The Long Lost Uncle
by Arnold Bennett
On a recent visit to the Five Towns I was sitting with my old schoolmaster, who, by the way, is much younger than I am after all, in the bow window of a house overlooking that great thoroughfare, Trafalgar Road, Bursley, when a pretty woman of twenty-eight or so passed down the street. Now the Five Towns contains more pretty women to the square mile than any other district in England (and this statement I am prepared to support by either sword or pistol). But do you suppose that the frequency of pretty women in Hanbridge, Bursley, Knype, Longshaw and Turnhill makes them any the less remarked? Not a bit of it. Human nature is such that even if a man should meet forty pretty women in a walk along Trafalgar Road from Bursley to Hanbridge, he will remark them all separately, and feel exactly forty thrills. Consequently my ever-youthful schoolmaster said to me:
"Good-looking woman that, eh, boy? Married three weeks ago," he added.
A piece of information which took the keen edge off my interest in her.
"Really!" I said. "Who is she?"
"Married to a Scotsman named Macintyre, I fancy."
"That tells me nothing," I said. "Who was she?"
"Daughter of a man named Roden."
"Not Herbert Roden?" I demanded.
"Yes. Art director at Jacksons, Limited."
"Well, well!" I exclaimed. "So Herbert Roden's got a daughter married. Well, well! And it seems like a week ago that he and his uncle—you know all about that affair, of course?"
"Why, the Roden affair!"
"No," said my schoolmaster.
"You don't mean to say you've never—"
Nothing pleases a wandering native of the Five Towns more than to come back and find that he knows things concerning the Five Towns which another man who has lived there all his life doesn't know. In ten seconds I was digging out for my schoolmaster one of those family histories which lie embedded in the general grey soil of the past like lumps of quartz veined and streaked with the precious metal of passion and glittering here and there with the crystallizations of scandal.
"You could make a story out of that," he said, when I had done talking and he had done laughing.
"It is a story," I replied. "It doesn't want any making."
And this is just what I told him. I have added on a few explanations and moral reflections—and changed the names.
Silas Roden, commonly called Si Roden—Herbert's uncle—lived in one of those old houses at Paddock Place, at the bottom of the hill where Hanbridge begins. Their front steps are below the level of the street, and their backyards look out on the Granville Third Pit and the works of the Empire Porcelain Company. 11 was Si's own house, a regular bachelor's house, as neat as a pin, and Si was very proud of it and very particular about it. Herbert, being an orphan, lived with his uncle. He would be about twenty-five then, and Si fifty odd. Si had retired from the insurance agency business, and Herbert, after a spell in a lawyer's office, had taken to art and was in the decorating department at Jackson's. They had got on together pretty well, had Si and Herbert, in a grim, taciturn, Five Towns way. The historical scandal began when Herbert wanted to marry Alice Oulsnam, an orphan like himself, employed at a dress-maker's in Crown Square, Hanbridge.
"Thou'lt marry her if thou'st a mind," said Si to Herbert, "but I s'll ne'er speak to thee again."
"But why, uncle?"
"That's why," said Si.
Now if you have been born in the Five Towns and been blessed with the unique Five Towns mixture of sentimentality and solid sense, you don't flare up and stamp out of the house when a well-to-do and childless uncle shatters your life's dream. You dissemble. You piece the dream together again while your uncle is looking another way. You feel that you are capable of out-witting your uncle, and you take the earliest opportunity of "talking it over" with Alice. Alice is sagacity itself.
Si's reasons for objecting so politely to the projected marriage were various. In the first place he had persuaded himself that he hated women. In the second place, though in many respects a most worthy man, he was a selfish man, and he didn't want Herbert to leave him, because he loathed solitude. In the third place—and here is the interesting part—he had once had an affair with Alice's mother and had been cut out: his one deviation into the realms of romance—and a disastrous one. He ought to have been Alice's father, and he wasn't. It angered him, with a cold anger, that Herbert should have chosen just Alice out of the wealth of women in the Five Towns. Herbert was unaware of this reason at the moment.
The youth was being driven to the conclusion that he would be compelled to offend his uncle after all, when Alice came into two thousand two hundred pounds from a deceased relative in Cheshire. The thought of this apt legacy does good to my soul. I love people to come into a bit of stuff unexpected. Herbert instantly advised her to breathe not a word of the legacy to anyone. They were independent now, and he determined that he would teach his uncle a lesson. He had an affection for his uncle, but in the Five Towns you can have an affection for a person, and be extremely and justly savage against that person, and plan cruel revenges on that person, all at the same time.
Herbert felt that the legacy would modify Si's attitude towards the marriage, if Si knew of it. Legacies, for some obscure and illogical cause, do modify attitudes towards marriages. To keep a penniless dressmaker out of one's family may be a righteous act. But to keep a level-headed girl with two thousand odd of her own out of one's family would be the act of an insensate fool. Therefore Herbert settled that Si should not know of the legacy. Si should be defeated without the legacy, or he should be made to suffer the humiliation of yielding after being confronted with the accomplished fact of a secret marriage. Herbert was fairly sure that he would yield, and in any case, with a couple of thousand at his wife's back, Herbert could afford to take the risks of war.
So Herbert, who had something of the devil in him, approached his uncle once more, with a deceitful respect, and he was once more politely rebuffed—as indeed he had half hoped to be. He then began his clandestine measures—measures which culminated in him leaving the house one autumn morning dressed in a rather stylish travelling suit.
The tramcar came down presently from Hanbridge. Not one of the swift thunderous electrical things that now chase each other all over the Five Towns in every direction at intervals of about thirty seconds; but the old horse-car that ran between Hanbridge and Bursley twice an hour and no oftener, announcing its departure by a big bell, and stopping at toll-gates with broad eaves, and climbing hills with the aid of a tip-horse and a boy perched on the back thereof. That was a calm and spacious age.
Herbert boarded the car, and raised his hat rather stiffly to a nice girl sitting in a corner. He then sat down in another corner, far away from her. Such is the capacity of youth for chicane! For that nice girl was exactly Alice, and her presence on the car was part of the plot. When the car arrived at Bursley these monsters of duplicity descended together, and went to a small public building and entered therein, and were directed to an official and inhospitable room which was only saved from absolute nakedness by a desk, four Windsor chairs, some blotting-paper, pens, ink and a copy of Keats's Directory of the Five Towns. An amiable old man received them with a perfunctory gravity, and two acquaintances of Herbert's strolled in, blushing. The old man told everybody to sit down, asked them questions of no spiritual import, abruptly told them to stand up, taught them to say a few phrases, in the tone of a person buying a ha'-porth of tin-tacks, told them to sit down, filled a form or two, took some of Herbert's money, and told them that that was all, and that they could go. So they went, secretly surprised. This was the august ritual, and this the imposing theatre, provided by the State in those far-off days for the solemnizing of the most important act in a citizen's life. It is different now; the copy of Keats's Directory is a much later one.
Herbert thanked his acquaintances, who, begging him not to mention it, departed.
"Well, that's over!" breathed Herbert with a sigh of relief. "It's too soon to go back. Let us walk round by Moorthorne."
"I should love to!" said Alice.
It was a most enjoyable walk. In the heights of Moorthorne they gradually threw off the depressing influence of those four Windsor chairs, and realized their bliss. They reached Paddock Place again at a quarter to one o'clock, which, as they were a very methodical and trustworthy pair, was precisely the moment at which they had meant to reach it. The idea was that they should call on Si and announce to him, respectfully: "Uncle, we think it only right to tell you that we are married. We hope you will not take it ill, we should like to be friends." They would then leave the old man to eat the news with his dinner. A cab was to be at the door at one o'clock to carry them to Knype Station, where they would partake of the wedding breakfast in the first-class refreshment room, and afterwards catch the two-forty to Blackpool, there to spend a honeymoon of six days.
This was the idea.
Herbert was already rehearsing in his mind the exact tone in which he should say to Si: "Uncle, we think it only right—" when, as they approached the house, they both saw a white envelope suspended under the knocker of the door. It was addressed to "Mr Herbert Roden," in the handwriting of Silas. The moment was dramatic. As they had not yet discussed whether correspondence should be absolutely common property, Alice looked discreetly away while Herbert read: "Dear nephew, I've gone on for a week or two on business, and sent Jane Sarah home. Her's in need of a holiday. You must lodge at Bratt's meantime. I've had your things put in there, and they've gotten the keys of the house.—Yours affly, S. Roden." Bratt's was next door but one, and Jane Sarah was the Roden servant, aged fifty or more.
"Well, I'm—!" exclaimed Herbert.
"Well, I never!" exclaimed Alice when she had read the letter. "What's the meaning—?"
"Don't ask me!" Herbert replied.
"Going off like this!" exclaimed Alice.
"Yes, my word!" exclaimed Herbert.
"But what are you to do?" Alice asked.
"Get the key from Bratt's, and get my box, if he hasn't had it carried in to Bratt's already, and then wait for the cab to come."
"Just fancy him shutting you out of the house like that, and no warning!" Alice said, shocked.
"Yes. You see he's very particular about his house. He's afraid I might ruin it, I suppose. He's just like an old maid, you know, only a hundred times worse." Herbert paused, as if suddenly gripped in a tremendous conception. "I have it!" he stated positively. "I have it! I have it!"
"What?" Alice demanded.
"Suppose we spend our honeymoon here?"
"In this house?"
"In this house. It would serve him right."
Alice smiled humorously. "Then the house wouldn't get damp," she said. "And there would be a great saving of expense. We could buy those two easy-chairs with what we saved."
"Exactly," said Herbert. "And after all, seaside lodgings, you know.... And this house isn't so bad either."
"But if he came back and caught us?" Alice suggested.
"Well, he couldn't eat us!" said Herbert.
The clear statement of this truth emboldened Alice. "And he'd no right to turn you out!" she said in wifely indignation.
Without another word Herbert went into Bratt's and got the keys. Then the cab came up with Alice's luggage lashed to the roof, and the driver, astounded, had to assist in carrying it into Si's house. He was then dismissed, and not with a bouncing tip either. We are in the Five Towns. He got a reasonable tip, no more. The Bratts, vastly intrigued, looked inconspicuously on.
Herbert banged the door and faced Alice in the lobby across her chief trunk. The honeymoon had commenced.
"We'd better get this out of the way at once," said Alice the practical.
And between them they carried it upstairs, Alice, in the intervals of tugs, making favourable remarks about the cosiness of the abode.
"This is uncle's bedroom," said Herbert, showing the front bedroom, a really spacious and dignified chamber full of spacious and dignified furniture, and not a pin out of place in it.
"What a funny room!" Alice commented. "But it's very nice."
"And this is mine," said Herbert, showing the back bedroom, much inferior in every way.
When the trunk had been carried into the front bedroom, Herbert descended for the other things, including his own luggage; and Alice took off her hat and jacket and calmly laid them on Silas's ample bed, gazed into all Silas's cupboards and wardrobes that were not locked, patted her hair in front of Silas's looking-glass, and dropped a hairpin on Silas's floor.
She then kneeled down over her chief trunk, and the vision of her rummaging in the trunk in his uncle's bedroom was the most beautiful thing that Herbert had ever seen. Whether it was because the light caught her brown hair, or because she seemed so strange there and yet so deliciously at home, or because—Anyhow, she fished a plain white apron out of the trunk and put it on over her grey dress. And the quick, graceful, enchanting movements with which she put the apron on—well, they made Herbert feel that he had only that moment begun to live. He walked away wondering what was the matter with him. If you imagine that he ran up to her and kissed her you imagine a vain thing; you do not understand that complex and capricious organism, the masculine heart.
The wedding breakfast consisted of part of a leg of mutton that Jane Sarah had told the Bratts they might have, pikelets purchased from a street hawker, coffee, scrambled eggs, biscuits, butter, burgundy out of the cellar, potatoes out of the cellar, cheese, sardines, and a custard that Alice made with custard-powder. Herbert had to go out to buy the bread, the butter, the sardines and some milk; when he returned with these purchases, a portion of the milk being in his breast pocket, Alice checked them, and exhibited a mild surprise that he had not done something foolish, and told him to clear out of "her kitchen."
Her kitchen was really the back kitchen or scullery. The proper kitchen had always been used as a dining-room. But Alice had set the table in the parlour, at the front of the house, where food had never before been eaten. At the first blush this struck Herbert as sacrilege; but Alice said she didn't like the middle room, because it was dark and because there was a china pig on the high mantelpiece; and really Herbert could discover no reason for not eating in the parlour. So they ate in the parlour. Before the marvellous repast was over Alice had rearranged all the ornaments and chairs in that parlour, turned round the carpet, and patted the window curtains into something new and strange. Herbert frequently looked out of the window to see if his uncle was coming.
"Pity there's no dessert," said Herbert. It was three o'clock, and the refection was drawing to a reluctant close.
"There is a dessert," said Alice. She ran upstairs, and came down with her little black hand-bag, out of which she produced three apples and four sponge-cakes, meant for the railway journey. Amazing woman! Yet in resuming her seat she mistook Herbert's knee for her chair. Amazing woman! Intoxicating mixture of sweet confidingness and unfailing resource. And Si had wanted to prevent Herbert from marrying this pearl!
"Now I must wash up!" said she.
"I'll run out and telegraph to Jane Sarah to come back at once. I expect she's gone to her sister's at Rat Edge. It's absurd for you to be doing all the work like this." Thus Herbert.
"I can manage by myself till to-morrow," Alice decided briefly.
Then there was a rousing knock at the door, and Alice sprang up, as it were, guiltily. Recovering herself with characteristic swiftness, she went to the window and spied delicately out.
"It's Mrs Bratt," she whispered. "I'll go."
"Shall I go?" Herbert asked.
"No—I'll go," said Alice.
And she went—apron and all.
Herbert overheard the conversation.
"Oh!" Exclamation of feigned surprise from Mrs Bratt.
"Yes?" In tones of a politeness almost excessive.
"Is Mr Herbert meaning to come to our house to-night? That there bedroom's all ready."
"I don't think so," said Alice. "I don't think so."
"I'm Mrs Herbert Roden," said Alice, primly.
"Oh! I beg pardon, miss—Mrs, that is—I'm sure. I didn't know—"
"No," said Alice. "The wedding was this morning."
"I'm sure I wish you both much happiness, you and Mr Herbert," said Mrs Bratt, heartily. "If I had but known—"
"Thank you," said Alice, "I'll tell my husband."
And she shut the door on the entire world.
One evening, after tea, by gaslight, Herbert was reading the newspaper in the parlour at Paddock Place, when he heard a fumbling with keys at the front door. The rain was pouring down heavily outside. He hesitated a moment. He was a brave man, but he hesitated a moment, for he had sins on his soul, and he knew in a flash who was the fumbler at the front door. Then he ran into the lobby, and at the same instant the door opened and his long-lost uncle stood before him, a living shower-bath, of which the tap could not be turned off.
"Well, uncle," he stammered, "how are—"
"Nay, my lad," Si stopped him, refusing his hand. "I'm too wet to touch. Get along into th' back kitchen. If I mun make a pool I'll make it there. So thou's taken possession o' my house!"
"Yes, uncle. You see—"
They were now in the back kitchen, or scullery, where a bright fire was burning in a small range and a great kettle of water singing over it.
"Run and get us a blanket, lad," said Si, stopping Herbert again, and turning up the gas.
"Ay, lad! A blanket. Art struck?"
When Herbert returned with the blanket Silas was spilling mustard out of the mustard tin into a large zinc receptacle which he had removed from the slop-stone to a convenient place on the floor in front of the fire. Silas then poured the boiling water from the kettle into the receptacle, and tested the temperature with his finger.
"Blazes!" he exclaimed, shaking his finger. "Fetch us the whisky, lad."
When Herbert returned a second time, Uncle Silas was sitting on a chair wearing merely the immense blanket, which fell gracefully in rich folds around him to the floor. From sundry escaping jets of steam Herbert was able to judge that the zinc bath lay concealed somewhere within the blanket. Si's clothes were piled on the deal table.
"I hanna' gotten my feet in yet," said Si. "They're resting on th' edge. But I'll get 'em in in a minute. Oh! Blazes! Here! Mix us a glass o' that, hot. And then get out that clothes-horse and hang my duds on it nigh th' fire."
Herbert obeyed, as if in a dream.
"I canna do wi' another heavy cowd [cold] at my time o' life, and there's only one way for to stop it. There! That'll do, lad. Let's have a look at thee."
Herbert perched himself on a corner of the table. The vivacity of Silas astounded him.
"Thou looks older, nephew," said Silas, sipping at the whisky, and smacking his lips grimly.
"Do I? Well, you look younger, uncle, anyhow. You've shaved your beard off, for one thing."
"Yes, and a pretty cold it give me, too! I'd carried that beard for twenty year."
"Then why did you cut it off?"
"Because I had to, lad. But never mind that. So thou'st taken possession o' my house?"
"It isn't your house any longer, uncle," said Herbert, determined to get the worst over at once.
"Not my house any longer! Us'll see whether it inna' my house any longer."
"If you go and disappear for a twelvemonth and more, uncle, and leave no address, you must take the consequence. I never knew till after you'd gone that you'd mortgaged this house for four hundred pounds to Callear, the fish-dealer."
"Who towd thee that?"
"Callear told me."
"Callear had no cause to be uneasy. I wrote him twice as his interest 'ud be all right when I come back."
"Yes, I know. But you didn't give any address. And he wanted his money back. So he came to me."
"Wanted his money back!" cried Silas, splashing about in the hidden tub and grimacing. "He had but just lent it me."
"Yes, but Tomkinson, his landlord, died, and he had the chance of buying his premises from the executors. And so he wanted his money back."
"And what didst tell him, lad?"
"I told him I would take a transfer of the mortgage."
"Thou! Hadst gotten four hundred pounds i' thy pocket, then?"
"Yes. And so I took a transfer."
"Bless us! This comes o'going away! But where didst find th' money?"
"And what's more," Herbert continued, evading the question, "as I couldn't get my interest I gave you notice to repay, uncle, and as you didn't repay—"
"Give me notice to repay! What the dev—? You hadna' got my address."
"I had your legal address—this house, and I left the notice for you in the parlour. And as you didn't repay I—I took possession as mortgagee, and now I'm—I'm foreclosing."
Silas stood up in the tub, staggered, furious, sweating. He would have stepped out of the tub and done something to Herbert had not common prudence and the fear of the blanket falling off restrained his passion. There was left to him only one thing to do, and he did it. He sat down again.
"Bless us!" he repeated feebly.
"So you see," said Herbert.
"And thou'st been living here ever since—alone, wi' Jane Sarah?"
"Not exactly," Herbert replied. "With my wife."
Fully emboldened now, he related to his uncle the whole circumstances of his marriage.
Whereupon, to his surprise, Silas laughed hilariously, hysterically, and gulped down the remainder of the whisky.
"Where is her?" Silas demanded.
"I' my bedroom, I lay," said Silas.
Herbert nodded. "May be."
"And everything upside down!" proceeded Uncle Silas.
"No!" said Herbert. "We've put all your things in my old room."
"Have ye! Ye're too obliging, lad!" growled Silas. "And if it isn't asking too much, where's that china pig as used to be on the chimney-piece in th' kitchen there? Her's smashed it, eh?"
"No," said Herbert, mildly. "She's put it away in a cupboard. She didn't like it."
"Ah! I was but wondering if ye'd foreclosed on th' pig too."
"Possibly a few things are changed," said Herbert. "But you know when a woman takes into her head—"
"Ay, lad! Ay, lad! I know! It was th' same wi' my beard. It had for go. Thou'st under the domination of a woman, and I can sympathize wi' thee."
Herbert gave a long, high whistle.
"So that's it?" he exclaimed. And he suddenly felt as if his uncle was no longer an uncle but a brother.
"Yes," said Silas. "That's it. I'll tell thee. Pour some more hot water in here. Dost remember when th' Carl Rosa Opera Company was at Theatre Royal last year? I met her then. Her was one o' Venus's maidens i' th' fust act o' Tannhäuser, and her was a bridesmaid i' Lohengrin, and Siebel i' Faust, and a cigarette girl i' summat else. But it was in Tannhäuser as I fust saw her on the stage, and her struck me like that." Silas clapped one damp hand violently on the other. "Miss Elsa Venda was her stage name, but her was a widow, Mrs Parfitt, and had bin for ten years. Seemingly her husband was of good family. Finest woman I ever seed, nephew. And you'll say so. Her'd ha' bin a prima donna only for jealousy. Fust time I spoke to her I thought I should ha' fallen down. Steady with that water. Dost want for skin me alive? Yes, I thought I should ha' fallen down. They call'n it love. You can call it what ye'n a mind for call it. I nearly fell down."
"How did you meet her, uncle?" Herbert interposed, aware that his uncle had not been accustomed to move in theatrical circles.
"How did I meet her? I met her by setting about to meet her. I had for t' meet her. I got Harry Burisford, th' manager o' th' theatre thou knowst, for t' introduce us. Then I give a supper, nephew—I give a supper at Turk's Head, but private like."
"Was that the time when you were supposed to be at the Ratepayers' Association every night?" Herbert asked blandly.
"It was, nephew," said Si, with equal blandness.
"Then no doubt those two visits to Manchester, afterwards—"
"Exactly," said Si. "Th' company went to Manchester and stopped there a fortnight. I told her fair and square what I meant and what I was worth. There was no beating about the bush wi' me. All her friends told her she'd be a fool if she wouldn't have me. She said her'd write me yes or no. Her didn't. Her telegraphed me from Sunderland for go and see her at once. It was that morning as I left. I thought to be back in a couple o' days and to tell thee as all was settled. But women! Women! Her had me dangling after her from town to town for a week. I was determined to get her, and get her I did, though it cost me my beard, and the best part o' that four hundred. I married her i' Halifax, lad, and it were the best day's work I ever did. You never seed such a woman. Big and plump—and sing! By——! I never cared for singing afore. And her knows the world, let me tell ye."
"You might have sent us word," said Herbert.
Silas grew reflective. "Ah!" he said. "I might—and I mightn't. I didn't want Hanbridge chattering. I was trapesing wi' her from town to town till her engagement was up—pretty near six months. Then us settled i' rooms at Scarborough, and there was other things to think of. I couldn't leave her. Her wouldna' let me. To-day was the fust free day I've had, and so I run down to fix matters. And nice weather I've chosen! Her aunt's spending the night wi' her."
"Then she's left the stage."
"Of course she's left th' stage. What 'ud be th' sense o' her painting her face and screeching her chest out night after night for a crowd o' blockheads, when I can keep her like a lady. Dost think her's a fool? Her's the only woman wi' any sense as ever I met in all my life."
"And you want to come here and live?"
"No, us dunna! At least her dunna. Her says her hates th' Five Towns. Her says Hanbridge is dirty and too religious for her. Says its nowt but chapels and public-houses and pot-banks. So her ladyship wunna' come here. No, nephew, thou shalt buy this house for six hundred, and be d—d to thy foreclosure! And th' furniture for a hundred. It's a dead bargain. Us'll settle at Scarborough, Liz and me. Now this water's getting chilly. I'll nip up to thy room and find some other clothes."
"You can't go up just now," said Herbert.
"But I mun go at once, nephew. Th' water's chilly, and I've had enough on it."
"The fact is we're using my old bedroom for a sort of a nursery, and Alice and Jane Sarah are just giving the baby its bath."
"Babby!" cried Silas. "Shake hands, nephew. Give us thy fist. I may as well out wi' it. I've gotten one mysen. Pour some more hot water in here, then."
End of Uncle by Arnold Bennett