“Excuse me, sir,” and so caused Denry to stop.
These are the simple facts.
Denry looked round with that careless half-turn of the upper part of the body which drivers of elegant equipages affect when their attention is called to something trifling behind them. The mule also looked round—it was a habit of the mule’s—and if the dog had been there the dog would have shown an even livelier inquisitiveness; but Denry had left the faithful animal at home.
“Good-afternoon, Countess,” he said, raising his hat, and trying to express surprise, pleasure, and imperturbability all at once.
The Countess of Chell, who was standing in the road, raised her lorgnon, which was attached to the end of a tortoiseshell pole about a foot long, and regarded Denry. This lorgnon was a new device of hers, and it was already having the happy effect of increasing the sale of long-handled lorgnons throughout the Five Towns.
“Oh! it’s you, is it?” said the Countess. “I see you’ve grown a beard.”
It was just this easy familiarity that endeared her to the district. As observant people put it, you never knew what she would say next, and yet she never compromised her dignity.
“Yes,” said Denry. “Have you had an accident?”
“No,” said the Countess, bitterly: “I’m doing this for idle amusement.”
The horses had been taken out, and were grazing by the roadside like common horses. The coachman was dipping his skirts in the mud as he bent down in front of the carriage and twisted the pole to and fro and round about and round about. The footman, Jock, was industriously watching him.
“It’s the pole-pin, sir,” said Jock.
Denry descended from his own hammercloth. The Countess was not smiling. It was the first time that Denry had ever seen her without an efficient smile on her face.
“Have you got to be anywhere particular?” he asked. Many ladies would not have understood what he meant. But the Countess was used to the Five Towns.
“Yes,” said she. “I have got to be somewhere particular. I’ve got to be at the Police Institute at three o’clock particular, Mr Machin. And I shan’t be. I’m late now. We’ve been here ten minutes.”
The Countess was rather too often late for public ceremonies. Nobody informed her of the fact. Everybody, on the contrary, assiduously pretended that she had arrived to the very second. But she was well aware that she had a reputation for unpunctuality. Ordinarily, being too hurried to invent a really clever excuse, she would assert lightly that something had happened to her carriage. And now something in truth had happened to her carriage—but who would believe it at the Police Institute?
“If you’ll come with me I’ll guarantee to get you there by three o’clock,” said Denry.