An Unfair Advantage by Arnold Bennett
James Peake and his wife, and Enoch Lovatt, his wife's half-sister's husband, and Randolph Sneyd, the architect, were just finishing the usual Saturday night game of solo whist in the drawing-room of Peake's large new residence at Hillport, that unique suburb of Bursley. Ella Peake, twenty-year-old daughter of the house, sat reading in an arm-chair by the fire which blazed in the patent radiating grate. Peake himself was banker, and he paid out silver and coppers at the rate of sixpence a dozen for the brass counters handed to him by his wife and Randolph Sneyd.
"I've made summat on you to-night, Lovatt," said Peake, with his broad easy laugh, as he reckoned up Lovatt's counters. Enoch Lovatt's principles and the prominence of his position at the Bursley Wesleyan Chapel, though they did not prevent him from playing cards at his sister-in-law's house, absolutely forbade that he should play for money, and so it was always understood that the banker of the party should be his financier, supplying him with counters and taking the chances of gain or loss. By this kindly and ingenious arrangement Enoch Lovatt was enabled to live at peace with his conscience while gratifying that instinct for worldliness which the weekly visit to Peake's always aroused from its seven-day slumber into a brief activity.
"Six shillings on my own; five and fourpence on you," said Peake. "Lovatt, we've had a good night; no mistake." He laughed again, took out his knife, and cut a fresh cigar.
"You don't think of your poor wife," said Mrs Peake, "who's lost over three shillings," and she nudged Randolph Sneyd.
"Here, Nan," Peake answered quickly. "You shall have the lot." He dropped the eleven and fourpence into the kitty-shell, and pushed it across the table to her.
"Thank you, James," said Mrs Peake. "Ella, your father's given me eleven and fourpence."
"Oh, father!" The long girl by the fire jumped up, suddenly alert. "Do give me half-a-crown. You've no conception how hard up I am."
"You're a grasping little vixen, that's what you are. Come and give me a light." He gazed affectionately at her smiling flushed face and tangled hair.
When she had lighted his cigar, Ella furtively introduced her thin fingers into his waistcoat-pocket, where he usually kept a reserve of money against a possible failure of his trouser-pockets.
"May I?" she questioned, drawing out a coin. It was a four-shilling piece.
"No. Get away."
"I'll give you change."
"Oh! take it," he yielded, "and begone with ye, and ring for something to drink."
"You are a duck, pa!" she said, kissing him. The other two men smiled.
"Let's have a tune now, Ella," said Peake, after she had rung the bell. The girl dutifully sat down to the piano and sang "The Children's Home." It was a song which always touched her father's heart.
Peake was in one of those moods at once gay and serene which are possible only to successful middle-aged men who have consistently worked hard without permitting the faculty for pleasure to deteriorate through disuse. He was devoted to his colliery, and his commercial acuteness was scarcely surpassed in the Five Towns, but he had always found time to amuse himself; and at fifty-two, with a clear eye and a perfect digestion, his appreciation of good food, good wine, a good cigar, a fine horse, and a pretty woman was unimpaired. On this night his happiness was special; he had returned in the afternoon from a week's visit to London, and he was glad to get back again. He loved his wife and adored his daughter, in his own way, and he enjoyed the feminized domestic atmosphere of his fine new house with exactly the same zest as, on another evening, he might have enjoyed the blue haze of the billiard-room at the Conservative Club. The interior of the drawing-room realized very well Peake's ideals. It was large, with two magnificent windows, practicably comfortable, and unpretentious. Peake despised, or rather he ignored, the aesthetic crazes which had run through fashionable Hillport like an infectious fever, ruthlessly decimating its turned and twisted mahogany and its floriferous carpets and wall-papers. That the soft thick pile under his feet would wear for twenty years, and that the Welsbach incandescent mantles on the chandelier saved thirty per cent, in gas-bills while increasing the light by fifty per cent.: it was these and similar facts which were uppermost in his mind as he gazed round that room, in which every object spoke of solid, unassuming luxury and represented the best value to be obtained for money spent. He desired, of a Saturday night, nothing better than such a room, a couple of packs of cards, and the presence of wife and child and his two life-long friends, Sneyd and Lovatt--safe men both. After cards were over--and on Lovatt's account play ceased at ten o'clock--they would discuss Bursley and Bursley folk with a shrewd sagacity and an intimate and complete knowledge of circumstance not to be found in combination anywhere outside a small industrial town. To listen to Sneyd and Mrs Peake, when each sought to distance the other in tracing a genealogy, was to learn the history of a whole community and the secret springs of the actions which constituted its evolution.
"Haven't you any news for me?" asked Peake, during a pause in the talk. At the same moment the door opened and Mrs Lovatt entered. "Eh, Auntie Lovatt," he went on, greeting her, "we'd given ye up." Mrs Lovatt usually visited the Peakes on Saturday evenings, but she came later than her husband.
"Eh, but I was bound to come and see you to-night, Uncle Peake, after your visit to the great city. Well, you're looking bonny." She shook hands with him warmly, her face beaming goodwill, and then she kissed her half-sister and Ella, and told Sneyd that she had seen him that morning in the market-place.
Mrs Peake and Mrs Lovatt differed remarkably in character and appearance, though this did not prevent them from being passionately attached to one another. Mrs Lovatt was small, and rather plain; content to be her husband's wife, she had no activities beyond her own home. Mrs Peake was tall, and strikingly handsome in spite of her fifty years, with a brilliant complexion and hair still raven black; her energy was exhaustless, and her spirit indomitable; she was the moving force of the Wesleyan Sunday School, and there was not a man in England who could have driven her against her will. She had a fortune of her own. Enoch Lovatt treated her with the respect due to an equal who had more than once proved herself capable of insisting on independence and equal rights in the most pugnacious manner.
"Well, auntie," said Peake, "I've won eleven and fourpence to-night, and my wife's collared it all from me." He laughed with glee.
"Eh, you should be ashamed!" said Mrs Lovatt, embracing the company in a glance of reproof which rested last on Enoch Lovatt. She was a Methodist of the strictest, and her husband happened to be chapel steward. "If I had my way with those cards I'd soon play with them; I'd play with them at the back of the fire. Now you were asking for news when I came in, Uncle Peake. Have they told you about the new organ? We're quite full of it at our house."
"No," said Peake, "they haven't."
"What!" she cried reproachfully. "You haven't told him, Enoch--nor you, Nan?"
"Upon my word it never entered my head," said Mrs Peake.
"Well, Uncle Peake," Mrs Lovatt began, "we're going to have a new organ for the Conference."
"Not before it's wanted," said Peake. "I do like a bit of good music at service, and Best himself couldn't make anything of that old wheezer we've got now."
"Is that the reason we see you so seldom at chapel?" Mrs Lovatt asked tartly.
"I was there last Sunday morning."
"And before that, Uncle Peake?" She smiled sweetly on him.
Peake was one of the worldlings who, in a religious sense, existed precariously on the fringe of the Methodist Society. He rented a pew, and he was never remiss in despatching his wife and daughter to occupy it. He imagined that his belief in the faith of his fathers was unshaken, but any reference to souls and salvation made him exceedingly restless and uncomfortable. He could not conceive himself crowned and harping in Paradise, and yet he vaguely surmised that in the last result he would arrive at that place and state, wafted thither by the prayers of his womenkind. Logical in all else, he was utterly illogical in his attitude towards the spiritual--an attitude which amounted to this: "Let a sleeping dog lie, but the animal isn't asleep and means mischief."
He smiled meditatively at Mrs Lovatt's question, and turned it aside with another.
"What about this organ?"
"It's going to cost nine hundred pounds," continued Mrs Lovatt, "and Titus Blackhurst has arranged it all. It was built for a hall in Birmingham, but the manufacturers have somehow got it on their hands. Young Titus the organist has been over to see it, and he says it's a bargain. The affair was all arranged as quick as you please at the Trustees' meeting last Monday. Titus Blackhurst said he would give a hundred pounds if eight others would do the same within a fortnight--it must be settled at once. As Enoch said to me afterwards, it seemed, as soon as Mr Blackhurst had made his speech, that we must have that organ. We really couldn't forshame to show up with the old one again at this Conference--don't you remember the funny speech the President made about it at the last Conference, eleven years ago? Of course he was very polite and nice with his sarcasm, but I'm sure he meant us to take the hint. Now, would you believe, seven out of those eight subscriptions were promised by Wednesday morning! I think that was just splendid!"
"Well, well!" exclaimed Peake, genuinely amazed at this proof of religious vitality. "Who are the subscribers?"
"I'm one," said Enoch Lovatt, quietly, but with unconcealed pride.
"And I'm another," said Mrs Lovatt. "Bless you, I should have been ashamed of myself if I hadn't responded to such an appeal. You may say what you like about Titus Blackhurst--I know there's a good many that don't like him--but he's a real good sort. I'm sure he's the best Sunday School superintendent we ever had. Then there's Mr Clayton-Vernon, and Alderman Sutton, and young Henry Mynors and--"
"And Eardley Brothers--they're giving a hundred apiece," put in Lovatt, glancing at Randolph Sneyd.
"I wish they'd pay their debts first," said Peake, with sudden savageness.
"They're all right, I suppose?" said Sneyd, interested, and leaning over towards Peake.
"Oh, they're all right," Peake said testily. "At least, I hope so," and he gave a short, grim laugh. "But they're uncommon slow payers. I sent 'em in an account for coal only last week--three hundred and fifty pound. Well, auntie, who's the ninth subscriber?"
"Ah, that's the point," said Enoch Lovatt. "The ninth isn't forthcoming."
Mrs Lovatt looked straight at her sister's husband. "We want you to be the ninth," she said.
"Me!" He laughed heartily, perceiving a broad humour in the suggestion.
"Oh, but I mean it," Mrs Lovatt insisted earnestly. "Your name was mentioned at the trustees' meeting, wasn't it, Enoch?"
"Yes," said Lovatt, "it was."
"And dost mean to say as they thought as I 'ud give 'em a hundred pound towards th' new organ?" said Peake, dropping into dialect.
"Why not?" returned Mrs Lovatt, her spirit roused. "I shall. Enoch will. Why not you?"
"Oh, you're different. You're in it."
"You can't deny that you're one of the richest pew-holders in the chapel. What's a hundred pound to you? Nothing, is it, Mr Sneyd? When Mr Copinger, our superintendent minister, mentioned it to me yesterday, I told him I was sure you would consent."
"I did," she said boldly.
"Well, I shanna'."
Like many warm-hearted, impulsive and generous men, James Peake did not care that his generosity should be too positively assumed. To take it for granted was the surest way of extinguishing it. The pity was that Mrs Lovatt, in the haste of her zeal for the amelioration of divine worship at Bursley Chapel, had overlooked this fact. Peake's manner was final. His wife threw a swift glance at Ella, who stood behind her father's chair, and received a message back that she too had discerned finality in the tone.
Sneyd got up, and walking slowly to the fireplace emitted the casual remark: "Yes, you will, Peake."
He was a man of considerable education, and though in neither force nor astuteness was he the equal of James Peake, it often pleased him to adopt towards his friend a philosophic pose--the pose of a seer, of one far removed from the trivial disputes in which the colliery-owner was frequently concerned.
"Yes, you will, Peake," he repeated.
"I shanna', Sneyd."
"I can read you like a book, Peake." This was a favourite phrase of Sneyd's, which Peake never heard without a faint secret annoyance. "At the bottom of your mind you mean to give that hundred. It's your duty to do so, and you will. You'll let them persuade you."
"I'll bet thee a shilling I don't."
"Ssh!" murmured Mrs Lovatt, "I'm ashamed of both of you, betting on such a subject--or on any subject," she added. "And Ella here too!"
"It's a bet, Sneyd," said Peake, doggedly, and then turned to Lovatt. "What do you say about this, Enoch?"
But Enoch Lovatt, self-trained to find safety in the middle, kept that neutral and diplomatic silence which invariably marked his demeanour in the presence of an argument.
"Now, Nan, you'll talk to James," said Mrs Lovatt, when they all stood at the front-door bidding good-night.
"Nay, I've nothing to do with it," Mrs Peake replied, as quickly as at dinner she might have set down a very hot plate. In some women profound affection exists side by side with a nervous dread lest that affection should seem to possess the least influence over its object.
Peake dismissed from his mind as grotesque the suggestion that he should contribute a hundred pounds to the organ fund; it revolted his sense of the fitness of things; the next morning he had entirely forgotten it. But two days afterwards, when he was finishing his midday dinner with a piece of Cheshire cheese, his wife said:
"James, have you thought anything more about that organ affair?" She gave a timid little laugh.
He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, holding a morsel of cheese on the end of his knife; then he ate the cheese in silence.
"Nan," he said at length, rather deliberately, "have they been trying to come round you? Because it won't work. Upon my soul I don't know what some people are dreaming of. I tell you I never was more surprised i' my life than when your sister made that suggestion. I'll give 'em a guinea towards their blooming organ if that's any use to 'em. Ella, go and see if the horse is ready."
He felt genuinely aggrieved.
"If they'd get a new organist," he remarked, with ferocious satire, five minutes later, as he lit a cigar, "and a new choir--I could see summat in that."
In another minute he was driving at a fine pace towards his colliery at Toft End. The horse, with swift instinct, had understood that to-day its master was not in the mood for badinage.
Half-way down the hill into Shawport he overtook a lady walking very slowly.
"Mrs Sutton!" he shouted in astonishment, and when he had finished with the tense frown which involuntarily accompanied the effort of stopping the horse dead within its own length, his face softened into a beautiful smile. "How's this?" he questioned.
"Our mare's gone lame," Mrs Sutton answered, "and as I'm bound to get about I'm bound to walk."
He descended instantly from the dogcart. "Climb up," he said, "and tell me where you want to go to."
"Climb up," he repeated, and he helped her into the dogcart.
"Well," she said, laughing, "what must be, must. I was trudging home, and I hope it isn't out of your way."
"It isn't," he said; "I'm for Toft End, and I should have driven up Trafalgar Road anyhow."
Mrs Sutton was one of James Peake's ideals. He worshipped this small frail woman of fifty-five, whose soft eyes were the mirror of as candid a soul as was ever prisoned in Staffordshire clay. More than forty years ago he had gone to school with her, and the remembrance of having kissed the pale girl when she was crying over a broken slate was still vivid in his mind. For nearly half a century she had remained to him exactly that same ethereal girl. The sole thing about her that puzzled him was that she should have found anything attractive in the man whom she allowed to marry her--Alderman Sutton. In all else he regarded her as an angel. And to many another, besides James Peake, it seemed that Sarah Sutton wore robes of light. She was a creature born to be the succour of misery, the balm of distress. She would have soothed the two thieves on Calvary. Led on by the bounteous instinct of a divine, all-embracing sympathy, the intrepid spirit within her continually forced its fragile physical mechanism into an activity which appeared almost supernatural. According to every rule of medicine she should have been dead long since; but she lived--by volition. It was to the credit of Bursley that the whole town recognized in Sarah Sutton the treasure it held.
"I wanted to see you," Mrs Sutton said, after they had exchanged various inquiries.
"Mrs Lovatt was telling me yesterday you hadn't made up your mind about that organ subscription." They were ascending the steepest part of Oldcastle Street, and Peake lowered the reins and let the horse into a walk.
"Now look here, Mrs Sutton," he began, with passionate frankness, "I can talk to you. You know me; you know I'm not one of their set, as it were. Of course I've got a pew and all that; but you know as well as I do that I don't belong to the chapel lot. Why should they ask me? Why should they come to me? Why should I give all that sum?"
"Why?" she repeated the word, smiling. "You're a generous man; you've felt the pleasure of giving. I always think of you as one of the most generous men in the town. I'm sure you've often realized what a really splendid thing it is to be able to give. D'you know, it comes over me sometimes like a perfect shock that if I couldn't give--something, do--something, I shouldn't be able to live; I would be obliged to go to bed and die right off."
"Ah!" he murmured, and then paused. "We aren't all like you, Mrs Sutton. I wish to God we were. But seriously, I'm not for giving that hundred; it's against my grain, and that's flat--you'll excuse me speaking plain."
"I like it," she said quickly. "Then I know where I am."
"No," he reiterated firmly, "I'm not for giving that hundred."
"Then I'm bound to say I'm sorry," she returned kindly. "The whole scheme will be ruined, for it's one of those schemes that can only be carried out in a particular way--if they aren't done on the inspiration of the moment they're not done at all. Not that I care so much for the organ itself. It's the idea that was so grand. Fancy--nine hundred pounds all in a minute; such a thing was never known in Bursley Chapel before!"
"Well," said Peake, "I guess when it comes to the pinch they'll find someone else instead of me."
"They won't; there isn't another man who could afford it and trade so bad."
Peake was silent; but he was inflexible. Not even Mrs Sutton could make the suggestion of this subscription seem other than grossly unfair to him, an imposition on his good-nature.
"Think it over," she said abruptly, after he had assisted her to alight at the top of Trafalgar Road. "Think it over, to oblige me."
"I'd do anything to oblige you," he replied. "But I'll tell you this"--he put his mouth to her ear and whispered, half-smiling at the confession. "You call me a generous man, but whenever that organ's mentioned I feel just like a miser--yes, as hard as a miser. Good-bye! I'm very glad to have had the pleasure of driving you up." He beamed on her as the horse shot forward.
This was on Tuesday. During the next few days Peake went through a novel and very disturbing experience. He gradually became conscious of the power of that mysterious and all-but-irresistible moral force which is called public opinion. His own public of friends and acquaintances connected with the chapel seemed to be, for some inexplicable reason, against him on the question of the organ subscription. They visited him, even to the Rev. Mr Copinger (whom he heartily admired as having "nothing of the parson" about him), and argued quietly, rather severely, and then left him with the assurance that they relied on his sense of what was proper. He was amazed and secretly indignant at this combined attack. He thought it cowardly, unscrupulous; it resembled brigandage. He felt most acutely that no one had any right to demand from him that hundred pounds, and that they who did so transgressed one of those unwritten laws which govern social intercourse. Yet these transgressors were his friends, people who had earned his respect in years long past and kept it through all the intricate situations arising out of daily contact. They could defy him to withdraw his respect now; and, without knowing it, they did. He was left brooding, pained, bewildered. The explanation was simply this: he had failed to perceive that the grandiose idea of the ninefold organ fund had seized, fired, and obsessed the imaginations of the Wesleyan community, and that under the unwonted poetic stimulus they were capable of acting quite differently from their ordinary selves.
Peake was perplexed, he felt that he was weakening; but, being a man of resourceful obstinacy, he was by no means defeated. On Friday morning he told his wife that he should go to see a customer at Blackpool about a contract, and probably remain at the seaside for the week-end. Accustomed to these sudden movements, she packed his bag without questioning, and he set off for Knype station in the dogcart. Once behind the horse he felt safe, he could breathe again. The customer at Blackpool was merely an excuse to enable him to escape from the circle of undue influence. Ardently desiring to be in the train and on the other side of Crewe, he pulled up at his little order-office in the market-place to give some instructions. As he did so his clerk, Vodrey, came rushing out and saw him.
"I have just telephoned to your house, sir," the clerk said excitedly. "They told me you were driving to Knype and so I was coming after you in a cab."
"Why, what's up now?"
"Eardley Brothers have called their creditors together."
"I've just had a circular-letter from them, sir."
Peake stared at Vodrey, and then took two steps forward, stamping his feet.
"The devil!" he exclaimed, with passionate ferocity. "The devil!"
Other men of business, besides James Peake, made similar exclamations that morning; for the collapse of Eardley Brothers, the great earthenware manufacturers, who were chiefly responsible for the ruinous cutting of prices in the American and Colonial markets, was no ordinary trade fiasco. Bursley was staggered, especially when it learnt that the Bank, the inaccessible and autocratic Bank, was an unsecured creditor for twelve thousand pounds.
Peake abandoned the Blackpool customer and drove off to consult his lawyer at Hanbridge; he stood to lose three hundred and fifty pounds, a matter sufficiently disconcerting. Yet, in another part of his mind, he felt strangely serene and happy, for he was sure now of winning his bet of one shilling with Randolph Sneyd. In the first place, the failure of Eardleys would annihilate the organ scheme, and in the second place no one would have the audacity to ask him for a subscription of a hundred pounds when it was known that he would be a heavy sufferer in the Eardley bankruptcy.
Later in the day he happened to meet one of the Eardleys, and at once launched into a stream of that hot invective of which he was a master. And all the while he was conscious of a certain hypocrisy in his attitude of violence; he could not dismiss the notion that the Eardleys had put him under an obligation by failing precisely at this juncture.
On the Saturday evening only Sneyd and Mrs Lovatt came up to Hillport, Enoch Lovatt being away from home. Therefore there were no cards; they talked of the Eardley affair.
"You'll have to manage with the old organ now," was one of the first things that Peake said to Mrs Lovatt, after he had recited his own woe. He smiled grimly as he said it.
"I don't see why," Sneyd remarked. It was not true; he saw perfectly; but he enjoyed the rousing of Jim Peake into a warm altercation.
"Not at all," said Mrs Lovatt, proudly. "We shall have the organ, I'm sure. There was an urgency committee meeting last night. Titus Blackhurst has most generously given another hundred; he said it would be a shame if the bankruptcy of professed Methodists was allowed to prejudice the interests of the chapel. And the organ-makers have taken fifty pounds off their price. Now, who do you think has given another fifty? Mr Copinger! He stood up last night, Mr Blackhurst told me this morning, and he said, 'Friends, I've only seventy pounds in the world, but I'll give fifty pounds towards this organ.' There! What do you think of that? Isn't he a grand fellow?"
"He is a grand fellow," said Peake, with emphasis, reflecting that the total income of the minister could not exceed three hundred a year.
"So you see you'll have to give your hundred," Mrs Lovatt continued. "You can't do otherwise after that."
There was a pause.
"I won't give it," said Peake. "I've said I won't, and I won't."
He could think of no argument. To repeat that Eardley's bankruptcy would cost him dear seemed trivial. Nevertheless, the absence of any plausible argument served only to steel his resolution.
At that moment the servant opened the door.
"Mr Titus Blackhurst, senior, to see you, sir."
Peake and his wife looked at one another in amazement, and Sneyd laughed quietly.
"He told me he should come up," Mrs Lovatt explained.
"Show him into the breakfast-room, Clara," said Mrs Peake to the servant.
Peake frowned angrily as he crossed the hall, but as he opened the breakfast-room door he contrived to straighten out his face into a semblance of urbanity. Though he could have enjoyed accelerating the passage of his visitor into the street, there were excellent commercial reasons why he should adopt a less strenuous means towards the end which he had determined to gain.
"Glad to see you, Mr Blackhurst," he began, a little awkwardly.
"You know, I suppose, what I've come for, Mr Peake," said the old man, in that rich, deep, oily voice of which Mrs Lovatt, in one of those graphic phrases that came to her sometimes, had once remarked that it must have been "well basted in the cooking."
"I suppose I do," Peake answered diffidently.
Mr Blackhurst took off a wrinkled black glove, stroked his grey beard, and started on a long account of the inception and progress of the organ scheme. Peake listened and was drawn into an admission that it was a good scheme and deserved to succeed. Mr Blackhurst then went on to make plain that it was in danger of utterly collapsing, that only one man of "our Methodist friends" could save it, and that both Mrs Sutton and Mrs Lovatt had advised him to come and make a personal appeal to that man.
Peake knew of old, and in other affairs, the wily diplomatic skill of this Sunday School superintendent, and when Mr Blackhurst paused he collected himself for an effort which should conclude the episode at a stroke.
"The fact is," he said, "I've decided that I can't help you. It's no good beating about the bush, and so I tell you this at once. Mind you, Mr Blackhurst, if there's anyone in Bursley that I should have liked to oblige, it's you. We've had business dealings, you and me, for many years now, and I fancy we know one another. I've the highest respect for you, and if you'll excuse me saying so, I think you've some respect for me. My rule is always to be candid. I say what I mean and I mean what I say; and so, as I've quite made up my mind, I let you know straight off. I can't do it. I simply can't do it."
"Of course if you put it that way, if you can't--"
"I do put it that way, Mr Blackhurst," Peake continued quickly, warming himself into eloquence as he perceived the most effective line to pursue. "I admire your open-handedness. It's an example to us all. I wish I could imitate it. But I mustn't. I'm not one o' them as rushes out and promises a hundred pound before they've looked at their profit and loss account. Eardleys, for example. By the way, I'm pleased to hear from Sneyd that you aren't let in there. I'm one of the flats. Three hundred and fifty pound--that's my bit; I'm told they won't pay six shillings in the pound. Isn't that a warning? What right had they to go offering their hundred pound apiece to your organ fund?"
"It was very wrong," said Mr Blackhurst, severely, "and what's more, it brings discredit on the Methodist society."
"True!" agreed Peake, and then, leaning over confidentially, he spoke in a different voice: "If you ask me, I don't mind saying that I think that magnificent subscription o' theirs was a deliberate and fraudulent attempt to inspire pressing creditors with fresh confidence. That's what I think. I call it monstrous."
Mr Blackhurst nodded slowly, as though meditating upon profound truths ably expressed.
"Well," Peake resumed, "I'm not one of that sort. If I can afford to give, I give; but not otherwise. How do I know how I stand? I needn't tell you, Mr Blackhurst, that trade in this district is in a very queer state--a very queer state indeed. Outside yourself, and Lovatt, and one or two more, is there a single manufacturer in Bursley that knows how he stands? Is there one of them that knows whether he's making money or losing it? Look at prices; can they go lower? And secret discounts; can they go higher? And all this affects the colliery-owners. I shouldn't like to tell you the total of my book-debts; I don't even care to think of it. And suppose there's a colliers' strike--as there's bound to be sooner or later--where shall we be then?"
Mr Blackhurst nodded once more, while Peake, intoxicated by his own rhetoric, began actually to imagine that his commercial condition was indeed perilous.
"I've had several very severe losses lately," he went on. "You know I was in that newspaper company; that was a heavy drain; I've done with newspapers for ever more. I was a fool, but calling myself a fool won't bring back what I've lost. It's got to be faced. Then there's that new shaft I sunk last year. What with floodings, and flaws in the seam, that shaft alone is running me into a loss of six pound a week at this very moment, and has been for weeks."
"Dear me!" exclaimed Mr Blackhurst, sympathetically.
"Yes! Six pound a week! And that isn't all"--he had entirely forgotten the immediate object of Mr Blackhurst's visit--"that isn't all. I've got a big lawsuit coming on with the railway company. Goodness knows how that will end! If I lose it ... well!"
"Mr Peake," said the old man, with quiet firmness, "if things are as bad as you say we will have a word of prayer."
He knelt down and forthwith commenced to intercede with God on behalf of this luckless colliery-owner, his business, his family, his soul.
Peake jumped like a shot rabbit, reddening to the neck with stupefaction, excruciating sheepishness and annoyance. Never in the whole course of his life had he been caught in such an ineffable predicament. He strode to and fro in futile speechless rage and shame. The situation was intolerable. He felt that at no matter what cost he must get Titus Blackhurst up from his knees. He approached him, meaning to put a hand on his shoulder, but dared not do so. Inarticulate sounds escaped from his throat, and then at last he burst out:
"Stop that, stop that! I canna stand it. Here, I'll give ye a cheque for a hundred. I'll write it now."
When Mr Blackhurst had departed he rang for a brandy-and-soda, and then, after an interval, returned to the drawing-room.
"Sneyd," he said, trying to laugh, "here's your shilling. I've lost."
"There!" exclaimed Mrs Lovatt. "Didn't I say that Mr Copinger's example would do it? Eh, James! Bless you!"