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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
News of the Engagement
My mother never came to meet me at Bursley station when I arrived in the Five Towns from London; much less did she come as far as Knype station, which is the great traffic centre of the district, the point at which one changes from the express into the local train. She had always other things to do; she was "preparing" for me. So I had the little journey from Knype to Bursley, and then the walk up Trafalgar Road, amid the familiar high chimneys and the smoke and the clayey mud and the football posts and the Midland accent, all by myself. And there was leisure to consider anew how I should break to my mother the tremendous news I had for her. I had been considering that question ever since getting into the train at Euston, where I had said goodbye to Agnes; but in the atmosphere of the Five Towns it seemed just slightly more difficult; though, of course, it wasn't difficult, really.
You see, I wrote to my mother regularly every week, telling her most of my doings. She knew all my friends by name. I dare say she formed in her mind notions of what sort of people they were. Thus I had frequently mentioned Agnes and her family in my letters. But you can't write even to your mother and say in cold blood: "I think I am beginning to fall in love with Agnes," "I think Agnes likes me," "I am mad on her," "I feel certain she likes me," "I shall propose to her on such a day." You can't do that. At least I couldn't. Hence it had come about that on the 20th of December I had proposed to Agnes and been accepted by Agnes, and my mother had no suspicion that my happiness was so near. And on the 22nd, by a previous and unalterable arrangement, I had come to spend Christmas with my mother.
I was the only son of a widow; I was all that my mother had. And lo! I had gone and engaged myself to a girl she had never seen, and I had kept her in the dark! She would certainly be extremely surprised, and she might be a little bit hurt--just at first. Anyhow, the situation was the least in the world delicate.
I walked up the whitened front steps of my mother's little house, just opposite where the electric cars stop, but before I could put my hand on the bell my little plump mother, in her black silk and her gold brooch and her auburn hair, opened to me, having doubtless watched me down the road from the bay-window, as usual, and she said, as usual kissing me--
"Well, Philip! How are you?"
And I said--
"Oh! I'm all right, mother. How are you?"
I perceived instantly that she was more excited than my arrival ordinarily made her. There were tears in her smiling eyes, and she was as nervous as a young girl. She did indeed look remarkably young for a woman of forty-five, with twenty-five years of widowhood and a brief but too tempestuous married life behind her.
The thought flashed across my mind: "By some means or other she has got wind of my engagement. But how?"
But I said nothing. I, too, was naturally rather nervous. Mothers are kittle cattle.
"I'll tell her at supper," I decided.
And she hovered round me, like a sea-gull round a steamer, as I went upstairs.
There was a ring at the door. She flew, instead of letting the servant go. It was a porter with my bag.
Just as I was coming down-stairs again there was another ring at the door. And my mother appeared magically out of the kitchen, but I was beforehand with her, and with a laugh I insisted on opening the front door myself this time. A young woman stood on the step.
"Please, Mrs Dawson wants to know if Mrs Durance can kindly lend her half-a-dozen knives and forks?"
"Eh, with pleasure," said my mother, behind me. "Just wait a minute, Lucy. Come inside on the mat."
I followed my mother into the drawing-room, where she kept her silver in a cabinet.
"That's Mrs Dawson's new servant," my mother whispered. "But she needn't think I'm going to lend her my best, because I'm not."
"I shouldn't, if I were you," I supported her.
And she went out with some second-best in tissue paper, and beamed on Mrs Dawson's servant with an assumed benevolence.
"There!" she exclaimed. "And the compliments of the season to your mistress, Lucy."
After that my mother disappeared into the kitchen to worry an entirely capable servant. And I roamed about, feeling happily excited, examining the drawing-room, in which nothing was changed except the incandescent light and the picture postcards on the mantelpiece. Then I wandered into the dining-room, a small room at the back of the house, and here an immense surprise awaited me.
Supper was set for three!
"Well," I reflected. "Here's a nice state of affairs! Supper for three, and she hasn't breathed a word!"
My mother was so clever in social matters, and especially in the planning of delicious surprises, that I believed her capable even of miracles. In some way or other she must have discovered the state of my desires towards Agnes. She had written, or something. She and Agnes had been plotting together by letter to startle me, and perhaps telegraphing. Agnes had fibbed in telling me that she could not possibly come to Bursley for Christmas; she had delightfully fibbed. And my mother had got her concealed somewhere in the house, or was momentarily expecting her. That explained the tears, the nervousness, the rushes to the door.
I crept out of the dining-room, determined not to let my mother know that I had secretly viewed the supper-table. And as I was crossing the lobby to the drawing-room there was a third ring at the door, and a third time my mother rushed out of the kitchen.
"By Jove!" I thought. "Suppose it's Agnes. What a scene!"
And trembling with expectation I opened the door. It was Mr Nixon.
Now, Mr Nixon was an old friend of the family's, a man of forty- nine or fifty, with a reputation for shrewdness and increasing wealth. He owned a hundred and seventy-five cottages in the town, having bought them gradually in half-dozens, and in rows; he collected the rents himself, and attended to the repairs himself, and was celebrated as a good landlord, and as being almost the only man in Bursley who had made cottage property pay. He lived alone in Commerce Street, and, though not talkative, was usually jolly, with one or two good stories tucked away in the corners of his memory. He was my mother's trustee, and had morally aided her in the troublous times before my father's early death.
"Well, young man," cried he. "So you're back in owd Bosley!" It amused him to speak the dialect a little occasionally.
And he brought his burly, powerful form into the lobby.
I greeted him as jovially as I could, and then he shook hands with my mother, neither of them speaking.
"Mr Nixon is come for supper, Philip," said my mother.
I liked Mr Nixon, but I was not too well pleased by this information, for I wanted to talk confidentially to my mother. I had a task before me with my mother, and here Mr Nixon was plunging into the supper. I could not break it gently to my mother that I was engaged to a strange young woman in the presence of Mr Nixon. Mr Nixon had been in to supper several times during previous visits of mine, but never on the first night.
However, I had to make the best of it. And we sat down and began on the ham, the sausages, the eggs, the crumpets, the toast, the jams, the mince-tarts, the Stilton, and the celery. But we none of us ate very much, despite my little plump mother's protestations.
My suspicion was that perhaps something had gone slightly wrong with my mother's affairs, and that Mr Nixon was taking the first opportunity to explain things to me. But such a possibility did not interest me, for I could easily afford to keep my mother and a wife too. I was still preoccupied in my engagement--and surely there is nothing astonishing in that--and I began to compose the words in which, immediately on the departure of Mr Nixon after supper, I would tackle my mother on the subject.
When we had reached the Stilton and celery, I intimated that I must walk down to the post-office, as I had to dispatch a letter.
"Won't it do tomorrow, my pet?" asked my mother.
"It will not," I said.
Imagine leaving Agnes two days without news of my safe arrival and without assurances of my love! I had started writing the letter in the train, near Willesden, and I finished it in the drawing-room.
"A lady in the case?" Mr Nixon called out gaily.
"Yes," I replied with firmness.
I went forth, bought a picture postcard showing St Luke's Square, Bursley, most untruthfully picturesque, and posted the card and the letter to my darling Agnes. I hoped that Mr Nixon would have departed ere my return; he had made no reference at all during supper to my mother's affairs. But he had not departed. I found him solitary in the drawing-room, smoking a very fine cigar.
"Where's the mater?" I demanded.
"She's just gone out of the room," he said. "Come and sit down. Have a weed. I want a bit of a chat with you, Philip."
I obeyed, taking one of the very fine cigars.
"Well, Uncle Nixon," I encouraged him, wishing to get the chat over because my mind was full of Agnes. I sometimes called him uncle for fun.
"Well, my boy," he began. "It's no use me beating about the bush. What do you think of me as a stepfather?"
I was struck, as they say down there, all of a heap.
"What?" I stammered. "You don't mean to say--you and mother--?"
"Yes, I do, lad. Yesterday she promised as she'd marry my unworthy self. It's been coming along for some time. But I don't expect she's given you any hint in her letters. In fact, I know she hasn't. It would have been rather difficult, wouldn't it? She couldn't well have written, "My dear Philip, an old friend, Mr Nixon, is falling in love with me and I believe I'm falling in love with him. One of these days he'll be proposing to me." She couldn't have written like that, could she?"
I laughed. I could not help it.
"Shake hands," I said warmly. "I'm delighted."
And soon afterwards my mother sidled in, shyly.
"The lad's delighted, Sarah," said Mr Nixon shortly.
I said nothing about my own engagement that night. I had never thought of my mother as a woman with a future, I had never realized that she was desirable, and that a man might desire her, and that her lonely existence in that house was not all that she had the right to demand from life. And I was ashamed of my characteristic filial selfish egoism. So I decided that I would not intrude my joys on hers until the next morning. We live and learn.