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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
Beginning the New Year
We are a stolid and a taciturn race, we of the Five Towns. It may be because we are geographically so self contained; or it may be because we work in clay and iron; or it may merely be because it is our nature to be stolid and taciturn. But stolid and taciturn we are; and some of the instances of our stolidity and our taciturnity are enough to astound. They do not, of course, astound us natives; we laugh at them, we think they are an immense joke, and what the outer world may think does not trouble our deep conceit of ourselves. I have often wondered what would be the effect, other than an effect of astonishment, on the outer world, of one of these narratives illustrating our Five Towns peculiarities of deportment. And I intend for the first time in history to make such a narrative public property. I have purposely not chosen an extreme example; just an average example. You will see how it strikes you.
Toby Hall, once a burgess of Turnhill, the northernmost and smallest of the Five Towns, was passing, last New Year's Eve, through the district by train on his way from Crewe to Derby. He lived at Derby, and he was returning from the funeral of a brother member of the Ancient Order of Foresters at Crewe. He got out of the train at Knype, the great railway centre of the Five Towns, to have a glass of beer in the second-class refreshment-room. It being New Year's Eve, the traffic was heavy and disorganized, especially in the refreshment-room, and when Toby Hall emerged on to the platform again the train was already on the move. Toby was neither young nor active. His years were fifty, and on account of the funeral he wore broadcloth and a silk hat, and his overcoat was new and encumbering. Impossible to take a flying leap into the train! He missed the train. And then he reflectively stroked his short grey beard (he had no moustache, and his upper lip was very long), and then he smoothed down his new overcoat over his rotund form.
"Young man," he asked a porter. "When's next train Derby way?"
"Ain't none afore tomorrow."
Toby went and had another glass of beer.
"D--d if I don't go to Turnhill," he said to himself, slowly and calmly, as he paid for the second glass of beer.
He crossed the station by the subway and waited for the loop-line train to Turnhill. He had not set foot in the Five Towns for three-and-twenty years, having indeed carefully and continuously avoided it, as a man will avoid the street where his creditor lives. But he discovered no change in Knype railway-station. And he had a sort of pleasure in the fact that he knew his way about it, knew where the loop-line trains started from and other interesting little details. Even the special form of the loop-line time-table, pasted here and there on the walls of the station, had not varied since his youth. (We return Radicals to Parliament, but we are proud of a railway which for fine old English conservatism brooks no rival.)
Toby gazed around, half challengingly and half nervously--it was conceivable that he might be recognized, or might recognize. But no! Not a soul in the vast, swaying, preoccupied, luggage-laden crowds gave him a glance. As for him, although he fully recognized nobody, yet nearly every face seemed to be half-familiar. He climbed into a second-class compartment when the train drew up, and ten other people, all with third-class tickets, followed his example; three persons were already seated therein. The compartment was illuminated by one lamp, and in the Bleakridge Tunnel this lamp expired. Everything reminded him of his youth.
In twenty minutes he was leaving Turnhill station and entering the town. It was about nine o'clock, and colder than winters of the period usually are. The first thing he saw was an electric tram, and the second thing he saw was another electric tram. In Toby's time there were no trams at Turnhill, and the then recently- introduced steam-trams between Bursley and Longshaw, long since superseded, were regarded as the final marvel of science as applied to traction. And now there were electric trams at Turnhill! The railway renewed his youth, but this darting electricity showed him how old he was. The Town Hall, which was brand-new when he left Turnhill, had the look of a mediaeval hotel de ville as he examined it in the glamour of the corporation's incandescent gas. And it was no more the sole impressive pile in the borough. The High Street and its precincts abounded in impressive piles. He did not know precisely what they were, but they had the appearance of being markets, libraries, baths, and similar haunts of luxury; one was a bank. He thought that Turnhill High Street compared very well with Derby. He would have preferred it to be less changed. If the High Street was thus changed, everything would be changed, including Child Row. The sole phenomenon that recalled his youth (except the Town Hall) was the peculiar smell of oranges and apples floating out on the frosty air from holly-decorated greengrocers' shops.
He passed through the Market Square, noting that sinister freak, the Jubilee Tower, and came to Child Row. The first building on your right as you enter Child Row from the square is the Primitive Methodist Chapel. Yes, it was still there; Primitive Methodism had not failed in Turnhill because Toby Hall had deserted the cause three-and-twenty years ago! But something serious had happened to the structure. Gradually Toby realized that its old face had been taken out and a new one put in, the classic pillars had vanished, and a series of Gothic arches had been substituted by way of portico; a pretty idea, but not to Toby's liking. It was another change, another change! He crossed the street and proceeded downwards in the obscurity, and at length halted and peered with his little blue eyes at a small house (one of twins) on the other side from where he stood. That house, at any rate, was unchanged. It was a two-storeyed house, with a semicircular fanlight over a warped door of grained panelling. The blind of the window to the left of the door was irradiated from within, proving habitation.
"I wonder--" ran Toby's thought. And he unhesitatingly crossed the street again, towards it, feeling first for the depth of the kerbstone with his umbrella. He had a particular and special interest in that house (No. 11 it was--and is), for, four-and- twenty years ago he had married it.
Four-and-twenty years ago Toby Hall (I need not say that his proper Christian name was Tobias) had married Miss Priscilla Bratt, then a calm and self-reliant young woman of twenty-three, and Priscilla had the house, together with a certain income, under the will of her father. The marriage was not the result of burning passion on either side. It was a union of two respectabilities, and it might have succeeded as well as such unions generally do succeed, if Priscilla had not too frequently mentioned the fact that the house they lived in was hers. He knew that the house was hers. The whole world was perfectly aware of the ownership of the house, and her references to the matter amounted to a lack of tact. Several times Toby had indicated as much. But Priscilla took no heed. She had the hide of an alligator herself (though a personable girl), and she assumed that her husband's hide was of similar stuff. This assumption was justifiable, except that in just one spot the skin of Toby was tender. He really did not care to be reminded that he was living under his wife's roof. The reiteration settled on his nerves like a malady. And before a year had elapsed Priscilla had contrived to remind him once too often. And one day he put some things in a carpet-bag, and a hat on his head, and made for the door. The house was antique, and the front- parlour gave directly on to the street.
"Where be going?" Priscilla asked him.
He hesitated a second, and said--
And he was. In the Five Towns we are apt to end our marriages in that laconic manner. Toby did not complain too much; he simply and unaffectedly went. It might be imagined that the situation was a trying one for Priscilla. Not so! Priscilla had experienced marriage with Toby and had found it wanting. She was content to be relieved of Toby. She had her house and her money and her self- esteem, and also tranquillity. She accepted the solution, and devoted her days to the cleanliness of the house.
Toby drew all the money he had out of the Bursley and Turnhill Permanent Fifty Pounds Benefit Building Society (four shares, nearly paid up) and set sail--in the Adriatic, which was then the leading greyhound of the Atlantic--for New York. From New York he went to Trenton (New Jersey), which is the Five Towns of America. A man of his skill in handling clay on a wheel had no difficulty whatever in wresting a good livelihood from Trenton. When he had tarried there a year he caused a letter to be written to his wife informing her that he was dead. He wished to be quite free; and also (we have our feeling for justice) he wished his wife to be quite free. It did not occur to him that he had done anything extraordinary, either in deserting his wife or in forwarding false news of his death. He had done the simple thing, the casual thing, the blunt thing, the thing that necessitated the minimum of talking. He did not intend to return to England.
However, after a few years, he did return to England. The cause of his return is irrelevant to the history, but I may say that it sprang from a conflict between the Five Towns temperament and the Trenton Union of Earthenware Operatives. Such is the power of Unions in the United States that Toby, if he wished to remain under the Federal Flag, had either to yield or to starve. He would not yield. He changed his name and came to England; strolled calmly into the Crown Porcelain Works at Derby one day, and there recommenced his career as an artificer of earthenware. He did well. He could easily earn four pounds a week, and had no desires, save in the direction of fly-fishing--not an expensive diversion. He knew better than to marry. He existed quietly; and one year trod on the heels of another, and carried him from thirty to forty and forty to fifty, and no one found out his identity, though there are several direct trains daily between Derby and Knype.
And now, owing to the death of a friend and a glass of beer, he was in Child Row, crossing the street towards the house whose ownership had caused him to quit it.
He knocked on the door with the handle of his umbrella. There was no knocker; there never had been a knocker.
The door opened cautiously, as such doors in the Five Towns do, after a shooting of bolts and a loosing of chains; it opened to the extent of about nine inches, and Toby Hall saw the face of a middle-aged woman eyeing him.
"Is this Mrs Hall's?" he asked sternly.
"No. It ain't Mrs Hall's. It's Mrs Tansley's."
The door opened a little wider.
"That's not you, Tobias?" said the woman unmoved.
"I reckon it is, though," replied Toby, with a difficult smile.
"Bless us!" exclaimed the woman. The door oscillated slightly under her hand. "Bless us!" she repeated. And then suddenly, "You'd happen better come in, Tobias."
"Aye!" said Tobias.
And he entered.
"Sit ye down, do," said his wife. "I thowt as you were dead. They wrote and told me so."
"Aye!" said Tobias. "But I am na'."
He sat down in an arm-chair near the old-fashioned grate, with its hobs at either side. He was acquainted with that chair, and it had not appreciably altered since his departure. The lastingness of furniture under fair treatment is astonishing. This chair was uncomfortably in exactly the same spot where it had always been uncomfortable; and the same anti-macassar was draped over its uncompromising back. Toby put his hat on the table, and leaned his umbrella against the chimney-piece. His overcoat he retained. Same table; same chimney-piece; same clock and ornaments on the chimney-piece! But a different carpet on the floor, and different curtains before the window.
Priscilla bolted and chained the door, and then she too sat down. Her gown was black, with a small black silk apron. And she was stout, and she wore felt slippers and moved with the same gingerly care as Toby himself did. She looked fully her years. Her thin lips were firmer than ever. It was indeed Priscilla.
"Well, well!" she murmured.
But her capacity for wonder was nearly exhausted.
"Aye!" said Toby, with an air that was meant to be quasi-humorous. He warmed his hands at the fire, and then rubbed them over the front of his calves, leaning forward.
"So ye've come back?" said Priscilla.
"Aye!" concurred Toby.
There was a pause.
"Cold weather we're having," he muttered.
"It's seasonable," Priscilla pointed out.
Her glance rested on a sprig of holly that was tied under the gas- chandelier, unique relic of Christmas in the apartment.
Another pause. It would be hazardous to guess what their feelings were; perhaps their feelings were scarcely anything at all.
"And what be the news?" Toby inquired, with what passes in the Five Towns for geniality.
"News?" she repeated, as if not immediately grasping the significance of the question. "I don't know as there's any news, nothing partic'ler, that is."
Hung on the wall near the chimney-piece was a photograph of a girl. It was an excellent likeness to Priscilla, as she was in Toby's pre-Trenton days. How young and fresh the creature looked; so simple, so inexperienced! It startled Toby.
"I don't remember that," he said.
"That!" And he jerked his elbow towards the photograph.
"Oh! THAT! That's my daughter," said Priscilla.
"Bless us!" said Toby in turn.
"I married Job Tansley," Priscilla continued. "He died four years ago last Knype Wakes Monday. HER'S married"--indicating the photograph--"her married young Gibson last September."
"Well, well!" murmured Toby.
There was a shuffling on the pavement outside, and some children began to sing about shepherds and flocks.
"Oh, bother them childer," said Priscilla. "I must send 'em off."
She got up.
"Here! Give 'em a penny," Toby suggested, holding out a penny.
"Yes, and then they'll tell others, and I shan't have a moment's peace all night!" Priscilla grumbled.
However, she bestowed the penny, cutting the song off abruptly in the middle. And she bolted and chained the door and sat down again.
"Well, well!" said Priscilla.
"Aye!" Toby agreed. "Good coal that!"
"Fourteen shilling a ton!"
Another pause, and a longer.
"Is Ned Walklate still at th' Rose and Crown?" Toby asked.
"For aught I know he is," said Priscilla.
"I'll just step round there," said Toby, picking up his hat and rising.
As he was manoeuvring the door-chain, Priscilla said--
"You're forgetting your umbrella, Tobias."
"No," he answered. "I hanna' forgotten it. I'm coming back."
Their eyes met, charged with meaning.
"That'll be all right," she said. "Well, well!"
And he stepped round to Ned Walklate's.