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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
From One Generation to Another
It is the greatest mistake in the world to imagine that, because the Five Towns is an industrial district, devoted to the manufacture of cups and saucers, marbles and door-knobs, therefore there is no luxury in it.
A writer, not yet deceased, who spent two nights there, and wrote four hundred pages about it, has committed herself to the assertion that there are no private carriages in its streets-- only perambulators and tramcars.
That writer's reputation is ruined in the Five Towns. For the Five Towns, although continually complaining of bad times, is immensely wealthy, as well as immensely poor--a country of contrasts, indeed--and private carriages, if they do not abound, exist at any rate in sufficient numbers.
Nay, more, automobiles of the most expensive French and English makes fly dashingly along its hilly roads and scatter in profusion the rich black mud thereof.
On a Saturday afternoon in last spring, such an automobile stood outside the garden entrance of Bleakridge House, just halfway between Hanbridge and Bursley. It belonged to young Harold Etches, of Etches, Limited, the great porcelain manufacturers.
It was a 20 h.p. Panhard, and was worth over a thousand pounds as it stood there, throbbing, and Harold was proud of it.
He was also proud of his young wife, Maud, who, clad in several hundred pounds' worth of furs, had taken her seat next to the steering-wheel, and was waiting for Harold to mount by her side. The united ages of this handsome and gay couple came to less than forty-five.
And they owned the motor-car, and Bleakridge House with its ten bedrooms, and another house at Llandudno, and a controlling interest in Etches, Limited, that brought them in seven or eight thousand a year. They were a pretty tidy example of what the Five Towns can do when it tries to be wealthy.
At that moment, when Harold was climbing into the car, a shabby old man who was walking down the road, followed by a boy carrying a carpet-bag, stopped suddenly and touched Harold on the shoulder.
"Bless us!" exclaimed the old man. And the boy and the carpet-bag halted behind him.
"What? Uncle Dan?" said Harold.
"Uncle Dan!" cried Maud, springing up with an enchanting smile. "Why, it's ages since--"
"And what d'ye reckon ye'n gotten here?" demanded the old man.
"It's my new car," Harold explained.
"And ca'st drive it, lad?" asked the old man.
"I should think I could!" said Harold confidently.
"H'm!" commented the old man, and then he shook hands, and thoroughly scrutinized Maud.
Now, this is the sort of thing that can only be seen and appreciated in a district like the Five Towns, where families spring into splendour out of nothing in the course of a couple of generations, and as often as not sink back again into nothing in the course of two generations more.
The Etches family is among the best known and the widest spread in the Five Towns. It originated in three brothers, of whom Daniel was the youngest. Daniel never married; the other two did. Daniel was not very fond of money; the other two were, and they founded the glorious firm of Etches. Harold was the grandson of one brother, and Maud was the Granddaughter of the other. Consequently, they both stood in the same relation to Dan, who was their great-uncle--addressed as uncle "for short".
There is a good deal of snobbery in the Five Towns, but it does not exist between relatives. The relatives in danger of suffering by it would never stand it. Besides, although Dan's income did not exceed two hundred a year, he was really richer than his grandnephew, since Dan lived on half his income, whereas Harold, aided by Maud, lived on all of his.
Consequently, despite the vast difference in their stations, clothes, and manners, Daniel and his young relatives met as equals. It would have been amusing to see anyone--even the Countess of Chell, who patronized the entire district--attempt to patronize Dan.
In his time he had been the greatest pigeon-fancier in the country.
"So you're paying a visit to Bursley, uncle?" said Maud.
"Aye!" Dan replied. "I'm back i' owd Bosley. Sarah--my housekeeper, thou know'st--"
"No. Her inna' dead; but her sister's dead, and I've give her a week's play [holiday], and come away. Rat Edge'll see nowt o' me this side Easter."
Rat Edge was the name of the village, five miles off, which Dan had honoured in his declining years.
"And where are you going to now?" asked Harold.
"I'm going to owd Sam Shawn's, by th' owd church, to beg a bed."
"But you'll stop with us, of course?" said Harold.
"Nay, lad," said Dan.
"Oh yes, uncle," Maud insisted.
"Nay, lass," said Dan.
"Indeed, you will, uncle," said Maud positively. "If you don't, I'll never speak to you again."
She had a charming fire in her eyes, had Maud.
Daniel, the old bachelor, yielded at once, but in his own style.
"I'll try it for a night, lass," said he.
Thus it occurred that the carpet-bag was carried into Bleakridge House, and that after some delay Harold and Maud carried off Uncle Dan with them in the car. He sat in the luxurious tonneau behind, and Maud had quitted her husband in order to join him. Possibly she liked the humorous wrinkles round his grey eyes. Or it may have been the eyes themselves. And yet Dan was nearer seventy than sixty.
The car passed everything on the road; it seemed to be overtaking electric trams all the time.
"So ye'n been married a year?" said Uncle Dan, smiling at Maud.
"Oh yes; a year and three days. We're quite used to it."
"Us'n be in h-ll in a minute, wench!" exclaimed Dan, calmly changing the topic, as Harold swung the car within an inch of a brewer's dray, and skidded slightly in the process. No anti- skidding device would operate in that generous, oozy mud.
And, as a matter of fact, they were in Hanbridge the next minute-- Hanbridge, the centre of the religions, the pleasures, and the vices of the Five Towns.
"Bless us!" said the old man. "It's fifteen year and more since I were here."
"Harold," said Maud, "let's stop at the Piccadilly Cafe and have some tea."
"Cafe?" asked Dan. "What be that?"
"It's a kind of a pub." Harold threw the explanation over his shoulder as he brought the car up with swift dexterity in front of the Misses Callear's newly opened afternoon tea-rooms.
"Oh, well, if it's a pub," said Uncle Dan, "I dunna' object."
He frankly admitted, on entering, that he had never before seen a pub full of little tables and white cloths, and flowers, and young women, and silver teapots, and cake-stands. And though he did pour his tea into his saucer, he was sufficiently at home there to address the younger Miss Callear as "young woman", and to inform her that her beverage was lacking in Orange Pekoe. And the Misses Callear, who conferred a favour on their customers in serving them, didn't like it.
He became reminiscent.
"Aye!" he said, "when I left th' Five Towns fifty-two years sin' to go weaving i' Derbyshire wi' my mother's brother, tay were ten shilling a pun'. Us had it when us were sick--which wasna' often. We worked too hard for be sick. Hafe past five i' th' morning till eight of a night, and then Saturday afternoon walk ten mile to Glossop with a week's work on ye' back, and home again wi' th' brass.
"They've lost th' habit of work now-a-days, seemingly," he went on, as the car moved off once more, but slowly, because of the vast crowds emerging from the Knype football ground. "It's football, Saturday; bands of a Sunday; football, Monday; ill i' bed and getting round, Tuesday; do a bit o' work Wednesday; football, Thursday; draw wages Friday night; and football, Saturday. And wages higher than ever. It's that as beats me-- wages higher than ever--
"Ye canna' smoke with any comfort i' these cars," he added, when Harold had got clear of the crowds and was letting out. He regretfully put his pipe in his pocket.
Harold skirted the whole length of the Five Towns from south to north, at an average rate of perhaps thirty miles an hour; and quite soon the party found itself on the outer side of Turnhill, and descending the terrible Clough Bank, three miles long, and of a steepness resembling the steepness of the side of a house.
The car had warmed to its business, and Harold took them down that declivity in a manner which startled even Maud, who long ago had resigned herself to the fact that she was tied for life to a young man for whom the word "danger" had no meaning.
At the bottom they had a swerve skid; but as there was plenty of room for eccentricities, nothing happened except that the car tried to climb the hill again.
"Well, if I'd known," observed Uncle Dan, "if I'd guessed as you were reservin' this treat for th' owd uncle, I'd ha' walked."
The Etches blood in him was pretty cool, but his nerve had had a shaking.
Then Harold could not restart the car. The engine had stopped of its own accord, and, though Harold lavished much physical force on the magic handle in front, nothing would budge. Maud and the old man got down, the latter with relief.
"Stuck, eh?" said Dan. "No steam?"
"That's it!" Harold cried, slapping his leg. "What an ass I am! She wants petrol, that's all. Maud, pass a couple of cans. They're under the seat there, behind. No; on the left, child."
However, there was no petrol on the car.
"That's that cursed Durand" (Durand being the new chauffeur-- French, to match the car). "I told him not to forget. Last thing I said to the fool! Maud, I shall chuck that chap!"
"Can't we do anything?" asked Maud stiffly, putting her lips together.
"We can walk back to Turnhill and buy some petrol, some of us!" snapped Harold. "That's what we can do!"
"Sithee," said Uncle Dan. "There's the Plume o' Feathers half-a- mile back. Th' landlord's a friend o' mine. I can borrow his mare and trap, and drive to Turnhill and fetch some o' thy petrol, as thou calls it."
"It's awfully good of you, uncle."
"Nay, lad, I'm doing it for please mysen. But Maud mun come wi' me. Give us th' money for th' petrol, as thou calls it."
"Then I must stay here alone?" Harold complained.
"Seemingly," the old man agreed.
After a few words on pigeons, and a glass of beer, Dan had no difficulty whatever in borrowing his friend's white mare and black trap. He himself helped in the harnessing. Just as he was driving triumphantly away, with that delicious vision Maud on his left hand and a stable-boy behind, he reined the mare in.
"Give us a couple o' penny smokes, matey," he said to the landlord, and lit one.
The mare could go, and Dan could make her go, and she did go. And the whole turn-out looked extremely dashing when, ultimately, it dashed into the glare of the acetylene lamps which the deserted Harold had lighted on his car.
The red end of a penny smoke in the gloom of twilight looks exactly as well as the red end of an Havana. Moreover, the mare caracolled ornamentally in the rays of the acetylene, and the stable-boy had to skip down quick and hold her head.
"How much didst say this traction-engine had cost thee?" Dan asked, while Harold was pouring the indispensable fluid into the tank.
"Not far off twelve hundred," answered Harold lightly. "Keep that cigar away from here."
"Fifteen pun' ud buy this mare," Dan announced to the road.
"Now, all aboard!" Harold commanded at length. "How much shall I give to the boy for the horse and trap, uncle?"
"Nothing," said Dan. "I havena' finished wi' that mare yet. Didst think I was going to trust mysen i' that thing o' yours again? I'll meet thee at Bleakridge, lad."
"And I think I'll go with uncle too, Harold," said Maud.
Whereupon they both got into the trap.
Harold stared at them, astounded.
"But I say--" he protested, beginning to be angry.
Uncle Dan drove away like the wind, and the stable-boy had all he could do to clamber up behind.
Now, at dinner-time that night, in the dining-room of the commodious and well-appointed mansion of the youngest and richest of the Etches, Uncle Dan stood waiting and waiting for his host and hostess to appear. He was wearing a Turkish tasselled smoking- cap to cover his baldness, and he had taken off his jacket and put on his light, loose overcoat instead of it, since that was a comfortable habit of his.
He sent one of the two parlourmaids upstairs for his carpet slippers out of the carpet-bag, and he passed part of the time in changing his boots for his slippers in front of the fire. Then at length, just as a maid was staggering out under the load of those enormous boots, Harold appeared, very correct, but alone.
"Awfully sorry to keep you waiting, uncle," said Harold, "but Maud isn't well. She isn't coming down tonight."
"What's up wi' Maud?"
"Oh, goodness knows!" responded Harold gloomily. "She's not well-- that's all."
"H'm!" said Dan. "Well, let's peck a bit."
So they sat down and began to peck a bit, aided by the two maids. Dan pecked with prodigious enthusiasm, but Harold was not in good pecking form. And as the dinner progressed, and Harold sent dish after dish up to his wife, and his wife returned dish after dish untouched, Harold's gloom communicated itself to the house in general.
One felt that if one had penetrated to the farthest corner of the farthest attic, a little parcel of spiritual gloom would have already arrived there. The sense of disaster was in the abode. The cook was prophesying like anything in the kitchen. Durand in the garage was meditating upon such of his master's pithy remarks as he had been able to understand.
When the dinner was over, and the coffee and liqueurs and cigars had been served, and the two maids had left the dining-room, Dan turned to his grandnephew and said--
"There's things as has changed since my time, lad, but human nature inna' one on em."
"What do you mean, uncle?" Harold asked awkwardly, self- consciously.
"I mean as thou'rt a dashed foo'!"
"But thou'lt get better o' that," said Dan.
Harold smiled sheepishly.
"I don't know what you're driving at, uncle," said he.
"Yes, thou dost, lad. Thou'st been and quarrelled wi' Maud. And I say thou'rt a dashed foo'!"
"As a matter of fact--" Harold stammered.
"And ye've never quarrelled afore. This is th' fust time. And so thou'st under th' impression that th' world's come to an end. Well, th' fust quarrel were bound to come sooner or later."
"It isn't really a quarrel--it's about nothing--"
"I know--I know," Dan broke in. "They always are. As for it not being a quarrel, lad, call it a picnic if thou'st a mind. But heir's sulking upstairs, and thou'rt sulking down here."
"She was cross about the petrol," said Harold, glad to relieve his mind. "I hadn't a notion she was cross till I went up into the bedroom. Not a notion! I explained to her it wasn't my fault. I argued it out with her very calmly. I did my best to reason with her--"
"Listen here, young 'un," Dan interrupted him. "How old art?"
"Thou may'st live another fifty years. If thou'st a mind to spend 'em i' peace, thoud'st better give up reasoning wi' women. Give it up right now! It's worse nor drink, as a habit. Kiss 'em, cuddle 'em, beat 'em. But dunna' reason wi' 'em."
"What should you have done in my place?" Harold asked.
"I should ha' told Maud her was quite right."
"But she wasn't."
"Then I should ha' winked at mysen i' th' glass," continued Dan, "and kissed her."
"That's all very well--"
"Naturally," said Dan, "her wanted to show off that car i' front o' me. That was but natural. And her was vexed when it went wrong."
"But I told her--I explained to her."
"Her's a handsome little wench," Dan proceeded. "And a good heart. But thou'st got ten times her brains, lad, and thou ought'st to ha' given in."
"But I can't always be--"
"It's allus them as gives in as has their own way. I remember her grandfather--he was th' eldest o' us--he quarrelled wi' his wife afore they'd been married a week, and she raced him all over th' town wi' a besom--"
"With a besom, uncle?" exclaimed Harold, shocked at these family disclosures.
"Wi' a besom," said Dan. That come o' reasoning wi' a woman. It taught him a lesson, I can tell thee. And afterwards he always said as nowt was worth a quarrel--NOWT! And it isna'."
"I don't think Maud will race me all over the town with a besom," Harold remarked reflectively.
"There's worse things nor that," said Dan. "Look thee here, get out o' th' house for a' 'our. Go to th' Conservative Club, and then come back. Dost understand?"
"Hook it, lad!" said Dan curtly.
And just as Harold was leaving the room, like a school-boy, he called him in again.
"I havena' told thee, Harold, as I'm subject to attacks. I'm getting up in years. I go off like. It isna' fits, but I go off. And if it should happen while I'm here, dunna' be alarmed."
"What are we to do?"
"Do nothing. I come round in a minute or two. Whatever ye do, dunna' give me brandy. It might kill me--so th' doctor says. I'm only telling thee in case."
"Well, I hope you won't have an attack," said Harold.
"It's a hundred to one I dunna'," said Dan.
And Harold departed.
Soon afterwards Uncle Dan wandered into a kitchen full of servants.
"Show me th' missis's bedroom, one on ye," he said to the crowd.
And presently he was knocking at Maud's door.
"Who is it?" came a voice.
"It's thy owd uncle. Can'st spare a minute?"
Maud appeared at the door, smiling, and arrayed in a peignoir.
"HE'S gone out," said Dan, implying scorn of the person who had gone out. "Wilt come down-stairs?"
"Where's he gone to?" Maud demanded.
She didn't even pretend she was ill.
"Th' Club," said Dan.
And in about a hundred seconds or so he had her in the drawing- room, and she was actually pouring out gin for him. She looked ravishing in that peignoir, especially as she was munching an apple, and balancing herself on the arm of a chair.
"So he's been quarrelling with ye, Maud?" Dan began.
"No; not quarrelling, uncle."
"Well, call it what ye'n a mind," said Dan. "Call it a prayer- meeting. I didn't notice as ye came down for supper--dinner, as ye call it."
"It was like this, uncle," she said. "Poor Harry was very angry with himself about that petrol. Of course, he wanted the car to go well while you were in it; and he came up-stairs and grumbled at me for leaving him all alone and driving home with you."
"Oh, did he?" exclaimed Dan.
"Yes. I explained to him that of course I couldn't leave you all alone. Then he got hot. I kept quite calm. I reasoned it out with him as quietly as I could--"
"Maudie, Maudie," protested the old man, "thou'rt th' prettiest wench i' this town, though I AM thy great-uncle, and thou'st got plenty o' brains--a sight more than that husband o' thine."
"Do you think so, uncle?"
"Aye, but thou hasna' made use o' 'em tonight. Thou'rt a foolish wench, wench. At thy time o' life, and after a year o' th' married state, thou ought'st to know better than reason wi' a man in a temper."
"But, really, uncle, it was so absurd of Harold, wasn't it?"
"Aye!" said Dan. "But why didst-na' give in and kiss him, and smack his face for him?"
"There was nothing to give in about, uncle."
"There never is," said Dan. "There never is. That's the point. Still, thou'rt nigh crying, wench."
"I'm not, uncle," she contradicted, the tears falling on to the apple.
"And Harold's using bad language all up Trafalgar Road, I lay," Dan added.
"It was all Harold's fault," said Maud.
"Why, in course it were Harold's fault. But nowt's worth a quarrel, my dear--NOWT. I remember Harold's grandfeyther--he were th' second of us, your grandfeyther were the eldest, and I were the youngest--I remember Harold's grandfeyther chasing his wife all over th' town wi' a besom a week after they were married."
"With a besom!" murmured Maud, pained and forgetting to cry. "Harold's grandfather, not mine?"
"Wi' a besom," Dan repeated, nodding. "They never quarrelled again--ne'er again. Th' old woman allus said after that as quarrels were for fools. And her was right."
"I don't see Harold chasing me across Bursley with a besom," said Maud primly. "But what you say is quite right, you dear old uncle. Men are queer--I mean husbands. You can't argue with them. You'd much better give in--"
"And have your own way after all."
"And perhaps Harold was--"
Harold's step could be heard in the hall.
"Oh, dear!" cried Maud. "What shall I do?"
"I'm not feeling very well," whispered Uncle Dan weakly. "I have these 'ere attacks sometimes. There's only one thing as'll do me any good--brandy."
And his head fell over one side of the chair, and he looked precisely like a corpse.
"Maud, what are you doing?" almost shouted Harold, when he came into the room.
She was putting a liqueur-glass to Uncle Dan's lips.
"Oh, Harold," she cried, "uncle's had an attack of some sort. I'm giving him some brandy."
"But you mustn't give him brandy," said Harold authoritatively to her.
"But I MUST give him brandy," said Maud. "He told me that brandy was the only thing to save him."
"Nonsense, child!" Harold persisted. "Uncle told ME all about these attacks. They're perfectly harmless so long as he doesn't have brandy. The doctors have warned him that brandy will be fatal."
"Harold, you are absolutely mistaken. Don't you understand that uncle has only this minute told me that he MUST have brandy?"
And she again approached the glass to the pale lips of the old man. His tasselled Turkish smoking-cap had fallen to the floor, and the hemisphere of his bald head glittered under the gas.
"Maud, I forbid you!" And Harold put a hand on the glass. "It's a matter of life and death. You must have misunderstood uncle."
"It was you who misunderstood uncle," said Maud. "Of course, if you mean to prevent me by brute force--"
They both paused and glanced at Daniel, and then at each other.
"Perhaps you are right, dearest," said Harold, in a new tone.
"No, dearest," said Maud, also in a new tone. "I expect you are right. I must have misunderstood."
"No, no, Maud. Give him the brandy by all means. I've no doubt you're right."
"But if you think I'd better not give it him--"
"But I would prefer you to give it him, dearest. It isn't likely you would be mistaken in a thing like that."
"I would prefer to be guided by you, dearest," said Maud.
So they went on for several minutes, each giving way to the other in the most angelic manner.
"AND MEANTIME I'M SUPPOSED TO BE DYING, AM I?" roared Uncle Dan, suddenly sitting up. "You'd let th' old uncle peg out while you practise his precepts! A nice pair you make! I thought for see which on ye' ud' give way to th' other, but I didna' anticipate as both on ye 'ud be ready to sacrifice my life for th' sake o' domestic peace."
"But, uncle," they both said later, amid the universal and yet rather shamefaced peace rejoicings, "you said nothing was worth a quarrel."
"And I was right," answered Dan; "I was right. Th' Divorce Court is full o' fools as have begun married life by trying to convince the other fool, instead o' humouring him--or her. Kiss us, Maud."