingers played for a moment with her white throat. He had an idea that notwithstanding her studied composure she was really more nervous than he was. In the end she took the plunge.

"Mr. Poynton," she said, "you are so much occupied in the details of this enormous business of yours I sometimes think that you don't pay sufficient attention to the smaller things of life."

"As for instance?" he demanded.

"The way you live. The domestic service at The Grange," she replied. "You should be served always as you were last night. Mr. and Mrs. Greatson are old servants without a doubt. You could keep Mrs. Greatson as housekeeper if you wished to, otherwise I think you should give them a pension."

"So you think that, do you?" he murmured thoughtfully.

"I do. You are, after all, the most important man in the town. You are probably the wealthiest. You should, I think, extend your establishment and spend more money upon yourself."

He looked at her steadily.

"You know, I suppose," he said, "that I am going to ask you to leave in a month?"

"I knew I was running a risk, of course," she confessed. "I don't think you will do that, though. You are a just man. You know that I have spoken out of consideration for you."

"What sort of consideration?"

For the first time, she hesitated. There was a slight tinge of colour in her cheeks. She seemed more relieved than otherwise when Young made hasty entrance.

"I beg your pardon, sir," he apologised. "Lord Frederick Manningham is on the telephone. I thought you might like to speak to him yourself."

Poynton nodded and took up the receiver of his private instrument.

"I will finish what I was saying when you bring the letters to sign, Miss Gray," he announced.

The two juniors left the room. Poynton listened to the pleasant voice addressing him.

"Is that Mr. Poynton? Good morning, sir."

"Good morning, Lord Frederick."

"Hope I am not breaking in on anything terribly important," the young man went on. "I just wanted to know— do you ever go to the Repository?"

"Very seldom," Poynton admitted. "I am not much of a judge of a horse and if I want one I generally let Mr. Bade see about it for me."

"There's a horse to be sold on Saturday, absolutely the finest creature I ever saw up to your weight. He's by Tomorrow out of Red Rachel. Finest stock in the country, as of course you know. He is too much for any ordinary man to handle—only suitable for someone who rides a heavy weight, has a wrist of iron and really knows something of horsemanship. He was brought in to-day while I was there and they are all crazy about him down at the yard. Take a look at him, sir. You might search all England for a horse to suit you and never find anything like him."

"Very kind of you," Poynton admitted. "When is the sale?"

"To-morrow, Saturday, eleven o'clock sharp," the young man answered eagerly. "If you like I will introduce you to Major Castleton, who bred him. I ought to tell you, perhaps, he will fetch a great deal of money, if he is sold at all."

"I'll have a look at him, anyway," Poynton promised.

"Can I call and take you down to the Repository so that you don't forget?" Manningham went on. "Don't think me intrusive or that I have anything to do with the horse because I haven't, but Castleton is rather by way of being a pal of mine and directly he told me he was sending Black Peter along I thought of you. I know you ride fine animals but that bay of yours is a little stocky. You have to have that build, of course, to carry your weight, but this horse has all the strength and yet is as beautiful as a picture."

"Call here at a quarter to eleven if you would like to go with me," Poynton suggested.

"Make it half past ten, if you don't mind," the other begged. "Bades are ghastly people for punctuality and you want to have a look at the horse before you decide to bid for him."

"All right," Poynton agreed. "I will be ready about that time. Lady Ursula is well, I hope?"

"She's quite fit," the young man replied. "Still trying to make up her mind about Cannes. I wrote her the day before yesterday and told her that she ought to come and see the bluebells in the home wood—acres of them. She might run down for the week-end."

Poynton made an unintelligible sound and hung up. For a quite unusual space of time he sat at his table, his face turned towards the open window through which he caught a glimpse of the hills on the other side of the town. He found himself in the rare humour for speculation rather than concrete thought. During the last few weeks events, in themselves unimportant, seemed to be changing in some subtle way the fabric of his existence. He was puzzled at the nature of these trifles. His luncheon within the sacred portals of the County Club. The deference paid to him by these great rivals in his own industry. Violet Gray's suggestions. The idea of buying a horse for a large sum of money. And in the background that passionate adventure which had brought the first real thrill into his life. These things by themselves were nothing, yet linked together they seemed to suggest some vital and impending change. They were like splashes of brilliant and unusual colour traced by invisible fingers into the pattern of his life....


Violet Gray was back in the room again. He was dimly conscious of her soft movements. As she leaned over his desk he turned his head and caught sight of her slim capable lingers searching amongst the neat pile of papers. He watched the graceful lines of her body as she leaned forward interested in her search, apparently unaware of his surveillance. Somehow or other he had a dim fancy that she was connected with the change which had been stealing over him. He was angrily conscious that he was looking upon her with new eyes. A paragraph in one of the novels which his Town Clerk's daughter had selected for him flashed into his mind—someone sneering at the dinner table at a man in whom the sex instinct had been awakened only in his later years. He rose impatiently and resumed his seat, which was within a few feet of where Miss Gray was standing.

"So you want me to make changes in my establishment," he remarked abruptly.

"I think that you ought to," she admitted.

A cyclone of activity seemed to descend upon the place. Two telephones were ringing simultaneously. Young had entered hurriedly and was waiting to speak. The Manager of the upper department, a very important man, was there with a sheaf of costings in his hand. Violet Gray had found the letter she desired and was moving towards the door. His tone arrested her immediate attention. It was one of his peculiarities that he never seemed to call out to summon anyone. He seemed to have the gift of adding an extra penetration without raising his voice.

"I shall be engaged in town business all the afternoon, Miss Gray. If there are any of the letters you or Young think I ought to sign personally, bring or send them to the house."

She murmured an inaudible assent and took her leave. Poynton plunged into the serious business of the day.

At six o'clock, seated in the chair of state in the Mayor's Parlour, he brought to a successful termination a meeting of the Borough Finance Committee. Priestley and he lingered in their places for the customary ritual after the others had departed. Midwood served them with a bottle of the old sherry.

"I don't suppose there's a borough of our size," the Town Clerk remarked, "whose financial position is so sound. You and I ought to congratulate ourselves, Poynton. You, of course, are the man who is chiefly responsible."

"In a way, yes," the latter admitted, "but you must remember there is not one of your departments that does not show up well. I think we ought to be able to get our water loan at 3 1/4 or 3 1/2."

"All very satisfactory," Priestley sighed. "I shall be a very unhappy man if ever I feel it my duty to leave Mechester."

The Mayor raised his eyebrows in gentle admonition.

"My dear fellow," he exclaimed, "you haven't any idea of the sort, I trust?"

Priestley sipped his wine slowly and thoughtfully. He swung what was left round in his glass and raised it to the light.

"No definite idea," he admitted, "but you must remember I'm a family man. That sometimes puts one in a difficult position."

"I don't see what difference it makes," Poynton expostulated. "Your wife and daughters like the place, don't they?"

His companion nodded.

"They like it all right. But you see, my friend, you're a bachelor so you scarcely understand, but there it is. I have two unmarried daughters."

"Very charming girls," the Mayor remarked. "What about them?"

"They're unmarried."

"Well, they're bound to marry someday, I suppose."

"But are they?" Priestley queried, "As a father I am bound to ask myself—am I giving them the best chance? They have been here since they were children. They were educated here, I gave them the usual turn abroad in Belgium, they came back and settled down, joined the tennis club—the golf. I have given dances for them, they go to heaps of parties, they have seen most of their girl friends married. There is not an eligible young man in the town they don't know and there they are—both spinsters, Laura twenty-nine and Connie twenty-two."

Poynton, not being a family man, was a little puzzled.

"Well," he said, "the right man hasn't come along, I suppose, just yet. You can't help that."

The Town Clerk stroked his meagre side whiskers.

"You see," he continued, "I take my responsibilities as a parent rather seriously. If you have boys, well you have to see that they get a good education, start them well in life, help them along if they don't hit it the first time, and stick at it until you see that they're doing some good. Harold I had a little trouble with but he's all right now— fixed up and doing well. The girls—well, I've given them everything a father could, except one thing."

"What's that?"

"Change of surroundings. They know all the young men here. They have taken stock of one another and nothing has happened. I sometimes ask myself whether it is not my duty to move on to another town where they would meet an entirely fresh set of people."

"Seems rather a serious thing that, Priestley," his friend protested. "You are what? Fifty-eight?"

"Yes, somewhere about that," the Town Clerk assented.

"You are well placed here, safe for an excellent pension, popular and with heaps of friends. It is a serious thing to pull up stakes, if you will forgive my saying so, at your time of life."

"That's what I tell myself," was the eager rejoinder. "Their mother won't have it. She thinks I ought to move for the girls' sakes. I suppose at the back of their minds they have the same idea."

"Take them up to London more," Poynton suggested.

"What good is that likely to do? We stay at an hotel. They meet no one. We go to the theatres. They yawn. We meet no one. Girls don't have the club life, you see, that we men have. They must have social life to meet the other sex and the only place they can get that is in the town where they live."

"Take longer holidays," Poynton proposed. "You could easily do that. Leave them behind when you come away. Stay at one of these big hotels."

Priestley's face darkened.

"I have done that once or twice," he admitted. "It has not been an entire success. The young men they meet at those places, so far as my experience goes, are not everything they should be, and I am afraid my wife is not the most discerning woman in the world. I have saved a little money, of course, and they will each have something but—well, it's a difficult question, Poynton. I don't know why I bore you with it—a bachelor. I suppose it is the dim idea that I might have to be pushing on some time."

"I wouldn't think of it," Poynton advised. "Matrimony is a queer business it seems to me from the outside. It might come any time. If it doesn't come naturally I shouldn't think you could force it. Half a glass—yes?"

He poured a little more sherry into his friend's goblet. The Town Clerk had the air of a man in some measure reassured.

"Of course I have pretty well the same idea as you, Poynton," he confided. "I think if that sort of thing comes, it comes unexpectedly. Might come any moment. A meeting in a train—a visitor at a bazaar, a lawn-tennis party—anyhow. I hate the idea of pulling up stakes and carting my family to another town just because my girls don't marry, but you know when you have girls and they get to be the age of mine, it's the devil if they don't. I have always been broadminded about it but there are things no father can tolerate. I can't get a young man by the scruff of the neck and bring him to the house. I can't buy 'em husbands, dammit."

"Don't worry too much about it," Poynton advised him. "As you say, I am only a bachelor and perhaps I have no outlook."

"What the devil has induced you to remain a bachelor all these years?" Priestley demanded. "I'm not talking personally but why the devil don't you marry someone and set a good example? I have never known this borough without a Mayoress and you are not one of the loose sort either—never a word of gossip, no furtive visits to London or Paris, yet you are a man if ever there was one. Twenty years younger than I am, worse luck, and still a bachelor."

"We are all made differently, I suppose," the Mayor remarked. "I may surprise you all some day."


Might he, he wondered as he drove home, at first through the crowded streets, then along the broad road with its line of electric lights and screeching tramcars, then up the country lane and into his own drive. There was a cheerless air about his hall. The furniture, he thought, as he took off his own coat—Greatson was engaged somewhere for the moment—the furniture was too modern, the imitation antique oak chest too obviously from the carpenter's shop.

He passed into his study. The fire had just been made up and the room was a little cold. Mrs. Greatson came hurrying in, wiping her hands on her apron.

"A bit before your time, aren't you, sir?" she remarked aggrievedly.

"I don't know," he answered. "I came when I was ready. Give the fire a poke, for God's sake, Mrs. Greatson, and where arc the papers?"

"I expect Greatson has them in the kitchen," she replied. "I'll see that he brings them in directly. I've got a fillet of veal for your dinner. How's that?"

"Oh, anything," was the brusque rejoinder. "No hurry though."

"You'll not trouble to change your clothes to-night, sir, I'm thinking."

Poynton glanced at his watch.

"I shall change," he decided, "and please tell Greatson not to put me out a white tic with a short coat another time. I shall take a bath and go into the gym for a quarter- of-an-hour. I have had no exercise to-day and I'm stiff."

Mrs. Greatson sighed.

"Greatson is stiff, too," she remarked, "but it's with rheumatism. He's getting too old for those cellar steps. I'll send the girl down for the wine if you'll tell me what you will be drinking."

"Claret," Poynton told her. "Send her down now so that it gets the temperature of the room."

"No company to dinner, is there?" Mrs. Greatson asked.

"Certainly not," Poynton replied. "I always tell you when there is. Send Greatson up to get my room ready."

The woman withdrew mumbling. Poynton chuckled as he remembered the cartoons in Punch illustrating "The Millionaire at Home."

"Damned if I don't believe that girl is right," he reflected as he climbed the stairs.


CHAPTER XX

AFTERWARDS Poynton looked back upon that evening, in itself uneventful, as marking one of the crises of his life. The service of dinner to begin with inspired him with an irritated sense of dissatisfaction. Greatson had sent his excuses. His rheumatism was bad. Mrs. Greatson, serving the wine, which was much too cold, complained that their room was damp and that the coal nowadays gave no heat. The girl who waited at table annoyed him by her clumsiness and by the fixed way she stared at him between the courses. He was thankful when at last he was able to leave the table and make his way to the study. He was thankful too for the sound of the doorbell a few minutes afterwards. He sat forward in his easy chair, listening. In a moment or two the door was opened. Mrs. Greatson appeared.

"It's the young lady from the Works, sir," she announced without enthusiasm. "Do you wish her shown in here?"

"At once," was the brusque reply.

There was a brief pause, then the door opened and Violet Gray entered. As usual she was almost unnaturally still and reserved. Her greeting was scarcely spoken. She laid her satchel upon the table.

"May I take my hat and coat off?" she asked.

"Of course you can," he acquiesced.

She hung them on the back of a chair. Poynton, who was becoming observant, noticed that she had changed her frock. It was still black but of a thinner material and fitted her slim boyish figure more closely. She came over towards the fire.

"You will have some coffee?" he invited.

"I should love it."

He half rose to get her a chair but she was already seated. She seemed to have acquired a habit of swiftness in all her movements which yet left no impression of haste.

"Anything important?" he asked.

"Nothing worth bothering you about except there are three letters for you to sign."

"You need not have troubled to bring them yourself," he said.

She smiled very slightly.

"I wanted to come," she confided, "The letters were just an excuse."

He rose to his feet and stood for a moment upon the hearthrug.

"Well, since you are here," he begged, "have a more comfortable chair."

He wheeled one up to the opposite side of the fireplace. She sank into it with an air of relief.

"Thank you," she murmured. "I believe I'm really tired to-night."

"Then you certainly ought not to have come out here."

"It's not that sort of fatigue," she assured him.

The maid brought in the coffee and served it clumsily. As soon as she had left the room Poynton asked his visitor a question.

"What sort of fatigue is it then?"

"The fatigue of irritating circumstances," she replied, helping herself to a cigarette from the box which he had passed her. "I always worry more about other people than myself, you know. I think you ought to change your entourage."

"Perhaps you think, like Mr. Priestley, that I ought to marry?"

"I'm not sure that marriage with you would be a success. It might be. It depends upon the woman. I suppose Mr. Priestley would like you to marry his daughter."

"I believe he would," Poynton admitted. "That was the theme of his conversation to-night—the difficulty a devoted father has with his offspring when they reach the marriageable age."

She smiled.

"I hope you were sympathetic."

"How could I be? I know nothing about it."

"I think some day you ought to marry," she said, "but never a Miss Priestley."

"In the meantime," he asked, "what is wrong with my entourage?"

"Everything," she pointed out. "The idea of that girl daring to wait upon you at dinner time with no cap. Even Mrs. Greatson's apron wasn't clean and her husband, she tells me, has rheumatism in his knees and won't be able to work for days. What a household!"

"I agree," he assented. "Supposing I put it into your hands."

"I will change it for you if you like," she acquiesced. "I am your official secretary after all. All I ask from you is that you pension off Mr. and Mrs. Greatson. I'll do the rest. And you need not be afraid," she added, looking across at him with an expression in her face which he failed to define, "you need not be afraid that I should have designs upon you. You know, of course, the first canon in the prayer book of modern life—a man may not marry his secretary, his typist or any labourer for his welfare."

"I didn't know it," he confessed, "Sounds a trifle unfair."

"Neither did I! But I'm rather lightheaded to-night. I feel like talking nonsense. I'm glad you hadn't a lot of serious work."

"While you arc in the vein," he proposed, "tell me what you are going to do for me."

"I'm going to engage Midwood and his wife to live in the house, or two people very similar," she announced, "and I shall have a second man—they're very much better than too many women—and of course a kitchen maid for Mrs. Midwood. Then you will have to have a housemaid, but I shall choose one of a different class from the young person who waited on you at dinner time. Then I shall send to a little art place I know of in Chelsea and get patterns for new curtains, which I shall allow you to choose for yourself, but in consultation with me. I should like to make a rubbish heap of every piece of furniture in your hall and a good deal that is in your dining room. I have not seen your upstairs rooms but I expect they are frightful too."

"Where did you learn all this?" he asked.

"My only other occupation before I came to you was to help a friend who was a designer of furniture," she told him. "They deal in brocades and things, too. They have a place in Bond Street you ought to visit some time when you are in London. Then this room is supposed to be your study, isn't it?"

"It is," he admitted.

"I should have it lined with bookcases," she told him, "and have all that gimcrack furniture taken out. I hate the idea of anyone buying books wholesale but there is a wonderful secondhand shop in High Street here, you know, and there are a lot of the standard classics which should be in every home. You can afford to get them in the proper editions and as long as they are not offensive to look at they always make atmosphere. Then you badly need a man's desk or writing table—something in mahogany or rosewood— you should send that wretched commercial-looking affair back to the Works. Also—but of course your parlour-maid will see to that—you ought to have flowers every day. I nearly brought some to-night myself."

"Wouldn't it be simpler, after all, to get married?" he asked.

"I shouldn't advise you to just yet," she answered, edging her chair nearer to the fire and sinking a little lower in it.

"Why not?"

"If I told you," she reflected, "you might be offended."

"I promise you I won't."

"Well, it's difficult," she pondered. "Some day or other you will be a different sort of man when you have perhaps travelled more, read differently, shaken off the shackles of this very middle-class life. Then you will probably meet a woman whom you would care to marry and who will want to marry you. If you married now you would probably choose the wrong type. The right type would not appreciate you. You would move on and there would be trouble."

"You are a candid young woman, aren't you?" he observed.

"I suppose so. That's why I always stand still in life. I tell the truth with too little provocation."

"What do you mean by standing still? Where do you want to move to?"

"I should not object to marriage," she meditated, "but I would rather have a lover if he were the man I wanted. I certainly would not like to marry Mr. Young nor should I care about a villa in Stonegate. I want to move but it must be just in the direction I envisage for myself. Why do you look at me like that?"

"I am wondering how the devil you came to be my secretary," he answered.

"Grim want," she assured him. "I had an uncle who lived here, you know."

"I didn't know it."

"Yes, he was a doctor. I came down here to nurse him through his last illness and he died but didn't leave a penny. He had so many creditors that there was not even enough to pay my fare back to London. I bought the local paper and applied for a post. The first three visits I paid were awful. Then I came to you and you treated me so rudely that I felt confidence in you."

"I remember," he acknowledged thoughtfully. "I was in a bad temper that morning."

"Anyhow, I have been with you altogether seven years," she reminded him, "and I have had my salary raised three times."

"Glad to hear it," he replied. "Do you want it raised again?"

"Not just yet, thank you," she said. "I have enough to live on and to buy the few books I want. That's quite enough for a time. Someday something good will happen to me—I have always been sure of that—then I shall travel."

"Where?" he asked.

"Italy—France—the other side of the Suez Canal if I can get there. Italy, more than any place near home, I think."

"And meanwhile," he meditated, "you are an expert shorthand writer and typist—at how much a week?"

"Four pounds ten," she told him. "It is quite a good deal, but then I am the only one who knows French, Italian and German."

"When you begin to arrange my house for me that will be extra, I suppose?" he asked with an unaccustomed twinkle in his eyes.

"I am hoping so," she replied. "I have no false modesty. I never refuse what I feel I am entitled to have. I could make you much more comfortable and change your surroundings altogether. You are very rich. Certainly I think you might pay me for it. In time I might alter your whole outlook or mode of life. You would probably hate the idea of it now yet it would be good for you. It would stop your getting selfish and prepare you for marriage."

There was an unusually prolonged silence. Against his will he found himself gazing with a curious sort of admiration at her long slender limbs stretched out towards the fire, her long arms balanced upon the sides of her chair and her hands drooping towards the warmth. Perhaps, too, it was the firelight which shone in her eyes. They held just that misty luminous softness which comes sometimes after tears.

"Tell me," he asked abruptly, "just what you are thinking about."

She shook her head.

"I was longing for something," she confessed, "only it is so difficult, so far off."

"You seem capable of getting most things you want in life," he remarked.

"It is so much easier for men," she lamented. "Perhaps for one thing they are so definite, perhaps for another they seldom want things that they can't reach. You are one of the successful men of the world, you know, my dear employer, aren't you?"

"I suppose so," he admitted.

"That is because you have wanted the things that are within the grasp of every man of your ability," she told him. "You have the gift of seizing what you want. Perhaps I have the misfortune of wanting what I have not the gift to win."

"Beyond me," he sighed. "I am a successful man, of course. I don't pretend to deny it."

"And beyond that?"

"Well, I don't know," he replied. "What is there beyond success?"

"Being happy," she answered.

"Well, if I'm not happy I don't know who should be."

"But are you?" she persisted.

He thought for a moment and the lines in his face deepened.

"I'm certainly not unhappy," he protested, with a curious note of belligerency in his tone.

"You will be some day," she assured him. "There is something left out of your life. When you discover the need of it and stretch out your hands and draw them back again empty, then you may perhaps know what unhappiness really is."

"What is it that I shall fail to find?" he demanded.

"Oh, you may not fail," she evaded him. "You may be fortunate."

"But what is it?"

"Affection—sympathy—love—if you like to call it that. Someone else in the world to think about besides yourself, your splendid factories, thunderous machinery which shakes the earth, and your huge bank account."

"I suppose," he said doubtfully, still with that underlying note of resentment in his tone, "I could find affection if I felt the need of it."

"Yes," she agreed, "but the point is that you will never be happy until you do feel the need of it. Look at these other men—"

"What other men?"

"Well, Nicolas Young for one," she said. "Mr. Harbutt, your respectable Borough Surveyor for another. Mr. Mason, your Senior Alderman. Mr. Burden, your Manager."

"I don't understand," he confessed blankly. "Harbutt is an elderly married man. Young could marry whenever he liked. Burden's private life I know nothing of. Mason is a rather crusty old bachelor."

She looked at him thoughtfully. He felt that in some way she was questioning his sincerity.

"I believe in some things," she said at last, "you are a very simple-minded person. I wonder why that seems so attractive.... Tell me, did it enter into your head to wonder whether I were coming to-night?"

"Yes," he answered promptly.

"Did you wish that I was coming?"

"Yes," he admitted grudgingly.

"Well, that may be the beginning," she decided, with a curious little smile at the corners of her lips. "What you need to make you happy is the wish for someone to be coming, to feel that there is someone in the world who makes you happier."

"You are going back to the old question of marriage and that sort of thing?"

"Don't be a fool," she mocked.

He stared at her bewildered. No man or woman in the world had ever dared to say such words to him. She was still smiling slightly, quite unmoved, not in the least afraid of her millionaire employer.

"Forgive me," she begged. "It is your own fault that you have made me talk to you like a human being. You needed it. It has been very good for you. I will tell you a little more of the life around you and you can think about it. Mr. Harbutt, your Borough Surveyor, who is always in debt, owes so much money because he has an extravagant mistress. Mr. Nicolas Young, your prim Works Secretary, has been living with Miss Lilian Barcomb, the typist with the beautiful chestnut hair in the room beyond mine, for two years. Even your old man Mason has a penchant for one of the machine girls and pays her regular visits, and I should think no one in his stupid animal way is more of the Lothario than your Mr. Burden. These people do not think of nothing but marriage all their lives. Affection is just a flower that grows in one's garden or it doesn't. It brings a lot of happiness, I suppose, and it brings a great deal of loneliness."

Poynton for the moment felt stupefied yet it never occurred to him to doubt the truth of what she said. He seemed even to realise what those people meant who, notwithstanding his magnificent gifts to charity, and his constant labours for the welfare of the town, called him a hard man.

"Well, you are teaching me things," he confessed a little awkwardly.

"I am afraid not," she answered. "The great lessons are not taught this way. I can teach you the shell. I cannot teach you to feel."

Without a word she rose suddenly to her feet and came towards his chair. She leaned over him.

"I wonder," she speculated. "Would you like me for your companion and good genius to set your house in order and to make the house of your mind seemly? I wonder."

He took her hands and held them tightly. They were soft and unresisting. They crept around his neck. The perfumed sweetness of her was intoxicating. Her tense body lay for a moment in his arms. A new passion of sensuousness swept through him for a moment as their lips met. Then he rose to his feet, although she was still clinging to him.

"You must forgive me," he begged. "You know I am an utter fool at this sort of thing—at feeling—sentiment—but I have felt it once—it may never come again or it may. It may come for you or it may come for someone else. If you ask me whether I want—"

She drew away. Her cool hand rested for a moment upon his lips.

"You shan't say it," she interrupted. "We have experimented in emotions almost too far, but it's interesting. Like me, won't you, just a little? And I would put your house in order if it were not that Mr. Young is going to give me a month's notice to-morrow."

He looked reproachfully down at her. Tall though she was, he was at least a head taller. He gripped her by the shoulders and she gave a sigh of relief as she saw that his face had softened, that suddenly a measure at any rate of apprehension had come to him.

"My dear," he complained, "that is the only thing you have said that is not quite worthy of you. Will you forget it, please?"

"You want me to stay?"

"I do. I want very much a measure of your companionship. I want perhaps to be your pupil in some things. You are the only person who has ever made me feel lamentably ignorant concerning—well, I suppose one might call it the textbook of life."

She laughed as he walked by her side towards the door and helped her on with her coat. She peered into the mirror as she arranged her hat. He led her down the hall and opened the front door. The rain beat in their faces.

"Heavens!" he exclaimed. "Come back at once, child. I'll have the car out directly."

She slipped out of his grasp. He caught a glimpse of her figure and her flying feet in the avenue.

"I love it," she answered. "Good night."


CHAPTER XXI

"GOING at seventeen hundred guineas to His Worshipful the Mayor," dapper Mr. Bade announced from his rostrum in the Mechester Repository on Saturday morning. "The finest animal I have had the pleasure of submitting this season and the most generous price. No further bids, gentlemen?"

The hammer descended. A little crowd gathered round the exceptionally beautiful animal that had just been sold. Its late owner disengaged himself from the group to shake hands with Poynton.

"Never had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr. Mayor," he said, "but I should like to congratulate you on your purchase. I would have kept him but he's wasted on anyone in my household."

"I never saw a horse I liked the looks of better," Poynton confessed. "I see my groom is talking to yours. If he fetches him away this afternoon I suppose that will be all right?"

"Any time. If you don't mind my saying so, Mr. Mayor, I thoroughly enjoyed watching your canter round. You have one of those very rare things for a man of your build and strength—a natural seat. Black Peter seemed to know it, too. Never saw him move better."

"He will be a great pleasure to me," Poynton declared.

"Do ride him up Beacon Hill before I go back again," Lady Ursula begged. "He's a bigger horse than Grey Prince, isn't he?"

"There's not much in it, so far as measurement goes," Poynton replied. "I like his chest and his general build better, though."

"Are you selling Grey Prince?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"Your brother seems determined to make me join the hunt next year," he said, "so I must have another reliable beast to fall back upon. I know Grey Prince is good at timber but of course I haven't tried my purchase of this morning."

"I shall be awfully glad if you do hunt," Ursula told him. "I'm sure you will enjoy it and I expect you will be as bad as any of us talking over the run afterwards," she added with a smile.

"I'm afraid I am a little old for new enthusiasms," Poynton observed.

She looked at him in horror.

"Don't dare to say so," she exclaimed. "You have not been properly enthusiastic about me yet. Too old at thirty- eight!"

"Perhaps I have not always dared to tell you exactly how enthusiastic I am about you," he confided.

"It seems sad," she said, looking at him with one of her unreadable smiles, "that you—a man with great bones and sinews and muscles—should be so lacking in courage."

"There's more than one sort of courage," he reminded her hesitatingly.

Freddy, who had just concluded a satisfactory interview with Major Castleton, came over to them jaunty and smiling.

"Ursula, I think it's up to us to entertain the Mayor," he declared. "What about lunching at The Bell? Castleton would like to come along."

"I'm starving," Ursula confessed.

"Would you all like to come and have a cocktail or a glass of sherry at the Mayor's Parlour first?" Poynton suggested. "Your friend, Major Castleton, too, of course."

Ursula clung to his arm.

"Dearest of men," she exclaimed, "there's nothing I should like so much! The Fates may have forgotten to make me beautiful but they did make me very greedy. I cannot drink bad cocktails, and the memory of your sherry is still intriguing my palate."

"What's that—sherry?" Castleton observed, who had just strolled up. "Grand wine."

"Well, there's nothing more in the catalogue that I want to see," Ursula declared. "Nothing but a few crocks and children's ponies. What about going?"

"Excellent," Poynton agreed. "I'll just hand my cheque over to Mr. Bade. I suppose you all have cars? Plenty of room in mine if you haven't."

They were a very cheerful little party when they trooped into the quaint but stately room. Midwood, spick-and-span, was awaiting them and everyone was lost in admiration of the beautiful Jacobean sideboard with its row of decanters, the richly-chased silver dishes of hors d'oeuvres and the beautifully-cut glasses.

"By Jove!" Castleton exclaimed as he munched a perfect salted almond and noted the date upon an empty bottle. "When is there a vacancy for your Town Council, Mr. Mayor, and how long would it take me to get to the inner circles?"

"There's not much competition," Poynton assured him. "The only thing is we have rather a lot of cumbersome Aldermen who have to take their turn, and as one or two of them are rabid water drinkers I'm afraid there might be a dull interregnum. Midwood, you are sure you have served Lady Ursula with the Amontillado?"

"I decanted it myself this morning, your worship," Midwood answered. "You will see the empty bottle upon the sideboard. Her Ladyship has just approved of it."

"It's marvellous," she declared.

They sat about in the richly-carved chairs upholstered in worn but priceless damask. Midwood, bland and imposing, never lost a minute in filling an empty glass and his satellite was shaking dry Martinis which moved Lord Frederick to enthusiasm. Through the diamond-paned window a streak of sunshine played with magic streaks of light upon Ursula's beautiful hair and lit up softly the beauty of the room.

"I feel that we are living in a different century," she murmured. "The only thing is your butler is so perfect. Don't you have difficulty in keeping him?"

"I have just stolen him myself," Poynton confided. "He and his wife, who is reputed to be a very wonderful cook, are coming to me the first of next month."

"Well, I congratulate you," Ursula declared warmly. "Won't you miss them here, though?"

"They're rather wasted," Poynton explained. "It's not often we have people in who appreciate things as you do and our civic banquets are very simple affairs. My only trouble is that I am afraid I shall be rather appalled by Midwood. I dine alone about three or four nights in the week."

"I don't think you would ever be really appalled by anyone," Lady Ursula pronounced. "I have noticed a change in you lately, though," she went on. "You have lost something of that almost swashbuckling courage of mind and voice. I would still sooner have you close at hand than any man I have ever known if I came across another gentleman like Gipsy Marrables, but there's something—"

"I know what it is," Freddy interrupted. "I came down from town with Mr. Poynton the other day and I noticed he had a season ticket. I think he's seeing life in London!"

"The season ticket ought not to give me away," Poynton complained. "Even the heads of my departments who are connected with the buying or selling have free season tickets presented them by the Company. I don't think I use mine once in a fortnight."

"There's something," Ursula persisted. "Some change."

The others had moved on to examine one of the portraits on the wall. Poynton leaned down towards her.

"Perhaps if you tried," he said, "you could make a better guess at what it is."

"I really believe," she confessed, looking up at him, "that I have been putting off my visit to Cannes day by day hoping that I might hear from you."

"I'm afraid you will have to put it off a little longer now," he remarked.

"Why?" she asked. "You don't want me to go?"

"His Royal Majesty Georgius Rex is very much against it," he told her.

She looked at him with a puzzled frown. It was not exactly what she expected to hear.

"What do you mean?"

"I was afraid you might have forgotten, although the lawyer assures me that you have had all the proper notices. It is the Assizes—that fellow Marrables, you know."

"Do you mean to say I have to go to that?" she protested.

"My dear Lady Ursula, how do you suppose the man is going to be tried unless we are there to give evidence against him? Besides, we are both subpoenaed. We shall have to face the most alarming penalties if we don't appear and Marrables would get off scot free."

"Disgusting fellow," she murmured. "But honestly, Mr. Poynton," she went on, holding his arm for a moment, "you are omnipotent here. Can't you arrange that I write a nice letter and explain just what happened?"

"No written evidence would be of the slightest value," he assured her. "I'm afraid you may as well make up your mind to it, Lady Ursula. You will have to be there. I understand there is no defence so it will only mean a matter of a few minutes in the witness box."

"It will end by your having to take me to Cannes yourself," she warned him.

It seemed to him there was everything that a woman could offer in the way of unspoken invitation in the pale blue eyes challenging his. If only he dared! And he did.

"We might go there for our—"

"We people are starving," Freddy's querulous voice interposed. "Couldn't we make a move?"

"Finish your sentence," she demanded imperatively.

"Oh, let him finish it after lunch," Castleton begged. "If we stay here any longer our behaviour at the hotel will give cause for scandal."

"I'm sorry," Poynton apologised. "If you're sure you won't have another glass of sherry let me lead the way."


Lunch at the principal hotel in the town was a very pleasant function. The place was full of townspeople whose salutations Poynton had to acknowledge during the whole of the time. There was gossip, of course, about his guests. Mrs. Priestley, who was lunching with her husband and Laura, disapproved.

"I think the Mayor of a borough like ours," she said, "should find his friends amongst the townspeople. It's so like some of our wealthy men. They hunt a little or take a shoot and build a big house miles away from Mechester and before you know it they're County and begin to drop out of your bridge parties and little home dinners. I could mention half-a-dozen like it. The Mayor of a place like Mechester should be above that sort of thing."

"I think he is," her husband observed. "You know, of course, why he is friendly with the Beaumanor crowd. He saved Lady Ursula from a horrible situation. You will read all about it next week. It's coming on at the Assizes."

Laura sighed a little wistfully.

"I think for once all those stupid society papers are right," she said. "I think Lady Ursula is one of the most beautiful women in England."

"I should say there might be another reason for that friendship, too," Mrs. Priestley remarked tartly. "I suppose the Mayor had something to do with buying all that Derbyshire land of the Bledburys for the water scheme."

The Town Clerk was very nearly angry. He spoke more slowly than usual and very distinctly.

"Alice," he said, "you are unfair and untruthful. Poynton was against the scheme. He ruled it out altogether until we discovered that there was something wrong with two of the others. The Bledbury scheme imposed itself upon us simply because it was the best. As I said before—so far as any favouritism from the Mayor is concerned he opposed it."

"Well, I think he ought to stay amongst his own people," Mrs. Priestley declared, with the air of one summing up a discussion....


Other people were kindlier in their criticisms. Poynton, whose new tailor was something of an artist and had taken every advantage of his new client's carte blanche, had certainly been made into an altered man. His clothes, though unobtrusive, were of the best cut and pattern. His shirts and ties had a different air. At the head of the table he was the most imposing figure of a man in the room. Major Castleton summed up what a great many people were thinking when the time came presently for farewells. Poynton, in his Rolls Royce coupe, was already almost out of sight.

"My dear Freddy," he said, "apart from having sold my geegee very well—thanks to you—I have never been more impressed by a man in my life than by your friend the Mayor."

"Isn't that nice of you?" Ursula exclaimed. "I must warn you that he is a great friend of mine, and I too think he's wonderful."

"If we had been lunching at the Ritz," Castleton continued, "or Embassy, half the women in the room would have been dying to know who he was. He might be anything from an emperor to a great politician. There is not a person would ever guess that he was the Mayor of a manufacturing borough."

"We people," Ursula remarked, "are more than a little hidebound. Everybody meets everybody nowadays. Education is better at the Board Schools than at the Varsity. Culture has become a matter of personal reflection, wider contacts. I think we are stupid to be so surprised at finding a man with an irreproachable presence in Mr. Poynton's position."

"Very pretty," Castleton conceded dubiously, "but after all, you must admit that the fellow is a bit exceptional."

The three strolled together through the crowded streets towards the County Club. Presently Castleton left them. Ursula looked curiously at her brother.

"What's the matter, Freddy?" she asked. "Backed a loser yesterday or what?"

"I backed a loser all right," he admitted. "Listen, Ursula. You know I was behind you others this morning and was last out of the factory? You and Poynton had gone on."

"I thought you had rather clumsily arranged that for some reason or other," she observed.

"Well, I had," he confessed. "I don't suppose you have ever noticed her but there's a little girl there—Poynton's secretary—a still, demure-looking little thing. Never smiles or gives you the glad eye or anything of that sort."

"I remember her," Ursula acknowledged. "Much too attractive for her position, I think."

"Well, I thought I would give her the treat of her life," Freddy went on ruefully. "You are quite right. I did hang behind this morning on purpose. I asked her if she would dine with me if I came in any night next week."

Ursula's eyebrows were gently lifted.

"My dear Freddy," she protested. "So near home!"

"Well, I asked her anyway. What do you chink she said? No! And it wasn't an ordinary no. She not only looked as though she meant it but she looked as though she were annoyed with me for asking her. That's enough to throw a cloud over a fellow's day, isn't it?"

Ursula laughed gaily.

"It's just those little setbacks, Freddy," she said, "that save you from being the most conceited young man I ever knew. Do you good, my lad. I shall look at that girl when I see her again with a new respect."

"The worst of sisters," Freddy muttered, "is that they are so damned unsympathetic with their own kith and kin."

CHAPTER XXII

IT was a great day for the sightseers of Mechester that ensuing Monday. The four-hundred-years-old coach, which had been in the Sheriff's family since the day it was built, was driven through the streets in great state by the High Sheriff's coachman. There were modern footmen and postilions in ancient livery. There was a mounted escort of yeomanry. The Duke of Exminster, Lord Lieutenant of the County, always a personable figure, developed a new dignity in his handsome uniform. The High Sheriff, Sir Lucius Bendikson, although he came of an old county family, had an affection born of his Eastern travels for the pomp and circumstance of life which he seized upon this opportunity to display. The Judge in his scarlet robes and with his dignified presence created the usual thrill—half reverent, half sinister. For once in his life the Mayor of Mechester was a person of no account. He had been obliged to relegate his duties, being the principal witness in one of the cases to be tried, to the Deputy Mayor. At twenty minutes to twelve it was all over. Marrables, after a few scathing words from the Judge, had received with stoical indifference the heaviest sentence which the law allowed, and Poynton had hurried from the Court to escape the very laudatory remarks which the oracle in scarlet robes had felt moved to pronounce upon his chivalry and courage. At a quarter to twelve, very much to the surprise of Miss Gray and the others who knew of the morning's business, the Mayor took his usual seat before the table in his private office.

"The letters are quite ready for you, sir," Miss Gray declared, "but I don't think anyone was expecting you until this afternoon."

"Our little affair was soon settled," her employer confided. "The fellow pleaded guilty—nothing else for him to do—and the Judge gave him the limit sentence. He will be safely out of the way for the best part of five years."

"But I thought with the Judge in residence here that you had all sorts of official duties," Miss Gray ventured.

"In the ordinary course of events I should have," Poynton admitted. "As I happened to be the principal witness in the most serious case upon the calendar, I had to hand over my duties to the Deputy Mayor."

"What—Alderman Mason?" she exclaimed.

The Mayor smiled slightly. The vision of his distinguished confrère, looking rather like Punchinello upon the bench, had been the one humourous feature of a dreary morning.

"I lent him my car and all the paraphernalia he hadn't got. He is very happy."

"What a shame," Miss Gray declared. "But the luncheon and all that sort of thing?"

"Oh, I couldn't displace Mason as long as he had started the business," Poynton explained. "He is even doing the honours at the Mayor's Parlour. I have arranged for the luncheon there."

"Do you mean that you are not even going to the luncheon?" she exclaimed.

"Against etiquette. The Lord Lieutenant himself excused me," Poynton explained. "He agreed that the situation might have led to a certain amount of awkwardness, especially as Lord Bledbury had to be present."

Then the work of the day commenced. Letters were read and discarded, others passed on to the receptacles provided for them, the personal ones into his own lot. The Mayor's attention was to all appearance riveted upon his task. He made no mistake. His judgments and criticisms were as sound as ever, yet all the time he was listening. At half past twelve his private telephone rang. Miss Gray took off the receiver. She listened for a moment.

"Wait, if you please," she begged.

She passed the receiver to Poynton.

"Lord Frederick Manningham," she announced.

Poynton leaned towards the instrument.

"Hello!"

Freddy's pleasant cultivated drawl was easily recognisable.

"I say, Mr. Mayor, we'll have to call that lunch off today, I'm afraid. I explained the whole business to Ursula and that the Mayor's Parlour was out-of-bounds to-day and that you wanted us to lunch at home, but old Rowton, the Judge—we didn't know he was on this circuit—is an old pal of the governor's and he and Exminster insist upon it that we shall do the show with them. You won't mind, I hope?"

"Not in the least."

"Funny old Poll Parrot buzzing round in your robes," Freddy continued. "They say he's going to entertain us at the Mayor's Parlour. I hope he won't forget the sherry! See you later."

Poynton laid down the receiver and continued his task without remark. As soon as it was completed and Miss Gray had almost reached the door he called her back.

"Just have them ring up The Grange and say that luncheon will not be required," he directed.

"Very good, sir."

Burden appeared. The orders for the day were given— briskly and with an almost inspired grasp of the situation. Young followed. In view of Miss Gray's strange revelations of these men's private lives, Poynton looked at the latter curiously. Hard to believe. He seemed so phlegmatic in the acuter sides of personality, such a perfect automaton when it came to receiving orders, discussing plans. Poynton was in an odd humour. He found himself wondering in what attitude Young approached his love making. Burden, too, spending an hour or so every day in those machine rooms— cool, detached, apparently utterly indifferent. Mason skulking in all the byways of the town with a glance over his shoulder before he produced and used his guilty latchkey. Harbutt, a lost man already with a perverted sense of honour and duty, finding compensation for his break in life in the lascivious caresses of his bought woman. He found himself wondering about his other friends. Suddenly, with a shock of pain he looked across at that empty chair. He found himself thinking of Violet Gray. It was she who had disclosed the secrets of these people. What about herself? She was willing to give herself to him. What about the others? A fierce impulse swept in on him and an impulse with him was like everything else—it was overpowering. He pressed his bell, kept his thumb upon it. The door was opened and Miss Gray, still imperturbable except for a slightly heightened colour in her checks, glided in with her book in her hand. He watched her graceful approach and the look of mild wonder in her eyes. She had closed the door behind her as was her custom. He did not hesitate for a second.

"Miss Gray," he said, "you have told me about these people—Burden and Young and Harbutt and all the rest of them. Tell me—have you ever had a lover?"

Her notebook slipped from her hand. She retrieved it with a graceful downward sweep. It was the first time he had ever known her to falter.

"Did you ring the bell to ask me that, Mr. Poynton?"

"Yes."

"The answer," she pronounced, "is in the negative."

"I'm glad," he confessed with unusual frankness. "Run along. I apologise for disturbing you."

She lingered for a moment.

"Since you have asked me that question, Mr. Poynton," she said, "I shall tell you this. The nearest I ever came to having one, the first time I ever honestly wished for one, was when I leaned over the armchair in your study at The Grange—and you didn't want me."

She was gone before he could have answered her, even if he had wished to. Whistles were blowing now in every direction. It was the hour when the tense atmosphere of the place softened down. Already there was the sound of multitudes of footfalls upon the pavement. His window was wide open as usual and he heard the laughter of the little crowds as they hurried out. There was a diabolical orchestra of bicycle bells, the hooting of a fleet of seven-horsepower Austins. Poynton put on his own hat and coat, drew on his gloves slowly and descended to where his car was waiting. In the town below he could hear the muffled fanfare of trumpets. The Court had risen.

"The Club," he told his chauffeur.

At the Club, Priestley, who was one of the privileged few allowed to do so, moved his place to the Mayor's table.

"What on earth are you doing here, Poynton?" he demanded.

"I am out of the show to-day," the other reminded him. "The first case was my own, you see."

"Of course," Priestley exclaimed, "Why, I had forgotten that. Tell me, what did the fellow get?"

"The limit. Five years with hard labour and a few stern words. The Judge told him that personally he was disappointed the evidence did not permit him to order the cat."

"Can't think why I forgot," the Town Clerk murmured. "I had made up my mind not to do the circus show but I had quite forgotten that you were going to appear in a new character. Lucky for Her Ladyship that you chose that afternoon for one of your lonely rides, Poynton."

The Mayor made no reply. He was studying the menu intently. Not a single line of it was visible. Of course Lady Ursula had to be saved but—was it after all lucky for Daniel Poynton that he should have been the man to play knight errant?

"Your order, sir?" the steward asked respectfully.

"Whatever you think is good, steward," he decided, passing back the card.

"The roast beef, sir?"

"Excellent."

"It was like you, Poynton," Priestley reflected, "with your genius for selecting the best in everything, so long as you had to play the knight errant, to choose one of the most beautiful women of this epoch. I was watching her the other day at The Bell. There is not a more lovely face than hers or more beautiful eyes in the world. Her figure defeats me. She seems to walk on air. At one time she seems to have the most commanding physique and at others she is just a slim, elegant young woman."

Poynton smiled.

"I had no idea you were such a connoisseur of the sex, Priestley."

"We all are. Sometimes we keep it to ourselves, especially if we have a wife and daughters, as women are not quite so broad-minded about these things as we are. But seriously, Poynton, I saw Lady Ursula come out of the Mayor's Parlour a few minutes ago with the Duke of Exminster and I do not think I ever saw a more attractive sight. The Duke is good-looking in a way, and of course the uniform always makes a different human being of a man, but Lady Ursula—one moment she looks as though she ought to be playing the heroine in The Miracle and another moment she reminds you of Adrienne Lecouvreur as I saw her first when I was a young man."

"Quite an epic in romanticism, Priestley," his companion observed. "Still, I agree with you, except that I never saw Adrienne Lecouvreur. Family well?"

"Well but peevish," Priestley confided.

"Given up this foolish idea of making a move, I hope?"

"They never will. I put it plainly to the missus this morning. Here we are and here we have to stop, I told her. I have put in for London and Birmingham to please them but I know perfectly well there is not a chance of either."

"I shouldn't be so sure about Birmingham," Poynton reflected. "Don't expect any help from me, though."

"Why not?"

"Well, I don't approve of your going. This marriage business is all a question of luck. I think you might give the girls and their mother longer holidays—winter holidays as well as summer ones. You'd have to make a new set of friends in Birmingham, make a new reputation, impress the municipality as you have done ourselves with your value. You are not an old man, not even an elderly one, I know, Priestley, but you don't want to start that business all over again."

"I don't, God knows," the Town Clerk groaned.

"London is different," Poynton continued, secretly pleased with this opportunity of diversion from his own thoughts. "London is the final goal of the ambitious man. You might do well there."

"There are one thousand and seven applicants," Priestley remarked. "Three hundred and ninety-two selected."

Poynton nodded.

"I don't think you will get London," he admitted frankly. "I think it will go to one of the new school of financiers— Jackson of Glasgow or the Manchester man, I rather fancy. We are a snug little borough here but of course we are small compared to these other places. If an increase would help the matter I would see what could be done."

"Wouldn't make a ha'p'orth of difference," his companion sighed. "Produce a young man for either Laura or Connie and we should get along swimmingly. Short of that nothing matters."

"That I cannot do. I have not keenly-developed social instincts as you know. You have never seen me attend a mixed gathering when I could keep out of it."

"You have gone right over our heads lately," Priestley grumbled. "At least that's what the wife and the girls say."

"That is rather foolish of them," Poynton maintained; "I won't make any bones about it. I did save that young woman from what might have been one of the ugliest adventures that can happen to a well-brought-up young person and it is quite natural that she and the rest of them should be grateful about it, but that sort of thing doesn't last. They seem to have found something humorous in the idea of coming into touch for the first time with the Mayor of a provincial borough, and in their slack times and out of a sense of gratitude, too, I believe, they have been decent to me, but it is not the real stuff. The classes do not mix to that extent. I do not touch their life anywhere and they don't touch mine. In a year's time they will have forgotten my name."

"And you will be the first bachelor Lord Mayor I remember in municipal history," Priestley remarked.

"It looks rather like it," that possible functionary admitted. "But believe me, my friend, I shall manage. There are plenty of the Aldermen's wives who are anxious to help, and Mrs. Priestley I am relying on. I have no objection to entertaining. That may bring something along for the girls perhaps. I have young fellows in my factory one doesn't hear much of who come of decent stock and who are making their thousand or twelve hundred a year, and I have others on the Continent I could bring home now and then. I'll lend a hand if I can."

"They would rather have you," was his friend's blunt comment.

Poynton rose to pay his bill.

"I am a queer fellow," he admitted.

"You are too ambitious," Priestley declared. "You have one idea in your mind and nothing else. My God, there's no one could blame you for it. You have succeeded as no other manufacturer in Mechester has ever succeeded before, and from what I can hear, you are still leaping forward. If keeping away from women can make you what you are—although I am a hungry parent—I should say go on keeping away from them, Poynton. A man frets away too much of his energy in the small annoyances of married and domestic life."

The Mayor smiled as he tore up the counterfoil of his bill.

"After all, my friend," he concluded, as the two men turned towards the door, "we are sometimes a little too much inclined to blame circumstances. The fault is probably in ourselves."


CHAPTER XXIII

URSULA never saw the bluebells in Beaumanor Park that spring but Daniel Poynton paused many a time at the gate and watched them—a blue and violet carpet, a streak of marvellous colour stretching in long irregular beds away into the heart of the woods. One lazy Saturday afternoon when the smell of the hawthorn was faint in the air and the primroses were starring the hedge sides, he was accosted by a somewhat imposing figure dressed in sombre black and wearing a bowler hat which he respectfully removed.

"Your worship will forgive the liberty," he said. "I am Abel Grover, the butler at Beaumanor. I have had the pleasure of waiting on you there, sir."

"Of course, I remember," Poynton acknowledged. "How are the family?"

"Very well, I believe, sir," the man replied. "They're all away, as you can see from the look of the house," he added, pointing down the avenue at the closed blinds. "His Lordship got over that little attack of bronchitis very well. He is still in Cannes. Lord Frederick is in Cannes, I believe. Lady Ursula left Cannes last week with the Dowager Duchess—the Duke's mother—for Cairo. We don't expect them home until the summer."

"It seems a pity," Poynton reflected, "that no one should be here now. It's a beautiful spring."

"It seems a great pity to us, sir," the man continued. "Seventeen servants on board wages and nothing to help the young ones to keep out of mischief. I did hear that His Lordship thought of letting the place."

"Well, that would not be such a bad idea," Poynton remarked.

"Perhaps not, sir," the man assented respectfully. "I am getting elderly in my habits, I think, and the sort of tenants you get nowadays who can afford to live in a house like Beaumanor are not exactly the sort I care to wait upon. You will pardon the liberty I have taken in speaking to you, sir," he went on after a moment's pause, "but on behalf of Mrs. Grover and the senior servants of Beaumanor, I have hoped always for an opportunity to express their gratitude and my own for your splendid rescue of Lady Ursula when she was attacked by that rascal Marrables. We were several of us at the trial, sir, and we did admire the way you gave your evidence. A cowardly murdering bully that man was, hated all over the countryside here—he looked a poor sort of a mongrel there in the dock listening to you. We were proud, sir, to think of what you had done and very wishful to express our gratitude because there are not many in these parts would have cared to be up against that man."

"Thank you very much, Grover," Poynton replied. "I am very grateful for what you have said. I can assure you it was a great satisfaction for me to have turned up just at the right time. The whole affair was slightly exaggerated. As a matter of fact it was Lady Ursula herself who struck the final blow with her spanner."

"A fine plucked young lady, sir," Grover declared. "Full of spirits and courage and kindness. She's rare and popular around here and we miss her sadly."

"You must, I'm sure. By-the-by, Grover, as you may have noticed, this is my favourite part of the country. I ride out here once or twice a week. I was thinking—it's rather a long way from my house here and back and I have other horses there. Do you know of anyone who has any really first-class stabling to let near here and a groom's cottage? I could keep my horse here, then motor over and start fresh."

"I know one thing, sir," was the prompt reply, "and His Lordship would never forgive me if I didn't mention it, You could have a stall and welcome at Beaumanor and a choice of two or three cottages for your man. I don't think there is anything would give His Lordship more pleasure. You are quite a hero up at the house, you know, sir."

Poynton smiled and shook his head.

"I am sure you will understand, Grover," he said. "I could not accept your offer but if there was anyone had a nice stable to let with a groom's house, it seems to me you would be more likely to know of him than anyone."

"No need to go fifty yards away, sir," the man answered, "You see the Steward's lodge, sir, the ivy-covered house you have just passed? Well, Colonel Allen used to live there, the agent who died last Christmas. His daughter is still in residence. His Lordship furnished quarters for the new agent up at the house, rather than have her be disturbed. She would like to let the stables, I know. The Colonel was not one of the saving lot and she hasn't too much to live on, although His Lordship has been very good."

"I should think that might do very nicely," Poynton agreed.

"I am passing my time as it may be anyhow, sir," Grover confided. "May I have the pleasure of knocking at the door and asking Miss Allen if it would be convenient for you to look at the stables?"

"Certainly," Poynton assented. "I don't want to stay too long because the light goes early still, but if I could have just a glimpse around to be sure that my horse would be comfortable, I think I could take the cottage for granted."

"One moment, sir," Grover enjoined, hurrying along the narrow path. "I will bring you word directly."

He pushed open the rustic gate, passed up the garden path amidst a mass of beautifully cultivated hyacinths and crocuses and spring flowers to the overhung porch, behind which was a black oak door with shining brass knocker and handle. His ring was answered by a trim little maid. Grover disappeared. In two minutes his place was taken by a tail, dark young woman who smiled a welcome up at Poynton.

"Do not dismount, please," she begged, "unless you want to. It is Mr. Poynton, isn't it? Grover tells me you would like some stables out here, I will have the groom open the doors. You see, mine are almost flush with the road and if you think they would be good enough for you I am sure you would find the groom's cottage all right."

Poynton swung himself to the ground and handed the reins to Grover.

"Sure it's not troubling you, Miss Allen?"

"Not in the least," she assured him. "I hope you won't mind waiting half a moment."

She disappeared—a very amiable and charming young woman whom Poynton dimly remembered having seen in the background on his first visit to Beaumanor. In a moment the doors of the coach-house and stable were swung open and a very knowledgeable-looking groom came forward touching his cap.

"There are two stalls there, sir," he pointed out, "quite separate. You will excuse me, sir," he broke off, looking at Black Peter with glistening eyes, "but you are riding the most magnificent horse I ever saw."

"He is a fine fellow," Poynton agreed.

"That must be the horse I heard about that was sold at the Repository a month ago for a sight of money," the man went on. "He is out of To-morrow by Red Rachel. I knew his sire."

"That's right," Poynton assented. "His name is Black Peter."

"My, we would be proud to have him here," the man declared.

"And I should think Black Peter would like it pretty well, too," Poynton observed.

He opened the door of the first loose box and looked in.

"You keep your stables very well considering they are empty."

"There's just a pony in the far stall, sir. The young lady is out driving her. No one else. The groom's cottage is next door. I only wish that it was me that was going to occupy it."

"I don't see why you shouldn't," Poynton reflected. "I shall have to keep my present groom at The Grange as I have another horse to be looked after. There won't be much for you to do, though."

"I could sit and look at Black Peter and find enough to do all day," the man grinned, with obvious honesty, "My, he's a beauty."

"Does your mistress wish to part with you?" Poynton asked.

"She doesn't wish to but I'm afraid there's nothing else for it. I work in the garden now and I do any mortal thing I can, but," he glanced over his shoulder, "it hurts me to take the money, sir. Colonel Allen, he was a freehanded pleasant gentleman, but he spent all he had and never saved a penny. His Lordship won't hear of her leaving but I know if you did feel disposed to take the stables it would be a great help."

Poynton walked round the yard. Everything was in order— obviously a good water supply and even electric light. Miss Allen, who was standing at the gate, met him as he emerged. Her look of interrogation had in it a slight note of anxiety which Poynton hastened to set at rest.

"My dear Miss Allen," he said, "your stables are delightful and the stall for Black Peter is a palace. I should like to take the groom's cottage and the stables if you would be kind enough to let them to me."

"Might I keep a pony car and a little fat pony?" Miss Allen begged.

"Of course. Keep anything you like," he acquiesced, "and there's the question of the groom. I would take him on if you would let me. Someone must be sleeping near the horse and then there's the feeding and keeping him in condition. He would have plenty of time to do your garden and odd jobs."

"It sounds wonderful," Miss Allen admitted. "I haven't the faintest idea what to ask you, Mr. Poynton."

"I have," he assured her. "The groom's wages I will arrange with him—nothing to do with you at all. Anything he does for you will keep him out of mischief. You can consider him off your hands from this minute. The stabling with water and electric light is worth three pounds a week.

"Why, my dear man," she exclaimed, "I would let you the house for that!"

"No, you wouldn't," he answered, "or you would be very foolish if you did. I haven't finished yet. You don't know the cost of the little accessories your father has had put in there and all the utensils—the pails, etc. They will save me sending them over from home. They will mount up to another pound a week. My secretary will post the money every Friday if that is agreeable."

"You must be the patron saint of Beaumanor," she laughed. "I don't mind confessing that I am in a dire state of poverty and with Beaumanor shut up I can't even go and beg a meal. You are an angel in disguise. Thank goodness when you get on your big horse and ride off you are altogether too huge to dissolve into the mists. You are real, aren't you, Mr. Poynton?"

"I am one of the most substantial unimaginative real men in the world."

A pony cart which had just turned the corner stopped at the gate and turned slowly in. There was suddenly a scream. The back door of the little tub cart was thrown open. A girl with hair of silver and gold came flying across the stable yard with open arms.

"It's Mr. Poynton! It's the Mayor!" she cried. "My Mayor, now Ursula's away. Where do you come from? You dear, dear man. Forgive me."

She had crossed the courtyard as she might have glided across a polished ballroom floor. She sprang up to greet him and her arms were around his neck. She kissed him on both cheeks unhesitatingly. A child after all. He accepted a third kiss.

"It's Miss Bellamy!"

"You horrible man!" she exclaimed. "I told you if you ever called me anything but Joyce I should hate you—and I couldn't hate you anyhow. But what are you doing here?"

"I might ask you the same question."

"Mr. Poynton has provided us with a supper—or is going to—an allegorical supper anyhow," Joyce's friend confided. "He has descended upon us like a good angel. He has taken the stables, Higginson's cottage and I think Higginson himself. Isn't it wonderful, Joyce?"

"He docs things like that," Joyce declared, with her arm tightly through his. "He employs thousands of people who all love him. He rescues every young woman who might possibly be running into danger and he makes more boots and shoes than any man in the world. You should see him as I have seen him, looking out the leather for my shoes—which he never sent me. Do you know that you are my hero, Mr. Poynton, although you never sent me the shoes? I'm so excited I don't know what I am talking about."

"Now listen," Miss Allen interrupted. "Mr. Poynton is a bard-working man. He wants his ride. He told me he was particularly anxious to ride to the top of the Beacon. We will let him go on one consideration—that he comes here as soon as it is dusk and we will give him some tea."

"Won't I?" Poynton accepted heartily. "If there's one thing I love it's tea after a ride."

"Don't unharness the pony, Joyce," her friend called out. "I have to go into the village and get some cream and oh— I'll tell you afterwards. Don't let us keep you, Mr. Poynton. I want to see you ride off."

"Why, you have a new horse!" Joyce cried. "Heavens, what a beautiful creature!"

"If you will pardon my saying so, miss," Higginson intervened, touching his forelock, "you are looking at the most beautiful animal in the world. That's Black Peter out of To-morrow by Red Rachel."

Poynton mounted, swinging easily into the saddle in a way that evidently astonished the groom. He sat there for a moment with a loose rein, smiling down upon them all.

"Grover," he said to the man who was lingering still in the background, "you have made a friend of me for life. Young ladies, I won't be more than an hour-and-a-quarter to an hour-and-a-half. Anyhow, say I will be back at five o'clock."

"Coming back at five o'clock," Joyce repeated, her hands still resting upon Black Peter, "Marvellous! And Ursula is safely out of the way in Egypt. You see I am so selfish, Mr. Mayor. So often—but never mind, I will tell you all these things when you come back at five o'clock."

Poynton laughed. He waved his hand and rode out of the gate. He caught up Grover. The man's hat was already in his hand.

"You will pardon me, Mr. Poynton," he said. "I know just what you were thinking of but will you allow me to have the pleasure of arranging this little matter for you this afternoon? Believe me, it will be a great joy for me and a happiness for Mrs. Grover—if I might make so bold, sir."

Poynton's hand dropped to his side.

"It is extremely kind of you, Grover," he acknowledged. "I appreciate it very much. You could not have done me a better turn. My compliments to your wife. Now I am foe, the hills. Mrs. Green's lodge gates are not locked, I suppose?"

The man drew a step nearer to Poynton.

"You will find them open, sir," he confided. "Green, he came down to the house for orders before they all went away and Lady Ursula happened to see him. This was the last thing I heard her say: 'Green,' she said, 'never mind if you have a few trespassers. Keep the gates leading to the Beacon and on the far side unlocked, in case the Mayor rides this way.'... That's just like Lady Ursula, sir. She thinks of everybody."

Poynton might have seemed a little unenthusiastic but he glanced at Grover and Grover had his own idea. He went home with a smile and a pleasant story for his wife. Poynton rode up to his beloved hills with a feeling that it was a new world which shook beneath his horse's hoofs.


Mrs. Green was there with the opened gate at the sound of his horse's approaching hoofs, and dropped him the usual curtsey for the half-crown he leaned over and slipped into her hand.

"Her Ladyship's last orders, sir, were that we were to be very particular to have the gates all open when you rode this way, sir," she announced.

"Very thoughtful of Her Ladyship."

He passed through onto the soft green turf and cantered easily up the back of the hill. He spent less than his usual time on the summit this afternoon, pausing only to light a cigarette and ease Black Peter's bit a little. Then he made his way cautiously down the more precipitous side of the hill from the plantation, and swinging to the right cantered by the scene of his adventure, with set, grim face. A short distance farther on he swung round into a grass-grown lane where there was a gallop at least a mile long. He drew rein at the end a little breathless, thrilled with the exercise and perfect movements of his horse. Then he turned into a winding bridle path, crawled round the base of Beacon Hill and entered the private way to Beaumanor.

Here along the sheltered byway he passed into a different atmosphere, for the promise of spring was in the air. There was no longer the scent of the wet earth and the rain-soaked leaves. The hedges were sweet with hawthorn. There were a few early wild roses, violets peeped out from the hedgerows and there were primroses in every ditch. From the coppices came the stronger odour of the wild hyacinths, growing here in more scattered array but even sweeter in their solitary state. His pace became almost a crawl and when he came in sight of the back of Beaumanor he stopped altogether. He was thinking of a passage in one of the new standard classics with which the walls of his library were now lined. Someone had written a sentence, the significance of which, though not the actual words, haunted him. "No man can really achieve greatness until he has developed the courage to change his life when things of truth and value beckon to him."


Well, in a sense he was changing his. Only a year ago this ride, his labours for the town and or the progress of his great business, were the only things which counted. To- day he was learning dimly to apprehend the new world that lay within the covers of those unread books, to realise the new thrills that came from every recalled memory of the woman who had touched his life at odd moments so strangely and so incompletely. He was losing, too, he felt, some of that aloofness which had stood him in good stead in the past and which even now he felt slipping away with some reluctance. He had found pleasure in meeting again the little girl with the platinum hairy who had thrown the coils of an insistent and affectionate friendship so lightly around him. He was looking forward; already to her welcoming cry, to a pleasant half-hour with her charming hostess and herself. An unkind trick of fancy found him comparing the two with Laura Priestley and the young ladies of her standard. He hated the idea of any change in himself or his outlook which bespoke disloyalty, to the order in which he had been born and in which he had lived, yet the bald fact of new preferences was becoming established in his mind. An uneasy train of thought, this. He patted Black Peter on the neck and turned towards the village.


Higginson was waiting for him and would have helped him dismount if he had needed it.

"Shall I put him in the stall for half-an-hour with a rug over him, sir?" he suggested. "He's a grand animal and he's got to be took care of."

"That's just what I would like you to do, Higginson," his new employer directed. "You know that I am taking you over from Miss Allen?"

"I did hear a word of that, sir," the man admitted,

"What wages are you getting?"

"Three pounds a week, sir."

"Three pounds ten a week from now on—a week in advance," Poynton said, handing him the money. "Remember, when you have time to spare after exercising Black Peter and looking after his condition, go on doing the odd things for Miss Allen as before, only you must not take any money from her. Is that clear? I shall pay any extras that turn up including the electric-light bill, coal for your cottage and anything of that sort. Understand?"

The groom touched his forehead.

"I will serve you well, sir," he promised.

The black oak door was swung hospitably open. Poynton made his way round the sweet-smelling flower beds to where the girl with the gold-and-silver hair was awaiting him with outstretched arms.


CHAPTER XXIV

POYNTON was to taste the luxury of life that day from a somewhat different angle. The Steward's House, as it had been called for two generations, was a perfect example of the bijou dower-house which exists on so many old English estates and which is self-developing. This one was a converted roadside farmhouse full of odd nooks and corners, with gabled windows, wide window-seats, large open fire- places. There was enough antique furniture in it to stock a village curiosity shop and the Chippendale chairs with the Georgian silver teapot were exquisitely in accord with the atmosphere. There was not a single modern or discordant note.

Poynton, established in an ancient Chesterfield which had a history of its own, was treated as a very honoured guests His hostess and Joyce together succeeded in making him feel perfectly at home. He ate buttered toast, drank delicious tea and was pressed to smoke his pipe.

"Fortunately," his hostess told him, "my father and both my brothers were huge men, so you don't dwarf us completely in this living room. It's quite like old times to see someone here who can really fill that Chesterfield."

"Do your brothers live in this part of the world?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"Sidney is in Kenya farming and prospecting. He has done quite well there and can afford a holiday now and then, I am glad to say. My other brother, Jack, was in the Army. He has retired now and is managing the Tregannon Estate in the West of England. They come up here sometimes—Sidney especially when he is in England. Lord Bledbury has always been very kind in mounting them when they come in the hunting season."

There were some pictures to be seen and appreciated. Joyce managed at last to bring the conversation round to Ursula.

"I know you are dying to hear all about Ursula, aren't you, Mr. Mayor?" she asked.

"I still exist," he ventured. "I daresay you hear from her continually."

"I have never received one letter from her in my life and she is a very ungrateful woman," Joyce declared. "She went off to Cannes, as you know, a few days after the Assizes, then Henry Exminster's mother took her out to Egypt. They stayed at Luxor some time and then drifted up the Nile on one of those dahabeeahs and, alas, I am afraid that is the end of Ursula. Not one word have I heard of her since she left Luxor."

"A very interesting expedition, I should think," Poynton remarked.

"You have never been to Egypt?" Barbara Allen asked.

"I have never been out of England," was the toneless reply, "except to a conference at the Chamber of Commerce in Paris and something the same sort of thing in New York. Travelling, as properly-educated people understand it, has never come my way."

"Isn't it dreadful?" Joyce exclaimed commiseratingly. "He sits at home, makes millions, gives away parks for the people, rows of houses for them to live in and never allows himself a day's holiday. Oh, Mr. Mayor, if only you were a wise man," she went on, drawing her stool a little nearer to his, "you would marry a wife who would take you by the hand and lead you into some of these marvellous places, and if you were the wisest man in the world, of course, that wife would be me."

"I suppose Mr. Poynton is used to you, Joyce," Miss Alien said.

"I do my best to give him every opportunity of getting used to me," the latter replied, "but I have never been treated quite so negligently by anyone. I spend my life making advances to him and all I have ever received has been a box of chocolates for a good girl! I was surprised he didn't send me a doll for Christmas. Tell him how old I am, Barbara."

"She is really grown-up although she doesn't seem like it," Barbara Allen declared.

"I like to hear her talk," Poynton confided. "Someday I shall propose to her and then she will have the fright of her life."

"What sort of a fright?" she asked affectionately.

"The fright of not being able to get out of your trouble without hurting my feelings."

"Have you ever proposed to anyone, Mr. Poynton?" Joyce ventured.

"Never."

"That makes me so happy," she confessed. "I shall love to be the first."

"I don't think I shall ever propose to you," Poynton said. "I am not at all sure that you are the type Mayoresses are made of."

"You don't have to be a Mayor all the time," she reminded him. "You can get off your horse sometimes and behave like a man."

"Don't let her tease you," Barbara Allen begged indulgently. "Where these young people got the habit of talking to their ciders in this fashion I can't imagine."

"You are only four years older than I am, Barbara," Joyce reminded her, "and I am rushing things a little because I am afraid if Mr. Poynton thinks it over he will decide that you would make a better Mayoress than I. I should make a better wife, though. Barbara is too fussy about the house. I am much more affectionate. I have spent sleepless nights thinking about you, Daniel Poynton. I have come to the conclusion that what you need in your life is more affection."

"Well, I haven't any at the present moment so you may be right," he remarked.

"At the present moment," she repeated swiftly. "What do you mean? Who has been before me?"

"Not a soul," he assured her. "I have had a loveless youth and I am passing on towards a loveless middle age. I have not a relation in the world and my few friends are men."

"And to think that I nearly let a prize like this slip through my fingers," Joyce exclaimed fervently. "Tell me about Mechester and your house."

"Mechester is a very dull manufacturing borough," Poynton said, "but it is the home of nearly three hundred thousand people who have bodies and souls like we have and who take a great deal of looking after."

"I know," Miss Allen interrupted. "I read the Bishop's address the other day. He referred to you as the temporal pastor of these people while he tried to be their spiritual help."

"That is enough about Mechester," Joyce insisted. "I will be their lady temporal pastor. Tell me about your home, Mr. Poynton."

"It is an ugly old grey stone building just outside the borough," he confided. "It has twelve rooms, a garage and adequate stabling. The grounds are well kept but uninteresting. There is a paddock and a small field. The house is approached by the usual circular drive which lets you in at one end and out at the other."

"The most sweetly humorous account I ever heard of a Mayor's palace," Joyce declared. "Who looks after it for you?"

"Well, as you have been so tardy with all these proposals," he explained, "I have had a couple of thoroughly irresponsible and incapable people making me supremely uncomfortable for some years, helped by a young woman who seldom buttons up her dress correctly and refuses to wear a cap. That establishment, I am glad to say, is in the course of disruption. I have a very efficient butler and his wife just established. I think they move in to-day—a man named Midwood. You may remember him, Miss Joyce. He served us with cocktails at the Mayor's Parlour."

"Of course I remember him, and if you call me Miss Joyce again, although you are the Mayor, I shall call you Dan."

"Joyce, you are becoming impertinent," her friend declared. "You cannot call the Mayor of Mechester Dan!"

"I shall call him Daniel, then. I like Daniel better anyway! And the inside of your house, please?"

"There has been a little refurnishing on hand but very little," he related. "What has been done is, I think, a great improvement, but it still has drawbacks. In plain words, the background is supremely ugly. I bought my furniture when the local emporium was as far as my imagination had travelled and the local emporium did their worst."

"Let me ask you this, please," Joyce insisted suspiciously. "Who is making these alterations for you?"

"My secretary."

"Man or woman?"

"A young woman."

"Efficient?"

"Marvellously so."

"Good-looking?"

"Well, I have just begun to wonder," he confessed. "Not in the way one understands good looks in a general way. She's not pretty like you or attractive like our hostess or divine like Lady Ursula, if that's what you mean. She's just personable."

Joyce shook her head as she glanced across at Barbara.

"I never heard him talk like this before," she said. "Something must have happened to him. I take back all my offers," she went on. "I thought you were a simple, lonely person. I am beginning to suspect you. All my life I have suspected men with lady secretaries who take an interest in their furniture."

"I should never have thought that you were of a suspicious nature," he expostulated.

"Can we come and see her?" she asked.

"I don't think so," he answered. "I don't think I could quite offer her to you as a spectacle. You can bring Miss Barbara to lunch or dine with me one day if you like but I'm afraid she won't be in evidence."

"Could we come to the Works?" Joyce begged.

"I'm afraid not just now. We are terribly busy opening two new wings directly, so we cannot afford such distracting influences as you would bring along. As soon as the two new wings are open, if you will bring Miss Allen I shall be delighted, but if before that you do come into Mechester for shopping give me a few days' notice and we will lunch, if you will honour me. My barn is a couple of miles this side of Mechester on your way if you are motoring."

"I am staying for another fortnight," Joyce announced. "Barbara doesn't know it yet but she may as well hear the bad news. Any morning or evening for fourteen days a little Austin seven will enter your park gates at any hour you choose."

"It will give me great pleasure," he said. "I have a fairly good memory but I don't want to make a mistake. I see you have a telephone. I will ring up. I rather think it will be this week."

"Are you sure you want us, Mr. Poynton?" Barbara asked. "Joyce is always so irrepressible when she gets talking to anyone she likes."

"I want you very much indeed," he told them, "only I cannot promise to produce the secretary."

He glanced at the clock and rose to his feet. He was obliged to stoop as he made his adieux, the ceilings were so low. His hostess took his arm lightly.

"I cannot tell you how thankful I am to you, Mr. Poynton, for taking the stables off my hands—and Higginson. I think it is perfectly sweet and the way you made all the arrangements too. If it bothers you our coming please don't hesitate to say so. I will keep Joyce out of mischief some other way."

"It will be a great pleasure to me," Poynton assured her earnestly. "I spend my life with people who are talking what we call horse commonsense. It is rather a relief to hear a little nonsense now and then."

"Nonsense!" Joyce protested. "If you only knew how true every word I say to you is."

"Shall I ask a few of your future constituents to meet you," he enquired, "to let us see how you play the Mayoress?"

"Please not," Joyce begged. "Take it for granted. I have wonderful manners adaptable to every class of society. Let us just be alone, we three, unless you can find a young man for Barbara."

He shook his head.

"Not in Mechester, I'm afraid," he regretted.

Miss Allen rang the bell. The trim little parlourmaid was instructed to tell Higginson to bring the Mayor's horse round. Joyce insisted upon what she called a child's kiss. Miss Allen shook hands warmly and her eyes showed traces of gratitude. Poynton rode cheerily away into the scented twilight.

"Perhaps," he thought, smiling to himself as he lit a cigarette, "I was not meant to be the largest manufacturer in the world, a member of Parliament, a working philanthropist. I may have been intended for a philanderer. I wonder."


He found Miss Gray putting the finishing touches to his study.

"Tell me," he asked, as he handed his hat and riding crop to Midwood's very efficient second man, "is it possible to wake up some morning and find your ambitions a little out of focus?"

"A very common occurrence," she replied, looking at him curiously. "Don't bother to possess yourself of elaborate spectacles. The focus will return. I am glad you came. There are your curtains. I think my people found the exact shade I was trying for."

He threw himself into an easy-chair and looked around. His first impulse was one of gratitude. He had come to a very different room than the one he had left. For the first time in his own house there was a sympathetic atmosphere. Years of indifference had not destroyed the natural fundamentals of good taste. He felt the joy of those rich curtains with their subdued colouring, the rugs upon the floor, his beautiful desk with a bowl of roses at his right hand. Above all the well-filled bookcases gratified his eyes. The bindings of most of the volumes were old yet distinguished. The few prints upon the wall made him shiver with pleasure when he thought of the rubbish that had been thrown away. At that first glimpse he could see nothing that jarred. He had a curious feeling that he was being drawn by invisible threads into a different world. He held out his hands impulsively.

"Miss Gray," he said, "I don't think I shall ever be able to thank you enough."

She avoided looking at him. It was really a good deal of extra work she had taken on and even its success was scarcely the recompense she longed for.

"It has been a great pleasure. Tell me," she asked, "which way did you ride to-day?"

"Beaumanor," he answered. "Up Beacon Hill and round the lane. Black Peter is even more wonderful than I thought."

"And Beaumanor? No, I don't mean to be inquisitive. Forgive me, please, but when you came in you walked as you so seldom walk. You walked happily."

"I felt happy," he admitted. "For an hour or so I seemed to forget this afternoon most of the things that are nearest to me in life."

Her fingers lingered with the flowers she was finishing arranging.

"Yes?" she murmured. "I thought that Beaumanor was shut up."

"Beaumanor is shut up," he assented. "The Marquis is in Cannes and Lord Frederick I think is with him. Lady Ursula was last heard of leaving Luxor to go up the Nile."

"Lady Ursula is in Egypt?" she exclaimed turning swiftly round.

"Gone up the Nile," he answered. "I had all the luck in the world, though. I was looking for a stable? for Black Peter—you know it was you who suggested I ought to leave him there—and I came across the child with the platinum hair and a Miss Allen who lives in the village. I have taken the stabling at the Estate House. They gave me tea and if you will stay and have dinner with me I really think I shall feel that life is being very kind to me."

She turned towards him with a transforming smile. This was the time when she knew that she must be very careful. He must never realise that those words of his had sounded like music. Lady Ursula was in Egypt!

"If you really want me to," she said, "I should love to stay. I want to show you how I have arranged some of the books and if only I can find time I am going to make you a catalogue. May I run home and change? I shouldn't be more than three-quarters of an hour."

He rang the bell. The service now at The Grange was almost automatic. The second man, whose name was Francis, presented himself at once.

"Have a car round in five minutes for Miss Gray," he ordered. "Tell Chambers to wait and bring her back."

"Very good, sir."

She smiled gratefully at him.

"You arc too kind, Mr. Poynton," she acknowledged. "I really am a little tired to-night but changing will do me so much good and," she added glancing at the clock, "I shall just have time for a bath. There are four letters for you to sign on the desk there and one left entirely for your consideration. You can look those through before dinner. At eight o'clock?"

"I shall be expecting you," he said, a little more gruffly than usual in his effort to keep the note of anticipation from his tone.


CHAPTER XXV

"THE only fool in life," Poynton declared, as he watched his glass being filled with claret by Midwood's skilful hand, "is the man who refuses to change. I was terribly set once myself."

"You were set in very good ways," Violet Gray reflected.

"My ways were carefully thought out," he acknowledged, "but no man's life is so well ordered that it can't be improved. You have introduced me to the small luxuries of existence, perhaps to the larger ones too," he added, waving his hand towards the bookcases. "Already I appreciate the change. That appreciation will develop."

"You may become extravagant," she warned him. "You may buy yourself a palace and ransack Europe for objets d'art."

He smiled at her shrewdly.

"You can't sec me at it," he said.

"No," she admitted, "you are a well-balanced person."

"If it comes to that so are you. Your deportment impresses me. I say little about it but I think the more. At the Works you are the excellent negative secretary. In your work for me here and in our necessary intercourse you are delightfully human. I appreciate it, Miss Gray. Someday I hope I shall be able to show you how much."

It was all very delightful and satisfactory, Violet Gray thought, as the introduction of a new course checked their conversation. It was wonderful to be on such terms with and to serve in so many ways a man whom she had worshipped from afar. And yet how much nearer to his inner life had she really advanced, she wondered? There had been a time when she had taken her courage into both hands and shown him plain chapter and verse of the day-by-day life he ignored. He had been interested—almost stupefied—but she had no means of knowing how deep an impression it had left behind.

"I had a wonderful time last night," he told her presently. "I walked round and round this room like a caged but contented animal. I should think I took down a hundred books altogether."

"I hope you put them back in their proper places!"

"I can assure you I did," he said. "I was with poetry mostly. I wanted to sec if I could get hold of what you meant when you talked about the music of words."

"And did you?" she asked.

"I think so," he assented. "In Tennyson chiefly. He was not much really, was he?"

"He was indeed," she replied indignantly. "He was one of our greatest poets. Don't listen to these intellectual snobs, please, If they get hold of you at the start they will vitiate your natural tastes."

"Good," he promised. "I won't listen to a soul. I have found more music in 'Lockslcy Hall' and 'Maud' than anywhere else. Poetry as a resource," he went on, "seems to lack only one thing and that is gaiety."

"Shakespeare?" she ventured.

He shook his head.

"They killed Shakespeare for us at the sort of schools I went to in my young days. I will get over it in time, no doubt.... Do you realise, young woman, that your ménage is perfect? Cooking, service and everything. You are wasted as a secretary. You ought to marry."

"Do you want me to marry?" she asked.

"For my own sake certainly not," he replied. "I am rather a proud man in some ways but there is no one else in the world I should have allowed to do what you have done for me. I will tell you one of your gifts, Miss Gray, and it is a pretty rare one as I have found out—tact. You know just how to make a thing easy and natural. I wish you would take on another of your under-typists and train her to do more of your work. I want the dining room ready."

"Are you giving a party?" she enquired.

"I am," he replied, "to the girl with the gold-and-silver hair, Miss Allen, the daughter of Colonel Allen who used to be Steward at Beaumanor, and a young man if I can get hold of one."

"Why not Lord Frederick Manningham?"

"He is in Cannes."

"Mr. Priestley's eldest son is at home I believe."

"I may ask him."

"When do you want to give the party?"

"Oh, some time next week. As soon as possible. In fact I think I said that you should look up a date and telephone them. Remind me in the morning."

"Monday, Thursday and Saturday," she recounted. "I know all your engagements by heart. I will remind you in the morning as well, though."

Fruit was on the table and port, the latter of which they both refused. Poynton took another half glass of claret. Miss Gray helped herself to a peach which she peeled delicately. He watched her fingers admiringly. He loved the smooth ivory polish of her nails without a touch of artificial colour.

"I am afraid your housekeeping is going to cost you a great deal more," she warned him. "Midwood has great ideas of what is fit to set before a Mayor."

"I am not greedy but Midwood is right," Poynton answered. "I am sick of scraggy cutlets and pale consumptive-looking soles. Besides, from the point of view of political economy I think a man should spend a certain proportion of what he earns."

"You don't," she reminded him. "You couldn't. No one could."

"I wouldn't say that," he objected. "But, of course, I could not as things are now. They may not be the same forever so I am justified perhaps in building up a reserve."

"You will always be successful," she told him. "Some people who work harder than you work all their lives and achieve nothing. Heaps of times when I have had nothing to do I have thought about you. You have a gift no one could analyse, a will behind it perhaps. Other qualities—none of them any good without the gift."

He took the matter seriously.

"I remember a debate during the very short time I was at Oxford," he reflected, "on that very subject. I rather wonder myself sometimes what I have done to deserve this continued flow of prosperity. I have all the qualities of the properly-constituted commercial man. I am thorough, I am industrious, I don't leave loose ends about, I look far enough into the future. Otherwise I am like thousands of others. I daresay the time will come when my gift may fail me."

He finished his wine. Midwood bent respectfully forward.

"Would you allow me to suggest, sir," he begged, "your coffee and brandy on a small table nearer the fire, as you are using only one room. We could remove the cloth in three minutes in case there is any writing to be done."

"An excellent suggestion," his master agreed.

They strolled over to the hearthrug and he waited whilst she took her chair.

"You never smoke, Miss Gray?" he remarked.

"Not often," she told him. "Why don't you call me Violet?"

He finished lighting his cigar before he answered. "I am rather a diffident person," he confided, "but I will have a try."

"You know me too well to imagine that I should expect you for a moment to do it at the Works," she went on. "Here it seems rather stupid not to."

"You are quite right," he agreed. "You belong to another generation too. You are about the same age as the little gold-and-silver girl."

"I am twenty-seven," she told him.

"I was rather curious," he admitted. "You have wonderful gifts, Violet."

"As, for instance?"

"The gift of reticence for one thing, the tact I have spoken of before for another. Your skill in choosing the right subjects for discussion. Your general knowledge."

"My head is getting turned," she laughed.

"It shouldn't be," he told her. "You have brain enough to assimilate the truth."

"Keep your good opinion of me, please," she begged. "I want you to. I shall try very hard indeed not to make a mistake."

The cloth was cleared. Midwood crossed the room towards him.

"At what time shall I bring the whisky and soda and lemonade, sir?" he asked.

"At half past ten. No, say eleven o'clock."

"Shall I order the car for the young lady?"

"Please not," Violet interposed anxiously.

"Certainly, order it for eleven o'clock. That will do, Midwood."

The man withdrew. There was something in the way those last four words were spoken which stopped Violet's protest. As soon as they were alone, however, she leaned over towards him.

"You must not think of sending me home in a car every time I come, Mr. Poynton," she said.

"Why not?" he asked. "I have two chauffeurs—one for day work and the other for night work. You might easily be frightened or annoyed on your way home alone. If it pleases me to send you why do you object?"

"I don't seriously," she assured him. "You don't suppose I like walking home alone. It's just my natural good manners.

"Or are you afraid," he continued, "that the little world who knows what you know about these people in the Works would bring you into the category?"

"I had thought of that," she answered calmly, "but it had nothing to do with my little protest."

"It would annoy you?"

"It would make me exceedingly proud," she confessed. "On the other hand people have such a wonderful idea of you that you might not wish it to be disturbed."

"Why should I care what people think? Of course, if I were old Mason—his age—well, that would be different. As it is if people chose to suspect me of—what is the word?— peccadillos I should be proud to have them associated with you."

"The nicest thing you have ever said to me," she acknowledged. "Now let us do the letters."

"The only thing I should dislike," he went on, as he took the folder into his hand, "would be if any gossip concerning us interfered with your future."

"In what way?" she asked.

"Your finding a husband," he told her bluntly.

"Finding a husband," she repeated with scorn. "You don't find husbands. They either come to you or they don't. So far as I am concerned they will not come because I will not have them. I don't wish to be married."

"What do you wish for?" he asked with still a touch of his uncouth tone.

She was seated at her desk now several yards away. She thrust a sheet of paper into her machine.

"You had better not ask that question," she warned him.

"I want that letter to Polovtzoff to go, please."

Three-quarters of an hour of valuable, steady work. The letters were typed and signed. She placed them in their envelopes.

"Since you have insisted upon the car," she said, "it will only mean a few minutes longer if he takes me to the post office. There is a late letter fee on the Scotch letter and I would like to register one of the others if it is not too late."

"Just as you please," he answered.

Midwood appeared with the tray. Violet Gray accepted a glass of port.

"You are tired," he declared. She laughed scornfully.

"I left off work at the office at six o'clock. Since then I have done exactly three-quarters of an hour's work, had an excellent dinner and sat about in an easy chair."

"You look tired anyway," he insisted.

"If I am," she said, "it is because I am annoyed at having to go instead of helping you to do what I know you are going to do, play around with your new books."

"I am having a turn of Matthew Arnold to-night," he told her. "What the mischief's that?"

The front doorbell was undoubtedly ringing.

"The car," she suggested.

"Chambers wouldn't ring the front doorbell," Poynton replied.

There was the sound of voices in the hall. Midwood threw open the door.

"Lord Frederick Manningham, sir."


The young man's entrance was half apologetic, half boisterous. One gathered that he had been dining out.

"I say, I'm awfully sorry, Mr. Poynton," he apologised. "Ought not to have shown up at this hour of the night, I know," he added with a well-bred glance of non-recognition at Violet. "The fact is I have been dining at the Mess at Wigston. Just on my way home and I bust a tyre to ribbons. It was at the corner of the lane here so I left the car and came down to see if you would let me use the telephone."

"Well, that doesn't seem difficult," Poynton replied calmly. "I thought you had met Miss Gray, my secretary."

"I beg your pardon, Miss Gray," the young man exclaimed. "Just came in from the dark, you know. I had a bit of a shock, too, when this car skidded. Very pleased to meet you again."

The visitor looked as though he were very pleased indeed. Violet withdrew her hand and turned back to the table where the letters were lying.

"Where is your car?" Poynton enquired.

"Just inside your drive," Freddy explained. "I pushed her in there for safety."

"My own car is at the door now," Poynton confided. "It is going to the G.P.O. and then dropping Miss Gray at her rooms. If you don't mind the slight detour you can go too and Chambers can take you straight home."

"That's uncommonly good of you," Manningham declared. "I am not going to refuse an offer like that."

His eyes rested fervently upon the whisky decanter.

"Will you have a drink before you go?" Poynton invited.

"It would reach the blessed spot," was the enthusiastic rejoinder. "There is just one thing I don't like about this Mechester regiment. They never stock good whisky. They don't seem to understand it," he added, watching Poynton oil his tumbler. "The fizz is all right. The port is young but it isn't bad, but the whisky's rotten."

He splashed a little soda into the glass which Poynton handed him.

"This will give me courage to escort the young lady home," he went on. "They tell me you are the best judge of boots and shoes and the stuff they make them out of in the world, Mr. Poynton. I'm not disputing it, but there are two other things you know a bit about. Whisky is one and young women the other. I don't suppose you pick 'em yourself for the factory but they're good lookers, every one of 'em. And as for your lady secretary, if I may say so, I confess I have never seen anyone to touch her in this part of the world. I hope she's not listening!"

"Young fellow, you'd better be getting along," Poynton said a little sternly. "You will forgive just a hint before you go. It is not the custom, where one's business makes it necessary to employ young women, to discuss them from a personal point of view."

"Sorry," the young man apologised. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Mayor. I see your point, old chap. I'll be getting along. I wouldn't keep the young lady waiting for anything."

Poynton rang the bell. Midwood answered the door almost at once.

"Will you see if Miss Gray is ready," Poynton ordered. "Lord Frederick will drive down to town with her and afterwards Chambers is to take him home."

Midwood bowed in gentle deprecation.

"Miss Gray begged me to ask you to excuse her, sir," he said. "She took the car as far as the town and has just sent it back. It is in the avenue now. I will tell Chambers to take His Lordship to Beaumanor."

Freddy for a moment looked very blank indeed, then he finished the glass of whisky and soda which he was holding. There was a certain amount of good nature in his laugh as he held out his hand.

"One in the eye for Freddy!" he remarked. "Awfully good of you to send me home, sir."


CHAPTER XXVI

POYNTON received rather a shock the next morning after he had finished his labours with Miss Gray. His little gesture of dismissal was for once ignored.

"Could I have a word with you in private, sir, for one minute?" she begged.

He looked at her keenly. She endured his scrutiny without flinching. Her manner was respectful and entirely official. Poynton waved his hand towards one of the heads of the departments whom he had summoned a few moments before.

"Come back in five minutes, Cox," he directed.

The man withdrew at once. There were the remains of a certain impatience, however, in Poynton's manner as he turned towards the girl.

"Well, what is it?" he asked.

"I am sure you know," she said gently, "that I would not address you upon anything except business here. I thought it wise to tell you what some of the others will probably get to know about during the day. There was a private meeting last night of certain members of the Boot and Shoe Federation and they are appointing a deputation to come and see you."

"The devil they are!" he exclaimed, genuinely surprised. "What about?"

"Your bonuses. An official of the Trades Union was present by special invitation."

"They have no right to call a meeting of any sort without my permission," Poynton said coldly. "I am Chairman of the Federation."

"The meeting was not called as an official meeting of the Society," she explained. "It was got together privately. Even the secretary was not present. It can find no place in the minutes. You never listen to gossip, Mr. Poynton, but even I can tell you this. There has been a terrible amount of dissatisfaction amongst the manufacturers on account of your bonuses. I suppose this is the outcome of it."

"Well, these things happen," he observed. "Thank you for telling me, Miss Gray. It's just as well for me to know beforehand. How the mischief did you get to know about it though?"

"If you wish to know that, sir," she said, "I will tell you. The husband of the woman in whose rooms I live is doorkeeper at the place where they held the meeting."

He waved his hand and she departed. Business went on at usual. At half past two that afternoon by appointment five of the largest shoe manufacturers in the district were shown into Poynton's private office. With them was a Mr. Stevenage, who held a position in the Trades Union. Poynton shook hands with them all. Before he asked them to be seated, however, he addressed the senior of his fellow manufacturers, Mr. Jonathan South.

"I understand that you all want to talk over some matter connected with our manufacturing," he said. "I am delighted to see you and pleased to discuss anything. But why the urgency and why Mr. Stevenage?"

Jonathan South stroked the long grey beard which gave him an almost patriarchal appearance.

"The matter we wish to discuss, Mr. Mayor," he explained, "is one in which the Trades Union is also interested."

Poynton shook his head.

"As soon as our discussion is finished," he said, "I should be pleased to have a friendly chat with Mr. Stevenage if he wishes it, but I do not desire his presence at the present stage of the proceedings."

One or two of the other manufacturers murmured approval. Mr. Stevenage turned towards the door.

"If Mr. Poynton refuses to receive me," he observed, "that's the end of the matter."

"At any other time," Poynton accorded courteously, "you will be, as you always are, a welcome visitor, Mr. Stevenage."

The Trades Union official took his leave. Poynton brushed away all discussion as to his presence.

"Gentlemen," he reminded them, "we are all busy men. What can I do for you?"

"We object to your bonuses," Jonathan South explained. "You monopolise by them the whole of the best machinists in the town. The same applies to the clicking department and more or less throughout the Works."

"I am sorry," Poynton replied. "My bonus system has been carefully thought out and has become a part of my system of manufacturing. It pleases me and it is not against the law."

"It may not be against the law," Mr. South replied, "but the Trades Union is inclined to take a serious view of it. That's why we invited Mr. Stevenage to accompany us this afternoon."

"I have the utmost respect for the Trades Union as an institution," Poynton said, "so long as they don't interfere with my affairs. The giving or not of bonuses is my affair. I allow no one to interfere with it."

"That sounds a little highhanded, Mr. Mayor," one of the others ventured.

"I am against all waste of time and useless discussions," Poynton told them firmly. "Here I am. Give me a single reason why I should not do as I choose with my own profits."

"You make it impossible for less successful manufacturers to hold their own," a man named Smith, who had been a well- known Socialist, declared.

"Not at all," Poynton protested. "You are a Socialist, Mr. Smith. I am not, except on this one point: I believe in the returning to labour a certain amount of what labour produces and I believe that is one of your own axioms. That I take it is the extent of my culpability. Very well. I shall continue in my evil courses."

"You may find, Mr. Mayor," Jonathan South said gravely, "that the Trades Union will take a serious view of the situation."

"It is no more business of the Trades Union than it is of the Prime Minister," Poynton declared. "I exact no extra labour from my people. I ask for good work and they give it to me. That means departmental profits and a share of that goes back to them. They will always have it so long at I am alive and in control, and if you gentlemen have not the same views of running your businesses why there's no law in the world can force you to have them."

Headley, one of the more enlightened of the little gathering, intervened.

"Mr. Poynton," he ventured, "this is more an appeal than anything. Competition we know there has to be and amongst ourselves we can deal with it but you have shot away on a path of your own. The town, sir, is proud of your magnificent success but you are making it difficult for others to live. You have gathered to yourself all the best labour in the town and you are continuing to do so every day. We have to take the people that are left. If anyone can get work at Poyntons they won't come to us."

"Gentlemen," the Mayor protested, "is this a meeting of schoolboys or businessmen? Accuse me of anything illegal or immoral and I will answer your charge. What you have come here to ask for is nothing more nor less than charity."

There was an angry little buzz of remonstrance.

"I repeat it, gentlemen," Poynton went on. "Charity. All I could do would be to dismiss work-people who are serving me well and turn them over to you neither in their interests nor my own. I can't do it. I am thankful that this is not an official meeting of the Federation," he added, "or I might have had harder things to say. As it is, shall we say good morning?"

Most of them shook hands, although unwillingly enough. Poynton waited until the last one had gone, then he closed the door. The telephone was buzzing on his desk. Young came hurrying in.

"If you will allow me I will answer that, sir," he proposed. "It is that fellow Stevenage. I was wondering whether you would care to see him without more preparation."

Poynton smiled.

"I will see him at once," he decided. "There is no preparation necessary."

The young man hesitated.

"You won't mind my pointing out, sir," he begged, "that Stevenage is one of the most dangerous men who were ever associated with the Union. He was a perfect firebrand in the old days and now that things are worked upon a higher level he is just as anxious for trouble as ever he was."

Poynton nodded.

"Show him up," he directed.

Stevenage, more than a little disposed to be truculent, was shown into the room a few minutes later. Poynton motioned him to a chair and asked him a curt question.

"Now what can I do for you, Mr. Stevenage?"

"You are not playing fair with your fellow manufacturers, Mr. Mayor."

"A very impertinent criticism, for which you deserve to be shown out into the street," Poynton replied. "You don't represent my fellow manufacturers. You represent the men. Has any section of the Labour Party a single complaint to make against me?"

"Thousands of them," was the prompt retort. "You are dealing in preferential payments."

"I am giving away too much, you mean to say," Poynton observed. "Well, I am sorry everyone can't share. I have openings now for machinists, clickers and experienced Blake sole sewers. Send your men along and I will take them on at exactly the wages I am paying my present staff."

"What about your fellow manufacturers?" Stevenage demanded. "What are they going to do if their operatives leave and go to you?"

"Again I must ask you," Poynton queried, "are you representing the men or the shoe manufacturers?"

"My job is to see fair play," Stevenage blustered. "It won't be for the good of the trade as a whole if you get all the best of the labour."

"That isn't your business," Poynton said firmly. "I am going to pay as I pay now the standard rate of wages fixed by our joint board. If I choose to distribute a proportion of my profits for good work what the mischief business is it of yours or anyone else's?"

"It is bribing the men," Stevenage asserted.

"I can't argue with you," Poynton sighed, "because you haven't any argument. Let me assure you once and for all—no alterations will be made in my payments or my scheme of payments. You can go home and report that and do what you like about it."

The little man with the fierce grey moustache scowled across at the speaker. He probably realised that he was up against an immovable force. He was up against capitalism in a new form, fighting with new weapons. Poynton reached out towards the bell.

"When I was a younger man, Mr. Stevenage," he said, "I used to hear you harangue the people in the market place as a Socialist. Your great slogan was that the men should receive as well as a living wage their share of the profits created by their labour. Times have altered for the worse apparently. I am carrying out your own sermon and you are finding fault with me for it. I am the Socialist and you are the caviller. I won't go further. It is unnecessary. Oh, Young," he went on as the secretary entered the room, "show Mr. Stevenage out."

The man rose to his feet.

"I warn you, Mr. Poynton," he threatened, "this is going to lead to serious things. You are Mayor of this town and you are going to plunge it into something like civil war."

Poynton waved him away contemptuously.

"Strikes are not made like that nowadays, my friend Stevenage," he said. "Call out my people and see what happens. I am going to advertise for a thousand more hands as soon as my two wings are ready. Try and stop them coming to me if you can."

Stevenage was standing up gripping his hat in his hand. He was an ugly man at the best of times. Just now his appearance was vicious.

"It is no small thing you are taking on, Poynton," he threatened him once more. "If you fight the Trades Union you will be a ruined man."

"I am not going to fight anyone," Poynton promised. "There was never anyone who hated industrial warfare more than I do. The Trades Union may have a few indiscreet ambassadors, Mr. Stevenage, but there are sober counsels behind them."

Stevenage left the place in a fury. Poynton rang for Miss Gray and dictated half-a-dozen letters. Then he leaned back in his chair.

"Miss Gray," he said, "I wonder why it is that no man can pass through life and be more or less successful without creating enemies."

"Human nature," she sighed. "Envy is at the bottom of it all."

"Perhaps so," he answered regretfully. "Look at those men who came to see me to-day. Poor old Jonathan South—he ought to have retired years ago. He sticks to his factory, to his old-fashioned methods. He keeps on turning out poor boots and shoes, facing a declining turnover and then brings this fellow Stevenage to me and the only complaint he has to make is that I pay my work-people a bonus. They work harder for me than his slipshod crew and so I turn out better stuff. The same with Headley in a lesser degree, and Mason. They stare at their balance sheets and instead of looking inside for an explanation they poke about externally and attack their more successful rivals."

"I shouldn't think any more about it, sir," she advised him. "I have been busy at the telephone. You will be happy to know that Miss Bellamy, Miss Allen and Mr. Geoffrey Priestley will all be delighted to dine with you on Wednesday evening at The Grange at eight o'clock."

"Lord, what shall I do with them when I've got them?" he groaned.

She considered the matter.

"Perhaps it would be more amusing," she suggested, "if you asked a few more people."

"I suppose I could do that," he admitted doubtfully. "Plenty of decent folk in the town. The worst of being Mayor is that you seem only to know all the fathers and mothers. The Priestley young women are all right, of course, but they want men and they have tried out all the young men we know already."

"Let it be as it is," she advised. "Young Mr. Priestley is just down from Oxford—I saw him with his father the other day and I thought he looked quite nice. He will amuse the young lady whom you say has gold-and-silver hair. Miss Allen is a little more serious, isn't she? You can talk about your housing schemes to her."

He nodded.

"That reminds me," he said. "Telephone Bland & Bradbury, the builders. I will see one of the partners at half past two. When is the option up on the Ashley meadows?"

"The fifteenth, sir."

"Telephone Mr. Millerson. I'll see him at four o'clock this afternoon."

"Hamilton, the New Zealand buyer, is coming at half past three," she reminded him.

"I shall hand him over to Burden some of the time. I am full up for to-day now, Miss Gray. Don't remind me of anyone else, there's a good girl."

"You are certain to have someone else wanting to see you from the Union," she reminded him.

"They can wait. I have no fancy for repeating things over and over again. I have said all there is to be said to Stevenage. Let me have Burden now. By-the-by, you hurried away last night."

"I hope you didn't mind," she said.

"Not in the least," he answered. "I didn't want you to do any walking about town at that time of night, though."

"I didn't mention it," she went on, "because things down here are so much more important—especially this morning— but I don't like Lord Frederick very much. I don't like young men anyhow. They have too little tact and too much of what they consider enterprise. Last night one could not help seeing that he had been dining too well. So long as you didn't mind, Mr. Poynton, it isn't worth speaking about."

"If you really want to know," he confided, with a slight softening of the hard mouth, a gesture which was sometimes enough to make her happy for the day, "I was delighted when I found that you had gone."


Burden came in with his trade charts for the last three months. Poynton studied them carefully and made a few calculations.

"You will find a pencilled abstract of the figures for the last three years on the back of this month's chart, sir," he observed. "I got out the figures last night. I thought with the option for the Ashley meadows closing this week you would want to study the situation finally."

Poynton nodded.

"I have the figures in my head, Burden," he said. "Thank you all the same. Did you know that we were threatened with a strike?"

Burden's smile was one of unadulterated contempt.

"You will win, sir," he affirmed confidently. "You couldn't help but win. A wicked waste of money all the same—money we have worked for and they haven't."

Poynton smiled.

"I don't think there will be a strike, Burden," he confided. "I had this in mind twelve months ago. Why the hell a man should become unpopular and be abused behind his back just because he beats his fellows is more than I can understand," he went on almost savagely. "I have felt this coming on for months, though, Burden. I will take you to lunch with me at the Club one day. You will see these fellows—at least a dozen of them—honest competitors I would like to call them. They look at me with hatred in their eyes. I would tell them all I know if that would do them any good. Not a bit of use. They hate me and they hate my methods. If I asked them to come to my house they would only come to sneer. The only thing they would like to do is come to my funeral."

"I wouldn't go so far as that, sir," Burden protested. "There's a lot of filthy jealousy, I know. It is the penalty you pay for success. My theory is—no one should venture to offer advice to a man who has never yet made a mistake, but I know what I should do if I were you."

"Well?"

"There's plenty of money on the stock exchanges for investment just now. I would incorporate. You have the finest set of figures to show on ten years' trading that any firm of our size has ever produced. Let the Public in at a price. You would be more than a millionaire. After a certain point money only becomes a burden. Buy a place like Beaumanor, get something out of life whilst it is worth while."

"Go on, Burden. I'm interested. What is there for me to do? Play marbles—skittles at the village pub every evening?"

"Go into Parliament, sir," Burden proposed eagerly. "Have a town house. Take as much interest in the Empire as you have done in building up this business. Look at Joseph Chamberlain. He was a manufacturer of screws and he made the best screws in the world. You are a manufacturer of boots and shoes and you make the best in the world. Perfection in anything is a sign of genius. We should see you Prime Minister."

Poynton threw himself back in his chair with one of his rare laugh.

"Well, I'm getting it all ways this morning," he exclaimed. "That little scaramouch of a Stevenage has been slanging me as though I were a low-down scoundrel and here you are patting me on the back till I feel my head beginning to swell. Well, thank you, Burden. You've got a busy day and I agree with you. I am not afraid of the strike, anyway."

"Of course, sir, I might be prejudiced in this last thing," Burden said, gathering up the charts and turning towards the door. "I am thirty-eight years old, Mr. Poynton. Thanks to you I earn a fine salary and when my work is finished I believe in enjoying myself. I don't call myself extravagant but I don't believe in saving up my money until I am too old to enjoy it. I love my work here and I never have a thought outside it until the sirens go, then I shake it all off. If one might venture most respectfully to suggest it, we some of us think that you ought to do the same sort of thing."

Poynton waved him away with a pleasant smile. "It's very human advice anyway, Burden," he said. "I won't forget it."


That day at luncheon time Poynton entered the crowded Club more thoughtfully than usual and looked around him with keenly scrutinising eyes. Jonathan South was seated in a corner talking to a rare visitor—a superannuated member of one of the oldest firms of manufacturers in the town. From the way their conversation ceased on his entrance, Poynton knew very well that they had been talking of him. His swift glance appraised at its true value their smile of welcome. There were others there, several of whom had been in the deputation of the morning, and he noticed that many of them were sitting together. At one of the smaller tables seated with the head of the most respectable firm in the town was Peterson, one of the solicitors employed by the Federation. The place rather reminded Poynton of the political club round the corner on the eve of an election. He beckoned Priestley to his table.

"Do you know what it's all about?" he asked.

Priestley was looking grave.

"I have heard rumours," he admitted. "They can't be serious."

"You once told me I was the most popular man in Mechester," Poynton reminded him. "You were wrong. I think to-day I am one of the most unpopular. I have been threatened in my own factory by half-a-dozen of these fellows here this morning."

"A strike?" Priestley muttered.

"That's it. They have got hold of that little rat Stevenage from the Trades Union. They are small people, Priestley.... I'm hungry—hot roast beef," he ordered. "Have you begun, Priestley? No? We'll share a bottle of the old Chambertin then. They will think they've driven me to drink! What a joke!"

"All the same," Priestley frowned, "a strike would play hell with the town—with this water business coming on, too."

"Don't worry," Poynton begged. "I'll show you how frightened I am of a strike. I have the solicitors for the Estates coming to see me this afternoon and my builder later. I am going to buy the Ashley Estates and I am going to build a thousand of my special type of six-roomed house and garage. I shall build and stock two more stores and I am going to put out notices for another thousand work-

"You've not lost your head by any chance," the Town Clerk asked.

"That's what they'll say, I expect," was the contemptuous reply.

"Supposing the strike should come when you have all that capital engaged in this land buying and building?" Priestley demanded.

"That would be rather a bombshell, wouldn't it?" Poynton observed, with a hard smile. "I am paying cash for the land out of one of my reserve funds. By the time the last of the houses is built, they will be paid for too."

"You are an alchemist," the Town Clerk declared. "You have learnt the secret of making gold."

His Mayor smiled happily.

"Wrong, my friend," he pronounced. "I learnt the secret of making boots and shoes. Russell is not treating us fairly this morning. He has given me more than my share of the wine."

He filled up his guest's glass.

"Your boy is coming to dine with me to-morrow night," he continued.

"The lad's awfully bucked," his father observed.

"It's only just the four of us at present," Poynton confessed. "There's a Miss Joyce Bellamy whom I met at Beaumanor, one of these young ladies whose hair looks like gold or silver according to whether it is the sun or moon shining upon it. She isn't twenty yet, I don't believe, but she's one of the new type. Geoffrey may understand her—I'm hanged if I do. Then there's Miss Allen. You remember old Colonel Allen, of course, the Beaumanor agent? He was the man who lunched here once and gave me a key to all the gates."

"Charming old fellow," Priestley reflected. "He died last year, didn't he? Hunting accident I think it was."

"Something of the sort. He left a very nice daughter who is still living in the house," Poynton confided. "I have just those two girls coming over, that's all."

"Not the great beauty, Lady Ursula?"

"Lady Ursula is lost in Egypt," Poynton replied.

"Well, you'll have to get hold of her," Priestley warned him. "We heard from the Lord Lieutenant this morning. He will come to the cutting and the luncheon afterwards but he points out that you must have a woman for the ceremony and as so much of the land is Bledbury land Lady Ursula is clearly indicated."

"You had better send her an official cable," Poynton suggested, "but I will write later. Can't say whether either will reach her or not. Priestley, what can I do to become once more a popular Mayor?"

"My dear fellow," Priestley replied, "the more you give away in good works here the more unpopular you will become with some of these manufacturers who are in a way your rivals. They don't stop to think of the poor people you are benefiting. They think you do it for your own vainglory. They can't see farther than the end of their villa gardens. They amount to nothing in life. It's the people you meet in the streets—the women wheeling perambulators and the men riding their bicycles home to the midday meal—those are the people who line the streets and cheer you when the time comes. I wouldn't bother about the others. There's very little admiration in the world that isn't tinged with a dash of envy. You must take more notice of the good things of life.... What a wine!" The Mayor smiled.

"Priestley," he said, "I am taking your advice all right. I am reorganising my small household. The only reason why I don't buy or build a larger place is because there is nowhere very much in Mechestershire I would care to live and I think a Mayor should live amongst his people, but I have taken Midwood away from the banqueting and put him and his wife in with some decent servants. I want you all to come and dine next week or the week after if my party tomorrow night is a success. I will ask the two young women again and young Manningham."

"I'm sure my girls would love that," Priestley declared. "We are awful snobs at our place and a Lord goes down with us, I can tell you. The girls have always had a weak spot for you, you know, but since your début as a romantic hero at the Assizes and your having been seen about, naturally enough, with the Bledbury people you have become a sort of emperor! Of course, you and I know it is all tosh but I would have less trouble with them if you would send them an invitation now and then."

"They shall have it all right," Poynton promised. "I think young Manningham is a decent sort myself but I'm afraid he's a bit wild, like his father was at his age. He called in to see me last night on his way home from the barracks and I think he had had a few drinks.... How are the plans getting on for the ceremony?"

"Not a hitch," was the confident reply. "Harbutt is working at it too. We fixed upon June the seventh and the lady who uses the trowel will do so somewhere near Bradcote on the site of the reservoir."

Poynton rose to his feet.

"Time's up," he announced. "Exit the popular Mayor. I suppose you notice, Priestley, not one of those fellows has been near the table. They have all been gassing round that lawyer chap. If only they knew it he can't help them. Tell Geoffrey not to forget eight o'clock. Short coat."

His old aloofness seemed to have come back to Poynton as he passed out of the Club. He looked neither to the right nor to the left. He drove straight back to the Works. There were ten minutes before the builders were due. He rang the bell for Miss Gray. She hurried in, notebook in hand.

"Just a word for you alone, Miss Gray," he confided. "It slipped my mind during the morning. Would it amuse you to come and dine to-morrow night and see your new household at work? The two young women I was telling you about and young Priestley are coming. I think I can scrape up another decent young man and if I have time to see about it I might try and round up a few more."

She looked at him earnestly.

"Would you mind very much, Mr. Poynton," she begged, "if I told you that I would rather not come?"

"Well, I should be disappointed," he answered.

"Thank you very much for asking me," she said, "and believe me, I am not being stupid about it. Any time when you want a little work done or a talk about the books I should be pleased, but to be quite frank with you—although I appreciate your asking me—I don't want to be a family friend."

"That seems rather unreasonable," he reflected.

"It doesn't in the least if you think about it," she assured him. "I am your secretary and therefore I must be seen at your house at odd times but it is better for me to keep away when you are entertaining guests."

She was looking at him anxiously all the time as though praying that he might understand. He smiled at her reassuringly. Curiously enough he was showing very human patches on this day of large events.

"I won't admit yet that you are right, Violet," he meditated, "but we will leave it like that for this time. One of the evenings I am free later in the week I want to talk to you about Charles Lamb."

"Any evening, any time," she assured him gratefully.


CHAPTER XXVII

THE Mayor's small dinner party was in its way an entire success, although Joyce was, for her, a trifle depressed and preferred devoting herself to her host to playing with the young Oxonian. Barbara Allen, however, was bright and versatile—obviously enjoying herself and much interested in what the young man termed the newest of the new movements at Oxford, which she criticised not unjustly as being nothing but a subtle form of individualism.

"Every form of modern thought," the young man argued, "tends towards individualism. Socialism now," he continued, turning to Joyce, "has points but it has been proved impracticable. Philanthropy has a definite foundation but refuses to conform to law. Individualism is the only classic creed which has survived. It needs readjusting to the demands of the present day. That's what we—I mean, our leaders," he added modestly, "are attempting."

Joyce bowed and looked up at her host.

"Daniel, please," she pleaded, "will you tell Mr. Priestley that I have no brain? It's no use his talking to me like that. I won't be played with and made fun of."

"But I feel the urgent need of conversation with you," the young man declared. "What can we do about it? I have a two-seater here which might get us up to Bond Street in three hours but I am afraid it is not extension night."

"We might start a little earlier some time," she suggested.

"Woodland Thorpe I think you said was the name of your village," he observed hopefully. "I shall be motoring that way in a day or two."

"Be careful, Joyce," Barbara Allen warned her. "Joyce's young man is back," she explained.

"Don't tell me you are engaged?" Geoffrey Priestley exclaimed.

Joyce considered the matter.

"Well, I never quite know when I am engaged," she replied. "Sometimes when I think I am the young man doesn't seem to remember anything about it and at other times when I don't know anything about it along comes a young man with the airs of one who expects to meet me at the altar within the next day or so. Now, when I came to dinner tonight I firmly believed that I was engaged to Mr. Poynton, but you can sec for yourself what small use he makes of his privileges."

Poynton took the girl's hand and held it for a moment tenderly in his, Geoffrey Priestley finished his champagne with an aggrieved air.

"I was asked to dinner to-night," he complained, "to meet a young woman who was perfectly free who had gold-and-silver hair."

Joyce pointed with her other hand.

"You see, he has claimed me. That's the worst of the Mayor. What he has he holds."

"Has Dad ever had any of this champagne of yours, sir?" Geoffrey Priestley asked, watching his glass being filled.

"I expect so," Poynton answered. "Anyhow he will next week. I'm going to ask the family to dinner."

"Cheerio!" the young man exclaimed.

"How nice," Joyce murmured. "Your people then will be able to see whether they approve of me."

"It's going to be a grown-up party," Poynton said severely.

"Could I help with the menu or anything?" Joyce begged. "You must have a girl to do these little things for you until you are married."

"You are altogether too forward," Barbara Allen declared. "I am of a much more suitable age—"

"You're twenty-four," Joyce interrupted, "and yon haven't the poise I have."

"Well, it's good to know there's help I can fall back upon in case of need," Poynton smiled.

"What would you young people like to do?" their host enquired when dessert was placed upon the table.

"Sit here and eat two of those marvellous peaches," Joyce answered swiftly.

"Well, when you have satisfied your greed?" Poynton persisted.

"Take my rude host into a corner and talk seriously to him," she declared. "If he will feed the starving poor sumptuously he must expect an exhibition like this. I don't care what we do. I am perfectly happy."

"I see a gramophone in the hall," Geoffrey Priestley observed.

Joyce shook her head.

"I never can dance with Oxford men," she complained. "They take too short steps."

"I'll take such long ones that we shall end in Paradise," the young man declared promptly.

Joyce leaned over to select another peach.

"More complications," she murmured. "Barbara, what am I to do? I am already engaged to two men and Mr. Priestley is becoming particular in his attentions."

"I'll take Mr. Poynton off your hands," Barbara suggested.

"He's the very one I don't want to part with," Joyce sighed.

"She wants all the peaches and all the men," Barbara Allen grumbled, "then she expects to be considered a popular guest. You haven't asked after Black Peter, Mr. Poynton."

"I had news of him to-day," the latter replied. "I sent Chambers over with a few more odds and ends. I was told that he was in the pink of condition, very happy and enjoying his new quarters. I can't get out until Saturday for a ride but Higginson, I hear, is exercising him regularly. If you young people would really like to dance I will have the gramophone moved into the lounge."

"I don't dance unless you do," Joyce declared. "The Mayors of Mechester," Poynton pronounced, rising to his feet, "don't dance."

Nevertheless Poynton did dance, and danced extremely well, too. They kept it up until nearly twelve, an hour after the car which their host had ordered to take them home had arrived.

'"I shall be giving another small dinner to test my new ménage," Poynton confided, as he accepted with unblushing readiness an affectionate caress from Joyce, "early next week. I shall expect you both and I shall ask Manningham to bring you over."

"Make it early in the week," Joyce begged.

"Monday or Wednesday, I expect. Sec which day your people are free, Geoffrey."

"Am I to meet the family then?" Joyce asked audaciously. "What fun! I have been through that so often and somehow I never suit."

"Is the car coming back after it has taken the young ladies home?" Geoffrey Priestley enquired.

"Straight away," Poynton told him.

"I think they need an escort," the young man declared. "I should love the drive anyway. May I come?"

Joyce gave a touching little imitation of the ingénue.

"It's taking you out of your way so far I'm afraid, Mr. Priestley," she said with downcast eyes.

"Oh, get in," Barbara enjoined. "We've had such a wonderful evening, Mr. Poynton. Your champagne was so delicious that I think I shall sleep all the way home."

"It won't help me," Joyce sighed. "My heart remains with my host."

The telephone bell rang just as Poynton was mixing his whisky and soda. He took up the receiver.

"Priestley speaking," a voice at the other end said. "Good news for us, Mr. Mayor. I have just had a cable from Lady Ursula at Cairo. She accepts with pleasure our invitation to the ceremony and to the luncheon and she adds to her telegram—'Why didn't Mr. Poynton write me himself?' She is leaving by aeroplane to-morrow. Address Hotel Crillon, Paris. You had better write and make your excuses."

The idea of writing Ursula seemed suddenly very attractive. Poynton glanced towards his table.

"I'll write to-night," he promised.

"Capital. How is the lad behaving himself?"

"Excellently, He's playing the cavalier in great form. He has just started off in the car with my two young ladies for Woodland Thorpe. He's coming straight back again, of course."

"Are you all alone, then?"

"Absolutely. I'm just mixing my whisky and soda."

"I've just got back from that stupid dinner at the Chamber of Commerce which you dodged. The car is still at the door. Would it bother you very much if I came round and took my nightcap with you?"

"Delighted to have you," Poynton replied. "Expect you in five or ten minutes."

"Righto."


Priestley established himself in an easy chair opposite his host and accepted a cigar. He approved of his whisky. He was eloquent both on the subject of the cigar and the improvement in the room.

"It seems to me someone has been looking after you, Poynton," he observed.

"Housewarming next week. I will expect you all—the little party I spoke of. Now tell me what's on your mind."

"Something pretty serious," Priestley admitted. "You know, Poynton, this is perhaps one of the most important years the borough has known for the last century. We are having our Charter presented to us during the same week as the first sod of the new water works is cut. Now it does seem to me frightfully important that nothing should happen to interfere with the atmosphere of peace and prosperity and progress which should—er—reign at such a time."

"I am entirely in agreement with you," Poynton said. "Tell me what you think is likely to interfere with us."

"This may, of course, be sheer gossip," Priestley went on, "but all the men in your line of business at the Chamber of Commerce to-night were full of it. They're talking about a possible strike."

"I don't think they need worry," was the equable reply.

The Town Clerk coughed.

"I don't mean a general strike," he confided. "I mean a strike at your factories alone. There are rumours that they intend calling your work-people out. Nothing, of course, could be more disastrous than that during the town's gala year and bearing in mind your official position."

"Makes one wonder, doesn't it," Poynton remarked, "whether there has not been a little method in the madness of these Trades Union people. They probably thought I would give way to anything to keep the peace. I have been reading books lately, Priestley. There is a saying of Carlyle's in which the population of the world is given as so many millions—mostly fools."

"What about it, Poynton?"

Poynton refilled his pipe with leisurely fingers.

"I'll tell you the truth in as few words as possible," he said. "There's not the ghost of a complaint against me from any of the work-people whom the Trades Union are supposed to serve. It is my brother manufacturers who are cooking this up. They object to my bonus system because by means of it, by choosing good work-people and educating them, I have got better results out of them than my rivals and I share the extra profit with the operatives themselves. That's what I call commonsense and Christianity combined. My rival manufacturers, to put it plainly, are content with any hands who apply for a job and pay them for what they produce, which is a long way behind my standards. How could anyone blame me for giving a bonus for greater production and better work? That is not breaking my agreement."

"It's commonsense and it's logic," Priestley admitted, "but you certainly derive an advantage by it."

"Let the others do the same then," Poynton argued. "It's open to them to start the same system at any time. There have been strikes for many causes, Priestley, but I never heard of one directed against a single firm who paid too high wages. The employers might turn him out of their Federation, perhaps, but the Trades Union are there to represent the work-people."

"Your case seems solid," Priestley agreed, "and of course it is from the reasonable man's point of view. It comes to this, though. The Trades Union are spoiling with money which they don't know how to use and amongst your three or four thousand hands there will always be a percentage who would enjoy a month or two on the street corners on full pay. That is the only danger that I can see, Poynton, and I don't believe they would try it on at all if it were not that this happens to be the one particular year when you are to receive honours as our first Lord Mayor and might be expected to be feverishly anxious to keep the peace."

"They won't try it on at all," Poynton declared confidently. "Even if they have made some sort of an evil contract with the Federation of Shoe Manufacturers I can still assure you that they won't try it on. Let me tell you something. Yesterday I bought the whole of the Ashley Park Estates for three hundred thousand pounds. I signed the provisional contract with the Amalgamated Building Society to build another thousand of my Poynton dwelling houses and two more stores. The whole is to be erected two years after the land is thoroughly drained and the roads cut. I also signed a provisional contract for buildings which will double the extra space provided by my two new wings. That was after Stevenage's threatening visit, mind."

The Town Clerk was speechless. He stared wonderingly at his host.

"But Poynton, my dear fellow," he expostulated, "can you possibly visualize an output for all these enormous extensions?"

"Easily," was the assured reply. "We are working overtime now and with that we are thousands of gross behind a week! I simply ask you—should I plan extensions of this nature if I had anything to fear from the Trades Union?"

"You have all the confidence in the world, I know," Priestley admitted, "but you are the wonder of the whole town now and the country, too, for that matter. There must be a limit to these expansions. You can't grow forever."

"It's a very regrettable fact," Poynton pronounced, "that my business must grow until my fellow manufacturers work on a different and wiser system. They show no signs of doing that at present. They're greedy for their balance sheets and when they get them they spend or invest their profits. They never give a thought to those other human beings whose labour has made those profits possible."

Priestley took a long draught of his whisky and soda which had stood for some time neglected by his side.

"Poynton," he said, glancing at the clock, "it's getting late. To talk to you is like an inspiration. I admit that. But I still, although I admit that you are indeed right, I still fear that the Union may try something against you. No one knows how much they have to play with but it's a much larger sum than they show in their balance sheet. They are in the dangerous position of a nation with an overfilled war chest. They might find it paid them to undertake even a losing war."

"Are you busy to-morrow morning?" Poynton asked.

"I am free at half past eleven," the other replied.

"At half past eleven precisely in my office I will set your mind at rest," Poynton promised. "I could not do it so effectually here and we are both sleepy."

The Town Clerk rose to his feet.

"At half past eleven I shall be at the Works."


CHAPTER XXVIII

THERE was no time for amenities the following morning at the Works. Poynton received two important Continental buyers before he was able to touch his correspondence and with Burden by his side insisted upon the elastic delivery clause on the very large orders which their visitors from Italy desired to place. Afterwards there were conveyancing lawyers who were promptly sent to Poynton's own solicitors to be dealt with. Then there were large deposit payments to be made on account of the land which Poynton had just purchased, cheques for which he signed one by one as they were presented by the cashier. Finally, for the first time, he turned to Miss Gray.

"I know how busy you are this morning, Mr. Poynton," she said. "I have sorted the letters down more closely than usual."

"Taken a trifle more responsibility, eh?"

"I have not run any risk," she assured her employer. "The only thing is I know that Mr. Burden is worried about output and I have not passed the orders on until he has looked them over and initialled them. They are heavier than ever this morning. Why does everyone want our boots and shoes, Mr. Poynton?"

"Because they are the best in the world for their price," he chuckled. "This pile is all that's left for me then?"

"It's all you need concern yourself with," she told him. "Was everything all right last night, Mr. Poynton?"

"Wonderful," he answered, "except that you were not there."

She gave him a swift upward glance of pleasure but continued her labours without stopping.

"You know that Mr. Priestley got in touch with Lady Ursula yesterday, and that she's coming to the ceremony?"

"I heard from Priestley last night," he observed. "By- the-by, I have given him an appointment that you don't know about. Eleven-thirty."

He dictated letters rapidly for several minutes, answered a few telephone enquiries of special importance and was ready for Priestley when he was announced. He installed his visitor promptly in an easy-chair, withdrew from his private safe a small sheaf of papers and turned to Violet Gray.

"Miss Gray," he enjoined. "I want you to send for Mr. Burden, Mr. Young, Collins, our chief cashier, and if Randall, the publicity man, is here—I sent word that he was not to go out—fetch him too. No delay. I hate repeating things and I want them to hear all I say to Mr. Priestley."

She went swiftly away. In less than three minutes she returned with the four men. She was leaving the room herself but Poynton called her back.

"You stay too, Miss Gray," he directed. "Gentlemen," he added, turning to the four, "I am told we are threatened, vaguely it is true, with a strike from the Union because of our bonus system, When I instituted it I obtained an interview with the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. I asked them to give me in writing their opinion as to the scheme. Read the letters and pass them round. You will see that the Home Secretary is warm in approval, the Prime Minister a little too laudatory but he winds up—this was three years ago, mind—by offering me a baronetcy. When you have read the letters I will pass you Counsel's opinion given by the three leading jurists in the country, one of them I may add the Counsel always selected by the Trades Union as their representative."

The letters were read. Counsel's opinion was unhesitating and final. No breach of the regulations existing between the manufacturers and the Trades Union was committed by a free gift. In ten minutes letters and opinions had been disposed of.

"Now you see, Priestley," Poynton declared, "why I am so confident in this matter. On the strength of these opinions and the communication from the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, the Trades Union could not force even a losing fight upon us. At the slightest move from their lawyers I should have given all these to be printed and distributed in thousands throughout the town. Every subscriber to the Trades Union would then know that their leaders were chucking money away."

Mr. Burden took the floor.

"Mr. Poynton, sir," he said, "we thank you for your confidence. We are proud to work for a firm directed with such splendid and farseeing genius."

"I think you will agree with me at any rate," Poynton concluded, "that we should have no fear of a strike and it may interest you all further to know that yesterday I bought the whole of the Ashley Park Estates and I am building a thousand more cottages and planning further extensions. All this will be for your benefit, gentlemen, as well as mine. Good morning."

He shook hands with them all, a voluntary action to which their response was hearty and immediate.

"Commerce on the higher planes," Priestley observed as he took up his hat. "Poynton, I will say no more than that you are a wonder. You will end by being Prime Minister yourself if you don't mind. That opinion from Sir Walter Cooper, their own man, was a masterpiece."

They all trooped out, all except Violet Gray. She stood with her fingers resting upon the edge of the table looking over at him. Her voice was not wholly under control. Her eyes were dim.

"I couldn't speak before the others, Mr. Poynton," she murmured. "I think you are wonderful."

It was curious that in a single moment the exaltation of a few minutes ago had disappeared. His little triumph seemed to have lost its flavour with accomplishment.

"I do everything in life which seems to me to be reasonable," he said bitterly. "I cannot make friends with my fellow manufacturers by scoring as the result of their incompetence. There are always a lot of loafers in every manufacturing town who are not genuine work-people. They are all Trades Unionists, of course. They will line the streets and boo at me when I pass—even those who are living in my houses. Gratitude is the rarest gift in the world. One makes as many enemies as friends by well-doing."

"That is not quite true," she assured him. "There are thousands in the town who bless your name whenever it is mentioned."

"You wait until these fellows find out that they are beaten before they start just because I have taken a wise man's precautions for the sake of my own work-people as well as myself, then you will hear me cursed often enough. And what does it really matter? Do you think any of those books with which you have lined my shelves, Miss Gray, could help a somewhat restless human being towards contentment?"

"That depends upon the cause of his restlessness."

"I will go and be scowled at at the Club," he decided, taking up his hat.


At the Club there were usually one or two members standing about in the entrance hall talking before they went in to lunch. This morning there were at least a score. There was old Jonathan South, whose eyes seemed to have crept closer together and whose nervous mouth was thin and querulous. There was Headley, pompous and flushed, with an aperitif in his hand—not the first one that morning, Poynton was sure. There was a handful of others—leading members of the Federation—all well known to Poynton. He greeted them with a general nod but he made no attempt to join in their discussions. He was perfectly conscious of the pause when he had entered. He lingered, however, to speak to a fellow manufacturer who was sitting alone and who had not been one of his callers of the previous day.

"So you didn't come along with the others yesterday morning, Fraser?" he remarked.

The man addressed shook his head. He was a tall, thin- faced person with a sensitive expression and more the air of a barrister than a manufacturer.

"No, I didn't come along," he admitted. "No sense in it anyway. All the same, you're making it pretty hard for us, Poynton."

"Just how?"

"You have been working on the same principle for years. It's a good one, of course, and you have been able to afford it. You have taken on the good hands out of season whether you have wanted them or not. You train them into your ways. You keep them employed, you turn out a lot of goods very near cost and in bad times you just rely upon the departmental profits. You have a perfect right to do it, of course, but the ordinary manufacturer has not the capital. Then the good times come and you have got your trained hands. They begin to earn their bonus and they never leave you."

"Well," Poynton agreed pleasantly, "that's a very fair résumé of what I really do. I am sure you are not one of those who would say that I was exceeding my rights."

Fraser passed his hand over his head a little wearily.

"You are within your rights, Poynton," he confessed. "No question of that. The Union will only burn its fingers if it goes for you. The only consideration is a moral one—whether it is quite fair to use your great capital, your splendid plant and—forgive my saying so—your brains towards crushing your weaker fellow manufacturers."

Poynton pondered for a moment.

"There are many answers to that, you know," he pointed out, "but if manufacturing is honestly conducted it must end in the survival of the fittest. If I neglect my opportunities, someone else might come along and with my huge factory and expenses I should be forced into a very different position. It is a battle all the time, you know. These others—poor old Jonathan South, for instance—they have been taking it too easily for years."

"So far as words and arguments go," Fraser admitted, "you are entirely in the right."

Poynton passed on to his usual table. Priestley soon sought him out.

"You have upset the applecart and no mistake," he remarked. "Stevenage has gone up to Manchester but they won't do a thing. You are in too strong a position, Poynton. If you keep your health and your will and your feet firmly on the ground you are safe. At the same time, you will admit, I am sure, that the Town Clerk is a sort of secretarial adviser to his Mayor on matters connected with the Borough."

"Go right ahead," Poynton invited. "Give me my drubbing."

"There isn't any drubbing coming," Priestley assured him, "but people do say sometimes that you visit very little amongst the townspeople. You give the usual formal dinners, you open the bazaars and keep well up with the public work, but if Alderman So-and-So or Councillor So-and-So asks you to drop in for a bit of supper one evening you don't seem hilarious about it."

"I'm not and that's a fact," Poynton agreed.

"On the other hand you have been seen coming out of the County Club once or twice and you were down at the Repository with Lord Frederick and Lady Ursula and you have had them at the factory. As my wife, who is a very fair reflex of the middle class social element here, says—'Mr. Poynton is going quite County.' Your little dinner party the other night which Geoffrey enjoyed so much—the Allens were great people in the county for many years, you know, until they lost their money and Colonel Allen took on estate work. And the little girl who likes to pretend that she is going to marry you—little Gold and Silver, Geoffrey says you call her—she's the daughter of a peer of a sort, too, you know."

"I hadn't the least idea of it," Poynton declared. "I never heard her speak of any relatives by name. I only know that I like her and I like Miss Allen and of course I admire Lady Ursula, and although it is much exaggerated there was bound to be a certain amount of friendship, wasn't there, after our little adventure?"

"Of course," Priestley acquiesced. "I quite see your point of view and personally, I am in entire sympathy with it. But—"

"Who in God's name could make the perfect Mayor?" Poynton interrupted. "You have to face the fact that I am not a social person. Bridge bores me. I don't like loose stories. I am not well enough read to discuss literature or the arts with the high-brows. Now you take a man in that position and his social existence is difficult. Make a Mayor of him and where are you? I do my best. Many a night when I have refused some stupid invitation to dinner or a supper where you are expected to eat too much and talk town gossip I have been working out schemes for the betterment of the town. They can't have it all ways."

"You are perfectly right," Priestley assented. "I haven't a word of personal criticism, mind. I am like the reflector which just catches the beams and turns them onto you. You could very easily put matters right, you know."

"How?" Poynton demanded.

"Well, for one thing I would suggest that you give a ball to follow the dinner on the night of our great festival. It doesn't matter much what it costs you. Get all the young people, all the borough officials, councillors and aldermen, have a few of your friends from outside if they care to come along. Show that you don't mind having them there."

"Perfectly sound. I'll do it," Poynton agreed.

"I don't suppose you care about dancing yourself," the Town Clerk went on, "but you could lead out an Alderman's wife in the crush, couldn't you?"

Poynton, guiltily conscious of the night before and of the fact that during his younger life dancing had been one of his few pleasures, agreed with well-modulated enthusiasm.

"I'll see my secretary this afternoon," he promised. "I'll have cards printed. It shan't be an official function. It won't cost the town a penny. I'll give the ball myself and I'll invite everybody. Any other hints?"

"I don't think so. By-the-by, did you ever know the real reason why Harbutt sent in his resignation?"

"Yes, I knew it," Poynton assented. "I would just as soon you didn't ask me. I think it was for the best."

"I won't ask you," Priestley agreed, "but there has been a good deal of gossip lately. I was wondering whether it had anything to do with that woman."

"Only very indirectly. I judge no man's private life."

"People arc much more lax than they used to be," Priestley reflected.

"Perhaps it is because circumstances have made them less critical. Not many men lead the life you do, you know, Poynton."

"I may change it at any time," his friend warned him. "I hope you will change it the right way. An unmarried Mayor is rather a rara avis but an unmarried Lord Mayor is an absurdity. Yet you have the air of a man who intends to lead a life of continence for the rest of your days. Scarcely human, you know."

"Shows how you fellows can come awful croppers when you judge from the outside," Poynton observed with a slightly contemptuous twinkle in his eyes. "I was within an ace of taking a mistress not long ago and there's a woman alive whom if she would have me I would marry tomorrow."

"Let's have a bottle of the Bernkasteler and drink to her health," Priestley proposed. "Would she make a good Lady Mayoress?"

"I should think she might be a great success," Poynton agreed. "In fact she has offered to do the duties for me already."

The wine arrived and the two men raised their glasses.

"I shall drink to the future Lady Mayoress, whomever she may be," the Town Clerk declared. "You are not a man who makes mistakes, Poynton. If your choice is an unusual one I shall believe it will work out for the best. Anyway, you are an unusual man and your life and career won't be bounded by the limits of this little borough of ours. I fancy you will go further than that. You know," he went on, "I can't help thinking of that letter of the Prime Minister's. You realize, I suppose, that there was a very strong personal note in it?"

Poynton nodded.

"I don't know whether there is any harm in telling you," he confided, "but I have been offered a safe seat twice. That is another matter though. I have not finished with Mechester yet. I am thirty-nine years old in a few weeks and I want to devote the next five years of my life to work here. After that I may change my plans and look further afield."

"Lucky fellow," the other sighed. "There's such a tremendous scope for anyone with your wealth and gifts, and that mighty machine you have which combines philanthropy and money making. I was ambitious in my younger days. You rather typify the romance of modern life as I used to dream of it. The worst of it is directly you take a job like mine with a limited income you're finished. I was telling Geoffrey the other night I should never recommend him to go in for any profession which ended with a fixed post and a salary. A man feels the shackles of it."

"Geoffrey is a nice lad," Poynton observed. "I would take him into the Works if he had serious thoughts from a broad point of view of commercial life. I have Harbutt's eldest son starting in Paris next week. I rather like trying out youngsters who have ideas. By-the-by, while I think of it, how about next Wednesday for my domestic house-warming? Five of you people, the two young women from Woodland Thorpe, Frederick Manningham, and I'll invite a couple of the officers from the barracks. Dinner at eight o'clock, dancing to a gramophone and bridge afterwards,' eh? There's the Medical Officer and his sister too. I'll ask them if we can find room, if not to come in afterwards."

"Delightful," Priestley exclaimed. "The right urban note about it, too. Don't forget the Council Meeting to-morrow night."

"Never forgotten one yet, have I?" Poynton answered. "There's going to be a fight about the East Mechester sewerage scheme. Can't think why the committees don't wash their own dirty linen and come to a decision before they submit themselves to the Council.... See you to-morrow, Priestley."

The Mayor strolled down the room dispensing and accepting the usual greetings. He paused for a moment at Jonathan South's table.

"Sorry if I was a little curt yesterday morning, Alderman," he said. "I think you will find, though, that my bonus system is all right. If you or any of the others want to fall in we would always be glad to show you the workings of it."

"Very kind of you," the old man grumbled. "Headley here might possibly be able to afford it. I couldn't. Wages are too high. That's what keeps us back."

"Well, there are more ways than one of looking at the matter, of course," Poynton replied. "My offer still holds good, though, if you change your mind."

He walked out and stepped into his waiting car. Nearly everyone at the tables in the large circular windows leaned forward to watch him.

"That man," Anthony, one of the leading solicitors of the town observed, "is not going to stay where he is. He will either soar or come a colossal crash."

"I hope he comes a colossal crash," Alderman South, who was a small-minded man notwithstanding a certain amount of commercial success, muttered.

Anthony shook his head.

"You will probably be disappointed," he prophesied.


CHAPTER XXIX

A QUARTER-OF-AN-HOUR in his very well-fitted-up gym, a bath and spray, fresh clothes and a dinner suit and Poynton descended to his study, a great part of his depression of the day gone. He found Violet Gray busily typing and Midwood at the sideboard with the cocktail shaker poised in his hand.

"White Ladies or dry Martinis to-night, sir?" he enquired.

"White Ladies," the Mayor decided. "Miss Gray, I think that at heart I am a domestic man."

He unfolded the evening paper and sank into an easy- chair. She smiled across at him.

"You will have to live a great many more years before you can decide definitely about that," she warned him. "That's the one thing I always forget about you," she added. "I always forget how absurdly young you are."

"I haven't felt like it to-day," he told her.

"Anything wrong?" she asked anxiously.

"Nothing. I am a cautious man really. I plan life so that troubles are not likely to come like wolves peering round the corner."

Midwood was the perfectly-trained servant. Though the young lady worked at the factory and was seated some distance away, he crossed the room to offer her the cocktail tray first. Then he came back to Poynton.

"Midwood," the latter asked as he fingered the stem of his glass, "when will the dining room be ready?"

"That depends upon Miss Gray, your worship," the man answered. "There's some furniture—a very beautiful antique sideboard, if I may venture to say so—and a dozen beautiful chairs. They are all unpacked and the carpet is down. The men could come up at any time, but we need Miss Gray."

"So does the factory, worse luck," Poynton observed. "Well, we'll think it over, Midwood."

He drank half his cocktail and set down the glass.

"Leave off now please, Violet," he said as Midwood left the room. "Come and talk to me. I told you that I felt domestic."

She crossed the room and lingered for a moment by his chair. Her hands, soft and cool, faintly perfumed from the soap she had been using, rested upon his forehead.

"You haven't a headache at any rate."

"I have no pains but an unusual desire to rest," he confessed. "I'm tired of problems and Aldermen with white beards and prominent teeth who snap my head off."

"You take life too seriously," she remonstrated.

"An abortive attempt to even up things, I suppose," he remarked. "Certainly half the world takes life too lightly."

"You gave us all a great surprise to-day," she said. "I felt so honoured when you asked me to stay to that conference."

"It set their minds at rest anyway. They ought to have known though that I should never run risks with the wage sheet. The Trades Union is dying to spend some of their money and the Employers' Federation would give their souls to get rid of me."

"What did you and Mr. Priestley talk about at luncheon time?" she asked, sipping her cocktail and lingering by the side of his chair.

"Great news for you, my child," he announced. "I am giving a ball on the night of the ceremony. Priestley is a shrewd fellow. I can see his point. Keep friends with the young people. They rule the roost to-day. Well, I'm giving them a ball. We'll do it in slap-up style. A band from London—nothing else that we can't get in the town but we must have one of these fashionable soft-music melodious orchestras."

"How exciting—for the young people!"

"Including Miss Violet Gray."

She shook her head.

"I should feel terribly out of place," she pleaded. "Besides which I should need a new frock, and I would rather spend the money on other things."

"Send me the bill," he suggested.

That very rare, quite fascinating smile played about the corners of her lips.

"Even a Mayor," she warned him, "cannot give his secretary clothes. Think of the scandal!"

"Do you mind?" he asked.

"I should be rather proud," she answered. "On the other hand a Mayor in his own town must remain a paragon of virtue."

"Suggesting that I am a sort of loose fellow when I get away," he smiled.

"No, I'm certain that you're nothing of the sort," she declared. "I don't know exactly what sort of a bargain a Mayor makes with his conscience but I do know that if you were my—"

She stopped suddenly. This seemed to be an evening of rare emotions for Miss Gray for she coloured slightly.

"Aren't we rather talking nonsense?" she asked.

"Finish your sentence," he insisted.

"Oh, I only left off because it sounded stupid," she explained. "If you belonged to me I should have every confidence in you. That's all. Peccadillos always seem to me so much more a matter of taste than morals."

"You might add opportunity in the subjective sense," he suggested. "I could imagine that many a man—or woman either for that matter—might have an open mind on the subject of what you call peccadillos, but chance and good taste might prevent their being exposed to anything dangerous in the matter of temptation. In other words," he wound up, "Mayors are not promiscuous. I am going to have another cocktail. You are making me think too much. Talk nonsense please."

"Like the little gold-and-silver-haired girl?"

"If you like. Midwood, mix me another White Lady," he ordered. "No good asking you I'm afraid, Violet."

She shook her head, showing her glass half full.

"Where is the great ceremony to take place?" she enquired.

"In a marquee in Bradcote Park," he told her. "It will only last about five minutes. The speech-making takes place at the luncheon afterwards. Shall I write out my speech?"

"You have never done such a thing in your life," she exclaimed indignantly. "At least I have never taken down the notes. I should hate to see you get up and fumble about with a manuscript like Alderman South did when he was Mayor, and most of the others. You know perfectly well that you would not dream of doing such a thing."

"You are quite right as usual, Miss Gray," he admitted. "I don't think I should. Here's Midwood bringing in dinner— hors d'oeuvres instead of soup, I see. Bless the man and his wife!"

They took their places. Poynton ate his first course in silence, pleased and contented. He was beginning to realise the immense change in his environment since the happy departure of the Greatsons. Something in him responded appreciatively to the new surroundings. The deft service, the absence of the uncouth waiting created an entirely different atmosphere. His nerves were no longer set on edge. He certainly was not a nervous man in an ordinary way. He glanced surreptitiously at Miss Gray. She was simply dressed as usual but everything about her was in harmony. There was a certain half-subdued elegance in her abstention from all ornaments or jewellery, the smooth texture of her skin and beautifully-brushed hair. Well, if a man must have his secretary to dine with him, Poynton reflected, he certainly had chosen the right kind of secretary. Then, with a thrill, his thoughts turned to Ursula. From the moment of their first meeting he had felt the same about her, only to discover by the illustrated papers and many other people's comments that the whole world shared his opinion—that she was even accounted one of the most beautiful women of her day. He turned to his companion.

"Miss Violet Gray," he said, "I have come to the conclusion that there is one quality which I perhaps possess."

"One? Well, what is it?"

"I think that I have a certain measure of correct taste."

"Why?"

"The choice of you for a dinner companion was the first thing that gave me the idea," he admitted.

"How sweet of you! Do I really please you a little, Mr. Mayor?"

"You please me a great deal," he assured her earnestly. "I think you and circumstances are teaching me a larger amount of humanity than I used to possess. A year ago I was inclined to be hidebound. I was afraid of experiments, afraid to trust myself. You have been one of the chief factors in changing that."

"You and this wonderful dinner," she smiled, "are making me fee! very happy."

There was an ominous pop from the sideboard.

"The completion of your bliss arrives," he observed.

"I thought perhaps," Midwood said respectfully, "a small bottle of champagne might be a change."

"An excellent idea," his master approved.

The meal flowed easily on. They talked a little spasmodically. Their silences were silences of pleasure rather than of awkwardness. Their coffee was served as before in the room. The nights were getting warmer. The small fire with a single log burning on the hearth gave the room a cheerful effect. Miss Gray moved to the window, handled lovingly the curtains which she had chosen with so much care and threw open the bottom sash.

"Shall you feel that for a minute?" she asked.

"I like it," he assured her.

She leaned out. The garden was a little stark but the elm trees on the other side of the lawn remained tall and splendid. There was a budding chestnut tree, too, closer at hand from which the night was drawing whirl's of aromatic perfume. A soft murmuring breeze was rustling amongst the leaves of a short avenue of limes. Violet closed the window.

"I'm afraid you will think I'm a most worriting person," she said, "but whoever your gardener is I should change him. You have no bulbs, there's scarcely a flowering shrub in the garden and nearly every one of your trees requires attention. I should send to Warner's and get some professional advice. You like flowers, don't you?"

Poynton, who thought of the wealth and colour at the Estate House, answered enthusiastically enough.

"Of course I do. I have no technical knowledge, though. I want an Arabian Nights miracle to happen, a fairy to come and wave a wand and pour out the showers of gold—my gold—and the flowers to come—in due season."

"Well, I'm willing to continue being the fairy godmother," Miss Gray declared, resuming her seat. "I do know something about gardens."

"There's only one thing, dear fairy," he pointed out, filling his pipe, "if I come to think about myself and my surroundings, my comfort and the aesthetic side of things—I have to confess to start with that I hate this house."

"I don't like it much myself," she agreed. "It might house a Mayor, perhaps, but it never ought to house a Lord Mayor. I doubt whether you could do anything about it now, though," she reflected. "You will have to go on entertaining at the Assembly Rooms and move directly afterwards."

"Look out for a house," he told her. "Trees, woods, pheasants, walled gardens—remember there must be walled gardens for fruit—a park with room for a few hurdles and space to gallop a horse. It must not be modern but it must have all the things that modern houses have—something spacious—something in which one would not feel cramped."

There was the sound of wheels in the drive. Violet Gray rose to her feet with an apologetic laugh.

"This is where I am going to be guilty of cheap duplicity," she confessed. "Don't interfere with me, please."

The table had been cleared some time ago. She seated herself at Poynton's beautiful desk and uncovered her typewriter.

"I have half a letter to finish," she said, "then you can look through the others, sign them and send me home. Here goes."

The typewriter clicked away. When Midwood opened the door to announce Mr. Priestley, Violet's white fingers were flashing over the keys and Poynton, who scorned the subterfuge of the evening paper which she had thrust into his hand, was lounging in his easy chair smoking his pipe.

"Sorry to make a nuisance of myself," Priestley apologised, "but I must have just a word with you, Poynton."

The latter noticed his visitor's disturbed expression. He pointed to a chair.

"Do you mind breaking off with that letter for a few minutes, Miss Gray?" he begged. "Is your business private, Priestley?"

"Not from Miss Gray," the latter, who had a great admiration for the young lady, replied. "We don't want a lot of gossip about the matter, though. From one point of view it has no significance at all. All the same it is disturbing. The Chief Constable rushed up to see me half-an- hour ago. That fellow Marrables has escaped."

"What, from our gaol?" Poynton exclaimed.

"Yes," Priestley acquiesced. "Only four men have done it in a hundred years. He had outside help, of course. The Chief Constable has taken a posse of police down to the gipsy encampment on the Recreation Grounds. He's pretty certain they're in it. He told me to tell you not to worry but to keep your doors locked and a loaded revolver would not be a bad idea. We have telephoned to Beaumanor. Lady Ursula is well out of the way on the Continent somewhere."

"Why are you worrying about us?" Poynton asked.

"I'll make a clean breast of it," his friend declared. "That's what I'm here for. Ever since he's been in prison he has had bad fits of going into the most awful storms of abuse against you and Lady Ursula, He has persuaded himself that it's because you two are what he calls 'bloody toffs' and gave your evidence in such a devastating manner that he got such a sentence, and he's told each one of the warders in turn that when he gets out he's going to do you in."

"My dear fellow," Poynton expostulated. "You have had some experience. Haven't you come across dozens of other prisoners before who have harboured that vicious grudge against the persons whose evidence convicted them?"

"Well, I must confess I have," the other admitted, "but this fellow is a real bad lot and he seems to have impressed the warders. They'll catch him in a day or two without a doubt but in the meantime this is a lonely house and there's no harm in taking every precaution, is there?"

"Not the least," Poynton agreed. "I'm as thankful as you are that Lady Ursula is away but so far as I'm concerned there are two menservants sleeping in the house and two or three in the cottages. I'll have the fastenings looked at, put the servants on their guard, look over my revolver and let the gardener's dog loose. Can't do more, can I?" He rang the bell.

"You'll have a whisky and soda?"

"Don't mind if I do," Priestley acquiesced. "Gave me rather a shock to think of that blackguard prowling about."

The drinks were brought in and served.

"Tell you what," Poynton suggested. "If you wouldn't mind taking Miss Gray down I needn't send a car out and my chauffeur can look round the place. He was a policeman before the war and he's still a bit of a bruiser."

"With the greatest pleasure," Priestley agreed. "Miss Gray, will you accept the escort of an elderly admirer?"

"I'd love to," she assented. "You're sure you have a car here, because I can get down perfectly well by tram?"

"Rubbish!" Poynton exclaimed a little curtly. "You don't suppose I should allow you to leave the house alone with that raving lunatic hanging around. What about the night cables?"

"They're all ready, sir. You remember the code I expect?"

"Know it by heart," Poynton acknowledged.

He read through the cables one by one. All correct. He glanced through the letters and signed them. Not a single error. He handed back the sheaf of papers with a smile.

"Have a glass of wine before you go?" he invited.

She shook her head.

"No thank you. As soon as Mr. Priestley is ready I am."

They drove off together a few minutes later—the Town Clerk and the Mayor's secretary. Poynton disclosed the situation to Midwood, saw that his own windows were in order, placed his revolver within reach and locked the door. In half-an-hour he was ready for bed and slept peacefully until morning.


CHAPTER XXX

THE Mayor's dinner party a few nights later turned out to be quite a formidable affair. Midwood and the second man, however, assisted by a parlourmaid, were quite equal to the service and Mrs. Midwood's cooking was famous throughout the country.

"If an old friend may do so, Mr. Mayor," Mrs. Priestley said, "I should like to congratulate you upon the improvement in your domestic arrangements. These Midwoods are a wonderful couple and everything else seems in keeping. The new arrangement of your rooms, too, is a great success."

"I'm very glad you approve," Poynton answered.

"We are all tortured with curiosity," Joyce observed from the other side of the table. "What with the flowers and those beautiful shaded lights and the new draperies we are certain that Mr. Poynton has had feminine help."

"An interior decorator in Bond Street had something to do with the curtains and the lights," he admitted. "Then my secretary down at the Works has been exceedingly useful. I have had plenty to do the last few months," he went on, "or I should have realised that the Greatsons were hopelessly inefficient."

Mrs. Priestley agreed. Every now and then she looked with a pleased smile a little farther down the table on the other side to where Lord Frederick between her two daughters was apparently being very entertaining indeed.

"Such a good-looking family the Manninghams, aren't they?" she murmured to the Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Watkins, on her other side. "Lady Ursula is so lovely and her brother very good-looking."

"Which is he?" the latter asked. She pointed him out with some pride.

"The young man talking to Laura. They seem to have become great friends."

"By-the-by, sir," young Priestley enquired, "have you heard if they have caught that fellow Marrables who escaped from the prison here?"

"I don't think so up to the present," Poynton replied. "The Chief Constable tells me that they have found the man who helped him to get away in that gipsy encampment on the Recreation Grounds, and they have traced Marrables to London. It seems he tried to take a berth to Portugal on a freight steamer and they were waiting for him on the docks but he got to know about it and never turned up."

"He's a desperate fellow and no mistake," Priestley pere observed. "No one has ever got away by the outside wall before. He must have had a drop of forty feet."

"Hateful position he must find himself in, I should think," Poynton remarked. "He must know that he's pretty well cornered now."

"It's a queer neighbourhood down by the docks," Dr. Watkins meditated. "I used to be at a hospital close there and I spent quite a lot of time with a friend of mine who was at Scotland Yard watching some of the suspected craft coming in and out. If a criminal is in with a certain gang down there he can generally wriggle out of the country some way or other. It's the other end he finds more difficult."

Poynton was gazing reminiscently down the table. The mention of the man had brought back for a moment the memory of the adventure for which he was responsible. Without Marrables there would have been no Lady Ursula, there would have been no awakening of that strange flood of wild sentiment which had assailed his well-ordered life. There would have been none of this passionate desire for books. There must be some method of shaping his life and thoughts so that he could deal with this curious new disturbance.

In fancy he could see her for a single moment. She would probably be at the Hotel Crillon dining. For some ridiculous reason he pictured her as he had once come across her picture in an illustrated paper, with pearls around her beautiful neck and a fragment of priceless lace draping her alabaster shoulders. He saw the light in those deep-set pale blue eyes, the smile of eyes and lips together, heard the whisper of her voice as he had once heard it in one breathless moment through the rain-soaked stillness. A few weeks and she would be here by his side before all these thousands of people, she to whom the world had so much to offer was coming to keep her promise to play Lady Mayoress for one hour. He pushed the thought away from him and became once more the attentive host. Almost as he did so, however, he caught Joyce's eye. She was looking at him for once without a smile, with something in her amber eyes curious to define—almost a gleam of pity....

Dinner became gayer still as the younger people established control. The Priestley girls needed little encouragement to turn anything into a romp and Joyce and Freddy, even Barbara Allen in a more subtle way, were all ready to join in. There was no lingering over the port to- night. Almost as they reached the dessert there came to them the faint sound of violins from the lounge. Joyce sprang to attention. She listened again.

"What music is that, Mr. Mayor?" she demanded breathlessly.

"It's a small orchestra from London," he confided. "Andrew's, I think they call it."

She jumped from her place, threw her arm round his neck and kissed his cheek.

"You adorable man!" she exclaimed. "Barbara, did you hear? Andrew's Band down here!"

"Only half of it," Poynton hastened to explain. "I told them the exact dimensions and height of the lounge and Andrew himself chose what to send."

After that there was no holding the younger people. Everyone trooped out into a transformed lounge. It was the only apartment of any dignity in the house but it answered its purpose admirably. There were settees the whole of the way round before which were placed little tables for coffee. A raised space brought in at the last moment had been provided for the orchestra and a prepared dancing floor laid down, which was at any rate larger than the one upon which Andrew's clients were compelled to disport themselves. There were murmurs of astonished voices.

"Why, you are a magician, Mr. Mayor," Miss Watkins, the doctor's sister, cried. "There were no signs of this when we came in."

"It isn't I who am the magician," Poynton assured them. "There were thirty people at work before our caviar was served."

"I did hear various rumbling sounds," Freddy declared. "They somehow reminded me of the days when I went to children's parties. I had no idea anything of this sort was coming though. Miss Priestley, do I have the first dance with you or does your mother sake the floor?"

"With me," Laura cried, clutching his arm. "Mother will sit and smile at us. Honestly, she doesn't like dancing and I expect you dance too well for any of us down here."

All of a sudden a thin strain of music stole from Andrew's bow, then the 'cello chimed in, the oboe from somewhere in the background made itself heard. With that magical insistence which such music has it was heard above all the service of coffee and conversation. Freddy and Laura Priestley were first upon the floor. Poynton was almost dragged there by Joyce.

"Duty or no duty you told me yourself that this was not a party," she insisted. "It isn't a party, is it?"

"Still, there are half-a-dozen young fellows aching to dance with you, Miss Joyce," he pointed out.

"And there's a pain at my heart that will never cease until I have danced with you, Mr. Daniel Poynton," she replied. "Do you know what a wonderful person you have been to my dearest friend Barbara? Just what you have done, and so charmingly too, has made life possible for her. We watch Black Peter being exercised every morning. The whole village is crazy about him. When are you coming again?"

"To-morrow afternoon most likely," he said. "As soon as I can get away. I'm just as anxious—You know how I love that country."

"I know," she admitted. "Tell me," she added after a brief silence. "How do you feel about seeing Ursula again?"

He looked down at her. She was like some fairy child that he might have drawn out of a dream garden or a spirit- haunted cave, not only strangely beautiful in her elfish way but so far removed from any alikeness to other human beings. It was only the daring of her frock and her over-manicured nails which in a sense humanised her.

"Why did you ask me that question, you little pest?"

"Because you and I share a secret," she whispered. "You have never told me but I know. You called me a sprite once, you know, and sprites are half fairies and they know all there is to be known about love."

He sighed.

"Do they know how painful it is?" he asked.

"Even their ambassadors know that. Sometimes I have been sorry. I'll tell you this, Mr. Mayor. There's no one else in the world who would have brought her back from Egypt. A little more than that is her secret and that I must not tell you."

They danced on in silence. He was curiously lighthearted. The world which had been thundering about his ears for the last few weeks was suddenly quiet. Ursula was coming because of him! There was nothing else.

"Tell me, my wonderful but reluctant lover," she begged, "where did you learn to dance like this? No man of your size and height ever touched the ground so lightly. Have you had lessons from one of the great artistes? Is that where your hidden hours are spent?"

He smiled.

"My child," he assured her, "I have never had a lesson in my life. When I hear music and I am on a floor like this and have a partner like you I can dance after a fashion. A bad floor, an indifferent orchestra, an uninspiring partner and I become at once the clod that I suppose I ought to be."

"Everyone is talking about you," she told him with a twinkle in her eyes. "I can hear them as we pass. I don't believe you have ever danced in Mechestershire before."

"I don't think I have," he confessed. "And that reminds me. I must not keep you any longer. I shall leave you here with Mrs. Priestley until the first one snatches you. Ah, I can see it is going to be Lord Frederick."

"Just in time, sir," Freddy observed as he took possession of his host's partner. "I was going to ask whether we could not imitate a hateful American custom and cut in."

"No need," Poynton answered smiling. "I claim privileges but I never abuse them. Besides, I have a few more young guests to greet."

He went over to welcome a little company of new arrivals whom Mrs. Priestley had selected—a very agreeable party somewhat abashed at the idea of dancing to Andrew's music but nevertheless fully determined not to miss a minute of it. Poynton danced with Barbara Allen and both the Priestley girls. Then he announced amidst a chorus of remonstrances his retirement for the evening and joined some of the elders.

"You marvellous man!" Mrs. Priestley cried with upraised hands. "And to think we have known you for four or five years and never seen you dance before."

"I am not at all sure now that it is seemly for a Mayor. Have you had coffee? Yes? You must try that brandy, Priestley, and then if you like I think I can fix you up with a rubber."

"What a host," his friend murmured.

"What a party!" Mrs. Priestley exclaimed. "How do you think Laura and Connie are looking, Mr. Poynton? They are furiously excited."

"They're looking wonderful. Both delightful to dance with, too."

"And that divine child—the Honourable Miss Joyce Bellamy someone told me her name was—I never saw anyone look so much like a fairy in real life."

"You know," Poynton confided, "I am more fond of her than I could tell anyone nor could I explain the mysterious sort of affection other people beside myself have for her. She comes across the room to welcome me sometimes, throws her arms around my neck and I feel that a child has just dropped her lesson books on her way home and run across the street to greet me, and she comes to me at other times with that queer smile and her eyes—I don't know what she does to her eyes but they look as though they could eat the heart out of any man and her fingers feel full of electricity when she touches you, and one feels that so far from being a child she has lived long enough to know everything the world could teach."

"My dear man, you are growing fanciful," Mrs. Priestley laughed.

Her husband shook his head.

"I understand exactly what Poynton means," he said. "There is something fey about her. How old is she, Poynton? Fifteen or twenty-five?"

"She is nineteen," he answered. "I think that she will marry Manningham now that the family fortunes have changed. He will make her a bad husband but it seems to me amongst the people of that class nowadays the marriages that seem the most improbable last the longest."

"The young man seems delightful," Mrs. Priestley murmured, "but I don't think he seems the sort of husband for her."

"Come along," her host invited, "we are going to collect a few people for bridge for you now."

Tables were quickly arranged. Mrs. Priestley was lost in admiration of the study into which they were conducted.

"Mr. Mayor," she said, "I shall simply go crazy with curiosity unless you tell me who the inspiration is behind all this new atmosphere."

"I won't try you so high," he answered good-humouredly, "in fact I really think she ought to have the credit for it. This room—the choice and the arrangement of the books, that lovely table and the antique desk of mine, the hangings, the carpets and everything were all chosen by my secretary at the Works—Miss Gray."

"Then you can tell Miss Gray from me she is the most amazing person," Mrs. Priestley declared.

"You mean that delightfully-mannered young woman who is always taking down your letters or doing things for you without being told?" her husband demanded.

"That's she."

"Most unusual type," Priestley continued. "Secretaries are generally rather fussy people. This girl moves like a shadow. She never seems to make a mistake and she never seems to make the slightest noise. She is as remarkable in her way as the girl you were dancing with—Joyce Bellamy."

"Why isn't she here to-night?" Mrs. Priestley asked. "The girl who has done all this must be something very much out of the ordinary."

"She had an invitation," Poynton assured them. "Nothing that I could have said would have induced her to come. I don't even know whether she dances. I know scarcely anything about her private life except that her uncle was a doctor here and died without a penny and she served a sort of half apprenticeship to some decorators in Bond Street. She is intelligent and needless to say well-mannered and a young woman with remarkably fine instincts, but she is almost as obstinate as I am myself."

"I insist upon meeting her," Mrs. Priestley went on graciously. "Wouldn't she come when we are alone?"

"She might," Poynton agreed without enthusiasm. "We will wait anyhow until all this fuss is over next month. As a matter of fact I am going pretty well into retirement myself. Here are your opponents. I shall leave you to settle details—cards and markers on the table."

"Everything all right down at the Works?" Priestley asked, as they took their places.

"Couldn't be better," Poynton assured him. At midnight Andrew's Band, who had seldom played to such an enthusiastic audience, were given a special supper in the dining room and without an instant's pause the best and most popular Mechester orchestra took their place. Poynton had declined to dance again, but Joyce, on the pretext of needing champagne and paté de foie gras sandwiches, lured him into a retired corner.

"This is very nearly the nicest party I was ever at," she told him.

"Why not the nicest?" he demanded.

"Because you won't dance with me as often as you ought," she complained. "Now I have you to myself, though, and I have something to say to you."

"Well?"

"It's about you and Ursula."

He was silent. She laid her hand upon his.

"More than once," she went on, "you have told me that I have queer gifts, that I am not quite of the earth. That is so with some people, you know. Perhaps it is with me. At any rate remember it when I say something to you."

"Very well."

"First of all please answer me a question. You are very fond of Ursula, aren't you?"

"I am," he admitted. "An element of the ridiculous about it, isn't there?"

"If you say another word as banal as that," she told him severely, "I shall not say what I was going to and it might be very important to you."

"I am rebuked," he answered. "Go on, please."

"Was there a time," she asked, "when you saw Ursula before she went to Cannes and on to Egypt, when she went out of her way to give you an opportunity to say a very important thing to her?"

He didn't even pretend to reflect.

"Yes."

"Why didn't you say it?"

"I lost my courage."

"You felt it?" she-asked.

"I did," he assured her.

"And the only reason you didn't take the opportunity she gave you was a momentary faltering. Oh, what those moments in life have to answer for!"

"That's true."

"Now I am going to tell you this," she concluded, "and if Ursula thought I had interfered she would hate me, and I feel mean about it because she has been my friend every minute since I was born and I have known you just long enough to like you a great deal too much. At the bottom of my heart I know I am right in the advice I am going to give you. I am generally right when I am serious. I am doing it because I love Ursula. The moment you see her again find an opportunity—make it—you are strong enough to make anything of that sort come to pass if you want to. Ask her what you want to ask her. Don't delay one single instant. Will you promise me?"

"I will," he answered.

She sprang to her feet and went to meet the young man who was coming to claim her. The band was playing a waltz. Poynton walked through the rooms seeing nobody but with something in his expression which attracted the attention of all of them.

"I think that the Mayor," one woman said, "is the youngest and happiest-looking man I ever saw in such a responsible position."

"Not much of a hand at small conversation, I don't think," her partner remarked. "Did you notice how strangely tired that girl with whom he has been talking so long looks now?"


CHAPTER XXXI

IN the warm twilight of the long May evening, the Mayor walked Black Peter slowly up the grassy way round and round amidst the fragrant gorse and budding heather on to the bare top of Beacon Hill. He had ridden farther than usual that afternoon and faster, but his thoughts were still in a turmoil.

His discomposure of mind had nothing to do with the fact that the great day for Mechester was so close at hand. Every arrangement had been made, down to the slightest detail of the brilliant, long-expected function. If rain should come a portable tent was near at hand which would cover the small space to which Lady Ursula's task was confined. The few formal words which she was to speak had been engrossed for her on parchment and bound in vellum. A silver trowel with her name engraved upon it was ready in its mahogany box, the spot where it was to be used marked out to an inch.

It was not of the pageant itself that Poynton was thinking when he looked down at the dimming landscape. For the first time in his life he was struggling with a fierce indecision. Dare he trust Joyce Bellamy's instincts? Without those few words from her which had lingered in his memory every moment since the night of the dance, he knew very well that he would have kept silent. A certain power of divination had impressed him deeply with a conviction of Ursula's extraordinary sensibility. It was as sensitive as some windswept instrument to respond to the music which flitted over its strings. But after all there was no permanence about such melody. He figured to himself in these his despondent moments Ursula's day-by-day life in Mechester, the people amongst whom her duty would he, upon whom she would have to expend her sweet graciousness. He thought of her own circle of friends speaking a different language, moving through life to different impulses with different tastes, people of culture or breeding or both, people of a genus unknown in Mechester. The thing was an impossibility, he told himself. All those tender half-born thoughts which had been creeping into his consciousness must go. Poisonous weeds, all of them. A brave man all his life, he had never been one to challenge disaster. At the very apex of his career he would be a fool to court a situation which might cost him his self-He had meant to include one more brief pilgrimage in his afternoon's ride but he thrust the idea away from him. He patted Black Peter's glossy neck and swung him gently round. He steered him carefully down the dangerous path amongst many deep-buried fragments of ancient stone until he arrived at a strip of level sward. Then he allowed himself to look downwards towards Beaumanor and a little shiver brought him almost to a standstill. The flag was flying gaily in the smoothly-moving evening breeze. She had come, then, a day before the actually necessary time.

Arrived at the Estate House he went through the usual routine almost mechanically. Higginson met him at the gate and took over Black Peter. Poynton waited while he entered his stall, saw him comfortably established and then, according to a now thoroughly established custom, turned the shining brass handle of the black oak door, hung up his hat and riding crop and entered the lounge. A woman was standing there alone. He suddenly realised that she was Ursula. Her hands were outstretched, a welcoming smile upon her lips.

"You dear man," she exclaimed, "I was praying that I might see you. I heard you were out on Black Peter so I came down here to waylay you. How are you and is everything ready for the day after to-morrow? I'm getting very excited."

"Everything is ready now that you are here," he said.

"Come and sit on the couch by my side and tell me all about everything," she invited.

Then away went all his hidebound resolutions.

"I have been wanting to sit on a couch somewhere or be with you somewhere for so long," he told her. "Now that the time has come I don't think I want to talk about that function."

"But I must know what I am to say," she pleaded a little nervously.

"It's all beautifully written out and engrossed for you," he confided. "A special emissary from the Town Clerk's office will be over at Beaumanor at nine o'clock to-morrow, will give you every possible shred of information and convey you to the actual scene if you like—barely two miles from here."

"How well you manage things," she murmured, "but you are going to look after me yourself, aren't you? It is you who will be my escort—not the Town Clerk."

"That's quite true," he assented. "For a few minutes of your life you will have to honour and obey me. From the bottom of my heart, Lady Ursula," he went on, "I wish I could induce you to say the whole sentence."

"This is terribly ingenious," she said, and her voice had sunk so low that it seemed to him to come from a long distance away. "You are not in earnest, of course."

"No man who ever trod the earth," he told her, "was more in earnest than I am when I tell you that I care for you more and differently than for any woman I have ever known."

He took her hand. She let it remain unresistingly in his. He would have drawn her gently into his arms. The incredible thing seemed as though it were indeed happening. Then very gently, with an action which seemed to breathe of delay rather than resistance, she held him away.

"My dear," she whispered, "I am so proud to hear you say that. I think it is wonderful, and now I am going to tell you something which I hope will bring you just a little happiness too, even if it is not—just at this moment— everything. I care for you too, much more than for any man I know—more than any man I have ever known."

"Enough—to marry me?" he asked hoarsely.

"Ah, I must say something about that," she begged. "Be patient with me, Daniel. You will know that it is reasonable that I should have—what shall we call them?—fears."

"I know," he admitted. "There are big things to overcome. Do not think that I don't realise it. Only this afternoon I made up my mind that it was not fair to ask you what I have asked you. The thing is too unequal. You have so much to give and I nothing—nothing to sacrifice. I saw the folly of it an hour ago, then I came in here and found you alone and all my commonsense went. It seemed to me that at least I must tell you that I love you."

Her fingers closed upon his hand tenderly.

"I shall always be proud that you have said that, Daniel. Very likely I shall remind you of it many and many a time in the future, but you know marriage is terribly, terribly important, isn't it? I have had to say no too many times already because I was not sure. I must be absolutely certain before I say yes. No, don't interrupt, please," she begged. "Between you and me there is no particle of difference. You are a man and I believe in your love. I am a woman and I have great faith in my own. It is the outside circumstances one has to consider just a little. You must admit that I should be accepting duties utterly strange amongst people who might almost be termed foreigners. Should I be able to play my part, do you think, Daniel? Would it make a hypocrite of me if I had to keep on pretending things I didn't feel—not to you but to others?"

"I could sever my connection with Mechester altogether," he said slowly. "One year would be the limit of your suffering. I must serve my year as Lord Mayor. After that it is you who could write the programme of our lives. I could live in London and devote myself to politics. I could travel or I could buy you a country house and a town house and you could continue your life of sport and pleasure here. Your father once spoke of selling Beaumanor. It would be a joy to me to buy it for you."

"But should I have the right to change your life like that?" she asked. "Look what you have made of it. From nothing at all you have become the greatest man in an important town. Here you reign as a beneficent god. The people worship you. They owe their prosperity to you. Streets are named after you. A wing at the hospital bears your name. People turn to you in time of trouble and you never fail them. How should I feel if I made you give up this, when you are doing a real man's work, to adopt the easy fashions of life, and alas I am afraid the easy code of morals, which exist amongst my own people? And yet this is where the screw hurts, Daniel," she went on, her arms tightening around his neck. "This is where reasoning falters and fashion begins. I have been brought up with these people and my father and grandfathers before me. Their ways are my ways. Their outlook is my outlook and God above is the only one who knows whether I could change even for the sake of the man I love. You could prophesy—you might be right and you might be wrong. I could prophesy. I might be wrong and I might be right. It is not my life alone I am afraid of spoiling. It is yours, and yours is worth more than mine."

"Let the risk be mine," he begged. "I swear upon a word I have never broken that if we fail you shall have your freedom and the blame shall be mine."

She drew even closer to him.

"My dear," she said, "I want something more final. It is not fair either that you should take all the risk. I will take my share. Listen, the day of the festival shall be our test. You are not to leave my side all day. I am to sit next to you at luncheon, I know. You must introduce me to all the civic dignitaries and their wives. You must leave me alone to see whether I can speak their language. I must be your guest at the banquet at night and you must be my escort to the ball. At the end of the day I will tell you and when I have told you it shall be forever. I seem weak, Daniel, but I am not really. I only want to be sure that I can hold my place. You are content? Quickly—because I hear the pony cart. Barbara and Joyce are coming back."

Joyce and Barbara came racing in full of excuses. They had missed the train in Mechester. The pony cart was late at Woodthorpe Station. Tea was coming in at once. All the time the two waited. The suspense became almost too great for Joyce. Ursula laughed as she made her announcement.

"The day after to-morrow," she confided, "Daniel and I are going to make a great experiment. At the end of the day, if you stay with us so long, you shall know whether the news is good or bad and that's just all we have to say, my two dear friends, except that my appetite is divorced from the affections and I am dying for tea."

"I am dying to be put out of my misery," Joyce complained, as she rang the bell. "Of course you know that if Ursula is not Lady Mayoress I am going to be."


CHAPTER XXXII

ONE hundred thousand of the inhabitants of Mechester thronged the hills and various eminences of Bradcote Park on that memorable day. There were at least a thousand invited guests upon chairs placed around the carefully-enclosed amphitheatre and in the marquee where the luncheons were served. Then there were four smaller tents—one for the Lord Lieutenant, one for the Mayor, one for the Town Clerk and one for Sir Perceval Stanton, the local member of Parliament. There was a line of motor omnibuses nearly a mile long at the entrance to the Park and late-comers with automobiles found entrance difficult. Captain Lord Freddy Manningham, in command of a company of the Yeomanry, was there to help the County Police. He spent most of his time galloping wildly about between the tents where refreshments were being distributed with a liberal hand. The Lord Lieutenant, the Deputy Sheriff and a few of those holding official positions were in uniform and a great many silk hats gave their wearers a curiously incongruous appearance upon the gigantic picnic ground. The Mayor himself wore a grey Ascot suit with tailed coat and a grey tall hat with a black band, the formal dress favoured also by a good many of the older members of the County families. The chain of office which Daniel assumed only at the last moment he wore always with dignity because he was genuinely proud of its significance. Lady Ursula, who met him in the private part of the reception tent a few minutes before the ceremony was due to commence, congratulated him upon his appearance.

"My dear Mayor," she pronounced, "your clothes are absolutely perfect Ascot and you wear that chain—well, as no man in the world could wear it."

"I won't try to pay you compliments," he rejoined, "because all the papers and the illustrators will be doing that directly but the next time I see you in white I hope there will be a train!"

Her little grimace was sweet and subtly shy.

"It is extraordinary," she confided, "but arriving here with Father in uniform and being brought straight in to you I feel as though I were going to be married. I am expecting to hear the bells at any moment."

"Instead of which," he said, "you hear the summons which calls us outside. No, not for a moment," he added, restraining her forward movement. "Let the others take their places round first. I will carry the trowel. You have the scroll, haven't you? You know what to say."

"I have learnt it by heart," she told him, "but all those thousands of people on the hills are not expecting to hear it, are they?"

"Not all of them. You will find all sorts of little instruments around you—sound intensifies of different sorts. Don't take any notice of them. Just say your few words as though you were speaking to me."

"How calm you are," she shivered. "I am horribly nervous—shaking in every limb."

He smiled.

"There is nothing to be nervous about," he assured her.

"Do I take your arm?" she asked.

"Not at this ceremony," he answered.

"You are rather audacious this morning, Daniel," she commented.

"Now we start," he told her, lifting the flap of the tent. "That's right. I expect you are being filmed," he went on, as the murmur of voices started from the hills, growing in volume with every moment. "You have the scroll in your hand," he continued, as they passed down the avenue of people, "I have the trowel in this mahogany box. When we arrive at that little taped-off circle the man will drop the ribbons and you will step inside. I then hand you the trowel, you give a little dig, read the words of the scroll, return me the trowel and as soon as we can get back through the crush there will be a double cocktail waiting for you— one of Midwood's best."

"You make it all very simple and easy," she declared, moving gracefully along by his side.

"Well, it isn't complicated," he said. "Now we're there."

They paused. The tapes fell away. Lady Ursula with a little swing of her skirt and a laugh at her companion stooped down and made a neat incision in the green turf. She read her few words to the silent group around, then she stepped out of the circle and the tape was fastened up again. The applause came rumbling down from the hills and swelled presently into tremendous volume. All around a forest of hands seemed to be joining in the clapping. Small children gave her flowers. With Poynton still at her left and the Lord Lieutenant on the other side, they passed back to the tent. Midwood was standing there with a shaker in his hand. Long before the cheering had ceased toasts were being drunk in the small private annex to the tent. The police were forming up at the main entrance. People were trooping in to take their places.

"One of the best-managed functions, if you will permit me to say so, Mr. Mayor," the Lord Lieutenant pronounced, "I have ever attended. Not a hitch anywhere. You will give us the word when to go in, won't you, sir?"

"Time for another cocktail," Poynton declared. "We have two ushers watching. Here's your father coming to join us, Lady Ursula."

The Marquis was all amiability.

"The most wonderful sight I ever saw," he exclaimed. "I salute, my dear," he added, kissing his daughter's hand in courtly fashion, "a daughter of whom I am justly proud."

"They say that the famous Lady Jane Grey once occupied the ruins in the Park here," Sir Perceval Stanton observed. "I am quite sure that she never made such a beautiful picture for her subjects as Lady Ursula to-day."

The Marquis, a fine figure notwithstanding his bleached complexion, grey hair and slight stoop, glanced around.

"I have heard rumours of a cocktail," he ventured.

"One of those rare rumours, my dear Father," Lady Ursula declared, "which in this fairy tent flashes into reality."

The Marquis raised his glass.

"I am perhaps premature," he remarked, "but I drink no health. I only drink to express my admiration, Mr. Mayor, of the wonderfully smooth running of this great function. There seems to have been no hitch whatever. Both your own Borough Police and those for which we in the county are responsible seem to have behaved admirably. Ursula," he concluded bowing, "I rode round the hills a short time ago. You have won a hundred thousand hearts in less than as many seconds."

"I have never had so many sweet things said to me in my life," she confessed smiling.

One of the ushers put his head in at the opening of the tent.

"Your worship," he announced, "most of the guests are seated. I think it would be in order if you and Lady Ursula Manningham, the Lord Lieutenant and the other gentlemen here were to take their places."

They all trooped in. There was deafening applause as Lady Ursula, her arms laden with flowers, took her place, even a louder outburst when the Mayor took the chair by her side. It was a wonderful day, a marvellous hour in any man's life, the latter thought, as he looked around at the glittering panorama. And yet for him there hung over the whole affair a cloud. He had told himself that he would know from the moment he saw her what her answer was to be. He had made a mistake. He was still in the dark. She was at all times perfectly sweet and gracious. She seemed to have drawn him without any effort into the circle of her intimates, and yet he was not sure. He had imagined some whispered word, some little touch of the fingers, even a revelation from those sweetly veiled eyes.... Foolish thoughts. There was not long to wait at any rate nor was this the time for any faltering. He addressed a remark to the woman on his left, leaned over and pointed Joyce Bellamy out to Ursula on his right. His eyes travelled round the great tent with genuine curiosity. It seemed to him that there was a sea of familiar faces. There were Joyce and Barbara Allen together with several of the young people whom he had met at Beaumanor. Freddy Manningham, he was glad to see, sat very near the Priestley girls. Old Alderman South munching away—sour and disgruntled. Priestley, at the head of one of the long tables, perspiring with heat and amiability in his efforts to keep his neighbours properly amused. Crowds and crowds of townspeople—old schoolfellows—men who had been Town Councillors with him—a great many of the leading tradespeople—a great many strange faces. Bade, the auctioneer who had sold him Black Peter. Castleton with a little group of friends from Iris side of the County. There was Exminster on the other side of Ursula, the lines in his face showing up a little more clearly in the brilliant light, yet as always with a great air. Well, the lunch was going smoothly at any rate. His toastmaster, the sponsor of many banquets, touched him lightly on the shoulder.

"Another five minutes I should say, your worship. You don't need to give them the time for a lunch that you do for a dinner."

Poynton glanced at his watch.

"I'm ready any time, Jackson," he said. "In five minutes, then."

The man looked at him with an expression of fatherly admiration. Not a note, no twisted up menu in front of the Mayor. He thought of the many times he had given him a little tap and the many times he had seen Daniel Poynton, the man of the people, rise to his full height, glance round the room, say what was to be said deliberately and with the effortless precision of a born orator. Not many Mayors like him to be got out of a manufacturing town. He could back him against any Lord Mayor of London. He stood by and watched— five to six minutes passed. Poynton leaned towards Lady Ursula.

"I am going to say a few words," he whispered.

They cheered him to the echo. At last, with a faint gesture of remonstrance, he was able to speak. He started with a few details of the water scheme, explained the choice of the committees, traced the course of the water from the hills, pictured to them the joy of the day when the first rippling torrents would come through into the haven prepared by the engineers. Quite enough of that. He passed on to the opening ceremony. It was a great thing to have brought half the population of the growing town out to watch the inauguration of the scheme for which they had helped to pay, but it was more than anything a gracious act on the part of Lady Ursula, connected herself with one of the oldest families of the County, to link hands with the Borough at this moment of mutual congratulation. A very few more sentences and Poynton had finished. He proposed a vote of thanks to Lady Ursula which was seconded by Priestley, an indifferent speaker at the best of times but with more confidence than usual owing to the example of his predecessor. The openings of the tent seemed to flap with the waves of applause. People stood up with their glasses in their hands. It was several minutes before there was anything approaching silence. Then Lady Ursula, looking as she was, one of the most beautiful women in the world, said her few little words of thanks gazing as she finished almost shyly down at the Mayor as she acknowledged how easy he had made everything for her. After that the health of the Mayor, proposed by the Lord Lieutenant. His second speech Poynton cut very short indeed. He had already, he reminded them, said the few words which he considered might be thought due from him in speaking of the water works. He only had to add his warm thanks to everyone who had helped to bring about this great scheme and especially to so many of their friends in the country districts who had joined with them. The openings of the tent were thrown back. Everyone fanned themselves with an air of relief.

"Your car is ordered for two o'clock," Poynton said to Lady Ursula. "There are one or two people as we go out who must be presented to you otherwise you will be able to leave in a very few moments. We are relying upon you to- night."

"We are bringing twenty people and half the officers from Leyton Barracks as well as your own. I am remembering what you said too. We are coming punctually at nine o'clock and you are to have the opening dance with me."

He felt the gentle pressure of her soft fingers and he leaned down towards her. A clumsy woman intervened. They were pushing forward from the front rows. For a quarter-of- an-hour Ursula held a small court. It became difficult to clear her way to the car. At last they stood before the opened door.

"A wonderful sight," Ursula declared in almost an awed tone, looking round at the hills thick with people. "I shall remember my first civic function as long as I live."


The bitter irony of her little speech lived through the agony of many days, for those were the last words Lady Ursula spoke on earth.

There were a thousand descriptions of the scene written for every newspaper that was printed, published in every country in the world, but the man after all who saw most was Poynton himself. Some instinct seemed to direct his eyes towards the fatal spot. There from behind a little clump of bushes where a crowd had been picnicking Marrables, in a brand-new grey suit with a Homburg hat which might almost have been called fashionable in appearance, entirely respectable except for his haggard face and strange eyes, seemed to rise in some mysterious fashion from the solid earth. What followed was a matter of seconds. The sunlight swallowed the flash of the gun in his hand but its sinister report was heard even outside the narrow circle. Lady Ursula's hand went sharply to her side. She looked up into her companion's face, a look of helpless, dumb appeal which seemed to display more amazement than fear. Her collapse, however, was immediate. A photographer with a camera who had been waiting to get a picture risked his life magnificently. Marrables, expecting no attack, was stealing towards Poynton apparently determined upon a pointblank shot. The gun was suddenly wrested from his hand and thrown into the road. With a backward sweep of his arm Marrables sent the man head over heels into the roadway and, crouching for a moment, sprang at Poynton's throat. A policeman running from the roadway and two others from the side of the car with all the speed in the world seemed to move like tortoises. The two men met scarcely a yard from where Poynton had been standing and one of those feats of superhuman strength which seem to adorn the pages of Homeric stories of Pyrrhic warfare descended upon the latter. Marrables was inspired beyond a doubt by his built-up store of fierce hatred but Poynton lifted him by the throat with one hand and his clothes round the belt with the other and held him high over his head, shaking him as a mad beast might have shaken a despoiler of his lair. The tense silence around was unbroken except for an undernote of hysteria amongst the women increasing gradually in volume but suddenly dwarfed by a more hideous and awesome sound—the rattle in the throat, the seizure of death. Poynton knew that the last flicker of life had passed from the creature in his hands but his passion was unexhausted. Along the lane was coming the Chief Constable's car, driven at a frantic speed and raising a cloud of dust. Poynton, with his feet planted firmly on the earth and one final shake, flung the man whom he had killed in front of the motor. The wheels passed over him. There was a moment's silence, then a great roar from the hills as the mob began to realise what had happened. The tide of people rushing downwards had commenced.


CHAPTER XXXIII

IT was a month after the funeral of Lady Ursula, a ceremony at which the Mayor and the whole of the corporation of Mechester and countless multitudes of sorrowing men and women were present, when Priestley's head clerk brought in a card to his private office in the Municipal buildings.

"The Duke of Exminster is outside asking for an interview, sir," he announced.

Exminster was shown into the office. He shook hands with Priestley and accepted a chair. He was looking a little tired and old but he was wearing the same style of loose tweed clothes and riding gaiters. The lines around his firm characteristic mouth had deepened. His horseman's stoop was a little more pronounced.

"Mr. Priestley," he began, "I have taken the liberty of coming to see you because I know you arc a great friend of the Lord Mayor's. One hears strange stories about him. Can you tell me the truth?"

"I can tell you what there is to be told," Priestley replied, "but there is much that is past my comprehension. The first thing we had to deal with, of course, was the legal situation. Poynton killed the man Marrables as you know, like a rabbit. He broke every bone in his neck into splinters. I think if those thousands and thousands of people had known they would have cheered the leaves off the trees."

"It was," the Duke said, "the finest murder in history."

"Even in the eyes of the law," Priestley went on, "it was scarcely a chargeable crime. I was proud of my fellow citizens at the inquest. There was not one of the twelve men making up the jury who did not know from the doctor's certificate that the gipsy was a dead man when Poynton flung him into the road. The Coroner charged them very properly. They hesitated just as many seconds as it took to count them in. You know this, I suppose?"

The Duke nodded.

"I wanted to hear it from you."

"In about thirty seconds they brought it in as justifiable homicide. Poynton was in Court altogether for a quarter-of-an-hour. He was back at his factory in twenty- five minutes."

"Tell me," the Duke insisted, "the rest."

"He was at the factory the next morning," Priestley continued. "He telephoned early to his private secretary to say that everything was to be brought before him as usual but no expression of sympathy or remark concerning the tragedy was to be uttered. These were his explicit orders. At exactly nine o'clock the next morning he was in his chair. HE dealt with the letters as usual and he has done so every day since. He has sat on the bench, he has taken lunch at the Club but it has been made known throughout the town that any reference to that event would be considered an offence. Your Grace, it isn't natural. The man walks and looks as though he were in a dream. He doesn't make a mistake. Every order he gives is the proper one, every scrap of his work is perfectly and thoroughly carried out. I consider myself his greatest friend. The same message reached me. He was taken to the Police Court and brought back again by the Chief Constable and myself. Not a word passed between us. I have begged to be allowed to come to his house and have been steadfastly refused. He has a secretary who is one of the most sympathetic and sweetest young women I ever knew. Nearly every night she used to take letters to his house for signature and other odds and ends. He has stopped that. No one passes his threshold. He has even been to London twice, and as you know has received his baronetcy and the Charter for the city from the hands of His Majesty. Down in Bermondsey where he went to conclude a deal with one of the partners of a great firm, they began to talk sympathetically about the Bradcote tragedy, as they all called it. Poynton walked out of the place. The business was never concluded. I have had his butler down. He tells me that his master eats sparingly sometimes and sometimes nothing at all. He insists on having meals served at the same time and then forgets whether he touches them or not. Once a week he rides Black Peter but he won't even enter the little house of Miss Allen. He waits in the road whilst the horse is saddled and he rides always in the same direction. Miss Allen came to see me just as you have come and Miss Bellamy has been several times. They have written and implored to be allowed to go and see him or to have him come into the Estate House. He has not even replied to their letters. They saw him ride through the village one day. He never even looked at them. Miss Bellamy told me that one afternoon in desperation she followed him, knowing where he was going, and through the trees she watched him sitting on Black Peter at the top of Beacon Hill, gazing down at Beaumanor. He never moved for over an hour. Then she saw him drop the reins, raise both hands to the skies and ride off. That is the only sign of feeling he has shown in the presence of any human being."

"I came to ask you a difficult thing," the Duke confided. "I am only an acquaintance, although a great admirer of the Mayor's. I have reasons for wishing to see him. If I write a letter will you see that he has it? I am given to understand that he opens no private letters."

"That is quite true," Priestley said. "It is just about the limit of what I can do for Your Grace. Write a letter and he shall have it. At any rate it shall be put into his hand. I must warn you, though, he and young Manningham were quite friendly and the Marquis too looks upon him as a great benefactor of the household. They have both tried to see him and failed."

"I must see him," Exminster insisted.


The Duke had his way. At six o'clock on the following evening Midwood threw open the door of Poynton's library.

"His Grace the Duke of Exminster, your worship," he announced.

Poynton, who had been seated in an easy chair, rose to his feet and held out his hand. The two men looked at one another in silence for a moment. Poynton was ten years the younger but the lines which had deepened on Exminster's face were also on his. They bore the same scar.

"Very good of you to see me, Poynton," the Duke said in his ordinary tone. "May I sit down? I shan't keep you long. My visit had to be paid."

"Sit down by all means," the other invited.

"I have not the gift of speech like you, Poynton," the Duke continued. "That's why if I hesitate a trifle you must forgive me. We loved the same woman."

Poynton made no remark. There was not even the flicker of an eyelid. His face was like a stone.

"She, poor dear, was hard put to it," Exminster went on. "It was always half understood that she should arry me. Then you came along. She changed. There is no getting away from it, Poynton, she had a tremendous affection for you and it shook her intention of ever marrying me. Then I gathered there was some slight hesitation, something in a conversation between you two when you might have taken an opportunity and didn't, and she leaned my way. She came abroad with my mother. We went on to Egypt. Away from you she seemed somehow or other to become extraordinarily reasonable. She wanted to marry you. She told me frankly that she felt for you as she never had and never could feel for any other man."

Poynton sat quite still. His steady hands were on the sides of his chair. Perhaps his eyes seemed a little brighter but he was still silent.

"You and I," the Duke proceeded, "are at least men who can speak the truth to one another. You belong to the people. You have done more than I have for your country. You have made a great business. You have endowed hospitals, built workmen's cottages and you keep thousands of people employed. You are of the town and you have cherished the institution of the town and your life is with those people whom you have benefited. You cannot pack up and go and live anywhere else. You could not alter your métier. It is a fine one and no woman would lightly take the responsibilities of altering it. That was Ursula's problem. She was brought up differently. We are made more loosely, we others. We are not worth nearly as much, as men and women, as a man like you who has done big things, but to take one of us and put us down in Mechester it is difficult. That is what she felt. She wanted to be the first Lady Mayoress of Mechester, to receive for you, help, see how they all worshipped and let them know how she too was feeling. That was her ambition and then she asked herself sometimes—could she do it? God knows, Poynton, I am no snob but we have our ways and the people of the towns have theirs and sometimes she wondered whether she could— er—you understand me—stick it out. Whether she might not bring unhappiness on you."

"I understand her problem," Poynton said, speaking for the first time.

"Now listen," Exminster continued gravely. "I have come here with some hurt to myself, hoping that this may help you. If you are the sort of man I think you are, it may. This visit of hers to Mechester was to have been the great experiment. She was going to see you amongst the townspeople, she was going to talk to some of them. She wanted to hear you speak at some such function as that and then make her choice. She told me that after the luncheon she would let me know which it was to be. Well, we were all talking as we came out of the tent as you know. I suddenly felt a little piece of paper thrust into my hand. She had borrowed one of the catering slips and she had written this on the back of it. It was just her sweetness because she knew that I had to be off that night to Balmoral and she thought I ought to know. There's the scrap of paper."

Poynton read the few lines scrawled with blunt lead pencil.


Ex Dear,

I have decided. I am so sorry but I promised to tell you. I am going to be the first Lady Mayoress. I am very happy.

U.


"It was to have been yes," Poynton said, gripping the message between his fingers, and his voice seemed to be drawing all the pain from his heart. "Why do you tell me this, Exminster?"

"Because if you are the man I think you are," was Ex- minster's curiously exalted reply, "you will do what I am going to do. You will feel proud and you will get on with it. In a small way I owe my debt to posterity. We may not be much good to the country. We think we are. I have great estates and a great many people counting upon me. A bachelor Duke is no good. I am going to get over this shock, as we all get over shocks you know—and I shall marry next year. You are a stronger man than I, perhaps. There is no measure for loving a woman but I loved her just as much as seemed possible. With you," he went on after a few seconds' involuntary pause, "things are even more urgent. You are nearer the people of our day on whom the country depends. It is men like you who are nearer the heart of things, who can guide the destinies of the country we talk about in the House and at all these meetings as being our beloved Empire. Anyhow, leave that out. You are one who can influence the toilers of the world and we want the right men to take the big places or we are done for. You are strong, Poynton, stronger than I. I may give my sons inherited traditions and I shall bring them up to go about their jobs as they should do. You can breed an even more powerful race. No man has the right to sit and mourn over broken toys. That's all, Poynton. Forgive me if I have been a trifle clumsy. It took a good deal to bring me here, even to give you news of your barren victory. I want to live to be glad I came."

Still Poynton had no power of speech but he held out his hand. The two men looked into one another's eyes, then the Duke left in a hurry.


At seven o'clock that night the telephone rang at the Works. A voice asked for Miss Gray. Violet took up the phone. She too showed signs of suffering during the last few weeks.

"Yes?" she asked listlessly.

"Poynton speaking. Is that Miss Gray?"

"Oh, Mr. Poynton—yes."

"I should like you to be at the house this evening. I left some letters upon my desk. Bring them up and anything else that needs attention. I shall want you to stay for dinner."

Heaven seems to endow all really nice women with the gift of tact.

"I shall be up in half-an-hour, Mr. Poynton," Violet replied.


THE END


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