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The Grim Smile of the Five Towns
Arnold Bennett (1907) Country of origin: UK
Available texts by the same author here
Lady Dain said: "Jee, if that portrait stays there much longer, you'll just have to take me off to Pirehill one of these fine mornings."
Pirehill is the seat of the great local hospital; but it is also the seat of the great local lunatic asylum; and when the inhabitants of the Five Towns say merely "Pirehill", they mean the asylum.
"I do declare I can't fancy my food now-a-days," said Lady Dain, "and it's all that portrait!" She stared plaintively up at the immense oil-painting which faced her as she sat at the breakfast- table in her spacious and opulent dining-room.
Sir Jehoshaphat made no remark.
Despite Lady Dain's animadversions upon it, despite the undoubted fact that it was generally disliked in the Five Towns, the portrait had cost a thousand pounds (some said guineas), and though not yet two years old it was probably worth at least fifteen hundred in the picture market. For it was a Cressage; and not only was it a Cressage--it was one of the finest Cressages in existence.
It marked the summit of Sir Jehoshaphat's career. Sir Jehoshaphat's career was, perhaps, the most successful and brilliant in the entire social history of the Five Towns. This famous man was the principal partner in Dain Brothers. His brother was dead, but two of Sir Jee's sons were in the firm. Dain Brothers were the largest manufacturers of cheap earthenware in the district, catering chiefly for the American and Colonial buyer. They had an extremely bad reputation for cutting prices. They were hated by every other firm in the Five Towns, and, to hear rival manufacturers talk, one would gather the impression that Sir Jee had acquired a tremendous fortune by systematically selling goods under cost. They were also hated by between eighteen and nineteen hundred employees. But such hatred, however virulent, had not marred the progress of Sir Jee's career.
He had meant to make a name and he had made it. The Five Towns might laugh at his vulgar snobbishness. The Five Towns might sneer at his calculated philanthropy. But he was, nevertheless, the best-known man in the Five Towns, and it was precisely his snobbishness and his philanthropy which had carried him to the top. Moreover, he had been the first public man in the Five Towns to gain a knighthood. The Five Towns could not deny that it was very proud indeed of this knighthood. The means by which he had won this distinction were neither here nor there--he had won it. And was he not the father of his native borough? Had he not been three times mayor of his native borough? Was not the whole northern half of the county dotted and spangled by his benefactions, his institutions, his endowments?
And it could not be denied that he sometimes tickled the Five Towns as the Five Towns likes being tickled. There was, for example, the notorious Sneyd incident. Sneyd Hall, belonging to the Earl of Chell, lies a few miles south of the Five Towns, and from it the pretty Countess of Chell exercises that condescending meddlesomeness which so frequently exasperates the Five Towns. Sir Jee had got his title by the aid of the Countess-"Interfering Iris", as she is locally dubbed. Shortly afterwards he had contrived to quarrel with the Countess; and the quarrel was conducted by Sir Jee as a quarrel between equals, which delighted the district. Sir Jee's final word in it had been to buy a sizable tract of land near Sneyd village, just off the Sneyd estate, and to erect thereon a mansion quite as imposing as Sneyd Hall, and far more up to date, and to call the mansion Sneyd Castle. A mighty stroke! Iris was furious; the Earl speechless with fury. But they could do nothing. Naturally the Five Towns was tickled.
It was apropos of the house-warming of Sneyd Castle, also of the completion of his third mayoralty, and of the inauguration of the Dain Technical Institute, that the movement had been started (primarily by a few toadies) for tendering to Sir Jee a popular gift worthy to express the profound esteem in which he was officially held in the Five Towns. It having been generally felt that the gift should take the form of a portrait, a local dilettante had suggested Cressage, and when the Five Towns had inquired into Cressage and discovered that that genius from the United States was celebrated throughout the civilized world, and regarded as the equal of Velazquez (whoever Velazquez might be), and that he had painted half the aristocracy, and that his income was regal, the suggestion was accepted and Cressage was approached.
Cressage haughtily consented to paint Sir Jee's portrait on his usual conditions; namely, that the sitter should go to the little village in Bedfordshire where Cressage had his principal studio, and that the painting should be exhibited at the Royal Academy before being shown anywhere else. (Cressage was an R.A., but no one thought of putting R.A. after his name. He was so big, that instead of the Royal Academy conferring distinction on him, he conferred distinction on the Royal Academy.)
Sir Jee went to Bedfordshire and was rapidly painted, and he came back gloomy. The presentation committee went to Bedfordshire later to inspect the portrait, and they, too, came back gloomy.
Then the Academy Exhibition opened, and the portrait, showing Sir Jee in his robe and chain and in a chair, was instantly hailed as possibly the most glorious masterpiece of modern times. All the critics were of one accord. The committee and Sir Jee were reassured, but only partially, and Sir Jee rather less so than the committee. For there was something in the enthusiastic criticism which gravely disturbed him. An enlightened generation, thoroughly familiar with the dazzling yearly succession of Cressage's portraits, need not be told what this something was. One critic wrote that Cressage displayed even more than his "customary astounding insight into character...." Another critic wrote that Cressage's observation was, as usual, "calmly and coldly hostile". Another referred to the "typical provincial mayor, immortalized for the diversion of future ages."
Inhabitants of the Five Towns went to London to see the work for which they had subscribed, and they saw a mean, little, old man, with thin lips and a straggling grey beard, and shifty eyes, and pushful snob written all over him; ridiculous in his gewgaws of office. When you looked at the picture close to, it was a meaningless mass of coloured smudges, but when you stood fifteen feet away from it the portrait was absolutely lifelike, amazing, miraculous. It was so wondrously lifelike that some of the inhabitants of the Five Towns burst out laughing. Many people felt sorry--not for Sir Jee--but for Lady Dain. Lady Dain was beloved and genuinely respected. She was a simple, homely, sincere woman, her one weakness being that she had never been able to see through Sir Jee.
Of course, at the presentation ceremony the portrait had been ecstatically referred to as a possession precious for ever, and the recipient and his wife pretended to be overflowing with pure joy in the ownership of it.
It had been hanging in the dining-room of Sneyd Castle about sixteen months, when Lady Dain told her husband that it would ultimately drive her into the lunatic asylum.
"Don't be silly, wife," said Sir Jee. "I wouldn't part with that portrait for ten times what it cost."
This was, to speak bluntly, a downright lie. Sir Jee secretly hated the portrait more than anyone hated it. He would have been almost ready to burn down Sneyd Castle in order to get rid of the thing. But it happened that on the previous evening, in the conversation with the magistrates' clerk, his receptive brain had been visited by a less expensive scheme than burning down the castle.
Lady Dain sighed.
"Are you going to town early?" she inquired.
"Yes," he replied. "I'm on the rota today."
He was chairman of the borough Bench of magistrates. As he drove into town he revolved his scheme and thought it wild and dangerous, but still feasible.
On the Bench that morning Sir Jee shocked Mr Sherratt, the magistrates' clerk, and he utterly disgusted Mr Bourne, superintendent of the borough police. (I do not intend to name the name of the borough--whether Bursley, Hanbridge, Knype, Longshaw, or Turnhill. The inhabitants of the Five Towns will know without being told; the rest of the world has no right to know.) There had recently occurred a somewhat thrilling series of burglaries in the district, and the burglars (a gang of them was presumed) had escaped the solicitous attentions of the police. But on the previous afternoon an underling of Mr Bourne's had caught a man who was generally believed to be wholly or partly responsible for the burglaries. The Five Towns breathed with relief and congratulated Mr Bourne; and Mr Bourne was well pleased with himself. The Staffordshire Signal headed the item of news, "Smart Capture of a Supposed Burglar". The supposed burglar gave his name as William Smith, and otherwise behaved in an extremely suspicious manner.
Now, Sir Jee, sitting as chief magistrate in the police-court, actually dismissed the charge against the man! Overruling his sole colleague on the Bench that morning, Alderman Easton, he dismissed the charge against William Smith, holding that the evidence for the prosecution was insufficient to justify even a remand. No wonder that Mr Bourne was discouraged, not to say angry. No wonder that that pillar of the law, Mr Sherratt, was pained and shocked. At the conclusion of the case Sir Jehoshaphat said that he would be glad to speak with William Smith afterwards in the magistrates' room, indicating that he sympathized with William Smith, and wished to exercise upon William Smith his renowned philanthropy.
And so, at about noon, when the Court majestically rose, Sir Jee retired to the magistrates' room, where the humble Alderman Easton was discreet enough not to follow him, and awaited William Smith. And William Smith came, guided thither by a policeman, to whom, in parting from him, he made a rude, surreptitious gesture.
Sir Jee, seated in the arm-chair which dominates the other chairs round the elm table in the magistrates' room, emitted a preliminary cough.
"Smith," he said sternly, leaning his elbows on the table, "you were very fortunate this morning, you know."
And he gazed at Smith.
Smith stood near the door, cap in hand. He did not resemble a burglar, who surely ought to be big, muscular, and masterful. He resembled an undersized clerk who has been out of work for a long time, but who has nevertheless found the means to eat and drink rather plenteously. He was clothed in a very shabby navy-blue suit, frayed at the wrists and ankles, and greasy in front. His linen collar was brown with dirt, his fingers were dirty, his hair was unkempt and long, and a young and lusty black beard was sprouting on his chin. His boots were not at all pleasant.
"Yes, governor," Smith replied, lightly, with a Manchester accent. "And what's YOUR game?"
Sir Jee was taken aback. He, the chairman of the borough Bench, and the leading philanthropist in the country, to be so spoken to! But what could he do? He himself had legally established Smith's innocence. Smith was as free as air, and had a perfect right to adopt any tone he chose to any man he chose. And Sir Jee desired a service from William Smith.
"I was hoping I might be of use to you," said Sir Jehoshaphat diplomatically.
"Well," said Smith, "that's all right, that is. But none of your philanthropic dodges, you know. I don't want to lead a new life, and I don't want to turn over a new leaf, and I don't want a helpin' hand, nor none o' those things. And, what's more, I don't want a situation. I've got all the situation as I need. But I never refuse money, nor beer neither. Never did, and I'm forty years old next month."
"I suppose burgling doesn't pay very well, does it?" Sir Jee boldly ventured.
William Smith laughed coarsely.
"It pays right enough," said he. "But I don't put my money on my back, governor, I put it into a bit of public-house property when I get the chance."
"It may pay," said Sir Jee. "But it is wrong. It is very anti-social."
"Is it, indeed?" Smith returned dryly. "Anti-social, is it? Well, I've heard it called plenty o' things in my time, but never that. Now, I should have called it quite sociablelike, sort of making free with strangers, and so on. However," he added, "I come across a cove once as told me crime was nothing but a disease and ought to be treated as such. I asked him for a dozen o' port, but he never sent it."
"Ever been caught before?" Sir Jee inquired.
"Not much!" Smith exclaimed. "And this'll be a lesson to me, I can tell you. Now, what are you getting at, governor? Because my time's money, my time is."
Sir Jee coughed once more.
"Sit down," said Sir Jee.
And William Smith sat down opposite to him at the table, and put his shiny elbows on the table precisely in the manner of Sir Jee's elbows.
"Well?" he cheerfully encouraged Sir Jee.
"How would you like to commit a burglary that was not a crime?" said Sir Jee, his shifty eyes wandering around the room. "A perfectly lawful burglary?"
"What ARE you getting at?" William Smith was genuinely astonished.
"At my residence, Sneyd Castle," Sir Jee proceeded, "there's a large portrait of myself in the dining-room that I want to have stolen. You understand?"
"Yes. I want to get rid of it. And I want--er--people to think that it has been stolen."
"Well, why don't you stop up one night and steal it yourself, and then burn it?" William Smith suggested.
"That would be deceitful," said Sir Jee, gravely. "I could not tell my friends that the portrait had been stolen if it had not been stolen. The burglary must be entirely genuine."
"What's the figure?" said Smith curtly.
"What are you going to give me for the job?"
"GIVE you for doing the job?" Sir Jee repeated, his secret and ineradicable meanness aroused. "GIVE you? Why, I'm giving you the opportunity to honestly steal a picture that's worth over a thousand pounds--I dare say it would be worth two thousand pounds in America--and you want to be paid into the bargain! Do you know, my man, that people come all the way from Manchester, and even London, to see that portrait?" He told Smith about the painting.
"Then why are you in such a stew to be rid of it?" queried the burglar.
"That's my affair," said Sir Jee. "I don't like it. Lady Dain doesn't like it. But it's a presentation portrait, and so I can't-- you see, Mr Smith?"
"And how am I going to dispose of it when I've got it?" Smith demanded. "You can't melt a portrait down as if it was silver. By what you say, governor, it's known all over the blessed world. Seems to me I might just as well try to sell the Nelson Column."
"Oh, nonsense!" said Sir Jee. "Nonsense. You'll sell it in America quite easily. It'll be a fortune to you. Keep it for a year first, and then send it to New York."
William Smith shook his head and drummed his fingers on the table; and then quite suddenly he brightened and said--
"All right, governor. I'll take it on, just to oblige you."
"When can you do it?" asked Sir Jee, hardly concealing his joy. "Tonight?"
"No," said Smith, mysteriously. "I'm engaged tonight."
"Well, tomorrow night?"
"Nor tomorrow. I'm engaged tomorrow too."
"You seem to be very much engaged, my man," Sir Jee observed.
"What do you expect?" Smith retorted. "Business is business. I could do it the night after tomorrow."
"But that's Christmas Eve," Sir Jee protested.
"What if it is Christmas Eve?" said Smith coldly. "Would you prefer Christmas Day? I'm engaged on Boxing Day AND the day after."
"Not in the Five Towns, I trust?" Sir Jee remarked.
"No," said Smith shortly. "The Five Towns is about sucked dry."
The affair was arranged for Christmas Eve.
"Now," Sir Jee suggested, "shall I draw you a plan of the castle, so that you can--"
William Smith's face expressed terrific scorn. "Do you suppose," he said, "as I haven't had plans o' your castle ever since it was built? What do you take me for? I'm not a blooming excursionist, I'm not. I'm a business man--that's what I am."
Sir Jee was snubbed, and he agreed submissively to all William Smith's arrangements for the innocent burglary. He perceived that in William Smith he had stumbled on a professional of the highest class, and this good fortune pleased him.
"There's only one thing that riles me," said Smith, in parting, "and that is that you'll go and say that after you'd done everything you could for me I went and burgled your castle. And you'll talk about the ingratitude of the lower classes. I know you, governor!"
On the afternoon of the 24th of December Sir Jehoshaphat drove home to Sneyd Castle from the principal of the three Dain manufactories, and found Lady Dain superintending the work of packing up trunks. He and she were to quit the castle that afternoon in order to spend Christmas on the other side of the Five Towns, under the roof of their eldest son, John, who had a new house, a new wife, and a new baby (male). John was a domineering person, and, being rather proud of his house and all that was his, he had obstinately decided to have his own Christmas at his own hearth. Grandpapa and Grandmamma, drawn by the irresistible attraction of that novelty, a grandson (though Mrs John HAD declined to have the little thing named Jehoshaphat), had yielded to John's solicitations, and the family gathering, for the first time in history, was not to occur round Sir Jee's mahogany.
Sir Jee, very characteristically, said nothing to Lady Dain immediately. He allowed her to proceed with the packing of the trunks, and then tea was served, and as the time was approaching for the carriage to come round to take them to the station, at last he suddenly remarked-
"I shan't be able to go with you to John's this afternoon."
"Oh, Jee!" she exclaimed. "Really, you are tiresome. Why couldn't you tell me before?"
"I will come over tomorrow morning--perhaps in time for church," he proceeded, ignoring her demand for an explanation.
He always did ignore her demand for an explanation. Indeed, she only asked for explanations in a mechanical and perfunctory manner--she had long since ceased to expect them. Sir Jee had been born like that--devious, mysterious, incalculable. And Lady Dain accepted him as he was. She was somewhat surprised, therefore, when he went on--
"I have some minutes of committee meetings that I really must go carefully through and send off tonight, and you know as well as I do that there'll be no chance of doing that at John's. I've telegraphed to John."
He was obviously nervous and self-conscious.
"There's no food in the house," sighed Lady Dain. "And the servants are all going away except Callear, and HE can't cook your dinner tonight. I think I'd better stay myself and look after you."
"You'll do no such thing," said Sir Jee, decisively. "As for my dinner, anything will do for that. The servants have been promised their holiday, to start from this evening, and they must have it. I can manage."
Here spoke the philanthropist with his unshakable sense of justice.
So Lady Dain departed, anxious and worried, having previously arranged something cold for Sir Jee in the dining-room, and instructed Callear about boiling the water for Sir Jee's tea on Christmas morning. Callear was the under-coachman and a useful odd man. He it was who would drive Sir Jee to the station on Christmas morning, and then guard the castle and the stables thereof during the absence of the family and the other servants. Callear slept over the stables.
And after Sir Jee had consumed his cold repast in the dining-room the other servants went, and Sir Jee was alone in the castle, facing the portrait.
He had managed the affair fairly well, he thought. Indeed, he had a talent for chicane, and none knew it better than himself. It would have been dangerous if the servants had been left in the castle. They might have suffered from insomnia, and heard William Smith, and interfered with the operations of William Smith. On the other hand, Sir Jee had no intention whatever of leaving the castle uninhabited to the mercies of William Smith. He felt that he himself must be on the spot to see that everything went right and that nothing went wrong. Thus, the previously-arranged scheme for the servants' holiday fitted perfectly into his plans, and all that he had had to do was to refuse to leave the castle till the morrow. It was ideal.
Nevertheless, he was a little afraid of what he had done, and of what he was going to permit William Smith to do. It was certainly dangerous--certainly rather a wild scheme. However, the die was cast. And within twelve hours he would be relieved of the intolerable incubus of the portrait.
And when he thought of the humiliations which that portrait had caused him; when he remembered the remarks of his sons concerning it, especially John's remarks; when he recalled phrases about it in London newspapers, he squirmed, and told himself that no scheme for getting rid of it could be too wild and perilous. And, after all, the burglary dodge was the only dodge, absolutely the only conceivable practical method of disposing of the portrait--except burning down the castle. And surely it was preferable to a conflagration, to arson! Moreover, in case of fire at the castle some blundering fool would be sure to cry; "The portrait! The portrait must be saved!" And the portrait would be saved.
He gazed at the repulsive, hateful thing. In the centre of the lower part of the massive gold frame was the legend: "Presented to Sir Jehoshaphat Dain, Knight, as a mark of public esteem and gratitude," etc. He wondered if William Smith would steal the frame. It was to be hoped that he would not steal the frame. In fact, William Smith would find it very difficult to steal that frame unless he had an accomplice or so.
"This is the last time I shall see YOU!" said Sir Jee to the portrait.
Then he unfastened the catch of one of the windows in the dining- room (as per contract with William Smith), turned out the electric light, and went to bed in the deserted castle.
He went to bed, but not to sleep. It was no part of Sir Jee's programme to sleep. He intended to listen, and he did listen.
And about two o'clock, precisely the hour which William Smith had indicated, he fancied he heard muffled and discreet noises. Then he was sure that he heard them. William Smith had kept his word. Then the noises ceased for a period, and then they recommenced. Sir Jee restrained his curiosity as long as he could, and when he could restrain it no more he rose and silently opened his bedroom window and put his head out into the nipping night air of Christmas. And by good fortune he saw the vast oblong of the picture, carefully enveloped in sheets, being passed by a couple of dark figures through the dining-room window to the garden outside. William Smith had a colleague, then, and he was taking the frame as well as the canvas. Sir Jee watched the men disappear down the avenue, and they did not reappear. Sir Jee returned to bed.
Yes, he felt himself equal to facing it out with his family and friends. He felt himself equal to pretending that he had no knowledge of the burglary.
Having slept a few hours, he got up early and, half-dressed, descended to the dining-room just to see what sort of a mess William Smith had made.
The canvas of the portrait lay flat on the hearthrug, with the following words written on it in chalk: "This is no use to me." It was the massive gold frame that had gone.
Further, as was later discovered, all the silver had gone. Not a spoon was left in the castle.