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The card: a story of adventure in the Five Towns (1911)

(U.S. title: Denry the audacious)
(Originally published in The Times weekly (1910-feb-04 to apr-22))

by Arnold Bennett
(1867-1931)

 

CHAPTER XII
The Supreme Honour


I

DENRY was not as regular in his goings and comings as the generality of business men in the Five Towns; no doubt because he was not by nature a business man at all, but an adventurous spirit who happened to be in a business which was much too good to leave. He was continually, as they say there, "up to something" that caused changes in daily habits. Moreover, the Universal Thrift Club (Limited) was so automatic and self-winding that Denry ran no risks in leaving it often to the care of his highly drilled staff. Still, he did usually come home to his tea about six o'clock of an evening, like the rest, and like the rest, he brought with him a copy of the Signal to glance at during tea.

   One afternoon in July he arrived thus upon his waiting wife at Machin House, Bleakridge. And she could see that an idea was fermenting in his head. Nellie understood him. One of the most delightful and reassuring things about his married life was Nellie's instinctive comprehension of him. His mother understood him profoundly. But she understood him in a manner sardonic, slightly malicious and even hostile, whereas Nellie understood him with her absurd love. According to his mother's attitude, Denry was guilty till he had proved himself innocent. According to Nellie's, he was always right and always clever in what he did, until he himself said that he had been wrong and stupid and not always then. Nevertheless, his mother was just as ridiculously proud of him as Nellie was; but she would have perished on the scaffold rather than admit that Denry differed in any detail from the common run of sons. Mrs. Machin had departed from Machin House without waiting to be asked. It was characteristic of her that she had returned to Brougham Street and rented there an out-of-date cottage without a single one of the labour-saving contrivances that distinguished the residence which her son had originally built for her.

   It was still delicious for Denry to sit down to tea in the dining-room, that miracle of conveniences, opposite the smile of his wife, which told him (a) that he was wonderful, (b) that she was enchanted to be alive, and (c) that he had deserved her particular caressing attentions and would receive them. On the afternoon in July the smile told him (d) that he was possessed by one of his ideas.

   "Extraordinary how she tumbles to things!" he reflected.

   Nellie's new fox-terrier had come in from the garden through the French window, and eaten part of a muffin, and Denry had eaten a muffin and a half, before Nellie, straightening herself proudly and putting her shoulders back (a gesture of hers) thought fit to murmur:

   "Well, anything thrilling happened today?"

   Denry opened the green sheet and read:

   "'Sudden death of Alderman Bloor in London.' What price that?"

   "Oh!" exclaimed Nellie. "How shocked father will be! They were always rather friendly. By the way, I had a letter from mother this morning. It appears as if Toronto was a sort of paradise. But you can see the old thing prefers Bursley. Father's had a boil on his neck, just at the edge of his collar. He says it's because he's too well. What did Mr. Bloor die of?"

   "He was in the fashion," said Denry.

   "How?"

   "Appendicitis, of course. Operation — domino! All over in three days."

   "Poor man!" Nellie murmured, trying to feel sad for a change and not succeeding. "And he was to have been mayor in November, wasn't he? How disappointing for him."

   "I expect he's got something else to think about," said Denry.

   After a pause Nellie asked suddenly:

   "Who'll be mayor — now?"

   "Well," said Denry, "his Worship Councillor Barlow, J.P., will be extremely cross if he isn't."

   "How horrid!" said Nellie, frankly. "And he's got nobody at all to be mayoress."

   "Mrs. Prettyman would be mayoress," said Denry. "When there's no wife or daughter, it's always a sister if there is one."

   "But can you imagine Mrs. Prettyman as mayoress? Why, they say she scrubs her own doorstep — after dark. They ought to make you mayor."

   "Do you fancy yourself as mayoress?" he inquired.

   "I should be better than Mrs. Prettyman, anyhow."

   "I believe you'd make an A1* mayoress," said Denry.

   "I should be frightfully nervous," she confidentially admitted.

   "I doubt it," said he.

   The fact was, that since her return to Bursley from the honeymoon, Nellie was an altered woman. She had acquired, as it were in a day, to an astonishing extent, what in the Five Towns is called "a nerve."

   "I should like to try it," said she.

   "One day you'll have to try it, whether you want to or not."

   "When will that be?"

   "Don't know. Might be next year but one. Old Barlow's pretty certain to be chosen for next November. It's looked on as his turn next. I know there's been a good bit of talk about me for the year after Barlow. Of course, Bloor's death will advance everything by a year. But even if I come next after Barlow it'll be too late."

   "Too late? Too late for what?"

   "I'll tell you," said Denry. "I wanted to be the youngest mayor that Bursley's ever had. It was only a kind of notion I had a long time ago. I'd given it up, because I knew there was no chance, unless I came before Bloor, which of course I couldn't do. Now he's dead. If I could upset old Barlow's apple-cart I should just be the youngest mayor by the skin of my teeth. Huskinson, the mayor in 1884, was aged thirty-four and six months. I've looked it all up this afternoon."

   "How lovely if you could be the youngest mayor!"

   "Yes. I'll tell you how I feel. I feel as though I didn't want to be mayor at all if I can't be the youngest mayor. . . you know."

   She knew.

   "Oh!" she cried, "do upset Mr. Barlow's apple-cart. He's a horrid old thing. Should I be the youngest mayoress?"

   "Not by chalks," said he. "Huskinson's sister was only sixteen."

   "But that's only playing at being mayoress!" Nellie protested. "Anyhow, I do think you might be youngest mayor. Who settles it?"

   "The Council, of course."

   "Nobody likes Councillor Barlow."

   "He'll be still less liked when he's wound up the Bursley Football Club."

   "Well, urge him on to wind it up, then. But I don't see what football has got to do with being mayor."

   She endeavoured to look like a serious politician.

   "You are nothing but a cuckoo," Denry pleasantly informed her. "Football has got to do with everything. And it's been a disastrous mistake in my career that I've never taken any interest in football. Old , Barlow wants no urging on to wind up the Football Club. He's absolutely set on it. He's lost too much over it. If I could stop him from winding it up I might. . ."

   "What?"

   "I dunno."

   She perceived that his idea was yet vague.

 

II.

Not very many days afterwards the walls of Bursley called attention, by small blue and red, posters (blue and red being the historic colours of the Bursley Football Club), to a public meeting, which was to be held in the Town Hall, under the presidency of the Mayor, to consider what steps could be taken to secure the future of the Bursley Football Club.

   There were two "great" football clubs in the Five Towns — Knype, one of the oldest clubs in England, and Bursley. Both were in the League, though Knype was in the first division while Bursley was only in the second. Both were, in fact, limited companies, engaged as much in the pursuit of dividends as in the practice of the one ancient and glorious sport which appeals to the reason and the heart of England. (Neither ever paid a dividend.) Both employed professionals, who, by a strange chance, were nearly all born in Scotland; and both also employed trainers who, before an important match, took the teams off to a hydropathic establishment far, far distant from any public-house. (This was called "training".) Now, whereas the Knype Club was struggling along fairly well, the Bursley Club had come to the end of its resources. The great football public had practically deserted it. The explanation, of course, was that Bursley had been losing too many matches. The great football public had no use for anything but victories. It would treat its players like gods — so long as they won. But when they happened to lose, the great football public simply sulked. It did not kick a man that was down; it merely ignored him, well knowing that the man could not get up without help. It cared nothing whatever for fidelity, municipal patriotism, fair play, the chances of war, or dividends on capital. If it could see victories it would pay sixpence, but it would not pay sixpence to assist at defeats.

   Still, when at a special general meeting of the Bursley Football Club Limited, held at the registered office, the Coffee House, Bursley, Councillor Barlow, J.P., Chairman of the Company since the creation of the League, announced that the Directors had reluctantly come to the conclusion that they could not conscientiously embark on the dangerous risks of the approaching season, and that it was the intention of the Directors to wind up the club, in default of adequate public interest — when Bursley read this in the Signal, the town was certainly shocked. Was the famous club, then, to disappear for ever, and the football ground to be sold in plots, and the grand stand for firewood? The shock was so severe that the death of Alderman Bloor (none the less a mighty figure in Bursley) had passed as a minor event.

   Hence the advertisement of the meeting in the Town Hall caused joy and hope, and people said to themselves: "Something's bound to be done; the old club can't go out like that." And everybody grew quite sentimental. And although nothing is supposed to be capable of filling Bursley Town Hall except a political meeting and an old folk's treat, Bursley Town Hall was as near full as made no matter for the football question. Many men had cheerfully sacrificed a game of billiards and a glass of beer in order to attend it.

   The Mayor, in the chair, was a mild old gentleman who knew nothing whatever about football and had probably never seen a football match; but it was essential that the meeting should have august patronage, and so the Mayor had been trapped and tamed. On the mere fact that he paid an annual subscription to the golf club, certain parties built up the legend that he was a true sportsman, with the true interests of sport in his soul.

   He uttered a few phrases, such as "the manly game," "old associations," "bound up with the history of England," "splendid fellows," "indomitable pluck," "dogged by misfortune" (indeed, he produced quite an impression on the rude and grim audience), and then he called upon Councillor Barlow to make a statement.

   Councillor Barlow, on the Mayor's right, was a different kind of man from the Mayor. He was fifty and iron-grey, with whiskers, but no moustache; short, stoutish, raspish.

   He said nothing about manliness, pluck, history, or Auld Lang Syne.

   He said he had given his services as Chairman to the football club for thirteen years; that he had taken up £2000 worth of shares in the Company; and that as at that moment the Company's liabilities would exactly absorb its assets, his £2000 was worth exactly nothing. "You may say," he said, "I've lost that £2000 in thirteen years. That is, it's the same as if I'd been steadily paying three pun' a week out of my own pocket to provide football matches that you chaps wouldn't take the trouble to go and see. That's the straight of it! What have I got for my pains? Nothing but worries and these!" (He pointed to his grey hairs.) "And I'm not alone; there's others; and now I have to come and defend myself at a public meeting. I'm supposed not to have the best interests of football at heart. Me and my co-Directors," he proceeded, with even a rougher raspishness, "have warned the town again and again what would happen if the matches weren't better patronised. And now it's happened, and now it's too, late, you want to do something! You can't! It's too late. There's, only one thing the matter with first-class football in Bursley," he concluded, "and it isn't the players. It's the public — it's yourselves. You're the most craven lot of tom-fools that ever a big football club had to do with. When we lose a match, what do you do? Do you come and encourage us next time? No, you stop away, and leave us fifty or sixty pound out of pocket on a match, just to teach us better! Do you expect us to win every match! Why, Preston North End itself" — here he spoke solemnly, of heroes — "Preston North End itself in its great days didn't win every match — it lost to Accrington. But did the Preston public desert it? No! You — you haven't got the pluck of a louse, nor the faithfulness of a cat. You've starved your football club to death, and now you call a meeting to weep and grumble. And you have the insolence to write letters to the Signal about bad management, forsooth! If anybody in the hall thinks he can manage this club better than me and my co-Directors have done, I may say that we hold a majority of the shares, and we'll part with the whole show to any clever person or persons who care to take it off our hands at a bargain price. That's talking."

   He sat down.

   Silence fell. Even in the Five Towns a public meeting is seldom bullied as Councillor Barlow had bullied that meeting. It was aghast. Councillor Barlow had never been popular: he had merely been respected; but thenceforward he became even less popular than before.

   "I'm sure we shall all find Councillor Barlow's heat quite excusable ——" the Mayor diplomatically began.

   "No heat at all," the Councillor interrupted. "Simply cold truth!"

   A number of speakers followed, and nearly all of them were against the Directors. Some, with prodigious memories for every combination of players in every match that had ever been played, sought to prove by detailed instances that Councillor Barlow and his co-Directors had persistently and regularly muddled their work during thirteen industrious years. And they defended the insulted public by asserting that no public that respected itself would pay sixpence to watch the wretched football provided by Councillor Barlow. They shouted that the team wanted reconstituting, wanted new blood.

   "Yes," shouted Councillor Barlow in reply. "And how are you going to get new blood, with transfer fees as high as they are now? You can't get even an average good player for less than £200. Where's the money to come from? Anybody want to lend a thousand or so on second debentures?"

   He laughed sneeringly.

   No one showed a desire to invest in second debentures of the Bursley F.C. Ltd.

   Still, speakers kept harping on the necessity of new blood in the team, and then others, bolder, harped on the necessity of new blood on the board.

   "Shares on sale!" cried the Councillor. "Any buyers? Or," he added, "do you want something for nothing — as usual?"

   At length a gentleman rose at the back of the hall.

   "I don't pretend to be an expert on football," said he, "though I think it's a great game, but I should like to say a few words as to this question of new blood."

   The audience craned its neck.

   "Will Mr. Councillor Machin kindly step up to the platform?" the Mayor suggested.

   And up Denry stepped.

   The thought in every mind was: "What's he going to do? What's he got up his sleeve this time?"

   "Three cheers for Machin!" people chanted gaily.

   "Order!" said the Mayor.

   Denry faced the audience. He was now accustomed to audiences. He said:

   "If I'm not mistaken, one of the greatest modern footballers is a native of this town."

   And scores of voices yelled: "Ay! Callear! Callear! Greatest centre forward in England!"

   "Yes," said Denry, "Callear is the man I mean, Callear left the district, unfortunately for the district, at the age of nineteen for Liverpool. And it was not till after he left that his astounding abilities were perceived. It isn't too much to say that he made the fortune of Liverpool City. And I believe it is the fact that he scored more goals in three seasons than any other player has ever done in the League. Then, York County, which was in a tight place last year, bought him from Liverpool for a high price, and, as all the world knows, Callear had his leg broken in the first match he played for his new club. That just happened to be the ruin of the York Club, which is now quite suddenly in bankruptcy (which happily we are not), and which is disposing of its players. Gentlemen, I say that Callear ought to come back to his native town. He is fitter than ever he was, and his proper place is in his native town."

   Loud cheers.

   "As captain and centre forward of the club of the Mother of the Five Towns, he would be an immense acquisition and attraction, and he would lead us to victory."

   Renewed cheers.

   "And how," demanded Councillor Barlow, jumping up angrily, "are we to get him back to his precious native town? Councillor Machin admits that he is not an expert on football. It will probably be news to him that Aston Villa have offered £700 to York for the transfer of Callear, and Blackburn Rovers have offered £750, and they're fighting it out between 'em. Any gentleman willing to put down £800 to buy Callear for Bursley?" he sneered. "I don't mind telling you that steam-engines and the King himself couldn't get Callear into our club."

   "Quite finished?" Denry inquired, still standing.

   Laughter, overtopped by Councillor Barlow's snort as he sat down.

   Denry lifted his voice.

   "Mr. Callear, will you be good enough to step forward and let us all have a look at you?"

   The effect of these apparently simple words surpassed any effect previously obtained by the most complex flights of oratory in that hall. A young, blushing, clumsy, long-limbed, small-bodied giant stumbled along the central aisle and climbed the steps to the platform, where Denry pointed him to a seat. He was recognised by all the true votaries of the game. And everybody said to everybody: "By Gosh! It's him, right enough. It's Callear!" And a vast astonishment and expectation of good fortune filled the hall. Applause burst forth, and though no one knew what the appearance of Callear signified, the applause continued and waned.

   "Good old Callear!" The hoarse shouts succeeded each other.

   "Good old Machin!"

   "Anyhow," said Denry, when the storm was stilled, "we've got him here, without either steam-engines or His Majesty. Will the Directors of the club accept him?"

   "And what about the transfer?" Councillor Barlow demanded.

   "Would you accept him and try another season if you could get him free?" Denry retorted.

   Councillor Barlow always knew his mind, and was never afraid to let other people share that knowledge.

   "Yes," he said.

   "Then I will see that you have the transfer free."

   "But what about York?"

   "I have settled with York provisionally," said Denry. "That is my affair. I have returned from York today. Leave all that to me. This town has had many benefactors far more important than myself. But I shall be able to claim this originality: I'm the first to make a present of a live man to the town. Gentlemen — Mr. Mayor — I venture to call for three cheers for the greatest centre forward in England, our fellow townsman."

   The scene, as the Signal said, was unique.

   And at the Sports Club and the other clubs afterwards, men said to each other: "No one but him would have thought of bringing Callear over specially and showing him on the platform. . . That's cost him above twopence, that has!"

   Two days later, a letter appeared in the Signal (signed "Fiat Justitia"), suggesting that Denry, as some reward for his public spirit, ought to be the next mayor of Bursley, in place of Alderman Bloor deceased. The letter urged that he would make an admirable mayor, the sort of mayor, the old town wanted in order to wake it up. And also it pointed out, that Denry would be the youngest mayor that Bursley had ever had, and probably the youngest mayor in England that year. The sentiment in the last idea appealed to the town. The town decided that it would positively like to have the youngest mayor it had ever had, and probably the youngest mayor in England that year. The Signal printed dozens of letters on the subject. When the Council met, more informally than formally, to choose a chief magistrate in place of the dead alderman, several councillors urged that what Bursley wanted was a young and popular mayor. And, in fine, Councillor Barlow was shelved for a year. On the choice being published the entire town said: "Now we shall have a mayoralty and don't you forget it!"

   And Denry said to Nellie: "You'll be mayoress to the youngest mayor, etc., my child. And it's cost me, including hotel and travelling expenses, eight hundred and eleven pounds six and sevenpence."

 

III.

The rightness of the Council in selecting Denry as mayor was confirmed in a singular manner by the behaviour of the football and of Callear at the opening match of the season.

   It was a philanthropic match, between Bursley and Axe, for the benefit of a county orphanage, and, according to the custom of such matches, the ball was formally kicked off by a celebrity, a pillar of society. The ceremony of kicking off has no sporting significance; the celebrity merely with gentleness propels the ball out of the white circle and then flies for his life from the mêlée; but it is supposed to add to the moral splendour of the game. In the present instance the posters said: "Kick-off at 3.45 by Councillor E. H. Machin, Mayor-designate." And, indeed, no other celebrity could have been decently selected. On the fine afternoon of the match Denry therefore discovered himself with a new football at his toes, a silk hat on his head, and twenty-two Herculean players menacing him in attitudes expressive of an intention to murder him. Bursley had lost the toss, and hence Denry had to kick towards the Bursley goal. As the Signal said, he "dispatched the sphere" straight into the keeping of Callear, who as centre forward was facing him, and Callear was dodging down the field with it before the Axe players had finished admiring Denry's effrontery. Every reader will remember with a thrill the historic match in which the immortal Jimmy Brown, on the last occasion when he captained Blackburn Rovers, dribbled the ball himself down the length of the field, scored a goal, and went home with the English Cup under his arm. Callear evidently intended to imitate the feat. He was entirely wrong. Dribbling tactics had been killed for ever, years before, by Preston North End, who invented the "passing" game. Yet Callear went on, and good luck seemed to float over him like a cherub. Finally he shot; a wild, high shot; but there was an adverse wind which dragged the ball down, swept it round, and blew it into the net. The first goal had been scored in twenty seconds! (It was also the last in the match.) Callear's reputation was established. Useless for solemn experts to point out that he had simply been larking for the gallery, and that the result was a shocking fluke — Callear's reputation was established. He became at once the idol of the populace. As Denry walked gingerly off the field to the grand stand he, too, was loudly cheered, and he could not help feeling that, somehow, it was he who had scored that goal. And although nobody uttered the precise thought, most people did secretly think, as they gazed at the triumphant Denry, that a man who triumphed like that, because he triumphed like that, was the right sort of man to be mayor, the kind of man they needed.

   Denry became identified with the highest class of local football. This fact led to a curious crisis in the history of municipal manners. On Corporation Sunday the mayor walks to church, preceded by the mace, and followed by the aldermen and councillors, the borough officials, the Volunteers and the Fire Brigade; after all these, in the procession, come individuals known as prominent citizens. Now the first and second elevens of the Bursley Football Club, headed by Callear, expressed their desire to occupy a place in Denry's mayoral procession; they felt that some public acknowledgement was due to the Mayor for his services to the national sport. Denry instantly, agreed, with thanks: the notion seemed tot him entirely admirable. Then some unfortunately-inspired parson wrote to the Signal to protest against professional footballers following the chief magistrate of the borough to church. His arguments were that such a thing was unheard of, and that football was the cause of a great deal of evil gambling. Some people were inclined to agree with the protest, until Denry wrote to the Signal and put a few questions: Was Bursley proud of its football team? Or was Bursley ashamed of its football team? Was the practice of football incompatible with good citizenship? Was there anything dishonourable in playing football? Ought professional footballers to be considered as social pariahs? Was there class of beings to whom the churches ought to be closed.

   The parson foundered in a storm of opprobrium, scorn, and ironic laughter. Though the town laughed, it only laughed to hide its disgust of the parson.

   People began to wonder whether the teams would attend in costume, carrying the football between them on a charger as a symbol. No such multitudes ever greeted a mayoral procession in Bursley before. The footballers, however, appeared in ordinary costume (many of them in frock-coats); but they wore neckties of the club colours, a device which was agreed to be in the nicest taste. St Luke's Church was crowded; and, what is stranger, the churchyard was also crowded. The church barely held the procession itself and the ladies who, by influence, had been accommodated with seats in advance. Thousands of persons filled the churchyard, and to prevent them from crushing into the packed fane and bursting it at its weakest point, the apse, the doors had to be locked and guarded. Four women swooned during the service; neither Mrs. Machin, senior, nor Nellie, was among the four. It was the first time that anyone had been known to swoon at a religious service held in November. This fact alone gave a tremendous prestige to Denry's mayoralty. When, with Nellie on his arm, he emerged from the church to the thunders of the organ, the greeting which he received in the churchyard, though the solemnity of the occasion forbade clapping, lacked naught in brilliance and efficacy.

   The real point and delight of that Corporation Sunday was not fully appreciated till later. It had been expected that the collection after the sermon would be much larger than usual, because the congregation was much larger than usual. But the church-wardens were startled to find it four times as large as usual. They were further startled to find only three threepenny-bits among all the coins. This singularity led to comment and to note-comparing. Everybody had noticed for weeks past a growing dearth of threepenny-bits. Indeed, threepenny-bits had practically vanished from circulation in the Five Towns. On the Monday it became known that the clerks of the various branches of the Universal Thrift Club, Limited, had paid into the banks enormous and unparalleled quantities of threepenny-bits, and for at least a week afterwards everybody paid for everything in threepenny-bits. And the piquant news passed from mouth to mouth that Denry, to the simple end of ensuring a thumping collection for charities on Corporation Sunday, had used the vast organization of the Thrift Club to bring about a famine of threepenny-bits. In the annals of the town that Sunday is referred to as "Threepenny-bit Sunday," because it was so happily devoid of threepenny-bits.

   A little group of councillors were discussing Denry.

   "What a card!" said one, laughing joyously. "He's a rare 'un, no mistake."

   "Of course, this'll make him more popular than ever," said another. "We've never had a man to touch him for that."

   "And yet," demanded Councillor Barlow, "what's he done? Has he ever done a day's work in his life? What great cause is he identified with?"

   "He's identified," said the speaker, "with the great cause of cheering us all up."

(This concludes "The Card".)

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