WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
The Grim Smile of the Five Towns
Arnold Bennett (1907) Country of origin: UK
Available texts by the same author here
Mrs Blackshaw had a baby. It would be an exaggeration to say that the baby interested the entire town, Bursley being an ancient, blase sort of borough of some thirty thousand inhabitants. Babies, in fact, arrived in Bursley at the rate of more than a thousand every year. Nevertheless, a few weeks after the advent of Mrs Blackshaw's baby, when the medical officer of health reported to the Town Council that the births for the month amounted to ninety- five, and that the birth-rate of Bursley compared favourably with the birth-rates of the sister towns, Hanbridge, Knype, Longshaw, and Turnhill--when the medical officer read these memorable words at the monthly meeting of the Council, and the Staffordshire Signal reported them, and Mrs Blackshaw perused them, a blush of pride spread over Mrs Blackshaw's face, and she picked up the baby's left foot and gave it a little peck of a kiss. She could not help feeling that the real solid foundation of that formidable and magnificent output of babies was her baby. She could not help feeling that she had done something for the town--had caught the public eye.
As for the baby, except that it was decidedly superior to the average infant in external appearance and pleasantness of disposition, it was, in all essential characteristics, a typical baby--that is to say, it was purely sensuous and it lived the life of the senses. It was utterly selfish. It never thought of anyone but itself. It honestly imagined itself to be the centre of the created universe. It was convinced that the rest of the universe had been brought into existence solely for the convenience and pleasure of it--the baby. When it wanted anything it made no secret of the fact, and it was always utterly unscrupulous in trying to get what it wanted. If it could have obtained the moon it would have upset all the astronomers of Europe and made Whitaker's Almanack unsalable without a pang. It had no god but its stomach. It never bothered its head about higher things. It was a bully and a coward, and it treated women as beings of a lower order than men. In a word, it was that ideal creature, sung of the poets, from which we gradually sink and fall away as we grow older.
At the age of six months it had quite a lot of hair, and a charming rosy expanse at the back of its neck, caused through lying on its back in contemplation of its own importance. It didn't know the date of the Battle of Hastings, but it knew with the certainty of absolute knowledge that it was master of the house, and that the activity of the house revolved round it.
Now, the baby loved its bath. In any case its bath would have been an affair of immense and intricate pomp; but the fact that it loved its bath raised the interest and significance of the bath to the nth power. The bath took place at five o'clock in the evening, and it is not too much to say that the idea of the bath was immanent in the very atmosphere of the house. When you have an appointment with the dentist at five o'clock in the afternoon the idea of the appointment is immanent in your mind from the first moment of your awakening. Conceive that an appointment with the dentist implies heavenly joy instead of infernal pain, and you will have a notion of the daily state of Mrs Blackshaw and Emmie (the nurse) with regard to the baby's bath.
Even at ten in the morning Emmie would be keeping an eye on the kitchen fire, lest the cook might let it out. And shortly after noon Mrs Blackshaw would be keeping an eye on the thermometer in the bedroom where the bath occurred. From four o'clock onwards the clocks in the house were spied on and overlooked like suspected persons; but they were used to that, because the baby had his sterilized milk every two hours. I have at length allowed you to penetrate the secret of his sex.
And so at five o'clock precisely the august and exciting ceremony began in the best bedroom. A bright fire was burning (the month being December), and the carefully-shaded electric lights were also burning. A large bath-towel was spread in a convenient place on the floor, and on the towel were two chairs facing each other, and a table. On one chair was the bath, and on the other was Mrs Blackshaw with her sleeves rolled up, and on Mrs Blackshaw was another towel, and on that towel was Roger (the baby). On the table were zinc ointment, vaseline, scentless eau de Cologne, Castile soap, and a powder-puff.
Emmie having pretty nearly filled the bath with a combination of hot and cold waters, dropped the floating thermometer into it, and then added more waters until the thermometer indicated the precise temperature proper for a baby's bath. But you are not to imagine that Mrs Blackshaw trusted a mere thermometer. No. She put her arm in the water up to the elbow. She reckoned the sensitive skin near the elbow was worth forty thermometers.
Emmie was chiefly an audience. Mrs Blackshaw had engaged her as a nurse, but she could have taught a nigger-boy to do all that she allowed the nurse to do. During the bath Mrs Blackshaw and Emmie hated and scorned each other, despite their joy. Emmie was twice Mrs Blackshaw's age, besides being twice her weight, and she knew twice as much about babies as Mrs Blackshaw did. However, Mrs Blackshaw had the terrific advantage of being the mother of that particular infant, and she could always end an argument when she chose, and in her own favour. It was unjust, and Emmie felt it to be unjust; but this is not a world of justice.
Roger, though not at all precocious, was perfectly aware of the carefully-concealed hostility between his mother and his nurse, and often, with his usual unscrupulousness, he used it for his own ends. He was sitting upon his mother's knees toying with the edge of the bath, already tasting its delights in advance. Mrs Blackshaw undressed the upper half of him, and then she laid him on the flat of his back and undressed the lower half of him, but keeping some wisp of a garment round his equatorial regions. And then she washed his face with a sponge and the Castile soap, very gently, but not half gently enough for Emmie, nor half gently enough for Roger, for Roger looked upon this part of the business as insulting and superfluous. He breathed hard and kicked his feet nearly off.
"Yes, it's dreadful having our face washed, isn't it?" said Mrs Blackshaw, with her sleeves up, and her hair by this time down. "We don't like it, do we? Yes, yes."
Emmie grunted, without a sound, and yet Mrs Blackshaw heard her, and finished that face quickly and turned to the hands.
"Potato-gardens every day," she said. "Evzy day-day. Enough of that, Colonel!" (For, after all, she had plenty of spirit.) "Fat little creases! Fat little creases! There! He likes that! There! Feet! Feet! Feet and legs! Then our back. And then WHUP we shall go into the bath! That's it. Kick! Kick your mother!"
And she turned him over.
"Incredible bungler!" said the eyes of the nurse. "Can't she turn him over neater than that?"
"Harridan!" said the eyes of Mrs Blackshaw. "I wouldn't let you bath him for twenty thousand pounds!"
Roger continued to breathe hard, as if his mother were a horse and he were rubbing her down.
"Now! Zoop! Whup!" cried his mother, and having deprived him of his final rag, she picked him up and sat him in the bath, and he was divinely happy, and so were the women. He appeared a gross little animal in the bath, all the tints of his flesh shimmering under the electric light. His chest was superb, but the rolled and creased bigness of his inordinate stomach was simply appalling, not to mention his great thighs and calves. The truth was, he had grown so that if he had been only a little bit bigger, he would have burst the bath. He resembled an old man who had been steadily eating too much for about forty years.
His two womenfolk now candidly and openly worshipped him, forgetting sectarian differences.
And he splashed. Oh! he splashed. You see, he had learnt how to splash, and he had certainly got an inkling that to splash was wicked and messy. So he splashed--in his mother's face, in Emmie's face, in the fire. He pretty well splashed the fire out. Ten minutes before, the bedroom had been tidy, a thing of beauty. It was now naught but a wild welter of towels, socks, binders-- peninsulas of clothes nearly surrounded by water.
Finally his mother seized him again, and, rearing his little legs up out of the water, immersed the whole of his inflated torso beneath the surface.
"Hallo!" she exclaimed. "Did the water run over his mouf? Did it?"
"Angels and ministers of grace defend us! How clumsy she is!" commented the eyes of Emmie.
"There! I fink that's about long enough for this kind of wevver," said the mother.
"I should think it was! There's almost a crust of ice on the water now!" the nurse refrained from saying.
And Roger, full of regrets, was wrenched out of the bath. He had ceased breathing hard while in the water, but he began again immediately he emerged.
"We don't like our face wiped, do we?" said his mother on his behalf. "We want to go back into that bath. We like it. It's more fun than anything that happens all day long! Eh? That old dandruff's coming up in fine style. It's a-peeling off like anything."
And all the while she wiped him, patted eau de Cologne into him with the flat of her hand, and rubbed zinc ointment into him, and massaged him, and powdered him, and turned him over and over and over, till he was thoroughly well basted and cooked. And he kept on breathing hard.
Then he sneezed, amid general horror!
"I told you so!" the nurse didn't say, and she rushed to the bed where all the idol's beautiful, clean, aired things were lying safe from splashings, and handed a flannel shirt, about two inches in length, to Mrs Blackshaw. And Mrs Blackshaw rolled the left sleeve of it into a wad and stuck it over his arm, and his poor little vaccination marks were hidden from view till next morning. Roger protested.
"We don't like clothes, do we?" said his mother. "We want to tumble back into our tub. We aren't much for clothes anyway. We'se a little Hottentot, aren't we?"
And she gradually covered him with one garment or another until there was nothing left of him but his head and his hands and feet. And she sat him up on her knees, so as to fasten his things behind. And then it might have been observed that he was no longer breathing hard, but giving vent to a sound between a laugh and a cry, while sucking his thumb and gazing round the room.
"That's our little affected cry that we start for our milk, isn't it?" his mother explained to him.
And he agreed that it was.
And before Emmie could fly across the room for the bottle, all ready and waiting, his mouth, in the shape of a perfect rectangle, had monopolized five-sixths of his face, and he was scarlet and bellowing with impatience.
He took the bottle like a tiger his prey, and seized his mother's hand that held the bottle, and he furiously pumped the milk into that insatiable gulf of a stomach. But he found time to gaze about the room too. A tear stood in each roving eye, caused by the effort of feeding.
"Yes, that's it," said his mother. "Now look round and see what's happening. Curiosity! Well, if you WILL bob your head, I can't help it."
"Of course you can!" the nurse didn't say.
Then he put his finger into his mouth side by side with the bottle, and gagged himself, and choked, and gave a terrible-- excuse the word--hiccough. After which he seemed to lose interest in the milk, and the pumping operations slackened and then ceased.
"Goosey!" whispered his mother, "getting seepy? Is the sandman throwing sand in your eyes? Old Sandman at it? Sh--" ... He had gone.
Emmie took him. The women spoke in whispers. And Mrs Blackshaw, after a day spent in being a mother, reconstituted herself a wife, and began to beautify herself for her husband.
Yes, there was a Mr Blackshaw, and with Mr Blackshaw the tragedy of the bath commences. Mr Blackshaw was a very important young man. Indeed, it is within the mark to say that, next to his son, he was the most important young man in Bursley. For Mr Blackshaw was the manager of the newly opened Muncipal Electricity Works. And the Municipal Electricity had created more excitement and interest than anything since the 1887 Jubilee, when an ox was roasted whole in the market-place and turned bad in the process. Had Bursley been a Swiss village, or a French country town, or a hamlet in Arizona, it would have had its electricity fifteen years ago, but being only a progressive English Borough, with an annual value of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds, it struggled on with gas till well into the twentieth century. Its great neighbour Hanbridge had become acquainted with electricity in the nineteenth century.
All the principal streets and squares, and every decent shop that Hanbridge competition had left standing, and many private houses, now lighted themselves by electricity, and the result was splendid and glaring and coldly yellow. Mr. Blackshaw developed into the hero of the hour. People looked at him in the street as though he had been the discoverer and original maker of electricity. And if the manager of the gasworks had not already committed murder, it was because the manager of the gasworks had a right sense of what was due to his position as vicar's churchwarden at St Peter's Church.
But greatness has its penalties. And the chief penalty of Mr Blackshaw's greatness was that he could not see Roger have his nightly bath. It was impossible for Mr Blackshaw to quit his arduous and responsible post before seven o'clock in the evening. Later on, when things were going more smoothly, he might be able to get away; but then, later on, his son's bath would not be so amusing and agreeable as it then, by all reports, was. The baby was, of course, bathed on Saturday nights, but Sunday afternoon and evening Mr Blackshaw was obliged to spend with his invalid mother at Longshaw. It was on the sole condition of his weekly presence thus in her house that she had consented not to live with the married pair. And so Mr Blackshaw could not witness Roger's bath. He adored Roger. He understood Roger. He weighed, nursed, and fed Roger. He was "up" in all the newest theories of infant rearing. In short, Roger was his passion, and he knew everything of Roger except Roger's bath. And when his wife met him at the front door of a night at seven-thirty and launched instantly into a description of the wonders, delights, and excitations of Roger's latest bath, Mr Blackshaw was ready to tear his hair with disappointment and frustration.
"I suppose you couldn't put it off for a couple of hours one night, May?" he suggested at supper on the evening of the particular bath described above.
"Sidney!" protested Mrs Blackshaw, pained.
Mr Blackshaw felt that he had gone too far, and there was a silence.
"Well!" said Mr Blackshaw at length, "I have just made up my mind. I'm going to see that Kid's bath, and, what's more, I'm going to see it tomorrow. I don't care what happens."
"But how shall you manage to get away, darling?"
"You will telephone me about a quarter of an hour before you're ready to begin, and I'll pretend it's something very urgent, and scoot off."
"Well, that will be lovely, darling!" said Mrs Blackshaw. "I WOULD like you to see him in the bath, just once! He looks so--"
And so on.
The next day, Mr Blackshaw, that fearsome autocrat of the Municipal Electricity Works, was saying to himself all day that at five o'clock he was going to assist at the spectacle of his wonderful son's bath. The prospect inspired him. So much so that every hand on the place was doing its utmost in fear and trembling, and the whole affair was running with the precision and smoothness of a watch.
From four o'clock onwards, Mr Blackshaw, in the solemn, illuminated privacy of the managerial office, safe behind glass partitions, could no more contain his excitement. He hovered in front of the telephone, waiting for it to ring. Then, at a quarter to five, just when he felt he couldn't stand it any longer, and was about to ring up his wife instead of waiting for her to ring him up, he saw a burly shadow behind the glass door, and gave a desolate sigh. That shadow could only be thrown by one person, and that person was his Worship the Mayor of Bursley. His Worship entered the private office with mayoral assurance, pulling in his wake a stout old lady whom he introduced as his aunt from Wolverhampton. And he calmly proposed that Mr Blackshaw should show the mayoral aunt over the new Electricity Works!
Mr Blackshaw was sick of showing people over the Works. Moreover, he naturally despised the Mayor. All permanent officials of municipalities thoroughly despise their mayors (up their sleeves). A mayor is here today and gone tomorrow, whereas a permanent official is permanent. A mayor knows nothing about anything except his chain and the rules of debate, and he is, further, a tedious and meddlesome person--in the opinion of permanent officials.
So Mr Blackshaw's fury at the inept appearance of the Mayor and the mayoral aunt at this critical juncture may be imagined. The worst of it was, he didn't know how to refuse the Mayor.
Then the telephone-bell rang.
"Excuse me," said Mr Blackshaw, with admirably simulated politeness, going to the instrument. "Are you there? Who is it?"
"It's me, darling," came the thin voice of his wife far away at Bleakridge. "The water's just getting hot. We're nearly ready. Can you come now?"
"By Jove! Wait a moment!" exclaimed Mr Blackshaw, and then turning to his visitors, "Did you hear that?"
"No," said the Mayor.
"All those three new dynamos that they've got at the Hanbridge Electricity Works have just broken down. I knew they would. I told them they would!"
"Dear, dear!" said the Mayor of Bursley, secretly delighted by this disaster to a disdainful rival. "Why! They'll have the town in darkness. What are they going to do?"
"They want me to go over at once. But, of course, I can't. At least, I must give myself the pleasure of showing you and this lady over our Works, first."
"Nothing of the kind, Mr Blackshaw!" said the Mayor. "Go at once. Go at once. If Bursley can be of any assistance to Hanbridge in such a crisis, I shall be only too pleased. We will come tomorrow, won't we, auntie?"
Mr Blackshaw addressed the telephone.
"The Mayor is here, with a lady, and I was just about to show them over the Works, but his Worship insists that I come at once."
"Certainly," the Mayor put in pompously.
"Wonders will never cease," came the thin voice of Mrs Blackshaw through the telephone. "It's very nice of the old thing! What's his lady friend like?"
"Not like anything. Unique!" replied Mr Blackshaw.
"Young?" came the voice.
"Dates from the thirties," said Mr Blackshaw. "I'm coming." And rang off.
"I didn't know there was any electric machinery as old as that," said the mayoral aunt.
"We'll just look about us a bit," the Mayor remarked. "Don't lose a moment, Mr Blackshaw."
And Mr Blackshaw hurried off, wondering vaguely how he should explain the lie when it was found out, but not caring much. After all, he could easily ascribe the episode to the trick of some practical joker.
He arrived at his commodious and electrically lit residence in the very nick of time, and full to overflowing with innocent paternal glee. Was he not about to see Roger's tub? Roger was just ready to be carried upstairs as Mr Blackshaw's latchkey turned in the door.
"Wait a sec!" cried Mr Blackshaw to his wife, who had the child in her arms, "I'll carry him up."
And he threw away his hat, stick, and overcoat and grabbed ecstatically at the infant. And he had got perhaps halfway up the stairs, when lo! the electric light went out. Every electric light in the house went out.
"Great Scott!" breathed Mr Blackshaw, aghast.
He pulled aside the blind of the window at the turn of the stairs, and peered forth. The street was as black as your hat, or nearly so.
"Great Scott!" he repeated. "May, get candles."
Something had evidently gone wrong at the Works. Just his luck! He had quitted the Works for a quarter of an hour, and the current had failed!
Of course, the entire house was instantly in an uproar, turned upside down, startled out of its life. But a few candles soon calmed its transports. And at length Mr Blackshaw gained the bedroom in safety, with the offspring of his desires comfortable in a shawl.
"Give him to me," said May shortly. "I suppose you'll have to go back to the Works at once?"
Mr Blackshaw paused, and then nerved himself; but while he was pausing, May, glancing at the two feeble candles, remarked: "It's very tiresome. I'm sure I shan't be able to see properly."
"No!" almost shouted Mr Blackshaw. "I'll watch this kid have his bath or I'll die for it! I don't care if all the Five Towns are in darkness. I don't care if the Mayor's aunt has got caught in a dynamo and is suffering horrible tortures. I've come to see this bath business, and dashed if I don't see it!"
"Well, don't stand between the bath and the fire, dearest," said May coldly.
Meanwhile, Emmie, having pretty nearly filled the bath with a combination of hot and cold waters, dropped the floating thermometer into it, and then added more waters until the thermometer indicated the precise temperature proper for a baby's bath. But you are not to imagine that Mrs Blackshaw trusted a thermometer--
She did not, however, thrust her bared arm into the water this time. No! Roger, who never cried before his bath, was crying, was indubitably crying. And he cried louder and louder.
"Stand where he can't see you, dearest. He isn't used to you at bath-time," said Mrs Blackshaw still coldly. "Are you, my pet? There! There!"
Mr Blackshaw effaced himself, feeling a fool. But Roger continued to cry. He cried himself purple. He cried till the veins stood out on his forehead and his mouth was like a map of Australia. He cried himself into a monster of ugliness. Neither mother nor nurse could do anything with him at all.
"I think you've upset him, dearest," said Mrs Blackshaw even more coldly. "Hadn't you better go?"
"Well--" protested the father.
"I think you had better go," said Mrs Blackshaw, adding no term of endearment, and visibly controlling herself with difficulty.
And Mr Blackshaw went. He had to go. He went out into the unelectric night. He headed for the Works, not because he cared twopence, at that moment, about the accident at the Works, whatever it was; but simply because the Works was the only place to go to. And even outside in the dark street he could hear the rousing accents of his progeny.
People were talking to each other as they groped about in the road, and either making jokes at the expense of the new Electricity Department, or frankly cursing it with true Five Towns directness of speech. And as Mr Blackshaw went down the hill into the town his heart was as black as the street itself with rage and disappointment. He had made his child cry!
Someone stopped him.
"Eh, Mester Blackshaw!" said a voice, and under the voice a hand struck a match to light a pipe. "What's th' maning o' this eclipse as you'm treating us to?"
Mr Blackshaw looked right through the inquirer--a way he had when his brain was working hard. And he suddenly smiled by the light of the match.
"That child wasn't crying because I was there," said Mr Blackshaw with solemn relief. "Not at all! He was crying because he didn't understand the candles. He isn't used to candles, and they frightened him."
And he began to hurry towards the Works.
At the same instant the electric light returned to Bursley. The current was resumed.
"That's better," said Mr Blackshaw, sighing.