The Old Wives' Tale
"Sophia, will you come and see the elephant? Do come!" Constance entered the
drawing-room with this request on her eager lips.
"No," said Sophia, with a touch of condescension. "I'm far too busy for
Only two years had passed; but both girls were grown up now; long sleeves, long
skirts, hair that had settled down in life; and a demeanour immensely serious, as
though existence were terrific in its responsibilities; yet sometimes childhood
surprisingly broke through the crust of gravity, as now in Constance, aroused by
such things as elephants, and proclaimed with vivacious gestures that it was not
dead after all. The sisters were sharply differentiated. Constance wore the black
alpaca apron and the scissors at the end of a long black elastic, which indicated
her vocation in the shop. She was proving a considerable success in the millinery
department. She had learnt how to talk to people, and was, in her modest way,
very self-possessed. She was getting a little stouter. Everybody liked her. Sophia
had developed into the student. Time had accentuated her reserve. Her sole
friend was Miss Chetwynd, with whom she was, having regard to the disparity of
their ages, very intimate. At home she spoke little. She lacked amiability; as her
mother said, she was 'touchy.' She required diplomacy from others, but did not
render it again. Her attitude, indeed, was one of half-hidden disdain, now gentle,
now coldly bitter. She would not wear an apron, in an age when aprons were
almost essential to decency. No! She would not wear an apron, and there was an
end of it. She was not so tidy as Constance, and if Constance's hands had taken
on the coarse texture which comes from commerce with needles, pins, artificial
flowers, and stuffs, Sophia's fine hands were seldom innocent of ink. But Sophia
was splendidly beautiful. And even her mother and Constance had an instinctive
idea that that face was, at any rate, a partial excuse for her asperity.
"Well," said Constance, "if you won't, I do believe I shall ask mother if she will."
Sophia, bending over her books, made no answer. But the top of her head said:
"This has no interest for me whatever."
Constance left the room, and in a moment returned with her mother.
"Sophia," said her mother, with gay excitement, "you might go and sit with your
father for a bit while Constance and I just run up to the playground to see the
elephant. You can work just as well in there as here. Your father's asleep."
"Oh, very, well!" Sophia agreed haughtily. "Whatever is all this fuss about an
elephant? Anyhow, it'll be quieter in your room. The noise here is splitting." She
gave a supercilious glance into the Square as she languidly rose.
It was the morning of the third day of Bursley Wakes; not the modern finicking
and respectable, but an orgiastic carnival, gross in all its manifestations of joy.
The whole centre of the town was given over to the furious pleasures of the
people. Most of the Square was occupied by Wombwell's Menagerie, in a vast
oblong tent, whose raging beasts roared and growled day and night. And
spreading away from this supreme attraction, right up through the market-place
past the Town Hall to Duck Bank, Duck Square and the waste land called the
'playground' were hundreds of booths with banners displaying all the delights of