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The Old Wives' Tale

I.7. A Defeat
It was during the month of June that Aunt Harriet came over from Axe to spend a
few days with her little sister, Mrs. Baines. The railway between Axe and the Five
Towns had not yet been opened; but even if it had been opened Aunt Harriet
would probably not have used it. She had always travelled from Axe to Bursley in
the same vehicle, a small waggonette which she hired from Bratt's livery stables
at Axe, driven by a coachman who thoroughly understood the importance, and
the peculiarities, of Aunt Harriet.
Mrs. Baines had increased in stoutness, so that now Aunt Harriet had very little
advantage over her, physically. But the moral ascendency of the elder still
persisted. The two vast widows shared Mrs. Baines's bedroom, spending much
of their time there in long, hushed conversations--interviews from which Mrs.
Baines emerged with the air of one who has received enlightenment and Aunt
Harriet with the air of one who has rendered it. The pair went about together, in
the shop, the showroom, the parlour, the kitchen, and also into the town,
addressing each other as 'Sister,' 'Sister.' Everywhere it was 'sister,' 'sister,' 'my
sister,' 'your dear mother,' 'your Aunt Harriet.' They referred to each other as
oracular sources of wisdom and good taste. Respectability stalked abroad when
they were afoot. The whole Square wriggled uneasily as though God's eye were
peculiarly upon it. The meals in the parlour became solemn collations, at which
shone the best silver and the finest diaper, but from which gaiety and naturalness
seemed to be banished. (I say 'seemed' because it cannot be doubted that Aunt
Harriet was natural, and there were moments when she possibly considered
herself to be practising gaiety--a gaiety more desolating than her severity.) The
younger generation was extinguished, pressed flat and lifeless under the
ponderosity of the widows.
Mr. Povey was not the man to be easily flattened by ponderosity of any kind, and
his suppression was a striking proof of the prowess of the widows; who, indeed,
went over Mr. Povey like traction- engines, with the sublime unconsciousness of
traction-engines, leaving an inanimate object in the road behind them, and
scarce aware even of the jolt. Mr. Povey hated Aunt Harriet, but, lying crushed
there in the road, how could he rebel? He felt all the time that Aunt Harriet was
adding him up, and reporting the result at frequent intervals to Mrs. Baines in the
bedroom. He felt that she knew everything about him--even to those tears which
had been in his eyes. He felt that he could hope to do nothing right for Aunt
Harriet, that absolute perfection in the performance of duty would make no more
impression on her than a caress on the fly- wheel of a traction-engine.
Constance, the dear Constance, was also looked at askance. There was nothing
in Aunt Harriet's demeanour to her that you could take hold of, but there was
emphatically something that you could not take hold of--a hint, an inkling, that
insinuated to Constance, "Have a care, lest peradventure you become the
second cousin of the scarlet woman."
Sophia was petted. Sophia was liable to be playfully tapped by Aunt Harriet's
thimble when Aunt Harriet was hemming dusters (for the elderly lady could lift a
duster to her own dignity). Sophia was called on two separate occasions, 'My
 
 
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