The Death Of Simon Fuge
by Arnold Bennett
It was in the train that I learnt of his death. Although a very greedy eater of literature, I can only enjoy reading when I have little time for reading. Give me three hours of absolute leisure, with nothing to do but read, and I instantly become almost incapable of the act. So it is always on railway journeys, and so it was that evening. I was in the middle of Wordsworth's Excursion; I positively gloated over it, wondering why I should have allowed a mere rumour that it was dull to prevent me from consuming it earlier in my life. But do you suppose I could continue with Wordsworth in the train? I could not. I stared out of the windows; I calculated the speed of the train by my watch; I thought of my future and my past; I drew forth my hopes, examined them, polished them, and put them back again; I forgave myself for my sins; and I dreamed of the exciting conquest of a beautiful and brilliant woman that I should one day achieve. In short, I did everything that men habitually do under such circumstances. The Gazette was lying folded on the seat beside me: one of the two London evening papers that a man of taste may peruse without humiliating himself. How appetizing a morsel, this sheet new and smooth from the press, this sheet written by an ironic, understanding, small band of men for just a few thousand persons like me, ruthlessly scornful of the big circulations and the idols of the people! If the Gazette and its sole rival ceased to appear, I do believe that my existence and many similar existences would wear a different colour. Could one dine alone in Jermyn Street or Panton Street without this fine piquant evening commentary on the gross newspapers of the morning? (Now you perceive what sort of a man I am, and you guess, rightly, that my age is between thirty and forty.) But the train had stopped at Rugby and started again, and more than half of my journey was accomplished, ere at length I picked up the Gazette, and opened it with the false calm of a drunkard who has sworn that he will not wet his lips before a certain hour. For, well knowing from experience that I should suffer acute ennui in the train, I had, when buying the Gazette at Euston, taken oath that I would not even glance at it till after Rugby; it is always the final hour of these railway journeys that is the nethermost hell.
The second thing that I saw in the Gazette (the first was of course the 'Entremets' column of wit, humour, and parody, very uneven in its excellence) was the death of Simon Fuge. There was nearly a column about it, signed with initials, and the subheading of the article ran, 'Sudden death of a great painter'. That was characteristic of the Gazette. That Simon Fuge was indeed a great painter is now admitted by most dilettantes, though denied by a few. But to the great public he was not one of the few great names. To the great public he was just a medium name. Ten to one that in speaking of him to a plain person you would feel compelled to add: 'The painter, you know,' and the plain person would respond: 'Oh yes,' falsely pretending that he was perfectly familiar with the name. Simon Fuge had many friends on the press, and it was solely owing to the loyalty of these friends in the matter of obituary notices that the great public heard more of Simon Fuge in the week after his death than it had heard of him during the thirty-five years of his life. It may be asked: Why, if he had so many and such loyal friends on the press, these friends did not take measures to establish his reputation before he died? The answer is that editors will not allow journalists to praise a living artist much in excess of the esteem in which the public holds him; they are timid. But when a misunderstood artist is dead the editors will put no limit on laudation. I am not on the press, but it happens that I know the world.
Of all the obituary notices of Simon Fuge, the Gazette's was the first. Somehow the Gazette had obtained exclusive news of the little event, and some one high up on the Gazette's staff had a very exalted notion indeed of Fuge, and must have known him personally. Fuge received his deserts as a painter in that column of print. He was compared to Sorolla y Bastida for vitality; the morbidezza of his flesh-tints was stated to be unrivalled even by—I forget the name, painting is not my speciality. The writer blandly inquired why examples of Fuge's work were to be seen in the Luxembourg, at Vienna, at Florence, at Dresden; and not, for instance, at the Tate Gallery, or in the Chantrey collection. The writer also inquired, with equal blandness, why a painter who had been on the hanging committee of the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts at Paris should not have been found worthy to be even an A.R.A. in London. In brief, old England 'caught it', as occurred somewhere or other most nights in the columns of the Gazette. Fuge also received his deserts as a man. And the Gazette did not conceal that he had not been a man after the heart of the British public. He had been too romantically and intensely alive for that. The writer gave a little penportrait of him. It was very good, recalling his tricks of manner, his unforgettable eyes, and his amazing skill in talking about himself and really interesting everybody in himself. There was a special reference to one of Fuge's most dramatic recitals—a narration of a night spent in a boat on Ham Lake with two beautiful girls, sisters, natives of the Five Towns, where Fuge was born. Said the obituarist: 'Those two wonderful creatures who played so large a part in Simon Fuge's life.'
This death was a shock to me. It took away my ennui for the rest of the journey. I too had known Simon Fuge. That is to say, I had met him once, at a soiree, and on that single occasion, as luck had it, he had favoured the company with the very narration to which the Gazette contributor referred. I remembered well the burning brilliance of his blue-black eyes, his touching assurance that all of us were necessarily interested in his adventures, and the extremely graphic and convincing way in which he reconstituted for us the nocturnal scene on Ham Lake—the two sisters, the boat, the rustle of trees, the lights on shore, and his own difficulty in managing the oars, one of which he lost for half-an-hour and found again. It was by such details as that about the oar that, with a tint of humour, he added realism to the romantic quality of his tales. He seemed to have no reticences concerning himself. Decidedly he allowed things to be understood...! Yes, his was a romantic figure, the figure of one to whom every day, and every hour of the day, was coloured by the violence of his passion for existence. His pictures had often an unearthly beauty, but for him they were nothing but faithful renderings of what he saw.
My mind dwelt on those two beautiful sisters. Those two beautiful sisters appealed to me more than anything else in the Gazette's obituary. Surely—Simon Fuge had obviously been a man whose emotional susceptibility and virile impulsiveness must have opened the door for him to multifarious amours—but surely he had not made himself indispensable to both sisters simultaneously. Surely even he had not so far forgotten that Ham Lake was in the middle of a country called England, and not the ornamental water in the Bois de Boulogne! And yet.... The delicious possibility of ineffable indiscretions on the part of Simon Fuge monopolized my mind till the train stopped at Knype, and I descended. Nevertheless, I think I am a serious and fairly insular Englishman. It is truly astonishing how a serious person can be obsessed by trifles that, to speak mildly, do not merit sustained attention.
I wondered where Ham Lake was. I knew merely that it lay somewhere in the environs of the Five Towns. What put fuel on the fire of my interest in the private affairs of the dead painter was the slightly curious coincidence that on the evening of the news of his death I should be travelling to the Five Towns—and for the first time in my life. Here I was at Knype, which, as I had gathered from Bradshaw, and from my acquaintance Brindley, was the traffic centre of the Five Towns.
My knowledge of industrial districts amounted to nothing. Born in Devonshire, educated at Cambridge, and fulfilling my destiny as curator of a certain department of antiquities at the British Museum, I had never been brought into contact with the vast constructive material activities of Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Staffordshire. I had but passed through them occasionally on my way to Scotland, scorning their necessary grime with the perhaps too facile disdain of the clean-faced southerner, who is apt to forget that coal cannot walk up unaided out of the mine, and that the basin in which he washes his beautiful purity can only be manufactured amid conditions highly repellent. Well, my impressions of the platform of Knype station were unfavourable. There was dirt in the air; I could feel it at once on my skin. And the scene was shabby, undignified, and rude. I use the word 'rude' in all its senses. What I saw was a pushing, exclamatory, ill-dressed, determined crowd, each member of which was bent on the realization of his own desires by the least ceremonious means. If an item of this throng wished to get past me, he made me instantly aware of his wish by abruptly changing my position in infinite space; it was not possible to misconstrue his meaning. So much crude force and naked will-to-live I had not before set eyes on. In truth, I felt myself to be a very brittle, delicate bit of intellectual machinery in the midst of all these physical manifestations. Yet I am a tallish man, and these potters appeared to me to be undersized, and somewhat thin too! But what elbows! What glaring egoistic eyes! What terrible decisiveness in action!
'Now then, get in if ye're going!' said a red-haired porter to me curtly.
'I'm not going. I've just got out,' I replied.
'Well, then, why dunna' ye stand out o' th' wee and let them get in as wants to?'
Unable to offer a coherent answer to this crushing demand, I stood out of the way. In the light of further knowledge I now surmise that that porter was a very friendly and sociable porter. But at the moment I really believed that, taking me for the least admirable and necessary of God's creatures, he meant to convey his opinion to me for my own good. I glanced up at the lighted windows of the train, and saw the composed, careless faces of haughty persons who were going direct from London to Manchester, and to whom the Five Towns was nothing but a delay. I envied them. I wanted to return to the shelter of the train. When it left, I fancied that my last link with civilization was broken. Then another train puffed in, and it was simply taken by assault in a fraction of time, to an incomprehensible bawling of friendly sociable porters. Season-ticket holders at Finsbury Park think they know how to possess themselves of a train; they are deceived. So this is where Simon Fuge came from (I reflected)! The devil it is (I reflected)! I tried to conceive what the invaders of the train would exclaim if confronted by one of Simon Fuge's pictures. I could imagine only one word, and that a monosyllable, that would meet the case of their sentiments. And his dalliance, his tangential nocturnal deviations in gondolas with exquisite twin odalisques! There did not seem to be much room for amorous elegance in the lives of these invaders. And his death! What would they say of his death? Upon my soul, as I stood on that dirty platform, in a milieu of advertisements of soap, boots, and aperients, I began to believe that Simon Fuge never had lived, that he was a mere illusion of his friends and his small public. All that I saw around me was a violent negation of Simon Fuge, that entity of rare, fine, exotic sensibilities, that perfectly mad gourmet of sensations, that exotic seer of beauty.
I caught sight of my acquaintance and host, Mr Robert Brindley, coming towards me on the platform. Hitherto I had only met him in London, when, as chairman of the committee of management of the Wedgwood Institution and School of Art at Bursley, he had called on me at the British Museum for advice as to loan exhibits. He was then dressed like a self-respecting tourist. Now, although an architect by profession, he appeared to be anxious to be mistaken for a sporting squire. He wore very baggy knickerbockers, and leggings, and a cap. This raiment was apparently the agreed uniform of the easy classes in the Five Towns; for in the crowd I had noticed several such consciously superior figures among the artisans. Mr Brindley, like most of the people in the station, had a slightly pinched and chilled air, as though that morning he had by inadvertence omitted to don those garments which are not seen. He also, like most of the people there, but not to the same extent, had a somewhat suspicious and narrowly shrewd regard, as who should say: 'If any person thinks he can get the better of me by a trick, let him try—that's all.' But the moment his eye encountered mine, this expression vanished from his face, and he gave me a candid smile.
'I hope you're well,' he said gravely, squeezing my hand in a sort of vice that he carried at the end of his right arm.
I reassured him.
'Oh, I'm all right,' he said, in response to the expression of my hopes.
It was a relief to me to see him. He took charge of me. I felt, as it were, safe in his arms. I perceived that, unaided and unprotected, I should never have succeeded in reaching Bursley from Knype.
A whistle sounded.
'Better get in,' he suggested; and then in a tone of absolute command: 'Give me your bag.'
I obeyed. He opened the door of a first-class carriage.
'I'm travelling second,' I explained.
'Never mind. Get in.'
In his tones was a kindly exasperation.
I got in; he followed. The train moved.
'Ah!' breathed Mr Brindley, blowing out much air and falling like a sack of coal into a corner seat. He was a thin man, aged about thirty, with brown eyes, and a short blonde beard.
Conversation was at first difficult. Personally I am not a bubbling fount of gay nothings when I find myself alone with a comparative stranger. My drawbridge goes up as if by magic, my postern is closed, and I peer cautiously through the narrow slits of my turret to estimate the chances of peril. Nor was Mr Brindley offensively affable. However, we struggled into a kind of chatter. I had come to the Five Towns, on behalf of the British Museum, to inspect and appraise, with a view to purchase by the nation, some huge slip-decorated dishes, excessively curious according to photographs, which had been discovered in the cellars of the Conservative Club at Bursley. Having shared in the negotiations for my visit, Mr Brindley had invited me to spend the night at his house. We were able to talk about all this. And when we had talked about all this we were able to talk about the singular scenery of coal dust, potsherds, flame and steam, through which the train wound its way. It was squalid ugliness, but it was squalid ugliness on a scale so vast and overpowering that it became sublime. Great furnaces gleamed red in the twilight, and their fires were reflected in horrible black canals; processions of heavy vapour drifted in all directions across the sky, over what acres of mean and miserable brown architecture! The air was alive with the most extraordinary, weird, gigantic sounds. I do not think the Five Towns will ever be described: Dante lived too soon. As for the erratic and exquisite genius, Simon Fuge, and his odalisques reclining on silken cushions on the enchanted bosom of a lake—I could no longer conjure them up even faintly in my mind.
'I suppose you know Simon Fuge is dead?' I remarked, in a pause.
'No! Is he?' said Mr Brindley, with interest. 'Is it in the paper?'
He did not seem to be quite sure that it would be in the paper.
'Here it is,' said I, and I passed him the Gazette.
'Ha!' he exclaimed explosively. This 'Ha!' was entirely different from his 'Ah!' Something shot across his eyes, something incredibly rapid—too rapid for a wink; yet it could only be called a wink. It was the most subtle transmission of the beyond-speech that I have ever known any man accomplish, and it endeared Mr Brindley to me. But I knew not its significance.
'What do they think of Fuge down here?' I asked.
'I don't expect they think of him,' said my host.
He pulled a pouch and a packet of cigarette papers from his pocket.
'Have one of mine,' I suggested, hastily producing my case.
He did not even glance at its contents.
'No, thanks,' he said curtly.
I named my brand.
'My dear sir,' he said, with a return to his kindly exasperation, 'no cigarette that is not fresh made can be called a cigarette.' I stood corrected. 'You may pay as much as you like, but you can never buy cigarettes as good as I can make out of an ounce of fresh B.D.V. tobacco. Can you roll one?' I had to admit that I could not, I who in Bloomsbury was accepted as an authority on cigarettes as well as on porcelain. 'I'll roll you one, and you shall try it.'
He did so.
I gathered from his solemnity that cigarettes counted in the life of Mr Brindley. He could not take cigarettes other than seriously. The worst of it was that he was quite right. The cigarette which he constructed for me out of his wretched B.D.V. tobacco was adorable, and I have made my own cigarettes ever since. You will find B.D.V. tobacco all over the haunts frequented by us of the Museum now-a-days, solely owing to the expertise of Mr Brindley. A terribly capable and positive man! He KNEW, and he knew that he knew.
He said nothing further as to Simon Fuge. Apparently he had forgotten the decease.
'Do you often see the Gazette?' I asked, perhaps in the hope of attracting him back to Fuge.
'No,' he said; 'the musical criticism is too rotten.'
Involuntarily I bridled. It was startling, and it was not agreeable, to have one's favourite organ so abruptly condemned by a provincial architect in knickerbockers and a cap, in the midst of all that industrial ugliness. What could the Five Towns know about art? Yet here was this fellow condemning the Gazette on artistic grounds. I offered no defence, because he was right—again. But I did not like it.
'Do you ever see the Manchester Guardian?' he questioned, carrying the war into my camp.
'No,' I said.
'Pity!' he ejaculated.
'I've often heard that it's a very good paper,' I said politely.
'It isn't a very good paper,' he laid me low. 'It's the best paper in the world. Try it for a month—it gets to Euston at half-past eight—and then tell me what you think.'
I saw that I must pull myself together. I had glided into the Five Towns in a mood of gentle, wise condescension. I saw that it would be as well, for my own honour and safety, to put on another mood as quickly as possible, otherwise I might be left for dead on the field. Certainly the fellow was provincial, curt, even brutal in his despisal of diplomacy. Certainly he exaggerated the importance of cigarettes in the great secular scheme of evolution. But he was a man; he was a very tonic dose. I thought it would be safer to assume that he knew everything, and that the British Museum knew very little. Yet at the British Museum he had been quite different, quite deferential and rather timid. Still, I liked him. I liked his eyes.
The train stopped at an incredible station situated in the centre of a rolling desert whose surface consisted of broken pots and cinders. I expect no one to believe this.
'Here we are,' said he blithely. 'No, give me the bag. Porter!'
His summons to the solitary porter was like a clap of thunder.
He lived in a low, blackish-crimson heavy-browed house at the corner of a street along which electric cars were continually thundering. There was a thin cream of mud on the pavements and about two inches of mud in the roadway, rich, nourishing mud like Indian ink half-mixed. The prospect of carrying a pound or so of that unique mud into a civilized house affrighted me, but Mr Brindley opened his door with his latchkey and entered the abode as unconcernedly as if some fair repentent had cleansed his feet with her tresses.
'Don't worry too much about the dirt,' he said. 'You're in Bursley.'
The house seemed much larger inside than out. A gas-jet burnt in the hall, and sombre portieres gave large mysterious hints of rooms. I could hear, in the distance, the noise of frizzling over a fire, and of a child crying. Then a tall, straight, wellmade, energetic woman appeared like a conjuring trick from behind a portiere.
'How do you do, Mr Loring?' she greeted me, smiling. 'So glad to meet you.'
'My wife,' Mr Brindley explained gravely.
'Now, I may as well tell you now, Bob,' said she, still smiling at me. 'Bobbie's got a sore throat and it may be mumps; the chimney's been on fire and we're going to be summoned; and you owe me sixpence.'
'Why do I owe you sixpence?'
'Because Annie's had her baby and it's a girl.'
'That's all right. Supper ready?'
'Supper is waiting for you.'
She laughed. 'Whenever I have anything to tell my husband, I always tell him at ONCE!' she said. 'No matter who's there.' She pronounced 'once' with a wholehearted enthusiasm for its vowel sound that I have never heard equalled elsewhere, and also with a very magnified 'w' at the beginning of it. Often when I hear the word 'once' pronounced in less downright parts of the world, I remember how they pronounce it in the Five Towns, and there rises up before me a complete picture of the district, its atmosphere, its spirit.
Mr Brindley led me to a large bathroom that had a faint odour of warm linen. In addition to a lot of assorted white babyclothes there were millions of towels in that bathroom. He turned on a tap and the place was instantly full of steam from a jet of boiling water.
'Now, then,' he said, 'you can start.'
As he showed no intention of leaving me, I did start. 'Mind you don't scald yourself,' he warned me, 'that water's HOT.' While I was washing, he prepared to wash. I suddenly felt as if I had been intimate with him and his wife for about ten years.
'So this is Bursley!' I murmured, taking my mouth out of a towel.
'Bosley, we call it,' he said. 'Do you know the limerick—"There was a young woman of Bosley"?'
He intoned the local limerick. It was excellently good; not meet for a mixed company, but a genuine delight to the true amateur. One good limerick deserves another. It happened that I knew a number of the unprinted Rossetti limericks, precious things, not at all easy to get at. I detailed them to Mr Brindley, and I do not exaggerate when I say that I impressed him. I recovered all the ground I had lost upon cigarettes and newspapers. He appreciated those limericks with a juster taste than I should have expected. So, afterwards, did his friends. My belief is that I am to this day known and revered in Bursley, not as Loring the porcelain expert from the British Museum, but as the man who first, as it were, brought the good news of the Rossetti limericks from Ghent to Aix.
'Now, Bob,' an amicable voice shrieked femininely up from the ground-floor, 'am I to send the soup to the bathroom or are you coming down?'
A limerick will make a man forget even his dinner.
Mr Brindley performed once more with his eyes that something that was, not a wink, but a wink unutterably refined and spiritualized. This time I comprehended its import. Its import was to the effect that women are women.
We descended, Mr Brindley still in his knickerbockers.
'This way,' he said, drawing aside a portiere. Mrs Brindley, as we entered the room, was trotting a male infant round and round a table charged with everything digestible and indigestible. She handed the child, who was in its nightdress, to a maid.
'Say good night to father.'
'Good ni', faver,' the interesting creature piped.
'By-bye, sonny,' said the father, stooping to tickle. 'I suppose,' he added, when maid and infant had gone, 'if one's going to have mumps, they may as well all have it together.'
'Oh, of course,' the mother agreed cheerfully. 'I shall stick them all into a room.'
'How many children have you?' I inquired with polite curiosity.
'Three,' she said; 'that's the eldest that you've seen.'
What chiefly struck me about Mrs Brindley was her serene air of capableness, of having a self-confidence which experience had richly justified. I could see that she must be an extremely sensible mother. And yet she had quite another aspect too—how shall I explain it?—as though she had only had children in her spare time.
We sat down. The room was lighted by four candles, on the table. I am rather short-sighted, and so I did not immediately notice that there were low book-cases all round the walls. Why the presence of these book-cases should have caused me a certain astonishment I do not know, but it did. I thought of Knype station, and the scenery, and then the other little station, and the desert of pots and cinders, and the mud in the road and on the pavement and in the hall, and the baby-linen in the bathroom, and three children all down with mumps, and Mr Brindley's cap and knickerbockers and cigarettes; and somehow the books—I soon saw there were at least a thousand of them, and not circulating-library books, either, but BOOKS—well, they administered a little shock to me.
To Mr Brindley's right hand was a bottle of Bass and a corkscrew.
'Beer!' he exclaimed, with solemn ecstasy, with an ecstasy gross and luscious. And, drawing the cork, he poured out a glass, with fine skill in the management of froth, and pushed it towards me.
'No, thanks,' I said.
'No beer!' he murmured, with benevolent, puzzled disdain. 'Whisky?'
'No, thanks,' I said. 'Water.'
'I know what Mr Loring would like,' said Mrs Brindley, jumping up. 'I KNOW what Mr Loring would like.' She opened a cupboard and came back to the table with a bottle, which she planted in front of me. 'Wouldn't you, Mr Loring?'
It was a bottle of mercurey, a wine which has given me many dreadful dawns, but which I have never known how to refuse.
'I should,' I admitted; 'but it's very bad for me.'
'Nonsense!' said she. She looked at her husband in triumph.
'Beer!' repeated Mr Brindley with undiminished ecstasy, and drank about two-thirds of a glass at one try. Then he wiped the froth from his moustache. 'Ah!' he breathed low and soft. 'Beer!'
They called the meal supper. The term is inadequate. No term that I can think of would be adequate. Of its kind the thing was perfect. Mrs Brindley knew that it was perfect. Mr Brindley also knew that it was perfect. There were prawns in aspic. I don't know why I should single out that dish, except that it seemed strange to me to have crossed the desert of pots and cinders in order to encounter prawns in aspic. Mr Brindley ate more cold roast beef than I had ever seen any man eat before, and more pickled walnuts. It is true that the cold roast beef transcended all the cold roast beef of my experience. Mrs Brindley regaled herself largely on trifle, which Mr Brindley would not approach, preferring a most glorious Stilton cheese. I lost touch, temporarily, with the intellectual life. It was Mr Brindley who recalled me to it.
'Jane,' he said. (This was at the beef and pickles stage.)
Mrs Brindley turned to me. 'My name is not Jane,' she said, laughing, and making a moue simultaneously. 'He only calls me that to annoy me. I told him I wouldn't answer to it, and I won't. He thinks I shall give in because we've got "company"! But I won't treat you as "company", Mr Loring, and I shall expect you to take my side. What dreadful weather we're having, aren't we?'
'Dreadful!' I joined in the game.
'Did you have a comfortable journey down?'
'Yes, thank you.'
'Well, then, Mary!' Mr Brindley yielded.
'Thank you very much, Mr Loring, for your kind assistance,' said his wife. 'Yes, dearest?'
Mr Brindley glanced at me over his second glass of beer.
'If those confounded kids are going to have mumps,' he addressed his words apparently into the interior of the glass, 'it probably means the doctor, and the doctor means money, and I shan't be able to afford the Hortulus Animoe.'
I opened my ears.
'My husband goes stark staring mad sometimes,' said Mrs Brindley to me. 'It lasts for a week or so, and pretty nearly lands us in the workhouse. This time it's the Hortulus Animoe. Do you know what it is? I don't.'
'No,' I said, and the prestige of the British Museum trembled. Then I had a vague recollection. 'There's an illuminated manuscript of that name in the Imperial Library of Vienna, isn't there?'
'You've got it in one,' said Mr Brindley. 'Wife, pass those walnuts.'
'You aren't by any chance buying it?' I laughed.
'No,' he said. 'A Johnny at Utrecht is issuing a facsimile of it, with all the hundred odd miniatures in colour. It will be the finest thing in reproduction ever done. Only seventy-five copies for England.'
'How much?' I asked.
'Well,' said he, with a preliminary look at his wife,'thirty-three pounds.'
'Thirty-three POUNDS!' she screamed. 'You never told me.'
'My wife never will understand,' said Mr Brindley, 'that complete confidence between two human beings is impossible.'
'I shall go out as a milliner, that's all,' Mrs Brindley returned. 'Remember, the Dictionary of National Biography isn't paid for yet.'
'I'm glad I forgot that, otherwise I shouldn't have ordered the Hortulus.'
'You've not ORDERED it?'
'Yes, I have. It'll be here tomorrow—at least the first part will.'
Mrs Brindley affected to fall back dying in her chair.
'Quite mad!' she complained to me. 'Quite mad. It's a hopeless case.'
But obviously she was very proud of the incurable lunatic.
'But you're a book-collector!' I exclaimed, so struck by these feats of extravagance in a modest house that I did not conceal my amazement.
'Did you think I collected postage-stamps?' the husband retorted. 'No, I'm not a book-collector, but our doctor is. He has a few books, if you like. Still, I wouldn't swop him; he's much too fond of fashionable novels.'
'You know you're always up his place,' said the wife; 'and I wonder what I should do if it wasn't for the doctor's novels!' The doctor was evidently a favourite of hers.
'I'm not always up at his place,' the husband contradicted. 'You know perfectly well I never go there before midnight. And HE knows perfectly well that I only go because he has the best whisky in the town. By the way, I wonder whether he knows that Simon Fuge is dead. He's got one of his etchings. I'll go up.'
'Who's Simon Fuge?' asked Mrs Brindley.
'Don't you remember old Fuge that kept the Blue Bell at Cauldon?'
'What? Simple Simon?'
'Yes. Well, his son.'
'Oh! I remember. He ran away from home once, didn't he, and his mother had a port-wine stain on her left cheek? Oh, of course. I remember him perfectly. He came down to the Five Towns some years ago for his aunt's funeral. So he's dead. Who told you?'
'Did you know him?' she glanced at me.
'I scarcely knew him,' said I. 'I saw it in the paper.'
'What, the Signal?'
'The Signal's the local rag,' Mr Brindley interpolated. 'No. It's in the Gazette.'
'The Birmingham Gazette?'
'No, bright creature—the Gazette,' said Mr Brindley.
'Oh!' She seemed puzzled.
'Didn't you know he was a painter?' the husband condescendingly catechized.
'I knew he used to teach at the Hanbridge School of Art,' said Mrs Brindley stoutly. 'Mother wouldn't let me go there because of that. Then he got the sack.'
'Poor defenceless thing! How old were you?'
'Seventeen, I expect.'
'I'm much obliged to your mother.'
'Where did he die?' Mrs Brindley demanded.
'At San Remo,' I answered. 'Seems queer him dying at San Remo in September, doesn't it?'
'San Remo is a winter place. No one ever goes there before December.'
'Oh, is it?' the lady murmured negligently. 'Then that would be just like Simon Fuge. I was never afraid of him,' she added, in a defiant tone, and with a delicious inconsequence that choked her husband in the midst of a draught of beer.
'You can laugh,' she said sturdily.
At that moment there was heard a series of loud explosive sounds in the street. They continued for a few seconds apparently just outside the dining-room window. Then they stopped, and the noise of the bumping electric cars resumed its sway over the ear.
'That's Oliver!' said Mr Brindley, looking at his watch. 'He must have come from Manchester in an hour and a half. He's a terror.'
'Glass! Quick!' Mrs Brindley exclaimed. She sprang to the sideboard, and seized a tumbler, which Mr Brindley filled from a second bottle of Bass. When the door of the room opened she was standing close to it, laughing, with the full, frothing glass in her hand.
A tall, thin man, rather younger than Mr Brindley and his wife, entered. He wore a long dust-coat and leggings, and he carried a motorist's cap in a great hand. No one spoke; but little puffs of laughter escaped all Mrs Brindley's efforts to imprison her mirth. Then the visitor took the glass with a magnificent broad smile, and said, in a rich and heavy Midland voice—
'Here's to moy wife's husband!'
And drained the nectar.
'Feel better now, don't you?' Mrs Brindley inquired.
'Aye, Mrs Bob, I do!' was the reply. 'How do, Bob?'
'How do?' responded my host laconically. And then with gravity: 'Mr Loring—Mr Oliver Colclough—thinks he knows something about music.'
'Glad to meet you, sir,' said Mr Colclough, shaking hands with me. He had a most attractively candid smile, but he was so long and lanky that he seemed to pervade the room like an omnipresence.
'Sit down and have a bit of cheese, Oliver,' said Mrs Brindley, as she herself sat down.
'No, thanks, Mrs Bob. I must be getting towards home.'
He leaned on her chair.
'Machine going all right?'
'Like oil. Never stopped th' engine once.'
'Did you get the Sinfonia Domestica, Ol?' Mr Brindley inquired.
'Didn't I say as I should get it, Bob?'
'You SAID you would.'
'Well, I've got it.'
Mr Brindley's face shone with desire and Mr Oliver Colclough's face shone with triumph.
'Where is it?'
'In the hall.'
'We'll play it, Ol.'
'No, really, Bob! I can't stop now. I promised the wife—'
'We'll PLAY it, Ol! You'd no business to make promises. Besides, suppose you'd had a puncture!'
'I expect you've heard Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica, Mr Loring, up in the village?' Mr Colclough addressed me. He had surrendered to the stronger will.
'In London?' I said. 'No. But I've heard of it.'
'Bob and I heard it in Manchester last week, and we thought it 'ud be a bit of a lark to buy the arrangement for pianoforte duet.'
'Come and listen to it,' said Mr Brindley. 'That is, if nobody wants any more beer.'
The drawing-room was about twice as large as the dining-room, and it contained about four times as much furniture. Once again there were books all round the walls. A grand piano, covered with music, stood in a corner, and behind was a cabinet full of bound music.
Mr Brindley, seated on one corner of the bench in front of the piano, cut the leaves of the Sinfonia Domestica.
'It's the devil!' he observed.
'Aye, lad!' agreed Mr Colclough, standing over him. 'It's difficult.'
'Come on,' said Mr. Brindley, when he had finished cutting.
'Better take your dust-coat off, hadn't you?' Mrs Brindley suggested to the friend. She and I were side by side on a sofa at the other end of the room.
'I may as well,' Mr Colclough admitted, and threw the long garment on to a chair. 'Look here, Bob, my hands are stiff with steering.'
'Don't find fault with your tools,' said Mr Brindley; 'and sit down. No, my boy, I'm going to play the top part. Shove along.'
'I want to play the top part because it's easiest,' Mr Colclough grumbled.
'How often have I told you the top part is never easiest? Who do you suppose is going to keep this symphony together—you or me?'
'Sorry I spoke.'
They arranged themselves on the bench, and Mr Brindley turned up the lower corners of every alternate leaf of the music.
'Now,' said he. 'Ready?'
'Let her zip,' said Mr Colclough.
They began to play. And then the door opened, and a servant, whose white apron was starched as stiff as cardboard, came in carrying a tray of coffee and unholy liqueurs, which she deposited with a rattle on a small table near the hostess.
'Curse!' muttered Mr Brindley, and stopped.
'Life's very complex, ain't it, Bob?' Mr Colclough murmured.
'Aye, lad.' The host glanced round to make sure that the rattling servant had entirely gone. 'Now start again.'
'Wait a minute, wait a minute!' cried Mrs Brindley excitedly. 'I'm just pouring out Mr Loring's coffee. There!' As she handed me the cup she whispered, 'We daren't talk. It's more than our place is worth.'
The performance of the symphony proceeded. To me, who am not a performer, it sounded excessively brilliant and incomprehensible. Mr Colclough stretched his right hand to turn over the page, and fumbled it. Another stoppage.
'Damn you, Ol!' Mr Brindley exploded. 'I wish you wouldn't make yourself so confoundedly busy. Leave the turning to me. It takes a great artist to turn over, and you're only a blooming chauffeur. We'll begin again.'
'Sackcloth!' Mr Colclough whispered.
I could not estimate the length of the symphony; but my impression was one of extreme length. Halfway through it the players both took their coats off. There was no other surcease.
'What dost think of it, Bob?' asked Mr Colclough in the weird silence that reigned after they had finished. They were standing up and putting on their coats and wiping their faces.
'I think what I thought before,' said Mr Brindley. 'It's childish.'
'It isn't childish,' the other protested. 'It's ugly, but it isn't childish.'
'It's childishly clever,' Mr Brindley modified his description. He did not ask my opinion.
'Coffee's cold,' said Mrs Brindley.
'I don't want any coffee. Give me some Chartreuse, please. Have a drop o' green, Ol?'
'A split soda 'ud be more in my line. Besides, I'm just going to have my supper. Never mind, I'll have a drop, missis, and chance it. I've never tried Chartreuse as an appetizer.'
At this point commenced a sanguinary conflict of wills to settle whether or not I also should indulge in green Chartreuse. I was defeated. Besides the Chartreuse, I accepted a cigar. Never before or since have I been such a buck.
'I must hook it,' said Mr Colclough, picking up his dust-coat.
'Not yet you don't,' said Mr Brindley. 'I've got to get the taste of that infernal Strauss out of my mouth. We'll play the first movement of the G minor? La-la-la—la-la-la—la-la-la-ta.' He whistled a phrase.
Mr Colclough obediently sat down again to the piano.
The Mozart was like an idyll after a farcical melodrama. They played it with an astounding delicacy. Through the latter half of the movement I could hear Mr Brindley breathing regularly and heavily through his nose, exactly as though he were being hypnotized. I had a tickling sensation in the small of my back, a sure sign of emotion in me. The atmosphere was changed.
'What a heavenly thing!' I exclaimed enthusiastically, when they had finished.
Mr Brindley looked at me sharply, and just nodded in silence. Well, good night, Ol.'
'I say,' said Mr Colclough; 'if you've nothing doing later on, bring Mr Loring round to my place. Will you come, Mr Loring? Do! Us'll have a drink.'
These Five Towns people certainly had a simple, sincere way of offering hospitality that was quite irresistible. One could see that hospitality was among their chief and keenest pleasures.
We all went to the front door to see Mr Colclough depart homewards in his automobile. The two great acetylene head-lights sent long glaring shafts of light down the side street. Mr Colclough, throwing the score of the Sinfonia Domestica into the tonneau of the immense car, put on a pair of gloves and began to circulate round the machine, tapping here, screwing there, as chauffeurs will. Then he bent down in front to start the engine.
'By the way, Ol,' Mr Brindley shouted from the doorway, 'it seems Simon Fuge is dead.'
We could see the man's stooping form between the two head-lights. He turned his head towards the house.
'Who the dagger is Simon Fuge?' he inquired. 'There's about five thousand Fuges in th' Five Towns.'
'Oh! I thought you knew him.'
'I might, and I mightn't. It's not one o' them Fuge brothers saggar-makers at Longshaw, is it?'
Mr Colclough had succeeded in starting his engine, and the air was rent with gun-shots. He jumped lightly into the driver's seat.
'Well, see you later,' he cried, and was off, persuading the enormous beast under him to describe a semicircle in the narrow street backing, forcing forward, and backing again, to the accompaniment of the continuous fusillade. At length he got away, drew up within two feet of an electric tram that slid bumping down the main street, and vanished round the corner. A little ragged boy passed, crying, 'Signal, extra,' and Mr Brindley hailed him.
'What IS Mr Colclough?' I asked in the drawing-room.
'Manufacturer—sanitary ware,' said Mr Brindley. 'He's got one of the best businesses in Hanbridge. I wish I'd half his income. Never buys a book, you know.'
'He seems to play the piano very well.'
'Well, as to that, he doesn't what you may call PLAY, but he's the best sight-reader in this district, bar me. I never met his equal. When you come across any one who can read a thing like the Domestic Symphony right off and never miss his place, you might send me a telegram. Colclough's got a Steinway. Wish I had.'
Mrs Brindley had been looking through the Signal.
'I don't see anything about Simon Fuge here,' said she.
'Oh, nonsense!' said her husband. 'Buchanan's sure to have got something in about it. Let's look.'
He received the paper from his wife, but failed to discover in it a word concerning the death of Simon Fuge.
'Dashed if I don't ring Buchanan up and ask him what he means! Here's a paper with an absolute monopoly in the district, and brings in about five thousand a year clear to somebody, and it doesn't give the news! There never is anything but advertisements and sporting results in the blessed thing.'
He rushed to his telephone, which was in the hall. Or rather, he did not rush; he went extremely quickly, with aggressive footsteps that seemed to symbolize just retribution. We could hear him at the telephone.
'Hello! No. Yes. Is that you, Buchanan? Well, I want Mr Buchanan. Is that you, Buchanan? Yes, I'm all right. What in thunder do you mean by having nothing in tonight about Simon Fuge's death? Eh? Yes, the Gazette. Well, I suppose you aren't Scotch for nothing. Why the devil couldn't you stop in Scotland and edit papers there?' Then a laugh. 'I see. Yes. What did you think of those cigars? Oh! See you at the dinner. Ta-ta.' A final ring.
'The real truth is, he wanted some advice as to the tone of his obituary notice,' said Mr Brindley, coming back into the drawing-room. 'He's got it, seemingly. He says he's writing it now, for tomorrow. He didn't put in the mere news of the death, because it was exclusive to the Gazette, and he's been having some difficulty with the Gazette lately. As he says, tomorrow afternoon will be quite soon enough for the Five Towns. It isn't as if Simon Fuge was a cricket match. So now you see how the wheels go round, Mr Loring.'
He sat down to the piano and began to play softly the Castle motive from the Nibelung's Ring. He kept repeating it in different keys.
'What about the mumps, wife?' he asked Mrs Brindley, who had been out of the room and now returned.
'Oh! I don't think it is mumps,' she replied. 'They're all asleep.'
'Good!' he murmured, still playing the Castle motive.
'Talking of Simon Fuge,' I said determined to satisfy my curiosity, 'who WERE the two sisters?'
'What two sisters?'
'That he spent the night in the boat with, on Ilam Lake.'
'Was that in the Gazette? I didn't read all the article.'
He changed abruptly into the Sword motive, which he gave with a violent flourish, and then he left the piano. 'I do beg you not to wake my children,' said his wife.
'Your children must get used to my piano,' said he. 'Now, then, what about these two sisters?'
I pulled the Gazette from my pocket and handed it to him. He read aloud the passage describing the magic night on the lake.
'I don't know who they were,' he said. 'Probably something tasty from the Hanbridge Empire.'
We both observed a faint, amused smile on the face of Mrs Brindley, the smile of a woman who has suddenly discovered in her brain a piece of knowledge rare and piquant.
'I can guess who they were,' she said. 'In fact, I'm sure.'
'Annie Brett and—you know who.'
'What, down at the Tiger?'
'Certainly. Hush!' Mrs Brindley ran to the door and, opening it, listened. The faint, fretful cry of a child reached us. 'There! You've done it! I told you you would!'
She disappeared. Mr Brindley whistled.
'And who is Annie Brett?' I inquired.
'Look here,' said he, with a peculiar inflection. 'Would you like to see her?'
'I should,' I said with decision.
'Well, come on, then. We'll go down to the Tiger and have a drop of something.'
'And the other sister?' I asked.
'The other sister is Mrs Oliver Colclough,' he answered. 'Curious, ain't it?'
Again there was that swift, scarcely perceptible phenomenon in his eyes.
We stood at the corner of the side-street and the main road, and down the main road a vast, white rectangular cube of bright light came plunging—its head rising and dipping—at express speed, and with a formidable roar. Mr Brindley imperiously raised his stick; the extraordinary box of light stopped as if by a miracle, and we jumped into it, having splashed through mud, and it plunged off again—bump, bump, bump—into the town of Bursley. As Mr Brindley passed into the interior of the car, he said laconically to two men who were smoking on the platform—
'How do, Jim? How do, Jo?'
And they responded laconically—
'How do, Bob?'
'How do, Bob?'
We sat down. Mr Brindley pointed to the condition of the floor.
'Cheerful, isn't it?' he observed to me, shouting above the din of vibrating glass.
Our fellow-passengers were few and unromantic, perhaps half-a-dozen altogether on the long, shiny, yellow seats of the car, each apparently lost in gloomy reverie.
'It's the advertisements and notices in these cars that are the joy of the super-man like you and me,' shouted Mr Brindley. 'Look there, "Passengers are requested not to spit on the floor." Simply an encouragement to lie on the seats and spit on the ceiling, isn't it? "Wear only Noble's wonderful boots." Suppose we did! Unless they came well up above the waist we should be prosecuted. But there's no sense of humour in this district.'
Greengrocers' shops and public-houses were now flying past the windows of the car. It began to climb a hill, and then halted.
'Here we are!' ejaculated Mr Brindley.
And he was out of the car almost before I had risen.
We strolled along a quiet street, and came to a large building with many large lighted windows, evidently some result of public effort.
'What's that place?' I demanded.
'That's the Wedgwood Institution.'
'Oh! So that's the Wedgwood Institution, is it?'
'Yes. Commonly called the Wedgwood. Museum, reading-room, public library—dirtiest books in the world, I mean physically—art school, science school. I've never explained to you why I'm chairman of the Management Committee, have I? Well, it's because the Institution is meant to foster the arts, and I happen to know nothing about 'em. I needn't tell you that architecture, literature, and music are not arts within the meaning of the act. Not much! Like to come in and see the museum for a minute? You'll have to see it in your official capacity tomorrow.'
We crossed the road, and entered an imposing portico. Just as we did so a thick stream of slouching men began to descend the steps, like a waterfall of treacle. Mr Brindley they appeared to see, but evidently I made no impression on their retinas. They bore down the steps, hands deep in pockets, sweeping over me like Fate. Even when I bounced off one of them to a lower step, he showed by no sign that the fact of my existence had reached his consciousness—simply bore irresistibly downwards. The crowd was absolutely silent. At last I gained the entrance hall.
'It's closing-time for the reading room,' said Mr Brindley.
'I'm glad I survived it,' I said.
'The truth is,' said he, 'that people who can't look after themselves don't flourish in these latitudes. But you'll be acclimatized by tomorrow. See that?'
He pointed to an alabaster tablet on which was engraved a record of the historical certainty that Mr Gladstone opened the Institution in 1868, also an extract from the speech which he delivered on that occasion.
'What do you THINK of Gladstone down here?' I demanded.
'In my official capacity I think that these deathless words are the last utterance of wisdom on the subject of the influence of the liberal arts on life. And I should advise you, in your official capacity, to think the same, unless you happen to have a fancy for having your teeth knocked down your throat.'
'I see,' I said, not sure how to take him.
'Lest you should go away with the idea that you have been visiting a rude and barbaric people, I'd better explain that that was a joke. As a matter of fact, we're rather enlightened here. The only man who stands a chance of getting his teeth knocked down his throat here is the ingenious person who started the celebrated legend of the man-and-dog fight at Hanbridge. It's a long time ago, a very long time ago; but his grey hairs won't save him from horrible tortures if we catch him. We don't mind being called immoral, we're above a bit flattered when London newspapers come out with shocking details of debauchery in the Five Towns, but we pride ourselves on our manners. I say, Aked!' His voice rose commandingly, threateningly, to an old bent, spectacled man who was ascending a broad white staircase in front of us.
'Sir!' The man turned.
'Don't turn the lights out yet in the museum.'
'No, sir! Are you coming up?' The accents were slow and tremulous.
'Yes. I have a gentleman here from the British Museum who wants to look round.'
The oldish man came deliberately down the steps, and approached us. Then his gaze, beginning at my waist, gradually rose to my hat.
'From the British Museum?' he drawled. 'I'm sure I'm very glad to meet you, sir. I'm sure it's a very great honour.'
He held out a wrinkled hand, which I shook.
'Mr Aked,' said Mr Brindley, by way of introduction. 'Been caretaker here for pretty near forty years.'
'Ever since it opened, sir,' said Aked.
We went up the white stone stairway, rather a grandiose construction for a little industrial town. It divided itself into doubling curving flights at the first landing, and its walls were covered with pictures and designs. The museum itself, a series of three communicating rooms, was about as large as a pocket-handkerchief.
'Quite small,' I said.
I gave my impression candidly, because I had already judged Mr Brindley to be the rare and precious individual who is worthy of the high honour of frankness.
'Do you think so?' he demanded quickly. I had shocked him, that was clear. His tone was unmistakable; it indicated an instinctive, involuntary protest. But he recovered himself in a flash. 'That's jealousy,' he laughed. 'All you British Museum people are the same.' Then he added, with an unsuccessful attempt to convince me that he meant what he was saying: 'Of course it is small. It's nothing, simply nothing.'
Yes, I had unwittingly found the joint in the armour of this extraordinary Midland personage. With all his irony, with all his violent humour, with all his just and unprejudiced perceptions, he had a tenderness for the Institution of which he was the dictator. He loved it. He could laugh like a god at everything in the Five Towns except this one thing. He would try to force himself to regard even this with the same lofty detachment, but he could not do it naturally.
I stopped at a case of Wedgwood ware, marked 'Perkins Collection.'
'By Jove!' I exclaimed, pointing to a vase. 'What a body!'
He was enchanted by my enthusiasm.
'Funny you should have hit on that,' said he. 'Old Daddy Perkins always called it his ewe-lamb.'
Thus spoken, the name of the greatest authority on Wedgwood ware that Europe has ever known curiously impressed me.
'I suppose you knew him?' I questioned.
'Considering that I was one of the pall-bearers at his funeral, and caught the champion cold of my life!'
'What sort of a man was he?'
'Outside Wedgwood ware he wasn't any sort of a man. He was that scourge of society, a philanthropist,' said Mr Brindley. 'He was an upright citizen, and two thousand people followed him to his grave. I'm an upright citizen, but I have no hope that two thousand people will follow me to my grave.'
'You never know what may happen,' I observed, smiling.
'No.' He shook his head. 'If you undermine the moral character of your fellow-citizens by a long course of unbridled miscellaneous philanthropy, you can have a funeral procession as long as you like, at the rate of about forty shillings a foot. But you'll never touch the great heart of the enlightened public of these boroughs in any other way. Do you imagine anyone cared a twopenny damn for Perkins's Wedgwood ware?'
'It's like that everywhere,' I said.
'I suppose it is,' he assented unwillingly.
Who can tell what was passing in the breast of Mr Brindley? I could not. At least I could not tell with any precision. I could only gather, vaguely, that what he considered the wrong-headedness, the blindness, the lack of true perception, of his public was beginning to produce in his individuality a faint trace of permanent soreness. I regretted it. And I showed my sympathy with him by asking questions about the design and construction of the museum (a late addition to the Institution), of which I happened to know that he had been the architect.
He at once became interested and interesting. Although he perhaps insisted a little too much on the difficulties which occur when original talent encounters stupidity, he did, as he walked me up and down, contrive to convey to me a notion of the creative processes of the architect in a way that was in my experience entirely novel. He was impressing me anew, and I was wondering whether he was unique of his kind or whether there existed regiments of him in this strange parcel of England.
'Now, you see this girder,' he said, looking upwards.
That's surely something of Fuge's, isn't it?' I asked, indicating a small picture in a corner, after he had finished his explanation of the functions of the girder.
As on the walls of the staircase and corridors, so on the walls here, there were many paintings, drawings, and engravings. And of course the best were here in the museum. The least uninteresting items of the collection were, speaking generally, reproductions in monotint of celebrated works, and a few second—or third-rate loan pictures from South Kensington. Aside from such matters I had noticed nothing but the usual local trivialities, gifts from one citizen or another, travel-jottings of some art-master, careful daubs of apt students without a sense of humour. The aspect of the place was exactly the customary aspect of the small provincial museum, as I have seen it in half-a-hundred towns that are not among 'the great towns'. It had the terrible trite 'museum' aspect, the aspect that brings woe and desolation to the heart of the stoutest visitor, and which seems to form part of the purgatorio of Bank-holidays, wide mouths, and stiff clothes. The movement for opening museums on Sundays is the most natural movement that could be conceived. For if ever a resort was invented and fore-ordained to chime with the true spirit of the British sabbath, that resort is the average museum. I ought to know. I do know.
But there was the incomparable Wedgwood ware, and there was the little picture by Simon Fuge. I am not going to lose my sense of perspective concerning Simon Fuge. He was not the greatest painter that ever lived, or even of his time. He had, I am ready to believe, very grave limitations. But he was a painter by himself, as all fine painters are. He had his own vision. He was Unique. He was exclusively preoccupied with the beauty and the romance of the authentic. The little picture showed all this. It was a painting, unfinished, of a girl standing at a door and evidently hesitating whether to open the door or not: a very young girl, very thin, with long legs in black stockings, and short, white, untidy frock; thin bare arms; the head thrown on one side, and the hands raised, and one foot raised, in a wonderful childish gesture—the gesture of an undecided fox-terrier. The face was an infant's face, utterly innocent; and yet Simon Fuge had somehow caught in that face a glimpse of all the future of the woman that the girl was to be, he had displayed with exquisite insolence the essential naughtiness of his vision of things. The thing was not much more than a sketch; it was a happy accident, perhaps, in some day's work of Simon Fuge's. But it was genius. When once you had yielded to it, there was no other picture in the room. It killed everything else. But, wherever it had found itself, nothing could have killed IT. Its success was undeniable, indestructible. And it glowed sombrely there on the wall, a few splashes of colour on a morsel of canvas, and it was Simon Fuge's unconscious, proud challenge to the Five Towns. It WAS Simon Fuge, at any rate all of Simon Fuge that was worth having, masterful, imperishable. And not merely was it his challenge, it was his scorn, his aristocratic disdain, his positive assurance that in the battle between them he had annihilated the Five Towns. It hung there in the very midst thereof, calmly and contemptuously waiting for the acknowledgement of his victory.
'Which?' said Mr Brindley.
'Yes, I fancy it is,' he negligently agreed. 'Yes, it is.'
'It's not signed,' I remarked.
'It ought to be,' said Mr Brindley; then laughed, 'Too late now!'
'How did it get here?'
'Don't know. Oh! I think Mr Perkins won it in a raffle at a bazaar, and then hung it here. He did as he liked here, you know.'
I was just going to become vocal in its praise, when Mr Brindley said—
'That thing under it is a photograph of a drinking-cup for which one of our pupils won a national scholarship last year!'
Mr Aked appeared in the distance.
'I fancy the old boy wants to be off to bed,' Mr Brindley whispered kindly.
So we left the Wedgwood Institution. I began to talk to Mr Brindley about music. The barbaric attitude of the Five Towns towards great music was the theme of some very lively animadversions on his part.
The Tiger was very conveniently close to the Wedgwood Institution. The Tiger had a 'yard', one of those long, shapeless expanses of the planet, partly paved with uneven cobbles and partly unsophisticated planet, without which no provincial hotel can call itself respectable. We came into it from the hinterland through a wooden doorway in a brick wall. Far off I could see one light burning. We were in the centre of Bursley, the gold angel of its Town Hall rose handsomely over the roof of the hotel in the diffused moonlight, but we might have been in the purlieus of some dubious establishment on the confines of a great seaport, where anything may happen. The yard was so deserted, so mysterious, so shut in, so silent, that, really, infamous characters ought to have rushed out at us from the obscurity of shadows, and felled us to the earth with no other attendant phenomenon than a low groan. There are places where one seems to feel how thin and brittle is the crust of law and order. Why one should be conscious of this in the precincts of such a house as the Tiger, which I was given to understand is as respectable as the parish church, I do not know. But I have experienced a similar feeling in the yards of other provincial hotels that were also as correct as parish churches. We passed a dim fly, with its shafts slanting forlornly to the ground, and a wheelbarrow. Both looked as though they had been abandoned for ever. Then we came to the lamp, which illuminated a door, and on the door was a notice: 'Private Bar. Billiards.'
I am not a frequenter of convivial haunts. I should not dare to penetrate alone into a private bar; when I do enter a private bar it is invariably under the august protection of an habitue, and it is invariably with the idea that at last I am going to see life. Often has this illusion been shattered, but each time it perfectly renewed itself. So I followed the bold Mr Brindley into the private bar of the Tiger.
It was a small and low room. I instinctively stooped, though there was no necessity for me to stoop. The bar had no peculiarity. It can be described in a breath: Three perpendicular planes. Back plane, bottles arranged exactly like books on bookshelves; middle plane, the upper halves of two women dressed in tight black; front plane, a counter, dotted with glasses, and having strange areas of zinc. Reckon all that as the stage, and the rest of the room as auditorium. But the stage of a private bar is more mysterious than the stage of a theatre. You are closer to it, and yet it is far less approachable. The edge of the counter is more sacred than the footlights. Impossible to imagine yourself leaping over it. Impossible to imagine yourself in that cloistered place behind it. Impossible to imagine how the priestesses got themselves into that place, or that they ever leave it. They are always there; they are always the same. You may go into a theatre when it is empty and dark; but did you ever go into a private bar that was empty and dark? A private bar is as eternal as the hills, as changeless as the monomania of a madman, as mysterious as sorcery. Always the same order of bottles, the same tinkling, the same popping, the same time-tables, and the same realistic pictures of frothing champagne on the walls, the same advertisements on the same ash-trays on the counter, the same odour that wipes your face like a towel the instant you enter; and the same smiles, the same gestures, the same black fabric stretched to tension over the same impressive mammiferous phenomena of the same inexplicable creatures who apparently never eat and never sleep, imprisoned for life in the hallowed and mystic hollow between the bottles and the zinc.
In a tone almost inaudible in its discretion, Mr Brindley let fall to me as he went in—
This is she.'
She was not quite the ordinary barmaid. Nor, as I learnt afterwards, was she considered to be the ordinary barmaid. She was something midway in importance between the wife of the new proprietor and the younger woman who stood beside her in the cloister talking to a being that resembled a commercial traveller. It was the younger woman who was the ordinary barmaid; she had bright hair, and the bright vacant stupidity which, in my narrow experience, barmaids so often catch like an infectious disease from their clients. But Annie Brett was different. I can best explain how she impressed me by saying that she had the mien of a handsome married woman of forty with a coquettish and superficially emotional past, but also with a daughter who is just going into long skirts. I have known one or two such women. They have been beautiful; they are still handsome at a distance of twelve feet. They are rather effusive; they think they know life, when as a fact their instinctive repugnance for any form of truth has prevented them from acquiring even the rudiments of the knowledge of life. They are secretly preoccupied by the burning question of obesity. They flatter, and they will pay any price for flattery. They are never sincere, not even with themselves; they never, during the whole of their existence, utter a sincere word, even in anger they coldly exaggerate. They are always frothing at the mouth with ecstasy. They adore everything, including God; go to church carrying a prayer-book and hymn-book in separate volumes, and absolutely fawn on the daughter. They are stylish—and impenetrable. But there is something about them very wistful and tragic.
In another social stratum, Miss Annie Brett might have been such a woman. Without doubt nature had intended her for the role. She was just a little ample, with broad shoulders and a large head and a lot of dark chestnut hair; a large mouth, and large teeth. She had earrings, a brooch, and several rings; also a neat originality of cuffs that would not have been permitted to an ordinary barmaid. As for her face, there were crow's-feet, and a mole (which had selected with infinite skill a site on her chin), and a general degeneracy of complexion; but it was an effective face. The little thing of twenty-three or so by her side had all the cruel advantages of youth and was not ugly; but she was 'killed' by Annie Brett. Miss Brett had a maternal bust. Indeed, something of the maternal resided in all of her that was visible above the zinc. She must have been about forty; that is to say, apparently older than the late Simon Fuge. Nevertheless, I could conceive her, even now, speciously picturesque in a boat at midnight on a moonstruck water. Had she been on the stage she would have been looking forward to ingenue parts for another five years yet—such was her durable sort of effectiveness. Yes, she indubitably belonged to the ornamental half of the universe.
'So this is one of them!' I said to myself.
I tried to be philosophical; but at heart I was profoundly disappointed. I did not know what I had expected; but I had not expected THAT. I was well aware that a thing written always takes on a quality which does not justly appertain to it. I had not expected, therefore, to see an odalisque, a houri, an ideal toy or the remains of an ideal toy; I had not expected any kind of obvious brilliancy, nor a subtle charm that would haunt my memory for evermore. On the other hand, I had not expected the banal, the perfectly commonplace. And I think that Miss Annie Brett was the most banal person that it has pleased Fate to send into my life. I knew that instantly. She was a condemnation of Simon Fuge. SHE, one of the 'wonderful creatures who had played so large a part' in the career of Simon Fuge! Sapristi! Still, she WAS one of the wonderful creatures, etc. She HAD floated o'er the bosom of the lake with a great artist. She HAD received his homage. She HAD stirred his feelings. She HAD shared with him the magic of the night. I might decry her as I would; she had known how to cast a spell over him—she and the other one! Something there in her which had captured him and, seemingly, held him captive.
'Good-EVENING, Mr Brindley,' she expanded. 'You're quite a stranger.' And she embraced me also in the largeness of her welcome.
'It just happens,' said Mr Brindley, 'that I was here last night. But you weren't.'
'Were you now!' she exclaimed, as though learning a novel fact of the most passionate interest. The truth is, I had to leave the bar to Miss Slaney last night. Mrs Moorcroft was ill—and the baby only six weeks old, you know—and I wouldn't leave her. No, I wouldn't.'
It was plain that in Miss Annie Brett's opinion there was only one really capable intelligence in the Tiger. This glimpse of her capability, this out-leaping of the latent maternal in her, completely destroyed for the moment my vision of her afloat on the bosom of the lake.
'I see,' said Mr Brindley kindly. Then he turned to me with characteristic abruptness. 'Well, give it a name, Mr Loring.'
Such is my simplicity that I did not immediately comprehend his meaning. For a fraction of a second I thought of the baby. Then I perceived that he was merely employing one of the sacred phrases, sanctified by centuries of usage, of the private bar. I had already drunk mercurey, green Chartreuse, and coffee. I had a violent desire not to drink anything more. I knew my deplorable tomorrows. Still, I would have drunk hot milk, cold water, soda water, or tea. Why should I not have had what I did not object to having? Herein lies another mystery of the private bar. One could surely order tea or milk or soda water from a woman who left everything to tend a mother with a six-weeks-old baby! But no. One could not. As Miss Annie Brett smiled at me pointedly, and rubbed her ringed hands, and kept on smiling with her terrific mechanical effusiveness, I lost all my self control; I would have resigned myself to a hundred horrible tomorrows under the omnipotent, inexplicable influence of the private bar. I ejaculated, as though to the manner born—
It proved to have been rather clever of me, showing as it did a due regard for convention combined with a pretty idiosyncrasy. Mr Brindley was clearly taken aback. The idea struck him as a new one. He reflected, and then enthusiastically exclaimed—
'Dashed if I don't have Irish too!'
And Miss Brett, delighted by this unexpected note of Irish in the long, long symphony of Scotch, charged our glasses with gusto. I sipped, death in my heart, and rakishness in my face and gesture. Mr Brindley raised his glass respectfully to Miss Annie Brett, and I did the same. Those two were evidently good friends.
She led the conversation with hard, accustomed ease. When I say 'hard' I do not in the least mean unsympathetic. But her sympathetic quality was toughened by excessive usage, like the hand of a charwoman. She spoke of the vagaries of the Town Hall clock, the health of Mr Brindley's children, the price of coal, the incidence of the annual wakes, the bankruptcy of the draper next door, and her own sciatica, all in the same tone of metallic tender solicitude. Mr Brindley adopted an entirely serious attitude towards her. If I had met him there and nowhere else I should have taken him for a dignified mediocrity, little better than a fool, but with just enough discretion not to give himself away. I said nothing. I was shy. I always am shy in a bar. Out of her cold, cold roving eye Miss Brett watched me, trying to add me up and not succeeding. She must have perceived, however, that I was not like a fish in water.
There was a pause in the talk, due, I think, to Miss Annie Brett's preoccupation with what was going on between Miss Slaney, the ordinary barmaid, and her commercial traveller. The commercial traveller, if he was one, was reading something from a newspaper to Miss Slaney in an indistinct murmur, and with laughter in his voice.
'By the way,' said Mr Brindley, 'you used to know Simon Fuge, didn't you?'
'Old Simon Fuge!' said Miss Brett. 'Yes; after the brewery company took the Blue Bell at Cauldon over from him, I used to be there. He would come in sometimes. Such a nice queer old man!'
'I mean the son,' said Mr Brindley.
'Oh yes,' she answered. 'I knew young Mr Simon too.' A slight hesitation, and then: 'Of course!' Another hesitation. 'Why?'
'Nothing,' said Mr Brindley. 'Only he's dead.'
'You don't mean to say he's dead?' she exclaimed.
'Day before yesterday, in Italy,' said Mr Brindley ruthlessly.
Miss Annie Brett's manner certainly changed. It seemed almost to become natural and unecstatic.
'I suppose it will be in the papers?' she ventured.
'It's in the London paper.'
'Well I never!' she muttered.
'A long time, I should think, since he was in this part of the world,' said Mr Brindley. 'When did YOU last see him?'
He was exceedingly skilful, I considered.
She put the back of her hand over her mouth, and bending her head slightly and lowering her eyelids, gazed reflectively at the counter.
'It was once when a lot of us went to Ilam,' she answered quietly. 'The St Luke's lot, YOU know.'
'Oh!' cried Mr Brindley, apparently startled. 'The St Luke's lot?'
'How came he to go with you?'
'He didn't go with us. He was there—stopping there, I suppose.'
'Why, I believe I remember hearing something about that,' said Mr Brindley cunningly. 'Didn't he take you out in a boat?'
A very faint dark crimson spread over the face of Miss Annie Brett. It could not be called a blush, but it was as like a blush as was possible to her. The phenomenon, as I could see from his eyes, gave Mr Brindley another shock.
'Yes,' she replied. 'Sally was there as well.'
Then a silence, during which the commercial traveller could be heard reading from the newspaper.
'When was that?' gently asked Mr Brindley.
'Don't ask ME when it was, Mr Brindley,' she answered nervously. 'It's ever so long ago. What did he die of?'
Miss Annie Brett opened her mouth to speak, and did not speak. There were tears in her reddened eyes. I felt very awkward, and I think that Mr Brindley also felt awkward. But I was glad. Those moist eyes caused me a thrill. There was after all some humanity in Miss Annie Brett. Yes, she had after all floated on the bosom of the lake with Simon Fuge. The least romantic of persons, she had yet felt romance. If she had touched Simon Fuge, Simon Fuge had touched her. She had memories. Once she had lived. I pictured her younger. I sought in her face the soft remains of youthfulness. I invented languishing poses for her in the boat. My imagination was equal to the task of seeing her as Simon Fuge saw her. I did so see her. I recalled Simon Fuge's excited description of the long night in the boat, and I could reconstitute the night from end to end. And there the identical creature stood before me, the creature who had set fire to Simon Fuge, one of the 'wonderful creatures' of the Gazette, ageing, hardened, banal, but momentarily restored to the empire of romance by those unshed, glittering tears. As an experience it was worth having.
She could not speak, and we did not. I heard the commercial traveller reading: '"The motion was therefore carried by twenty-five votes to nineteen, and the Countess of Chell promised that the whole question of the employment of barmaids should be raised at the next meeting of the B.W.T.S." There! what do you think of that?'
Miss Annie Brett moved quickly towards the commercial traveller.
Til tell you what I think of it,' she said, with ecstatic resentment. 'I think it's just shameful! Why should the Countess of Chell want to rob a lot of respectable young ladies of their living? I can tell you they're just as respectable as the Countess of Chell is—yes, and perhaps more, by all accounts. I think people do well to call her "Interfering Iris". When she's robbed them of their living, what does she expect them to do? Is she going to keep them? Then what does she expect them to do?'
The commercial traveller was inept enough to offer a jocular reply, and then he found himself involved in the morass of 'the whole question'. He, and we also, were obliged to hear in immense detail Miss Annie Brett's complete notions of the movement for the abolition of barmaids. The subject was heavy on her mind, and she lifted it off. Simon Fuge was relinquished; he dropped like a stone into the pool of forgetfulness. And yet, strange as it seems, she was assuredly not sincere in the expression of her views on the question of barmaids. She held no real views. She merely persuaded herself that she held them. When the commercial traveller, who was devoid of sense, pointed out that it was not proposed to rob anybody of a livelihood, and that existent barmaids would be permitted to continue to grace the counters of their adoption, she grew frostily vicious. The commercial traveller decided to retire and play billiards. Mr Brindley and I in our turn departed. I was extremely disappointed by this sequel.
'Ah!' breathed Mr Brindley when we were outside, in front of the Town Hall. 'She was quite right about that clock.'
After that we turned silently into a long illuminated street which rose gently. The boxes of light were flashing up and down it, but otherwise it seemed to be quite deserted. Mr Brindley filled a pipe and lit it as he walked. The way in which that man kept the match alight in a fresh breeze made me envious. I could conceive myself rivalling his exploits in cigarette-making, the purchase of rare books, the interpretation of music, even (for a wager) the drinking of beer, but I knew that I should never be able to keep a match alight in a breeze. He threw the match into the mud, and in the mud it continued miraculously to burn with a large flame, as though still under his magic dominion. There are some things that baffle the reasoning faculty. 'Well,' I said, 'she must have been a pretty woman once.'
'"Pretty," by God!' he replied, 'she was beautiful. She was considered the finest piece in Hanbridge at one time. And let me tell you we're supposed to have more than our share of good looks in the Five Towns.'
'What—the women, you mean?'
'And she never married?'
'Oh no,' he said carelessly.
'But you don't mean to tell me she's never—' I was just going to exclaim, but I did not, I said: 'And it's her sister who is Mrs Colclough?'
'Yes.' He seemed to be either meditative or disinclined to talk. However, my friends have sometimes hinted to me that when my curiosity is really aroused, I am capable of indiscretions.
'So one sister rattles about in an expensive motor-car, and the other serves behind a bar!' I observed.
He glanced at me.
'I expect it's a bit difficult for you to understand,' he answered; 'but you must remember you're in a democratic district. You told me once you knew Exeter. Well, this isn't a cathedral town. It's about a century in front of any cathedral town in the world. Why, my good sir, there's practically no such thing as class distinction here. Both my grandfathers were working potters. Colclough's father was a joiner who finished up as a builder. If Colclough makes money and chooses to go to Paris and get the best motor-car he can, why in Hades shouldn't his wife ride in it? If he is fond of music and can play like the devil, that isn't his sister-in-law's fault, is it? His wife was a dressmaker, at least she was a dressmaker's assistant. If she suits him, what's the matter?'
'But I never suggested—'
'Excuse me,' he stopped me, speaking with careful and slightly exaggerated calmness, 'I think you did. If the difference in the situations of the two sisters didn't strike you as very extraordinary, what did you mean?'
'And isn't it extraordinary?' I demanded.
'It wouldn't be considered so in any reasonable society,' he insisted. 'The fact is, my good sir, you haven't yet quite got rid of Exeter. I do believe this place will do you good. Why, damn it! Colclough didn't marry both sisters. You think he might keep the other sister? Well, he might. But suppose his wife had half-a-dozen sisters, should he keep them all! I can tell you we're just like the rest of the world, we find no difficulty whatever in spending all the money we make. I dare say Colclough would be ready enough to keep his sister-in-law. I've never asked him. But I'm perfectly certain that his sister-in-law wouldn't be kept. Not much! You don't know these women down here, my good sir. She's earned her living at one thing or another all her life, and I reckon she'll keep on earning it till she drops. She is, without exception, the most exasperating female I ever came across, and that's saying something; but I will give her THAT credit: she's mighty independent.'
'How exasperating?' I asked, surprised to hear this from him.
'I don't know. But she is. If she was my wife I should kill her one night. Don't you know what I mean?'
'Yes, I quite agree with you,' I said. 'But you seemed to be awfully good friends with her.'
'No use being anything else. No woman that it ever pleased Providence to construct is going to frighten me away from the draught Burton that you can get at the Tiger. Besides, she can't help it. She was born like that.'
'She TALKS quite ordinarily,' I remarked.
'Oh! It isn't what she says, particularly. It's HER. Either you like her or you don't like her. Now Colclough thinks she's all right. In fact, he admires her.'
'There's one thing,' I said, 'she jolly nearly cried tonight.'
'Purely mechanical!' said Mr Brindley with cruel curtness.
What seemed to me singular was that the relations which had existed between Miss Annie Brett and Simon Fuge appeared to have no interest whatever for Mr Brindley. He had not even referred to them.
'You were just beginning to draw her out,' I ventured.
'No,' he replied; 'I thought I'd just see what she'd say. No one ever did draw that woman out.'
I had completely lost my vision of her in the boat, but somehow that declaration of his, 'no one ever did draw that woman out', partially restored the vision to me. It seemed to invest her with agreeable mystery.
'And the other sister—Mrs Colclough?' I questioned.
'I'm taking you to see her as fast as I can,' he answered. His tone implied further: 'I've just humoured one of your whims, now for the other.'
'But tell me something about her.'
'She's the best bridge-player—woman, that is—in Bursley. But she will only play every other night for fear the habit should get hold of her. There you've got her.'
'Younger than Miss Brett?'
'Younger,' said Mr Brindley. 'She isn't the same sort of person, is she?'
'She is not,' said Mr Brindley. And his tone implied: 'Thank God for it!'
Very soon afterwards, at the top of a hill, he drew me into the garden of a large house which stood back from the road.
It was quite a different sort of house from Mr Brindley's. One felt that immediately on entering the hall, which was extensive. There was far more money and considerably less taste at large in that house than in the other. I noticed carved furniture that must have been bought with a coarse and a generous hand; and on the walls a diptych by Marcus Stone portraying the course of true love clingingly draped. It was just like Exeter or Onslow Square. But the middle-aged servant who received us struck at once the same note as had sounded so agreeably at Mr Brindley's. She seemed positively glad to see us; our arrival seemed to afford her a peculiar and violent pleasure, as though the hospitality which we were about to accept was in some degree hers too. She robbed us of our hats with ecstasy.
Then Mr Colclough appeared.
'Delighted you've come, Mr Loring!' he said, shaking my hand again. He said it with fervour. He obviously was delighted. The exercise of hospitality was clearly the chief joy of his life; at least, if he had a greater it must have been something where keenness was excessive beyond the point of pleasure, as some joys are. 'How do, Bob? Your missis has just come.' He was still in his motoring clothes.
Mr Brindley, observing my gaze transiently on the Marcus Stones, said: 'I know what you're looking for; you're looking for "Saul's Soul's Awakening". We don't keep it in the window; you'll see it inside.'
'Bob's always rotting me about my pictures,' Mr Colclough smiled indulgently. He seemed big enough to eat his friend, and his rich, heavy voice rolled like thunder about the hall. 'Come along in, will you?'
'Half-a-second, Ol,' Mr Brindley called in a conspiratorial tone, and, turning to me: Tell him THE Limerick. You know.'
'The one about the hayrick?'
Mr Brindley nodded.
There were three heads close together for a space of twenty seconds or so, and then a fearful explosion happened—the unique, tremendous laughter of Mr Colclough, which went off like a charge of melinite and staggered the furniture.
'Now, now!' a feminine voice protested from an unseen interior.
I was taken to the drawing-room, an immense apartment with an immense piano black as midnight in it. At the further end two women were seated close together in conversation, and I distinctly heard the name 'Fuge'. One of them was Mrs Brindley, in a hat. The other, a very big and stout woman, in an elaborate crimson garment that resembled a teagown, rose and came to meet me with extended hand.
'My wife—Mr Loring,' said Mr Oliver Colclough.
'So glad to meet you,' she said, beaming on me with all her husband's pleasure. 'Come and sit between Mrs Brindley and me, near the window, and keep us in order. Don't you find it very close? There are at least a hundred cats in the garden.'
One instantly perceived that ceremonial stiffness could not exist in the same atmosphere with Mrs Oliver Colclough. During the whole time I spent in her house there was never the slightest pause in the conversation. Mrs Oliver Colclough prevented nobody from talking, but she would gladly use up every odd remnant of time that was not employed by others. No scrap was too small for her.
'So this is the other one!' I said to myself. 'Well, give me this one!'
Certainly there was a resemblance between the two, in the general formation of the face, and the shape of the shoulders; but it is astonishing that two sisters can differ as these did, with a profound and vital difference. In Mrs Colclough there was no coquetterie, no trace of that more-than-half-suspicious challenge to a man that one feels always in the type to which her sister belonged. The notorious battle of the sexes was assuredly carried on by her in a spirit of frank muscular gaiety—she could, I am sure, do her share of fighting. Put her in a boat on the bosom of the lake under starlight, and she would not by a gesture, a tone, a glance, convey mysterious nothings to you, a male. She would not be subtly changed by the sensuous influences of the situation; she would always be the same plump and earthly piece of candour. Even if she were in love with you, she would not convey mysterious nothings in such circumstances. If she were in love with you she would most clearly convey unmysterious and solid somethings. I was convinced that the contributing cause to the presence of the late Simon Fuge in the boat on Ilam Lake on the historic night was Annie the superior barmaid, and not Sally of the automobile. But Mrs Colclough, if not beautiful, was a very agreeable creation. Her amplitude gave at first sight an exaggerated impression of her age; but this departed after more careful inspection. She could not have been more than thirty. She was very dark, with plenteous and untidy black hair, thick eyebrows, and a slight moustache. Her eyes were very vivacious, and her gestures, despite that bulk, quick and graceful. She was happy; her ideals were satisfied; it was probably happiness that had made her stout. Her massiveness was apparently no grief to her; she had fallen into the carelessness which is too often the pitfall of women who, being stout, are content.
'How do, missis?' Mr Brindley greeted her, and to his wife, 'How do, missis? But, look here, bright star, this gadding about is all very well, but what about those precious kids of yours? None of 'em dead yet, I hope.'
'Don't be silly, Bob.'
'I've been over to your house,' Mrs Colclough put in. 'Of course it isn't mumps. The child's as right as rain. So I brought Mary back with me.'
'Well,' said Mr Brindley, 'for a woman who's never had any children your knowledge of children beggars description. What you aren't sure you know about them isn't knowledge. However—'
'Listen,' Mrs Colclough replied, with a delightful throwingdown of the glove. 'I'll bet you a level sovereign that child hasn't got the mumps. So there! And Oliver will guarantee to pay you.'
'Aye!' said Mr Colclough; 'I'll back my wife any day.'
'Don't bet, Bob,' Mrs Brindley enjoined her husband excitedly in her high treble.
'I won't,' said Mr Brindley.
'Now let's sit down.' Mrs Colclough addressed me with particular, confidential grace.
We three exactly filled the sofa. I have often sat between two women, but never with such calm, unreserved, unapprehensive comfortableness as I experienced between Mrs Colclough and Mrs Brindley. It was just as if I had known them for years.
'You'll make a mess of that, Ol,' said Mr Brindley.
The other two men were at some distance, in front of a table, on which were two champagne bottles and five glasses, and a plate of cakes. 'Well,' I said to myself, 'I'm not going to have any champagne, anyhow. Mercurey! Green Chartreuse! Irish whisky! And then champagne! And a morning's hard work tomorrow! No!'
Plop! A cork flew up and bounced against the ceiling.
Mr Colclough carefully emptied the bottle into the glasses, of which Mr Brindley seized two and advanced with one in either hand for the women. It was the host who offered a glass to me.
'No, thanks very much, I really can't,' I said in a very firm tone.
My tone was so firm that it startled them. They glanced at each other with alarmed eyes, like simple people confronted by an inexplicable phenomenon. 'But look here, mister!' said Mr Colclough, pained, 'we've got this out specially for you. You don't suppose this is our usual tipple, do you?'
I yielded. I could do no less than sacrifice myself to their enchanting instinctive kindness of heart. 'I shall be dead tomorrow,' I said to myself; 'but I shall have lived tonight.' They were relieved, but I saw that I had given them a shock from which they could not instantaneously recover. Therefore I began with a long pull, to reassure them.
'Mrs Brindley has been telling me that Simon Fuge is dead,' said Mrs Colclough brightly, as though Mrs Brindley had been telling her that the price of mutton had gone down.
I perceived that those two had been talking over Simon Fuge, after their fashion.
'Oh yes,' I responded.
'Have you got that newspaper in your pocket, Mr Loring?' asked Mrs Brindley.
'No,' I said, feeling in my pockets; 'I must have left it at your house.'
'Well,' she said, 'that's strange. I looked for it to show it to Mrs Colclough, but I couldn't see it.'
This was not surprising. I did not want Mrs Colclough to read the journalistic obituary until she had given me her own obituary of Fuge.
'It must be somewhere about,' I said; and to Mrs Colclough: 'I suppose you knew him pretty well?'
'Oh, bless you, no! I only met him once.'
'Yes. What are you going to do, Oliver?'
Her husband was opening the piano.
'Bob and I are just going to have another smack at that Brahms.'
'You don't expect us to listen, do you?'
'I expect you to do what pleases you, missis,' said he. 'I should be a bigger fool than I am if I expected anything else.' Then he smiled at me. 'No! Just go on talking. Ol and I'll drown you easy enough. Quite short! Back in five minutes.'
The two men placed each his wine-glass on the space on the piano designed for a candlestick, lighted cigars, and sat down to play.
'Yes,' Mrs Colclough resumed, in a lower, more confidential tone, to the accompaniment of the music. 'You see, there was a whole party of us there, and Mr Fuge was staying at the hotel, and of course he knew several of us.'
'And he took you out in a boat?'
'Me and Annie? Yes. Just as it was getting dusk he came up to us and asked us if we'd go for a row. Eh, I can hear him asking us now! I asked him if he could row, and he was quite angry. So we went, to quieten him.' She paused, and then laughed.
'Sally!' Mrs Brindley protested. 'You know he's dead!'
'Yes.' She admitted the rightness of the protest. 'But I can't help it. I was just thinking how he got his feet wet in pushing the boat off.' She laughed again. 'When we were safely off, someone came down to the shore and shouted to Mr Fuge to bring the boat back. You know his quick way of talking.' (Here she began to imitate Fuge.) '"I've quarrelled with the man this boat belongs to. Awful feud! Fact is, I'm in a hostile country here!" And a lot more like that. It seemed he had quarrelled with everybody in Ilam. He wasn't sure if the landlord of the hotel would let him sleep there again. He told us all about all his quarrels, until he dropped one of the oars. I shall never forget how funny he looked in the moonlight when he dropped the oar. "There, that's your fault!" he said. "You make me talk too much about myself, and I get excited." He kept striking matches to look for the oar, and turning the boat round and round with the other oar. "Last match!" he said. "We shall never see land tonight." Then he found the oar again. He considered we were saved. Then he began to tell us about his aunt. "You know I'd no business to be here. I came down from London for my aunt's funeral, and here I am in a boat at night with two pretty girls!" He said the funeral had taught him one thing, and that was that black neckties were the only possible sort of necktie. He said the greatest worry of his life had always been neckties; but he wouldn't have to worry any more, and so his aunt hadn't died for nothing. I assure you he kept on talking about neckties. I assure you, Mr Loring, I went to sleep—at least I dozed—and when I woke up he was still talking about neckties. But then his feet began to get cold. I suppose it was because they were wet. The way he grumbled about his feet being cold! I remember he turned his coat collar up. He wanted to get on shore and walk, but he'd taken us a long way up the lake by that time, and he saw we were absolutely lost. So he put the oars in the boat and stood up and stamped his feet. It might have upset the boat.'
'How did it end?' I inquired.
'Well, Annie and I caught the train, but only just. You see it was a special train, so they kept it for us, otherwise we should have been in a nice fix.'
'So you have special trains in these parts?'
'Why, of course! It was the annual outing of the teachers of St Luke's Sunday School and their friends, you see. So we had a special train.'
At this point the duettists came to the end of a movement, and Mr Brindley leaned over to us from his stool, glass in hand.
'The railway company practically owns Ilam,' he explained, 'and so they run it for all they're worth. They made the lake, to feed the canals, when they bought the canals from the canal company. It's an artificial lake, and the railway runs alongside it. A very good scheme of the company's. They started out to make Ilam a popular resort, and they've made it a popular resort, what with special trains and things. But try to get a special train to any other place on their rotten system, and you'll soon see!'
'How big is the lake?' I asked.
'How long is it, Ol?' he demanded of Colclough. 'A couple of miles?'
'Not it! About a mile. Adagio!'
They proceeded with Brahms.
'He ran with you all the way to the station, didn't he?' Mrs Brindley suggested to Mrs Colclough.
'I should just say he did!' Mrs Colclough concurred. 'He wanted to get warm, and then he was awfully afraid lest we should miss it.'
'I thought you were on the lake practically all night!' I exclaimed.
'All night! Well, I don't know what you call all night. But I was back in Bursley before eleven o'clock, I'm sure.'
I then contrived to discover the Gazette in an unsearched pocket, and I gave it to Mrs Colclough to read. Mrs Brindley looked over her shoulder.
There was no slightest movement of depreciation on Mrs Colclough's part. She amiably smiled as she perused the GAZETTE'S version of Fuge's version of the lake episode. Here was the attitude of the woman whose soul is like crystal. It seems to me that most women would have blushed, or dissented, or simulated anger, or failed to conceal vanity. But Mrs Coclough might have been reading a fairy tale, for any emotion she displayed.
'Yes,' she said blandly; 'from the things Annie used to tell me about him sometimes, I should say that was just how he WOULD talk. They seem to have thought quite a lot of him in London, then?'
'Oh, rather!' I said. 'I suppose your sister knew him pretty well?'
'Annie? I don't know. She knew him.'
I distinctly observed a certain self-consciousness in Mrs Colclough as she made this reply. Mrs Brindley had risen and with wifely attentiveness was turning over the music page for her husband.
Soon afterwards, for me, the night began to grow fantastic; it took on the colour of a gigantic adventure. I do not suppose that either Mr Brindley or Mr Colclough, or the other person who presently arrived, regarded it as anything but a pleasant conviviality, but to a man of my constitution and habits it was an almost incredible occurrence. The other person was the book-collecting doctor. He arrived with a discreet tap on the window at midnight, to spend the evening. Mrs Brindley had gone home and Mrs Colclough had gone to bed. The book-collecting doctor refused champagne; he was, in fact, very rude to champagne in general. He had whisky. And those astonishing individuals, Messieurs Brindley and Colclough, secretly convinced of the justice of the attack on champagne, had whisky too. And that still most astonishing individual, Loring of the B.M., joined them. It was the hour of limericks. Limericks were demanded for the diversion of the doctor, and I furnished them. We then listened to the tale of the doctor's experiences that day amid the sturdy, natural-minded population of a muling village not far from Bursley. Seldom have I had such a bath in the pure fluid of human nature. All sense of time was lost. I lived in an eternity. I could not suggest to my host that we should depart. I could, however, decline more whisky. And I could, given the chance, discourse with gay despair concerning the miserable wreck that I should be on the morrow in consequence of this high living. I asked them how I could be expected, in such a state, to judge delicate points of expertise in earthenware. I gave them a brief sketch of my customary evening, and left them to compare it with that evening. The doctor perceived that I was serious. He gazed at me with pity, as if to say: 'Poor frail southern organism! It ought to be in bed, with nothing inside it but tea!' What he did actually say was: 'You come round to my place, I'll soon put you right!' 'Can you stop me from having a headache tomorrow?' I eagerly asked. 'I think so,' he said with calm northern confidence.
At some later hour Mr Brindley and I 'went round'. Mr Colclough would not come. He bade me good-bye, as his wife had done, with the most extraordinary kindness, the most genuine sorrow at quitting me, the most genuine pleasure in the hope of seeing me again.
'There are three thousand books in this room!' I said to myself, as I stood in the doctor's electrically lit library.
'What price this for a dog?' Mr Brindley drew my attention to an aristocratic fox-terrier that lay on the hearth. 'Well, Titus! Is it sleepy? Well, well! How many firsts has he won, doctor?'
'Six,' said the doctor. 'I'll just fix you up, to begin with,' he turned to me.
After I had been duly fixed up ('This'll help you to sleep, and THIS'll placate your "god",' said the doctor), I saw to my intense surprise that another 'evening' was to be instantly superimposed on the 'evening' at Mr Colclough's. The doctor and Mr Brindley carefully and deliberately lighted long cigars, and sank deeply into immense arm-chairs; and so I imitated them as well as I could in my feeble southern way. We talked books. We just simply enumerated books without end, praising or damning them, and arranged authors in neat pews, like cattle in classes at an agricultural show. No pastime is more agreeable to people who have the book disease, and none more quickly fleets the hours, and none is more delightfully futile.
Ages elapsed, and suddenly, like a gun discharging, Mr Brindley said—
'We must go!'
Of all things that happened this was the most astonishing.
We did go.
'By the way, doc.,' said Mr Brindley, in the doctor's wide porch, 'I forgot to tell you that Simon Fuge is dead.'
'Is he?' said the doctor.
'Yes. You've got a couple of his etchings, haven't you?'
'No,' said the doctor. 'I had. But I sold them several months ago.'
'Oh!' said Mr Brindley negligently; 'I didn't know. Well, so long!'
We had a few hundred yards to walk down the silent, wide street, where the gas-lamps were burning with the strange, endless patience that gas-lamps have. The stillness of a provincial town at night is quite different from that of London; we might have been the only persons alive in England.
Except for a feeling of unreality, a feeling that the natural order of things had been disturbed by some necromancer, I was perfectly well the same morning at breakfast, as the doctor had predicted I should be. When I expressed to Mr Brindley my stupefaction at this happy sequel, he showed a polite but careless inability to follow my line of thought. It appeared that he was always well at breakfast, even when he did stay up 'a little later than usual'. It appeared further that he always breakfasted at a quarter to nine, and read the Manchester Guardian during the meal, to which his wife did or did not descend—according to the moods of the nursery; and that he reached his office at a quarter to ten. That morning the mood of the nursery was apparently unpropitious. He and I were alone. I begged him not to pretermit his GUARDIAN, but to examine it and give me the news. He agreed, scarcely unwilling.
'There's a paragraph in the London correspondence about Fuge,' he announced from behind the paper.
'What do they say about him?'
'Now I want to ask you something,' I said.
I had been thinking a good deal about the sisters and Simon Fuge. And in spite of everything that I had heard—in spite even of the facts that the lake had been dug by a railway company, and that the excursion to the lake had been an excursion of Sunday-school teachers and their friends—I was still haunted by certain notions concerning Simon Fuge and Annie Brett. Annie Brett's flush, her unshed tears; and the self-consciousness shown by Mrs Colclough when I had pointedly mentioned her sister's name in connection with Simon Fuge's: these were surely indications! And then the doctor's recitals of manners in the immediate neighbourhood of Bursley went to support my theory that even in Staffordshire life was very much life.
'What?' demanded Mr Brindley.
'Was Miss Brett ever Simon Fuge's mistress?'
At that moment Mrs Brindley, miraculously fresh and smiling, entered the room.
'Wife,' said Mr Brindley, without giving her time to greet me, 'what do you think he's just asked me?'
'I don't know.'
'He's just asked me if Annie Brett was ever Simon Fuge's mistress.'
She sank into a chair.
'Annie BRETT?' She began to laugh gently. 'Oh! Mr Loring, you really are too funny!' She yielded to her emotions. It may be said that she laughed as they can laugh in the Five Towns. She cried. She had to wipe away the tears of laughter.
'What on earth made you think so?' she inquired, after recovery.
'I—had an idea,' I said lamely. 'He always made out that one of those two sisters was so much to him, and I knew it couldn't be Mrs Colclough.'
'Well,' she said, 'ask anybody down here, ANY-body! And see what they'll say.'
'No,' Mr Brindley put in, 'don't go about asking ANY-body. You might get yourself disliked. But you may take it it isn't true.'
'Most certainly,' his wife concurred with seriousness.
'We reckon to know something about Simon Fuge down here,' Mr Brindley added. 'Also about the famous Annie.'
'He must have flirted with her a good bit, anyhow,' I said.
'Oh, FLIRT!' ejaculated Mr Brindley.
I had a sudden dazzling vision of the great truth that the people of the Five Towns have no particular use for half-measures in any department of life. So I accepted the final judgement with meekness.
I returned to London that evening, my work done, and the municipality happily flattered by my judgement of the slip-decorated dishes. Mr Brindley had found time to meet me at the midday meal, and he had left his office earlier than usual in order to help me to drink his wife's afternoon tea. About an hour later he picked up my little bag, and said that he should accompany me to the little station in the midst of the desert of cinders and broken crockery, and even see me as far as Knype, where I had to take the London express. No, there are no half-measures in the Five Towns. Mrs Brindley stood on her doorstep, with her eldest infant on her shoulders, and waved us off. The infant cried, expressing his own and his mother's grief at losing a guest. It seems as if people are born hospitable in the Five Towns.
We had not walked more than a hundred yards up the road when a motor-car thundered down upon us from the opposite direction. It was Mr Colclough's, and Mr Colclough was driving it. Mr Brindley stopped his friend with the authoritative gesture of a policeman.
'Where are you going, Ol?'
'Home, lad. Sorry you're leaving us so soon, Mr Loring.'
'You're mistaken, my boy,' said Mr Brindley. 'You're just going to run us down to Knype station, first.'
'I must look slippy, then,' said Mr Colclough.
'You can look as slippy as you like,' said Mr Brindley.
In another fifteen seconds we were in the car, and it had turned round, and was speeding towards Knype. A feverish journey! We passed electric cars every minute, and for three miles were continually twisting round the tails of ponderous, creaking, and excessively deliberate carts that dropped a trail of small coal, or huge barrels on wheels that dripped something like the finest Devonshire cream, or brewer's drays that left nothing behind them save a luscious odour of malt. It was a breathless slither over unctuous black mud through a long winding canon of brown-red houses and shops, with a glimpse here and there of a grey-green park, a canal, or a football field.
'I daredn't hurry,' said Mr Colclough, setting us down at the station. 'I was afraid of a skid.' He had not spoken during the transit.
'Don't put on side, Ol,' said Mr Brindley. 'What time did you get up this morning?'
'Eight o'clock, lad. I was at th' works at nine.'
He flew off to escape my thanks, and Mr Brindley and I went into the station. Owing to the celerity of the automobile we had half-an-hour to wait. We spent it chiefly at the bookstall. While we were there the extra-special edition of the STAFFORDSHIRE SIGNAL, affectionately termed 'the local rag' by its readers, arrived, and we watched a newsboy affix its poster to a board. The poster ran thus—
HANBRIDGE RATES LIVELY MEETING
KNYPE F.C. NEW CENTRE—FORWARD
ALL—WINNERS AND S.P.
Now, close by this poster was the poster of the DAILY TELEGRAPH, and among the items offered by the DAILY TELEGRAPH was: 'Death of Simon Fuge'. I could not forbear pointing out to Mr Brindley the difference between the two posters. A conversation ensued; and amid the rumbling of trains and the rough stir of the platform we got back again to Simon Fuge, and Mr Brindley's tone gradually grew, if not acrid, a little impatient.
'After all,' he said, 'rates are rates, especially in Hanbridge. And let me tell you that last season Knype Football Club jolly nearly got thrown out of the First League. The constitution of the team for this next season—why, damn it, it's a question of national importance! You don't understand these things. If Knype Football Club was put into the League Second Division, ten thousand homes would go into mourning. Who the devil was Simon Fuge?'
They joke with such extraordinary seriousness in the Five Towns that one is somehow bound to pretend that they are not joking. So I replied—
'He was a great artist. And this is his native district. Surely you ought to be proud of him!'
'He may have been a great artist,' said Mr Brindley, 'or he may not. But for us he was simply a man who came of a family that had a bad reputation for talking too much and acting the goat!'
'Well,' I said, We shall see—in fifty years.'
'That's just what we shan't,' said he. 'We shall be where Simon Fuge is—dead! However, perhaps we are proud of him. But you don't expect us to show it, do you? That's not our style.'
He performed the quasi-winking phenomenon with his eyes. It was his final exhibition of it to me.
'A strange place!' I reflected, as I ate my dinner in the dining-car, with the pressure of Mr Brindley's steely clasp still affecting my right hand, and the rich, honest cordiality of his au revoir in my heart. 'A place that is passing strange!'
And I thought further: He may have been a boaster, and a chatterer, and a man who suffered from cold feet at the wrong moments! And the Five Towns may have got the better of him, now. But that portrait of the little girl in the Wedgwood Institution is waiting there, right in the middle of the Five Towns. And one day the Five Towns will have to 'give it best'. They can say what they like! ... What eyes the fellow had, when he was in the right company!
End of The Death Of Simon Fuge by Arnold Bennett