A classic short story by Arnold Bennett in which he reminds us of an too often overlooked trait of stories including Bible Stories
With Unmissable Afterword by Brigitte Franssen
Illustrated by Jef Franssen
Commercial travellers are rather like bees; they take the seed of
a good story from one district and deposit it in another.
Thus several localities, imperfectly righteous, have within recent
years appropriated this story to their own annals. I once met an
old herbalist from Wigan-Wigan of all places in beautiful
England!--who positively asserted that the episode occurred just
outside the London and North-Western main line station at Wigan.
This old herbalist was no judge of the value of evidence. An
undertaker from Hull told me flatly, little knowing who I was and
where I came from, that he was the undertaker concerned in the
episode. This undertaker was a liar. I use this term because there
is no other word in the language which accurately expresses my
meaning. Of persons who have taken the trouble to come over from
the United States in order to inform me that the affair happened
at Harper's Ferry, Poughkeepsie, Syracuse, Allegheny,
Indianapolis, Columbus, Charlotte, Tabernacle, Alliance, Wheeling,
Lynchburg, and Chicago it would be unbecoming to speak--they are
best left to silence themselves by mutual recrimination. The fact
is that the authentic scene of the affair was a third-class
railway carriage belonging to the North Staffordshire Railway
Company, and rolling on that company's loop-line between Longshaw
and Hanbridge. The undertaker is now dead--it is a disturbing
truth that even undertakers die sometimes--and since his widow has
given me permission to mention his name, I shall mention his name.
It was Edward Till. Of course everybody in the Five Towns knows
who the undertaker was, and if anybody in the Five Towns should
ever chance to come across this book, I offer him my excuses for
having brought coals to Newcastle.
Mr Till used to be a fairly well-known figure in Hanbridge, which
is the centre of undertaking, as it is of everything else, in the
Five Towns. He was in a small but a successful way of business,
had one leg a trifle shorter than the other (which slightly
deteriorated the majesty of his demeanour on solemn occasions),
played the fiddle, kept rabbits, and was of a forgetful
disposition. It was possibly this forgetful disposition which had
prevented him from rising into a large way of business. All
admired his personal character and tempered geniality; but there
are some things that will not bear forgetting. However, the story
touches but lightly that side of his individuality.
One morning Mr Till had to go to Longshaw to fetch a baby's coffin
which had been ordered under the mistaken impression that a
certain baby was dead. This baby, I may mention, was the hero of
the celebrated scare of Longshaw about the danger of being buried
alive. The little thing had apparently passed away; and, what is
more, an inquest had been held on it and its parents had been
censured by the jury for criminal carelessness in overlaying it;
and it was within five minutes of being nailed up, when it opened
its eyes! You may imagine the enormous sensation that there was in
the Five Towns. One doctor lost his reputation, naturally. He
emigrated to the Continent, and now, practising at Lucerne in the
summer and Mentone in the winter, charges fifteen shillings a
visit (instead of three and six at Longshaw) for informing people
who have nothing the matter with them that they must take care of
themselves. The parents of the astonished baby moved the heaven
and earth of the Five Towns to force the coroner to withdraw the
stigma of the jury's censure; but they did not succeed, not even
with the impassioned aid of two London halfpenny dailies.
To resume, Mr Till had to go to Longshaw. Now, unless you possess
a most minute knowledge of your native country, you are probably
not aware that in Aynsley Street, Longshaw, there is a provision
dealer whose reputation for cheeses would be national and supreme
if the whole of England thought as the Five Towns thinks.
'Teddy,' Mrs Till said, as Mr Till was starting, 'you might as
well bring back with you a pound of Gorgonzola.' (Be it noted that
I had the details of the conversation from the lady herself.)
'Yes,' said he enthusiastically, 'I will.'
'Don't go and forget it,' she enjoined him.
'No,' he said. 'I'll tie a knot in my handkerchief.'
'A lot of good that'll do!' she observed. 'You'd tied a knot in
your handkerchief when you forgot that Councillor Barker's wife's
funeral was altered from Tuesday to Monday.'
'Ah!' he replied. 'But now I've got a bad cold.'
'So you have!' she agreed, reassured.
He tied the knot in his handkerchief and went.
Thanks to his cold he did not pass the cheesemonger's without
He adored Gorgonzola, and he reckoned that he knew a bit of good
Gorgonzola when he met with it. Moreover, he and the cheesemonger
were old friends, he having buried three of the cheesemonger's
children. He emerged from the cheesemonger's with a pound of the
perfectest Gorgonzola that ever greeted the senses.
The abode of the censured parents was close by, and also close to
the station. He obtained the coffin without parley, and told the
mother, who showed him the remarkable child with pride, that under
the circumstances he should make no charge at all. It was a
ridiculously small coffin. He was quite accustomed to coffins.
Hence he did the natural thing. He tucked the little coffin under
one arm, and, dangling the cheese (neat in brown paper and string)
from the other hand, he hastened to the station. With his
unmatched legs he must have made a somewhat noticeable figure.
A loop-line train was waiting, and he got into it, put the cheese
on the rack in a corner, and the coffin next to it, assured
himself that he had not mislaid his return ticket, and sat down
under his baggage. It was the slackest time of day, and, as the
train started at Longshaw, there were very few passengers. He had
the compartment to himself.
He was just giving way to one of those moods of vague and pleasant
meditation which are perhaps the chief joy of such a temperament,
when he suddenly sprang up as if in fear. And fear had in fact
seized him. Suppose he forgot those belongings on the rack?
Suppose, sublimely careless, he descended from the train and left
them there? What a calamity! And similar misadventures had
happened to him before. It was the cheese that disquieted him. No
one would be sufficiently unprincipled to steal the coffin, and he
would ultimately recover it at the lost luggage office, babies'
coffins not abounding on the North Staffordshire Railway. But the
cheese! He would never see the cheese again! No integrity would be
able to withstand the blandishments of that cheese. Moreover, his
wife would be saddened. And for her he had a sincere and profound
His act of precaution was to lift the coffin down from the rack,
and place it on the seat beside him, and then to put the parcel of
cheese on the coffin. He surveyed the cheese on the coffin; he
surveyed it with the critical and experienced eye of an
undertaker, and he decided that, if anyone else got into the
carriage, it would not look quite decent, quite becoming--in a
word, quite nice. A coffin is a coffin, and people's feelings have
to be considered.
So he whipped off the lid of the coffin, stuck the cheese inside,
and popped the lid on again. And he kept his hand on the coffin
that he might not forget it. When the train halted at Knype, Mr
Till was glad that he had put the cheese inside, for another
passenger got into the compartment. And it was a clergyman. He
recognized the clergyman, though the clergyman did not recognize
him. It was the Reverend Claud ffolliott, famous throughout the
Five Towns as the man who begins his name with a small letter,
doesn't smoke, of course doesn't drink, but goes to football
matches, has an average of eighteen at cricket, and makes a very
pretty show with the gloves, in spite of his thirty-eight years;
celibate, very High, very natty and learned about vestments,
terrific at sick couches and funerals. Mr Till inwardly trembled
to think what the Reverend Claud ffolliott might have said had he
seen the cheese reposing in the coffin, though the coffin was
The parson, whose mind was apparently occupied, dropped into the
nearest corner, which chanced to be the corner farthest away from
Mr Till. He then instantly opened a copy of The Church Times and
began to read it, and the train went forward. The parson sniffed,
absently, as if he had been dozing and a fly had tickled his nose.
Shortly afterwards he sniffed again, but without looking up from
his perusals. He sniffed a third time, and glanced over the top
edge of THE CHURCH TIMES at Mr Till. Calmed by the innocuous
aspect of Mr Till, he bent once more to the paper. But after an
interval he was sniffing furiously. He glanced at the window; it
was open. Finally he lowered The CHURCH TIMES, as who should say:
'I am a long-suffering man, but really this phenomenon which
assaults my nostrils must be seriously inquired into.'
Then it was that he caught sight of the coffin, with Mr Till's
hand caressing it, and Mr Till all in black and carrying a
funereal expression. He straightened himself, pulled himself
together on account of his cloth, and said to Mr Till in his most
majestic and sympathetic graveside voice --
'Ah! my dear friend, I see that you have suffered a sad, sad
That rich, resonant voice was positively thrilling when it
addressed hopeless grief. Mr Till did not know what to say, nor
where to look.
'You have, however, one thing to be thankful for, very thankful
for,' said the parson after a pause, 'you may be sure the poor
thing is not in a trance.'
~ The End ~
The too often overlooked trait of stories By Brigitte Franssen
This classic short story by Arnold Bennet is included in Book of Tales not so much for the tale of the undertaker but for its introduction. In the first few paragraphs of the story Bennett points out that foreign stories have a tendency to be 'nationalised'. That this was important to him is obvious from the fact that he gave the story the title 'In a New Bottle'.
The phenomenon of nationalising stories could explain how a baby in Egypt called Moses was found in a basket drifting on the Nile (somewhere around 1500 -1400 BC) while the same thing happened to King Sargon of Akkad (2270-2215 BC) who was found drifting in a basket on the River Euphrates (see the Legend of Sargon below). And in the Indian Epic Mahabharata it was the unsung hero Karna who was placed in a basket and left to fate on the Sona river. The Mahabharata was written in Sanskrit by Vyasa in 6th century BC.
It also explains the unexpected striking similarities between Homerus' epic poem 'Ilias' and the Indian Epic 'Ramayana', the expedition of Rama to Sri Lanka to find his captured wife. The prominence of the similarities point to a common Indo-European source used and adapted by both the Greek and Indian storytellers to fit Greek and Indian circumstances. In other words the story got 'nationalised'.
The Legend of Sargon
A cuneiform story
I am Sargon, the great king, king of Akkad,
My mother was a high priestess but I do not know who my father was,
My uncle lives in the mountains.
My city is Azuprianu, which lies on the bank of the Euphrates.
My mother, a high priestess, conceived me, and bore me in secret;
She placed me in a reed quppu and made its [lit. my] opening watertight with bitumen.
She abandoned me to the river, from which I could not come up;
The river swept me along, and brought me to Aqqi, drawer of water.
Aqqi, drawer of water, lifted me up when he dipped his bucket,
Aqqi, water drawer, brought me up as his adopted son.
Aqqi, water drawer, set me to do his orchard work;
During my orchard work Goddess Ishtar loved me;
For fifty-four years did I rule as king...