The Old Wives' Tale HTML version

I.1. The Square
Those two girls, Constance and Sophia Baines, paid no heed to the manifold
interest of their situation, of which, indeed, they had never been conscious. They
were, for example, established almost precisely on the fifty-third parallel of
latitude. A little way to the north of them, in the creases of a hill famous for its
religious orgies, rose the river Trent, the calm and characteristic stream of middle
England. Somewhat further northwards, in the near neighbourhood of the highest
public-house in the realm, rose two lesser rivers, the Dane and the Dove, which,
quarrelling in early infancy, turned their backs on each other, and, the one by
favour of the Weaver and the other by favour of the Trent, watered between them
the whole width of England, and poured themselves respectively into the Irish
Sea and the German Ocean. What a county of modest, unnoticed rivers! What a
natural, simple county, content to fix its boundaries by these tortuous island
brooks, with their comfortable names--Trent, Mease, Dove, Tern, Dane, Mees,
Stour, Tame, and even hasty Severn! Not that the Severn is suitable to the
county! In the county excess is deprecated. The county is happy in not exciting
remark. It is content that Shropshire should possess that swollen bump, the
Wrekin, and that the exaggerated wildness of the Peak should lie over its border.
It does not desire to be a pancake like Cheshire. It has everything that England
has, including thirty miles of Watling Street; and England can show nothing more
beautiful and nothing uglier than the works of nature and the works of man to be
seen within the limits of the county. It is England in little, lost in the midst of
England, unsung by searchers after the extreme; perhaps occasionally
somewhat sore at this neglect, but how proud in the instinctive cognizance of its
representative features and traits!
Constance and Sophia, busy with the intense preoccupations of youth, recked
not of such matters. They were surrounded by the county. On every side the
fields and moors of Staffordshire, intersected by roads and lanes, railways,
watercourses and telegraph-lines, patterned by hedges, ornamented and made
respectable by halls and genteel parks, enlivened by villages at the intersections,
and warmly surveyed by the sun, spread out undulating. And trains were rushing
round curves in deep cuttings, and carts and waggons trotting and jingling on the
yellow roads, and long, narrow boats passing in a leisure majestic and infinite
over the surface of the stolid canals; the rivers had only themselves to support,
for Staffordshire rivers have remained virgin of keels to this day. One could
imagine the messages concerning prices, sudden death, and horses, in their
flight through the wires under the feet of birds. In the inns Utopians were shouting
the universe into order over beer, and in the halls and parks the dignity of
England was being preserved in a fitting manner. The villages were full of women
who did nothing but fight against dirt and hunger, and repair the effects of friction
on clothes. Thousands of labourers were in the fields, but the fields were so
broad and numerous that this scattered multitude was totally lost therein. The