The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett - HTML preview
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I.3. A Battle
The day sanctioned by custom in the Five Towns for the making of pastry is Saturday. But Mrs. Baines made her pastry on Friday, because Saturday afternoon was, of course, a busy time in the shop. It is true that Mrs. Baines made her pastry in the morning, and that Saturday morning in the shop was scarcely different from any other morning. Nevertheless, Mrs. Baines made her pastry on Friday morning instead of Saturday morning because Saturday afternoon was a busy time in the shop. She was thus free to do her marketing without breath-taking flurry on Saturday morning.
On the morning after Sophia's first essay in dentistry, therefore, Mrs. Baines was making her pastry in the underground kitchen. This kitchen, Maggie's cavernhome, had the mystery of a church, and on dark days it had the mystery of a crypt. The stone steps leading down to it from the level of earth were quite unlighted. You felt for them with the feet of faith, and when you arrived in the kitchen, the kitchen, by contrast, seemed luminous and gay; the architect may have considered and intended this effect of the staircase. The kitchen saw day through a wide, shallow window whose top touched the ceiling and whose bottom had been out of the girls' reach until long after they had begun to go to school. Its panes were small, and about half of them were of the "knot" kind, through which no object could be distinguished; the other half were of a later date, and stood for the march of civilization. The view from the window consisted of the vast plateglass windows of the newly built Sun vaults, and of passing legs and skirts. A strong wire grating prevented any excess of illumination, and also protected the glass from the caprices of wayfarers in King Street. Boys had a habit of stopping to kick with their full strength at the grating.
Forget-me-nots on a brown field ornamented the walls of the kitchen. Its ceiling was irregular and grimy, and a beam ran across it; in this beam were two hooks; from these hooks had once depended the ropes of a swing, much used by Constance and Sophia in the old days before they were grown up. A large range stood out from the wall between the stairs and the window. The rest of the furniture comprised a table--against the wall opposite the range-- a cupboard, and two Windsor chairs. Opposite the foot of the steps was a doorway, without a door, leading to two larders, dimmer even than the kitchen, vague retreats made visible by whitewash, where bowls of milk, dishes of cold bones, and remainders of fruit-pies, reposed on stillages; in the corner nearest the kitchen was a great steen in which the bread was kept. Another doorway on the other side of the kitchen led to the first coal-cellar, where was also the slopstone and tap, and thence a tunnel took you to the second coal-cellar, where coke and ashes were stored; the tunnel proceeded to a distant, infinitesimal yard, and from the yard, by ways behind Mr. Critchlow's shop, you could finally emerge, astonished, upon Brougham Street. The sense of the vast-obscure of those regions which began at the top of the kitchen steps and ended in black corners of larders or abruptly in the common dailiness of Brougham Street, a sense which Constance and Sophia had acquired in infancy, remained with them almost unimpaired as they grew old. Mrs. Baines wore black alpaca, shielded by a white apron whose string drew attention to the amplitude of her waist. Her sleeves were turned up, and her hands, as far as the knuckles, covered with damp flour. Her ageless smooth paste-board occupied a corner of the table, and near it were her paste-roller, butter, some pie- dishes, shredded apples, sugar, and other things. Those rosy hands were at work among a sticky substance in a large white bowl. "Mother, are you there?" she heard a voice from above.
"Yes, my chuck."
Footsteps apparently reluctant and hesitating clinked on the stairs, and Sophia entered the kitchen.
"Put this curl straight," said Mrs. Baines, lowering her head slightly and holding up her floured hands, which might not touch anything but flour. "Thank you. It bothered me. And now stand out of my light. I'm in a hurry. I must get into the shop so that I can send Mr. Povey off to the dentist's. What is Constance doing?" "Helping Maggie to make Mr. Povey's bed."
Though fat, Mrs. Baines was a comely woman, with fine brown hair, and confidently calm eyes that indicated her belief in her own capacity to accomplish whatever she could be called on to accomplish. She looked neither more nor less than her age, which was forty-five. She was not a native of the district, having been culled by her husband from the moorland town of Axe, twelve miles off. Like nearly all women who settle in a strange land upon marriage, at the bottom of her heart she had considered herself just a trifle superior to the strange land and its ways. This feeling, confirmed by long experience, had never left her. It was this feeling which induced her to continue making her own pastry-- with two thoroughly trained "great girls" in the house! Constance could make good pastry, but it was not her mother's pastry. In pastry-making everything can be taught except the "hand," light and firm, which wields the roller. One is born with this hand, or without it. And if one is born without it, the highest flights of pastry are impossible. Constance was born without it. There were days when Sophia seemed to possess it; but there were other days when Sophia's pastry was uneatable by any one except Maggie. Thus Mrs. Baines, though intensely proud and fond of her daughters, had justifiably preserved a certain condescension towards them. She honestly doubted whether either of them would develop into the equal of their mother.
"Now you little vixen!" she exclaimed. Sophia was stealing and eating slices of half-cooked apple. "This comes of having no breakfast! And why didn't you come down to supper last night?"
"I don't know. I forgot."
Mrs. Baines scrutinized the child's eyes, which met hers with a sort of diffident boldness. She knew everything that a mother can know of a daughter, and she was sure that Sophia had no cause to be indisposed. Therefore she scrutinized those eyes with a faint apprehension.
"If you can't find anything better to do," said she, "butter me the inside of this dish. Are your hands clean? No, better not touch it."
Mrs. Baines was now at the stage of depositing little pats of butter in rows on a large plain of paste. The best fresh butter! Cooking butter, to say naught of lard, was unknown in that kitchen on Friday mornings. She doubled the expanse of paste on itself and rolled the butter in--supreme operation!
"Constance has told you--about leaving school?" said Mrs. Baines, in the vein of small-talk, as she trimmed the paste to the shape of a pie-dish.
"Yes," Sophia replied shortly. Then she moved away from the table to the range. There was a toasting-fork on the rack, and she began to play with it. "Well, are you glad? Your aunt Harriet thinks you are quite old enough to leave. And as we'd decided in any case that Constance was to leave, it's really much simpler that you should both leave together."
"Mother," said Sophia, rattling the toasting-fork, "what am I going to do after I've left school?"
"I hope," Mrs. Baines answered with that sententiousness which even the cleverest of parents are not always clever enough to deny themselves, "I hope that both of you will do what you can to help your mother--and father," she added.
"Yes," said Sophia, irritated. "But what am I going to DO?"
"That must be considered. As Constance is to learn the millinery, I've been thinking that you might begin to make yourself useful in the underwear, gloves, silks, and so on. Then between you, you would one day be able to manage quite nicely all that side of the shop, and I should be--"
"I don't want to go into the shop, mother."
This interruption was made in a voice apparently cold and inimical. But Sophia trembled with nervous excitement as she uttered the words. Mrs. Baines gave a brief glance at her, unobserved by the child, whose face was towards the fire. She deemed herself a finished expert in the reading of Sophia's moods; nevertheless, as she looked at that straight back and proud head, she had no suspicion that the whole essence and being of Sophia was silently but intensely imploring sympathy.
"I wish you would be quiet with that fork," said Mrs. Baines, with the curious, grim politeness which often characterized her relations with her daughters. The toasting-fork fell on the brick floor, after having rebounded from the ash-tin. Sophia hurriedly replaced it on the rack.
"Then what SHALL you do?" Mrs. Baines proceeded, conquering the annoyance caused by the toasting-fork. "I think it's me that should ask you instead of you asking me. What shall you do? Your father and I were both hoping you would take kindly to the shop and try to repay us for all the--"
Mrs. Baines was unfortunate in her phrasing that morning. She happened to be, in truth, rather an exceptional parent, but that morning she seemed unable to avoid the absurd pretensions which parents of those days assumed quite sincerely and which every good child with meekness accepted.
Sophia was not a good child, and she obstinately denied in her heart the cardinal principle of family life, namely, that the parent has conferred on the offspring a supreme favour by bringing it into the world. She interrupted her mother again, rudely.
"I don't want to leave school at all," she said passionately.
"But you will have to leave school sooner or later," argued Mrs. Baines, with an air of quiet reasoning, of putting herself on a level with Sophia. "You can't stay at school for ever, my pet, can you? Out of my way!"
She hurried across the kitchen with a pie, which she whipped into the oven, shutting the iron door with a careful gesture.
"Yes," said Sophia. "I should like to be a teacher. That's what I want to be." The tap in the coal-cellar, out of repair, could be heard distinctly and systematically dropping water into a jar on the slopstone.
"A school-teacher?" inquired Mrs. Baines.
"Of course. What other kind is there?" said Sophia, sharply. "With Miss Chetwynd."
"I don't think your father would like that," Mrs. Baines replied. "I'm sure he wouldn't like it."
"It wouldn't be quite suitable."
"Why not, mother?" the girl demanded with a sort of ferocity. She had now quitted the range. A man's feet twinkled past the window.
Mrs. Baines was startled and surprised. Sophia's attitude was really very trying; her manners deserved correction. But it was not these phenomena which seriously affected Mrs. Baines; she was used to them and had come to regard them as somehow the inevitable accompaniment of Sophia's beauty, as the penalty of that surpassing charm which occasionally emanated from the girl like a radiance. What startled and surprised Mrs. Baines was the perfect and unthinkable madness of Sophia's infantile scheme. It was a revelation to Mrs. Baines. Why in the name of heaven had the girl taken such a notion into her head? Orphans, widows, and spinsters of a certain age suddenly thrown on the world--these were the women who, naturally, became teachers, because they had to become something. But that the daughter of comfortable parents, surrounded by love and the pleasures of an excellent home, should wish to teach in a school was beyond the horizons of Mrs. Baines's common sense. Comfortable parents of to-day who have a difficulty in sympathizing with Mrs. Baines, should picture what their feelings would be if their Sophias showed a rude desire to adopt the vocation of chauffeur.
"It would take you too much away from home," said Mrs. Baines, achieving a second pie.
She spoke softly. The experience of being Sophia's mother for nearly sixteen years had not been lost on Mrs. Baines, and though she was now discovering undreamt-of dangers in Sophia's erratic temperament, she kept her presence of mind sufficiently well to behave with diplomatic smoothness. It was undoubtedly humiliating to a mother to be forced to use diplomacy in dealing with a girl in short sleeves. In HER day mothers had been autocrats. But Sophia was Sophia. "What if it did?" Sophia curtly demanded.
"And there's no opening in Bursley," said Mrs. Baines.
"Miss Chetwynd would have me, and then after a time I could go to her sister." "Her sister? What sister?"
"Her sister that has a big school in London somewhere."
Mrs. Baines covered her unprecedented emotions by gazing into the oven at the first pie. The pie was doing well, under all the circumstances. In those few seconds she reflected rapidly and decided that to a desperate disease a desperate remedy must be applied.
London! She herself had never been further than Manchester. London, 'after a time'! No, diplomacy would be misplaced in this crisis of Sophia's development! "Sophia," she said, in a changed and solemn voice, fronting her daughter, and holding away from her apron those floured, ringed hands, "I don't know what has come over you. Truly I don't! Your father and I are prepared to put up with a certain amount, but the line must be drawn. The fact is, we've spoilt you, and instead of getting better as you grow up, you're getting worse. Now let me hear no more of this, please. I wish you would imitate your sister a little more. Of course if you won't do your share in the shop, no one can make you. If you choose to be an idler about the house, we shall have to endure it. We can only advise you for your own good. But as for this ..." She stopped, and let silence speak, and then finished: "Let me hear no more of it."
It was a powerful and impressive speech, enunciated clearly in such a tone as Mrs. Baines had not employed since dismissing a young lady assistant five years ago for light conduct.
A commotion of pails resounded at the top of the stone steps. It was Maggie in descent from the bedrooms. Now, the Baines family passed its life in doing its best to keep its affairs to itself, the assumption being that Maggie and all the shop-staff (Mr. Povey possibly excepted) were obsessed by a ravening appetite for that which did not concern them. Therefore the voices of the Baineses always died away, or fell to a hushed, mysterious whisper, whenever the foot of the eavesdropper was heard.
Mrs. Baines put a floured finger to her double chin. "That will do," said she, with finality.
Maggie appeared, and Sophia, with a brusque precipitation of herself, vanished upstairs.
"Now, really, Mr. Povey, this is not like you," said Mrs. Baines, who, on her way into the shop, had discovered the Indispensable in the cutting-out room. It is true that the cutting-out room was almost Mr. Povey's sanctum, whither he retired from time to time to cut out suits of clothes and odd garments for the tailoring department. It is true that the tailoring department flourished with orders, employing several tailors who crossed legs in their own homes, and that appointments were continually being made with customers for trying-on in that room. But these considerations did not affect Mrs. Baines's attitude of disapproval.
"I'm just cutting out that suit for the minister," said Mr. Povey.
The Reverend Mr. Murley, superintendent of the Wesleyan Methodist circuit, called on Mr. Baines every week. On a recent visit Mr. Baines had remarked that the parson's coat was ageing into green, and had commanded that a new suit should be built and presented to Mr. Murley. Mr. Murley, who had a genuine mediaeval passion for souls, and who spent his money and health freely in gratifying the passion, had accepted the offer strictly on behalf of Christ, and had carefully explained to Mr. Povey Christ's use for multifarious pockets. "I see you are," said Mrs. Baines tartly. "But that's no reason why you should be without a coat--and in this cold room too. You with toothache!"
The fact was that Mr. Povey always doffed his coat when cutting out. Instead of a coat he wore a tape-measure.
"My tooth doesn't hurt me," said he, sheepishly, dropping the great scissors and picking up a cake of chalk.
"Fiddlesticks!" said Mrs. Baines.
This exclamation shocked Mr. Povey. It was not unknown on the lips of Mrs. Baines, but she usually reserved it for members of her own sex. Mr. Povey could not recall that she had ever applied it to any statement of his. "What's the matter with the woman?" he thought. The redness of her face did not help him to answer the question, for her face was always red after the operations of Friday in the kitchen.
"You men are all alike," Mrs. Baines continued. "The very thought of the dentist's cures you. Why don't you go in at once to Mr. Critchlow and have it out--like a man?"
Mr. Critchlow extracted teeth, and his shop sign said "Bone-setter and chemist." But Mr. Povey had his views.
"I make no account of Mr. Critchlow as a dentist," said he.
"Then for goodness' sake go up to Oulsnam's."
"When? I can't very well go now, and to-morrow is Saturday."
"Why can't you go now?"
"Well, of course, I COULD go now," he admitted.
"Let me advise you to go, then, and don't come back with that tooth in your head. I shall be having you laid up next. Show some pluck, do!"
"Oh! pluck--!" he protested, hurt.
At that moment Constance came down the passage singing.
"Constance, my pet!" Mrs. Baines called.
"Yes, mother." She put her head into the room. "Oh!" Mr. Povey was assuming his coat.
"Mr. Povey is going to the dentist's."
"Yes, I'm going at once," Mr. Povey confirmed.
"Oh! I'm so GLAD!" Constance exclaimed. Her face expressed a pure sympathy, uncomplicated by critical sentiments. Mr. Povey rapidly bathed in that sympathy, and then decided that he must show himself a man of oak and iron. "It's always best to get these things done with," said he, with stern detachment. "I'll just slip my overcoat on."
"Here it is," said Constance, quickly. Mr. Povey's overcoat and hat were hung on a hook immediately outside the room, in the passage. She gave him the overcoat, anxious to be of service.
"I didn't call you in here to be Mr. Povey's valet," said Mrs. Baines to herself with mild grimness; and aloud: "I can't stay in the shop long, Constance, but you can be there, can't you, till Mr. Povey comes back? And if anything happens run upstairs and tell me."
"Yes, mother," Constance eagerly consented. She hesitated and then turned to obey at once.
"I want to speak to you first, my pet," Mrs. Baines stopped her. And her tone was peculiar, charged with import, confidential, and therefore very flattering to Constance.
"I think I'll go out by the side-door," said Mr. Povey. "It'll be nearer." This was truth. He would save about ten yards, in two miles, by going out through the side-door instead of through the shop. Who could have guessed that he was ashamed to be seen going to the dentist's, afraid lest, if he went through the shop, Mrs. Baines might follow him and utter some remark prejudicial to his dignity before the assistants? (Mrs. Baines could have guessed, and did.) "You won't want that tape-measure," said Mrs. Baines, dryly, as Mr. Povey dragged open the side-door. The ends of the forgotten tape-measure were dangling beneath coat and overcoat.
"Oh!" Mr. Povey scowled at his forgetfulness.
"I'll put it in its place," said Constance, offering to receive the tape-measure. "Thank you," said Mr. Povey, gravely. "I don't suppose they'll be long over my bit of a job," he added, with a difficult, miserable smile.
Then he went off down King Street, with an exterior of gay briskness and dignified joy in the fine May morning. But there was no May morning in his cowardly human heart.
"Hi! Povey!" cried a voice from the Square.
But Mr. Povey disregarded all appeals. He had put his hand to the plough, and he would not look back.
Mrs. Baines and Constance were both at the door. A middle-aged man was crossing the road from Boulton Terrace, the lofty erection of new shops which the envious rest of the Square had decided to call "showy." He waved a hand to Mrs. Baines, who kept the door open.
"It's Dr. Harrop," she said to Constance. "I shouldn't be surprised if that baby's come at last, and he wanted to tell Mr. Povey."
Constance blushed, full of pride. Mrs. Povey, wife of "our Mr. Povey's" renowned cousin, the high-class confectioner and baker in Boulton Terrace, was a frequent subject of discussion in the Baines family,, but this was absolutely the first time that Mrs. Baines had acknowledged, in presence of Constance, the marked and growing change which had characterized Mrs. Povey's condition during recent months. Such frankness on the part of her mother, coming after the decision about leaving school, proved indeed that Constance had ceased to be a mere girl.
"Good morning, doctor."
The doctor, who carried a little bag and wore riding-breeches (he was the last doctor in Bursley to abandon the saddle for the dog- cart), saluted and straightened his high, black stock.
"Morning! Morning, missy! Well, it's a boy."
"What? Yonder?" asked Mrs. Baines, indicating the confectioner's. Dr. Harrop nodded. "I wanted to inform him," said he, jerking his shoulder in the direction of the swaggering coward.
"What did I tell you, Constance?" said Mrs. Baines, turning to her daughter. Constance's confusion was equal to her pleasure. The alert doctor had halted at the foot of the two steps, and with one hand in the pocket of his "full-fall" breeches, he gazed up, smiling out of little eyes, at the ample matron and the slender virgin.
"Yes," he said. "Been up most of th' night. Difficult! Difficult!"
"It's all RIGHT, I hope?"
"Oh yes. Fine child! Fine child! But he put his mother to some trouble, for all that. Nothing fresh?" This time he lifted his eyes to indicate Mr. Baines's bedroom. "No," said Mrs. Baines, with a different expression.
"Good! A very good morning to you."
He strode off towards his house, which was lower down the street. "I hope she'll turn over a new leaf now," observed Mrs. Baines to Constance as she closed the door. Constance knew that her mother was referring to the confectioner's wife; she gathered that the hope was slight in the extreme. "What did you want to speak to me about, mother?" she asked, as a way out of her delicious confusion.
"Shut that door," Mrs. Baines replied, pointing to the door which led to the passage; and while Constance obeyed, Mrs. Baines herself shut the staircasedoor. She then said, in a low, guarded voice--
"What's all this about Sophia wanting to be a school-teacher?"
"Wanting to be a school-teacher?" Constance repeated, in tones of amazement. "Yes. Hasn't she said anything to you?"
"Not a word!"
"Well, I never! She wants to keep on with Miss Chetwynd and be a teacher." Mrs. Baines had half a mind to add that Sophia had mentioned London. But she restrained herself. There are some things which one cannot bring one's self to say. She added, "Instead of going into the shop!"
"I never heard of such a thing!" Constance murmured brokenly, in the excess of her astonishment. She was rolling up Mr. Povey's tape-measure.
"Neither did I!" said Mrs. Baines.
"And shall you let her, mother?"
"Neither your father nor I would ever dream of it!" Mrs. Baines replied, with calm and yet terrible decision. "I only mentioned it to you because I thought Sophia would have told you something."
As Constance put Mr. Povey's tape-measure neatly away in its drawer under the cutting-out counter, she thought how serious life was--what with babies and Sophias. She was very proud of her mother's confidence in her; this simple pride filled her ardent breast with a most agreeable commotion. And she wanted to help everybody, to show in some way how much she sympathized with and loved everybody. Even the madness of Sophia did not weaken her longing to comfort Sophia.
That afternoon there was a search for Sophia, whom no one had seen since dinner. She was discovered by her mother, sitting alone and unoccupied in the drawing-room. The circumstance was in itself sufficiently peculiar, for on weekdays the drawing-room was never used, even by the girls during their holidays, except for the purpose of playing the piano. However, Mrs. Baines offered no comment on Sophia's geographical situation, nor on her idleness. "My dear," she said, standing at the door, with a self-conscious effort to behave as though nothing had happened, "will you come and sit with your father a bit?" "Yes, mother," answered Sophia, with a sort of cold alacrity.
"Sophia is coming, father," said Mrs. Baines at the open door of the bedroom, which was at right-angles with, and close to, the drawing-room door. Then she surged swishing along the corridor and went into the showroom, whither she had been called.
Sophia passed to the bedroom, the eternal prison of John Baines. Although, on account of his nervous restlessness, Mr. Baines was never left alone, it was not a part of the usual duty of the girls to sit with him. The person who undertook the main portion of the vigils was a certain Aunt Maria--whom the girls knew to be not a real aunt, not a powerful, effective aunt like Aunt Harriet of Axe--but a poor second cousin of John Baines; one of those necessitous, pitiful relatives who so often make life difficult for a great family in a small town. The existence of Aunt Maria, after being rather a "trial" to the Baineses, had for twelve years past developed into something absolutely "providential" for them. (It is to be remembered that in those days Providence was still busying himself with everybody's affairs, and foreseeing the future in the most extraordinary manner. Thus, having foreseen that John Baines would have a "stroke" and need a faithful, tireless nurse, he had begun fifty years in advance by creating Aunt Maria, and had kept her carefully in misfortune's way, so that at the proper moment she would be ready to cope with the stroke. Such at least is the only theory which will explain the use by the Baineses, and indeed by all thinking Bursley, of the word "providential" in connection with Aunt Maria.) She was a shrivelled little woman, capable of sitting twelve hours a day in a bedroom and thriving on the regime. At nights she went home to her little cottage in Brougham Street; she had her Thursday afternoons and generally her Sundays, and during the school vacations she was supposed to come only when she felt inclined, or when the cleaning of her cottage permitted her to come. Hence, in holiday seasons, Mr. Baines weighed more heavily on his household than at other times, and his nurses relieved each other according to the contingencies of the moment rather than by a set programme of hours.
The tragedy in ten thousand acts of which that bedroom was the scene, almost entirely escaped Sophia's perception, as it did Constance's. Sophia went into the bedroom as though it were a mere bedroom, with its majestic mahogany furniture, its crimson rep curtains (edged with gold), and its white, heavily tasselled counterpane. She was aged four when John Baines had suddenly been seized with giddiness on the steps of his shop, and had fallen, and, without losing consciousness, had been transformed from John Baines into a curious and pathetic survival of John Baines. She had no notion of the thrill which ran through the town on that night when it was known that John Baines had had a stroke, and that his left arm and left leg and his right eyelid were paralyzed, and that the active member of the Local Board, the orator, the religious worker, the very life of the town's life, was permanently done for. She had never heard of the crisis through which her mother, assisted by Aunt Harriet, had passed, and out of which she had triumphantly emerged. She was not yet old enough even to suspect it. She possessed only the vaguest memory of her father before he had finished with the world. She knew him simply as an organism on a bed, whose left side was wasted, whose eyes were often inflamed, whose mouth was crooked, who had no creases from the nose to the corners of the mouth like other people, who experienced difficulty in eating because the food would somehow get between his gums and his cheek, who slept a great deal but was excessively fidgety while awake, who seemed to hear what was said to him a long time after it was uttered, as if the sense had to travel miles by labyrinthine passages to his brain, and who talked very, very slowly in a weak, trembling voice.
And she had an image of that remote brain as something with a red spot on it, for once Constance had said: "Mother, why did father have a stroke?" and Mrs. Baines had replied: "It was a haemorrhage of the brain, my dear, here"--putting a thimbled finger on a particular part of Sophia's head.
Not merely had Constance and Sophia never really felt their father's tragedy; Mrs. Baines herself had largely lost the sense of it--such is the effect of use. Even the ruined organism only remembered fitfully and partially that it had once been John Baines. And if Mrs. Baines had not, by the habit of years, gradually built up a gigantic fiction that the organism remained ever the supreme consultative head of the family; if Mr. Critchlow had not obstinately continued to treat it as a crony, the mass of living and dead nerves on the rich Victorian bedstead would have been of no more account than some Aunt Maria in similar case. These two persons, his wife and his friend, just managed to keep him morally alive by indefatigably feeding his importance and his dignity. The feat was a miracle of stubborn self-deceiving, splendidly blind devotion, and incorrigible pride.
When Sophia entered the room, the paralytic followed her with his nervous gaze until she had sat down on the end of the sofa at the foot of the bed. He seemed to study her for a long time, and then he murmured in his slow, enfeebled, irregular voice:
"Is that Sophia?"
"Yes, father," she answered cheerfully.
And after another pause, the old man said: "Ay! It's Sophia."
And later: "Your mother said she should send ye."
Sophia saw that this was one of his bad, dull days. He had, occasionally, days of comparative nimbleness, when his wits seized almost easily the meanings of external phenomena.
Presently his sallow face and long white beard began to slip down the steep slant of the pillows, and a troubled look came into his left eye. Sophia rose and, putting her hands under his armpits, lifted him higher in the bed. He was not heavy, but only a strong girl of her years could have done it.
"Ay!" he muttered. "That's it. That's it."
And, with his controllable right hand, he took her hand as she stood by the bed. She was so young and fresh, such an incarnation of the spirit of health, and he was so far gone in decay and corruption, that there seemed in this contact of body with body something unnatural and repulsive. But Sophia did not so feel it. "Sophia," he addressed her, and made preparatory noises in his throat while she waited.
He continued after an interval, now clutching her arm, "Your mother's been telling me you don't want to go in the shop."
She turned her eyes on him, and his anxious, dim gaze met hers. She nodded. "Nay, Sophia," he mumbled, with the extreme of slowness. "I'm surprised at ye. . .Trade's bad, bad! Ye know trade's bad?" He was still clutching her arm. She nodded. She was, in fact, aware of the badness of trade, caused by a vague war in the United States. The words "North" and "South" had a habit of recurring in the conversation of adult persons. That was all she knew, though people were starving in the Five Towns as they were starving in Manchester.
"There's your mother," his thought struggled on, like an aged horse over a hilly road. "There's your mother!" he repeated, as if wishful to direct Sophia's attention to the spectacle of her mother. "Working hard! Con--Constance and you must help her. . . . Trade's bad! What can I do. . .lying here?"
The heat from his dry fingers was warming her arm. She wanted to move, but she could not have withdrawn her arm without appearing impatient. For a similar reason she would not avert her glance. A deepening flush increased the lustre of her immature loveliness as she bent over him. But though it was so close he did not feel that radiance. He had long outlived a susceptibility to the strange influences of youth and beauty.
"Teaching!" he muttered. "Nay, nay! I canna' allow that."
Then his white beard rose at the tip as he looked up at the ceiling above his head, reflectively.
"You understand me?" he questioned finally.
She nodded again; he loosed her arm, and she turned away. She could not have spoken. Glittering tears enriched her eyes. She was saddened into a profound and sudden grief by the ridiculousness of the scene. She had youth, physical perfection; she brimmed with energy, with the sense of vital power; all existence lay before her; when she put her lips together she felt capable of outvying no matter whom in fortitude of resolution. She had always hated the shop. She did not understand how her mother and Constance could bring themselves to be deferential and flattering to every customer that entered. No, she did not understand it; but her mother (though a proud woman) and Constance seemed to practise such behaviour so naturally, so unquestioningly, that she had never imparted to either of them her feelings; she guessed that she would not be comprehended. But long ago she had decided that she would never "go into the shop." She knew that she would be expected to do something, and she had fixed on teaching as the one possibility. These decisions had formed part of her inner life for years past. She had not mentioned them, being secretive and scarcely anxious for unpleasantness. But she had been slowly preparing herself to mention them. The extraordinary announcement that she was to leave school at the same time as Constance had taken her unawares, before the preparations ripening in her mind were complete--before, as it were, she had girded up her loins for the fray. She had been caught unready, and the opposing forces had obtained the advantage of her. But did they suppose she was beaten? No argument from her mother! No hearing, even! Just a curt and haughty 'Let me hear no more of this'! And so the great desire of her life, nourished year after year in her inmost bosom, was to be flouted and sacrificed with a word! Her mother did not appear ridiculous in the affair, for her mother was a genuine power, commanding by turns genuine love and genuine hate, and always, till then, obedience and the respect of reason. It was her father who appeared tragically ridiculous; and, in turn, the whole movement against her grew grotesque in its absurdity. Here was this antique wreck, helpless, useless, powerless--merely pathetic- -actually thinking that he had only to mumble in order to make her 'understand'! He knew nothing; he perceived nothing; he was a ferocious egoist, like most bedridden invalids, out of touch with life,--and he thought himself justified in making destinies, and capable of making them! Sophia could not, perhaps, define the feelings which overwhelmed her; but she was conscious of their tendency. They aged her, by years. They aged her so that, in a kind of momentary ecstasy of insight, she felt older than her father himself.
"You will be a good girl," he said. "I'm sure o' that."
It was too painful. The grotesqueness of her father's complacency humiliated her past bearing. She was humiliated, not for herself, but for him. Singular creature! She ran out of the room.
Fortunately Constance was passing in the corridor, otherwise Sophia had been found guilty of a great breach of duty.
"Go to father," she whispered hysterically to Constance, and fled upwards to the second floor.
At supper, with her red, downcast eyes, she had returned to sheer girlishness again, overawed by her mother. The meal had an unusual aspect. Mr. Povey, safe from the dentist's, but having lost two teeth in two days, was being fed on 'slops'--bread and milk, to wit; he sat near the fire. The others had cold pork, half a cold apple-pie, and cheese; but Sophia only pretended to eat; each time she tried to swallow, the tears came into her eyes, and her throat shut itself up. Mrs. Baines and Constance had a too careful air of eating just as usual. Mrs. Baines's handsome ringlets dominated the table under the gas.
"I'm not so set up with my pastry to-day," observed Mrs. Baines, critically munching a fragment of pie-crust.
She rang a little hand-bell. Maggie appeared from the cave. She wore a plain white bib-less apron, but no cap.
"Maggie, will you have some pie?"
"Yes, if you can spare it, ma'am."
This was Maggie's customary answer to offers of food.
"We can always spare it, Maggie," said her mistress, as usual. "Sophia, if you aren't going to use that plate, give it to me."
Maggie disappeared with liberal pie.
Mrs. Baines then talked to Mr. Povey about his condition, and in particular as to the need for precautions against taking cold in the bereaved gum. She was a brave and determined woman; from start to finish she behaved as though nothing whatever in the household except her pastry and Mr. Povey had deviated that day from the normal. She kissed Constance and Sophia with the most exact equality, and called them 'my chucks' when they went up to bed.
Constance, excellent kind heart, tried to imitate her mother's tactics as the girls undressed in their room. She thought she could not do better than ignore Sophia's deplorable state.
"Mother's new dress is quite finished, and she's going to wear it on Sunday," said she, blandly.
"If you say another word I'll scratch your eyes out!" Sophia turned on her viciously, with a catch in her voice, and then began to sob at intervals. She did not mean this threat, but its utterance gave her relief. Constance, faced with the fact that her mother's shoes were too big for her, decided to preserve her eyesight.
Long after the gas was out, rare sobs from Sophia shook the bed, and they both lay awake in silence.
"I suppose you and mother have been talking me over finely to- day?" Sophia burst forth, to Constance's surprise, in a wet voice.
"No," said Constance soothingly. "Mother only told me."
"Told you what?"
"That you wanted to be a teacher."
"And I will be, too!" said Sophia, bitterly.
"You don't know mother," thought Constance; but she made no audible comment.
There was another detached, hard sob. And then, such is the astonishing talent of youth, they both fell asleep.
The next morning, early, Sophia stood gazing out of the window at the Square. It was Saturday, and all over the Square little stalls, with yellow linen roofs, were being erected for the principal market of the week. In those barbaric days Bursley had a majestic edifice, black as basalt, for the sale of dead animals by the limb and rib--it was entitled 'the Shambles'--but vegetables, fruit, cheese, eggs, and pikelets were still sold under canvas. Eggs are now offered at five farthings apiece in a palace that cost twenty-five thousand pounds. Yet you will find people in Bursley ready to assert that things generally are not what they were, and that in particular the romance of life has gone. But until it has gone it is never romance. To Sophia, though she was in a mood which usually stimulates the sense of the romantic, there was nothing of romance in this picturesque tented field. It was just the market. Holl's, the leading grocer's, was already open, at the extremity of the Square, and a boy apprentice was sweeping the pavement in front of it. The public-houses were open, several of them specializing in hot rum at 5.30 a.m. The town- crier, in his blue coat with red facings, crossed the Square, carrying his big bell by the tongue. There was the same shocking hole in one of Mrs. Povey's (confectioner's) window-curtains--a hole which even her recent travail could scarcely excuse. Such matters it was that Sophia noticed with dull, smarting eyes.
"Sophia, you'll take your death of cold standing there like that!"
She jumped. The voice was her mother's. That vigorous woman, after a calm night by the side of the paralytic, was already up and neatly dressed. She carried a bottle and an egg-cup, and a small quantity of jam in a table-spoon. "Get into bed again, do! There's a dear! You're shivering."
White Sophia obeyed. It was true; she was shivering. Constance awoke. Mrs. Baines went to the dressing-table and filled the egg- cup out of the bottle. "Who's that for, mother?" Constance asked sleepily.
"It's for Sophia," said Mrs. Baines, with good cheer. "Now, Sophia!" and she advanced with the egg-cup in one hand and the table-spoon in the other. "What is it, mother?" asked Sophia, who well knew what it was.
"Castor-oil, my dear," said Mrs. Baines, winningly.
The ludicrousness of attempting to cure obstinacy and yearnings for a freer life by means of castor-oil is perhaps less real than apparent. The strange interdependence of spirit and body, though only understood intelligently in these intelligent days, was guessed at by sensible mediaeval mothers. And certainly, at the period when Mrs. Baines represented modernity, castor-oil was still the remedy of remedies. It had supplanted cupping. And, if part of its vogue was due to its extreme unpleasantness, it had at least proved its qualities in many a contest with disease. Less than two years previously old Dr. Harrop (father of him who told Mrs. Baines about Mrs. Povey), being then aged eighty-six, had fallen from top to bottom of his staircase. He had scrambled up, taken a dose of castoroil at once, and on the morrow was as well as if he had never seen a staircase. This episode was town property and had sunk deep into all hearts. "I don't want any, mother," said Sophia, in dejection. "I'm quite well." "You simply ate nothing all day yesterday," said Mrs. Baines. And she added, "Come!" As if to say, "There's always this silly fuss with castor-oil. Don't keep me waiting."
"I don't WANT any," said Sophia, irritated and captious.
The two girls lay side by side, on their backs. They seemed very thin and fragile in comparison with the solidity of their mother. Constance wisely held her peace. Mrs. Baines put her lips together, meaning: "This is becoming tedious. I shall have to be angry in another moment!"
"Come!" said she again.
The girls could hear her foot tapping on the floor.
"I really don't want it, mamma," Sophia fought. "I suppose I ought to know whether I need it or not!" This was insolence.
"Sophia, will you take this medicine, or won't you?"
In conflicts with her children, the mother's ultimatum always took the formula in which this phrase was cast. The girls knew, when things had arrived at the pitch of 'or won't you' spoken in Mrs. Baines's firmest tone, that the end was upon them. Never had the ultimatum failed.
There was a silence.
"And I'll thank you to mind your manners," Mrs. Baines added.
"I won't take it," said Sophia, sullenly and flatly; and she hid her face in the pillow. It was a historic moment in the family life. Mrs. Baines thought the last day had come. But still she held herself in dignity while the apocalypse roared in her ears. "OF COURSE I CAN'T FORCE YOU TO TAKE IT," she said with superb evenness, masking anger by compassionate grief. "You're a big girl and a naughty girl. And if you will be ill you must."
Upon this immense admission, Mrs. Baines departed.
Nor was that all. In the middle of the morning, when Mrs. Baines was pricing new potatoes at a stall at the top end of the Square, and Constance choosing threepennyworth of flowers at the same stall, whom should they both see, walking all alone across the empty corner by the Bank, but Sophia Baines! The Square was busy and populous, and Sophia was only visible behind a foreground of restless, chattering figures. But she was unmistakably seen. She had been beyond the Square and was returning. Constance could scarcely believe her eyes. Mrs. Baines's heart jumped. For let it be said that the girls never under any circumstances went forth without permission, and scarcely ever alone. That Sophia should be at large in the town, without leave, without notice, exactly as if she were her own mistress, was a proposition which a day earlier had been inconceivable. Yet there she was, and moving with a leisureliness that must be described as effrontery!
Red with apprehension, Constance wondered what would happen. Mrs. Baines said nought of her feelings, did not even indicate that she had seen the scandalous, the breath-taking sight. And they descended the Square laden with the lighter portions of what they had bought during an hour of buying. They went into the house by the King Street door; and the first thing they heard was the sound of the piano upstairs. Nothing happened. Mr. Povey had his dinner alone; then the table was laid for them, and the bell rung, and Sophia came insolently downstairs to join her mother and sister. And nothing happened. The dinner was silently eaten, and Constance having rendered thanks to God, Sophia rose abruptly to go.
"Constance, stay where you are," said Mrs. Baines suddenly to Constance, who had meant to flee. Constance was therefore destined to be present at the happening, doubtless in order to emphasize its importance and seriousness. "Sophia," Mrs. Baines resumed to her younger daughter in an ominous voice. "No, please shut the door. There is no reason why everybody in the house should hear. Come right into the room-- right in! That's it. Now, what were you doing out in the town this morning?"
Sophia was fidgeting nervously with the edge of her little black apron, and worrying a seam of the carpet with her toes. She bent her head towards her left shoulder, at first smiling vaguely. She said nothing, but every limb, every glance, every curve, was speaking. Mrs. Baines sat firmly in her own rocking-chair, full of the sensation that she had Sophia, as it were, writhing on the end of a skewer. Constance was braced into a moveless anguish.
"I will have an answer," pursued Mrs. Baines. "What were you doing out in the town this morning?"
"I just went out," answered Sophia at length, still with eyes downcast, and in a rather simpering tone.
"Why did you go out? You said nothing to me about going out. I heard Constance ask you if you were coming with us to the market, and you said, very rudely, that you weren't."
"I didn't say it rudely," Sophia objected.
"Yes you did. And I'll thank you not to answer back."
"I didn't mean to say it rudely, did I, Constance?" Sophia's head turned sharply to her sister. Constance knew not where to look.
"Don't answer back," Mrs. Baines repeated sternly. "And don't try to drag Constance into this, for I won't have it."
"Oh, of course Constance is always right!" observed Sophia, with an irony whose unparalleled impudence shook Mrs. Baines to her massive foundations. "Do you want me to have to smack you, child?"
Her temper flashed out and you could see ringlets vibrating under the provocation of Sophia's sauciness. Then Sophia's lower lip began to fall and to bulge outwards, and all the muscles of her face seemed to slacken. "You are a very naughty girl," said Mrs. Baines, with restraint. ("I've got her," said Mrs. Baines to herself. "I may just as well keep my temper.")
And a sob broke out of Sophia. She was behaving like a little child. She bore no trace of the young maiden sedately crossing the Square without leave and without an escort.
("I knew she was going to cry," said Mrs. Baines, breathing relief.) "I'm waiting," said Mrs. Baines aloud.
A second sob. Mrs. Baines manufactured patience to meet the demand. "You tell me not to answer back, and then you say you're waiting," Sophia blubbered thickly.
"What's that you say? How can I tell what you say if you talk like that?" (But Mrs. Baines failed to hear out of discretion, which is better than valour.)
"It's of no consequence," Sophia blurted forth in a sob. She was weeping now, and tears were ricocheting off her lovely crimson cheeks on to the carpet; her whole body was trembling.
"Don't be a great baby," Mrs. Baines enjoined, with a touch of rough persuasiveness in her voice.
"It's you who make me cry," said Sophia, bitterly. "You make me cry and then you call me a great baby!" And sobs ran through her frame like waves one after another. She spoke so indistinctly that her mother now really had some difficulty in catching her words.
"Sophia," said Mrs. Baines, with god-like calm, "it is not I who make you cry. It is your guilty conscience makes you cry. I have merely asked you a question, and I intend to have an answer."
"I've told you." Here Sophia checked the sobs with an immense effort. "What have you told me?"
"I just went out."
"I will have no trifling," said Mrs. Baines." What did you go out for, and without telling me? If you had told me afterwards, when I came in, of your own accord, it might have been different. But no, not a word! It is I who have to ask! Now, quick! I can't wait any longer."
("I gave way over the castor-oil, my girl," Mrs. Baines said in her own breast. "But not again! Not again.!")
"I don't know," Sophia murmured.
"What do you mean--you don't know?"
The sobbing recommenced tempestuously. "I mean I don't know. I just went out." Her voice rose; it was noisy, but scarcely articulate. "What if I did go out?" "Sophia, I am not going to be talked to like this. If you think because you're leaving school you can do exactly as you like--"
"Do I want to leave school?" yelled Sophia, stamping. In a moment a hurricane of emotion overwhelmed her, as though that stamping of the foot had released the demons of the storm. Her face was transfigured by uncontrollable passion. "You all want to make me miserable!" she shrieked with terrible violence. "And now I can't even go out! You are a horrid, cruel woman, and I hate you! And you can do what you like! Put me in prison if you like! I know you'd be glad if I was dead!" She dashed from the room, banging the door with a shock that made the house rattle. And she had shouted so loud that she might have been heard in the shop, and even in the kitchen. It was a startling experience for Mrs. Baines. Mrs. Baines, why did you saddle yourself with a witness? Why did you so positively say that you intended to have an answer?
"Really," she stammered, pulling her dignity about her shoulders like a garment that the wind has snatched off. "I never dreamed that poor girl had such a dreadful temper! What a pity it is, for her OWN sake!" It was the best she could do.
Constance, who could not bear to witness her mother's humiliation, vanished very quietly from the room. She got halfway upstairs to the second floor, and then, hearing the loud, rapid, painful, regular intake of sobbing breaths, she hesitated and crept down again.
This was Mrs. Baines's first costly experience of the child thankless for having been brought into the world. It robbed her of her profound, absolute belief in herself. She had thought she knew everything in her house and could do everything there. And lo! she had suddenly stumbled against an unsuspected personality at large in her house, a sort of hard marble affair that informed her by means of bumps that if she did not want to be hurt she must keep out of the way. V
On the Sunday afternoon Mrs. Baines was trying to repose a little in the drawingroom, where she had caused a fire to be lighted. Constance was in the adjacent bedroom with her father. Sophia lay between blankets in the room overhead with a feverish cold. This cold and her new dress were Mrs. Baines's sole consolation at the moment. She had prophesied a cold for Sophia, refuser of castor- oil, and it had come. Sophia had received, for standing in her nightdress at a draughty window of a May morning, what Mrs. Baines called 'nature's slap in the face.' As for the dress, she had worshipped God in it, and prayed for Sophia in it, before dinner; and its four double rows of gimp on the skirt had been accounted a great success. With her lace-bordered mantle and her low, stringed bonnet she had assuredly given a unique lustre to the congregation at chapel. She was stout; but the fashions, prescribing vague outlines, broad downward slopes, and vast amplitudes, were favourable to her shape. It must not be supposed that stout women of a certain age never seek to seduce the eye and trouble the meditations of man by other than moral charms. Mrs. Baines knew that she was comely, natty, imposing, and elegant; and the knowledge gave her real pleasure. She would look over her shoulder in the glass as anxious as a girl: make no mistake.
She did not repose; she could not. She sat thinking, in exactly the same posture as Sophia's two afternoons previously. She would have been surprised to hear that her attitude, bearing, and expression powerfully recalled those of her reprehensible daughter. But it was so. A good angel made her restless, and she went idly to the window and glanced upon the empty, shuttered Square. She too, majestic matron, had strange, brief yearnings for an existence more romantic than this; shootings across her spirit's firmament of tailed comets; soft, inexplicable melancholies. The good angel, withdrawing her from such a mood, directed her gaze to a particular spot at the top of the square.
She passed at once out of the room--not precisely in a hurry, yet without wasting time. In a recess under the stairs, immediately outside the door, was a box about a foot square and eighteen inches deep covered with black American cloth. She bent down and unlocked this box, which was padded within and contained the Baines silver tea-service. She drew from the box teapot, sugar- bowl, milk-jug, sugar-tongs, hot-water jug, and cake-stand (a flattish dish with an arching semicircular handle)--chased vessels, silver without and silver-gilt within; glittering heirlooms that shone in the dark corner like the secret pride of respectable families. These she put on a tray that always stood on end in the recess. Then she looked upwards through the banisters to the second floor. "Maggie!" she piercingly whispered.
"Yes, mum," came a voice.
"Are you dressed?"
"Yes, mum. I'm just coming."
"Well, put on your muslin." "Apron," Mrs. Baines implied.
"Take these for tea," said Mrs. Baines when Maggie descended. "Better rub them over. You know where the cake is--that new one. The best cups. And the silver spoons."
They both heard a knock at the side-door, far off, below.
"There!" exclaimed Mrs. Baines. "Now take these right down into the kitchen before you open."
"Yes, mum," said Maggie, departing.
Mrs. Baines was wearing a black alpaca apron. She removed it and put on another one of black satin embroidered with yellow flowers, which, by merely inserting her arm into the chamber, she had taken from off the chest of drawers in her bedroom. Then she fixed herself in the drawing-room.
Maggie returned, rather short of breath, convoying the visitor.
"Ah! Miss Chetwynd," said Mrs. Baines, rising to welcome. "I'm sure I'm delighted to see you. I saw you coming down the Square, and I said to myself, 'Now, I do hope Miss Chetwynd isn't going to forget us.'"
Miss Chetwynd, simpering momentarily, came forward with that self- conscious, slightly histrionic air, which is one of the penalties of pedagogy. She lived under the eyes of her pupils. Her life was one ceaseless effort to avoid doing anything which might influence her charges for evil or shock the natural sensitiveness of their parents. She had to wind her earthly way through a forest of the most delicate susceptibilities--fern-fronds that stretched across the path, and that she must not even accidentally disturb with her skirt as she passed. No wonder she walked mincingly! No wonder she had a habit of keeping her elbows close to her sides, and drawing her mantle tight in the streets! Her prospectus talked about 'a sound and religious course of training,' 'study embracing the usual branches of English, with music by a talented master, drawing, dancing, and calisthenics.' Also 'needlework plain and ornamental;' also 'moral influence;' and finally about terms, 'which are very moderate, and every particular, with references to parents and others, furnished on application.' (Sometimes, too, without application.) As an illustration of the delicacy of fern- fronds, that single word 'dancing' had nearly lost her Constance and Sophia seven years before!
She was a pinched virgin, aged forty, and not 'well off;' in her family the gift of success had been monopolized by her elder sister. For these characteristics Mrs. Baines, as a matron in easy circumstances, pitied Miss Chetwynd. On the other hand, Miss Chetwynd could choose ground from which to look down upon Mrs. Baines, who after all was in trade. Miss Chetwynd had no trace of the local accent; she spoke with a southern refinement which the Five Towns, while making fun of it, envied. All her O's had a genteel leaning towards 'ow,' as ritualism leans towards Romanism. And she was the fount of etiquette, a wonder of correctness; in the eyes of her pupils' parents not so much 'a perfect LADY' as 'a PERFECT lady.' So that it was an extremely nice question whether, upon the whole, Mrs. Baines secretly condescended to Miss Chetwynd or Miss Chetwynd to Mrs. Baines. Perhaps Mrs. Baines, by virtue of her wifehood, carried the day. Miss Chetwynd, carefully and precisely seated, opened the conversation by explaining that even if Mrs. Baines had not written she should have called in any case, as she made a practice of calling at the home of her pupils in vacation time: which was true. Mrs. Baines, it should be stated, had on Friday afternoon sent to Miss Chetwynd one of her most luxurious notes--lavender- coloured paper with scalloped edges, the selectest mode of the day--to announce, in her Italian hand, that Constance and Sophia would both leave school at the end of the next term, and giving reasons in regard to Sophia.
Before the visitor had got very far, Maggie came in with a lacquered tea-caddy and the silver teapot and a silver spoon on a lacquered tray. Mrs. Baines, while continuing to talk, chose a key from her bunch, unlocked the tea-caddy, and transferred four teaspoonfuls of tea from it to the teapot and relocked the caddy. "Strawberry," she mysteriously whispered to Maggie; and Maggie disappeared, bearing the tray and its contents.
"And how is your sister? It is quite a long time since she was down here," Mrs. Baines went on to Miss Chetwynd, after whispering "strawberry."
The remark was merely in the way of small-talk--for the hostess felt a certain unwilling hesitation to approach the topic of daughters--but it happened to suit the social purpose of Miss Chetwynd to a nicety. Miss Chetwynd was a vessel brimming with great tidings.
"She is very well, thank you," said Miss Chetwynd, and her expression grew exceedingly vivacious. Her face glowed with pride as she added, "Of course everything is changed now."
"Indeed?" murmured Mrs. Baines, with polite curiosity.
"Yes," said Miss Chetwynd. "You've not heard?"
"No," said Mrs. Baines. Miss Chetwynd knew that she had not heard. "About Elizabeth's engagement? To the Reverend Archibald Jones?" It is the fact that Mrs. Baines was taken aback. She did nothing indiscreet; she did not give vent to her excusable amazement that the elder Miss Chetwynd should be engaged to any one at all, as some women would have done in the stress of the moment. She kept her presence of mind.
"This is really MOST interesting!" said she.
It was. For Archibald Jones was one of the idols of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, a special preacher famous throughout England. At 'Anniversaries' and 'Trust sermons,' Archibald Jones had probably no rival. His Christian name helped him; it was a luscious, resounding mouthful for admirers. He was not an itinerant minister, migrating every three years. His function was to direct the affairs of the 'Book Room,' the publishing department of the Connexion. He lived in London, and shot out into the provinces at week-ends, preaching on Sundays and giving a lecture, tinctured with bookishness, 'in the chapel' on Monday evenings. In every town he visited there was competition for the privilege of entertaining him. He had zeal, indefatigable energy, and a breezy wit. He was a widower of fifty, and his wife had been dead for twenty years. It had seemed as if women were not for this bright star. And here Elizabeth Chetwynd, who had left the Five Towns a quarter of a century before at the age of twenty, had caught him! Austere, moustached, formidable, desiccated, she must have done it with her powerful intellect! It must be a union of intellects! He had been impressed by hers, and she by his, and then their intellects had kissed. Within a week fifty thousand women in forty counties had pictured to themselves this osculation of intellects, and shrugged their shoulders, and decided once more that men were incomprehensible. These great ones in London, falling in love like the rest! But no! Love was a ribald and voluptuous word to use in such a matter as this. It was generally felt that the Reverend Archibald Jones and Miss Chetwynd the elder would lift marriage to what would now be termed an astral plane.
After tea had been served, Mrs. Baines gradually recovered her position, both in her own private esteem and in the deference of Miss Aline Chetwynd. "Yes," said she. "You can talk about your sister, and you can call HIM Archibald, and you can mince up your words. But have you got a tea-service like this? Can you conceive more perfect strawberry jam than this? Did not my dress cost more than you spend on your clothes in a year? Has a man ever looked at you? After all, is there not something about my situation ... in short, something ...?" She did not say this aloud. She in no way deviated from the scrupulous politeness of a hostess. There was nothing in even her tone to indicate that Mrs. John Baines was a personage. Yet it suddenly occurred to Miss Chetwynd that her pride in being the prospective sister-in-law of the Rev. Archibald Jones would be better for a while in her pocket. And she inquired after Mr. Baines. After this the conversation limped somewhat.
"I suppose you weren't surprised by my letter?" said Mrs. Baines. "I was and I wasn't," answered Miss Chetwynd, in her professional manner and not her manner of a prospective sister-in-law. "Of course I am naturally sorry to lose two such good pupils, but we can't keep our pupils for ever." She smiled; she was not without fortitude--it is easier to lose pupils than to replace them. "Still"--a pause--"what you say of Sophia is perfectly true, perfectly. She is quite as advanced as Constance. Still"--another pause and a more rapid enunciation-"Sophia is by no means an ordinary girl."
"I hope she hasn't been a very great trouble to you?"
"Oh NO!" exclaimed Miss Chetwynd. "Sophia and I have got on very well together. I have always tried to appeal to her reason. I have never FORCED her ... Now, with some girls ... In some ways I look on Sophia as the most remarkable girl--not pupil--but the most remarkable--what shall I say?--individuality, that I have ever met with." And her demeanour added, "And, mind you, this is something- -from me!"
"Indeed!" said Mrs. Baines. She told herself, "I am not your common foolish parent. I see my children impartially. I am incapable of being flattered concerning them."
Nevertheless she was nattered, and the thought shaped itself that really Sophia was no ordinary girl.
"I suppose she has talked to you about becoming a teacher?" asked Miss Chetwynd, taking a morsel of the unparalleled jam.
She held the spoon with her thumb and three fingers. Her fourth finger, in matters of honest labour, would never associate with the other three; delicately curved, it always drew proudly away from them.
"Has she mentioned that to you?" Mrs. Baines demanded, startled. "Oh yes!" said Miss Chetwynd. "Several times. Sophia is a very secretive girl, very--but I think I may say I have always had her confidence. There have been times when Sophia and I have been very near each other. Elizabeth was much struck with her. Indeed, I may tell you that in one of her last letters to me she spoke of Sophia and said she had mentioned her to Mr. Jones, and Mr. Jones remembered her quite well."
Impossible for even a wise, uncommon parent not to be affected by such an announcement!
"I dare say your sister will give up her school now," observed Mrs. Baines, to divert attention from her self-consciousness.
"Oh NO!" And this time Mrs. Baines had genuinely shocked Miss Chetwynd. "Nothing would induce Elizabeth to give up the cause of education. Archibald takes the keenest interest in the school. Oh no! Not for worlds!"
"THEN YOU THINK SOPHIA WOULD MAKE A GOOD TEACHER?" asked Mrs. Baines with apparent inconsequence, and with a smile. But the words marked an epoch in her mind. All was over.
"I think she is very much set on it and--"
"That wouldn't affect her father--or me," said Mrs. Baines quickly.
"Certainly not! I merely say that she is very much set on it. Yes, she would, at any rate, make a teacher far superior to the average." ("That girl has got the better of her mother without me!" she reflected.) "Ah! Here is dear Constance!" Constance, tempted beyond her strength by the sounds of the visit and the colloquy, had slipped into the room.
"I've left both doors open, mother," she excused herself for quitting her father, and kissed Miss Chetwynd.
She blushed, but she blushed happily, and really made a most creditable debut as a young lady. Her mother rewarded her by taking her into the conversation. And history was soon made.
So Sophia was apprenticed to Miss Aline Chetwynd. Mrs. Baines bore herself greatly. It was Miss Chetwynd who had urged, and her respect for Miss Chetwynd ... Also somehow the Reverend Archibald Jones came into the cause. Of course the idea of Sophia ever going to London was ridiculous, ridiculous! (Mrs. Baines secretly feared that the ridiculous might happen; but, with the Reverend Archibald Jones on the spot, the worst could be faced.) Sophia must understand that even the apprenticeship in Bursley was merely a trial. They would see how things went on. She had to thank Miss Chetwynd. "I made Miss Chetwynd come and talk to mother," said Sophia magnificently one night to simple Constance, as if to imply, 'Your Miss Chetwynd is my washpot.' To Constance, Sophia's mere enterprise was just as staggering as her success. Fancy her deliberately going out that Saturday morning, after her mother's definite decision, to enlist Miss Chetwynd in her aid!
There is no need to insist on the tragic grandeur of Mrs. Baines's renunciation--a renunciation which implied her acceptance of a change in the balance of power in her realm. Part of its tragedy was that none, not even Constance, could divine the intensity of Mrs. Baines's suffering. She had no confidant; she was incapable of showing a wound. But when she lay awake at night by the organism which had once been her husband, she dwelt long and deeply on the martyrdom of her life. What had she done to deserve it? Always had she conscientiously endeavoured to be kind, just, patient. And she knew herself to be sagacious and prudent. In the frightful and unguessed trials of her existence as a wife, surely she might have been granted consolations as a mother! Yet no; it had not been! And she felt all the bitterness of age against youth--youth egotistic, harsh, cruel, uncompromising; youth that is so crude, so ignorant of life, so slow to understand! She had Constance. Yes, but it would be twenty years before Constance could appreciate the sacrifice of judgment and of pride which her mother had made, in a sudden decision, during that rambling, starched, simpering interview with Miss Aline Chetwynd. Probably Constance thought that she had yielded to Sophia's passionate temper! Impossible to explain to Constance that she had yielded to nothing but a perception of Sophia's complete inability to hear reason and wisdom. Ah! Sometimes as she lay in the dark, she would, in fancy, snatch her heart from her bosom and fling it down before Sophia, bleeding, and cry: "See what I carry about with me, on your account!" Then she would take it back and hide it again, and sweeten her bitterness with wise admonitions to herself.
All this because Sophia, aware that if she stayed in the house she would be compelled to help in the shop, chose an honourable activity which freed her from the danger. Heart, how absurd of you to bleed!
"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 elephants."
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 the horrible. You could see the atrocities of the French Revolution, and of the Fiji Islands, and the ravages of unspeakable diseases, and the living flesh of a nearly nude human female guaranteed to turn the scale at twenty- two stone, and the skeletons of the mysterious phantoscope, and the bloody contests of champions naked to the waist (with the chance of picking up a red tooth as a relic). You could try your strength by hitting an image of a fellow-creature in the stomach, and test your aim by knocking off the heads of other images with a wooden ball. You could also shoot with rifles at various targets. All the streets were lined with stalls loaded with food in heaps, chiefly dried fish, the entrails of animals, and gingerbread. All the public-houses were crammed, and frenzied jolly drunkards, men and women, lunged along the pavements everywhere, their shouts vying with the trumpets, horns, and drums of the booths, and the shrieking, rattling toys that the children carried.
It was a glorious spectacle, but not a spectacle for the leading families. Miss Chetwynd's school was closed, so that the daughters of leading families might remain in seclusion till the worst was over. The Baineses ignored the Wakes in every possible way, choosing that week to have a show of mourning goods in the left- hand window, and refusing to let Maggie outside on any pretext. Therefore the dazzling social success of the elephant, which was quite easily drawing Mrs. Baines into the vortex, cannot imaginably be over-estimated.
On the previous night one of the three Wombwell elephants had suddenly knelt on a man in the tent; he had then walked out of the tent and picked up another man at haphazard from the crowd which was staring at the great pictures in front, and tried to put this second man into his mouth. Being stopped by his Indian attendant with a pitchfork, he placed the man on the ground and stuck his tusk through an artery of the victim's arm. He then, amid unexampled excitement, suffered himself to be led away. He was conducted to the rear of the tent, just in front of Baines's shuttered windows, and by means of stakes, pulleys, and ropes forced to his knees. His head was whitewashed, and six men of the Rifle Corps were engaged to shoot at him at a distance of five yards, while constables kept the crowd off with truncheons. He died instantly, rolling over with a soft thud. The crowd cheered, and, intoxicated by their importance, the Volunteers fired three more volleys into the carcase, and were then borne off as heroes to different inns. The elephant, by the help of his two companions, was got on to a railway lorry and disappeared into the night. Such was the greatest sensation that has ever occurred, or perhaps will ever occur, in Bursley. The excitement about the repeal of the Corn Laws, or about Inkerman, was feeble compared to that excitement. Mr. Critchlow, who had been called on to put a hasty tourniquet round the arm of the second victim, had popped in afterwards to tell John Baines all about it. Mr. Baines's interest, however, had been slight. Mr. Critchlow succeeded better with the ladies, who, though they had witnessed the shooting from the drawing-room, were thirsty for the most trifling details.
The next day it was known that the elephant lay near the playground, pending the decision of the Chief Bailiff and the Medical Officer as to his burial. And everybody had to visit the corpse. No social exclusiveness could withstand the seduction of that dead elephant. Pilgrims travelled from all the Five Towns to see him.
"We're going now," said Mrs. Baines, after she had assumed her bonnet and shawl.
"All right," said Sophia, pretending to be absorbed in study, as she sat on the sofa at the foot of her father's bed.
And Constance, having put her head in at the door, drew her mother after her like a magnet.
Then Sophia heard a remarkable conversation in the passage.
"Are you going up to see the elephant, Mrs. Baines?" asked the voice of Mr. Povey.
"I think I had better come with you. The crowd is sure to be very rough." Mr. Povey's tone was firm; he had a position.
"But the shop?"
"We shall not be long," said Mr. Povey.
"Oh yes, mother," Constance added appealingly.
Sophia felt the house thrill as the side-door banged. She sprang up and watched the three cross King Street diagonally, and so plunge into the Wakes. This triple departure was surely the crowning tribute to the dead elephant! It was simply astonishing. It caused Sophia to perceive that she had miscalculated the importance of the elephant. It made her regret her scorn of the elephant as an attraction. She was left behind; and the joy of life was calling her. She could see down into the Vaults on the opposite side of the street, where working men-potters and colliers--in their best clothes, some with high hats, were drinking, gesticulating, and laughing in a row at a long counter.
She noticed, while she was thus at the bedroom window, a young man ascending King Street, followed by a porter trundling a flat barrow of luggage. He passed slowly under the very window. She flushed. She had evidently been startled by the sight of this young man into no ordinary state of commotion. She glanced at the books on the sofa, and then at her father. Mr. Baines, thin and gaunt, and acutely pitiable, still slept. His brain had almost ceased to be active now; he had to be fed and tended like a bearded baby, and he would sleep for hours at a stretch even in the daytime. Sophia left the room. A moment later she ran into the shop, an apparition that amazed the three young lady assistants. At the corner near the window on the fancy side a little nook had been formed by screening off a portion of the counter with large flower-boxes placed end-up. This corner had come to be known as "Miss Baines's corner." Sophia hastened to it, squeezing past a young lady assistant in the narrow space between the back of the counter and the shelf-lined wall. She sat down in Constance's chair and pretended to look for something. She had examined herself in the cheval-glass in the showroom, on her way from the sick-chamber. When she heard a voice near the door of the shop asking first for Mr. Povey and then for Mrs. Baines, she rose, and seizing the object nearest to her, which happened to be a pair of scissors, she hurried towards the showroom stairs as though the scissors had been a grail, passionately sought and to be jealously hidden away. She wanted to stop and turn round, but something prevented her. She was at the end of the counter, under the curving stairs, when one of the assistants said: "I suppose you don't know when Mr. Povey or your mother are likely to be back, Miss Sophia? Here's--"
It was a divine release for Sophia.
"They're--I--" she stammered, turning round abruptly. Luckily she was still sheltered behind the counter.
The young man whom she had seen in the street came boldly forward. "Good morning, Miss Sophia," said he, hat in hand. "It is a long time since I had the pleasure of seeing you."
Never had she blushed as she blushed then. She scarcely knew what she was doing as she moved slowly towards her sister's corner again, the young man following her on the customer's side of the counter.
She knew that he was a traveller for the most renowned and gigantic of all Manchester wholesale firms--Birkinshaws. But she did not know his name, which was Gerald Scales. He was a rather short but extremely well-proportioned man of thirty, with fair hair, and a distinguished appearance, as became a representative of Birkinshaws. His broad, tight necktie, with an edge of white collar showing above it, was particularly elegant. He had been on the road for Birkinshaws for several years; but Sophia had only seen him once before in her life, when she was a little girl, three years ago. The relations between the travellers of the great firms and their solid, sure clients in small towns were in those days often cordially intimate. The traveller came with the lustre of a historic reputation around him; there was no need to fawn for orders; and the client's immense and immaculate respectability made him the equal of no matter what ambassador. It was a case of mutual esteem, and of that confidence-generating phenomenon, "an old account." The tone in which a commercial traveller of middle age would utter the phrase "an old account" revealed in a flash all that was romantic, prim, and stately in mid-Victorian commerce. In the days of Baines, after one of the elaborately engraved advice-circulars had arrived ('Our Mr.------will have the pleasure of waiting upon you on--day next, the--inst.') John might in certain cases be expected to say, on the morning of--day, 'Missis, what have ye gotten for supper to-night?'
Mr. Gerald Scales had never been asked to supper; he had never even seen John Baines; but, as the youthful successor of an aged traveller who had had the pleasure of St. Luke's Square, on behalf of Birkinshaws, since before railways, Mrs. Baines had treated him with a faint agreeable touch of maternal familiarity; and, both her daughters being once in the shop during his visit, she had on that occasion commanded the gawky girls to shake hands with him.
Sophia had never forgotten that glimpse. The young man without a name had lived in her mind, brightly glowing, as the very symbol and incarnation of the masculine and the elegant.
The renewed sight of him seemed to have wakened her out of a sleep. Assuredly she was not the same Sophia. As she sat in her sister's chair in the corner, entrenched behind the perpendicular boxes, playing nervously with the scissors, her beautiful face was transfigured into the ravishingly angelic. It would have been impossible for Mr. Gerald Scales, or anybody else, to credit, as he gazed at those lovely, sensitive, vivacious, responsive features, that Sophia was not a character of heavenly sweetness and perfection. She did not know what she was doing; she was nothing but the exquisite expression of a deep instinct to attract and charm. Her soul itself emanated from her in an atmosphere of allurement and acquiescence. Could those laughing lips hang in a heavy pout? Could that delicate and mild voice be harsh? Could those burning eyes be coldly inimical? Never! The idea was inconceivable! And Mr. Gerald Scales, with his head over the top of the boxes, yielded to the spell. Remarkable that Mr. Gerald Scales, with all his experience, should have had to come to Bursley to find the pearl, the paragon, the ideal! But so it was. They met in an equal abandonment; the only difference between them was that Mr. Scales, by force of habit, kept his head. "I see it's your wakes here," said he.
He was polite to the wakes; but now, with the least inflection in the world, he put the wakes at its proper level in the scheme of things as a local unimportance! She adored him for this; she was athirst for sympathy in the task of scorning everything local.
"I expect you didn't know," she said, implying that there was every reason why a man of his mundane interests should not know.
"I should have remembered if I had thought," said he. "But I didn't think. What's this about an elephant?"
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Have you heard of that?"
"My porter was full of it."
"Well," she said, "of course it's a very big thing in Bursley."
As she smiled in gentle pity of poor Bursley, he naturally did the same. And he thought how much more advanced and broad the younger generation was than the old! He would never have dared to express his real feelings about Bursley to Mrs. Baines, or even to Mr. Povey (who was, however, of no generation); yet here was a young woman actually sharing them.
She told him all the history of the elephant.
"Must have been very exciting," he commented, despite himself.
"Do you know," she replied, "it WAS."
After all, Bursley was climbing in their opinion.
"And mother and my sister and Mr. Povey have all gone to see it. That's why they're not here."
That the elephant should have caused both Mr. Povey and Mrs. Baines to forget that the representative of Birkinshaws was due to call was indeed a final victory for the elephant.
"But not you!" he exclaimed.
"No," she said. "Not me."
"Why didn't you go too?" He continued his flattering investigations with a generous smile.
"I simply didn't care to," said she, proudly nonchalant.
"And I suppose you are in charge here?"
"No," she answered. "I just happened to have run down here for these scissors. That's all."
"I often see your sister," said he. "'Often' do I say?--that is, generally, when I come; but never you."
"I'm never in the shop," she said. "It's just an accident to-day."
"Oh! So you leave the shop to your sister?"
"Yes." She said nothing of her teaching.
Then there was a silence. Sophia was very thankful to be hidden from the curiosity of the shop. The shop could see nothing of her, and only the back of the young man; and the conversation had been conducted in low voices. She tapped her foot, stared at the worn, polished surface of the counter, with the brass yardmeasure nailed along its edge, and then she uneasily turned her gaze to the left and seemed to be examining the backs of the black bonnets which were perched on high stands in the great window. Then her eyes caught his for an important moment.
"Yes," she breathed. Somebody had to say something. If the shop missed the murmur of their voices the shop would wonder what had happened to them. Mr. Scales looked at his watch. '"I dare say if I come in again about two--" he began.
"Oh yes, they're SURE to be in then," she burst out before he could finish his sentence.
He left abruptly, queerly, without shaking hands (but then it would have been difficult--she argued--for him to have put his arm over the boxes), and without expressing the hope of seeing her again. She peeped through the black bonnets, and saw the porter put the leather strap over his shoulders, raise the rear of the barrow, and trundle off; but she did not see Mr. Scales. She was drunk; thoughts were tumbling about in her brain like cargo loose in a rolling ship. Her entire conception of herself was being altered; her attitude towards life was being altered. The thought which knocked hardest against its fellows was, "Only in these moments have I begun to live!"
And as she flitted upstairs to resume watch over her father she sought to devise an innocent-looking method by which she might see Mr. Scales when he next called. And she speculated as to what his name was.
When Sophia arrived in the bedroom, she was startled because her father's head and beard were not in their accustomed place on the pillow. She could only make out something vaguely unusual sloping off the side of the bed. A few seconds passed--not to be measured in time--and she saw that the upper part of his body had slipped down, and his head was hanging, inverted, near the floor between the bed and the ottoman. His face, neck, and hands were dark and congested; his mouth was open, and the tongue protruded between the black, swollen, mucous lips; his eyes were prominent and coldly staring. The fact was that Mr. Baines had wakened up, and, being restless, had slid out partially from his bed and died of asphyxia. After having been unceasingly watched for fourteen years, he had, with an invalid's natural perverseness, taken advantage of Sophia's brief dereliction to expire. Say what you will, amid Sophia's horror, and her terrible grief and shame, she had visitings of the idea: he did it on purpose! She ran out of the room, knowing by intuition that he was dead, and shrieked out, "Maggie," at the top of her voice; the house echoed.
"Yes, miss," said Maggie, quite close, coming out of Mr. Povey's chamber with a slop-pail.
"Fetch Mr. Critchlow at once. Be quick. Just as you are. It's father--" Maggie, perceiving darkly that disaster was in the air, and instantly filled with importance and a sort of black joy, dropped her pail in the exact middle of the passage, and almost fell down the crooked stairs. One of Maggie's deepest instincts, always held in check by the stern dominance of Mrs. Baines, was to leave pails prominent on the main routes of the house; and now, divining what was at hand, it flamed into insurrection.
No sleepless night had ever been so long to Sophia as the three minutes which elapsed before Mr. Critchlow came. As she stood on the mat outside the bedroom door she tried to draw her mother and Constance and Mr. Povey by magnetic force out of the wakes into the house, and her muscles were contracted in this strange effort. She felt that it was impossible to continue living if the secret of the bedroom remained unknown one instant longer, so intense was her torture, and yet that the torture which could not be borne must be borne. Not a sound in the house! Not a sound from the shop! Only the distant murmur of the wakes!
"Why did I forget father?" she asked herself with awe. "I only meant to tell him that they were all out, and run back. Why did I forget father?" She would never be able to persuade anybody that she had literally forgotten her father's existence for quite ten minutes; but it was true, though shocking.
Then there were noises downstairs.
"Bless us! Bless us!" came the unpleasant voice of Mr. Critchlow as he bounded up the stairs on his long legs; he strode over the pail. "What's amiss?" He was wearing his white apron, and he carried his spectacles in his bony hand. "It's father--he's--" Sophia faltered.
She stood away so that he should enter the room first. He glanced at her keenly, and as it were resentfully, and went in. She followed, timidly, remaining near the door while Mr. Critchlow inspected her handiwork. He put on his spectacles with strange deliberation, and then, bending his knees outwards, thus lowered his body so that he could examine John Baines point-blank. He remained staring like this, his hands on his sharp apron-covered knees, for a little space; and then he seized the inert mass and restored it to the bed, and wiped those clotted lips with his apron.
Sophia heard loud breathing behind her. It was Maggie. She heard a huge, snorting sob; Maggie was showing her emotion.
"Go fetch doctor!" Mr. Critchlow rasped. "And don't stand gaping there!" "Run for the doctor, Maggie," said Sophia.
"How came ye to let him fall?" Mr. Critchlow demanded.
"I was out of the room. I just ran down into the shop--"
"Gallivanting with that young Scales!" said Mr. Critchlow, with devilish ferocity. "Well, you've killed yer father; that's all!"
He must have been at his shop door and seen the entry of the traveller! And it was precisely characteristic of Mr. Critchlow to jump in the dark at a horrible conclusion, and to be right after all. For Sophia Mr. Critchlow had always been the personification of malignity and malevolence, and now these qualities in him made him, to her, almost obscene. Her pride brought up tremendous reinforcements, and she approached the bed.
"Is he dead?" she asked in a quiet tone. (Somewhere within a voice was whispering, "So his name is Scales.")
"Don't I tell you he's dead?"
"Pail on the stairs!"
This mild exclamation came from the passage. Mrs. Baines, misliking the crowds abroad, had returned alone; she had left Constance in charge of Mr. Povey. Coming into her house by the shop and showroom, she had first noted the phenomenon of the pail- -proof of her theory of Maggie's incurable untidiness. "Been to see the elephant, I reckon!" said Mr. Critchlow, in fierce sarcasm, as he recognized Mrs. Baines's voice.
Sophia leaped towards the door, as though to bar her mother's entrance. But Mrs. Baines was already opening the door.
"Well, my pet--" she was beginning cheerfully.
Mr. Critchlow confronted her. And he had no more pity for the wife than for the daughter. He was furiously angry because his precious property had been irretrievably damaged by the momentary carelessness of a silly girl. Yes, John Baines was his property, his dearest toy! He was convinced that he alone had kept John Baines alive for fourteen years, that he alone had fully understood the case and sympathized with the sufferer, that none but he had been capable of displaying ordinary common sense in the sick-room. He had learned to regard John Baines as, in some sort, his creation. And now, with their stupidity, their neglect, their elephants, between them they had done for John Baines. He had always known it would come to that, and it had come to that.
"She let him fall out o' bed, and ye're a widow now, missis!" he announced with a virulence hardly conceivable. His angular features and dark eyes expressed a murderous hate for every woman named Baines.
"Mother!" cried Sophia, "I only ran down into the shop to--to--"
She seized her mother's arm in frenzied agony.
"My child!" said Mrs. Baines, rising miraculously to the situation with a calm benevolence of tone and gesture that remained for ever sublime in the stormy heart of Sophia, "do not hold me." With infinite gentleness she loosed herself from those clasping hands. "Have you sent for the doctor?" she questioned Mr. Critchlow.
The fate of her husband presented no mysteries to Mrs. Baines. Everybody had been warned a thousand times of the danger of leaving the paralytic, whose life depended on his position, and whose fidgetiness was thereby a constant menace of death to him. For five thousand nights she had wakened infallibly every time he stirred, and rearranged him by the flicker of a little oil lamp. But Sophia, unhappy creature, had merely left him. That was all.
Mr. Critchlow and the widow gazed, helplessly waiting, at the pitiable corpse, of which the salient part was the white beard. They knew not that they were gazing at a vanished era. John Baines had belonged to the past, to the age when men really did think of their souls, when orators by phrases could move crowds to fury or to pity, when no one had learnt to hurry, when Demos was only turning in his sleep, when the sole beauty of life resided in its inflexible and slow dignity, when hell really had no bottom, and a gilt-clasped Bible really was the secret of England's greatness. Mid-Victorian England lay on that mahogany bed. Ideals had passed away with John Baines. It is thus that ideals die; not in the conventional pageantry of honoured death, but sorrily, ignobly, while one's head is turned--
And Mr. Povey and Constance, very self-conscious, went and saw the dead elephant, and came back; and at the corner of King Street, Constance exclaimed brightly--
"Why! who's gone out and left the side-door open?"
For the doctor had at length arrived, and Maggie, in showing him upstairs with pious haste, had forgotten to shut the door.
And they took advantage of the side-door, rather guiltily, to avoid the eyes of the shop. They feared that in the parlour they would be the centre of a curiosity half ironical and half reproving; for had they not accomplished an escapade? So they walked slowly.
The real murderer was having his dinner in the commercial room up at the Tiger, opposite the Town Hall.
Several shutters were put up in the windows of the shop, to indicate a death, and the news instantly became known in trading circles throughout the town. Many people simultaneously remarked upon the coincidence that Mr. Baines should have died while there was a show of mourning goods in his establishment. This coincidence was regarded as extremely sinister, and it was apparently felt that, for the sake of the mind's peace, one ought not to inquire into such things too closely. From the moment of putting up the prescribed shutters, John Baines and his funeral began to acquire importance in Bursley, and their importance grew rapidly almost from hour to hour. The wakes continued as usual, except that the Chief Constable, upon representations being made to him by Mr. Critchlow and other citizens, descended upon St. Luke's Square and forbade the activities of Wombwell's orchestra. Wombwell and the Chief Constable differed as to the justice of the decree, but every well-minded person praised the Chief Constable, and he himself considered that he had enhanced the town's reputation for a decent propriety. It was noticed, too, not without a shiver of the uncanny, that that night the lions and tigers behaved like lambs, whereas on the previous night they had roared the whole Square out of its sleep.
The Chief Constable was not the only individual enlisted by Mr. Critchlow in the service of his friend's fame. Mr. Critchlow spent hours in recalling the principal citizens to a due sense of John Baines's past greatness. He was determined that his treasured toy should vanish underground with due pomp, and he left nothing undone to that end. He went over to Hanbridge on the still wonderful horse-car, and saw the editor-proprietor of the Staffordshire Signal (then a two-penny weekly with no thought of Football editions), and on the very day of the funeral the Signal came out with a long and eloquent biography of John Baines. This biography, giving details of his public life, definitely restored him to his legitimate position in the civic memory as an ex-chief bailiff, an ex-chairman of the Burial Board, and of the Five Towns Association for the Advancement of Useful Knowledge, and also as a "prime mover" in the local Turnpike Act, in the negotiations for the new Town Hall, and in the Corinthian facade of the Wesleyan Chapel; it narrated the anecdote of his courageous speech from the portico of the Shambles during the riots of 1848, and it did not omit a eulogy of his steady adherence to the wise old English maxims of commerce and his avoidance of dangerous modern methods. Even in the sixties the modern had reared its shameless head. The panegyric closed with an appreciation of the dead man's fortitude in the terrible affliction with which a divine providence had seen fit to try him; and finally the Signal uttered its absolute conviction that his native town would raise a cenotaph to his honour. Mr. Critchlow, being unfamiliar with the word "cenotaph," consulted Worcester's Dictionary, and when he found that it meant "a sepulchral monument to one who is buried elsewhere," he was as pleased with the Signal's language as with the idea, and decided that a cenotaph should come to pass.
The house and shop were transformed into a hive of preparation for the funeral. All was changed. Mr. Povey kindly slept for three nights on the parlour sofa, in order that Mrs. Baines might have his room. The funeral grew into an obsession, for multitudinous things had to be performed and done sumptuously and in strict accordance with precedent. There were the family mourning, the funeral repast, the choice of the text on the memorial card, the composition of the legend on the coffin, the legal arrangements, the letters to relations, the selection of guests, and the questions of bell-ringing, hearse, plumes, number of horses, and gravedigging. Nobody had leisure for the indulgence of grief except Aunt Maria, who, after she had helped in the laying-out, simply sat down and bemoaned unceasingly for hours her absence on the fatal morning. "If I hadn't been so fixed on polishing my candle-sticks," she weepingly repeated, "he mit ha' been alive and well now." Not that Aunt Maria had been informed of the precise circumstances of the death; she was not clearly aware that Mr. Baines had died through a piece of neglect. But, like Mr. Critchlow, she was convinced that there had been only one person in the world truly capable of nursing Mr. Baines. Beyond the family, no one save Mr. Critchlow and Dr. Harrop knew just how the martyr had finished his career. Dr. Harrop, having been asked bluntly if an inquest would be necessary, had reflected a moment and had then replied: "No." And he added, "Least said soonest mended--mark me!" They had marked him. He was commonsense in breeches.
As for Aunt Maria, she was sent about her snivelling business by Aunt Harriet. The arrival in the house of this genuine aunt from Axe, of this majestic and enormous widow whom even the imperial Mrs. Baines regarded with a certain awe, set a seal of ultimate solemnity on the whole event. In Mr. Povey's bedroom Mrs. Baines fell like a child into Aunt Harriet's arms and sobbed:
"If it had been anything else but that elephant!"
Such was Mrs. Baines's sole weakness from first to last.
Aunt Harriet was an exhaustless fountain of authority upon every detail concerning interments. And, to a series of questions ending with the word "sister," and answers ending with the word "sister," the prodigious travail incident to the funeral was gradually and successfully accomplished. Dress and the repast exceeded all other matters in complexity and difficulty. But on the morning of the funeral Aunt Harriet had the satisfaction of beholding her younger sister the centre of a tremendous cocoon of crape, whose slightest pleat was perfect. Aunt Harriet seemed to welcome her then, like a veteran, formally into the august army of relicts. As they stood side by side surveying the special table which was being laid in the showroom for the repast, it appeared inconceivable that they had reposed together in Mr. Povey's limited bed. They descended from the showroom to the kitchen, where the last delicate dishes were inspected. The shop was, of course, closed for the day, but Mr. Povey was busy there, and in Aunt Harriet's all-seeing glance he came next after the dishes. She rose from the kitchen to speak with him.
"You've got your boxes of gloves all ready?" she questioned him.
"Yes, Mrs. Maddack."
"You'll not forget to have a measure handy?"
"No, Mrs. Maddack."
"You'll find you'll want more of seven-and-three-quarters and eights than anything."
"Yes. I have allowed for that."
"If you place yourself behind the side-door and put your boxes on the harmonium, you'll be able to catch every one as they come in."
"That is what I had thought of, Mrs. Maddack."
She went upstairs. Mrs. Baines had reached the showroom again, and was smoothing out creases in the white damask cloth and arranging glass dishes of jam at equal distances from each other.
"Come, sister," said Mrs. Maddack. "A last look."
And they passed into the mortuary bedroom to gaze at Mr. Baines before he should be everlastingly nailed down. In death he had recovered some of his earlier dignity; but even so he was a startling sight. The two widows bent over him, one on either side, and gravely stared at that twisted, worn white face all neatly tucked up in linen.
"I shall fetch Constance and Sophia," said Mrs. Maddack, with tears in her voice. "Do you go into the drawing-room, sister."
But Mrs. Maddack only succeeded in fetching Constance.
Then there was the sound of wheels in King Street. The long rite of the funeral was about to begin. Every guest, after having been measured and presented with a pair of the finest black kid gloves by Mr. Povey, had to mount the crooked stairs and gaze upon the carcase of John Baines, going afterwards to the drawingroom to condole briefly with the widow. And every guest, while conscious of the enormity of so thinking, thought what an excellent thing it was that John Baines should be at last dead and gone. The tramping on the stairs was continual, and finally Mr. Baines himself went downstairs, bumping against corners, and led a cortege of twenty vehicles.
The funeral tea was not over at seven o'clock, five hours after the commencement of the rite. It was a gigantic and faultless meal, worthy of John Baines's distant past. Only two persons were absent from it--John Baines and Sophia. The emptiness of Sophia's chair was much noticed; Mrs. Maddack explained that Sophia was very high-strung and could not trust herself. Great efforts were put forth by the company to be lugubrious and inconsolable, but the secret relief resulting from the death would not be entirely hidden. The vast pretence of acute sorrow could not stand intact against that secret relief and the lavish richness of the food.
To the offending of sundry important relatives from a distance, Mr. Critchlow informally presided over that assemblage of grave men in high stocks and crinolined women. He had closed his shop, which had never before been closed on a weekday, and he had a great deal to say about this extraordinary closure. It was due as much to the elephant as to the funeral. The elephant had become a victim to the craze for souvenirs. Already in the night his tusks had been stolen; then his feet disappeared for umbrella-stands, and most of his flesh had departed in little hunks. Everybody in Bursley had resolved to participate in the elephant. One consequence was that all the chemists' shops in the town were assaulted by strings of boys. 'Please a pennorth o' alum to tak' smell out o' a bit o' elephant.' Mr. Critchlow hated boys.
"'I'll alum ye!' says I, and I did. I alummed him out o' my shop with a pestle. If there'd been one there'd been twenty between opening and nine o'clock. 'George,' I says to my apprentice, 'shut shop up. My old friend John Baines is going to his long home to- day, and I'll close. I've had enough o' alum for one day.'"
The elephant fed the conversation until after the second relay of hot muffins. When Mr. Critchlow had eaten to his capacity, he took the Signal importantly from his pocket, posed his spectacles, and read the obituary all through in slow, impressive accents. Before he reached the end Mrs. Baines began to perceive that familiarity had blinded her to the heroic qualities of her late husband. The fourteen years of ceaseless care were quite genuinely forgotten, and she saw him in his strength and in his glory. When Mr. Critchlow arrived at the eulogy of the husband and father, Mrs. Baines rose and left the showroom. The guests looked at each other in sympathy for her. Mr. Critchlow shot a glance at her over his spectacles and continued steadily reading. After he had finished he approached the question of the cenotaph.
Mrs. Baines, driven from the banquet by her feelings, went into the drawingroom. Sophia was there, and Sophia, seeing tears in her mother's eyes, gave a sob, and flung herself bodily against her mother, clutching her, and hiding her face in that broad crape, which abraded her soft skin.
"Mother," she wept passionately, "I want to leave the school now. I want to please you. I'll do anything in the world to please you. I'll go into the shop if you'd like me to!" Her voice lost itself in tears.
"Calm yourself, my pet," said Mrs. Baines, tenderly, caressing her. It was a triumph for the mother in the very hour when she needed a triumph.
I.5. The Traveller
'Equisite, 1s. 11d.'
These singular signs were being painted in shiny black on an unrectangular parallelogram of white cardboard by Constance one evening in the parlour. She was seated, with her left side to the fire and to the fizzing gas, at the dining-table, which was covered with a checked cloth in red and white. Her dress was of dark crimson; she wore a cameo brooch and a gold chain round her neck; over her shoulders was thrown a white knitted shawl, for the weather was extremely cold, the English climate being much more serious and downright at that day than it is now. She bent low to the task, holding her head slightly askew, putting the tip of her tongue between her lips, and expending all the energy of her soul and body in an intense effort to do what she was doing as well as it could be done. "Splendid!" said Mr. Povey.
Mr. Povey was fronting her at the table; he had his elbows on the table, and watched her carefully, with the breathless and divine anxiety of a dreamer who is witnessing the realization of his dream. And Constance, without moving any part of her frame except her head, looked up at him and smiled for a moment, and he could see her delicious little nostrils at the end of her snub nose.
Those two, without knowing or guessing it, were making history-- the history of commerce. They had no suspicion that they were the forces of the future insidiously at work to destroy what the forces of the past had created, but such was the case. They were conscious merely of a desire to do their duty in the shop and to the shop; probably it had not even occurred to them that this desire, which each stimulated in the breast of the other, had assumed the dimensions of a passion. It was ageing Mr. Povey, and it had made of Constance a young lady tremendously industrious and preoccupied.
Mr. Povey had recently been giving attention to the question of tickets. It is not too much to say that Mr. Povey, to whom heaven had granted a minimum share of imagination, had nevertheless discovered his little parcel of imagination in the recesses of being, and brought it effectively to bear on tickets. Tickets ran in conventional grooves. There were heavy oblong tickets for flannels, shirting, and other stuffs in the piece; there were smaller and lighter tickets for intermediate goods; and there were diamond-shaped tickets (containing nothing but the price) for bonnets, gloves, and flimflams generally. The legends on the tickets gave no sort of original invention. The words 'lasting,' 'durable,' 'unshrinkable,' 'latest,' 'cheap,' 'stylish,' 'novelty,' 'choice' (as an adjective), 'new,' and 'tasteful,' exhausted the entire vocabulary of tickets. Now Mr. Povey attached importance to tickets, and since he was acknowledged to be the best window-dresser in Bursley, his views were entitled to respect. He dreamed of other tickets, in original shapes, with original legends. In brief, he achieved, in regard to tickets, the rare feat of ridding himself of preconceived notions, and of approaching a subject with fresh, virginal eyes. When he indicated the nature of his wishes to Mr. Chawner, the wholesale stationer who supplied all the Five Towns with shoptickets, Mr. Chawner grew uneasy and worried; Mr. Chawner was indeed shocked. For Mr. Chawner there had always been certain well-defined genera of tickets, and he could not conceive the existence of other genera. When Mr. Povey suggested circular tickets--tickets with a blue and a red line round them, tickets with legends such as 'unsurpassable,' 'very dainty,' or 'please note,' Mr. Chawner hummed and hawed, and finally stated that it would be impossible to manufacture these preposterous tickets, these tickets which would outrage the decency of trade.
If Mr. Povey had not happened to be an exceedingly obstinate man, he might have been defeated by the crass Toryism of Mr. Chawner. But Mr. Povey was obstinate, and he had resources of ingenuity which Mr. Chawner little suspected. The great, tramping march of progress was not to be impeded by Mr. Chawner. Mr. Povey began to make his own tickets. At first he suffered as all reformers and inventors suffer. He used the internal surface of collar-boxes and ordinary ink and pens, and the result was such as to give customers the idea that Baineses were too poor or too mean to buy tickets like other shops. For bought tickets had an ivory-tinted gloss, and the ink was black and glossy, and the edges were very straight and did not show yellow between two layers of white. Whereas Mr. Povey's tickets were of a bluish-white, without gloss; the ink was neither black nor shiny, and the edges were amateurishly rough: the tickets had an unmistakable air of having been 'made out of something else'; moreover, the lettering had not the free, dashing style of Mr. Chawner's tickets.
And did Mrs. Baines encourage him in his single-minded enterprise on behalf of HER business? Not a bit! Mrs. Baines's attitude, when not disdainful, was inimical! So curious is human nature, so blind is man to his own advantage! Life was very complex for Mr. Povey. It might have been less complex had Bristol board and Chinese ink been less expensive; with these materials he could have achieved marvels to silence all prejudice and stupidity; but they were too costly. Still, he persevered, and Constance morally supported him; he drew his inspiration and his courage from Constance. Instead of the internal surface of collar-boxes, he tried the external surface, which was at any rate shiny. But the ink would not 'take' on it. He made as many experiments as Edison was to make, and as many failures. Then Constance was visited by a notion for mixing sugar with ink. Simple, innocent creature--why should providence have chosen her to be the vessel of such a sublime notion? Puzzling enigma, which, however, did not exercise Mr. Povey! He found it quite natural that she should save him. Save him she did. Sugar and ink would 'take' on anything, and it shone like a 'patent leather' boot. Further, Constance developed a 'hand' for lettering which outdid Mr. Povey's. Between them they manufactured tickets by the dozen and by the score--tickets which, while possessing nearly all the smartness and finish of Mr. Chawner's tickets, were much superior to these in originality and strikingness. Constance and Mr. Povey were delighted and fascinated by them. As for Mrs. Baines, she said little, but the modern spirit was too elated by its success to care whether she said little or much. And every few days Mr. Povey thought of some new and wonderful word to put on a ticket.
His last miracle was the word 'exquisite.' 'Exquisite,' pinned on a piece of broad tartan ribbon, appeared to Constance and Mr. Povey as the finality of appropriateness. A climax worthy to close the year! Mr. Povey had cut the card and sketched the word and figures in pencil, and Constance was doing her executive portion of the undertaking. They were very happy, very absorbed, in this strictly business matter. The clock showed five minutes past ten. Stern duty, a pure desire for the prosperity of the shop, had kept them at hard labour since before eight o'clock that morning!
The stairs-door opened, and Mrs. Baines appeared, in bonnet and furs and gloves, all clad for going out. She had abandoned the cocoon of crape, but still wore weeds. She was stouter than ever.
"What!" she cried. "Not ready! Now really!"
"Oh, mother! How you made me jump!" Constance protested. "What time is it? It surely isn't time to go yet!"
"Look at the clock!" said Mrs. Baines, drily.
"Well, I never!" Constance murmured, confused.
"Come, put your things together, and don't keep me waiting," said Mrs. Baines, going past the table to the window, and lifting the blind to peep out. "Still snowing," she observed. "Oh, the band's going away at last! I wonder how they can play at all in this weather. By the way, what was that tune they gave us just now? I couldn't make out whether it was 'Redhead,' or--"
"Band?" questioned Constance--the simpleton!
Neither she nor Mr. Povey had heard the strains of the Bursley Town Silver Prize Band which had been enlivening the season according to its usual custom. These two practical, duteous, commonsense young and youngish persons had been so absorbed in their efforts for the welfare of the shop that they had positively not only forgotten the time, but had also failed to notice the band! But if Constance had had her wits about her she would at least have pretended that she had heard it.
"What's this?" asked Mrs. Baines, bringing her vast form to the table and picking up a ticket.
Mr. Povey said nothing. Constance said: "Mr. Povey thought of it to-day. Don't you think it's very good, mother?"
"I'm afraid I don't," Mrs. Baines coldly replied.
She had mildly objected already to certain words; but 'exquisite' seemed to her silly; it seemed out of place; she considered that it would merely bring ridicule on her shop. 'Exquisite' written upon a window-ticket! No! What would John Baines have thought of 'exquisite'?
"'Exquisite!'" She repeated the word with a sarcastic inflection, putting the accent, as every one put it, on the second syllable. "I don't think that will quite do." "But why not, mother?"
"It's not suitable, my dear."
She dropped the ticket from her gloved hand. Mr. Povey had darkly flashed. Though he spoke little, he was as sensitive as he was obstinate. On this occasion he said nothing. He expressed his feelings by seizing the ticket and throwing it into the fire.
The situation was extremely delicate. Priceless employes like Mr. Povey cannot be treated as machines, and Mrs. Baines of course instantly saw that tact was needed.
"Go along to my bedroom and get ready, my pet," said she to Constance. "Sophia is there. There's a good fire. I must just speak to Maggie." She tactfully left the room.
Mr. Povey glanced at the fire and the curling red remains of the ticket. Trade was bad; owing to weather and war, destitution was abroad; and he had been doing his utmost for the welfare of the shop; and here was the reward!
Constance's eyes were full of tears. "Never mind!" she murmured, and went upstairs.
It was all over in a moment.
In the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on Duck Bank there was a full and influential congregation. For in those days influential people were not merely content to live in the town where their fathers had lived, without dreaming of country residences and smokeless air--they were content also to believe what their fathers had believed about the beginning and the end of all. There was no such thing as the unknowable in those days. The eternal mysteries were as simple as an addition sum; a child could tell you with absolute certainty where you would be and what you would be doing a million years hence, and exactly what God thought of you. Accordingly, every one being of the same mind, every one met on certain occasions in certain places in order to express the universal mind. And in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, for example, instead of a sparse handful of persons disturbingly conscious of being in a minority, as now, a magnificent and proud majority had collected, deeply aware of its rightness and its correctness. And the minister, backed by minor ministers, knelt and covered his face in the superb mahogany rostrum; and behind him, in what was then still called the 'orchestra' (though no musical instruments except the grand organ had sounded in it for decades), the choir knelt and covered their faces; and all around in the richly painted gallery and on the ground-floor, multitudinous rows of people, in easy circumstances of body and soul, knelt in high pews and covered their faces. And there floated before them, in the intense and prolonged silence, the clear vision of Jehovah on a throne, a God of sixty or so with a moustache and a beard, and a non-committal expression which declined to say whether or not he would require more bloodshed; and this God, destitute of pinions, was surrounded by white-winged creatures that wafted themselves to and fro while chanting; and afar off was an obscene monstrosity, with cloven hoofs and a tail very dangerous and rude and interfering, who could exist comfortably in the middle of a coal- fire, and who took a malignant and exhaustless pleasure in coaxing you by false pretences into the same fire; but of course you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities. Once a year, for ten minutes by the clock, you knelt thus, in mass, and by meditation convinced yourself that you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities. And the hour was very solemn, the most solemn of all the hours.
Strange that immortal souls should be found with the temerity to reflect upon mundane affairs in that hour! Yet there were undoubtedly such in the congregation; there were perhaps many to whom the vision, if clear, was spasmodic and fleeting. And among them the inhabitants of the Baines family pew! Who would have supposed that Mr. Povey, a recent convert from Primitive Methodism in King Street to Wesleyan Methodism on Duck Bank, was dwelling upon window-tickets and the injustice of women, instead of upon his relations with Jehovah and the tailed one? Who would have supposed that the gentleeyed Constance, pattern of daughters, was risking her eternal welfare by smiling at the tailed one, who, concealing his tail, had assumed the image of Mr. Povey? Who would have supposed that Mrs. Baines, instead of resolving that Jehovah and not the tailed one should have ultimate rule over her, was resolving that she and not Mr. Povey should have ultimate rule over her house and shop? It was a pew-ful that belied its highly satisfactory appearance. (And possibly there were other pew-fuls equally deceptive.)
Sophia alone, in the corner next to the wall, with her beautiful stern face pressed convulsively against her hands, was truly busy with immortal things. Turbulent heart, the violence of her spiritual life had made her older! Never was a passionate, proud girl in a harder case than Sophia! In the splendour of her remorse for a fatal forgetfulness, she had renounced that which she loved and thrown herself into that which she loathed. It was her nature so to do. She had done it haughtily, and not with kindness, but she had done it with the whole force of her will. Constance had been compelled to yield up to her the millinery department, for Sophia's fingers had a gift of manipulating ribbons and feathers that was beyond Constance. Sophia had accomplished miracles in the millinery. Yes, and she would be utterly polite to customers; but afterwards, when the customers were gone, let mothers, sisters, and Mr. Poveys beware of her fiery darts!
But why, when nearly three months had elapsed after her father's death, had she spent more and more time in the shop, secretly aflame with expectancy? Why, when one day a strange traveller entered the shop and announced himself the new representative of Birkinshaws--why had her very soul died away within her and an awful sickness seized her? She knew then that she had been her own deceiver. She recognized and admitted, abasing herself lower than the lowest, that her motive in leaving Miss Chetwynd's and joining the shop had been, at the best, very mixed, very impure. Engaged at Miss Chetwynd's, she might easily have never set eyes on Gerald Scales again. Employed in the shop, she could not fail to meet him. In this light was to be seen the true complexion of the splendour of her remorse. A terrible thought for her! And she could not dismiss it. It contaminated her existence, this thought! And she could confide in no one. She was incapable of showing a wound. Quarter had succeeded quarter, and Gerald Scales was no more heard of. She had sacrificed her life for worse than nothing. She had made her own tragedy. She had killed her father, cheated and shamed herself with a remorse horribly spurious, exchanged content for misery and pride for humiliation--and with it all, Gerald Scales had vanished! She was ruined. She took to religion, and her conscientious Christian virtues, practised with stern inclemency, were the canker of the family. Thus a year and a half had passed. And then, on this last day of the year, the second year of her shame and of her heart's widowhood, Mr. Scales had reappeared. She had gone casually into the shop and found him talking to her mother and Mr. Povey. He had come back to the provincial round and to her. She shook his hand and fled, because she could not have stayed. None had noticed her agitation, for she had held her body as in a vice. She knew the reason neither of his absence nor of his return. She knew nothing. And not a word had been said at meals. And the day had gone and the night come; and now she was in chapel, with Constance by her side and Gerald Scales in her soul! Happy beyond previous conception of happiness! Wretched beyond an unutterable woe! And none knew! What was she to pray for? To what purpose and end ought she to steel herself? Ought she to hope, or ought she to despair? "O God, help me!" she kept whispering to Jehovah whenever the heavenly vision shone through the wrack of her meditation. "O God, help me!" She had a conscience that, when it was in the mood for severity, could be unspeakably cruel to her.
And whenever she looked, with dry, hot eyes, through her gloved fingers, she saw in front of her on the wall a marble tablet inscribed in gilt letters, the cenotaph! She knew all the lines by heart, in their spacious grandiloquence; lines such as:
EVER READY WITH HIS TONGUE HIS PEN AND HIS PURSE TO HELP THE CHURCH OF HIS FATHERS IN HER HE LIVED AND IN HER HE DIED CHERISHING A DEEP AND ARDENT AFFECTION FOR HIS BELOVED FAITH AND CREED.
HIS SYMPATHIES EXTENDED BEYOND HIS OWN COMMUNITY HE WAS ALWAYS TO THE FORE IN GOOD WORKS AND HE SERVED THE CIRCUIT THE TOWN AND THE DISTRICT WITH GREAT ACCEPTANCE AND USEFULNESS.
Thus had Mr. Critchlow's vanity been duly appeased.
As the minutes sped in the breathing silence of the chapel the emotional tension grew tighter; worshippers sighed heavily, or called upon Jehovah for a sign, or merely coughed an invocation. And then at last the clock in the middle of the balcony gave forth the single stroke to which it was limited; the ministers rose, and the congregation after them; and everybody smiled as though it was the millennium, and not simply the new year, that had set in. Then, faintly, through walls and shut windows, came the sound of bells and of steam syrens and whistles. The superintendent minister opened his hymn-book, and the hymn was sung which had been sung in Wesleyan Chapels on New Year's morn since the era of John Wesley himself. The organ finished with a clanguor of all its pipes; the minister had a few last words with Jehovah, and nothing was left to do except to persevere in well-doing. The people leaned towards each other across the high backs of the pews.
"A happy New Year!"
"Eh, thank ye! The same to you!"
"Another Watch Night service over!"
"Eh. yes!" And a sigh.
Then the aisles were suddenly crowded, and there was a good- humoured, optimistic pushing towards the door. In the Corinthian porch occurred a great putting-on of cloaks, ulsters, goloshes, and even pattens, and a great putting-up of umbrellas. And the congregation went out into the whirling snow, dividing into several black, silent-footed processions, down Trafalgar Road, up towards the playground, along the market-place, and across Duck Square in the direction of St. Luke's Square.
Mr. Povey was between Mrs. Baines and Constance.
"You must take my arm, my pet," said Mrs. Baines to Sophia.
Then Mr. Povey and Constance waded on in front through the drifts. Sophia balanced that enormous swaying mass, her mother. Owing to their hoops, she had much difficulty in keeping close to her. Mrs. Baines laughed with the complacent ease of obesity, yet a fall would have been almost irremediable for her; and so Sophia had to laugh too. But, though she laughed, God had not helped her. She did not know where she was going, nor what might happen to her next.
"Why, bless us!" exclaimed Mrs. Baines, as they turned the corner into King Street. "There's some one sitting on our door-step!"
There was: a figure swathed in an ulster, a maud over the ulster, and a high hat on the top of all. It could not have been there very long, because it was only speckled with snow. Mr. Povey plunged forward.
"It's Mr. Scales, of all people!" said Mr. Povey.
"Mr. Scales!" cried Mrs. Baines.
And, "Mr. Scales!" murmured Sophia, terribly afraid.
Perhaps she was afraid of miracles. Mr. Scales sitting on her mother's doorstep in the middle of the snowy night had assuredly the air of a miracle, of something dreamed in a dream, of something pathetically and impossibly appropriate--'pat,' as they say in the Five Towns. But he was a tangible fact there. And years afterwards, in the light of further knowledge of Mr. Scales, Sophia came to regard his being on the doorstep as the most natural and characteristic thing in the world. Real miracles never seem to be miracles, and that which at the first blush resembles one usually proves to be an instance of the extremely prosaic. III
"Is that you, Mrs. Baines?" asked Gerald Scales, in a half-witted voice, looking up, and then getting to his feet. "Is this your house? So it is! Well, I'd no idea I was sitting on your doorstep."
He smiled timidly, nay, sheepishly, while the women and Mr. Povey surrounded him with their astonished faces under the light of the gas-lamp. Certainly he was very pale.
"But whatever is the matter, Mr. Scales?" Mrs. Baines demanded in an anxious tone. "Are you ill? Have you been suddenly--"
"Oh no," said the young man lightly. "It's nothing. Only I was set on just now, down there,"--he pointed to the depths of King Street.
"Set on!" Mrs. Baines repeated, alarmed.
"That makes the fourth case in a week, that we KNOW of!" said Mr. Povey. "It really is becoming a scandal."
The fact was that, owing to depression of trade, lack of employment, and rigorous weather, public security in the Five Towns was at that period not as perfect as it ought to have been. In the stress of hunger the lower classes were forgetting their manners--and this in spite of the altruistic and noble efforts of their social superiors to relieve the destitution due, of course, to short-sighted improvidence. When (the social superiors were asking in despair) will the lower classes learn to put by for a rainy day? (They might have said a snowy and a frosty day.) It was 'really too bad' of the lower classes, when everything that could be done was being done for them, to kill, or even attempt to kill, the goose that lays the golden eggs! And especially in a respectable town! What, indeed, were things coming to? Well, here was Mr. Gerald Scales, gentleman from Manchester, a witness and victim to the deplorable moral condition of the Five Towns. What would he think of the Five Towns? The evil and the danger had been a topic of discussion in the shop for a week past, and now it was brought home to them.
"I hope you weren't--" said Mrs. Baines, apologetically and sympathetically. "Oh no!" Mr. Scales interrupted her quite gaily. "I managed to beat them off. Only my elbow--"
Meanwhile it was continuing to snow.
"Do come in!" said Mrs. Baines.
"I couldn't think of troubling you," said Mr. Scales. "I'm all right now, and I can find my way to the Tiger."
"You must come in, if it's only for a minute," said Mrs. Baines, with decision. She had to think of the honour of the town.
"You're very kind," said Mr. Scales.
The door was suddenly opened from within, and Maggie surveyed them from the height of the two steps.
"A happy New Year, mum, to all of you."
"Thank you, Maggie," said Mrs. Baines, and primly added:
"The same to you!" And in her own mind she said that Maggie could best prove her desire for a happy new year by contriving in future not to 'scamp her corners,' and not to break so much crockery.
Sophia, scarce knowing what she did, mounted the steps.
"Mr. Scales ought to let our New Year in, my pet," Mrs. Baines stopped her. "Oh, of course, mother!" Sophia concurred with, a gasp, springing back nervously.
Mr. Scales raised his hat, and duly let the new year, and much snow, into the Baines parlour. And there was a vast deal of stamping of feet, agitating of umbrellas, and shaking of cloaks and ulsters on the doormat in the corner by the harmonium. And Maggie took away an armful of everything snowy, including goloshes, and received instructions to boil milk and to bring 'mince.' Mr. Povey said "B-r-r-r!" and shut the door (which was bordered with felt to stop ventilation); Mrs. Baines turned up the gas till it sang, and told Sophia to poke the fire, and actually told Constance to light the second gas.
The placidity of existence had been agreeably disturbed (yes, agreeably, in spite of horror at the attack on Mr. Scales's elbow) by an adventure. Moreover, Mr. Scales proved to be in evening- dress. And nobody had ever worn evening-dress in that house before.
Sophia's blood was in her face, and it remained there, enhancing the vivid richness of her beauty. She was dizzy with a strange and disconcerting intoxication. She seemed to be in a world of unrealities and incredibilities. Her ears heard with indistinctness, and the edges of things and people had a prismatic colouring. She was in a state of ecstatic, unreasonable, inexplicable happiness. All her misery, doubts, despair, rancour, churlishness, had disappeared. She was as softly gentle as Constance. Her eyes were the eyes of a fawn, and her gestures delicious in their modest and sensitive grace. Constance was sitting on the sofa, and, after glancing about as if for shelter, she sat down on the sofa by Constance's side. She tried not to stare at Mr. Scales, but her gaze would not leave him. She was sure that he was the most perfect man in the world. A shortish man, perhaps, but a perfect. That such perfection could be was almost past her belief. He excelled all her dreams of the ideal man. His smile, his voice, his hand, his hair--never were such! Why, when he spoke--it was positively music! When he smiled--it was heaven! His smile, to Sophia, was one of those natural phenomena which are so lovely that they make you want to shed tears. There is no hyperbole in this description of Sophia's sensations, but rather an under-statement of them. She was utterly obsessed by the unique qualities of Mr. Scales. Nothing would have persuaded her that the peer of Mr. Scales existed among men, or could possibly exist. And it was her intense and profound conviction of his complete pre-eminence that gave him, as he sat there in the rocking-chair in her mother's parlour, that air of the unreal and the incredible.
"I stayed in the town on purpose to go to a New Year's party at Mr. Lawton's," Mr. Scales was saying.
"Ah! So you know Lawyer Lawton!" observed Mrs. Baines, impressed, for Lawyer Lawton did not consort with tradespeople. He was jolly with them, and he did their legal business for them, but he was not of them. His friends came from afar. "My people are old acquaintances of his," said Mr. Scales, sipping the milk which Maggie had brought.
"Now, Mr. Scales, you must taste my mince. A happy month for every tart you eat, you know," Mrs. Baines reminded him.
He bowed. "And it was as I was coming away from there that I got into difficulties." He laughed.
Then he recounted the struggle, which had, however, been brief, as the assailants lacked pluck. He had slipped and fallen on his elbow on the kerb, and his elbow might have been broken, had not the snow been so thick. No, it did not hurt him now; doubtless a mere bruise. It was fortunate that the miscreants had not got the better of him, for he had in his pocket-book a considerable sum of money in notes--accounts paid! He had often thought what an excellent thing it would be if commercials could travel with dogs, particularly in winter. There was nothing like a dog.
"You are fond of dogs?" asked Mr. Povey, who had always had a secret but impracticable ambition to keep a dog.
"Yes," said Mr. Scales, turning now to Mr. Povey.
"Keep one?" asked Mr. Povey, in a sporting tone.
"I have a fox-terrier bitch," said Mr. Scales, "that took a first at Knutsford; but she's getting old now."
The sexual epithet fell queerly on the room. Mr. Povey, being a man of the world, behaved as if nothing had happened; but Mrs. Baines's curls protested against this unnecessary coarseness. Constance pretended not to hear. Sophia did not understandingly hear. Mr. Scales had no suspicion that he was transgressing a convention by virtue of which dogs have no sex. Further, he had no suspicion of the local fame of Mrs. Baines's mince-tarts. He had already eaten more mincetarts than he could enjoy, before beginning upon hers, and Mrs. Baines missed the enthusiasm to which she was habituated from consumers of her pastry. Mr. Povey, fascinated, proceeded in the direction of dogs, and it grew more and more evident that Mr. Scales, who went out to parties in evening dress, instead of going in respectable broad- cloth to watch-night services, who knew the great ones of the land, and who kept dogs of an inconvenient sex, was neither an ordinary commercial traveller nor the kind of man to which the Square was accustomed. He came from a different world.
"Lawyer Lawton's party broke up early--at least I mean, considering--" Mrs. Baines hesitated.
After a pause Mr. Scales replied, "Yes, I left immediately the clock struck twelve. I've a heavy day to-morrow--I mean to-day."
It was not an hour for a prolonged visit, and in a few minutes Mr. Scales was ready again to depart. He admitted a certain feebleness ('wankiness,' he playfully called it, being proud of his skill in the dialect), and a burning in his elbow; but otherwise he was quite well--thanks to Mrs. Baines's most kind hospitality ... He really didn't know how he came to be sitting on her doorstep. Mrs. Baines urged him, if he met a policeman on his road to the Tiger, to furnish all particulars about the attempted highway robbery, and he said he decidedly would.
He took his leave with distinguished courtliness.
"If I have a moment I shall run in to-morrow morning just to let you know I'm all right," said he, in the white street.
"Oh, do!" said Constance. Constance's perfect innocence made her strangely forward at times.
"A happy New Year and many of them!"
"Thanks! Same to you! Don't get lost."
"Straight up the Square and first on the right," called the commonsense of Mr. Povey.
Nothing else remained to say, and the visitor disappeared silently in the whirling snow. "Brrr!" murmured Mr. Povey, shutting the door. Everybody felt: "What a funny ending of the old year!"
"Sophia, my pet," Mrs. Baines began.
But Sophia had vanished to bed.
"Tell her about her new night-dress," said Mrs. Baines to Constance. "Yes, mother."
"I don't know that I'm so set up with that young man, after all," Mrs. Baines reflected aloud.
"Oh, mother!" Constance protested. "I think he's just lovely."
"He never looks you straight in the face," said Mrs. Baines.
"Don't tell ME!" laughed Constance, kissing her mother good night. "You're only on your high horse because he didn't praise your mince. I noticed it." IV
"If anybody thinks I'm going to stand the cold in this showroom any longer, they're mistaken," said Sophia the next morning loudly, and in her mother's hearing. And she went down into the shop carrying bonnets.
She pretended to be angry, but she was not. She felt, on the contrary, extremely joyous, and charitable to all the world. Usually she would take pains to keep out of the shop; usually she was preoccupied and stern. Hence her presence on the ground-floor, and her demeanour, excited interest among the three young lady assistants who sat sewing round the stove in the middle of the shop, sheltered by the great pile of shirtings and linseys that fronted the entrance.
Sophia shared Constance's corner. They had hot bricks under their feet, and fine-knitted wraps on their shoulders. They would have been more comfortable near the stove, but greatness has its penalties. The weather was exceptionally severe. The windows were thickly frosted over, so that Mr. Povey's art in dressing them was quite wasted. And--rare phenomenon!--the doors of the shop were shut. In the ordinary way they were not merely open, but hidden by a display of 'cheap lines.' Mr. Povey, after consulting Mrs. Baines, had decided to close them, foregoing the customary display. Mr. Povey had also, in order to get a little warmth into his limbs, personally assisted two casual labourers to scrape the thick frozen snow off the pavement; and he wore his kid mittens. All these things together proved better than the evidence of barometers how the weather nipped.
Mr. Scales came about ten o'clock. Instead of going to Mr. Povey's counter, he walked boldly to Constance's corner, and looked over the boxes, smiling and saluting. Both the girls candidly delighted in his visit. Both blushed; both laughed
-without knowing why they laughed. Mr. Scales said he was just departing and had slipped in for a moment to thank all of them for their kindness of last night-'or rather this morning.' The girls laughed again at this witticism. Nothing could have been more simple than his speech. Yet it appeared to them magically attractive. A customer entered, a lady; one of the assistants rose from the neighbourhood of the stove, but the daughters of the house ignored the customer; it was part of the etiquette of the shop that customers, at any rate chance customers, should not exist for the daughters of the house, until an assistant had formally drawn attention to them. Otherwise every one who wanted a pennyworth of tape would be expecting to be served by Miss Baines, or Miss Sophia, if Miss Sophia were there. Which would have been ridiculous. Sophia, glancing sidelong, saw the assistant parleying with the customer; and then the assistant came softly behind the counter and approached the corner. "Miss Constance, can you spare a minute?" the assistant whispered discreetly. Constance extinguished her smile for Mr. Scales, and, turning away, lighted an entirely different and inferior smile for the customer.
"Good morning, Miss Baines. Very cold, isn't it?"
"Good morning, Mrs. Chatterley. Yes, it is. I suppose you're getting anxious about those--" Constance stopped.
Sophia was now alone with Mr. Scales, for in order to discuss the unnameable freely with Mrs. Chatterley her sister was edging up the counter. Sophia had dreamed of a private conversation as something delicious and impossible. But chance had favoured her. She was alone with him. And his neat fair hair and his blue eyes and his delicate mouth were as wonderful to her as ever. He was gentlemanly to a degree that impressed her more than anything had impressed her in her life. And all the proud and aristocratic instinct that was at the base of her character sprang up and seized on his gentlemanliness like a famished animal seizing on food.
"The last time I saw you," said Mr. Scales, in a new tone, "you said you were never in the shop."
"What? Yesterday? Did I?"
"No, I mean the last time I saw you alone," said he.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "It's just an accident."
"That's exactly what you said last time."
Was it his manner, or what he said, that flattered her, that intensified her beautiful vivacity?
"I suppose you don't often go out?" he went on.
"What? In this weather?"
"I go to chapel," said she, "and marketing with mother." There was a little pause. "And to the Free Library."
"Oh yes. You've got a Free Library here now, haven't you?"
"Yes. We've had it over a year."
"And you belong to it? What do you read?"
"Oh, stories, you know. I get a fresh book out once a week."
"Saturdays, I suppose?"
"No," she said. "Wednesdays." And she smiled. "Usually."
"It's Wednesday to-day," said he. "Not been already?"
She shook her head. "I don't think I shall go to-day. It's too cold. I don't think I shall venture out to-day."
"You must be very fond of reading," said he.
Then Mr. Povey appeared, rubbing his mittened hands. And Mrs. Chatterley went.
"I'll run and fetch mother," said Constance.
Mrs. Baines was very polite to the young man. He related his interview with the police, whose opinion was that he had been attacked by stray members of a gang from Hanbridge. The young lady assistants, with ears cocked, gathered the nature of Mr. Scales's adventure, and were thrilled to the point of questioning Mr. Povey about it after Mr. Scales had gone. His farewell was marked by much handshaking, and finally Mr. Povey ran after him into the Square to mention something about dogs.
At half-past one, while Mrs. Baines was dozing after dinner, Sophia wrapped herself up, and with a book under her arm went forth into the world, through the shop. She returned in less than twenty minutes. But her mother had already awakened, and was hovering about the back of the shop. Mothers have supernatural gifts.
Sophia nonchalantly passed her and hurried into the parlour where she threw down her muff and a book and knelt before the fire to warm herself. Mrs. Baines followed her. "Been to the Library?" questioned Mrs. Baines. "Yes, mother. And it's simply perishing."
"I wonder at your going on a day like to-day. I thought you always went on Thursdays?"
"So I do. But I'd finished my book."
"What is this?" Mrs. Baines picked up the volume, which was covered with black oil-cloth.
She picked it up with a hostile air. For her attitude towards the Free Library was obscurely inimical. She never read anything herself except The Sunday at Home, and Constance never read anything except The Sunday at Home. There were scriptural commentaries, Dugdale's Gazetteer, Culpepper's Herbal, and works by Bunyan and Flavius Josephus in the drawing-room bookcase; also Uncle Tom's Cabin. And Mrs. Baines, in considering the welfare of her daughters, looked askance at the whole remainder of printed literature. If the Free Library had not formed part of the Famous Wedgwood Institution, which had been opened with immense eclat by the semi-divine Gladstone; if the first book had not been ceremoniously 'taken out' of the Free Library by the Chief Bailiff in person--a grandfather of stainless renown--Mrs. Baines would probably have risked her authority in forbidding the Free Library.
"You needn't be afraid," said Sophia, laughing. "It's Miss Sewell's Experience of Life."
"A novel, I see," observed Mrs. Baines, dropping the book.
Gold and jewels would probably not tempt a Sophia of these days to read Experience of Life; but to Sophia Baines the bland story had the piquancy of the disapproved.
The next day Mrs. Baines summoned Sophia into her bedroom.
"Sophia," said she, trembling, "I shall be glad if you will not walk about the streets with young men until you have my permission."
The girl blushed violently. "I--I--"
"You were seen in Wedgwood Street," said Mrs. Baines.
"Who's been gossiping--Mr. Critchlow, I suppose?" Sophia exclaimed scornfully. "No one has been 'gossiping,'" said Mrs Baines. "Well, if I meet some one by accident in the street I can't help it, can I?" Sophia's voice shook.
"You know what I mean, my child," said Mrs. Baines, with careful calm. Sophia dashed angrily from the room.
"I like the idea of him having 'a heavy day'!" Mrs. Baines reflected ironically, recalling a phrase which had lodged in her mind. And very vaguely, with an uneasiness scarcely perceptible, she remembered that 'he,' and no other, had been in the shop on the day her husband died.
The uneasiness of Mrs. Baines flowed and ebbed, during the next three months, influenced by Sophia's moods. There were days when Sophia was the old Sophia--the forbidding, difficult, waspish, and even hedgehog Sophia. But there were other days on which Sophia seemed to be drawing joy and gaiety and goodwill from some secret source, from some fount whose nature and origin none could divine. It was on these days that the uneasiness of Mrs. Baines waxed. She had the wildest suspicions; she was almost capable of accusing Sophia of carrying on a clandestine correspondence; she saw Sophia and Gerald Scales deeply and wickedly in love; she saw them with their arms round each other's necks. ... And then she called herself a middle-aged fool, to base such a structure of suspicion on a brief encounter in the street and on an idea, a fancy, a curious and irrational notion! Sophia had a certain streak of pure nobility in that exceedingly heterogeneous thing, her character. Moreover, Mrs. Baines watched the posts, and she also watched Sophia--she was not the woman to trust to a streak of pure nobility--and she came to be sure that Sophia's sinfulness, if any, was not such as could be weighed in a balance, or collected together by stealth and then suddenly placed before the girl on a charger.
Still, she would have given much to see inside Sophia's lovely head. Ah! Could she have done so, what sleep-destroying wonders she would have witnessed! By what bright lamps burning in what mysterious grottoes and caverns of the brain would her mature eyes have been dazzled! Sophia was living for months on the exhaustless ardent vitality absorbed during a magical two minutes in Wedgwood Street. She was living chiefly on the flaming fire struck in her soul by the shock of seeing Gerald Scales in the porch of the Wedgwood Institution as she came out of the Free Library with Experience Of Life tucked into her large astrakhan muff. He had stayed to meet her, then: she knew it! "After all," her heart said, "I must be very beautiful, for I have attracted the pearl of men!" And she remembered her face in the glass. The value and the power of beauty were tremendously proved to her. He, the great man of the world, the handsome and elegant man with a thousand strange friends and a thousand interests far remote from her, had remained in Bursley on the mere chance of meeting her! She was proud, but her pride was drowned in bliss. "I was just looking at this inscription about Mr. Gladstone." "So you decided to come out as usual!" "And may I ask what book you have chosen?" These were the phrases she heard, and to which she responded with similar phrases. And meanwhile a miracle of ecstasy had opened--opened like a flower. She was walking along Wedgwood Street by his side, slowly, on the scraped pavements, where marble bulbs of snow had defied the spade and remained. She and he were exactly of the same height, and she kept looking into his face and he into hers. This was all the miracle. Except that she was not walking on the pavement--she was walking on the intangible sward of paradise! Except that the houses had receded and faded, and the passers-by were subtilized into unnoticeable ghosts! Except that her mother and Constance had become phantasmal beings existing at an immense distance! What had happened? Nothing! The most commonplace occurrence! The eternal cause had picked up a commercial traveller (it might have been a clerk or curate, but it in fact was a commercial traveller), and endowed him with all the glorious, unique, incredible attributes of a god, and planted him down before Sophia in order to produce the eternal effect. A miracle performed specially for Sophia's benefit! No one else in Wedgwood Street saw the god walking along by her side. No one else saw anything but a simple commercial traveller. Yes, the most commonplace occurrence!
Of course at the corner of the street he had to go. "Till next time!" he murmured. And fire came out of his eyes and lighted in Sophia's lovely head those lamps which Mrs. Baines was mercifully spared from seeing. And he had shaken hands and raised his hat. Imagine a god raising his hat! And he went off on two legs, precisely like a dashing little commercial traveller.
And, escorted by the equivocal Angel of Eclipses, she had turned into King Street, and arranged her face, and courageously met her mother. Her mother had not at first perceived the unusual; for mothers, despite their reputation to the contrary, really are the blindest creatures. Sophia, the naive ninny, had actually supposed that her walking along a hundred yards of pavement with a god by her side was not going to excite remark! What a delusion! It is true, certainly, that no one saw the god by direct vision. But Sophia's cheeks, Sophia's eyes, the curve of Sophia's neck as her soul yearned towards the soul of the god--these phenomena were immeasurably more notable than Sophia guessed. An account of them, in a modified form to respect Mrs. Baines's notorious dignity, had healed the mother of her blindness and led to that characteristic protest from her, "I shall be glad if you will not walk about the streets with young men," etc. When the period came for the reappearance of Mr. Scales, Mrs. Baines outlined a plan, and when the circular announcing the exact time of his arrival was dropped into the letter-box, she formulated the plan in detail. In the first place, she was determined to be indisposed and invisible herself, so that Mr. Scales might be foiled in any possible design to renew social relations in the parlour. In the second place, she flattered Constance with a single hint--oh, the vaguest and briefest!--and Constance understood that she was not to quit the shop on the appointed morning. In the third place, she invented a way of explaining to Mr. Povey that the approaching advent of Gerald Scales must not be mentioned. And in the fourth place, she deliberately made appointments for Sophia with two millinery customers in the showroom, so that Sophia might be imprisoned in the showroom.
Having thus left nothing to chance, she told herself that she was a foolish woman full of nonsense. But this did not prevent her from putting her lips together firmly and resolving that Mr. Scales should have no finger in the pie of HER family. She had acquired information concerning Mr. Scales, at secondhand, from Lawyer Pratt. More than this, she posed the question in a broader form--why should a young girl be permitted any interest in any young man whatsoever? The everlasting purpose had made use of Mrs. Baines and cast her off, and,, like most persons in a similar situation, she was, unconsciously and quite honestly, at odds with the everlasting purpose.
On the day of Mr. Scales's visit to the shop to obtain orders and money on behalf of Birkinshaws, a singular success seemed to attend the machinations of Mrs. Baines. With Mr. Scales punctuality was not an inveterate habit, and he had rarely been known, in the past, to fulfil exactly the prophecy of the letter of advice concerning his arrival. But that morning his promptitude was unexampled. He entered the shop, and by chance Mr. Povey was arranging unshrinkable flannels in the doorway. The two youngish little men talked amiably about flannels, dogs, and quarter-day (which was just past), and then Mr. Povey led Mr. Scales to his desk in the dark corner behind the high pile of twills, and paid the quarterly bill, in notes and gold--as always; and then Mr. Scales offered for the august inspection of Mr. Povey all that Manchester had recently invented for the temptation of drapers, and Mr. Povey gave him an order which, if not reckless, was nearer 'handsome' than 'good.' During the process Mr. Scales had to go out of the shop twice or three times in order to bring in from his barrow at the kerb-stone certain small black boxes edged with brass. On none of these excursions did Mr. Scales glance wantonly about him in satisfaction of the lust of the eye. Even if he had permitted himself this freedom he would have seen nothing more interesting than three young lady assistants seated round the stove and sewing with pricked fingers from which the chilblains were at last deciding to depart. When Mr. Scales had finished writing down the details of the order with his ivory-handled stylo, and repacked his boxes, he drew the interview to a conclusion after the manner of a capable commercial traveller; that is to say, he implanted in Mr. Povey his opinion that Mr. Povey was a wise, a shrewd and an upright man, and that the world would be all the better for a few more like him. He inquired for Mrs. Baines, and was deeply pained to hear of her indisposition while finding consolation in the assurance that the Misses Baines were well. Mr. Povey was on the point of accompanying the pattern of commercial travellers to the door, when two customers simultaneously came in--ladies. One made straight for Mr. Povey, whereupon Mr. Scales parted from him at once, it being a universal maxim in shops that even the most distinguished commercial shall not hinder the business of even the least distinguished customer. The other customer had the effect of causing Constance to pop up from her cloistral corner. Constance had been there all the time, but of course, though she heard the remembered voice, her maidenliness had not permitted that she should show herself to Mr. Scales. Now, as he was leaving, Mr. Scales saw her, with her agreeable snub nose and her kind, simple eyes. She was requesting the second customer to mount to the showroom, where was Miss Sophia. Mr. Scales hesitated a moment, and in that moment Constance, catching his eye, smiled upon him, and nodded. What else could she do? Vaguely aware though she was that her mother was not 'set up' with Mr. Scales, and even feared the possible influence of the young man on Sophia, she could not exclude him from her general benevolence towards the universe. Moreover, she liked him; she liked him very much and thought him a very fine specimen of a man.
He left the door and went across to her. They shook hands and opened a conversation instantly; for Constance, while retaining all her modesty, had lost all her shyness in the shop, and could chatter with anybody. She sidled towards her corner, precisely as Sophia had done on another occasion, and Mr. Scales put his chin over the screening boxes, and eagerly prosecuted the conversation. There was absolutely nothing in the fact of the interview itself to cause alarm to a mother, nothing to render futile the precautions of Mrs. Baines on behalf of the flower of Sophia's innocence. And yet it held danger for Mrs. Baines, all unconscious in her parlour. Mrs. Baines could rely utterly on Constance not to be led away by the dandiacal charms of Mr. Scales (she knew in what quarter sat the wind for Constance); in her plan she had forgotten nothing, except Mr. Povey; and it must be said that she could not possibly have foreseen the effect on the situation of Mr. Povey's character.
Mr. Povey, attending to his customer, had noticed the bright smile of Constance on the traveller, and his heart did not like it. And when he saw the lively gestures of a Mr. Scales in apparently intimate talk with a Constance hidden behind boxes, his uneasiness grew into fury. He was a man capable of black and terrible furies. Outwardly insignificant, possessing a mind as little as his body, easily abashed, he was none the less a very susceptible young man, soon offended, proud, vain, and obscurely passionate. You might offend Mr. Povey without guessing it, and only discover your sin when Mr. Povey had done something too decisive as a result of it.
The reason of his fury was jealousy. Mr. Povey had made great advances since the death of John Baines. He had consolidated his position, and he was in every way a personage of the first importance. His misfortune was that he could never translate his importance, or his sense of his importance, into terms of outward demeanour. Most people, had they been told that Mr. Povey was seriously aspiring to enter the Baines family, would have laughed. But they would have been wrong. To laugh at Mr. Povey was invariably wrong. Only Constance knew what inroads he had effected upon her.
The customer went, but Mr. Scales did not go. Mr. Povey, free to reconnoitre, did so. From the shadow of the till he could catch glimpses of Constance's blushing, vivacious face. She was obviously absorbed in Mr. Scales. She and he had a tremendous air of intimacy. And the murmur of their chatter continued. Their chatter was nothing, and about nothing, but Mr. Povey imagined that they were exchanging eternal vows. He endured Mr. Scales's odious freedom until it became insufferable, until it deprived him of all his self-control; and then he retired into his cutting-out room. He meditated there in a condition of insanity for perhaps a minute, and excogitated a device. Dashing back into the shop, he spoke up, half across the shop, in a loud, curt tone:
"Miss Baines, your mother wants you at once."
He was launched on the phrase before he noticed that, during his absence, Sophia had descended from the showroom and joined her sister and Mr. Scales. The danger and scandal were now less, he perceived, but he was glad he had summoned Constance away, and he was in a state to despise consequences. The three chatterers, startled, looked at Mr. Povey, who left the shop abruptly. Constance could do nothing but obey the call.
She met him at the door of the cutting-out room in the passage leading to the parlour.
"Where is mother? In the parlour?" Constance inquired innocently.
There was a dark flush on Mr. Povey's face. "If you wish to know," said he in a hard voice, "she hasn't asked for you and she doesn't want you."
He turned his back on her, and retreated into his lair.
"Then what--?" she began, puzzled.
He fronted her. "Haven't you been gabbling long enough with that jackanapes?" he spit at her. There were tears in his eyes.
Constance, though without experience in these matters, comprehended. She comprehended perfectly and immediately. She ought to have put Mr. Povey into his place. She ought to have protested with firm, dignified finality against such a ridiculous and monstrous outrage as that which Mr. Povey had committed. Mr. Povey ought to have been ruined for ever in her esteem and in her heart. But she hesitated.
"And only last Sunday--afternoon," Mr. Povey blubbered.
(Not that anything overt had occurred, or been articulately said, between them last Sunday afternoon. But they had been alone together, and had each witnessed strange and disturbing matters in the eyes of the other.) Tears now fell suddenly from Constance's eyes. "You ought to be ashamed--" she stammered.
Still, the tears were in her eyes, and in his too. What he or she merely said, therefore, was of secondary importance.
Mrs. Baines, coming from the kitchen, and hearing Constance's voice, burst upon the scene, which silenced her. Parents are sometimes silenced. She found Sophia and Mr. Scales in the shop.
That afternoon Sophia, too busy with her own affairs to notice anything abnormal in the relations between her mother and Constance, and quite ignorant that there had been an unsuccessful plot against her, went forth to call upon Miss Chetwynd, with whom she had remained very friendly: she considered that she and Miss Chetwynd formed an aristocracy of intellect, and the family indeed tacitly admitted this. She practised no secrecy in her departure from the shop; she merely dressed, in her second-best hoop, and went, having been ready at any moment to tell her mother, if her mother caught her and inquired, that she was going to see Miss Chetwynd. And she did go to see Miss Chetwynd, arriving at the house-school, which lay amid trees on the road to Turnhill, just beyond the turnpike, at precisely a quarter-past four. As Miss Chetwynd's pupils left at four o'clock, and as Miss Chetwynd invariably took a walk immediately afterwards, Sophia was able to contain her surprise upon being informed that Miss Chetwynd was not in. She had not intended that Miss Chetwynd should be in. She turned off to the right, up the side road which, starting from the turnpike, led in the direction of Moorthorne and Red Cow, two mining villages. Her heart beat with fear as she began to follow that road, for she was upon a terrific adventure. What most frightened her, perhaps, was her own astounding audacity. She was alarmed by something within herself which seemed to be no part of herself and which produced in her curious, disconcerting, fleeting impressions of unreality. In the morning she had heard the voice of Mr. Scales from the showroom--that voice whose even distant murmur caused creepings of the skin in her back. And she had actually stood on the counter in front of the window in order to see down perpendicularly into the Square; by so doing she had had a glimpse of the top of his luggage on a barrow, and of the crown of his hat occasionally when he went outside to tempt Mr. Povey. She might have gone down into the shop--there was no slightest reason why she should not; three months had elapsed since the name of Mr. Scales had been mentioned, and her mother had evidently forgotten the trifling incident of New Year's Day--but she was incapable of descending the stairs! She went to the head of the stairs and peeped through the balustrade-and she could not get further. For nearly a hundred days those extraordinary lamps had been brightly burning in her head; and now the light-giver had come again, and her feet would not move to the meeting; now the moment had arrived for which alone she had lived, and she could not seize it as it passed! "Why don't I go downstairs?" she asked herself. "Am I afraid to meet him?"
The customer sent up by Constance had occupied the surface of her life for ten minutes, trying on hats; and during this time she was praying wildly that Mr. Scales might not go, and asserting that it was impossible he should go without at least asking for her. Had she not counted the days to this day? When the customer left Sophia followed her downstairs, and saw Mr. Scales chatting with Constance. All her self-possession instantly returned to her, and she joined them with a rather mocking smile. After Mr. Povey's strange summons had withdrawn Constance from the corner, Mr. Scales's tone had changed; it had thrilled her. "You are YOU," it had said, "there is you--and there is the rest of the universe!" Then he had not forgotten; she had lived in his heart; she had not for three months been the victim of her own fancies! ... She saw him put a piece of folded white paper on the top edge of the screening box and flick it down to her. She blushed scarlet, staring at it as it lay on the counter. He said nothing, and she could not speak. ... He had prepared that paper, then, beforehand, on the chance of being able to give it to her! This thought was exquisite but full of terror. "I must really go," he had said, lamely, with emotion in his voice, and he had gone--like that! And she put the piece of paper into the pocket of her apron, and hastened away. She had not even seen, as she turned up the stairs, her mother standing by the till--that spot which was the conning- tower of the whole shop. She ran, ran, breathless to the bedroom.
"I am a wicked girl!" she said quite frankly, on the road to the rendezvous. "It is a dream that I am going to meet him. It cannot be true. There is time to go back. If I go back I am safe. I have simply called at Miss Chetwynd's and she wasn't in, and no one can say a word. But if I go on--if I'm seen! What a fool I am to go on!" And she went on, impelled by, amongst other things, an immense, naive curiosity, and the vanity which the bare fact of his note had excited. The Loop railway was being constructed at that period, and hundreds of navvies were at work on it between Bursley and Turnhill. When she came to the new bridge over the cutting, he was there, as he had written that he would be.
They were very nervous, they greeted each other stiffly and as though they had met then for the first time that day. Nothing was said about his note, nor about her response to it. Her presence was treated by both of them as a basic fact of the situation which it would be well not to disturb by comment. Sophia could not hide her shame, but her shame only aggravated the stinging charm of her beauty. She was wearing a hard Amazonian hat, with a lifted veil, the final word of fashion that spring in the Five Towns; her face, beaten by the fresh breeze, shone rosily; her eyes glittered under the dark hat, and the violent colours of her Victorian frock-- green and crimson--could not spoil those cheeks. If she looked earthwards, frowning, she was the more adorable so. He had come down the clayey incline from the unfinished red bridge to welcome her, and when the salutations were over they stood still, he gazing apparently at the horizon and she at the yellow marl round the edges of his boots. The encounter was as far away from Sophia's ideal conception as Manchester from Venice. "So this is the new railway!" said she.
"Yes," said he. "This is your new railway. You can see it better from the bridge." "But it's very sludgy up there," she objected with a pout.
"Further on it's quite dry," he reassured her.
From the bridge they had a sudden view of a raw gash in the earth; and hundreds of men were crawling about in it, busy with minute operations, like flies in a great wound. There was a continuous rattle of picks, resembling a muffled shower of hail, and in the distance a tiny locomotive was leading a procession of tiny waggons.
"And those are the navvies!" she murmured.
The unspeakable doings of the navvies in the Five Towns had reached even her: how they drank and swore all day on Sundays, how their huts and houses were dens of the most appalling infamy, how they were the curse of a God-fearing and respectable district! She and Gerald Scales glanced down at these dangerous beasts of prey in their yellow corduroys and their open shirts revealing hairy chests. No doubt they both thought how inconvenient it was that railways could not be brought into existence without the aid of such revolting and swinish animals. They glanced down from the height of their nice decorum and felt the powerful attraction of similar superior manners. The manners of the navvies were such that Sophia could not even regard them, nor Gerald Scales permit her to regard them, without blushing.
In a united blush they turned away, up the gradual slope. Sophia knew no longer what she was doing. For some minutes she was as helpless as though she had been in a balloon with him.
"I got my work done early," he said; and added complacently, "As a matter of fact I've had a pretty good day."
She was reassured to learn that he was not neglecting his duties. To be philandering with a commercial traveller who has finished a good day's work seemed less shocking than dalliance with a neglecter of business; it seemed indeed, by comparison, respectable.
"It must be very interesting," she said primly.
"What, my trade?"
"Yes. Always seeing new places and so on."
"In a way it is," he admitted judicially. "But I can tell you it was much more agreeable being in Paris."
"Oh! Have you been to Paris?"
"Lived there for nearly two years," he said carelessly. Then, looking at her, "Didn't you notice I never came for a long time?"
"I didn't know you were in Paris," she evaded him.
"I went to start a sort of agency for Birkinshaws," he said.
"I suppose you talk French like anything."
"Of course one has to talk French," said he. "I learnt French when I was a child from a governess--my uncle made me--but I forgot most of it at school, and at the Varsity you never learn anything- -precious little, anyhow! Certainly not French!" She was deeply impressed. He was a much greater personage than she had guessed. It had never occurred to her that commercial travellers had to go to a university to finish their complex education. And then, Paris! Paris meant absolutely nothing to her but pure, impossible, unattainable romance. And he had been there! The clouds of glory were around him. He was a hero, dazzling. He had come to her out of another world. He was her miracle. He was almost too miraculous to be true.
She, living her humdrum life at the shop! And he, elegant, brilliant, coming from far cities! They together, side by side, strolling up the road towards the Moorthorne ridge! There was nothing quite like this in the stories of Miss Sewell. "Your uncle ...?" she questioned vaguely.
"Yes, Mr. Boldero. He's a partner in Birkinshaws."
"You've heard of him? He's a great Wesleyan."
"Oh yes," she said. "When we had the Wesleyan Conference here, he- -" "He's always very great at Conferences," said Gerald Scales.
"I didn't know he had anything to do with Birkinshaws."
"He isn't a working partner of course," Mr. Scales explained. "But he means me to be one. I have to learn the business from the bottom. So now you understand why I'm a traveller."
"I see," she said, still more deeply impressed.
"I'm an orphan," said Gerald. "And Uncle Boldero took me in hand when I was three."
"I SEE!" she repeated.
It seemed strange to her that Mr. Scales should be a Wesleyan-- just like herself. She would have been sure that he was 'Church.' Her notions of Wesleyanism, with her notions of various other things, were sharply modified.
"Now tell me about you," Mr. Scales suggested.
"Oh! I'm nothing!" she burst out.
The exclamation was perfectly sincere. Mr. Scales's disclosures concerning himself, while they excited her, discouraged her.
"You're the finest girl I've ever met, anyhow," said Mr. Scales with gallant emphasis, and he dug his stick into the soft ground.
She blushed and made no answer.
They walked on in silence, each wondering apprehensively what might happen next.
Suddenly Mr. Scales stopped at a dilapidated low brick wall, built in a circle, close to the side of the road.
"I expect that's an old pit-shaft," said he.
"Yes, I expect it is."
He picked up a rather large stone and approached the wall.
"Be careful!" she enjoined him.
"Oh! It's all right," he said lightly. "Let's listen. Come near and listen." She reluctantly obeyed, and he threw the stone over the dirty ruined wall, the top of which was about level with his hat. For two or three seconds there was no sound. Then a faint reveberation echoed from the depths of the shaft. And on Sophia's brain arose dreadful images of the ghosts of miners wandering for ever in subterranean passages, far, far beneath. The noise of the falling stone had awakened for her the secret terrors of the earth. She could scarcely even look at the wall without a spasm of fear.
"How strange," said Mr. Scales, a little awe in his voice, too, "that that should be left there like that! I suppose it's very deep."
"Some of them are," she trembled.
"I must just have a look," he said, and put his hands on the top of the wall. "Come away!" she cried.
"Oh! It's all right!" he said again, soothingly. "The wall's as firm as a rock." And he took a slight spring and looked over.
She shrieked loudly. She saw him at the distant bottom of the shaft, mangled, drowning. The ground seemed to quake under her feet. A horrible sickness seized her. And she shrieked again. Never had she guessed that existence could be such pain.
He slid down from the wall, and turned to her. "No bottom to be seen!" he said. Then, observing her transformed face, he came close to her, with a superior masculine smile. "Silly little thing!" he said coaxingly, endearingly, putting forth all his power to charm.
He perceived at once that he had miscalculated the effects of his action. Her alarm changed swiftly to angry offence. She drew back with a haughty gesture, as if he had intended actually to touch her. Did he suppose, because she chanced to be walking with him, that he had the right to address her familiarly, to tease her, to call her 'silly little thing' and to put his face against hers? She resented his freedom with quick and passionate indignation.
She showed him her proud back and nodding head and wrathful skirts; and hurried off without a word, almost running. As for him, he was so startled by unexpected phenomena that he did nothing for a moment--merely stood looking and feeling foolish.
Then she heard him in pursuit. She was too proud to stop or even to reduce her speed.
"I didn't mean to--" he muttered behind her.
No recognition from her.
"I suppose I ought to apologize," he said.
"I should just think you ought," she answered, furious.
"Well, I do!" said he. "Do stop a minute."
"I'll thank you not to follow me, Mr. Scales." She paused, and scorched him with her displeasure. Then she went forward. And her heart was in torture because it could not persuade her to remain with him, and smile and forgive, and win his smile.
"I shall write to you," he shouted down the slope.
She kept on, the ridiculous child. But the agony she had suffered as he clung to the frail wall was not ridiculous, nor her dark vision of the mine, nor her tremendous indignation when, after disobeying her, he forgot that she was a queen. To her the scene was sublimely tragic. Soon she had recrossed the bridge, but not the same she! So this was the end of the incredible adventure! When she reached the turnpike she thought of her mother and of Constance. She had completely forgotten them; for a space they had utterly ceased to exist for her.
"You've been out, Sophia?" said Mrs. Baines in the parlour, questioningly. Sophia had taken off her hat and mantle hurriedly in the cutting-out room, for she was in danger of being late for tea; but her hair and face showed traces of the March breeze. Mrs. Baines, whose stoutness seemed to increase, sat in the rocking- chair with a number of The Sunday at Home in her hand. Tea was set. "Yes, mother. I called to see Miss Chetwynd."
"I wish you'd tell me when you are going out."
"I looked all over for you before I started."
"No, you didn't, for I haven't stirred from this room since four o'clock. ... You should not say things like that," Mrs. Baines added in a gentler tone. Mrs. Baines had suffered much that day. She knew that she was in an irritable, nervous state, and therefore she said to herself, in her quality of wise woman, "I must watch myself. I mustn't let myself go." And she thought how reasonable she was. She did not guess that all her gestures betrayed her; nor did it occur to her that few things are more galling than the spectacle of a person, actuated by lofty motives, obviously trying to be kind and patient under what he considers to be extreme provocation.
Maggie blundered up the kitchen stairs with the teapot and hot toast; and so Sophia had an excuse for silence. Sophia too had suffered much, suffered excruciatingly; she carried at that moment a whole tragedy in her young soul, unaccustomed to such burdens. Her attitude towards her mother was half fearful and half defiant; it might be summed up in the phrase which she had repeated again and again under her breath on the way home, "Well, mother can't kill me!" Mrs. Baines put down the blue-covered magazine and twisted her rocking-chair towards the table.
"You can pour out the tea," said Mrs. Baines.
"She's not very well. She's lying down."
"Anything the matter with her?"
This was inaccurate. Nearly everything was the matter with Constance, who had never been less Constance than during that afternoon. But Mrs. Baines had no intention of discussing Constance's love-affairs with Sophia. The less said to Sophia about love, the better! Sophia was excitable enough already! They sat opposite to each other, on either side of the fire--the monumental matron whose black bodice heavily overhung the table, whose large rounded face was creased and wrinkled by what seemed countless years of joy and disillusion; and the young, slim girl, so fresh, so virginal, so ignorant, with all the pathos of an unsuspecting victim about to be sacrificed to the minotaur of Time! They both ate hot toast, with careless haste, in silence, preoccupied, worried, and outwardly nonchalant.
"And what has Miss Chetwynd got to say?" Mrs. Baines inquired.
"She wasn't in."
Here was a blow for Mrs. Baines, whose suspicions about Sophia, driven off by her certainties regarding Constance, suddenly sprang forward in her mind, and prowled to and fro like a band of tigers.
Still, Mrs. Baines was determined to be calm and careful. "Oh! What time did you call?"
"I don't know. About half-past four." Sophia finished her tea quickly, and rose. "Shall I tell Mr. Povey he can come?"
(Mr. Povey had his tea after the ladies of the house.)
"Yes, if you will stay in the shop till I come. Light me the gas before you go." Sophia took a wax taper from a vase on the mantelpiece, stuck it in the fire and lit the gas, which exploded in its crystal cloister with a mild report.
"What's all that clay on your boots, child?" asked Mrs. Baines.
"Clay?" repeated Sophia, staring foolishly at her boots.
"Yes," said Mrs. Baines. "It looks like marl. Where on earth have you been?" She interrogated her daughter with an upward gaze, frigid and unconsciously hostile, through her gold-rimmed glasses.
"I must have picked it up on the roads," said Sophia, and hastened to the door. "Sophia!"
"Shut the door."
Sophia unwillingly shut the door which she had half opened.
Sophia obeyed, with falling lip.
"You are deceiving me, Sophia," said Mrs. Baines, with fierce solemnity. "Where have you been this afternoon?"
Sophia's foot was restless on the carpet behind the table. "I haven't been anywhere," she murmured glumly.
"Have you seen young Scales?"
"Yes," said Sophia with grimness, glancing audaciously for an instant at her mother. ("She can't kill me: She can't kill me," her heart muttered. And she had youth and beauty in her favour, while her mother was only a fat middle-aged woman. "She can't kill me," said her heart, with the trembling, cruel insolence of the mirror-flattered child.)
"How came you to meet him?"
"Sophia, you heard what I said!"
Still no answer. Sophia looked down at the table. ("She can't kill me.") "If you are going to be sullen, I shall have to suppose the worst," said Mrs. Baines.
Sophia kept her silence.
"Of course," Mrs. Baines resumed, "if you choose to be wicked, neither your mother nor any one else can stop you. There are certain things I CAN do, and these I SHALL do ... Let me warn you that young Scales is a thoroughly bad lot. I know all about him. He has been living a wild life abroad, and if it hadn't been that his uncle is a partner in Birkinshaws, they would never have taken him on again." A pause. "I hope that one day you will be a happy wife, but you are much too young yet to be meeting young men, and nothing would ever induce me to let you have anything to do with this Scales. I won't have it. In future you are not to go out alone. You understand me?"
Sophia kept silence.
"I hope you will be in a better frame of mind to-morrow. I can only hope so. But if you aren't, I shall take very severe measures. You think you can defy me. But you never were more mistaken in your life. I don't want to see any more of you now. Go and tell Mr. Povey; and call Maggie for the fresh tea. You make me almost glad that your father died even as he did. He has, at any rate, been spared this."
Those words 'died even as he did' achieved the intimidation of Sophia. They seemed to indicate that Mrs. Baines, though she had magnanimously never mentioned the subject to Sophia, knew exactly how the old man had died. Sophia escaped from the room in fear, cowed. Nevertheless, her thought was, "She hasn't killed me. I made up my mind I wouldn't talk, and I didn't."
In the evening, as she sat in the shop primly and sternly sewing at hats--while her mother wept in secret on the first floor, and Constance remained hidden on the second--Sophia lived over again the scene at the old shaft; but she lived it differently, admitting that she had been wrong, guessing by instinct that she had shown a foolish mistrust of love. As she sat in the shop, she adopted just the right attitude and said just the right things. Instead of being a silly baby she was an accomplished and dazzling woman, then. When customers came in, and the young lady assistants unobtrusively turned higher the central gas, according to the regime of the shop, it was really extraordinary that they could not read in the heart of the beautiful Miss Baines the words which blazed there; "YOU'RE THE FINEST GIRL I EVER MET," and "I SHALL WRITE TO YOU." The young lady assistants had their notions as to both Constance and Sophia, but the truth, at least as regarded Sophia, was beyond the flight of their imaginations. When eight o'clock struck and she gave the formal order for dust-sheets, the shop being empty, they never supposed that she was dreaming about posts and plotting how to get hold of the morning's letters before Mr. Povey.