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   Chapter 3 THE BIRTHDAY

Anna of the Five Towns By Arnold Bennett Characters: 29696

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The next morning there was no outward sign that anything unusual had occurred. As the clock in the kitchen struck eight Anna carried to the back parlour a tray on which were a dish of bacon and a coffee-pot. Breakfast was already laid for three. She threw a housekeeper's glance over the table, and called: 'Father!' Mr. Tellwright was re-setting some encaustic tiles in the lobby. He came in, coatless, and, dropping a trowel on the hearth, sat down at the end of the table nearest the fireplace. Anna sat opposite to him, and poured out the coffee.

On the dish were six pieces of bacon. He put one piece on a plate, and set it carefully in front of Agnes's vacant chair, two he passed to Anna, three he kept for himself.

'Where's Agnes?' he inquired.

'Coming-she's finishing her arithmetic.'

In the middle of the table was an unaccustomed small jug containing gilly-flowers. Mr. Tellwright noticed it instantly.

'What an we gotten here?' he said, indicating the jug.

'Agnes gave me them first thing when she got up. She's grown them herself, you know,' Anna said, and then added: 'It's my birthday.'

'Ay!' he exclaimed, with a trace of satire in his voice. 'Thou'rt a woman now, lass.'

No further remark on that matter was made during the meal.

Agnes ran in, all pinafore and legs. With a toss backwards of her light golden hair she slipped silently into her seat, cautiously glancing at the master of the house. Then she began to stir her coffee.

'Now, young woman,' Tellwright said curtly.

She looked a startled interrogative.

'We're waiting,' he explained.

'Oh!' said Agnes, confused. 'I thought you'd said it. "God sanctify this food to our use and us to His service for Christ's sake, Amen."'

The breakfast proceeded in silence. Breakfast at eight, dinner at noon, tea at four, supper at eight: all the meals in this house occurred with absolute precision and sameness. Mr. Tellwright seldom spoke, and his example imposed silence on the girls, who felt as nuns feel when assisting at some grave but monotonous and perfunctory rite. The room was not a cheerful one in the morning, since the window was small and the aspect westerly. Besides the table and three horse-hair chairs, the furniture consisted of an arm-chair, a bent-wood rocking chair, and a sewing-machine. A fatigued Brussels carpet covered the floor. Over the mantelpiece was an engraving of 'The Light of the World,' in a frame of polished brown wood. On the other walls were some family photographs in black frames. A two-light chandelier hung from the ceiling, weighed down on one side by a patent gas-saving mantle and a glass shade; over this the ceiling was deeply discoloured. On either side of the chimney-breast were cupboards about three feet high; some cardboard boxes, a work-basket, and Agnes's school books lay on the tops of these cupboards. On the window-sill was a pot of mignonette in a saucer. The window was wide open, and flies buzzed to and fro, constantly rebounding from the window panes with terrible thuds. In the blue-paved yard beyond the cat was licking himself in the sunlight with an air of being wholly absorbed in his task.

Mr. Tellwright demanded a second and last cup of coffee, and having drunk it pushed away his plate as a sign that he had finished. Then he took from the mantelpiece at his right hand a bundle of letters and opened them methodically. When he had arranged the correspondence in a flattened pile, he put on his steel-rimmed spectacles and began to read.

'Can I return thanks, father?' Agnes asked, and he nodded, looking at her fixedly over his spectacles.

'Thank God for our good breakfast, Amen.'

In two minutes the table was cleared, and Mr. Tellwright was alone. As he read laboriously through communications from solicitors, secretaries of companies, and tenants, he could hear his daughters talking together in the kitchen. Anna was washing the breakfast things while Agnes wiped. Then there were flying steps across the yard: Agnes had gone to school.

After he had mastered his correspondence, Mr. Tellwright took up the trowel again and finished the tile-setting in the lobby. Then he resumed his coat, and, gathering together the letters from the table in the back parlour, went into the front parlour and shut the door. This room was his office. The principal things in it were an old oak bureau and an old oak desk-chair which had come to him from his first wife's father; on the walls were some sombre landscapes in oil, received from the same source; there was no carpet on the floor, and only one other chair. A safe stood in the corner opposite the door. On the mantelpiece were some books-Woodfall's 'Landlord and Tenant,' Jordan's 'Guide to Company Law,' Whitaker's Almanack, and a Gazetteer of the Five Towns. Several wire files, loaded with papers, hung from the mantelpiece. With the exception of a mahogany what-not with a Bible on it, which stood in front of the window, there was nothing else whatever in the room. He sat down to the bureau and opened it, and took from one of the pigeon-holes a packet of various documents: these he examined one by one, from time to time referring to a list. Then he unlocked the safe and extracted from it another bundle of documents which had evidently been placed ready. With these in his hand, he opened the door, and called out:


'Yes, father;' her voice came from the kitchen.

'I want ye.'

'In a minute. I'm peeling potatoes.'

When she came in, she found him seated at the bureau as usual. He did not look round.

'Yes, father.'

She stood there in her print dress and white apron, full in the eye of the sun, waiting for him. She could not guess what she had been summoned for. As a rule, she never saw her father between breakfast and dinner. At length he turned.

'Anna,' he said in his harsh, abrupt tones, and then stopped for a moment before continuing. His thick, short fingers held the list which he had previously been consulting. She waited in bewilderment. 'It's your birthday, ye told me. I hadna' forgotten. Ye're of age to-day, and there's summat for ye. Your mother had a fortune of her own, and under your grandfeyther's will it comes to you when you're twenty-one. I'm the trustee. Your mother had eighteen thousand pounds i' Government stock.' He laid a slight sneering emphasis on the last two words. 'That was near twenty-five year ago. I've nigh on trebled it for ye, what wi' good investments and interest accumulating. Thou'rt worth'-here he changed to the second personal singular, a habit with him-'thou'rt worth this day as near fifty thousand as makes no matter, Anna. And that's a tidy bit.'

'Fifty thousand-pounds!' she exclaimed aghast.

'Ay, lass.'

She tried to speak calmly. 'Do you mean it's mine, father?'

'It's thine, under thy grandfeyther's will-haven't I told thee? I'm bound by law for to give it to thee this day, and thou mun give me a receipt in due form for the securities. Here they are, and here's the list. Tak' the list, Anna, and read it to me while I check off.'

She mechanically took the blue paper and read: 'Toft End Colliery and Brickworks Limited, five hundred shares of ten pounds.'

'They paid ten per cent. last year,' he said, 'and with coal up as it is they'll pay fiftane this. Let's see what thy arithmetic is worth, lass. How much is fiftane per cent. on five thousand pun?'

'Seven hundred and fifty pounds,' she said, getting the correct answer by a superhuman effort worthy of that occasion.

'Right,' said her father, pleased. 'Recollect that's more till two pun a day. Go on.'

'North Staffordshire Railway Company ordinary stock, ten thousand and two hundred pounds.'

'Right. Th' owd North Stafford's getting up i' th' world. It'll be a five per cent. line yet. Then thou mun sell out.'

She had only a vague idea of his meaning, and continued: 'Five Towns Waterworks Company Limited consolidated stock, eight thousand five hundred pounds.'

'That's a tit-bit, lass,' he interjected, looking absently over his spectacles at something outside in the road. 'You canna' pick that up on shardrucks.'

'Norris's Brewery Limited, six hundred ordinary shares of ten pounds.'

'Twenty per cent.,' said the old man. 'Twenty per cent. regular.' He made no attempt to conceal his pride in these investments. And he had the right to be proud of them. They were the finest in the market, the aristocracy of investments, based on commercial enterprises of which every business man in the Five Towns knew the entire soundness. They conferred distinction on the possessor, like a great picture or a rare volume. They stifled all questions and insinuations. Put before any jury of the Five Towns as evidence of character, they would almost have exculpated a murderer.

Anna continued reading the list, which seemed endless: long before she had reached the last item her brain was a menagerie of monstrous figures. The list included, besides all sorts of shares English and American, sundry properties in the Five Towns, and among these was the earthenware manufactory in Edward Street occupied by Titus Price, the Sunday-school superintendent. Anna was a little alarmed to find herself the owner of this works; she knew that her father had had some difficult moments with Titus Price, and that the property was not without grave disadvantages.

'That all!' Tellwright asked, at length.

'That's all.'

'Total face value,' he went on, 'as I value it, forty-eight thousand and fifty pounds, producing a net annual income of three thousand two hundred and ninety pounds or thereabouts. There's not many in this district as 'as gotten that to their names, Anna-no, nor half that-let 'em be who they will.'

Anna had sensations such as a child might have who has received a traction-engine to play with in a back yard. 'What am I to do with it?' she asked plaintively.

'Do wi' it?' he repeated, and stood up and faced her, putting his lips together: 'Do wi' it, did ye say?'


'Tak' care on it, my girl. Tak' care on it. And remember it's thine. Thou mun sign this list, and all these transfers and fal-lals, and then thou mun go to th' Bank, and tell Mester Lovatt I've sent thee. There's four hundred pound there. He'll give thee a cheque-book. I've told him all about it. Thou'll have thy own account, and be sure thou keeps it straight.'

'I shan't know a bit what to do, father, and so it's no use talking,' she said quietly.

'I'll learn ye,' he replied. 'Here, tak' th' pen, and let's have thy signature.'

She signed her name many times and put her finger on many seals. Then Tellwright gathered up everything into a bundle, and gave it to her to hold.

'That's the lot,' he said. 'Have ye gotten 'em?'

'Yes,' she said.

They both smiled, self-consciously. As for Tellwright, he was evidently impressed by the grandeur of this superb renunciation on his part. 'Shall I keep 'em for ye?'

'Yes, please.'

'Then give 'em me.'

He took back all the documents.

'When shall I call at the Bank, father?'

'Better call this afternoon-afore three, mind ye.'

'Very well. But I shan't know what to do.'

'You've gotten a tongue in that noddle of yours, haven't ye?' he said. 'Now go and get along wi' them potatoes.'

Anna returned to the kitchen. She felt no elation or ferment of any kind; she had not begun to realise the significance of what had occurred. Like the soldier whom a bullet has struck, she only knew vaguely that something had occurred. She peeled the potatoes with more than her usual thrifty care; the peel was so thin as to be almost transparent. It seemed to her that she could not arrange or examine her emotions until after she had met Henry Mynors again. More than anything else she wished to see him: it was as if out of the mere sight of him something definite might emerge, as if when her eyes had rested on him, and not before, she might perceive some simple solution of the problems which she had obscurely discerned ahead of her.

During dinner a boy brought a note for her father. He read it, snorted, and threw it across the table to Anna.

'Here,' he said, 'that's your affair.'

The letter was from Titus Price: it said that he was sorry to be compelled to break his promise, but it was quite impossible for him to pay twenty pounds on account of rent that day; he would endeavour to pay at least twenty pounds in a week's time.

'You'd better call there, after you've been to th' Bank,' said Tellwright, 'and get summat out of him, if it's only ten pun.'

'Must I go to Edward Street?'


'What am I to say? I've never been there before.'

'Well, it's high time as ye began to look after your own property. You mun see owd Price, and tell him ye canna accept any excuses.'

'How much does he owe?'

'He owes ye a hundred and twenty-five pun altogether-he's five quarters in arrear.'

'A hundred and--! Well, I never!' Anna was aghast. The sum appeared larger to her than all the thousands and tens of thousands which she had received in the morning. She reflected that the weekly bills of the household amounted to about a sovereign, and that the total of this debt of Price's would therefore keep them in food for two years. The idea of being in debt was abhorrent to her. She could not conceive how a man who was in debt could sleep at nights. 'Mr. Price ought to be ashamed of himself,' she said warmly. 'I'm sure he's quite able to pay.' The image of the sleek and stout superintendent of the Sunday-school, arrayed in his rich, almost voluptuous, broadcloth, offended her profoundly. That he, debtor and promise-breaker, should have the effrontery to pray for the souls of children, to chastise their petty furtive crimes, was nearly incredible.

'Oh! Price is all right,' her father remarked, with an apparent benignity which surprised her. 'He'll pay when he can.'

'I think it's a shame,' she repeated emphatically.

Agnes looked with a mystified air from one to the other, instinctively divining that something very extraordinary had happened during her absence at school.

'Ye mun'na be too hard, Anna,' said Tellwright. 'Supposing ye sold owd Titus up? What then? D'ye reckon ye'd get a tenant for them ramshackle works? A thousand pound spent wouldn't 'tice a tenant. That Edward Street property was one o' ye grandfeyther's specs; 'twere none o' mine. You'd best tak' what ye can get.'

Anna felt a little ashamed of herself, not because of her bad policy, but because she saw that Mr. Price might have been handicapped by the faults of her property.

That afternoon it was a shy and timid Anna who swung back the heavy polished and glazed portals of the Bursley branch of the Birmingham, Sheffield and district Bank, the opulent and spacious erection w

hich stands commandingly at the top of St. Luke's Square. She looked about her, across broad counters, enormous ledgers, and rows of bent heads, and wondered whom she should address. Then a bearded gentleman, who was weighing gold in a balance, caught sight of her: he slid the gold into a drawer, and whisked round the end of the counter with a celerity which was, at any rate, not born of practice, for he, the cashier, had not done such a thing for years.

'Good afternoon, Miss Tellwright.'

'Good afternoon. I--'

'May I trouble you to step into the manager's room?' and he drew her forward, while every clerk's eye watched. Anna tried not to blush, but she could feel the red mounting even to her temples.

'Delightful weather we're having. But of course we've the right to expect it at this time of year.' He opened a door on the glass of which was painted 'Manager,' and bowed. 'Mr. Lovatt-Miss Tellwright.'

Mr. Lovatt greeted his new customer with a formal and rather fatigued politeness, and invited her to sit in a large leather armchair in front of a large table; on this table lay a large open book. Anna had once in her life been to the dentist's; this interview reminded her of that experience.

'Your father told me I might expect you to-day,' said Mr. Lovatt in his high-pitched, perfunctory tones. Richard Lovatt was probably the most influential man in Bursley. Every Saturday morning he irrigated the whole town with fertilising gold. By a single negative he could have ruined scores of upright merchants and manufacturers. He had only to stop a man in the street and murmur, 'By the way, your overdraft--,' in order to spread discord and desolation through a refined and pious home. His estimate of human nature was falsified by no common illusions; he had the impassive and frosty gaze of a criminal judge. Many men deemed they had cause to hate him, but no one did hate him: all recognised that he was set far above hatred.

'Kindly sign your full name here,' he said, pointing to a spot on the large open page of the book, 'and your ordinary signature, which you will attach to cheques, here.'

Anna wrote, but in doing so she became aware that she had no ordinary signature; she was obliged to invent one.

'Do you wish to draw anything out now? There is already a credit of four hundred and twenty pounds in your favour,' said Mr. Lovatt, after he had handed her a cheque-book, a deposit-book, and a pass-book.

'Oh, no, thank you,' Anna answered quickly. She keenly desired some money, but she well knew that courage would fail her to demand it without her father's consent; moreover, she was in a whirl of uncertainty as to the uses of the three books, though Mr. Lovatt had expounded them severally to her in simple language.


'Good-day, Miss Tellwright.'

'My compliments to your father.'

His final glance said half cynically, half in pity: 'You are na?ve and unspoilt now, but these eyes will see yours harden like the rest. Wretched victim of gold, you are only one in a procession, after all.'

Outside, Anna thought that everyone had been very agreeable to her. Her complacency increased at a bound. She no longer felt ashamed of her shabby cotton dress. She surmised that people would find it convenient to ignore any difference which might exist between her costume and that of other girls.

She went on to Edward Street, a short steep thoroughfare at the eastern extremity of the town, leading into a rough road across unoccupied land dotted with the mouths of abandoned pits: this road climbed up to Toft End, a mean annexe of the town about half a mile east of Bleakridge. From Toft End, lying on the highest hill in the district, one had a panoramic view of Hanbridge and Bursley, with Hillport to the west, and all the moorland and mining villages to the north and north-east. Titus Price and his son lived in what had once been a farm-house at Toft End; every morning and evening they traversed the desolate and featureless grey road between their dwelling and the works.

Anna had never been in Edward Street before. It was a miserable quarter-two rows of blackened infinitesimal cottages, and her manufactory at the end-a frontier post of the town. Price's works was small, old-fashioned, and out of repair-one of those properties which are forlorn from the beginning, which bring despair into the hearts of a succession of owners, and which, being ultimately deserted, seem to stand for ever in pitiable ruin. The arched entrance for carts into the yard was at the top of the steepest rise of the street, when it might as well have been at the bottom; and this was but one example of the architect's fine disregard for the principle of economy in working-that principle to which in the scheming of manufactories everything else is now so strictly subordinated. Ephraim Tellwright used to say (but not to Titus Price) that the situation of that archway cost five pounds a year in horseflesh, and that five pounds was the interest on a hundred. The place was badly located, badly planned and badly constructed. Its faults defied improvement. Titus Price remained in it only because he was chained there by arrears of rent; Tellwright hesitated to sell it only because the rent was a hundred a year, and the whole freehold would not have fetched eight hundred. He promised repairs in exchange for payment of arrears which he knew would never be paid, and his policy was to squeeze the last penny out of Price without forcing him into bankruptcy. Such was the predicament when Anna assumed ownership. As she surveyed the irregular and huddled frontage from the opposite side of the street, her first feeling was one of depression at the broken and dirty panes of the windows. A man in shirt-sleeves was standing on the weighing platform under the archway; his back was towards her, but she could see the smoke issuing in puffs from his pipe. She crossed the road. Hearing her footfalls, the man turned round: it was Titus Price himself. He was wearing an apron, but no cap; the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up, exposing forearms covered with auburn hair. His puffed, heavy face, and general bigness and untidiness, gave the idea of a vast and torpid male slattern. Anna was astounded by the contrast between the Titus of Sunday and the Titus of Monday: a single glance compelled her to readjust all her notions of the man. She stammered a greeting, and he replied, and then they were both silent for a moment: in the pause Mr. Price thrust his pipe between apron and waistcoat.

'Come inside, Miss Tellwright,' he said, with a sickly, conciliatory smile. 'Come into the office, will ye?'

She followed him without a word through the archway. To the right was an open door into the packing-house, where a man surrounded by straw was packing basins in a crate: with swift, precise movements, twisting straw between basin and basin, he forced piles of ware into a space inconceivably small. Mr. Price lingered to watch him for a few seconds, and passed on. They were in the yard, a small quadrangle paved with black, greasy mud. In one corner a load of coal had been cast; in another lay a heap of broken saggars. Decrepit doorways led to the various 'shops' on the ground floor; those on the upper floor were reached by narrow wooden stairs, which seemed to cling insecurely to the exterior walls. Up one of these stairways Mr. Price climbed with heavy, elephantine movements: Anna prudently waited till he had reached the top before beginning to ascend. He pushed open a flimsy door, and with a nod bade her enter. The office was a long narrow room, the dirtiest that Anna had ever seen. If such was the condition of the master's quarters, she thought, what must the workshops be like? The ceiling, which bulged downwards, was as black as the floor, which sank away in the middle till it was hollow like a saucer. The revolution of an engine somewhere below shook everything with a periodic muffled thud. A greyish light came through one small window. By the window was a large double desk, with chairs facing each other. One of these chairs was occupied by Willie Price. The youth did not observe at first that another person had come in with his father. He was casting up figures in an account book, and murmuring numbers to himself. He wore an office coat, short at the wrists and torn at the elbows, and a battered felt hat was thrust far back over his head so that the brim rested on his dirty collar. He turned round at length, and, on seeing Anna, blushed brilliant crimson, and rose, scraping the legs of his chair horribly across the floor. Tall, thin, and ungainly in every motion, he had the look of a ninny: it was the fact that at school all the boys by a common instinct had combined to tease him, and that on the works the young paintresses continually made private sport of him. Anna, however, had not the least impulse to mock him in her thoughts. For her there was nothing in his blue eyes but simplicity and good intentions. Beside him she felt old, sagacious, crafty: it seemed to her that some one ought to shield that transparent and confiding soul from his father and the intriguing world.

He spoke to her and lifted his hat, holding it afterwards in his great bony hand.

'Get down to th' entry, Will,' said his father, and Willie, with an apologetic sort of cough, slipped silently away through the door.

'Sit down, Miss Tellwright,' said old Price, and she took the Windsor chair that had been occupied by Willie. Her tenant fell into the seat opposite-a leathern chair from which the stuffing had exuded, and with one of its arms broken. 'I hear as ye father is going into partnership with young Mynors-Henry Mynors.'

Anna started at this surprising item of news, which was entirely fresh to her. 'Father has said nothing to me about it,' she replied, coldly.

'Oh! Happen I've said too much. If so, you'll excuse me, Miss. A smart fellow, Mynors. Now you should see his little works: not very much bigger than this, but there's everything you can think of there-all the latest machinery and dodges, and not over-rented, I'm told. The biggest fool i' Bursley couldn't help but make money there. This 'ere works 'ere, Miss Tellwright, wants mendin' with a new 'un.'

'It looks very dirty, I must say,' said Anna.

'Dirty!' he laughed-a short, acrid laugh-'I suppose you've called about the rent.'

'Yes, father asked me to call.'

'Let me see, this place belongs to you i' your own right, doesn't it, Miss?'

'Yes,' said Anna. 'It's mine-from my grandfather, you know.'

'Ah! Well, I'm sorry for to tell ye as I can't pay anything now-no, not a cent. But I'll pay twenty pounds in a week. Tell ye father I'll pay twenty pound in a week.'

'That's what you said last week,' Anna remarked, with more brusqueness than she had intended. At first she was fearful at her own temerity in thus addressing a superintendent of the Sunday-school; then, as nothing happened, she felt reassured, and strong in the justice of her position.

'Yes,' he admitted obsequiously. 'But I've been disappointed. One of our best customers put us off, to tell ye the truth. Money's tight, very tight. It's got to be give and take in these days, as ye father knows. And I may as well speak plain to ye, Miss Tellwright. We canna' stay here; we shall be compelled to give ye notice. What's amiss with this bank[1] is that it wants pullin' down.' He went off into a rapid enumeration of ninety-and-nine alterations and repairs that must be done without the loss of a moment, and concluded: 'You tell ye father what I've told ye, and say as I'll send up twenty pounds next week. I can't pay anything now; I've nothing by me at all.'

'Father said particularly I was to be sure and get something on account.' There was a flinty hardness in her tone which astonished herself perhaps more than Titus Price. A long pause followed, and then Mr. Price drew a breath, seeming to nerve himself to a tremendous sacrificial deed.

'I tell ye what I'll do. I'll give ye ten pounds now, and I'll do what I can next week. I'll do what I can. There!'

'Thank you,' said Anna. She was amazed at her success.

He unlocked the desk, and his head disappeared under the lifted lid. Anna gazed through the window. Like many women, and not a few men, in the Five Towns, she was wholly ignorant of the staple manufacture. The interior of a works was almost as strange to her as it would have been to a farm-hand from Sussex. A girl came out of a door on the opposite side of the quadrangle: the creature was clothed in clayey rags, and carried on her right shoulder a board laden with biscuit[2] cups. She began to mount one of the wooden stairways, and as she did so the board, six feet in length, swayed alarmingly to and fro. Anna expected to see it fall with a destructive crash, but the girl went up in safety, and with a nonchalant jerk of the shoulder aimed the end of the board through another door and vanished from sight. To Anna it was a thrilling feat, but she noticed that a man who stood in the yard did not even turn his head to watch it. Mr. Price recalled her to the business of her errand.

'Here's two fives,' he said, shutting down the desk with the sigh of a crocodile.

'Liar! You said you had nothing!' her unspoken thought ran, and at the same instant the Sunday-school and everything connected with it grievously sank in her estimation; she contrasted this scene with that on the previous day with the peccant schoolgirl: it was an hour of disillusion. Taking the notes, she gave a receipt and rose to go.

'Tell ye father'-it seemed to Anna that this phrase was always on his lips-'tell ye father he must come down and look at the state this place is in,' said Mr. Price, enheartened by the heroic payment of ten pounds. Anna said nothing; she thought a fire would do more good than anything else to the foul, squalid buildings: the passing fancy coincided with Mr. Price's secret and most intense desire.

Outside she saw Willie Price superintending the lifting of a crate on to a railway lorry. After twirling in the air, the crate sank safely into the waggon. Young Price was perspiring.

'Warm afternoon, Miss Tellwright,' he called to her as she passed, with his pleasant bashful smile. She gave an affirmative. Then he came to her, still smiling, his face full of an intention to say something, however insignificant.

'I suppose you'll be at the Special Teachers' Meeting to-morrow night,' he remarked.

'I hope to be,' she said. That was all: William had achieved his small-talk: they parted.

'So father and Mr. Mynors are going into partnership,' she kept saying to herself on the way home.

[1] Bank: manufactory.

[2] Biscuit: a term applied to ware which has been fired only once.

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