Now, everybody of account had been asked to the reception. But everybody could not be asked to the ball, because not more than two hundred people could dance in the Town Hall. There were nearly thirty-five thousand inhabitants in Bursley, of whom quite two thousand “counted,” even though they did not dance.
Three weeks and three days before the ball Denry Machin was seated one Monday alone in Mr Duncalf’s private offices in Duck Square (where he carried on his practice as a solicitor), when in stepped a tall and pretty young woman, dressed very smartly but soberly in dark green. On the desk in front of Denry were several wide sheets of “abstract” paper, concealed by a copy of that morning’s Athletic News. Before Denry could even think of reversing the positions of the abstract paper and the Athletic News the young woman said “Good-morning!” in a very friendly style. She had a shrill voice and an efficient smile.
“Good-morning, madam,” said Denry.
“Mr Duncalf in?” asked the young woman brightly.
(Why should Denry have slipped off his stool? It is utterly against etiquette for solicitors’ clerks to slip off their stools while answering inquiries.)
“No, madam; he’s across at the Town Hall,” said Denry.
The young lady shook her head playfully, with a faint smile.
“I’ve just been there,” she said. “They said he was here.”
“I daresay I could find him, madam—if you would——”
She now smiled broadly. “Conservative Club, I suppose?” she said, with an air deliciously confidential.
He, too, smiled.
“Oh, no,” she said, after a little pause; “just tell him I’ve called.”
“Certainly, madam. Nothing I can do?”
She was already turning away, but she turned back and scrutinised his face, as Denry thought, roguishly.
“You might just give him this list,” she said, taking a paper from her satchel and spreading it. She had come to the desk; their elbows touched. “He isn’t to take any notice of the crossings-out in red ink— you understand? Of course, I’m relying on him for the other lists, and I expect all the invitations to be out on Wednesday. Good-morning.”
She was gone. He sprang to the grimy window. Outside, in the snow, were a brougham, twin horses, twin men in yellow, and a little crowd of youngsters and oldsters. She flashed across the footpath, and vanished; the door of the carriage banged, one of the twins in yellow leaped up to his brother, and the whole affair dashed dangerously away. The face of the leaping twin was familiar to Denry. The man had, indeed, once inhabited Brougham Street, being known to the street as Jock, and his mother had for long years been a friend of Mrs Machin’s.
It was the first time Denry had seen the Countess, save at a distance. Assuredly she was finer even than her photographs. Entirely different from what one would have expected! So easy to talk to! (Yet what had he said to her? Nothing—and everything.)