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Chapter XXIV


LENNARD found himself standing outside the Trinity Street Station at Bolton a few minutes after six that evening.

Of course it was raining. Rain and fine-spun cotton thread are Bolton's specialities, the two chief pillars of her fame and prosperity, for without the somewhat distressing superabundance of the former she could not spin the latter fine enough. It would break in the process. Wherefore the good citizens of Bolton cheerfully put up with the dirt and the damp and the abnormal expenditure on umbrellas and mackintoshes in view of the fact that all the world must come to Bolton for its finest threads.

He stood for a moment looking about him curiously, if with no great admiration in his soul, for this was his first sight of what was to be the scene of the greatest and most momentous undertaking that human skill had ever dared to accomplish.

But the streets of Bolton on a wet night do not impress a stranger very favourably, so he had his flat steamer-trunk and hat-box put on to a cab and told the driver to take him to the Swan Hotel, in Deansgate, where he had a wash and an excellent dinner, to which he was in a condition to do full justice — for though nation may rage against nation, and worlds and systems be in peril, the healthy human digestion goes on making its demands all the time, and, under the circumstances, blessed is he who can worthily satisfy them.

Then, after a cup of coffee and a meditative cigar, he put on his mackintosh, sent for a cab, and drove to number 134 Manchester Road, which is one of a long row of small, two-storeyed brick houses, as clean as the all-pervading smoke and damp will permit them to be, but not exactly imposing in the eyes of a newcomer.

When the door opened in answer to his knock he saw by the light of a lamp hanging from the ceiling of the narrow little hall a small, slight, neatly-dressed figure, and a pair of dark, soft eyes looked up inquiringly at him as he said:

"Is Mr Bowcock at home?"

"Yes, he is," replied a voice softly and very pleasantly tinged with the Lancashire accent. Then in a rather higher key the voice said:

"Tom, ye're wanted."

As she turned away Lennard paid his cabman, and when he went back to the door he found the passage almost filled by a tall, square-shouldered shape of a man, and a voice to match it said:

"If ye're wantin' Tom Bowcock, measter, that's me. Will ye coom in? It's a bit wet i' t' street."

Lennard went in, and as the door closed he said:

"Mr Bowcock, my name is Lennard—"

"I thou't it might be," interrupted the other. "You'll be Lord Westerham's friend. I had a wire from his lordship 's morning telling me t' expect you to-night or to-morrow morning. You'll excuse t' kitchen for a minute while t' missus makes up t' fire i' t' sittin'room."

When Lennard got into the brightly-lighted kitchen, which is really the living-room of small Lancashire houses, he found himself in an atmosphere of modest cosy comfort which is seldom to be found outside the North and the Midland manufacturing districts. It is the other side of the hard, colourless life that is lived in mill and mine and forge, and it has a charm that is all its own.

There was the big range, filling half the space of one of the side-walls, its steel framings glittering like polished silver; the high plate-rack full of shining crockery at one end by the door, and the low, comfortable couch at the other; two lines of linen hung on cords stretched under the ceiling airing above the range, and the solid deal table in the middle of the room was covered with a snow-white cloth, on which a pretty tea-service was set out.

A brightly polished copper kettle singing on the range, and a daintily furnished cradle containing a sleeping baby, sweetly unconscious of wars or world-shaking catastrophes, completed a picture which, considering his errand, affected Gilbert Lennard very deeply.

"Lizzie," said the giant, "this is Mr Lennard as his lordship telegraphed about to-day. I daresay yo can give him a cup of tay and see to t' fire i' t' sittin'-room. I believe he's come to have a bit of talk wi' me about summat important from what his lordship said."

"I'm pleased to see you, Mr Lennard," said the pleasant voice, and as he shook hands he found himself looking into the dark, soft eyes of a regular "Lancashire witch," for Lizzie Bowcock had left despair in the heart of many a Lancashire lad when she had put her little hand into big Tom's huge fist and told him that she'd have him for her man and no one else.

She left the room for a few minutes to see to the sitting-room fire, and Lennard turned to his host and said:

"Mr Bowcock, I have come to see you on a matter which will need a good deal of explanation. It will take quite a couple of hours to put the whole thing before you, so if you have any other engagements for to-night, no doubt you can take a day off to-morrow — in fact, as the pit will have to stop working—"

"T' 'pit stop working, Mr Lennard!" exclaimed the manager. "Yo' dunno say so. Is that his lordship's orders? Why, what's up?"

"I will explain everything, Mr Bowcock," replied Lennard, "only, for her own sake, your wife must know nothing at present. The only question is, shall we have a talk to-night or not?"

"If it's anything that's bad," replied the big miner with a deeper note in his voice, "I'd soonest hear it now. Mysteries don't get any t' better for keepin'. Besides, it'll give me time to sleep on't; and that's not a bad thing to do when yo've a big job to handle."

Mrs Bowcock came back as he said this, and Lennard had his cup of tea, and they of course talked about the war. Naturally, the big miner and his pretty little wife were the most interested people in Lancashire just then, for to no one else in the County Palatine had been given the honour of hearing the story of the great battle off the Isle of Wight from the lips of one who had been through it on board the now famous Ithuriel.

But when Tom Bowcock came out of the little sitting-room three hours later, after Lennard had told him of the approaching doom of the world and had explained to him how his pit-shaft was to be used as a means of averting it — should that, after all, prove to be possible — his interest in the war had diminished very considerably, for he had already come to see clearly that this was undeniably a case of the whole being very much greater than the part.

Tom Bowcock was one of those men, by no means rare in the north, who work hard with hands and head at the same time. He was a pitman, but he was also a scientific miner, almost an engineer, and so Lennard had found very little difficulty in getting him to grasp the details of the tremendous problem in the working out of which he was destined to play no mean part.

"Well, Measter Lennard," he said, slowly, as they rose from the little table across which a very large amount of business had been transacted. "It's a pretty big job this that yo've putten into our hands, and especially into mine; but I reckon they'll be about big enough for it; and yo've come to t' right place, too. I've never heard yet of a job as Lancashire took on to as hoo didn't get through wi'.

"Now, from what yo've been telling me, yo' must be a bit of an early riser sometimes, so if yo'll come here at seven or so i' t' mornin', I'll fit yo' out wi' pit clothes and we'll go down t' shaft and yo' can see for yoursel' what's wantin' doin'. Maybe that'll help yo' before yo' go and make yo'r arrangements wi' Dobson & Barlow and t'other folk as yo'll want to help yo'."

"Thank you very much, Mr Bowcock," replied Lennard. "You will find me here pretty close about seven. It's a big job, as you say, and there's not much time to be lost. Now, if Mrs Bowcock has not gone to bed, I'll go and say good-night."

"She's no'on to bed yet," said his host, "and yo'll take a drop o' summat warm before yo' start walkin' to t' hotel, for yo'll get no cab up this way to-neet. She'll just have been puttin' t' youngster to bed—"

Tom Bowcock stopped suddenly in his speech as a swift vision of that same "youngster" and his mother choking in the flames of the Fire-Mist passed across his senses. Lennard had convinced his intellect of the necessity of the task of repelling the Celestial Invader and of the possibility of success; but from that moment his heart was in the work.

It had stopped raining and the sky had cleared a little when they went to the door half an hour later. To the right, across the road, rose a tall gaunt shape like the skeleton of an elongated pyramid crowned with two big wheels. Lights were blazing round it, for the pit was working night and day getting the steam coal to the surface.

"Yonder's t' shaft," said Tom, as they shook hands. "It doesn't look much of a place to save the world in, does it?"

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