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
In a New Bottle
Commercial travellers are rather like bees; they take the seed of a good story from one district and deposit it in another.
Thus several localities, imperfectly righteous, have within recent years appropriated this story to their own annals. I once met an old herbalist from Wigan-Wigan of all places in beautiful England!--who positively asserted that the episode occurred just outside the London and North-Western main line station at Wigan. This old herbalist was no judge of the value of evidence. An undertaker from Hull told me flatly, little knowing who I was and where I came from, that he was the undertaker concerned in the episode. This undertaker was a liar. I use this term because there is no other word in the language which accurately expresses my meaning. Of persons who have taken the trouble to come over from the United States in order to inform me that the affair happened at Harper's Ferry, Poughkeepsie, Syracuse, Allegheny, Indianapolis, Columbus, Charlotte, Tabernacle, Alliance, Wheeling, Lynchburg, and Chicago it would be unbecoming to speak--they are best left to silence themselves by mutual recrimination. The fact is that the authentic scene of the affair was a third-class railway carriage belonging to the North Staffordshire Railway Company, and rolling on that company's loop-line between Longshaw and Hanbridge. The undertaker is now dead--it is a disturbing truth that even undertakers die sometimes--and since his widow has given me permission to mention his name, I shall mention his name. It was Edward Till. Of course everybody in the Five Towns knows who the undertaker was, and if anybody in the Five Towns should ever chance to come across this book, I offer him my excuses for having brought coals to Newcastle.
Mr Till used to be a fairly well-known figure in Hanbridge, which is the centre of undertaking, as it is of everything else, in the Five Towns. He was in a small but a successful way of business, had one leg a trifle shorter than the other (which slightly deteriorated the majesty of his demeanour on solemn occasions), played the fiddle, kept rabbits, and was of a forgetful disposition. It was possibly this forgetful disposition which had prevented him from rising into a large way of business. All admired his personal character and tempered geniality; but there are some things that will not bear forgetting. However, the story touches but lightly that side of his individuality.
One morning Mr Till had to go to Longshaw to fetch a baby's coffin which had been ordered under the mistaken impression that a certain baby was dead. This baby, I may mention, was the hero of the celebrated scare of Longshaw about the danger of being buried alive. The little thing had apparently passed away; and, what is more, an inquest had been held on it and its parents had been censured by the jury for criminal carelessness in overlaying it; and it was within five minutes of being nailed up, when it opened its eyes! You may imagine the enormous sensation that there was in the Five Towns. One doctor lost his reputation, naturally. He emigrated to the Continent, and now, practising at Lucerne in the summer and Mentone in the winter, charges fifteen shillings a visit (instead of three and six at Longshaw) for informing people who have nothing the matter with them that they must take care of themselves. The parents of the astonished baby moved the heaven and earth of the Five Towns to force the coroner to withdraw the stigma of the jury's censure; but they did not succeed, not even with the impassioned aid of two London halfpenny dailies.
To resume, Mr Till had to go to Longshaw. Now, unless you possess a most minute knowledge of your native country, you are probably not aware that in Aynsley Street, Longshaw, there is a provision dealer whose reputation for cheeses would be national and supreme if the whole of England thought as the Five Towns thinks.
"Teddy," Mrs Till said, as Mr Till was starting, "you might as well bring back with you a pound of Gorgonzola." (Be it noted that I had the details of the conversation from the lady herself.)
"Yes," said he enthusiastically, "I will."
"Don't go and forget it," she enjoined him.
"No," he said. "I'll tie a knot in my handkerchief."
"A lot of good that'll do!" she observed. "You'd tied a knot in your handkerchief when you forgot that Councillor Barker's wife's funeral was altered from Tuesday to Monday."
"Ah!" he replied. "But now I've got a bad cold."
"So you have!" she agreed, reassured.
He tied the knot in his handkerchief and went.
Thanks to his cold he did not pass the cheesemonger's without entering.
He adored Gorgonzola, and he reckoned that he knew a bit of good Gorgonzola when he met with it. Moreover, he and the cheesemonger were old friends, he having buried three of the cheesemonger's children. He emerged from the cheesemonger's with a pound of the perfectest Gorgonzola that ever greeted the senses.
The abode of the censured parents was close by, and also close to the station. He obtained the coffin without parley, and told the mother, who showed him the remarkable child with pride, that under the circumstances he should make no charge at all. It was a ridiculously small coffin. He was quite accustomed to coffins. Hence he did the natural thing. He tucked the little coffin under one arm, and, dangling the cheese (neat in brown paper and string) from the other hand, he hastened to the station. With his unmatched legs he must have made a somewhat noticeable figure.
A loop-line train was waiting, and he got into it, put the cheese on the rack in a corner, and the coffin next to it, assured himself that he had not mislaid his return ticket, and sat down under his baggage. It was the slackest time of day, and, as the train started at Longshaw, there were very few passengers. He had the compartment to himself.
He was just giving way to one of those moods of vague and pleasant meditation which are perhaps the chief joy of such a temperament, when he suddenly sprang up as if in fear. And fear had in fact seized him. Suppose he forgot those belongings on the rack? Suppose, sublimely careless, he descended from the train and left them there? What a calamity! And similar misadventures had happened to him before. It was the cheese that disquieted him. No one would be sufficiently unprincipled to steal the coffin, and he would ultimately recover it at the lost luggage office, babies' coffins not abounding on the North Staffordshire Railway. But the cheese! He would never see the cheese again! No integrity would be able to withstand the blandishments of that cheese. Moreover, his wife would be saddened. And for her he had a sincere and profound affection.
His act of precaution was to lift the coffin down from the rack, and place it on the seat beside him, and then to put the parcel of cheese on the coffin. He surveyed the cheese on the coffin; he surveyed it with the critical and experienced eye of an undertaker, and he decided that, if anyone else got into the carriage, it would not look quite decent, quite becoming--in a word, quite nice. A coffin is a coffin, and people's feelings have to be considered.
So he whipped off the lid of the coffin, stuck the cheese inside, and popped the lid on again. And he kept his hand on the coffin that he might not forget it. When the train halted at Knype, Mr Till was glad that he had put the cheese inside, for another passenger got into the compartment. And it was a clergyman. He recognized the clergyman, though the clergyman did not recognize him. It was the Reverend Claud ffolliott, famous throughout the Five Towns as the man who begins his name with a small letter, doesn't smoke, of course doesn't drink, but goes to football matches, has an average of eighteen at cricket, and makes a very pretty show with the gloves, in spite of his thirty-eight years; celibate, very High, very natty and learned about vestments, terrific at sick couches and funerals. Mr Till inwardly trembled to think what the Reverend Claud ffolliott might have said had he seen the cheese reposing in the coffin, though the coffin was empty.
The parson, whose mind was apparently occupied, dropped into the nearest corner, which chanced to be the corner farthest away from Mr Till. He then instantly opened a copy of The Church Times and began to read it, and the train went forward. The parson sniffed, absently, as if he had been dozing and a fly had tickled his nose. Shortly afterwards he sniffed again, but without looking up from his perusals. He sniffed a third time, and glanced over the top edge of THE CHURCH TIMES at Mr Till. Calmed by the innocuous aspect of Mr Till, he bent once more to the paper. But after an interval he was sniffing furiously. He glanced at the window; it was open. Finally he lowered The CHURCH TIMES, as who should say: "I am a long-suffering man, but really this phenomenon which assaults my nostrils must be seriously inquired into."
Then it was that he caught sight of the coffin, with Mr Till's hand caressing it, and Mr Till all in black and carrying a funereal expression. He straightened himself, pulled himself together on account of his cloth, and said to Mr Till in his most majestic and sympathetic graveside voice--
"Ah! my dear friend, I see that you have suffered a sad, sad bereavement."
That rich, resonant voice was positively thrilling when it addressed hopeless grief. Mr Till did not know what to say, nor where to look.
"You have, however, one thing to be thankful for, very thankful for," said the parson after a pause, "you may be sure the poor thing is not in a trance."