The fact that Denry Machin decided not to drive behind his mule to Sneyd Hall showed in itself that the enterprise of interviewing the Countess of Chell was not quite the simple daily trifling matter that he strove to pretend it was.
The mule was a part of his more recent splendour. It was aged seven, and it had cost Denry ten pounds. He had bought it off a farmer whose wife “stood” St Luke’s Market. His excuse was that he needed help in getting about the Five Towns in pursuit of cottage rents, for his business of a rent-collector had grown. But for this purpose a bicycle would have served equally well, and would not have cost a shilling a day to feed, as the mule did, nor have shied at policemen, as the mule nearly always did. Denry had bought the mule simply because he had been struck all of a sudden with the idea of buying the mule. Some time previously Jos Curtenty (the Deputy-Mayor, who became Mayor of Bursley on the Earl of Chell being called away to govern an Australian colony) had made an enormous sensation by buying a flock of geese and driving them home himself. Denry did not like this. He was indeed jealous, if a large mind can be jealous. Jos Curtenty was old enough to be his grandfather, and had been a recognised “card” and “character” since before Denry’s birth. But Denry, though so young, had made immense progress as a card, and had, perhaps justifiably, come to consider himself as the premier card, the very ace, of the town. He felt that some reply was needed to Curtenty’s geese, and the mule was his reply. It served excellently. People were soon asking each other whether they had heard that Denry Machin’s “latest” was to buy a mule. He obtained a little old victoria for another ten pounds, and a good set of harness for three guineas. The carriage was low, which enabled him, as he said, to nip in and out much more easily than in and out of a trap. In his business you did almost nothing but nip in and out. On the front seat he caused to be fitted a narrow box of japanned tin, with a formidable lock and slits on the top. This box was understood to receive the rents, as he collected them. It was always guarded on journeys by a cross between a mastiff and something unknown, whose growl would have terrorised a lion-tamer. Denry himself was afraid of Rajah, the dog, but he would not admit it. Rajah slept in the stable behind Mrs Machin’s cottage, for which Denry paid a shilling a week. In the stable there was precisely room for Rajah, the mule and the carriage, and when Denry entered to groom or to harness, something had to go out.
The equipage quickly grew into a familiar sight in the streets of the district. Denry said that it was funny without being vulgar. Certainly it amounted to a continual advertisement for him; an infinitely more effective advertisement than, for instance, a sandwichman at eighteen-pence a day, and costing no more, even with the licence and the shoeing. Moreover, a sandwichman has this inferiority to a turnout: when you have done with him you cannot put him up to auction and sell him. Further, there are no sandwichmen in the Five Towns; in that democratic and independent neighbourhood nobody would deign to be a sandwichman.