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The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Matador of the Five Towns and Other Stories, by Arnold Bennett
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Title: The Matador of the Five Towns and Other Stories
Author: Arnold Bennett
Release Date: July 22, 2004 [eBook #12995]
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK THE MATADOR OF THE FIVE TOWNS AND OTHER STORIES***
E-text prepared by Jonathan Ingram, Wilelmina Malliere, and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team
THE MATADOR OF THE FIVE TOWNS AND OTHER STORIES
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
A MAN FROM THE NORTH
ANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS
A GREAT MAN
SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE
WHOM GOD HATH JOINED
THE OLD WIVES' TALE
HELEN WITH THE HIGH HAND
THE GRAND BABYLON HOTEL
THE GATES OF WRATH
TERESA OF WATLING STREET
THE LOOT OF CITIES
THE CITY OF PLEASURE
TALES OF THE FIVE TOWNS
THE GRIM SMILE OF THE FIVE TOWNS
JOURNALISM FOR WOMEN
FAME AND FICTION
HOW TO BECOME AN AUTHOR
THE TRUTH ABOUT AN AUTHOR
THE REASONABLE LIFE
HOW TO LIVE ON TWENTY-FOUR HOURS A DAY
THE HUMAN MACHINE
THE FEAST OF ST FRIEND
CUPID AND COMMON SENSE
WHAT THE PUBLIC WANTS
(In Collaboration with EDEN PHILLPOTTS)
THE SINEWS OF WAR: A ROMANCE
THE STATUE: A ROMANCE
THE MATADOR OF THE FIVE TOWNS
THE SUPREME ILLUSION
THE LETTER AND THE LIE
THE HEROISM OF THOMAS CHADWICK
UNDER THE CLOCK
THREE EPISODES IN THE LIFE OF MR COWLISHAW, DENTIST CATCHING THE TRAIN
THE WIDOW OF THE BALCONY
THE CAT AND CUPID
THE LONG-LOST UNCLE
THE TIGHT HAND
WHY THE CLOCK STOPPED
THE BLUE SUIT
THE TIGER AND THE BABY
AN UNFAIR ADVANTAGE
THE MATADOR OF THE FIVE TOWNS
Mrs Brindeley looked across the lunch-table at her husband with glinting, eager eyes, which showed that there was something unusual in the brain behind them.
"Bob," she said, factitiously calm. "You don't know what I've just remembered!"
"Well?" said he.
"It's only grandma's birthday to-day!"
My friend Robert Brindley, the architect, struck the table with a violent fist, making his little boys blink, and then he said quietly:
I gathered that grandmamma's birthday had been forgotten and that it was not a festival that could be neglected with impunity. Both Mr and Mrs Brindley had evidently a humorous appreciation of crises, contretemps, and those collisions of circumstances which are usually called "junctures" for short. I could have imagined either of them saying to the other: "Here's a funny thing! The house is on fire!" And then yielding to laughter as they ran for buckets. Mrs Brindley, in particular, laughed now; she gazed at the table-cloth and laughed almost silently to herself; though it appeared that their joint forgetfulness might result in temporary estrangement from a venerable ancestor who was also, birthdays being duly observed, a continual fount of rich presents in specie.
Robert Brindley drew a time-table from his breast-pocket with the rapid gesture of habit. All men of business in the Five Towns seem to carry that time-table in their breast-pockets. Then he examined his watch carefully.
"You'll have time to dress up your progeny and catch the 2.5. It makes the connection at Knype for Axe."
The two little boys, aged perhaps four and six, who had been ladling the messy contents of specially deep plates on to their bibs, dropped their spoons and began to babble about grea'-granny, and one of them insisted several times that he must wear his new gaiters.
"Yes," said Mrs Brindley to her husband, after reflection. "And a fine old crowd there'll be in the train--with this football match!"
"Can't be helped!... Now, you kids, hook it upstairs to nurse."
"And what about you?" asked Mrs Brindley.
"You must tell the old lady I'm kept by business."
"I told her that last year, and you know what happened."
"Well," said Brindley. "Here Loring's just come. You don't expect me to leave him, do you? Or have you had the beautiful idea of taking him over to Axe to pass a pleasant Saturday afternoon with your esteemed grandmother?"
"No," said Mrs Brindley. "Hardly that!"
The boys, having first revolved on their axes, slid down from their high chairs as though from horses.
"Look here," I said. "You mustn't mind me. I shall be all right."
"Ha-ha!" shouted Brindley. "I seem to see you turned loose alone in this amusing town on a winter afternoon. I seem to see you!"
"I could stop in and read," I said, eyeing the multitudinous books on every wall of the dining-room. The house was dadoed throughout with books.
"Rot!" said Brindley.
This was only my third visit to his home and to the Five Towns, but he and I had already become curiously intimate. My first two visits had been occasioned by official pilgrimages as a British Museum expert in ceramics. The third was for a purely friendly week-end, and had no pretext. The fact is, I was drawn to the astonishing district and its astonishing inhabitants. The Five Towns, to me, was like the East to those who have smelt the East: it "called."
"I'll tell you what we _could_ do," said Mrs Brindley. "We could put him on to Dr Stirling."
"So we could!" Brindley agreed. "Wife, this is one of your bright, intelligent days. We'll put you on to the doctor, Loring. I'll impress on him that he must keep you constantly amused till I get back, which I fear it won't be early. This is what we call manners, you know--to invite a fellow-creature to travel a hundred and fifty miles to spend two days here, and then to turn him out before he's been in the house an hour. It's _us_, that is! But the truth of the matter is, the birthday business might be a bit serious. It might easily cost me fifty quid and no end of diplomacy. If you were a married man you'd know that the ten plagues of Egypt are simply nothing in comparison with your wife's relations. And she's over eighty, the old lady."
"_I_'ll give you ten plagues of Egypt!" Mrs Brindley menaced her spouse, as she wafted the boys from the room. "Mr Loring, do take some more of that cheese if you fancy it." She vanished.
Within ten minutes Brindley was conducting me to the doctor's, whose house was on the way to the station. In its spacious porch he explained the circumstances in six words, depositing me like a parcel. The doctor, who had once by mysterious medicaments saved my frail organism from the consequences of one of Brindley's Falstaffian "nights," hospitably protested his readiness to sacrifice patients to my pleasure.
"It'll be a chance for MacIlroy," said he.
"Who's MacIlroy?" I asked.
"MacIlroy is another Scotchman," growled Brindley. "Extraordinary how they stick together! When he wanted an assistant, do you suppose he looked about for some one in the district, some one who understood us and loved us and could take a hand at bridge? Not he! Off he goes to Cupar, or somewhere, and comes back with another stage Scotchman, named MacIlroy. Now listen here, Doc! A charge to keep you have, and mind you keep it, or I'll never pay your confounded bill. We'll knock on the window to-night as we come back. In the meantime you can show Loring your etchings, and pray for me." And to me: "Here's a latchkey." With no further ceremony he hurried away to join his wife and children at Bleakridge Station. In such singular manner was I transferred forcibly from host to host.
The doctor and I resembled each other in this: that there was no offensive affability about either of us. Though abounding in good-nature, we could not become intimate by a sudden act of volition. Our conversation was difficult, unnatural, and by gusts falsely familiar. He displayed to me his bachelor house, his etchings, a few specimens of modern _rouge flamb?_ ware made at Knype, his whisky, his celebrated prize-winning fox-terrier Titus, the largest collection of books in the Five Towns, and photographs of Marischal College, Aberdeen. Then we fell flat, socially prone. Sitting in his study, with Titus between us on the hearthrug, we knew no more what to say or do. I regretted that Brindley's wife's grandmother should have been born on a fifteenth of February. Brindley was a vivacious talker, he could be trusted to talk. I, too, am a good talker--with another good talker. With a bad talker I am just a little worse than he is. The doctor said abruptly after a nerve-trying silence that he had forgotten a most important call at Hanbridge, and would I care to go with him in the car? I was and still am convinced that he was simply inventing. He wanted to break the sinister spell by getting out of the house, and he had not the face to suggest a sortie into the streets of the Five Towns as a promenade of pleasure.
So we went forth, splashing warily through the rich mud and the dank mist of Trafalgar Road, past all those strange little Indian-red houses, and ragged empty spaces, and poster-hoardings, and rounded kilns, and high, smoking chimneys, up hill, down hill, and up hill again, encountering and overtaking many electric trams that dipped and rose like ships at sea, into Crown Square, the centre of Hanbridge, the metropolis of the Five Towns. And while the doctor paid his mysterious call I stared around me at the large shops and the banks and the gilded hotels. Down the radiating street-vistas I could make out the fa?ades of halls, theatres, chapels. Trams rumbled continually in and out of the square. They seemed to enter casually, to hesitate a few moments as if at a loss, and then to decide with a nonchalant clang of bells that they might as well go off somewhere else in search of something more interesting. They were rather like human beings who are condemned to live for ever in a place of which they are sick beyond the expressiveness of words.
And indeed the influence of Crown Square, with its large effects of terra cotta, plate glass, and gold letters, all under a heavy skyscape of drab smoke, was depressing. A few very seedy men (sharply contrasting with the fine delicacy of costly things behind plate-glass) stood doggedly here and there in the mud, immobilized by the gloomy enchantment of the Square. Two of them turned to look at Stirling's motor-car and me. They gazed fixedly for a long time, and then one said, only his lips moving:
"Has Tommy stood thee that there quart o' beer as he promised thee?"
No reply, no response of any sort, for a further long period! Then the other said, with grim resignation:
The conversation ceased, having made a little oasis in the dismal desert of their silent scrutiny of the car. Except for an occasional stamp of the foot they never moved. They just doggedly and indifferently stood, blown upon by all the nipping draughts of the square, and as it might be sinking deeper and deeper into its dejection. As for me, instead of desolating, the harsh disconsolateness of the scene seemed to uplift me; I savoured it with joy, as one savours the melancholy of a tragic work of art.
"We might go down to the _Signal_ offices and worry Buchanan a bit," said the doctor, cheerfully, when he came back to the car. This was the second of his inspirations.
Buchanan, of whom I had heard, was another Scotchman and the editor of the sole daily organ of the Five Towns, an evening newspaper cried all day in the streets and read by the entire population. Its green sheet appeared to be a permanent waving feature of the main thoroughfares. The offices lay round a corner close by, and as we drew up in front of them a crowd of tattered urchins interrupted their diversions in the sodden road to celebrate our glorious arrival by unanimously yelling at the top of their strident and hoarse voices:
Abashed, I followed my doctor into the shelter of the building, a new edifice, capacious and considerable, but horribly faced with terra cotta, and quite unimposing, lacking in the spectacular effect; like nearly everything in the Five Towns, carelessly and scornfully ugly! The mean, swinging double-doors returned to the assault when you pushed them, and hit you viciously. In a dark, countered room marked "Enquiries" there was nobody.
"Hi, there!" called the doctor.
A head appeared at a door.
"Mr Buchanan upstairs?"
"Yes," snapped the head, and disappeared.
Up a dark staircase we went, and at the summit were half flung back again by another self-acting door.
In the room to which we next came an old man and a youngish one were bent over a large, littered table, scribbling on and arranging pieces of grey tissue paper and telegrams. Behind the old man stood a boy. Neither of them looked up.
"Mr Buchanan in his--" the doctor began to question. "Oh! There you are!"
The editor was standing in hat and muffler at the window, gazing out. His age was about that of the doctor--forty or so; and like the doctor he was rather stout and clean-shaven. Their Scotch accents mingled in greeting, the doctor's being the more marked. Buchanan shook my hand with a certain courtliness, indicating that he was well accustomed to receive strangers. As an expert in small talk, however, he shone no brighter than his visitors, and the three of us stood there by the window awkwardly in the heaped disorder of the room, while the other two men scratched and fidgeted with bits of paper at the soiled table.
Suddenly and savagely the old man turned on the boy:
"What the hades are you waiting there for?"
"I thought there was something else, sir."
"Sling your hook."
Buchanan winked at Stirling and me as the boy slouched off and the old man blandly resumed his writing.
"Perhaps you'd like to look over the place?" Buchanan suggested politely to me. "I'll come with you. It's all I'm fit for to-day.... 'Flu!" He glanced at Stirling, and yawned.
"Ye ought to be in bed," said Stirling.
"Yes. I know. I've known it for twelve years. I shall go to bed as soon as I get a bit of time to myself. Well, will you come? The half-time results are beginning to come in."
A telephone-bell rang impatiently.
"You might just see what that is, boss," said the old man without looking up.
Buchanan went to the telephone and replied into it: "Yes? What? Oh! Myatt? Yes, he's playing.... Of course I'm sure! Good-bye." He turned to the old man: "It's another of 'em wanting to know if Myatt is playing. Birmingham, this time."
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