The Old Wives' Tale HTML version

II.2. Christmas And The Future
Mr. Povey was playing a hymn tune on the harmonium, it having been decided
that no one should go to chapel. Constance, in mourning, with a white apron over
her dress, sat on a hassock in front of the fire; and near her, in a rocking-chair,
Mrs. Baines swayed very gently to and fro. The weather was extremely cold. Mr.
Povey's mittened hands were blue and red; but, like many shopkeepers, he had
apparently grown almost insensible to vagaries of temperature. Although the fire
was immense and furious, its influence, owing to the fact that the mediaeval
grate was designed to heat the flue rather than the room, seemed to die away at
the borders of the fender. Constance could not have been much closer to it
without being a salamander. The era of good old-fashioned Christmases, so
agreeably picturesque for the poor, was not yet at an end.
Yes, Samuel Povey had won the battle concerning the locus of the family
Christmas. But he had received the help of a formidable ally, death. Mrs. Harriet
Maddack had passed away, after an operation, leaving her house and her money
to her sister. The solemn rite of her interment had deeply affected all the
respectability of the town of Axe, where the late Mr. Maddack had been a figure
of consequence; it had even shut up the shop in St. Luke's Square for a whole
day. It was such a funeral as Aunt Harriet herself would have approved, a
tremendous ceremonial which left on the crushed mind an ineffaceable, intricate
impression of shiny cloth, crape, horses with arching necks and long manes, the
drawl of parsons, cake, port, sighs, and Christian submission to the inscrutable
decrees of Providence. Mrs. Baines had borne herself with unnatural calmness
until the funeral was over: and then Constance perceived that the remembered
mother of her girlhood existed no longer. For the majority of human souls it would
have been easier to love a virtuous principle, or a mountain, than to love Aunt
Harriet, who was assuredly less a woman than an institution. But Mrs. Baines
had loved her, and she had been the one person to whom Mrs. Baines looked for
support and guidance. When she died, Mrs. Baines paid the tribute of respect
with the last hoarded remains of her proud fortitude, and weepingly confessed
that the unconquerable had been conquered, the inexhaustible exhausted; and
became old with whitening hair.
She had persisted in her refusal to spend Christmas in Bursley, but both
Constance and Samuel knew that the resistance was only formal. She soon
yielded. When Constance's second new servant took it into her head to leave a
week before Christmas, Mrs. Baines might have pointed out the finger of
Providence at work again, and this time in her favour. But no! With amazing
pliancy she suggested that she should bring one of her own servants to 'tide
Constance over' Christmas. She was met with all the forms of loving solicitude,
and she found that her daughter and son-in-law had 'turned out of' the state
bedroom in her favour. Intensely nattered by this attention (which was Mr.
Povey's magnanimous idea), she nevertheless protested strongly. Indeed she
'would not hear of it.'