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The Old Wives' Tale

I.2 The Tooth
The two girls came up the unlighted stone staircase which led from Maggie's
cave to the door of the parlour. Sophia, foremost, was carrying a large tray, and
Constance a small one. Constance, who had nothing on her tray but a teapot, a
bowl of steaming and balmy-scented mussels and cockles, and a plate of hot
buttered toast, went directly into the parlour on the left. Sophia had in her arms
the entire material and apparatus of a high tea for two, including eggs, jam, and
toast (covered with the slop-basin turned upside down), but not including
mussels and cockles. She turned to the right, passed along the corridor by the
cutting-out room, up two steps into the sheeted and shuttered gloom of the
closed shop, up the showroom stairs, through the showroom, and so into the
bedroom corridor. Experience had proved it easier to make this long detour than
to round the difficult corner of the parlour stairs with a large loaded tray. Sophia
knocked with the edge of the tray at the door of the principal bedroom. The
muffled oratorical sound from within suddenly ceased, and the door was opened
by a very tall, very thin, black-bearded man, who looked down at Sophia as if to
demand what she meant by such an interruption.
"I've brought the tea, Mr. Critchlow," said Sophia.
And Mr. Critchlow carefully accepted the tray.
"Is that my little Sophia?" asked a faint voice from the depths of the bedroom.
"Yes, father," said Sophia.
But she did not attempt to enter the room. Mr. Critchlow put the tray on a white-
clad chest of drawers near the door, and then he shut the door, with no
ceremony. Mr. Critchlow was John Baines's oldest and closest friend, though
decidedly younger than the draper. He frequently "popped in" to have a word with
the invalid; but Thursday afternoon was his special afternoon, consecrated by
him to the service of the sick. From two o'clock precisely till eight o'clock
precisely he took charge of John Baines, reigning autocratically over the
bedroom. It was known that he would not tolerate invasions, nor even
ambassadorial visits. No! He gave up his weekly holiday to this business of
friendship, and he must be allowed to conduct the business in his own way. Mrs.
Baines herself avoided disturbing Mr. Critchlow's ministrations on her husband.
She was glad to do so; for Mr. Baines was never to be left alone under any
circumstances, and the convenience of being able to rely upon the presence of a
staid member of the Pharmaceutical Society for six hours of a given day every
week outweighed the slight affront to her prerogatives as wife and house-
mistress. Mr. Critchlow was an extremely peculiar man, but when he was in the
bedroom she could leave the house with an easy mind. Moreover, John Baines
enjoyed these Thursday afternoons. For him, there was 'none like Charles
Critchlow.' The two old friends experienced a sort of grim, desiccated happiness,
cooped up together in the bedroom, secure from women and fools generally.
How they spent the time did not seem to be certainly known, but the impression
was that politics occupied them. Undoubtedly Mr. Critchlow was an extremely
peculiar man. He was a man of habits. He must always have the same things for
his tea. Black-currant jam, for instance. (He called it "preserve.") The idea of
 
 
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