Old Wives’ Tale By Arnold Bennett (Book II Constance) Full

The Old Wives Tale By Arnold Bennett
“Well,” said Mr. Povey, rising from the rocking-chair that in a
previous age had been John Baines’s, “I’ve got to make a start
some time, so I may as well begin now!” And he went from the parlour into the shop.
Constance’s eye followed him as far as the door, where their
glances met for an instant in the transient gaze which expresses
the tenderness of people who feel more than they kiss. It was on the morning of this day that Mrs.
Baines, relinquishing the sovereignty of St. Luke’s Square, had
gone to live as a younger sister in the house of Harriet Maddack
at Axe. Constance guessed little of the secret anguish of that
departure. She only knew that it was just like her mother, having
perfectly arranged the entire house for the arrival of the honeymoon
couple from Buxton, to flit early away so as to spare
the natural blushing diffidence of the said couple. It was like
her mother’s commonsense and her mother’s sympathetic comprehension.
Further, Constance did not pursue her mother’s feelings,
being far too busy with her own. She sat there full of new knowledge
and new importance, brimming with experience and strange,
unexpected aspirations, purposes, yes–and cunnings!
And yet, though the very curves of her cheeks seemed to be mysteriously
altering, the old Constance still lingered in that frame, an
innocent soul hesitating to spread its wings and quit for
ever the body which had been its home; you could see the timid
thing peeping wistfully out of the eyes of the married woman. Constance rang the bell for Maggie to clear
the table; and as she did so she had the illusion that she was not
really a married woman and a house-mistress, but only a kind
of counterfeit. She did most fervently hope that all would go
right in the house–at any rate until she had grown more accustomed
to her situation. The hope was to be disappointed. Maggie’s
rather silly, obsequious smile concealed but for a moment the ineffable
tragedy that had lain in wait for unarmed Constance. “If you please, Mrs. Povey,” said Maggie,
as she crushed cups together on the tin tray with her great, red
hands, which always looked like something out of a butcher’s shop;
then a pause, “Will you please accept of this?” Now, before the wedding Maggie had already,
with tears of affection, given Constance a pair of blue
glass vases (in order to purchase which she had been obliged to ask
for special permission to go out), and Constance wondered what was
coming now from Maggie’s pocket. A small piece of folded paper
came from Maggie’s pocket. Constance accepted of it, and read:
“I begs to give one month’s notice to leave. Signed Maggie. June
10, 1867.” “Maggie!” exclaimed the old Constance, terrified
by this incredible occurrence, ere the married woman
could strangle her. “I never give notice before, Mrs. Povey,”
said Maggie, “so I don’t know as I know how it ought for be done–not
rightly. But I hope as you’ll accept of it, Mrs. Povey.” “Oh! of course,” said Mrs. Povey, primly,
just as if Maggie was not the central supporting pillar of the house,
just as if Maggie had not assisted at her birth, just as if
the end of the world had not abruptly been announced, just as if St.
Luke’s Square were not inconceivable without Maggie. “But why–” “Well, Mrs. Povey, I’ve been a-thinking it
over in my kitchen, and I said to myself: ‘If there’s going to be
one change there’d better be two,’ I says. Not but what I wouldn’t
work my fingers to the bone for ye, Miss Constance.” Here Maggie began to cry into the tray. Constance looked at her. Despite the special
muslin of that day she had traces of the slatternliness of which
Mrs. Baines had never been able to cure her. She was over
forty, big, gawky. She had no figure, no charms of any kind. She
was what was left of a woman after twenty-two years in the cave of
a philanthropic family. And in her cave she had actually been
thinking things over! Constance detected for the first time,
beneath the dehumanized drudge, the stirrings of a separate
and perhaps capricious individuality. Maggie’s engagements
had never been real to her employers. Within the house she had
never been, in practice, anything but ‘Maggie’–an organism.
And now she was permitting herself ideas about changes! “You’ll soon be suited with another, Mrs.
Povey,” said Maggie. “There’s many a–many a–” She burst into
sobs. “But if you really want to leave, what are
you crying for, Maggie?” asked Mrs. Povey, at her wisest.
“Have you told mother?” “No, miss,” Maggie whimpered, absently wiping
her wrinkled cheeks with ineffectual muslin. “I couldn’t seem
to fancy telling your mother. And as you’re the mistress now, I
thought as I’d save it for you when you come home. I hope you’ll
excuse me, Mrs. Povey.” “Of course I’m very sorry. You’ve been a very
good servant. And in these days–” The child had acquired this turn of speech
from her mother. It did not appear to occur to either of them that
they were living in the sixties. “Thank ye, miss.” “And what are you thinking of doing, Maggie?
You know you won’t get many places like this.” “To tell ye the truth, Mrs. Povey, I’m going
to get married mysen.” “Indeed!” murmured Constance, with the perfunctoriness
of habit in replying to these tidings. “Oh! but I am, mum,” Maggie insisted. “It’s
all settled. Mr. Hollins, mum.” “Not Hollins, the fish-hawker!” “Yes, mum. I seem to fancy him. You don’t
remember as him and me was engaged in ’48. He was my first, like.
I broke it off because he was in that Chartist lot, and I knew as
Mr. Baines would never stand that. Now he’s asked me again. He’s
been a widower this long time.” “I’m sure I hope you’ll be happy, Maggie.
But what about his habits?” “He won’t have no habits with me, Mrs. Povey.” A woman was definitely emerging from the drudge. When Maggie, having entirely ceased sobbing,
had put the folded cloth in the table-drawer and departed with
the tray, her mistress became frankly the girl again. No primness
about her as she stood alone there in the parlour; no pretence that
Maggie’s notice to leave was an everyday document, to be casually
glanced at–as one glances at an unpaid bill! She would be compelled
to find a new servant, making solemn inquiries into character,
and to train the new servant, and to talk to her from heights
from which she had never addressed Maggie. At that moment she
had an illusion that there were no other available, suitable servants
in the whole world. And the arranged marriage? She felt
that this time–the thirteenth or fourteenth time–the engagement
was serious and would only end at the altar. The vision of
Maggie and Hollins at the altar shocked her. Marriage was a series
of phenomena, and a general state, very holy and wonderful–too
sacred, somehow, for such creatures as Maggie and Hollins. Her
vague, instinctive revolt against such a usage of matrimony centred
round the idea of a strong, eternal smell of fish. However,
the projected outrage on a hallowed institution troubled her much less
than the imminent problem of domestic service. She ran into the shop–or she would have run
if she had not checked her girlishness betimes–and on her
lips, ready to be whispered importantly into a husband’s astounded
ear, were the words, “Maggie has given notice! Yes! Truly!”
But Samuel Povey was engaged. He was leaning over the counter and
staring at an outspread paper upon which a certain Mr. Yardley
was making strokes with a thick pencil. Mr. Yardley,
who had a long red beard, painted houses and rooms. She knew
him only by sight. In her mind she always associated him with the
sign over his premises in Trafalgar Road, “Yardley Bros., Authorised
plumbers. Painters. Decorators. Paper-hangers. Facia writers.”
For years, in childhood, she had passed that sign without
knowing what sort of things ‘Bros,’ and ‘Facia’ were, and what
was the mysterious similarity between a plumber and a version
of the Bible. She could not interrupt her husband, he was wholly absorbed;
nor could she stay in the shop (which appeared just a little
smaller than usual), for that would have meant an unsuccessful
endeavour to front the young lady-assistants as though
nothing in particular had happened to her. So she went sedately
up the showroom stairs and thus to the bedroom floors of the house–her
house! Mrs. Povey’s house! She even climbed to Constance’s
old bedroom; her mother had stripped the bed–that was all,
except a slight diminution of this room, corresponding to
that of the shop! Then to the drawing-room. In the recess outside
the drawing-room door the black box of silver plate still lay. She
had expected her mother to take it; but no! Assuredly her mother
was one to do things handsomely–when she did them. In the
drawing-room, not a tassel of an antimacassar touched! Yes, the
fire-screen, the luscious bunch of roses on an expanse of mustard,
which Constance had worked for her mother years ago, was gone!
That her mother should have clung to just that one souvenir,
out of all the heavy opulence of the drawing-room, touched Constance
intimately. She perceived that if she could not talk to her
husband she must write to her mother. And she sat down at the oval
table and wrote, “Darling mother, I am sure you will be very
surprised to hear. … She means it. … I think she is making a
serious mistake. Ought I to put an advertisement in the Signal, or
will it do if. … Please write by return. We are back and have
enjoyed ourselves very much. Sam says he enjoys getting up late.
…” And so on to the last inch of the fourth scolloped page. She was obliged to revisit the shop for a
stamp, stamps being kept in Mr. Povey’s desk in the corner–a high
desk, at which you stood. Mr. Povey was now in earnest converse
with Mr. Yardley at the door, and twilight, which began a full
hour earlier in the shop than in the Square, had cast faint shadows
in corners behind counters. “Will you just run out with this to the pillar,
Miss Dadd?” “With pleasure, Mrs. Povey.” “Where are you going to?” Mr. Povey interrupted
his conversation to stop the flying girl. “She’s just going to the post for me,” Constance
called out from the region of the till. “Oh! All right!” A trifle! A nothing! Yet somehow, in the quiet
customerless shop, the episode, with the scarce perceptible difference
in Samuel’s tone at his second remark, was delicious to
Constance. Somehow it was the REAL beginning of her wifehood. (There
had been about nine other real beginnings in the past fortnight.) Mr. Povey came in to supper, laden with ledgers
and similar works which Constance had never even pretended to
understand. It was a sign from him that the honeymoon was over.
He was proprietor now, and his ardour for ledgers most justifiable.
Still, there was the question of her servant. “Never!” he exclaimed, when she told him all
about the end of the world. A ‘never’ which expressed extreme astonishment
and the liveliest concern! But Constance had anticipated that he would
have been just a little more knocked down, bowled over, staggered,
stunned, flabbergasted. In a swift gleam of insight
she saw that she had been in danger of forgetting her role of experienced,
capable married woman. “I shall have to set about getting a fresh
one,” she said hastily, with an admirable assumption of light and
easy casualness. Mr. Povey seemed to think that Hollins would
suit Maggie pretty well. He made no remark to the betrothed when
she answered the final bell of the night. He opened his ledgers, whistling. “I think I shall go up, dear,” said Constance.
“I’ve a lot of things to put away.” “Do,” said he. “Call out when you’ve done.” II “Sam!” she cried from the top of the crooked
stairs. No answer. The door at the foot was closed. “Sam!” “Hello?” Distantly, faintly. “I’ve done all I’m going to do to-night.” And she ran back along the corridor, a white
figure in the deep gloom, and hurried into bed, and drew the
clothes up to her chin. In the life of a bride there are some dramatic
moments. If she has married the industrious apprentice, one of
those moments occurs when she first occupies the sacred bed-chamber
of her ancestors, and the bed on which she was born. Her parents’
room had always been to Constance, if not sacred, at least
invested with a certain moral solemnity. She could not enter it as
she would enter another room. The course of nature, with its succession
of deaths, conceptions, and births, slowly makes such
a room august with a mysterious quality which interprets the grandeur
of mere existence and imposes itself on all. Constance had the
strangest sensations in that bed, whose heavy dignity of ornament
symbolized a past age; sensations of sacrilege and trespass,
of being a naughty girl to whom punishment would accrue for this shocking
freak. Not since she was quite tiny had she slept in that bed–one
night with her mother, before her father’s seizure, when
he had been away. What a limitless, unfathomable bed it was then! Now
it was just a bed–so she had to tell herself–like any other bed.
The tiny child that, safely touching its mother, had slept in the
vast expanse, seemed to her now a pathetic little thing; its image
made her feel melancholy. And her mind dwelt on sad events:
the death of her father, the flight of darling Sophia; the
immense grief, and the exile, of her mother. She esteemed that she
knew what life was, and that it was grim. And she sighed. But
the sigh was an affectation, meant partly to convince herself
that she was grown- up, and partly to keep her in countenance
in the intimidating bed. This melancholy was factitious, was less than
transient foam on the deep sea of her joy. Death and sorrow
and sin were dim shapes to her; the ruthless egoism of happiness blew
them away with a puff, and their wistful faces vanished. To
see her there in the bed, framed in mahogany and tassels, lying
on her side, with her young glowing cheeks, and honest but not artless
gaze, and the rich curve of her hip lifting the counterpane,
one would have said that she had never heard of aught but love. Mr. Povey entered, the bridegroom, quickly,
firmly, carrying it off rather well, but still self-conscious.
“After all,” his shoulders were trying to say, “what’s the
difference between this bedroom and the bedroom of a boarding-house?
Indeed, ought we not to feel more at home here? Besides, confound
it, we’ve been married a fortnight!” “Doesn’t it give you a funny feeling, sleeping
in this room? It does me,” said Constance. Women, even experienced
women, are so foolishly frank. They have no decency, no
self-respect. “Really?” replied Mr. Povey, with loftiness,
as who should say: “What an extraordinary thing that a reasonable
creature can have such fancies! Now to me this room is exactly
like any other room.” And he added aloud, glancing away from the
glass, where he was unfastening his necktie: “It’s not a bad room
at all.” This, with the judicial air of an auctioneer. Not for an instant did he deceive Constance,
who read his real sensations with accuracy. But his futile poses
did not in the slightest degree lessen her respect for him.
On the contrary, she admired him the more for them; they were a
sort of embroidery on the solid stuff of his character. At that
period he could not do wrong for her. The basis of her regard for
him was, she often thought, his honesty, his industry, his genuine
kindliness of act, his grasp of the business, his perseverance,
his passion for doing at once that which had to be done. She had
the greatest admiration for his qualities, and he was in her eyes
an indivisible whole; she could not admire one part of him and frown
upon another. Whatever he did was good because he did it.
She knew that some people were apt to smile at certain phases
of his individuality; she knew that far down in her mother’s heart
was a suspicion that she had married ever so little beneath her.
But this knowledge did not disturb her. She had no doubt as to the
correctness of her own estimate. Mr. Povey was an exceedingly methodical person,
and he was also one of those persons who must always be ‘beforehand’
with time. Thus at night he would arrange his raiment
so that in the morning it might be reassumed in the minimum of minutes.
He was not a man, for example, to leave the changing of studs
from one shirt to another till the morrow. Had it been practicable,
he would have brushed his hair the night before. Constance
already loved to watch his meticulous preparations. She saw
him now go into his old bedroom and return with a paper collar, which
he put on the dressing-table next to a black necktie. His
shop-suit was laid out on a chair. “Oh, Sam!” she exclaimed impulsively, “you
surely aren’t going to begin wearing those horrid paper collars again!”
During the honeymoon he had worn linen collars. Her tone was perfectly gentle, but the remark,
nevertheless, showed a lack of tact. It implied that all
his life Mr. Povey had been enveloping his neck in something which
was horrid. Like all persons with a tendency to fall into the ridiculous,
Mr. Povey was exceedingly sensitive to personal criticisms.
He flushed darkly. “I didn’t know they were ‘horrid,'” he snapped.
He was hurt and angry. Anger had surprised him unawares. Both of them suddenly saw that they were standing
on the edge of a chasm, and drew back. They had imagined themselves
to be wandering safely in a flowered meadow, and here was
this bottomless chasm! It was most disconcerting. Mr. Povey’s hand hovered undecided over the
collar. “However–” he muttered. She could feel that he was trying with all
his might to be gentle and pacific. And she was aghast at her own
stupid clumsiness, she so experienced! “Just as you like, dear,” she said quickly.
“Please!” “Oh no!” And he did his best to smile, and
went off gawkily with the collar and came back with a linen one. Her passion for him burned stronger than ever.
She knew then that she did not love him for his good qualities,
but for something boyish and naive that there was about him,
an indescribable something that occasionally, when his face
was close to hers, made her dizzy. The chasm had disappeared. In such moments,
when each must pretend not to have seen or even suspected the chasm,
small-talk is essential. “Wasn’t that Mr. Yardley in the shop to-night?”
began Constance. “Yes.” “What did he want?” “I’d sent for him. He’s going to paint us
a signboard.” Useless for Samuel to make-believe that nothing
in this world is more ordinary than a signboard. “Oh!” murmured Constance. She said no more,
the episode of the paper collar having weakened her self-confidence. But a signboard! What with servants, chasms, and signboards,
Constance considered that her life as a married woman would not
be deficient in excitement. Long afterwards, she fell asleep,
thinking of Sophia. III A few days later Constance was arranging the
more precious of her wedding presents in the parlour; some had
to be wrapped in tissue and in brown paper and then tied with string
and labelled; others had special cases of their own, leather without
and velvet within. Among the latter was the resplendent egg-stand
holding twelve silver-gilt egg-cups and twelve chased spoons
to match, presented by Aunt Harriet. In the Five Towns’ phrase,
‘it must have cost money.’ Even if Mr. and Mrs. Povey had ten
guests or ten children, and all the twelve of them were simultaneously
gripped by a desire to eat eggs at breakfast or tea–even in this
remote contingency Aunt Harriet would have been pained to see
the egg-stand in use; such treasures are not designed for use. The
presents, few in number, were mainly of this character, because,
owing to her mother’s heroic cession of the entire interior,
Constance already possessed every necessary. The fewness of
the presents was accounted for by the fact that the wedding
had been strictly private and had taken place at Axe. There
is nothing like secrecy in marriage for discouraging the generous
impulses of one’s friends. It was Mrs. Baines, abetted by both
the chief parties, who had decided that the wedding should be
private and secluded. Sophia’s wedding had been altogether too private
and secluded; but the casting of a veil over Constance’s (whose
union was irreproachable) somehow justified, after the
event, the circumstances of Sophia’s, indicating as it
did that Mrs. Baines believed in secret weddings on principle.
In such matters Mrs. Baines was capable of extraordinary subtlety. And while Constance was thus taking her wedding
presents with due seriousness, Maggie was cleaning the steps
that led from the pavement of King Street to the side-door,
and the door was ajar. It was a fine June morning. Suddenly, over the sound of scouring, Constance
heard a dog’s low growl and then the hoarse voice of a man: “Mester in, wench?” “Happen he is, happen he isn’t,” came Maggie’s
answer. She had no fancy for being called wench. Constance went to the door, not merely from
curiosity, but from a feeling that her authority and her responsibilities
as house- mistress extended to the pavement surrounding
the house. The famous James Boon, of Buck Row, the greatest
dog-fancier in the Five Towns, stood at the bottom of the
steps: a tall, fat man, clad in stiff, stained brown and smoking a
black clay pipe less than three inches long. Behind him attended
two bull-dogs. “Morning, missis!” cried Boon, cheerfully.
“I’ve heerd tell as th’ mister is looking out for a dog, as you might
say.” “I don’t stay here with them animals a-sniffing
at me–no, that I don’t!” observed Maggie, picking herself up. “Is he?” Constance hesitated. She knew that
Samuel had vaguely referred to dogs; she had not, however, imagined
that he regarded a dog as aught but a beautiful dream. No dog
had ever put paw into that house, and it seemed impossible that
one should ever do so. As for those beasts of prey on the pavement
…! “Ay!” said James Boon, calmly. “I’ll tell him you’re here,” said Constance.
“But I don’t know if he’s at liberty. He seldom is at this time
of day. Maggie, you’d better come in.” She went slowly to the shop, full of fear
for the future. “Sam,” she whispered to her husband, who was
writing at his desk, “here’s a man come to see you about a dog.” Assuredly he was taken aback. Still, he behaved
with much presence of mind. “Oh, about a dog! Who is it?” “It’s that Jim Boon. He says he’s heard you
want one.” The renowned name of Jim Boon gave him pause;
but he had to go through with the affair, and he went through
with it, though nervously. Constance followed his agitated
footsteps to the side- door. “Morning, Boon.” “Morning, master.” They began to talk dogs, Mr. Povey, for his
part, with due caution. “Now, there’s a dog!” said Boon, pointing
to one of the bull-dogs, a miracle of splendid ugliness. “Yes,” responded Mr. Povey, insincerely. “He
is a beauty. What’s it worth now, at a venture?” “I’ll tak’ a hundred and twenty sovereigns
for her,” said Boon. “Th’ other’s a bit cheaper–a hundred.” “Oh, Sam!” gasped Constance. And even Mr. Povey nearly lost his nerve.
“That’s more than I want to give,” said he timidly. “But look at her!” Boon persisted, roughly
snatching up the more expensive animal, and displaying her cannibal
teeth. Mr. Povey shook his head. Constance glanced
away. “That’s not quite the sort of dog I want,”
said Mr. Povey. “Fox-terrier?” “Yes, that’s more like,” Mr. Povey agreed
eagerly. “What’ll ye run to?” “Oh,” said Mr. Povey, largely, “I don’t know.” “Will ye run to a tenner?” “I thought of something cheaper.” “Well, hoo much? Out wi’ it, mester.” “Not more than two pounds,” said Mr. Povey.
He would have said one pound had he dared. The prices of dogs amazed
him. “I thowt it was a dog as ye wanted!” said
Boon. “Look ‘ere, mester. Come up to my yard and see what I’ve
got.” “I will,” said Mr. Povey. “And bring missis along too. Now, what about
a cat for th’ missis? Or a gold-fish?” The end of the episode was that a young lady
aged some twelve months entered the Povey household on trial.
Her exiguous legs twinkled all over the parlour, and she had
the oddest appearance in the parlour. But she was so confiding,
so affectionate, so timorous, and her black nose was so icy in
that hot weather, that Constance loved her violently within an hour.
Mr. Povey made rules for her. He explained to her that she must
never, never go into the shop. But she went, and he whipped her
to the squealing point, and Constance cried an instant, while admiring
her husband’s firmness. The dog was not all. On another day Constance, prying into the
least details of the parlour, discovered a box of cigars inside
the lid of the harmonium, on the keyboard. She was so unaccustomed
to cigars that at first she did not realize what the object
was. Her father had never smoked, nor drunk intoxicants; nor had
Mr. Critchlow. Nobody had ever smoked in that house, where tobacco
had always been regarded as equally licentious with cards,
‘the devil’s playthings.’ Certainly Samuel had never smoked
in the house, though the sight of the cigar-box reminded
Constance of an occasion when her mother had announced an
incredulous suspicion that Mr. Povey, fresh from an excursion into
the world on a Thursday evening, ‘smelt of smoke.’ She closed the harmonium and kept silence. That very night, coming suddenly into the
parlour, she caught Samuel at the harmonium. The lid went down
with a resonant bang that awoke sympathetic vibrations in every
corner of the room. “What is it?” Constance inquired, jumping. “Oh, nothing!” replied Mr. Povey, carelessly.
Each was deceiving the other: Mr. Povey hid his crime, and Constance
hid her knowledge of his crime. False, false! But
this is what marriage is. And the next day Constance had a visit in
the shop from a possible new servant, recommended to her by Mr. Holl,
the grocer. “Will you please step this way?” said Constance,
with affable primness, steeped in the novel sense of what
it is to be the sole responsible mistress of a vast household.
She preceded the girl to the parlour, and as they passed the open door
of Mr. Povey’s cutting-out room, Constance had the clear
vision and titillating odour of her husband smoking a cigar. He was
in his shirt-sleeves, calmly cutting out, and Fan (the lady companion),
at watch on the bench, yapped at the possible new servant. “I think I shall try that girl,” said she
to Samuel at tea. She said nothing as to the cigar; nor did he. On the following evening, after supper, Mr.
Povey burst out: “I think I’ll have a weed! You didn’t know
I smoked, did you?” Thus Mr. Povey came out in his true colours
as a blood, a blade, and a gay spark. But dogs and cigars, disconcerting enough
in their degree, were to the signboard, when the signboard at last
came, as skim milk is to hot brandy. It was the signboard that, more
startlingly than anything else, marked the dawn of a new era
in St. Luke’s Square. Four men spent a day and a half in fixing
it; they had ladders, ropes, and pulleys, and two of them dined
on the flat lead roof of the projecting shop-windows. The signboard
was thirty-five feet long and two feet in depth; over its centre
was a semicircle about three feet in radius; this semicircle bore
the legend, judiciously disposed, “S. Povey. Late.” All the sign-board
proper was devoted to the words, “John Baines,” in gold letters
a foot and a half high, on a green ground. The Square watched and wondered; and murmured:
“Well, bless us! What next?” It was agreed that in giving paramount importance
to the name of his late father-in-law, Mr. Povey had displayed
a very nice feeling. Some asked with glee: “What’ll the old lady
have to say?” Constance asked herself this, but not with
glee. When Constance walked down the Square homewards, she could
scarcely bear to look at the sign; the thought of what her mother
might say frightened her. Her mother’s first visit of state was
imminent, and Aunt Harriet was to accompany her. Constance felt
almost sick as the day approached. When she faintly hinted her
apprehensions to Samuel, he demanded, as if surprised– “Haven’t you mentioned it in one of your letters?” “Oh NO!” “If that’s all,” said he, with bravado, “I’ll
write and tell her myself.” IV So that Mrs. Baines was duly apprised of the
signboard before her arrival. The letter written by her to Constance
after receiving Samuel’s letter, which was merely the amiable
epistle of a son-in- law anxious to be a little more than correct,
contained no reference to the signboard. This silence,
however, did not in the least allay Constance’s apprehensions as to
what might occur when her mother and Samuel met beneath the signboard
itself. It was therefore with a fearful as well as an eager,
loving heart that Constance opened her side-door and ran down
the steps when the waggonette stopped in King Street on the Thursday
morning of the great visit of the sisters. But a surprise
awaited her. Aunt Harriet had not come. Mrs. Baines explained,
as she soundly kissed her daughter, that at the last moment Aunt
Harriet had not felt well enough to undertake the journey. She
sent her fondest love, and cake. Her pains had recurred. It was these
mysterious pains which had prevented the sisters from coming
to Bursley earlier. The word “cancer”–the continual terror of
stout women–had been on their lips, without having been actually
uttered; then there was a surcease, and each was glad that she
had refrained from the dread syllables. In view of the recurrence,
it was not unnatural that Mrs. Baines’s vigorous cheerfulness should
be somewhat forced. “What is it, do you think?” Constance inquired. Mrs. Baines pushed her lips out and raised
her eyebrows–a gesture which meant that the pains might mean God
knew what. “I hope she’ll be all right alone,” observed
Constance. “Of course,” said Mrs. Baines, quickly. “But you
don’t suppose I was going to disappoint you, do you?” she added,
looking round as if to defy the fates in general. This speech, and its tone, gave intense pleasure
to Constance; and, laden with parcels, they mounted the
stairs together, very content with each other, very happy in the
discovery that they were still mother and daughter, very intimate
in an inarticulate way. Constance had imagined long, detailed, absorbing,
and highly novel conversations between herself and her mother
upon this their first meeting after her marriage. But alone in the
bedroom, and with a clear half-hour to dinner, they neither of
them seemed to have a great deal to impart. Mrs. Baines slowly removed her light mantle
and laid it with precautions on the white damask counterpane.
Then, fingering her weeds, she glanced about the chamber. Nothing
was changed. Though Constance had, previous to her marriage, envisaged
certain alterations, she had determined to postpone
them, feeling that one revolutionist in a house was enough. “Well, my chick, you all right?” said Mrs.
Baines, with hearty and direct energy, gazing straight into her daughter’s
eyes. Constance perceived that the question was
universal in its comprehensiveness, the one unique expression
that the mother would give to her maternal concern and curiosity,
and that it condensed into six words as much interest as would have
overflowed into a whole day of the chatter of some mothers.
She met the candid glance, flushing. “Oh YES!” she answered with ecstatic fervour.
“Perfectly!” And Mrs. Baines nodded, as if dismissing THAT.
“You’re stouter,” said she, curtly. “If you aren’t careful you’ll
be as big as any of us.” “Oh, mother!” The interview fell to a lower plane of emotion.
It even fell as far as Maggie. What chiefly preoccupied Constance
was a subtle change in her mother. She found her mother
fussy in trifles. Her manner of laying down her mantle, of smoothing
out her gloves, and her anxiety that her bonnet should not come
to harm, were rather trying, were perhaps, in the very slightest
degree, pitiable. It was nothing; it was barely perceptible, and
yet it was enough to alter Constance’s mental attitude to her mother.
“Poor dear!” thought Constance. “I’m afraid she’s not what
she was.” Incredible that her mother could have age in less than
six weeks! Constance did not allow for the chemistry that had been
going on in herself. The encounter between Mrs. Baines and her
son-in-law was of the most satisfactory nature. He was waiting in
the parlour for her to descend. He made himself exceedingly agreeable,
kissing her, and flattering her by his evidently sincere desire
to please. He explained that he had kept an eye open for
the waggonette, but had been called away. His “Dear me!” on learning
about Aunt Harriet lacked nothing in conviction, though both
women knew that his affection for Aunt Harriet would never get
the better of his reason. To Constance, her husband’s behaviour
was marvellously perfect. She had not suspected him to be such
a man of the world. And her eyes said to her mother, quite unconsciously:
“You see, after all, you didn’t rate Sam as high as
you ought to have done. Now you see your mistake.” As they sat waiting for dinner, Constance
and Mrs. Baines on the sofa, and Samuel on the edge of the nearest
rocking-chair, a small scuffling noise was heard outside the door
which gave on the kitchen steps, the door yielded to pressure,
and Fan rushed importantly in, deranging mats. Fan’s nose
had been hinting to her that she was behind the times, not up-to-date
in the affairs of the household, and she had hurried from the
kitchen to make inquiries. It occurred to her en route that
she had been washed that morning. The spectacle of Mrs. Baines
stopped her. She stood, with her legs slightly out-stretched, her
nose lifted, her ears raking forward, her bright eyes blinking,
and her tail undecided. “I was sure I’d never smelt anything like
that before,” she was saying to herself, as she stared at Mrs. Baines. And Mrs. Baines, staring at Fan, had a similar
though not the same sentiment. The silence was terrible. Constance
took on the mien of a culprit, and Sam had obviously lost his
easy bearing of a man of the world. Mrs. Baines was merely thunderstruck. A dog! Suddenly Fan’s tail began to wag more quickly;
and then, having looked in vain for encouragement to her master
and mistress, she gave one mighty spring and alighted in Mrs.
Baines’s lap. It was an aim she could not have missed. Constance
emitted an “Oh, FAN!” of shocked terror, and Samuel betrayed his
nervous tension by an involuntary movement. But Fan had settled
down into that titanic lap as into heaven. It was a greater flattery
than Mr. Povey’s. “So your name’s Fan!” murmured Mrs. Baines,
stroking the animal. “You are a dear!” “Yes, isn’t she?” said Constance, with inconceivable
rapidity. The danger was past. Thus, without any explanation,
Fan became an accepted fact. The next moment Maggie served the Yorkshire
pudding. “Well, Maggie,” said Mrs. Baines. “So you
are going to get married this time? When is it?” “Sunday, ma’am.” “And you leave here on Saturday?” “Yes, ma’am.” “Well, I must have a talk with you before
I go.” During the dinner, not a word as to the signboard!
Several times the conversation curved towards that signboard
in the most alarming fashion, but invariably it curved
away again, like a train from another train when two trains are
simultaneously leaving a station. Constance had frights,
so serious as to destroy her anxiety about the cookery. In the end
she comprehended that her mother had adopted a silently disapproving
attitude. Fan was socially very useful throughout the repast. After dinner Constance was on pins lest Samuel
should light a cigar. She had not requested him not to do
so, for though she was entirely sure of his affection, she had already
learned that a husband is possessed by a demon of contrariety
which often forces him to violate his higher feelings. However,
Samuel did not light a cigar. He went off to superintend the shutting-up
of the shop, while Mrs. Baines chatted with Maggie and
gave her L5 for a wedding present. Then Mr. Critchlow called
to offer his salutations. A little before tea Mrs. Baines announced
that she would go out for a short walk by herself. “Where has she gone to?” smiled Samuel, superiorly,
as with Constance at the window he watched her turn
down King Street towards the church. “I expect she has gone to look at father’s
grave,” said Constance. “Oh!” muttered Samuel, apologetically. Constance was mistaken. Before reaching the
church, Mrs. Baines deviated to the right, got into Brougham Street
and thence, by Acre Lane, into Oldcastle Street, whose steep
she climbed. Now, Oldcastle Street ends at the top of St. Luke’s
Square, and from the corner Mrs. Baines had an excellent view
of the signboard. It being Thursday afternoon, scarce a soul was
about. She returned to her daughter’s by the same extraordinary route,
and said not a word on entering. But she was markedly cheerful. The waggonette came after tea, and Mrs. Baines
made her final preparations to depart. The visit had proved
a wonderful success; it would have been utterly perfect if Samuel
had not marred it at the very door of the waggonette. Somehow,
he contrived to be talking of Christmas. Only a person of Samuel’s
native clumsiness would have mentioned Christmas in July. “You know you’ll spend Christmas with us!”
said he into the waggonette. “Indeed I shan’t!” replied Mrs. Baines. “Aunt
Harriet and I will expect you at Axe. We’ve already settled that.” Mr. Povey bridled. “Oh no!” he protested,
hurt by this summariness. Having had no relatives, except his cousin
the confectioner, for many years, he had dreamt of at last establishing
a family Christmas under his own roof, and the dream
was dear to him. Mrs. Baines said nothing. “We couldn’t possibly
leave the shop,” said Mr. Povey. “Nonsense!” Mrs. Baines retorted, putting
her lips together. “Christmas Day is on a Monday.” The waggonette in starting jerked her head
towards the door and set all her curls shaking. No white in those
curls yet, scarcely a touch of grey! “I shall take good care we don’t go there
anyway,” Mr. Povey mumbled, in his heat, half to himself and
half to Constance. He had stained the brightness of the day. CHAPTER II CHRISTMAS AND THE FUTURE I Mr. Povey was playing a hymn tune on the harmonium,
it having been decided that no one should go to chapel. Constance,
in mourning, with a white apron over her dress, sat on
a hassock in front of the fire; and near her, in a rocking-chair,
Mrs. Baines swayed very gently to and fro. The weather was extremely
cold. Mr. Povey’s mittened hands were blue and red;
but, like many shopkeepers, he had apparently grown almost
insensible to vagaries of temperature. Although the fire was immense
and furious, its influence, owing to the fact that the mediaeval
grate was designed to heat the flue rather than the room, seemed
to die away at the borders of the fender. Constance could not
have been much closer to it without being a salamander. The era
of good old-fashioned Christmases, so agreeably picturesque for
the poor, was not yet at an end. Yes, Samuel Povey had won the battle concerning
the locus of the family Christmas. But he had received the
help of a formidable ally, death. Mrs. Harriet Maddack had passed
away, after an operation, leaving her house and her money
to her sister. The solemn rite of her interment had deeply affected
all the respectability of the town of Axe, where the
late Mr. Maddack had been a figure of consequence; it had even
shut up the shop in St. Luke’s Square for a whole day. It was such
a funeral as Aunt Harriet herself would have approved, a tremendous
ceremonial which left on the crushed mind an ineffaceable,
intricate impression of shiny cloth, crape, horses with arching necks
and long manes, the drawl of parsons, cake, port, sighs, and Christian
submission to the inscrutable decrees of Providence. Mrs.
Baines had borne herself with unnatural calmness until the
funeral was over: and then Constance perceived that the remembered
mother of her girlhood existed no longer. For the majority
of human souls it would have been easier to love a virtuous
principle, or a mountain, than to love Aunt Harriet, who was
assuredly less a woman than an institution. But Mrs. Baines
had loved her, and she had been the one person to whom Mrs. Baines
looked for support and guidance. When she died, Mrs. Baines paid
the tribute of respect with the last hoarded remains of her proud
fortitude, and weepingly confessed that the unconquerable
had been conquered, the inexhaustible exhausted; and became old with
whitening hair. She had persisted in her refusal to spend
Christmas in Bursley, but both Constance and Samuel knew that the
resistance was only formal. She soon yielded. When Constance’s
second new servant took it into her head to leave a week before Christmas,
Mrs. Baines might have pointed out the finger of Providence
at work again, and this time in her favour. But no! With amazing
pliancy she suggested that she should bring one of her
own servants to ‘tide Constance over’ Christmas. She was met with
all the forms of loving solicitude, and she found that her
daughter and son-in-law had ‘turned out of’ the state bedroom in her
favour. Intensely flattered by this attention (which was Mr.
Povey’s magnanimous idea), she nevertheless protested strongly.
Indeed she ‘would not hear of it.’ “Now, mother, don’t be silly,” Constance had
said firmly. “You don’t expect us to be at all the trouble of
moving back again, do you?” And Mrs. Baines had surrendered in tears. Thus had come Christmas. Perhaps it was fortunate
that, the Axe servant being not quite the ordinary servant,
but a benefactor where a benefactor was needed, both Constance
and her mother thought it well to occupy themselves in household
work, ‘sparing’ the benefactor as much as possible. Hence
Constance’s white apron. “There he is!” said Mr. Povey, still playing,
but with his eye on the street. Constance sprang up eagerly. Then there was
a knock on the door. Constance opened, and an icy blast swept into
the room. The postman stood on the steps, his instrument
for knocking (like a drumstick) in one hand, a large bundle of
letters in the other, and a yawning bag across the pit of his stomach. “Merry Christmas, ma’am!” cried the postman,
trying to keep warm by cheerfulness. Constance, taking the letters, responded,
while Mr. Povey, playing the harmonium with his right hand, drew half
a crown from his pocket with the left. “Here you are!” he said, giving it to Constance,
who gave it to the postman. Fan, who had been keeping her muzzle warm
with the extremity of her tail on the sofa, jumped down to superintend
the transaction. “Brrr!” vibrated Mr. Povey as Constance shut
the door. “What lots!” Constance exclaimed, rushing
to the fire. “Here, mother! Here, Sam!” The girl had resumed possession of the woman’s
body. Though the Baines family had few friends (sustained
hospitality being little practised in those days) they
had, of course, many acquaintances, and, like other families, they
counted their Christmas cards as an Indian counts scalps.
The tale was satisfactory. There were between thirty and
forty envelopes. Constance extracted Christmas cards rapidly,
reading their contents aloud, and then propping them up
on the mantelpiece. Mrs. Baines assisted. Fan dealt with the envelopes
on the floor. Mr. Povey, to prove that his soul was above toys
and gewgaws, continued to play the harmonium. “Oh, mother!” Constance murmured in a startled,
hesitant voice, holding an envelope. “What is it, my chuck?” “It’s—-” The envelope was addressed to “Mrs. and Miss
Baines” in large, perpendicular, dashing characters which Constance
instantly recognised as Sophia’s. The stamps were strange,
the postmark ‘Paris.’ Mrs. Baines leaned forward and looked. “Open it, child,” she said. The envelope contained an English Christmas
card of a common type, a spray of holly with greetings, and on it
was written, “I do hope this will reach you on Christmas morning.
Fondest love.” No signature, nor address. Mrs. Baines took it with a trembling hand,
and adjusted her spectacles. She gazed at it a long time. “And it has done!” she said, and wept. She tried to speak again, but not being able
to command herself, held forth the card to Constance and jerked
her head in the direction of Mr. Povey. Constance rose and
put the card on the keyboard of the harmonium. “Sophia!” she whispered. Mr. Povey stopped playing. “Dear, dear!” he
muttered. Fan, perceiving that nobody was interested
in her feats, suddenly stood still. Mrs. Baines tried once more to speak, but
could not. Then, her ringlets shaking beneath the band of her weeds,
she found her feet, stepped to the harmonium, and, with
a movement almost convulsive, snatched the card from Mr. Povey,
and returned to her chair. Mr. Povey abruptly left the room, followed
by Fan. Both the women were in tears, and he was tremendously surprised
to discover a dangerous lump in his own throat. The beautiful
and imperious vision of Sophia, Sophia as she had left them,
innocent, wayward, had swiftly risen up before him and made even
him a woman too! Yet he had never liked Sophia. The awful secret
wound in the family pride revealed itself to him as never before,
and he felt intensely the mother’s tragedy, which she
carried in her breast as Aunt Harriet had carried a cancer. At dinner he said suddenly to Mrs. Baines,
who still wept: “Now, mother, you must cheer up, you know.” “Yes, I must,” she said quickly. And she did
do. Neither Samuel nor Constance saw the card
again. Little was said. There was nothing to say. As Sophia had given
no address she must be still ashamed of her situation. But she
had thought of her mother and sister. She … she did not even
know that Constance was married … What sort of a place was Paris?
To Bursley, Paris was nothing but the site of a great exhibition
which had recently closed. Through the influence of Mrs. Baines a new
servant was found for Constance in a village near Axe, a raw, comely
girl who had never been in a ‘place.’ And through the post it
was arranged that this innocent should come to the cave on the thirty-first
of December. In obedience to the safe rule that servants
should never be allowed to meet for the interchange of opinions,
Mrs. Baines decided to leave with her own servant on the
thirtieth. She would not be persuaded to spend the New Year in
the Square. On the twenty-ninth poor Aunt Maria died all of a
sudden in her cottage in Brougham Street. Everybody was duly distressed,
and in particular Mrs. Baines’s demeanour under this
affliction showed the perfection of correctness. But she caused
it to be understood that she should not remain for the funeral.
Her nerves would be unequal to the ordeal; and, moreover, her
servant must not stay to corrupt the new girl, nor could Mrs. Baines
think of sending her servant to Axe in advance, to spend several
days in idle gossip with her colleague. This decision took the backbone out of Aunt
Maria’s funeral, which touched the extreme of modesty: a hearse and
a one-horse coach. Mr. Povey was glad, because he happened to
be very busy. An hour before his mother-in-law’s departure he came
into the parlour with the proof of a poster. “What is that, Samuel?” asked Mrs. Baines,
not dreaming of the blow that awaited her. “It’s for my first Annual Sale,” replied Mr.
Povey with false tranquillity. Mrs. Baines merely tossed her head. Constance,
happily for Constance, was not present at this final defeat
of the old order. Had she been there, she would certainly not
have known where to look. II “Forty next birthday!” Mr. Povey exclaimed
one day, with an expression and in a tone that were at once
mock-serious and serious. This was on his thirty-ninth birthday. Constance was startled. She had, of course,
been aware that they were getting older, but she had never realized
the phenomenon. Though customers occasionally remarked that
Mr. Povey was stouter, and though when she helped him to measure
himself for a new suit of clothes the tape proved the fact, he had
not changed for her. She knew that she too had become somewhat
stouter; but for herself, she remained exactly the same Constance.
Only by recalling dates and by calculations could
she really grasp that she had been married a little over six years
and not a little over six months. She had to admit that, if Samuel
would be forty next birthday, she would be twenty-seven next birthday.
But it would not be a real twenty-seven; nor would Sam’s
forty be a real forty, like other people’s twenty-sevens and forties.
Not long since she had been in the habit of regarding a man of
forty as senile, as practically in his grave. She reflected, and the more she reflected
the more clearly she saw that after all the almanacs had not lied.
Look at Fan! Yes, it must be five years since the memorable morning
when doubt first crossed the minds of Samuel and Constance
as to Fan’s moral principles. Samuel’s enthusiasm for dogs was
equalled by his ignorance of the dangers to which a young
female of temperament may be exposed, and he was much disturbed
as doubt developed into certainty. Fan, indeed, was the one being
who did not suffer from shock and who had no fears as to the results.
The animal, having a pure mind, was bereft of modesty. Sundry enormities
had she committed, but none to rank with this one!
The result was four quadrupeds recognizable as fox-terriers. Mr.
Povey breathed again. Fan had had more luck than she deserved, for
the result might have been simply anything. Her owners forgave her
and disposed of these fruits of iniquity, and then married her lawfully
to a husband who was so high up in the world that he could
demand a dowry. And now Fan was a grandmother, with fixed ideas and
habits, and a son in the house, and various grandchildren scattered
over the town. Fan was a sedate and disillusioned dog. She knew
the world as it was, and in learning it she had taught her owners
above a bit. Then there was Maggie Hollins. Constance could
still vividly recall the self-consciousness with which she
had one day received Maggie and the heir of the Hollinses; but
it was a long time ago. After staggering half the town by the production
of this infant (of which she nearly died) Maggie allowed
the angels to waft it away to heaven, and everybody said that she
ought to be very thankful–at her age. Old women dug up out
of their minds forgotten histories of the eccentricities
of the goddess Lucina. Mrs. Baines was most curiously interested;
she talked freely to Constance, and Constance began to see what
an incredible town Bursley had always been–and she never suspected
it! Maggie was now mother of other children, and the draggled,
lame mistress of a drunken home, and looked sixty. Despite her
prophecy, her husband had conserved his ‘habits.’ The Poveys ate
all the fish they could, and sometimes more than they enjoyed,
because on his sober days Hollins invariably started his round
at the shop, and Constance had to buy for Maggie’s sake. The
worst of the worthless husband was that he seldom failed to be cheery
and polite. He never missed asking after the health of Mrs.
Baines. And when Constance replied that her mother was ‘pretty
well considering,’ but that she would not come over to Bursley
again until the Axe railway was opened, as she could not stand
the drive, he would shake his grey head and be sympathetically
gloomy for an instant. All these changes in six years! The almanacs
were in the right of it. But nothing had happened to her. Gradually
she had obtained a sure ascendency over her mother, yet without seeking
it, merely as the outcome of time’s influences on her and on
her mother respectively. Gradually she had gained skill
and use in the management of her household and of her share
of the shop, so that these machines ran smoothly and effectively
and a sudden contretemps no longer frightened her. Gradually
she had constructed a chart of Samuel’s individuality,
with the submerged rocks and perilous currents all carefully
marked, so that she could now voyage unalarmed in those seas.
But nothing happened. Unless their visits to Buxton could be called
happenings! Decidedly the visit to Buxton was the one
little hill that rose out of the level plain of the year. They had
formed the annual habit of going to Buxton for ten days. They
had a way of saying: “Yes, we always go to Buxton. We went there
for our honeymoon, you know.” They had become confirmed Buxtonites,
with views concerning St. Anne’s Terrace, the Broad Walk and Peel’s
Cavern. They could not dream of deserting their Buxton. It was
the sole possible resort. Was it not the highest town in England?
Well, then! They always stayed at the same lodgings, and grew
to be special favourites of the landlady, who whispered
of them to all her other guests as having come to her house for their
honeymoon, and as never missing a year, and as being most respectable,
superior people in quite a large way of business. Each
year they walked out of Buxton station behind their luggage on
a truck, full of joy and pride because they knew all the landmarks,
and the lie of all the streets, and which were the best shops. At the beginning, the notion of leaving the
shop to hired custody had seemed almost fantastic, and the preparations
for absence had been very complicated. Then it was that Miss
Insull had detached herself from the other young lady assistants
as a creature who could be absolutely trusted. Miss Insull was
older than Constance; she had a bad complexion, and she was not
clever, but she was one of your reliable ones. The six years had witnessed
the slow, steady rise of Miss Insull. Her employers
said ‘Miss Insull’ in a tone quite different from that in which they
said ‘Miss Hawkins,’ or ‘Miss Dadd.’ ‘Miss Insull’ meant the end
of a discussion. ‘Better tell Miss Insull.’ ‘Miss Insull will
see to that.’ ‘I shall ask Miss Insull.’ Miss Insull slept
in the house ten nights every year. Miss Insull had been called into
consultation when it was decided to engage a fourth hand in the
shape of an apprentice. Trade had improved in the point of excellence.
It was now admitted to be good–a rare honour for trade! The coal-mining
boom was at its height, and colliers, in addition to getting
drunk, were buying American organs and expensive bull-terriers.
Often they would come to the shop to purchase cloth for
coats for their dogs. And they would have good cloth. Mr. Povey
did not like this. One day a butty chose for his dog the best cloth
of Mr. Povey’s shop– at 12s. a yard. “Will ye make it up? I’ve
gotten th’ measurements,” asked the collier. “No, I won’t!”
said Mr. Povey, hotly. “And what’s more, I won’t sell you
the cloth either! Cloth at 12s. a yard on a dog’s back indeed! I’ll
thank you to get out of my shop!” The incident became historic,
in the Square. It finally established that Mr. Povey was a worthy
son-in-law and a solid and successful man. It vindicated the
old pre-eminence of “Baines’s.” Some surprise was expressed that
Mr. Povey showed no desire nor tendency towards entering the public
life of the town. But he never would, though a keen satirical
critic of the Local Board in private. And at the chapel he remained
a simple private worshipper, refusing stewardships and trusteeships. III Was Constance happy? Of course there was always
something on her mind, something that had to be dealt with,
either in the shop or in the house, something to employ all the
skill and experience which she had acquired. Her life had much
in it of laborious tedium–tedium never-ending and monotonous.
And both she and Samuel worked consistently hard, rising early,
‘pushing forward,’ as the phrase ran, and going to bed early
from sheer fatigue; week after week and month after month as season
changed imperceptibly into season. In June and July it would happen
to them occasionally to retire before the last silver of dusk was
out of the sky. They would lie in bed and talk placidly of their
daily affairs. There would be a noise in the street below. “Vaults
closing!” Samuel would say, and yawn. “Yes, it’s quite late,”
Constance would say. And the Swiss clock would rapidly strike eleven
on its coil of resonant wire. And then, just before she went
to sleep, Constance might reflect upon her destiny, as even the
busiest and smoothest women do, and she would decide that it was
kind. Her mother’s gradual decline and lonely life at Axe saddened
her. The cards which came now and then at extremely long
intervals from Sophia had been the cause of more sorrow than joy.
The naive ecstasies of her girlhood had long since departed–the
price paid for experience and self-possession and a true
vision of things. The vast inherent melancholy of the universe did
not exempt her. But as she went to sleep she would be conscious
of a vague contentment. The basis of this contentment
was the fact that she and Samuel comprehended and esteemed each
other, and made allowances for each other. Their characters
had been tested and had stood the test. Affection, love, was not
to them a salient phenomenon in their relations. Habit had inevitably
dulled its glitter. It was like a flavouring, scarce
remarked; but had it been absent, how they would have turned from
that dish! Samuel never, or hardly ever, set himself
to meditate upon the problem whether or not life had come up to
his expectations. But he had, at times, strange sensations which
he did not analyze, and which approached nearer to ecstasy than any
feeling of Constance’s. Thus, when he was in one of his
dark furies, molten within and black without, the sudden thought
of his wife’s unalterable benignant calm, which nothing
could overthrow, might strike him into a wondering cold. For him
she was astoundingly feminine. She would put flowers on the mantelpiece,
and then, hours afterwards, in the middle of a meal,
ask him unexpectedly what he thought of her ‘garden;’ and he gradually
divined that a perfunctory reply left her unsatisfied; she
wanted a genuine opinion; a genuine opinion mattered to her.
Fancy calling flowers on a mantelpiece a ‘garden’! How charming,
how childlike! Then she had a way, on Sunday mornings, when she descended
to the parlour all ready for chapel, of shutting the door
at the foot of the stairs with a little bang, shaking herself,
and turning round swiftly as if for his inspection, as if saying:
“Well, what about this? Will this do?” A phenomenon always associated
in his mind with the smell of kid gloves! Invariably she
asked him about the colours and cut of her dresses. Would he prefer
this, or that? He could not take such questions seriously until
one day he happened to hint, merely hint, that he was not a thorough-going
admirer of a certain new dress–it was her first new
dress after the definite abandonment of crinolines. She never wore
it again. He thought she was not serious at first, and remonstrated
against a joke being carried too far. She said: “It’s not a bit
of use you talking, I shan’t wear it again.” And then he so far
appreciated her seriousness as to refrain, by discretion,
from any comment. The incident affected him for days. It flattered
him; it thrilled him; but it baffled him. Strange that a woman subject
to such caprices should be so sagacious, capable, and utterly
reliable as Constance was! For the practical and commonsense side
of her eternally compelled his admiration. The very first example
of it–her insistence that the simultaneous absence of
both of them from the shop for half an hour or an hour twice a day
would not mean the immediate downfall of the business–had remained
in his mind ever since. Had she not been obstinate–in her
benevolent way–against the old superstition which he had acquired
from his employers, they might have been eating separately to
that day. Then her handling of her mother during the months of
the siege of Paris, when Mrs. Baines was convinced that her sinful
daughter was in hourly danger of death, had been extraordinarily
fine, he considered. And the sequel, a card for Constance’s
birthday, had completely justified her attitude. Sometimes some blundering fool would jovially
exclaim to them: “What about that baby?” Or a woman would remark quietly: “I often
feel sorry you’ve no children.” And they would answer that really they did
not know what they would do if there was a baby. What with the
shop and one thing or another …! And they were quite sincere. IV It is remarkable what a little thing will
draw even the most regular and serious people from the deep groove
of their habits. One morning in March, a boneshaker, an affair
on two equal wooden wheels joined by a bar of iron, in the middle
of which was a wooden saddle, disturbed the gravity of St.
Luke’s Square. True, it was probably the first boneshaker that
had ever attacked the gravity of St. Luke’s Square. It came out
of the shop of Daniel Povey, the confectioner and baker, and Samuel
Povey’s celebrated cousin, in Boulton Terrace. Boulton Terrace
formed nearly a right angle with the Baines premises, and at the
corner of the angle Wedgwood Street and King Street left the Square.
The boneshaker was brought forth by Dick Povey, the only
son of Daniel, now aged eleven years, under the superintendence of
his father, and the Square soon perceived that Dick had a natural
talent for breaking- in an untrained boneshaker. After a few attempts
he could remain on the back of the machine for at least ten
yards, and his feats had the effect of endowing St. Luke’s Square
with the attractiveness of a circus. Samuel Povey watched
with candid interest from the ambush of his door, while
the unfortunate young lady assistants, though aware of the performance
that was going on, dared not stir from the stove. Samuel
was tremendously tempted to sally out boldly, and chat with his cousin
about the toy; he had surely a better right to do so than any
other tradesman in the Square, since he was of the family; but his
diffidence prevented him from moving. Presently Daniel Povey and
Dick went to the top of the Square with the machine, opposite Holl’s,
and Dick, being carefully installed in the saddle, essayed
to descend the gentle paven slopes of the Square. He failed time
after time; the machine had an astonishing way of turning round, running
uphill, and then lying calmly on its side. At this point of
Dick’s life-history every shop-door in the Square was occupied
by an audience. At last the boneshaker displayed less unwillingness
to obey, and lo! in a moment Dick was riding down the Square, and
the spectators held their breath as if he had been Blondin crossing
Niagara. Every second he ought to have fallen off, but he
contrived to keep upright. Already he had accomplished twenty
yards–thirty yards! It was a miracle that he was performing! The
transit continued, and seemed to occupy hours. And then a faint
hope rose in the breast of the watchers that the prodigy might
arrive at the bottom of the Square. His speed was increasing with
his ‘nack.’ But the Square was enormous, boundless. Samuel Povey
gazed at the approaching phenomenon, as a bird at a serpent,
with bulging, beady eyes. The child’s speed went on increasing
and his path grew straighter. Yes, he would arrive; he would
do it! Samuel Povey involuntarily lifted one leg in his nervous
tension. And now the hope that Dick would arrive became a fear,
as his pace grew still more rapid. Everybody lifted one leg, and
gaped. And the intrepid child surged on, and, finally victorious,
crashed into the pavement in front of Samuel at the rate of
quite six miles an hour. Samuel picked him up, unscathed. And somehow
this picking up of Dick invested Samuel with importance, gave
him a share in the glory of the feat itself. Daniel Povey same running and joyous. “Not
so bad for a start, eh?” exclaimed the great Daniel. Though by
no means a simple man, his pride in his offspring sometimes made
him a little naive. Father and son explained the machine to Samuel,
Dick incessantly repeating the exceedingly strange truth that
if you felt you were falling to your right you must turn to your
right and vice versa. Samuel found himself suddenly admitted, as
it were, to the inner fellowship of the boneshaker, exalted above
the rest of the Square. In another adventure more thrilling
events occurred. The fair-haired Dick was one of those dangerous,
frenzied madcaps who are born without fear. The secret of the machine
had been revealed to him in his recent transit, and he was silently
determining to surpass himself. Precariously balanced, he
descended the Square again, frowning hard, his teeth set, and actually
managed to swerve into King Street. Constance, in the
parlour, saw an incomprehensible winged thing fly past the
window. The cousins Povey sounded an alarm and protest and ran
in pursuit; for the gradient of King Street is, in the strict
sense, steep. Half-way down King Street Dick was travelling at twenty
miles an hour, and heading straight for the church, as though
he meant to disestablish it and perish. The main gate
of the churchyard was open, and that affrighting child, with a lunatic’s
luck, whizzed safely through the portals into God’s acre.
The cousins Povey discovered him lying on a green grave, clothed
in pride. His first words were: “Dad, did you pick my cap up?”
The symbolism of the amazing ride did not escape the Square; indeed,
it was much discussed. This incident led to a friendship between
the cousins. They formed a habit of meeting in the Square for a chat.
The meetings were the subject of comment, for Samuel’s relations
with the greater Daniel had always been of the most distant. It was
understood that Samuel disapproved of Mrs. Daniel Povey even, more
than the majority of people disapproved of her. Mrs. Daniel Povey,
however, was away from home; probably, had she not been, Samuel
would not even have gone to the length of joining Daniel on the
neutral ground of the open Square. But having once broken the ice,
Samuel was glad to be on terms of growing intimacy with his cousin.
The friendship flattered him, for Daniel, despite his wife,
was a figure in a world larger than Samuel’s; moreover, it consecrated
his position as the equal of no matter what tradesman (apprentice
though he had been), and also he genuinely liked and admired
Daniel, rather to his own astonishment. Every one liked Daniel Povey; he was a favourite
among all ranks. The leading confectioner, a member of the
Local Board, and a sidesman at St. Luke’s, he was, and had been
for twenty-five years, very prominent in the town. He was
a tall, handsome man, with a trimmed, greying beard, a jolly smile,
and a flashing, dark eye. His good humour seemed to be permanent.
He had dignity without the slightest stiffness; he was welcomed
by his equals and frankly adored by his inferiors. He ought
to have been Chief Bailiff, for he was rich enough; but there
intervened a mysterious obstacle between Daniel Povey and the supreme
honour, a scarcely tangible impediment which could not be definitely
stated. He was capable, honest, industrious, successful,
and an excellent speaker; and if he did not belong to the austerer
section of society, if, for example, he thought nothing
of dropping into the Tiger for a glass of beer, or of using an
oath occasionally, or of telling a facetious story–well, in a busy,
broad-minded town of thirty thousand inhabitants, such proclivities
are no bar whatever to perfect esteem. But–how is one to phrase
it without wronging Daniel Povey? He was entirely moral; his views
were unexceptionable. The truth is that, for the
ruling classes of Bursley, Daniel Povey was just a little too
fanatical a worshipper of the god Pan. He was one of the remnant
who had kept alive the great Pan tradition from the days of the Regency
through the vast, arid Victorian expanse of years. The flighty
character of his wife was regarded by many as a judgment upon him
for the robust Rabelaisianism of his more private conversation,
for his frank interest in, his eternal preoccupation with,
aspects of life and human activity which, though essential to
the divine purpose, are not openly recognized as such–even by Daniel
Poveys. It was not a question of his conduct; it was a question
of the cast of his mind. If it did not explain his friendship
with the rector of St. Luke’s, it explained his departure from the
Primitive Methodist connexion, to which the Poveys as a family
had belonged since Primitive Methodism was created in Turnhill
in 1807. Daniel Povey had a way of assuming that every
male was boiling over with interest in the sacred cult of Pan.
The assumption, though sometimes causing inconvenience at
first, usually conquered by virtue of its inherent truthfulness. Thus
it fell out with Samuel. Samuel had not suspected that Pan
had silken cords to draw him. He had always averted his eyes from the
god–that is to say, within reason. Yet now Daniel, on perhaps
a couple of fine mornings a week, in full Square, with Fan
sitting behind on the cold stones, and Mr. Critchlow ironic at his
door in a long white apron, would entertain Samuel Povey for half
an hour with Pan’s most intimate lore, and Samuel Povey would
not blench. He would, on the contrary, stand up to Daniel like a
little man, and pretend with all his might to be, potentially, a perfect
arch-priest of the god. Daniel taught him a lot; turned over
the page of life for him, as it were, and, showing the reverse
side, seemed to say: “You were missing all that.” Samuel gazed
upwards at the handsome long nose and rich lips of his elder cousin,
so experienced, so agreeable, so renowned, so esteemed, so philosophic,
and admitted to himself that he had lived to the age of
forty in a state of comparative boobyism. And then he would gaze
downwards at the faint patch of flour on Daniel’s right leg,
and conceive that life was, and must be, life. Not many weeks after his initiation into the
cult he was startled by Constance’s preoccupied face one evening.
Now, a husband of six years’ standing, to whom it has not happened
to become a father, is not easily startled by such a face as Constance
wore. Years ago he had frequently been startled, had frequently
lived in suspense for a few days. But he had long since grown
impervious to these alarms. And now he was startled again–but
as a man may be startled who is not altogether surprised at
being startled. And seven endless days passed, and Samuel and
Constance glanced at each other like guilty things, whose secret
refuses to be kept. Then three more days passed, and another three.
Then Samuel Povey remarked in a firm, masculine, fact-fronting
tone: “Oh, there’s no doubt about it!” And they glanced at each other like conspirators
who have lighted a fuse and cannot take refuge in flight. Their
eyes said continually, with a delicious, an enchanting
mixture of ingenuous modesty and fearful joy: “Well, we’ve gone and done it!” There it was, the incredible, incomprehensible
future–coming! Samuel had never correctly imagined the manner
of its heralding. He had imagined in his early simplicity that
one day Constance, blushing, might put her mouth to his ear and
whisper–something positive. It had not occurred in the least
like that. But things are so obstinately, so incurably unsentimental. “I think we ought to drive over and tell mother,
on Sunday,” said Constance. His impulse was to reply, in his grand, offhand
style: “Oh, a letter will do!” But he checked himself and said, with careful
deference: “You think that will be better than writing?” All was changed. He braced every fibre to
meet destiny, and to help Constance to meet it. The weather threatened on Sunday. He went
to Axe without Constance. His cousin drove him there in a
dog-cart, and he announced that he should walk home, as the
exercise would do him good. During the drive Daniel, in whom he
had not confided, chattered as usual, and Samuel pretended to
listen with the same attitude as usual; but secretly he despised
Daniel for a man who has got something not of the first importance
on the brain. His perspective was truer than Daniel’s. He walked home, as he had decided, over the
wavy moorland of the county dreaming in the heart of England. Night
fell on him in mid- career, and he was tired. But the earth, as
it whirled through naked space, whirled up the moon for him,
and he pressed on at a good speed. A wind from Arabia wandering cooled
his face. And at last, over the brow of Toft End, he saw suddenly
the Five Towns a- twinkle on their little hills down in the
vast amphitheatre. And one of those lamps was Constance’s lamp–one,
somewhere. He lived, then. He entered into the shadow of nature.
The mysteries made him solemn. What! A boneshaker, his cousin, and
then this! “Well, I’m damned! Well, I’m damned!” he kept
repeating, he who never swore. CHAPTER III CYRIL I Constance stood at the large, many-paned window
in the parlour. She was stouter. Although always plump, her
figure had been comely, with a neat, well-marked waist. But
now the shapeliness had gone; the waist-line no longer existed,
and there were no more crinolines to create it artificially. An observer
not under the charm of her face might have been excused
for calling her fat and lumpy. The face, grave, kind, and expectant,
with its radiant, fresh cheeks, and the rounded softness of
its curves, atoned for the figure. She was nearly twenty-nine years
of age. It was late in October. In Wedgwood Street,
next to Boulton Terrace, all the little brown houses had been
pulled down to make room for a palatial covered market, whose
foundations were then being dug. This destruction exposed a vast
area of sky to the north-east. A great dark cloud with an untidy
edge rose massively out of the depths and curtained off the tender
blue of approaching dusk; while in the west, behind Constance,
the sun was setting in calm and gorgeous melancholy on the Thursday
hush of the town. It was one of those afternoons which gather up
all the sadness of the moving earth and transform it into beauty. Samuel Povey turned the corner from Wedgwood
Street, and crossed King Street obliquely to the front-door, which
Constance opened. He seemed tired and anxious. “Well?” demanded Constance, as he entered. “She’s no better. There’s no getting away
from it, she’s worse. I should have stayed, only I knew you’d be worrying.
So I caught the three-fifty.” “How is that Mrs. Gilchrist shaping as a nurse?” “She’s very good,” said Samuel, with conviction.
“Very good!” “What a blessing! I suppose you didn’t happen
to see the doctor?” “Yes, I did.” “What did he say to you?” Samuel gave a deprecating gesture. “Didn’t
say anything particular. With dropsy, at that stage, you
know …” Constance had returned to the window, her
expectancy apparently unappeased. “I don’t like the look of that cloud,” she
murmured. “What! Are they out still?” Samuel inquired,
taking off his overcoat. “Here they are!” cried Constance. Her features
suddenly transfigured, she sprang to the door, pulled
it open, and descended the steps. A perambulator was being rapidly pushed up
the slope by a breathless girl. “Amy,” Constance gently protested, “I told
you not to venture far.” “I hurried all I could, mum, soon as I seed
that cloud,” the girl puffed, with the air of one who is seriously
thankful to have escaped a great disaster. Constance dived into the recesses of the perambulator
and extricated from its cocoon the centre of the
universe, and scrutinized him with quiet passion, and then
rushed with him into the house, though not a drop of rain had yet
fallen. “Precious!” exclaimed Amy, in ecstasy, her
young virginal eyes following him till he disappeared. Then she
wheeled away the perambulator, which now had no more value
nor interest than an egg-shell. It was necessary to take it right
round to the Brougham Street yard entrance, past the front of the
closed shop. Constance sat down on the horsehair sofa and
hugged and kissed her prize before removing his bonnet. “Here’s Daddy!” she said to him, as if imparting
strange and rapturous tidings. “Here’s Daddy come back
from hanging up his coat in the passage! Daddy rubbing his hands!”
And then, with a swift transition of voice and features: “Do
look at him, Sam!” Samuel, preoccupied, stooped forward. “Oh,
you little scoundrel! Oh, you little scoundrel!” he greeted the
baby, advancing his finger towards the baby’s nose. The baby, who had hitherto maintained a passive
indifference to external phenomena, lifted elbows and toes,
blew bubbles from his tiny mouth, and stared at the finger with
the most ravishing, roguish smile, as though saying: “I know that
great sticking-out limb, and there is a joke about it which no
one but me can see, and which is my secret joy that you shall
never share.” “Tea ready?” Samuel asked, resuming his gravity
and his ordinary pose. “You must give the girl time to take her things
off,” said Constance. “We’ll have the table drawn, away
from the fire, and baby can lie on his shawl on the hearthrug
while we’re having tea.” Then to the baby, in rapture: “And play
with his toys; all his nice, nice toys!” “You know Miss Insull is staying for tea?” Constance, her head bent over the baby, who
formed a white patch on her comfortable brown frock, nodded without
speaking. Samuel Povey, walking to and fro, began to
enter into details of his hasty journey to Axe. Old Mrs. Baines,
having beheld her grandson, was preparing to quit this world.
Never again would she exclaim, in her brusque tone of genial ruthlessness:
‘Fiddlesticks!’ The situation was very difficult and distressing,
for Constance could not leave her baby, and she would not, until
the last urgency, run the risks of a journey with him to Axe. He
was being weaned. In any case Constance could not have undertaken
the nursing of her mother. A nurse had to be found. Mr. Povey had
discovered one in the person of Mrs. Gilchrist, the second wife of
a farmer at Malpas in Cheshire, whose first wife had been a sister
of the late John Baines. All the credit of Mrs. Gilchrist was due
to Samuel Povey. Mrs. Baines fretted seriously about Sophia, who
had given no sign of life for a very long time. Mr. Povey went to
Manchester and ascertained definitely from the relatives of Scales
that nothing was known of the pair. He did not go to Manchester
especially on this errand. About once in three weeks, on Tuesdays,
he had to visit the Manchester warehouses; but the tracking of
Scales’s relative cost him so much trouble and time that,
curiously, he came to believe that he had gone to Manchester one
Tuesday for no other end. Although he was very busy indeed in the
shop, he flew over to Axe and back whenever he possibly could, to
the neglect of his affairs. He was glad to do all that was in his
power; even if he had not done it graciously his sensitive,
tyrannic conscience would have forced him to do it. But
nevertheless he felt rather virtuous, and worry and fatigue and
loss of sleep intensified this sense of virtue. “So that if there is any sudden change they
will telegraph,” he finished, to Constance. She raised her head. The words, clinching
what had led up to them, drew her from her dream and she saw, for a
moment, her mother in an agony. “But you don’t surely mean–?” she began,
trying to disperse the painful vision as unjustified by the facts. “My dear girl,” said Samuel, with head singing,
and hot eyes, and a consciousness of high tension in every nerve
of his body, “I simply mean that if there’s any sudden change
they will telegraph.” While they had tea, Samuel sitting opposite
to his wife, and Miss Insull nearly against the wall (owing to the
moving of the table), the baby rolled about on the hearthrug, which
had been covered with a large soft woollen shawl, originally
the property of his great-grandmother. He had no cares, no responsibilities.
The shawl was so vast that he could not clearly distinguish
objects beyond its confines. On it lay an indiarubber ball,
an indiarubber doll, a rattle, and fan. He vaguely recollected
all four items, with their respective properties. The fire also
was an old friend. He had occasionally tried to touch it, but a
high bright fence always came in between. For ten months he had never
spent a day without making experiments on this shifting universe
in which he alone remained firm and stationary. The experiments
were chiefly conducted out of idle amusement, but he was
serious on the subject of food. Lately the behaviour of the universe
in regard to his food had somewhat perplexed him, had indeed
annoyed him. However, he was of a forgetful, happy disposition,
and so long as the universe continued to fulfil its sole end
as a machinery for the satisfaction, somehow, of his imperious desires,
he was not inclined to remonstrate. He gazed at the flames
and laughed, and laughed because he had laughed. He pushed
the ball away and wriggled after it, and captured it with the
assurance of practice. He tried to swallow the doll, and it was not
until he had tried several times to swallow it that he remembered
the failure of previous efforts and philosophically desisted.
He rolled with a fearful shock, arms and legs in air, against
the mountainous flank of that mammoth Fan, and clutched at Fan’s
ear. The whole mass of Fan upheaved and vanished from his view, and
was instantly forgotten by him. He seized the doll and tried
to swallow it, and repeated the exhibition of his skill with
the ball. Then he saw the fire again and laughed. And so he existed
for centuries: no responsibilities, no appetites; and the shawl
was vast. Terrific operations went on over his head. Giants moved
to and fro. Great vessels were carried off and great books were
brought and deep voices rumbled regularly in the spaces beyond
the shawl. But he remained oblivious. At last he became aware
that a face was looking down at his. He recognized it, and
immediately an uncomfortable sensation in his stomach disturbed
him; he tolerated it for fifty years or so, and then he gave
a little cry. Life had resumed its seriousness. “Black alpaca. B quality. Width 20, t.a. 22
yards,” Miss Insull read out of a great book. She and Mr. Povey
were checking stock. And Mr. Povey responded, “Black alpaca B quality.
Width 20, t.a. 22 yards. It wants ten minutes yet.” He had
glanced at the clock. “Does it?” said Constance, well knowing that
it wanted ten minutes. The baby did not guess that a high invisible
god named Samuel Povey, whom nothing escaped, and who could
do everything at once, was controlling his universe from an inconceivable
distance. On the contrary, the baby was crying to himself,
There is no God. His weaning had reached the stage at which
a baby really does not know what will happen next. The annoyance
had begun exactly three months after his first tooth, such being the
rule of the gods, and it had grown more and more disconcerting.
No sooner did he accustom himself to a new phenomenon than
it mysteriously ceased, and an old one took its place which he had
utterly forgotten. This afternoon his mother nursed him, but not until
she had foolishly attempted to divert him from the seriousness
of life by means of gewgaws of which he was sick. Still; once
at her rich breast, he forgave and forgot all. He preferred her simple
natural breast to more modern inventions. And he had no shame,
no modesty. Nor had his mother. It was an indecent carouse at
which his father and Miss Insull had to assist. But his father
had shame. His father would have preferred that, as Miss Insull
had kindly offered to stop and work on Thursday afternoon, and as
the shop was chilly, the due rotation should have brought the bottle
round at half-past five o’clock, and not the mother’s breast.
He was a self-conscious parent, rather apologetic to the world, rather
apt to stand off and pretend that he had nothing to do with
the affair; and he genuinely disliked that anybody should witness
the intimate scene of HIS wife feeding HIS baby. Especially Miss
Insull, that prim, dark, moustached spinster! He would not have
called it an outrage on Miss Insull, to force her to witness the
scene, but his idea approached within sight of the word. Constance blandly offered herself to the child,
with the unconscious primitive savagery of a young
mother, and as the baby fed, thoughts of her own mother flitted to
and fro ceaselessly like vague shapes over the deep sea of content
which filled her mind. This illness of her mother’s was abnormal,
and the baby was now, for the first time perhaps, entirely
normal in her consciousness. The baby was something which
could be disturbed, not something which did disturb. What a change!
What a change that had seemed impossible until its full accomplishment! For months before the birth, she had glimpsed
at nights and in other silent hours the tremendous upset. She
had not allowed herself to be silly in advance; by temperament
she was too sagacious, too well balanced for that; but
she had had fitful instants of terror, when solid ground seemed
to sink away from her, and imagination shook at what faced her.
Instants only! Usually she could play the comedy of sensible
calmness to almost perfection. Then the appointed time drew nigh.
And still she smiled, and Samuel smiled. But the preparations,
meticulous, intricate, revolutionary, belied their smiles.
The intense resolve to keep Mrs. Baines, by methods scrupulous
or unscrupulous, away from Bursley until all was over, belied their
smiles. And then the first pains, sharp, shocking, cruel, heralds
of torture! But when they had withdrawn, she smiled, again, palely.
Then she was in bed, full of the sensation that the whole
house was inverted and disorganized, hopelessly. And the doctor came
into the room. She smiled at the doctor apologetically, foolishly,
as if saying: “We all come to it. Here I am.” She was calm without.
Oh, but what a prey of abject fear within! “I am at the edge
of the precipice,” her thought ran; “in a moment I shall be over.”
And then the pains–not the heralds but the shattering
army, endless, increasing in terror as they thundered across
her. Yet she could think, quite clearly: “Now I’m in the middle
of it. This is it, the horror that I have not dared to look at.
My life’s in the balance. I may never get up again. All has
at last come to pass. It seemed as if it would never come, as if
this thing could not happen to me. But at last it has come to pass!” Ah! Some one put the twisted end of a towel
into her hand again– she had loosed it; and she pulled, pulled,
enough to break cables. And then she shrieked. It was for pity. It
was for some one to help her, at any rate to take notice of her.
She was dying. Her soul was leaving her. And she was alone, panic-stricken,
in the midst of a cataclysm a thousand times surpassing
all that she had imagined of sickening horror. “I cannot endure
this,” she thought passionately. “It is impossible that I should
be asked to endure this!” And then she wept; beaten, terrorized,
smashed and riven. No commonsense now! No wise calmness now!
No self-respect now! Why, not even a woman now! Nothing but a kind
of animalized victim! And then the supreme endless spasm,
during which she gave up the ghost and bade good-bye to her very
self. She was lying quite comfortable in the soft
bed; idle, silly: happiness forming like a thin crust over the
lava of her anguish and her fright. And by her side was the soul
that had fought its way out of her, ruthlessly; the secret disturber
revealed to the light of morning. Curious to look at! Not
like any baby that she had ever seen; red, creased, brutish! But–for
some reason that she did not examine–she folded it in an immense
tenderness. Sam was by the bed, away from her eyes. She
was so comfortable and silly that she could not move her head nor
even ask him to come round to her eyes. She had to wait till he
came. In the afternoon the doctor returned, and
astounded her by saying that hers had been an ideal confinement. She
was too weary to rebuke him for a senseless, blind, callous
old man. But she knew what she knew. “No one will ever guess,” she
thought, “no one ever can guess, what I’ve been through! Talk as
you like. I KNOW, now.” Gradually she had resumed cognizance of her
household, perceiving that it was demoralized from top to bottom,
and that when the time came to begin upon it she would not be able
to settle where to begin, even supposing that the baby were not
there to monopolize her attention. The task appalled her. Then
she wanted to get up. Then she got up. What a blow to self-confidence!
She went back to bed like a little scared rabbit to its hole,
glad, glad to be on the soft pillows again. She said: “Yet the
time must come when I shall be downstairs, and walking about and
meeting people, and cooking and superintending the millinery.”
Well, it did come– except that she had to renounce the millinery
to Miss Insull–but it was not the same. No, different! The baby
pushed everything else on to another plane. He was a terrific
intruder; not one minute of her old daily life was left; he
made no compromise whatever. If she turned away her gaze from
him he might pop off into eternity and leave her. And now she was calmly and sensibly giving
him suck in presence of Miss Insull. She was used to his importance,
to the fragility of his organism, to waking twice every night,
to being fat. She was strong again. The convulsive twitching that
for six months had worried her repose, had quite disappeared.
The state of being a mother was normal, and the baby was so normal
that she could not conceive the house without him. All in ten months! When the baby was installed in his cot for
the night, she came downstairs and found Miss Insull and Samuel
still working, and Larder than ever, but at addition sums now.
She sat down, leaving the door open at the foot of the stairs. She
had embroidery in hand: a cap. And while Miss Insull and Samuel
combined pounds, shillings, and pence, whispering at great
speed, she bent over the delicate, intimate, wasteful handiwork, drawing
the needle with slow exactitude. Then she would raise her
head and listen. “Excuse me,” said Miss Insull, “I think I
hear baby crying.” “And two are eight and three are eleven. He
must cry,” said Mr. Povey, rapidly, without looking up. The baby’s parents did not make a practice
of discussing their domestic existence even with Miss Insull;
but Constance had to justify herself as a mother. “I’ve made perfectly sure he’s comfortable,”
said Constance. “He’s only crying because he fancies he’s neglected.
And we think he can’t begin too early to learn.” “How right you are!” said Miss Insull. “Two
and carry three.” That distant, feeble, querulous, pitiful cry
continued obstinately. It continued for thirty minutes.
Constance could not proceed with her work. The cry disintegrated
her will, dissolved her hard sagacity. Without a word she crept upstairs, having
carefully deposed the cap on her rocking-chair. Mr. Povey hesitated a moment and then bounded
up after her, startling Fan. He shut the door on Miss Insull,
but Fan was too quick for him. He saw Constance with her hand
on the bedroom door. “My dear girl,” he protested, holding himself
in. “Now what ARE you going to do?” “I’m just listening,” said Constance. “Do be reasonable and come downstairs.” He spoke in a low voice, scarcely masking
his nervous irritation, and tiptoed along the corridor towards her
and up the two steps past the gas-burner. Fan followed, wagging
her tail expectant. “Suppose he’s not well?” Constance suggested. “Pshaw!” Mr. Povey exclaimed contemptuously.
“You remember what happened last night and what you said!” They argued, subduing their tones to the false
semblance of good- will, there in the closeness of the corridor.
Fan, deceived, ceased to wag her tail and then trotted away.
The baby’s cry, behind the door, rose to a mysterious despairing
howl, which had such an effect on Constance’s heart that she
could have walked through fire to reach the baby. But Mr. Povey’s
will held her. And she rebelled, angry, hurt, resentful. Commonsense,
the ideal of mutual forbearance, had winged away from that
excited pair. It would have assuredly ended in a quarrel, with
Samuel glaring at her in black fury from the other side of a
bottomless chasm, had not Miss Insull most surprisingly burst up
the stairs. Mr. Povey turned to face her, swallowing his
emotion. “A telegram!” said Miss Insull. “The postmaster
brought it down himself–” “What? Mr. Derry?” asked Samuel, opening the
telegram with an affectation of majesty. “Yes. He said it was too late for delivery
by rights. But as it seemed very important …” Samuel scanned it and nodded gravely; then
gave it to his wife. Tears came into her eyes. “I’ll get Cousin Daniel to drive me over at
once,” said Samuel, master of himself and of the situation. “Wouldn’t it be better to hire?” Constance
suggested. She had a prejudice against Daniel. Mr. Povey shook his head. “He offered,” he
replied. “I can’t refuse his offer.” “Put your thick overcoat on, dear,” said Constance,
in a dream, descending with him. “I hope it isn’t–” Miss Insull stopped. “Yes it is, Miss Insull,” said Samuel, deliberately. In less than a minute he was gone. Constance ran upstairs. But the cry had ceased.
She turned the door-knob softly, slowly, and crept into the
chamber. A night- light made large shadows among the heavy mahogany
and the crimson, tasselled rep in the close-curtained room.
And between the bed and the ottoman (on which lay Samuel’s newly-bought
family Bible) the cot loomed in the shadows. She picked up the
night-light and stole round the bed. Yes, he had decided to fall
asleep. The hazard of death afar off had just defeated his devilish
obstinacy. Fate had bested him. How marvellously soft and delicate
that tear-stained cheek! How frail that tiny, tiny clenched
hand! In Constance grief and joy were mystically united. II The drawing-room was full of visitors, in
frocks of ceremony. The old drawing-room, but newly and massively
arranged with the finest Victorian furniture from dead Aunt Harriet’s
house at Axe; two “Canterburys,” a large bookcase, a splendid
scintillant table solid beyond lifting, intricately tortured
chairs and armchairs! The original furniture of the drawing-room
was now down in the parlour, making it grand. All the house breathed
opulence; it was gorged with quiet, restrained expensiveness;
the least considerable objects, in the most modest corners,
were what Mrs. Baines would have termed ‘good.’ Constance
and Samuel had half of all Aunt Harriet’s money and half of Mrs.
Baines’s; the other half was accumulating for a hypothetical Sophia,
Mr. Critchlow being the trustee. The business continued to flourish.
People knew that Samuel Povey was buying houses. Yet Samuel
and Constance had not made friends; they had not, in the Five Towns
phrase, ‘branched out socially,’ though they had very meetly
branched out on subscription lists. They kept themselves to
themselves (emphasizing the preposition). These guests
were not their guests; they were the guests of Cyril. He had been named Samuel because Constance
would have him named after his father, and Cyril because his father
secretly despised the name of Samuel; and he was called Cyril;
‘Master Cyril,’ by Amy, definite successor to Maggie. His mother’s
thoughts were on Cyril as long as she was awake. His father,
when not planning Cyril’s welfare, was earning money whose unique
object could be nothing but Cyril’s welfare. Cyril was the
pivot of the house; every desire ended somewhere in Cyril. The
shop existed now solely for him. And those houses that Samuel bought
by private treaty, or with a shamefaced air at auctions–somehow
they were aimed at Cyril. Samuel and Constance had ceased to
be self-justifying beings; they never thought of themselves save
as the parents of Cyril. They realized this by no means fully. Had
they been accused of monomania they would have smiled the smile
of people confident in their commonsense and their mental balance.
Nevertheless, they were monomaniacs. Instinctively they concealed
the fact as much as possible; They never admitted it even to themselves.
Samuel, indeed, would often say: “That child is not
everybody. That child must be kept in his place.” Constance was
always teaching him consideration for his father as the most important
person in the household. Samuel was always teaching him
consideration for his mother as the most important person in the
household. Nothing was left undone to convince him that he was a
cipher, a nonentity, who ought to be very glad to be alive. But he
knew all about his importance. He knew that the entire town was
his. He knew that his parents were deceiving themselves. Even when
he was punished he well knew that it was because he was so important.
He never imparted any portion of this knowledge to
his parents; a primeval wisdom prompted him to retain it strictly
in his own bosom. He was four and a half years old, dark, like
his father; handsome like his aunt, and tall for his age; not one
of his features resembled a feature of his mother’s, but sometimes
he ‘had her look.’ From the capricious production of inarticulate
sounds, and then a few monosyllables that described concrete
things and obvious desires, he had gradually acquired
an astonishing idiomatic command over the most difficult
of Teutonic languages; there was nothing that he could not say. He
could walk and run, was full of exact knowledge about God, and
entertained no doubt concerning the special partiality of a minor
deity called Jesus towards himself. Now, this party was his mother’s invention
and scheme. His father, after flouting it, had said that if it was
to be done at all, it should be done well, and had brought to the
doing all his organizing skill. Cyril had accepted it at
first–merely accepted it; but, as the day approached and the preparations
increased in magnitude, he had come to look on it with
favour, then with enthusiasm. His father having taken him to
Daniel Povey’s opposite, to choose cakes, he had shown, by
his solemn and fastidious waverings, how seriously he regarded
the affair. Of course it had to occur on a Thursday afternoon.
The season was summer, suitable for pale and fragile toilettes.
And the eight children who sat round Aunt Harriet’s great
table glittered like the sun. Not Constance’s specially provided
napkins could hide that wealth and profusion of white lace and
stitchery. Never in after-life are the genteel children of the
Five Towns so richly clad as at the age of four or five years.
Weeks of labour, thousands of cubic feet of gas, whole nights
stolen from repose, eyesight, and general health, will disappear
into the manufacture of a single frock that accidental jam may
ruin in ten seconds. Thus it was in those old days; and thus it
is to-day. Cyril’s guests ranged in years from four to six; they
were chiefly older than their host; this was a pity, it impaired
his importance; but up to four years a child’s sense of propriety,
even of common decency, is altogether too unreliable for
a respectable party. Round about the outskirts of the table were
the elders, ladies the majority; they also in their best, for they
had to meet each other. Constance displayed a new dress, of
crimson silk; after having mourned for her mother she had definitely
abandoned the black which, by reason of her duties in the
shop, she had constantly worn from the age of sixteen to
within a few months of Cyril’s birth; she never went into the shop
now, except casually, on brief visits of inspection. She was still
fat; the destroyer of her figure sat at the head of the table. Samuel
kept close to her; he was the only male, until Mr. Critchlow
astonishingly arrived; among the company Mr. Critchlow had a grand-niece.
Samuel, if not in his best, was certainly not in his everyday
suit. With his large frilled shirt-front, and small black
tie, and his little black beard and dark face over that, he looked
very nervous and self-conscious. He had not the habit of entertaining.
Nor had Constance; but her benevolence ever bubbling
up to the calm surface of her personality made self-consciousness
impossible for her. Miss Insull was also present, in shop-black,
‘to help.’ Lastly there was Amy, now as the years passed
slowly assuming the character of a faithful retainer, though she
was only twenty- three. An ugly, abrupt, downright girl, with
convenient notions of pleasure! For she would rise early and retire
late in order to contrive an hour to go out with Master Cyril;
and to be allowed to put Master Cyril to bed was, really, her highest
bliss. All these elders were continually inserting
arms into the fringe of fluffy children that surrounded the heaped
table; removing dangerous spoons out of cups into saucers,
replacing plates, passing cakes, spreading jam, whispering consolations,
explanations, and sage counsel. Mr. Critchlow, snow-white now but
unbent, remarked that there was ‘a pretty cackle,’ and he sniffed.
Although the window was slightly open, the air was heavy with the
natural human odour which young children transpire. More than one
mother, pressing her nose into a lacy mass, to whisper, inhaled
that pleasant perfume with a voluptuous thrill. Cyril, while attending steadily to the demands
of his body, was in a mood which approached the ideal. Proud and
radiant, he combined urbanity with a certain fine condescension.
His bright eyes, and his manner of scraping up jam with a spoon,
said: “I am the king of this party. This party is solely in my
honour. I know that. We all know it. Still, I will pretend that we
are equals, you and I.” He talked about his picture-books to a young
woman on his right named Jennie, aged four, pale, pretty, the
belle in fact, and Mr. Critchlow’s grand-niece. The boy’s attractiveness
was indisputable; he could put on quite an aristocratic
air. It was the most delicious sight to see them, Cyril
and Jennie, so soft and delicate, so infantile on their piles
of cushions and books, with their white socks and black shoes dangling
far distant from the carpet; and yet so old, so self-contained!
And they were merely an epitome of the whole table. The
whole table was bathed in the charm and mystery of young years, of
helpless fragility, gentle forms, timid elegance, unshamed instincts,
and waking souls. Constance and Samuel were very satisfied;
full of praise for other people’s children, but with the
reserve that of course Cyril was hors concours. They both really
did believe, at that moment, that Cyril was, in some subtle way
which they felt but could not define, superior to all other infants. Some one, some officious relative of a visitor,
began to pass a certain cake which had brown walls, a roof
of cocoa-nut icing, and a yellow body studded with crimson globules.
Not a conspicuously gorgeous cake, not a cake to which a catholic
child would be likely to attach particular importance; a
good, average cake! Who could have guessed that it stood, in Cyril’s
esteem, as the cake of cakes? He had insisted on his father buying
it at Cousin Daniel’s, and perhaps Samuel ought to have
divined that for Cyril that cake was the gleam that an ardent spirit
would follow through the wilderness. Samuel, however, was not a
careful observer, and seriously lacked imagination. Constance knew
only that Cyril had mentioned the cake once or twice. Now by the
hazard of destiny that cake found much favour, helped into popularity
as it was by the blundering officious relative who, not
dreaming what volcano she was treading on, urged its merits with
simpering enthusiasm. One boy took two slices, a slice in each hand;
he happened to be the visitor of whom the cake-distributor was
a relative, and she protested; she expressed the shock she suffered.
Whereupon both Constance and Samuel sprang forward and swore
with angelic smiles that nothing could be more perfect than the
propriety of that dear little fellow taking two slices of that cake.
It was this hullaballoo that drew Cyril’s attention to
the evanescence of the cake of cakes. His face at once changed from
calm pride to a dreadful anxiety. His eyes bulged out. His
tiny mouth grew and grew, like a mouth in a nightmare. He was
no longer human; he was a cake-eating tiger being balked of his prey.
Nobody noticed him. The officious fool of a woman persuaded Jennie
to take the last slice of the cake, which was quite a thin
slice. Then every one simultaneously noticed Cyril,
for he gave a yell. It was not the cry of a despairing soul who
sees his beautiful iridescent dream shattered at his feet; it
was the cry of the strong, masterful spirit, furious. He turned
upon Jennie, sobbing, and snatched at her cake. Unaccustomed to
such behaviour from hosts, and being besides a haughty put-you-in-your-place
beauty of the future, Jennie defended her cake. After
all, it was not she who had taken two slices at once. Cyril hit
her in the eye, and then crammed most of the slice of cake into
his enormous mouth. He could not swallow it, nor even masticate it,
for his throat was rigid and tight. So the cake projected from
his red lips, and big tears watered it. The most awful mess you
can conceive! Jennie wept loudly, and one or two others joined
her in sympathy, but the rest went on eating tranquilly, unmoved by
the horror which transfixed their elders. A host to snatch food from a guest! A host
to strike a guest! A gentleman to strike a lady! Constance whipped up Cyril from his chair
and flew with him to his own room (once Samuel’s), where she smacked
him on the arm and told him he was a very, very naughty boy and
that she didn’t know what his father would say. She took the food
out of his disgusting mouth–or as much of it as she could get at–and
then she left him, on the bed. Miss Jennie was still in
tears when, blushing scarlet and trying to smile, Constance returned
to the drawing- room. Jennie would not be appeased. Happily
Jennie’s mother (being about to present Jennie with a little brother–she
hoped) was not present. Miss Insull had promised to see Jennie
home, and it was decided that she should go. Mr. Critchlow,
in high sardonic spirits, said that he would go too; the three
departed together, heavily charged with Constance’s love and
apologies. Then all pretended, and said loudly, that what had
happened was naught, that such things were always happening at
children’s parties. And visitors’ relatives asseverated that Cyril
was a perfect darling and that really Mrs. Povey must not … But the attempt to keep up appearance was
a failure. The Methuselah of visitors, a gaping girl
of nearly eight years, walked across the room to where Constance
was standing, and said in a loud, confidential, fatuous voice: “Cyril HAS been a rude boy, hasn’t he, Mrs.
Povey?” The clumsiness of children is sometimes tragic. Later, there was a trickling stream of fluffy
bundles down the crooked stairs and through the parlour and
so out into King Street. And Constance received many compliments
and sundry appeals that darling Cyril should be forgiven. “I thought you said that boy was in his bedroom,”
said Samuel to Constance, coming into the parlour when the
last guest had gone. Each avoided the other’s eyes. “Yes, isn’t he?” “No.” “The little jockey!” (“Jockey,” an essay in
the playful, towards making light of the jockey’s sin!) “I expect
he’s been in search of Amy.” She went to the top of the kitchen stairs
and called out: “Amy, is Master Cyril down there?” “Master Cyril? No, mum. But he was in the
parlour a bit ago, after the first and second lot had gone. I told
him to go upstairs and be a good boy.” Not for a few moments did the suspicion enter
the minds of Samuel and Constance that Cyril might be missing,
that the house might not contain Cyril. But having once entered,
the suspicion became a certainty. Amy, cross-examined, burst into
sudden tears, admitting that the side-door might have been open when,
having sped ‘the second lot,’ she criminally left Cyril alone
in the parlour in order to descend for an instant to her kitchen.
Dusk was gathering. Amy saw the defenceless innocent
wandering about all night in the deserted streets of a great city.
A similar vision with precise details of canals, tramcar-wheels,
and cellar-flaps, disturbed Constance. Samuel said that anyhow
he could not have got far, that some one was bound to remark and
recognize him, and restore him. “Yes, of course,” thought sensible
Constance. “But supposing–” They all three searched the entire house again.
Then, in the drawing-room (which was in a sad condition
of anticlimax) Amy exclaimed: “Eh, master! There’s town-crier crossing the
Square. Hadn’t ye better have him cried?” “Run out and stop him,” Constance commanded. And Amy flew. Samuel and the aged town-crier parleyed at
the side door, the women in the background. “I canna’ cry him without my bell,” drawled
the crier, stroking his shabby uniform. “My bell’s at wum (home).
I mun go and fetch my bell. Yo’ write it down on a bit o’ paper
for me so as I can read it, and I’ll foot off for my bell. Folk
wouldna’ listen to me if I hadna’ gotten my bell.” Thus was Cyril cried. “Amy,” said Constance, when she and the girl
were alone, “there’s no use in you standing blubbering there. Get
to work and clear up that drawing-room, do! The child is sure to
be found soon. Your master’s gone out, too.” Brave words! Constance aided in the drawing-room
and kitchen. Theirs was the woman’s lot in a great crisis.
Plates have always to be washed. Very shortly afterwards, Samuel Povey came
into the kitchen by the underground passage which led past the two
cellars to the yard and to Brougham Street. He was carrying in his
arms an obscene black mass. This mass was Cyril, once white. Constance screamed. She was at liberty to
give way to her feelings, because Amy happened to be upstairs. “Stand away!” cried Mr. Povey. “He isn’t fit
to touch.” And Mr. Povey made as if to pass directly
onward, ignoring the mother. “Wherever did you find him?” “I found him in the far cellar,” said Mr.
Povey, compelled to stop, after all. “He was down there with me
yesterday, and it just occurred to me that he might have gone there
again.” “What! All in the dark?” “He’d lighted a candle, if you please! I’d
left a candle-stick and a box of matches handy because I hadn’t finished
that shelving.” “Well!” Constance murmured. “I can’t think
how ever he dared go there all alone!” “Can’t you?” said Mr. Povey, cynically. “I
can. He simply did it to frighten us.” “Oh, Cyril!” Constance admonished the child.
“Cyril!” The child showed no emotion. His face was
an enigma. It might have hidden sullenness or mere callous indifference,
or a perfect unconsciousness of sin. “Give him to me,” said Constance. “I’ll look after him this evening,” said Samuel,
grimly. “But you can’t wash him,” said Constance,
her relief yielding to apprehension. “Why not?” demanded Mr. Povey. And he moved
off. “But Sam–” “I’ll look after him, I tell you!” Mr. Povey
repeated, threateningly. “But what are you going to do?” Constance
asked with fear. “Well,” said Mr. Povey, “has this sort of
thing got to be dealt with, or hasn’t it?” He departed upstairs. Constance overtook him at the door of Cyril’s
bedroom. Mr. Povey did not wait for her to speak. His
eyes were blazing. “See here!” he admonished her cruelly. “You
get away downstairs, mother!” And he disappeared into the bedroom with his
vile and helpless victim. A moment later he popped his head out of the
door. Constance was disobeying him. He stepped into the passage
and shut the door so that Cyril should not hear. “Now please do as I tell you,” he hissed at
his wife. “Don’t let’s have a scene, please.” She descended, slowly, weeping. And Mr. Povey
retired again to the place of execution. Amy nearly fell on the top of Constance with
a final tray of things from the drawing-room. And Constance
had to tell the girl that Cyril was found. Somehow she could not
resist the instinct to tell her also that the master had the affair
in hand. Amy then wept. After about an hour Mr. Povey at last reappeared.
Constance was trying to count silver teaspoons in the parlour. “He’s in bed now,” said Mr. Povey, with a
magnificent attempt to be nonchalant. “You mustn’t go near him.” “But have you washed him?” Constance whimpered. “I’ve washed him,” replied the astonishing
Mr. Povey. “What have you done to him?” “I’ve punished him, of course,” said Mr. Povey,
like a god who is above human weaknesses. “What did you expect
me to do? Someone had to do it.” Constance wiped her eyes with the edge of
the white apron which she was wearing over her new silk dress. She
surrendered; she accepted the situation; she made the best
of it. And all the evening was spent in dismally and horribly
pretending that their hearts were beating as one. Mr. Povey’s elaborate,
cheery kindliness was extremely painful. They went to bed, and in their bedroom Constance,
as she stood close to Samuel, suddenly dropped the pretence,
and with eyes and voice of anguish said: “You must let me look at him.” They faced each other. For a brief instant
Cyril did not exist for Constance. Samuel alone obsessed her, and
yet Samuel seemed a strange, unknown man. It was in Constance’s
life one of those crises when the human soul seems to be on
the very brink of mysterious and disconcerting cognitions, and
then, the wave recedes as inexplicably as it surged up. “Why, of course!” said Mr. Povey, turning
away lightly, as though to imply that she was making tragedies out
of nothing. She gave an involuntary gesture of almost
childish relief. Cyril slept calmly. It was a triumph for Mr.
Povey. Constance could not sleep. As she lay darkly
awake by her husband, her secret being seemed to be a-quiver with
emotion. Not exactly sorrow; not exactly joy; an emotion more elemental
than these! A sensation of the intensity of her life in
that hour; troubling, anxious, yet not sad! She said that Samuel
was quite right, quite right. And then she said that the poor little
thing wasn’t yet five years old, and that it was monstrous.
The two had to be reconciled. And they never could be reconciled.
Always she would be between them, to reconcile them, and to
be crushed by their impact. Always she would have to bear the
burden of both of them. There could be no ease for her, no surcease
from a tremendous preoccupation and responsibility. She could
not change Samuel; besides, he was right! And though Cyril was
not yet five, she felt that she could not change Cyril either. He
was just as unchangeable as a growing plant. The thought
of her mother and Sophia did not present itself to her; she
felt, however, somewhat as Mrs. Baines had felt on historic occasions;
but, being more softly kind, younger, and less chafed by destiny,
she was conscious of no bitterness, conscious rather
of a solemn blessedness. CHAPTER IV CRIME I “Now, Master Cyril,” Amy protested, “will
you leave that fire alone? It’s not you that can mend my fires.” A boy of nine, great and heavy for his years,
with a full face and very short hair, bent over the smoking grate.
It was about five minutes to eight on a chilly morning after
Easter. Amy, hastily clad in blue, with a rough brown apron, was
setting the breakfast table. The boy turned his head, still bending. “Shut up, Ame,” he replied, smiling. Life
being short, he usually called her Ame when they were alone together.
“Or I’ll catch you one in the eye with the poker.” “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said
Amy. “And you know your mother told you to wash your feet this
morning, and you haven’t done. Fine clothes is all very well,
but–” “Who says I haven’t washed my feet?” asked
Cyril, guiltily. Amy’s mention of fine clothes referred to
the fact that he was that morning wearing his Sunday suit for the
first time on a week- day. “I say you haven’t,” said Amy. She was more than three times his age still,
but they had been treating each other as intellectual equals
for years. “And how do you know?” asked Cyril, tired
of the fire. “I know,” said Amy. “Well, you just don’t, then!” said Cyril.
“And what about YOUR feet? I should be sorry to see your feet,
Ame.” Amy was excusably annoyed. She tossed her
head. “My feet are as clean as yours any day,” she said. “And I
shall tell your mother.” But he would not leave her feet alone, and
there ensued one of those endless monotonous altercations on a
single theme which occur so often between intellectual equals
when one is a young son of the house and the other an established
servant who adores him. Refined minds would have found the talk disgusting,
but the sentiment of disgust seemed to be unknown
to either of the wranglers. At last, when Amy by superior tactics
had cornered him, Cyril said suddenly: “Oh, go to hell!” Amy banged down the spoon for the bacon gravy.
“Now I shall tell your mother. Mark my words, this time I SHALL
tell your mother.” Cyril felt that in truth he had gone rather
far. He was perfectly sure that Amy would not tell his mother. And
yet, supposing that by some freak of her nature she did! The consequences
would be unutterable; the consequences would more than
extinguish his private glory in the use of such a dashing
word. So he laughed, a rather silly, giggling laugh, to reassure
himself. “You daren’t,” he said. “Daren’t I?” she said grimly. “You’ll see.
_I_ don’t know where you learn! It fair beats me. But it isn’t
Amy Bates as is going to be sworn at. As soon as ever your mother comes
into this room!” The door at the foot of the stairs creaked
and Constance came into the room. She was wearing a dress of majenta
merino, and a gold chain descended from her neck over her rich
bosom. She had scarcely aged in five years. It would have
been surprising if she had altered much, for the years had passed
over her head at an incredible rate. To her it appeared only a
few months since Cyril’s first and last party. “Are you all ready, my pet? Let me look at
you.” Constance greeted the boy with her usual bright, soft energy. Cyril glanced at Amy, who averted her head,
putting spoons into three saucers. “Yes, mother,” he replied in a new voice. “Did you do what I told you?” “Yes, mother,” he said simply. “That’s right.” Amy made a faint noise with her lips, and
departed. He was saved once more. He said to himself
that never again would he permit his soul to be disturbed by any
threat of old Ame’s. Constance’s hand descended into her pocket
and drew out a hard paper packet, which she clapped on to her
son’s head. “Oh, mother!” He pretended that she had hurt
him, and then he opened the packet. It contained Congleton
butterscotch, reputed a harmless sweetmeat. “Good!” he cried, “good! Oh! Thanks, mother.” “Now don’t begin eating them at once.” “Just one, mother.” “No! And how often have I told you to keep
your feet off that fender. See how it’s bent. And it’s nobody
but you.” “Sorry.” “It’s no use being sorry if you persist in
doing it.” “Oh, mother, I had such a funny dream!” They chatted until Amy came up the stairs
with tea and bacon. The fire had developed from black to clear red. “Run and tell father that breakfast is ready.” After a little delay a spectacled man of fifty,
short and stoutish, with grey hair and a small beard
half grey and half black, entered from the shop. Samuel had certainly
very much aged, especially in his gestures, which, however,
were still quick. He sat down at once–his wife and son were already
seated–and served the bacon with the rapid assurance of one
who needs not to inquire about tastes and appetites. Not a word was
said, except a brief grace by Samuel. But there was no restraint.
Samuel had a mild, benignant air. Constance’s eyes were a fountain
of cheerfulness. The boy sat between them and ate steadily. Mysterious creature, this child, mysteriously
growing and growing in the house! To his mother he was a delicious
joy at all times save when he disobeyed his father. But now
for quite a considerable period there had been no serious
collision. The boy seemed to be acquiring virtue as well as sense.
And really he was charming. So big, truly enormous (every one
remarked on it), and yet graceful, lithe, with a smile that could
ravish. And he was distinguished in his bearing. Without depreciating
Samuel in her faithful heart, Constance saw plainly the
singular differences between Samuel and the boy. Save that he was
dark, and that his father’s ‘dangerous look’ came into those
childish eyes occasionally, Cyril had now scarcely any obvious
resemblance to his father. He was a Baines. This naturally
deepened Constance’s family pride. Yes, he was mysterious to Constance,
though probably not more so than any other boy to any other
parent. He was equally mysterious to Samuel, but otherwise Mr. Povey
had learned to regard him in the light of a parcel which
he was always attempting to wrap up in a piece of paper imperceptibly
too small. When he successfully covered the parcel at one corner
it burst out at another, and this went on for ever, and he
could never get the string on. Nevertheless, Mr. Povey had unabated
confidence in his skill as a parcel-wrapper. The boy was strangely
subtle at times, but then at times he was astoundingly ingenuous,
and then his dodges would not deceive the dullest. Mr.
Povey knew himself more than a match for his son. He was proud of
him because he regarded him as not an ordinary boy; he took it as
a matter of course that his boy should not be an ordinary boy. He
never, or very rarely, praised Cyril. Cyril thought of his father
as a man who, in response to any request, always began by answering
with a thoughtful, serious ‘No, I’m afraid not.’ “So you haven’t lost your appetite!” his mother
commented. Cyril grinned. “Did you expect me to, mother?” “Let me see,” said Samuel, as if vaguely recalling
an unimportant fact. “It’s to-day you begin to go to school,
isn’t it?” “I wish father wouldn’t be such a chump!”
Cyril reflected. And, considering that this commencement of school
(real school, not a girls’ school, as once) had been the chief
topic in the house for days, weeks; considering that it now occupied
and filled all hearts, Cyril’s reflection was excusable. “Now, there’s one thing you must always remember,
my boy,” said Mr. Povey. “Promptness. Never be late either
in going to school or in coming home. And in order that you may
have no excuse”–Mr. Povey pressed on the word ‘excuse’ as though
condemning Cyril in advance–“here’s something for you!” He said
the last words quickly, with a sort of modest shame. It was a silver watch and chain. Cyril was staggered. So also was Constance,
for Mr. Povey could keep his own counsel. At long intervals he
would prove, thus, that he was a mighty soul, capable of sublime deeds.
The watch was the unique flowering of Mr. Povey’s profound but
harsh affection. It lay on the table like a miracle. This day
was a great day, a supremely exciting day in Cyril’s history,
and not less so in the history of his parents. The watch killed its owner’s appetite dead. Routine was ignored that morning. Father did
not go back into the shop. At length the moment came when father
put on his hat and overcoat to take Cyril, and Cyril’s watch
and satchel, to the Endowed School, which had quarters in the
Wedgwood Institution close by. A solemn departure, and Cyril could
not pretend by his demeanour that it was not! Constance desired
to kiss him, but refrained. He would not have liked it. She
watched them from the window. Cyril was nearly as tall as his father;
that is to say, not nearly as tall, but creeping up his father’s
shoulder. She felt that the eyes of the town must be on
the pair. She was very happy, and nervous. At dinner-time a triumph seemed probable,
and at tea-time, when Cyril came home under a mortar-board hat and
with a satchel full of new books and a head full of new ideas,
the triumph was actually and definitely achieved. He had been
put into the third form, and he announced that he should soon
be at the top of it. He was enchanted with the life of school; he
liked the other boys, and it appeared that the other boys liked
him. The fact was that, with a new silver watch and a packet of sweets,
he had begun his new career in the most advantageous circumstances.
Moreover, he possessed qualities which ensure success at
school. He was big, and easy, with a captivating smile and a marked
aptitude to learn those things which boys insist on teaching
to their new comrades. He had muscle, a brave demeanour, and no conceit. During tea the parlour began, to accustom
itself to a new vocabulary, containing such words as ‘fellows,’
‘kept in,’m’ lines,’ ‘rot,’ ‘recess,’ ‘jolly.’ To some
of these words the parents, especially Mr. Povey, had an instinct
to object, but they could not object, somehow they did not seem
to get an opportunity to object; they were carried away on the torrent,
and after all, their excitement and pleasure in the exceeding
romantic novelty of existence were just as intense and nearly
as ingenuous as their son’s. He demonstrated that unless he was allowed
to stay up later than aforetime he would not be able to do his home-work,
and hence would not keep that place in the school to
which his talents entitled him. Mr. Povey suggested, but only
with half a heart, that he should get up earlier in the morning.
The proposal fell flat. Everybody knew and admitted that nothing
save the scorpions of absolute necessity, or a tremendous occasion
such as that particular morning’s, would drive Cyril from
his bed until the smell of bacon rose to him from the kitchen.
The parlour table was consecrated to his lessons. It became generally
known that ‘Cyril was doing his lessons.’ His father scanned
the new text-books while Cyril condescendingly explained to him
that all others were superseded and worthless. His father contrived
to maintain an air of preserving his mental equilibrium, but
not his mother; she gave it up, she who till that day had under his
father’s direction taught him nearly all that he knew, and Cyril
passed above her into regions of knowledge where she made no
pretence of being able to follow him. When the lessons were done, and Cyril had
wiped his fingers on bits of blotting-paper, and his father had
expressed qualified approval and had gone into the shop, Cyril
said to his mother, with that delicious hesitation which overtook
him sometimes: “Mother.” “Well, my pet.” “I want you to do something for me.” “Well, what is it?” “No, you must promise.” “I’ll do it if I can.” “But you CAN. It isn’t doing. It’s NOT doing.” “Come, Cyril, out with it.” “I don’t want you to come in and look at me
after I’m asleep any more.” “But, you silly boy, what difference can it
make to you if you’re asleep?” “I don’t want you to. It’s like as if I was
a baby. You’ll have to stop doing it some day, and so you may as
well stop now.” It was thus that he meant to turn his back
on his youth. She smiled. She was incomprehensibly happy.
She continued to smile. “Now you’ll promise, won’t you, mother?” She rapped him on the head with her thimble,
lovingly. He took the gesture for consent. “You are a baby,” she murmured. “Now I shall trust you,” he said, ignoring
this. “Say ‘honour bright.'” “Honour bright.” With what a long caress her eyes followed
him, as he went up to bed on his great sturdy legs! She was thankful
that school had not contaminated her adorable innocent. If she
could have been Ame for twenty-four hours, she perhaps would not have
hesitated to put butter into his mouth lest it should melt. Mr. Povey and Constance talked late and low
that night. They could neither of them sleep; they had little desire
to sleep. Constance’s face said to her husband: “I’ve
always stuck up for that boy, in spite of your severities, and
you see how right I was!” And Mr. Povey’s face said: “You see
now the brilliant success of my system. You see how my educational
theories have justified themselves. Never been to a school
before, except that wretched little dame’s school, and he goes
practically straight to the top of the third form–at nine years of
age!” They discussed his future. There could be no sign of lunacy
in discussing his future up to a certain point, but each felt
that to discuss the ultimate career of a child nine years old
would not be the act of a sensible parent; only foolish parents would
be so fond. Yet each was dying to discuss his ultimate career.
Constance yielded first to the temptation, as became her. Mr. Povey
scoffed, and then, to humour Constance, yielded also. The matter
was soon fairly on the carpet. Constance was relieved to find that
Mr. Povey had no thought whatever of putting Cyril in the shop.
No; Mr. Povey did not desire to chop wood with a razor. Their
son must and would ascend. Doctor! Solicitor! Barrister! Not
barrister–barrister was fantastic. When they had argued for about
half an hour Mr. Povey intimated suddenly that the conversation was
unworthy of their practical commonsense, and went to sleep. II Nobody really thought that this almost ideal
condition of things would persist: an enterprise commenced in
such glory must surely traverse periods of difficulty and even of
temporary disaster. But no! Cyril seemed to be made specially for
school. Before Mr. Povey and Constance had quite accustomed themselves
to being the parents of ‘a great lad,’ before Cyril had broken
the glass of his miraculous watch more than once, the summer
term had come to a end and there arrived the excitations of the prize-giving,
as it was called; for at that epoch the smaller schools
had not found the effrontery to dub the breaking-up ceremony
a ‘speech-day.’ This prize-giving furnished a particular joy to
Mr. and Mrs. Povey. Although the prizes were notoriously few in
number–partly to add to their significance, and partly to diminish
their cost (the foundation was poor)–Cyril won a prize, a
box of geometrical instruments of precision; also he reached
the top of his form, and was marked for promotion to the formidable
Fourth. Samuel and Constance were bidden to the large hall of
the Wedgwood Institution of a summer afternoon, and they
saw the whole Board of Governors raised on a rostrum, and in the
middle, in front of what he referred to, in his aristocratic London
accent, as ‘a beggarly array of rewards,’ the aged and celebrated
Sir Thomas Wilbraham Wilbraham, ex-M.P., last respectable member
of his ancient line. And Sir Thomas gave the box of instruments
to Cyril, and shook hands with him. And everybody was very well
dressed. Samuel, who had never attended anything but a National
School, recalled the simple rigours of his own boyhood, and swelled.
For certainly, of all the parents present, he was among the
richest. When, in the informal promiscuities which followed the
prize distribution, Cyril joined his father and mother, sheepishly,
they duly did their best to make light of his achievements,
and failed. The walls of the hall were covered with specimens
of the pupils’ skill, and the headmaster was observed to
direct the attention of the mighty to a map done by Cyril. Of course
it was a map of Ireland, Ireland being the map chosen by every
map-drawing schoolboy who is free to choose. For a third-form
boy it was considered a masterpiece. In the shading of
mountains Cyril was already a prodigy. Never, it was said, had
the Macgillycuddy Reeks been indicated by a member of that school
with a more amazing subtle refinement than by the young Povey.
From a proper pride in themselves, from a proper fear lest they should
be secretly accused of ostentation by other parents, Samuel
and Constance did not go near that map. For the rest, they had
lived with it for weeks, and Samuel (who, after all, was determined
not to be dirt under his son’s feet) had scratched a blot
from it with a completeness that defied inquisitive examination. The fame of this map, added to the box of
compasses and Cyril’s own desire, pointed to an artistic career.
Cyril had always drawn and daubed, and the drawing-master of the
Endowed School, who was also headmaster of the Art School, had suggested
that the youth should attend the Art School one night a week.
Samuel, however, would not listen to the idea; Cyril was too
young. It is true that Cyril was too young, but Samuel’s real objection
was to Cyril’s going out alone in the evening. On that he
was adamant. The Governors had recently made the discovery
that a sports department was necessary to a good school,
and had rented a field for cricket, football, and rounders up at
Bleakridge, an innovation which demonstrated that the town
was moving with the rapid times. In June this field was open after
school hours till eight p.m. as well as on Saturdays. The Squire
learnt that Cyril had a talent for cricket, and Cyril wished
to practise in the evenings, and was quite ready to bind himself
with Bible oaths to rise at no matter what hour in the morning
for the purpose of home lessons. He scarcely expected his father to
say ‘Yes’ as his father never did say ‘Yes,’ but he was obliged
to ask. Samuel nonplussed him by replying that on fine evenings,
when he could spare time from the shop, he would go up to
Bleakridge with his son. Cyril did not like this in the least.
Still, it might be tried. One evening they went, actually, in
the new steam-car which had superseded the old horse-cars, and which
travelled all the way to Longshaw, a place that Cyril had only heard
of. Samuel talked of the games played in the Five Towns in his
day, of the Titanic sport of prison-bars, when the team of one
‘bank’ went forth to the challenge of another ‘bank,’ preceded
by a drum-and-fife band, and when, in the heat of the chase, a man
might jump into the canal to escape his pursuer; Samuel had never
played at cricket. Samuel, with a very young grandson of Fan
(deceased), sat in dignity on the grass and watched his cricketer
for an hour and a half (while Constance kept an eye on the shop
and superintended its closing). Samuel then conducted Cyril
home again. Two days later the father of his own accord offered
to repeat the experience. Cyril refused. Disagreeable insinuations
that he was a baby in arms had been made at school in the
meantime. Nevertheless, in other directions Cyril sometimes
surprisingly conquered. For instance, he came home one
day with the information that a dog that was not a bull-terrier was
not worth calling a dog. Fan’s grandson had been carried off in
earliest prime by a chicken-bone that had pierced his vitals,
and Cyril did indeed persuade his father to buy a bull-terrier.
The animal was a superlative of forbidding ugliness, but father
and son vied with each other in stern critical praise of his
surpassing beauty, and Constance, from good nature, joined in the
pretence. He was called Lion, and the shop, after one or two untoward
episodes, was absolutely closed to him. But the most striking of Cyril’s successes
had to do with the question of the annual holiday. He spoke of
the sea soon after becoming a schoolboy. It appeared that his
complete ignorance of the sea prejudicially affected him at school.
Further, he had always loved the sea; he had drawn hundreds
of three-masted ships with studding-sails set, and knew the difference
between a brig and a brigantine. When he first said: “I say,
mother, why can’t we go to Llandudno instead of Buxton this year?”
his mother thought he was out of his senses. For the idea of
going to any place other than Buxton was inconceivable! Had they not
always been to Buxton? What would their landlady say? How could they
ever look her in the face again? Besides … well …! They went
to Llandudno, rather scared, and hardly knowing how the change
had come about. But they went. And it was the force of Cyril’s will,
Cyril the theoretic cypher, that took them. III The removal of the Endowed School to more
commodious premises in the shape of Shawport Hall, an ancient mansion
with fifty rooms and five acres of land round about it, was
not a change that quite pleased Samuel or Constance. They admitted
the hygienic advantages, but Shawport Hall was three-quarters
of a mile distant from St. Luke’s Square–in the hollow that
separates Bursley from its suburb of Hillport; whereas the Wedgwood
Institution was scarcely a minute away. It was as if Cyril,
when he set off to Shawport Hall of a morning, passed out of
their sphere of influence. He was leagues off, doing they
knew not what. Further, his dinner-hour was cut short by the extra
time needed for the journey to and fro, and he arrived late for
tea; it may be said that he often arrived very late for tea; the
whole machinery of the meal was disturbed. These matters seemed
to Samuel and Constance to be of tremendous import, seemed
to threaten the very foundations of existence. Then they grew accustomed
to the new order, and wondered sometimes, when they passed
the Wedgwood Institution and the insalubrious Cock Yard–once
sole playground of the boys–that the school could ever have
‘managed’ in the narrow quarters once allotted to it. Cyril, though constantly successful at school,
a rising man, an infallible bringer-home of excellent reports,
and a regular taker of prizes, became gradually less satisfactory
in the house. He was ‘kept in’ occasionally, and although his father
pretended to hold that to be kept in was to slur the honour
of a spotless family, Cyril continued to be kept in; a hardened
sinner, lost to shame. But this was not the worst. The worst undoubtedly
was that Cyril was ‘getting rough.’ No definite accusation
could be laid against him; the offence was general, vague, everlasting;
it was in all he did and said, in every gesture and movement.
He shouted, whistled, sang, stamped, stumbled, lunged. He omitted
such empty rites as saying ‘Yes’ or ‘Please,’ and wiping his nose.
He replied gruffly and nonchalantly to polite questions, or he
didn’t reply until the questions were repeated, and even then with
a ‘lost’ air that was not genuine. His shoelaces were a sad sight,
and his finger-nails no sight at all for a decent woman; his hair
was as rough as his conduct; hardly at the pistol’s point could
he be forced to put oil on it. In brief, he was no longer the
nice boy that he used to be. He had unmistakably deteriorated. Grievous!
But what can you expect when YOUR boy is obliged, month after
month and year after year, to associate with other boys? After
all, he was a GOOD boy, said Constance, often to herself and now and
then to Samuel. For Constance, his charm was eternally renewed.
His smile, his frequent ingenuousness, his funny self-conscious
gesture when he wanted to ‘get round’ her–these characteristics
remained; and his pure heart remained; she could read that in
his eyes. Samuel was inimical to his tastes for sports and his
triumphs therein. But Constance had pride in all that. She liked
to feel him and to gaze at him, and to smell that faint, uncleanly
odour of sweat that hung in his clothes. In this condition he reached the advanced
age of thirteen. And his parents, who despite their notion of themselves
as wide-awake parents were a simple pair, never suspected
that his heart, conceived to be still pure, had become a crawling,
horrible mass of corruption. One day the head-master called at the shop.
Now, to see a head- master walking about the town during school-hours
is a startling spectacle, and is apt to give you the same
uncanny sensation as when, alone in a room, you think you see something
move which ought not to move. Mr. Povey was startled.
Mr. Povey had a thumping within his breast as he rubbed his
hands and drew the head-master to the private corner where his
desk was. “What can I do for you to-day?” he almost said to the
head-master. But he did not say it. The boot was emphatically not
on that leg. The head- master talked to Mr. Povey, in tones carefully
low, for about a quarter of an hour, and then he closed the
interview. Mr. Povey escorted him across the shop, and the head-master
said with ordinary loudness: “Of course it’s nothing.
But my experience is that it’s just as well to be on the safe side,
and I thought I’d tell you. Forewarned is forearmed. I have
other parents to see.” They shook hands at the door. Then Mr. Povey
stepped out on to the pavement and, in front of the whole Square,
detained an unwilling head-master for quite another minute. His face was deeply flushed as he returned
into the shop. The assistants bent closer over their work. He
did not instantly rush into the parlour and communicate with Constance.
He had dropped into a way of conducting many operations by
his own unaided brain. His confidence in his skill had increased
with years. Further, at the back of his mind, there had established
itself a vision of Mr. Povey as the seat of government and of Constance
and Cyril as a sort of permanent opposition. He would not
have admitted that he saw such a vision, for he was utterly loyal
to his wife; but it was there. This unconfessed vision was one
of several causes which had contributed to intensify his inherent
tendency towards Machiavellianism and secretiveness. He said
nothing to Constance, nothing to Cyril; but, happening to encounter
Amy in the showroom, he was inspired to interrogate her sharply.
The result was that they descended to the cellar together, Amy
weeping. Amy was commanded to hold her tongue. And as she went
in mortal fear of Mr. Povey she did hold her tongue. Nothing occurred for several days. And then
one morning–it was Constance’s birthday: children are nearly
always horribly unlucky in their choice of days for sin–Mr. Povey,
having executed mysterious movements in the shop after Cyril’s
departure to school, jammed his hat on his head and ran
forth in pursuit of Cyril, whom he intercepted with two other
boys, at the corner of Oldcastle Street and Acre Passage. Cyril stood as if turned into salt. “Come
back home!” said Mr. Povey, grimly; and for the sake of the other
boys: “Please.” “But I shall be late for school, father,”
Cyril weakly urged. “Never mind.” They passed through the shop together, causing
a terrific concealed emotion, and then they did violence
to Constance by appearing in the parlour. Constance was engaged
in cutting straws and ribbons to make a straw-frame for a water-colour
drawing of a moss-rose which her pure-hearted son had given
her as a birthday present. “Why–what–?” she exclaimed. She said no
more at the moment because she was sure, from the faces of her
men, that the time was big with fearful events. “Take your satchel off,” Mr. Povey ordered
coldly. “And your mortar-board,” he added with a peculiar intonation,
as if glad thus to prove that Cyril was one of those
rude boys who have to be told to take their hats off in a room. “Whatever’s amiss?” Constance murmured under
her breath, as Cyril obeyed the command. “Whatever’s amiss?” Mr. Povey made no immediate answer. He was
in charge of these proceedings, and was very anxious to conduct
them with dignity and with complete effectiveness. Little fat man
over fifty, with a wizened face, grey-haired and grey-bearded,
he was as nervous as a youth. His heart beat furiously. And Constance,
the portly matron who would never see forty again, was just
as nervous as a girl. Cyril had gone very white. All three felt
physically sick. “What money have you got in your pockets?”
Mr. Povey demanded, as a commencement. Cyril, who had had no opportunity to prepare
his case, offered no reply. “You heard what I said,” Mr. Povey thundered. “I’ve got three-halfpence,” Cyril murmured
glumly, looking down at the floor. His lower lip seemed to hang precariously
away from his gums. “Where did you get that from?” “It’s part of what mother gave me,” said the
boy. “I did give him a threepenny bit last week,”
Constance put in guiltily. “It was a long time since he had
had any money.” “If you gave it him, that’s enough,” said
Mr. Povey, quickly, and to the boy: “That’s all you’ve got?” “Yes, father,” said the boy. “You’re sure?” “Yes, father.” Cyril was playing a hazardous game for the
highest stakes, and under grave disadvantages; and he acted for
the best. He guarded his own interests as well as he could. Mr. Povey found himself obliged to take a
serious risk. “Empty your pockets, then.” Cyril, perceiving that he had lost that particular
game, emptied his pockets. “Cyril,” said Constance, “how often have I
told you to change your handkerchiefs oftener! Just look at this!” Astonishing creature! She was in the seventh
hell of sick apprehension, and yet she said that! After the handkerchief emerged the common
schoolboy stock of articles useful and magic, and then, last,
a silver florin! Mr. Povey felt relief. “Oh, Cyril!” whimpered Constance. “Give it your mother,” said Mr. Povey. The boy stepped forward awkwardly, and Constance,
weeping, took the coin. “Please look at it, mother,” said Mr. Povey.
“And tell me if there’s a cross marked on it.” Constance’s tears blurred the coin. She had
to wipe her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered faintly. “There’s something
on it.” “I thought so,” said Mr. Povey. “Where did
you steal it from?” he demanded. “Out of the till,” answered Cyril. “Have you ever stolen anything out of the
till before?” “Yes.” “Yes, what.” “Yes, father.” “Take your hands out of your pockets and stand
up straight, if you can. How often?” “I–I don’t know, father.” “I blame myself,” said Mr. Povey, frankly.
“I blame myself. The till ought always to be locked. All tills
ought always to be locked. But we felt we could trust the assistants.
If anybody had told me that I ought not to trust you, if
anybody had told me that my own son would be the thief, I should have–well,
I don’t know what I should have said!” Mr. Povey was quite justified in blaming himself.
The fact was that the functioning of that till was a patriarchal
survival, which he ought to have revolutionized, but
which it had never occurred to him to revolutionize, so accustomed
to it was he. In the time of John Baines, the till, with its
three bowls, two for silver and one for copper (gold had never
been put into it), was invariably unlocked. The person in charge
of the shop took change from it for the assistants, or temporarily
authorized an assistant to do so. Gold was kept in a small linen bag
in a locked drawer of the desk. The contents of the till were never
checked by any system of book-keeping, as there was no system
of book-keeping; when all transactions, whether in payment
or receipt, are in cash –the Baineses never owed a penny save the
quarterly wholesale accounts, which were discharged instantly
to the travellers–a system of book-keeping is not indispensable.
The till was situate immediately at the entrance to the shop from
the house; it was in the darkest part of the shop, and the unfortunate
Cyril had to pass it every day on his way to school. The
thing was a perfect device for the manufacture of young criminals. “And how have you been spending this money?”
Mr. Povey inquired. Cyril’s hands slipped into his pockets again.
Then, noticing the lapse, he dragged them out. “Sweets,” said he. “Anything else?” “Sweets and things.” “Oh!” said Mr. Povey. “Well, now you can go
down into the cinder- cellar and bring up here all the things there
are in that little box in the corner. Off you go!” And off went Cyril. He had to swagger through
the kitchen. “What did I tell you, Master Cyril?” Amy unwisely
asked of him. “You’ve copped it finely this time.” ‘Copped’ was a word which she had learned
from Cyril. “Go on, you old bitch!” Cyril growled. As he returned from the cellar, Amy said angrily: “I told you I should tell your father the
next time you called me that, and I shall. You mark my words.” “Cant! cant!” he retorted. “Do you think I
don’t know who’s been canting? Cant! cant!” Upstairs in the parlour Samuel was explaining
the matter to his wife. There had been a perfect epidemic of
smoking in the school. The head-master had discovered it and, he
hoped, stamped it out. What had disturbed the head-master far more
than the smoking was the fact that a few boys had been found to
possess somewhat costly pipes, cigar-holders, or cigarette-holders.
The head-master, wily, had not confiscated these articles; he had
merely informed the parents concerned. In his opinion the articles
came from one single source, a generous thief; he left the
parents to ascertain which of them had brought a thief into the
world. Further information Mr. Povey had culled from
Amy, and there could remain no doubt that Cyril had been providing
his chums with the utensils of smoking, the till supplying the
means. He had told Amy that the things which he secreted in the cellar
had been presented to him by blood-brothers. But Mr. Povey did
not believe that. Anyhow, he had marked every silver coin in
the till for three nights, and had watched the till in the mornings
from behind the merino-pile; and the florin on the parlour-table
spoke of his success as a detective. Constance felt guilty on behalf of Cyril.
As Mr. Povey outlined his case she could not free herself from an
entirely irrational sensation of sin; at any rate of special responsibility.
Cyril seemed to be her boy and not Samuel’s boy
at all. She avoided her husband’s glance. This was very odd. Then Cyril returned, and his parents composed
their faces and he deposited, next to the florin, a sham meerschaum
pipe in a case, a tobacco-pouch, a cigar of which one end had
been charred but the other not cut, and a half-empty packet of
cigarettes without a label. Nothing could be hid from Mr. Povey. The details
were distressing. “So Cyril is a liar and a thief, to say nothing
of this smoking!” Mr. Povey concluded. He spoke as if Cyril had invented strange
and monstrous sins. But deep down in his heart a little voice was
telling him, as regards the smoking, that HE had set the example.
Mr. Baines had never smoked. Mr. Critchlow never smoked. Only men
like Daniel smoked. Thus far Mr. Povey had conducted the proceedings
to his own satisfaction. He had proved the crime. He
had made Cyril confess. The whole affair lay revealed. Well–what
next? Cyril ought to have dissolved in repentance; something dramatic
ought to have occurred. But Cyril simply stood with hanging,
sulky head, and gave no sign of proper feeling. Mr. Povey considered that, until something
did happen, he must improve the occasion. “Here we have trade getting worse every day,”
said he (it was true), “and you are robbing your parents to
make a beast of yourself, and corrupting your companions!
I wonder your mother never smelt you!” “I never dreamt of such a thing!” said Constance,
grievously. Besides, a young man clever enough to rob
a till is usually clever enough to find out that the secret of safety
in smoking is to use cachous and not to keep the stuff in your
pockets a minute longer than you can help. “There’s no knowing how much money you have
stolen,” said Mr. Povey. “A thief!” If Cyril had stolen cakes, jam, string, cigars,
Mr. Povey would never have said ‘thief’ as he did say it.
But money! Money was different. And a till was not a cupboard or
a larder. A till was a till. Cyril had struck at the very basis of
society. “And on your mother’s birthday!” Mr. Povey
said further. “There’s one thing I can do!” he said. “I
can burn all this. Built on lies! How dared you?” And he pitched into the fire–not the apparatus
of crime, but the water-colour drawing of a moss-rose and the
straws and the blue ribbon for bows at the corners. “How dared you?” he repeated. “You never gave me any money,” Cyril muttered. He thought the marking of coins a mean trick,
and the dragging-in of bad trade and his mother’s birthday roused
a familiar devil that usually slept quietly in his breast. “What’s that you say?” Mr. Povey almost shouted. “You never gave me any money,” the devil repeated
in a louder tone than Cyril had employed. (It was true. But Cyril ‘had only to ask’
and he would have received all that was good for him.) Mr. Povey sprang up. Mr. Povey also had a
devil. The two devils gazed at each other for an instant; and then,
noticing that Cyril’s head was above Mr. Povey’s, the elder
devil controlled itself. Mr. Povey had suddenly had as much
drama as he wanted. “Get away to bed!” said he with dignity. Cyril went, defiantly. “He’s to have nothing but bread and water,
mother,” Mr. Povey finished. He was, on the whole, pleased with
himself. Later in the day Constance reported, tearfully,
that she had been up to Cyril and that Cyril had wept. Which
was to Cyril’s credit. But all felt that life could never be the
same again. During the remainder of existence this unspeakable horror
would lift its obscene form between them. Constance had never
been so unhappy. Occasionally, when by herself, she would rebel
for a brief moment, as one rebels in secret against a mummery
which one is obliged to treat seriously. “After all,” she would whisper,
“suppose he HAS taken a few shillings out of the till! What
then? What does it matter?” But these moods of moral insurrection
against society and Mr. Povey were very transitory. They were
come and gone in a flash. CHAPTER V ANOTHER CRIME I One night–it was late in the afternoon of
the same year, about six months after the tragedy of the florin–Samuel
Povey was wakened up by a hand on his shoulder and a
voice that whispered: “Father!” The thief and the liar was standing in his
night-shirt by the bed. Samuel’s sleepy eyes could just descry him
in the thick gloom. “What–what?” questioned the father, gradually
coming to consciousness. “What are you doing there?” “I didn’t want to wake mother up,” the boy
whispered. “There’s someone been throwing dirt or something at
our windows, and has been for a long time.” “Eh, what?” Samuel stared at the dim form of the thief
and liar. The boy was tall, not in the least like a little boy;
and yet, then, he seemed to his father as quite a little boy, a little
‘thing’ in a night- shirt, with childish gestures and childish
inflections, and a childish, delicious, quaint anxiety not to
disturb his mother, who had lately been deprived of sleep owing to
an illness of Amy’s which had demanded nursing. His father had
not so perceived him for years. In that instant the conviction
that Cyril was permanently unfit for human society finally
expired in the father’s mind. Time had already weakened it
very considerably. The decision that, be Cyril what he might, the
summer holiday must be taken as usual, had dealt it a fearful blow.
And yet, though Samuel and Constance had grown so accustomed
to the companionship of a criminal that they frequently lost memory
of his guilt for long periods, nevertheless the convention
of his leprosy had more or less persisted with Samuel until that moment:
when it vanished with strange suddenness, to Samuel’s conscious
relief. There was a rain of pellets on the window. “Hear that?” demanded Cyril, whispering dramatically.
“And it’s been like that on my window too.” Samuel arose. “Go back to your room!” he ordered
in the same dramatic whisper; but not as father to son–rather
as conspirator to conspirator. Constance slept. They could hear her regular
breathing. Barefooted, the elderly gowned figure followed
the younger, and one after the other they creaked down the
two steps which separated Cyril’s room from his parents’. “Shut the door quietly!” said Samuel. Cyril obeyed. And then, having lighted Cyril’s gas, Samuel
drew the blind, unfastened the catch of the window, and began
to open it with many precautions of silence. All the sashes in
that house were difficult to manage. Cyril stood close to
his father, shivering without knowing that he shivered, astonished
only that his father had not told him to get back into bed at once.
It was, beyond doubt, the proudest hour of Cyril’s career.
In addition to the mysterious circumstances of the night, there
was in the situation that thrill which always communicates itself
to a father and son when they are afoot together upon an enterprise
unsuspected by the woman from whom their lives have no secrets. Samuel put his head out of the window. A man was standing there. “That you, Samuel?” The voice came low. “Yes,” replied Samuel, cautiously. “It’s not
Cousin Daniel, is it?” “I want ye,” said Daniel Povey, curtly. Samuel paused. “I’ll be down in a minute,”
he said. Cyril at length received the command to get
back into bed at once. “Whatever’s up, father?” he asked joyously. “I don’t know. I must put some things on and
go and see.” He shut down the window on all the breezes
that were pouring into the room. “Now quick, before I turn the gas out!” he
admonished, his hand on the gas-tap. “You’ll tell me in the morning, won’t you,
father?” “Yes,” said Mr. Povey, conquering his habitual
impulse to say ‘No.’ He crept back to the large bedroom to grope
for clothes. When, having descended to the parlour and
lighted the gas there, he opened the side-door, expecting to let
Cousin Daniel in, there was no sign of Cousin Daniel. Presently he
saw a figure standing at the corner of the Square. He whistled–Samuel
had a singular faculty of whistling, the envy of his son–and
Daniel beckoned to him. He nearly extinguished the gas and then
ran out, hatless. He was wearing most of his clothes, except his
linen collar and necktie, and the collar of his coat was turned
up. Daniel advanced before him, without waiting,
into the confectioner’s shop opposite. Being part of
the most modern building in the Square, Daniel’s shop was
provided with the new roll-down iron shutter, by means of which
you closed your establishment with a motion similar to the
winding of a large clock, instead of putting up twenty separate
shutters one by one as in the sixteenth century. The little portal
in the vast sheet of armour was ajar, and Daniel had passed
into the gloom beyond. At the same moment a policeman came along
on his beat, cutting off Mr. Povey from Daniel. “Good-night, officer! Brrr!” said Mr. Povey,
gathering his dignity about him and holding himself as though it
was part of his normal habit to take exercise bareheaded and collarless
in St. Luke’s Square on cold November nights. He behaved
so because, if Daniel had desired the services of a policeman, Daniel
would of course have spoken to this one. “Goo’ night, sir,” said the policeman, after
recognizing him. “What time is it?” asked Samuel, bold. “A quarter-past one, sir.” The policeman, leaving Samuel at the little
open door, went forward across the lamplit Square, and Samuel
entered his cousin’s shop. Daniel Povey was standing behind the door,
and as Samuel came in he shut the door with a startling sudden movement.
Save for the twinkle of gas, the shop was in darkness.
It had the empty appearance which a well-managed confectioner’s
and baker’s always has at night. The large brass scales near
the flour-bins glinted; and the glass cake-stands, with scarce a tart
among them, also caught the faint flare of the gas. “What’s the matter, Daniel? Anything wrong?”
Samuel asked, feeling boyish as he usually did in the presence of
Daniel. The well-favoured white-haired man seized
him with one hand by the shoulder in a grip that convicted Samuel of
frailty. “Look here, Sam’l,” said he in his low, pleasant
voice, somewhat altered by excitement. “You know as my wife
drinks?” He stared defiantly at Samuel. “N–no,” said Samuel. “That is–no one’s ever
SAID—” This was true. He did not know that Mrs. Daniel
Povey, at the age of fifty, had definitely taken to drink. There
had been rumours that she enjoyed a glass with too much gusto;
but ‘drinks’ meant more than that. “She drinks,” Daniel Povey continued. “And
has done this last two year!” “I’m very sorry to hear it,” said Samuel,
tremendously shocked by this brutal rending of the cloak of decency. Always, everybody had feigned to Daniel, and
Daniel had feigned to everybody, that his wife was as other wives.
And now the man himself had torn to pieces in a moment the
veil of thirty years’ weaving. “And if that was the worst!” Daniel murmured
reflectively, loosening his grip. Samuel was excessively disturbed. His cousin
was hinting at matters which he himself, at any rate, had
never hinted at even to Constance, so abhorrent were they; matters
unutterable, which hung like clouds in the social atmosphere of the
town, and of which at rare intervals one conveyed one’s cognizance,
not by words, but by something scarce perceptible in a glance,
an accent. Not often is a town such as Bursley starred with such a
woman as Mrs. Daniel Povey. “But what’s wrong?” Samuel asked, trying to
be firm. And, “What is wrong?” he asked himself. “What
does all this mean, at after one o’clock in the morning?” “Look here, Sam’l,” Daniel recommenced, seizing
his shoulder again. “I went to Liverpool corn market to-day,
and missed the last train, so I came by mail from Crewe.
And what do I find? I find Dick sitting on the stairs in the dark
pretty high naked.” “Sitting on the stairs? Dick?” “Ay! This is what I come home to!” “But–” “Hold on! He’s been in bed a couple of days
with a feverish cold, caught through lying in damp sheets as his
mother had forgot to air. She brings him no supper to-night. He
calls out. No answer. Then he gets up to go down-stairs and see
what’s happened, and he slips on th’ stairs and breaks his knee, or
puts it out or summat. Sat there hours, seemingly! Couldn’t walk
neither up nor down.” “And was your–wife–was Mrs.-?” “Dead drunk in the parlour, Sam’l.” “But the servant?” “Servant!” Daniel Povey laughed. “We can’t
keep our servants. They won’t stay. YOU know that.” He did. Mrs. Daniel Povey’s domestic methods
and idiosyncrasies could at any rate be freely discussed, and
they were. “And what have you done?” “Done? Why, I picked him up in my arms and
carried him upstairs again. And a fine job I had too! Here! Come
here!” Daniel strode impulsively across the shop–the
counterflap was up –and opened a door at the back. Samuel followed.
Never before had he penetrated so far into his cousin’s secrets.
On the left, within the doorway, were the stairs, dark;
on the right a shut door; and in front an open door giving on
to a yard. At the extremity of the yard he discerned a building,
vaguely lit, and naked figures strangely moving in it. “What’s that? Who’s there?” he asked sharply. “That’s the bakehouse,” Daniel replied, as
if surprised at such a question. “It’s one of their long nights.” Never, during the brief remainder of his life,
did Samuel eat a mouthful of common bread without recalling
that midnight apparition. He had lived for half a century,
and thoughtlessly eaten bread as though loaves grew ready-made
on trees. “Listen!” Daniel commanded him. He cocked his ear, and caught a feeble, complaining
wail from an upper floor. “That’s Dick! That is!” said Daniel Povey. It sounded more like the distress of a child
than of an adventurous young man of twenty-four or so. “But is he in pain? Haven’t you fetched the
doctor?” “Not yet,” answered Daniel, with a vacant
stare. Samuel gazed at him closely for a second.
And Daniel seemed to him very old and helpless and pathetic, a man
unequal to the situation in which he found himself; and yet, despite
the dignified snow of his age, wistfully boyish. Samuel thought
swiftly: “This has been too much for him. He’s almost out of his mind.
That’s the explanation. Some one’s got to take charge,
and I must.” And all the courageous resolution of his character
braced itself to the crisis. Being without a collar, being in slippers,
and his suspenders imperfectly fastened anyhow,–these
things seemed to be a part of the crisis. “I’ll just run upstairs and have a look at
him,” said Samuel, in a matter-of-fact tone. Daniel did not reply. There was a glimmer at the top of the stairs.
Samuel mounted, found the gas-jet, and turned it on full.
A dingy, dirty, untidy passage was revealed, the very antechamber
of discomfort. Guided by the moans, Samuel entered a bedroom, which
was in a shameful condition of neglect, and lighted only by
a nearly expired candle. Was it possible that a house-mistress could
so lose her self- respect? Samuel thought of his own abode,
meticulously and impeccably ‘kept,’ and a hard bitterness against
Mrs. Daniel surged up in his soul. “Is that you, doctor?” said a voice from the
bed; the moans ceased. Samuel raised the candle. Dick lay there, his face, on which was a beard
of several days’ growth, distorted by anguish, sweating; his
tousled brown hair was limp with sweat. “Where the hell’s the doctor?” the young man
demanded brusquely. Evidently he had no curiosity about Samuel’s
presence; the one thing that struck him was that Samuel was
not the doctor. “He’s coming, he’s coming,’ said Samuel, soothingly. “Well, if he isn’t here soon I shall be damn
well dead,” said Dick, in feeble resentful anger. “I can tell
you that.” Samuel deposited the candle and ran downstairs.
“I say, Daniel,” he said, roused and hot, “this is really ridiculous.
Why on earth didn’t you fetch the doctor while you were
waiting for me? Where’s the missis?” Daniel Povey was slowly emptying grains of
Indian corn out of his jacket-pocket into one of the big receptacles
behind the counter on the baker’s side of the shop. He had provisioned
himself with Indian corn as ammunition for Samuel’s bedroom
window; he was now returning the surplus. “Are ye going for Harrop?” he questioned hesitatingly. “Why, of course!” Samuel exclaimed. “Where’s
the missis?” “Happen you’d better go and have a look at
her,” said Daniel Povey. “She’s in th’ parlour.” He preceded Samuel to the shut door on the
right. When he opened it the parlour appeared in full illumination. “Here! Go in!” said Daniel. Samuel went in, afraid. In a room as dishevelled
and filthy as the bedroom, Mrs. Daniel Povey lay stretched awkwardly
on a worn horse-hair sofa, her head thrown back, her
face discoloured, her eyes bulging, her mouth wet and yawning: a
sight horribly offensive. Samuel was frightened; he was struck
with fear and with disgust. The singing gas beat down ruthlessly
on that dreadful figure. A wife and mother! The lady of a house!
The centre of order! The fount of healing! The balm for
worry, and the refuge of distress! She was vile. Her scanty yellow-grey
hair was dirty, her hollowed neck all grime, her hands abominable,
her black dress in decay. She was the dishonour of her sex, her
situation, and her years. She was a fouler obscenity than the
inexperienced Samuel had ever conceived. And by the door stood
her husband, neat, spotless, almost stately, the man who for
thirty years had marshalled all his immense pride to suffer
this woman, the jolly man who had laughed through thick and thin!
Samuel remembered when they were married. And he remembered when,
years after their marriage, she was still as pretty, artificial,
coquettish, and adamantine in her caprices as a young harlot
with a fool at her feet. Time and the slow wrath of God had changed
her. He remained master of himself and approached
her; then stopped. “But–” he stammered. “Ay, Sam’l, lad!” said the old man from the
door. “I doubt I’ve killed her! I doubt I’ve killed her! I took
and shook her. I got her by the neck. And before I knew where I
was, I’d done it. She’ll never drink brandy again. This is what
it’s come to!” He moved away. All Samuel’s flesh tingled as a heavy wave
of emotion rolled through his being. It was just as if some
one had dealt him a blow unimaginably tremendous. His heart shivered,
as a ship shivers at the mountainous crash of the waters. He was
numbed. He wanted to weep, to vomit, to die, to sink away. But
a voice was whispering to him: “You will have to go through with
this. You are in charge of this.” He thought of HIS wife and child,
innocently asleep in the cleanly pureness of HIS home. And he felt
the roughness of his coat-collar round his neck and the insecurity
of his trousers. He passed out of the room, shutting the door.
And across the yard he had a momentary glimpse of those nude nocturnal
forms, unconsciously attitudinizing in the bakehouse.
And down the stairs came the protests of Dick, driven by pain
into a monotonous silly blasphemy. “I’ll fetch Harrop,” he said, melancholily,
to his cousin. The doctor’s house was less than fifty yards
off, and the doctor had a night-bell, which, though he was a much
older man than his father had been at his age, he still answered
promptly. No need to bombard the doctor’s premises with Indian
corn! While Samuel was parleying with the doctor through a window,
the question ran incessantly through his mind: “What about
telling the police?” But when, in advance of old Harrop, he returned
to Daniel’s shop, lo! the policeman previously encountered had
returned upon his beat, and Daniel was talking to him in the
little doorway. No other soul was about. Down King Street, along
Wedgwood Street, up the Square, towards Brougham Street, nothing
but gaslamps burning with their everlasting patience, and the blind
facades of shops. Only in the second storey of the Bank Building
at the top of the Square a light showed mysteriously through
a blind. Somebody ill there! The policeman was in a high state of nervous
excitement. That had happened to him which had never happened to
him before. Of the sixty policemen in Bursley, just he had been
chosen by fate to fit the socket of destiny. He was startled. “What’s this, what’s this, Mr. Povey?” he
turned hastily to Samuel. “What’s this as Mr. Councillor Povey
is a-telling me?” “You come in, sergeant,” said Daniel. “If I come in,” said the policeman to Samuel,
“you mun’ go along Wedgwood Street, Mr. Povey, and bring my mate.
He should be on Duck Bank, by rights.” It was astonishing, when once the stone had
begun to roll, how quickly it ran. In half an hour Samuel had
actually parted from Daniel at the police-office behind the Shambles,
and was hurrying to rouse his wife so that she could look after
Dick Povey until he might be taken off to Pirehill Infirmary,
as old Harrop had instantly, on seeing him, decreed. “Ah!” he reflected in the turmoil of his soul:
“God is not mocked!” That was his basic idea: God is not
mocked! Daniel was a good fellow, honourable, brilliant; a figure
in the world. But what of his licentious tongue? What of his
frequenting of bars? (How had he come to miss that train from Liverpool?
How?) For many years he, Samuel, had seen in Daniel a living
refutation of the authenticity of the old Hebrew menaces. But
he had been wrong, after all! God is not mocked! And Samuel was
aware of a revulsion in himself towards that strict codified godliness
from which, in thought, he had perhaps been slipping away. And with it all he felt, too, a certain officious
self-importance, as he woke his wife and essayed to break the
news to her in a manner tactfully calm. He had assisted at
the most overwhelming event ever known in the history of the town. II “Your muffler–I’ll get it,” said Constance.
“Cyril, run upstairs and get father’s muffler. You know the drawer.” Cyril ran. It behoved everybody, that morning,
to be prompt and efficient. “I don’t need any muffler, thank you,” said
Samuel, coughing and smothering the cough. “Oh! But, Sam–” Constance protested. “Now please don’t worry me!” said Samuel with
frigid finality. “I’ve got quite enough–!” He did not finish. Constance sighed as her husband stepped, nervous
and self- important, out of the side-door into the street.
It was early, not yet eight o’clock, and the shop still unopened. “Your father couldn’t wait,” Constance said
to Cyril when he had thundered down the stairs in his heavy schoolboy
boots. “Give it to me.” She went to restore the muffler to
its place. The whole house was upset, and Amy still an
invalid! Existence was disturbed; there vaguely seemed to be a thousand
novel things to be done, and yet she could think of nothing
whatever that she needed to do at that moment; so she occupied
herself with the muffler. Before she reappeared Cyril had gone
to school, he who was usually a laggard. The truth was that
he could no longer contain within himself a recital of the night,
and in particular of the fact that he had been the first to
hear the summons of the murderer on the window-pane. This imperious
news had to be imparted to somebody, as a preliminary to
the thrilling of the whole school; and Cyril had issued forth in
search of an appreciative and worthy confidant. He was
scarcely five minutes after his father. In St. Luke’s Square was a crowd of quite
two hundred persons, standing moveless in the November mud. The
body of Mrs. Daniel Povey had already been taken to the Tiger
Hotel, and young Dick Povey was on his way in a covered wagonette
to Pirehill Infirmary on the other side of Knype. The shop of the
crime was closed, and the blinds drawn at the upper windows of the
house. There was absolutely nothing to be seen, not even a
policeman. Nevertheless the crowd stared with an extraordinary obstinate
attentiveness at the fatal building in Boulton Terrace. Hypnotized
by this face of bricks and mortar, it had apparently forgotten
all earthly ties, and, regardless of breakfast and a livelihood,
was determined to stare at it till the house fell down or otherwise
rendered up its secret. Most of its component individuals
wore neither overcoats nor collars, but were kept warm by a scarf
round the neck and by dint of forcing their fingers into the furthest
inch of their pockets. Then they would slowly lift one leg
after the other. Starers of infirm purpose would occasionally
detach themselves from the throng and sidle away, ashamed of
their fickleness. But reinforcements were continually arriving.
And to these new-comers all that had been said in gossip had to be
repeated and repeated: the same questions, the same answers, the
same exclamations, the same proverbial philosophy, the same prophecies
recurred in all parts of the Square with an uncanny iterance.
Well-dressed men spoke to mere professional loiterers; for
this unparalleled and glorious sensation, whose uniqueness grew
every instant more impressive, brought out the essential brotherhood
of mankind. All had a peculiar feeling that the day was neither
Sunday nor week- day, but some eighth day of the week. Yet
in the St. Luke’s Covered Market close by, the stall-keepers
were preparing their stalls just as though it were Saturday, just
as though a Town Councillor had not murdered his wife–at last!
It was stated, and restated infinitely, that the Povey baking
had been taken over by Brindley, the second-best baker and confectioner,
who had a stall in the market. And it was asserted, as a philosophical
truth, and reasserted infinitely, that there would have
been no sense in wasting good food. Samuel’s emergence stirred the multitude.
But Samuel passed up the Square with a rapt expression; he might have
been under an illusion, caused by the extreme gravity of
his preoccupations, that he was crossing a deserted Square. He
hurried past the Bank and down the Turnhill Road, to the private
residence of ‘Young Lawton,’ son of the deceased ‘Lawyer Lawton.’
Young Lawton followed his father’s profession; he was,
as his father had been, the most successful solicitor in the town
(though reputed by his learned rivals to be a fool), but the custom
of calling men by their occupations had died out with horse-cars.
Samuel caught young Lawton at his breakfast, and presently
drove with him, in the Lawton buggy, to the police-station, where
their arrival electrified a crowd as large as that in St.
Luke’s Square. Later, they drove together to Hanbridge, informally
to brief a barrister; and Samuel, not permitted to be present at
the first part of the interview between the solicitor and the barrister,
was humbled before the pomposity of legal etiquette. It seemed to Samuel a game. The whole rigmarole
of police and police-cells and formalities seemed insincere.
His cousin’s case was not like any other case, and, though formalities
might be necessary, it was rather absurd to pretend
that it was like any other case. In what manner it differed from
other cases Samuel did not analytically inquire. He thought young
Lawton was self- important, and Daniel too humble, in the colloquy
of these two, and he endeavoured to indicate, by the dignity
of his own demeanour, that in his opinion the proper
relative tones had not been set. He could not understand Daniel’s
attitude, for he lacked imagination to realize what Daniel had been
through. After all, Daniel was not a murderer; his wife’s death
was due to accident, was simply a mishap. But in the crowded and stinking court-room
of the Town Hall, Samuel began to feel qualms. It occurred that
the Stipendiary Magistrate was sitting that morning at Bursley.
He sat alone, as not one of the Borough Justices cared to occupy
the Bench while a Town Councillor was in the dock. The Stipendiary,
recently appointed, was a young man, from the southern
part of the county; and a Town Councillor of Bursley was no more
to him than a petty tradesman to a man of fashion. He was youthfully
enthusiastic for the majesty and the impartiality of English
justice, and behaved as though the entire responsibility for the
safety of that vast fabric rested on his shoulders. He and the
barrister from Hanbridge had had a historic quarrel at Cambridge,
and their behaviour to each other was a lesson to the
vulgar in the art of chill and consummate politeness. Young Lawton,
having been to Oxford, secretly scorned the pair of them,
but, as he had engaged counsel, he of course was precluded from adding
to the eloquence, which chagrined him. These three were the
aristocracy of the court-room; they knew it; Samuel Povey knew
it; everybody knew it, and felt it. The barrister brought an unexceptionable
zeal to the performance of his duties; be referred in
suitable terms to Daniel’s character and high position in the
town, but nothing could hide the fact that for him too his client
was a petty tradesman accused of simple murder. Naturally
the Stipendiary was bound to show that before the law all men
are equal–the Town Councillor and the common tippler; he succeeded.
The policeman gave his evidence, and the Inspector swore
to what Daniel Povey had said when charged. The hearing proceeded
so smoothly and quickly that it seemed naught but an empty
rite, with Daniel as a lay figure in it. The Stipendiary achieved
marvellously the illusion that to him a murder by a Town Councillor
in St. Luke’s Square was quite an everyday matter. Bail
was inconceivable, and the barrister, being unable to suggest any
reason why the Stipendiary should grant a remand–indeed,
there was no reason– Daniel Povey was committed to the Stafford
Assizes for trial. The Stipendiary instantly turned to the consideration
of an alleged offence against the Factory Acts by a large
local firm of potters. The young magistrate had mistaken his vocation.
With his steely calm, with his imperturbable detachment from
weak humanity, he ought to have been a General of the Order
of Jesuits. Daniel was removed–he did not go: he was
removed, by two bare- headed constables. Samuel wanted to have speech
with him, and could not. And later, Samuel stood in the
porch of the Town Hall, and Daniel appeared out of a corridor, still
in the keeping of two policemen, helmeted now. And down below at
the bottom of the broad flight of steps, up which passed dancers on
the nights of subscription balls, was a dense crowd, held
at bay by other policemen; and beyond the crowd a black van.
And Daniel–to his cousin a sort of Christ between thieves–was
hurried past the privileged loafers in the corridor, and down
the broad steps. A murmuring wave agitated the crowd. Unkempt
idlers and ne’er-do- wells in corduroy leaped up like tigers in
the air, and the policemen fought them back furiously. And
Daniel and his guardians shot through the little living lane. Quick!
Quick! For the captive is more sacred even than a messiah. The law
has him in charge! And like a feat of prestidigitation Daniel disappeared
into the blackness of the van. A door slammed loudly,
triumphantly, and a whip cracked. The crowd had been balked. It
was as though the crowd had yelled for Daniel’s blood and bones,
and the faithful constables had saved him from their lust. Yes, Samuel had qualms. He had a sickness
in the stomach. The aged Superintendent of Police walked by,
with the aged Rector. The Rector was Daniel’s friend. Never before
had the Rector spoken to the Nonconformist Samuel, but now he spoke
to him; he squeezed his hand. “Ah, Mr. Povey!” he ejaculated grievously. “I–I’m afraid it’s serious!” Samuel stammered.
He hated to admit that it was serious, but the words came out
of his mouth. He looked at the Superintendent of Police,
expecting the Superintendent to assure him that it was not
serious; but the Superintendent only raised his small white-bearded
chin, saying nothing. The Rector shook his head, and shook
a senile tear out of his eye. After another chat with young Lawton, Samuel,
on behalf of Daniel, dropped his pose of the righteous man to whom
a mere mishap has occurred, and who is determined, with the
lofty pride of innocence, to indulge all the whims of the
law, to be more royalist than the king. He perceived that
the law must be fought with its own weapons, that no advantage must
be surrendered, and every possible advantage seized. He was truly
astonished at himself that such a pose had ever been adopted.
His eyes were opened; he saw things as they were. He returned home through a Square that was
more interested than ever in the facade of his cousin’s house.
People were beginning to come from Hanbridge, Knype, Longshaw, Turnhill,
and villages such as Moorthorne, to gaze at that facade. And
the fourth edition of the Signal, containing a full report of what
the Stipendiary and the barrister had said to each other, was
being cried. In his shop he found customers, as absorbed
in the trivialities of purchase as though nothing whatever had happened.
He was shocked; he resented their callousness. “I’m too busy now,” he said curtly to one
who accosted him.” “Sam!” his wife called him in a low voice.
She was standing behind the till. “What is it?” He was ready to crush, and especially
to crush indiscreet babble in the shop. He thought
she was going to vent her womanly curiosity at once. “Mr. Huntbach is waiting for you in the parlour,”
said Constance. “Mr. Huntbach?” “Yes, from Longshaw.” She whispered, “It’s
Mrs. Povey’s cousin. He’s come to see about the funeral and so
on, the–the inquest, I suppose.” Samuel paused. “Oh, has he!” said he defiantly.
“Well, I’ll see him. If he WANTS to see me, I’ll see him.” That evening Constance learned all that was
in his mind of bitterness against the memory of the dead
woman whose failings had brought Daniel Povey to Stafford gaol and
Dick to the Pirehill Infirmary. Again and again, in the ensuing
days, he referred to the state of foul discomfort which he had
discovered in Daniel’s house. He nursed a feud against all her relatives,
and when, after the inquest, at which he gave evidence full
of resentment, she was buried, he vented an angry sigh of relief,
and said: “Well, SHE’S out of the way!” Thenceforward he had a mission,
religious in its solemn intensity, to defend and save Daniel.
He took the enterprise upon himself, spending the whole
of himself upon it, to the neglect of his business and the scorn
of his health. He lived solely for Daniel’s trial, pouring out money
in preparation for it. He thought and spoke of nothing else.
The affair was his one preoccupation. And as the weeks passed, he
became more and more sure of success, more and more sure that he
would return with Daniel to Bursley in triumph after the assize.
He was convinced of the impossibility that ‘anything should happen’
to Daniel; the circumstances were too clear, too overwhelmingly
in Daniel’s favour. When Brindley, the second-best baker and confectioner,
made an offer for Daniel’s business as a going concern,
he was indignant at first. Then Constance, and the lawyer,
and Daniel (whom he saw on every permitted occasion) between them
persuaded him that if some arrangement was not made, and made quickly,
the business would lose all its value, and he consented,
on Daniel’s behalf, to a temporary agreement under which Brindley
should reopen the shop and manage it on certain terms until Daniel
regained his freedom towards the end of January. He would not listen
to Daniel’s plaintive insistence that he would never care
to be seen in Bursley again. He pooh-poohed it. He protested
furiously that the whole town was seething with sympathy for
Daniel; and this was true. He became Daniel’s defending angel,
rescuing Daniel from Daniel’s own weakness and apathy. He became,
indeed, Daniel. One morning the shop-shutter was wound up,
and Brindley, inflated with the importance of controlling two establishments,
strutted in and out under the sign of Daniel Povey. And
traffic in bread and cakes and flour was resumed. Apparently the
sea of time had risen and covered Daniel and all that was his; for
his wife was under earth, and Dick lingered at Pirehill, unable
to stand, and Daniel was locked away. Apparently, in the regular
flow of the life of the Square, Daniel was forgotten. But not
in Samuel Povey’s heart was he forgotten! There, before an altar erected
to the martyr, the sacred flame of a new faith burned with
fierce consistency. Samuel, in his greying middle-age, had inherited
the eternal youth of the apostle. III On the dark winter morning when Samuel set
off to the grand assize, Constance did not ask his views as
to what protection he would adopt against the weather. She silently
ranged special underclothing, and by the warmth of the fire,
which for days she had kept ablaze in the bedroom, Samuel silently
donned the special underclothing. Over that, with particular
fastidious care, he put his best suit. Not a word was spoken. Constance
and he were not estranged, but the relations between them
were in a state of feverish excitation. Samuel had had a cold
on his flat chest for weeks, and nothing that Constance could invent
would move it. A few days in bed or even in one room at a uniform
temperature would have surely worked the cure. Samuel, however,
would not stay in one room: he would not stay in the house,
nor yet in Bursley. He would take his lacerating cough on chilly
trains to Stafford. He had no ears for reason; he simply could not
listen; he was in a dream. After Christmas a crisis came. Constance
grew desperate. It was a battle between her will and his that
occurred one night when Constance, marshalling all her forces, suddenly
insisted that he must go out no more until he was cured. In
the fight Constance was scarcely recognizable. She deliberately gave
way to hysteria; she was no longer soft and gentle; she flung bitterness
at him like vitriol; she shrieked like a common shrew.
It seems almost incredible that Constance should have gone
so far; but she did. She accused him, amid sobs, of putting his
cousin before his wife and son, of not caring whether or not she
was left a widow as the result of this obstinacy. And she ended by
crying passionately that she might as well talk to a post. She
might just as well have talked to a post. Samuel answered quietly
and coldly. He told her that it was useless for her to put herself
about, as he should act as he thought fit. It was a most extraordinary
scene, and quite unique in their annals. Constance was beaten.
She accepted the defeat, gradually controlling her sobs and
changing her tone to the tone of the vanquished. She kissed him
in bed, kissing the rod. And he gravely kissed her. Henceforward she knew, in practice, what the
inevitable, when you have to live with it, may contain of anguish
wretched and humiliating. Her husband was risking his life,
so she was absolutely convinced, and she could do nothing;
she had come to the bed-rock of Samuel’s character. She felt
that, for the time being, she had a madman in the house, who
could not be treated according to ordinary principles. The continual
strain aged her. Her one source of relief was to talk with
Cyril. She talked to him without reserve, and the words ‘your father,’
‘your father,’ were everlastingly on her complaining tongue. Yes,
she was utterly changed. Often she would weep when alone. Nevertheless she frequently forgot that she
had been beaten. She had no notion of honourable warfare. She was
always beginning again, always firing under a flag of truce;
and thus she constituted a very inconvenient opponent.
Samuel was obliged, while hardening on the main point, to compromise
on lesser questions. She too could be formidable, and
when her lips took a certain pose, and her eyes glowed, he would
have put on forty mufflers had she commanded. Thus it was she
who arranged all the details of the supreme journey to Stafford.
Samuel was to drive to Knype, so as to avoid the rigours of the Loop
Line train from Bursley and the waiting on cold platforms.
At Knype he was to take the express, and to travel first-class. After he was dressed on that gas-lit morning,
he learnt bit by bit the extent of her elaborate preparations.
The breakfast was a special breakfast, and he had to eat it all.
Then the cab came, and he saw Amy put hot bricks into it. Constance
herself put goloshes over his boots, not because it was
damp, but because indiarubber keeps the feet warm. Constance
herself bandaged his neck, and unbuttoned his waistcoat and stuck
an extra flannel under his dickey. Constance herself warmed
his woollen gloves, and enveloped him in his largest overcoat. Samuel then saw Cyril getting ready to go
out. “Where are you off?” he demanded. “He’s going with you as far as Knype,” said
Constance grimly. “He’ll see you into the train and then come
back here in the cab.” She had sprung this indignity upon him. She
glared. Cyril glanced with timid bravado from one to the other.
Samuel had to yield. Thus in the winter darkness–for it was not
yet dawn–Samuel set forth to the trial, escorted by his son. The
reverberation of his appalling cough from the cab was the last
thing that Constance heard. During most of the day Constance sat in ‘Miss
Insull’s corner’ in the shop. Twenty years ago this very corner
had been hers. But now, instead of large millinery-boxes enwrapped
in brown paper, it was shut off from the rest of the counter
by a rich screen of mahogany and ground-glass, and within the
enclosed space all the apparatus necessary to the activity of Miss
Insull had been provided for. However, it remained the coldest
part of the whole shop, as Miss Insull’s fingers testified.
Constance established herself there more from a desire to do something,
to interfere in something, than from a necessity of supervising
the shop, though she had said to Samuel that she would keep
an eye on the shop. Miss Insull, whose throne was usurped, had
to sit by the stove with less important creatures; she did not
like it, and her underlings suffered accordingly. It was a long day. Towards tea-time, just
before Cyril was due from school, Mr. Critchlow came surprisingly
in. That is to say, his arrival was less of a surprise to Miss
Insull and the rest of the staff than to Constance. For he had lately
formed an irregular habit of popping in at tea-time, to chat with
Miss Insull. Mr. Critchlow was still defying time. He kept
his long, thin figure perfectly erect. His features had not altered.
His hair and heard could not have been whiter than they had been
for years past. He wore his long white apron, and over that a
thick reefer jacket. In his long, knotty fingers he carried a copy
of the Signal. Evidently he had not expected to find the
corner occupied by Constance. She was sewing. “So it’s you!” he said, in his unpleasant,
grating voice, not even glancing at Miss Insull. He had gained the
reputation of being the rudest old man in Bursley. But his general
demeanour expressed indifference rather than rudeness. It was
a manner that said: “You’ve got to take me as I am. I may be an
egotist, hard, mean, and convinced; but those who don’t like it
can lump it. I’m indifferent.” He put one elbow on the top of the screen,
showing the Signal. “Mr. Critchlow!” said Constance, primly; she
had acquired Samuel’s dislike of him. “It’s begun!” he observed with mysterious
glee. “Has it?” Constance said eagerly. “Is it in
the paper already?” She had been far more disturbed about her
husband’s health than about the trial of Daniel Povey for murder,
but her interest in the trial was of course tremendous. And this
news, that it had actually begun, thrilled her. “Ay!” said Mr. Critchlow. “Didn’t ye hear
the Signal boy hollering just now all over the Square?” “No,” said Constance. For her, newspapers
did not exist. She never had the idea of opening one, never felt any
curiosity which she could not satisfy, if she could satisfy it
at all, without the powerful aid of the press. And even on this
day it had not occurred to her that the Signal might be worth
opening. “Ay!” repeated Mr. Critchlow. “Seemingly it
began at two o’clock– or thereabouts.” He gave a moment of his attention
to a noisy gas- jet, which he carefully lowered. “What does it say?” “Nothing yet!” said Mr. Critchlow; and they
read the few brief sentences, under their big heading, which
described the formal commencement of the trial of Daniel Povey
for the murder of his wife. “There was some as said,” he remarked,
pushing up his spectacles, “that grand jury would alter the
charge, or summat!” He laughed, grimly tolerant of the extreme
absurdity. “Ah!” he added contemplatively, turning his head to
see if the assistants were listening. They were. It would have been
too much, on such a day, to expect a strict adherence to the etiquette
of the shop. Constance had been hearing a good deal lately
of grand juries, but she had understood nothing, nor had she sought
to understand. “I’m very glad it’s come on so soon,” she
said. “In a sense, that is! I was afraid Sam might be kept at Stafford
for days. Do you think it will last long?” “Not it!” said Mr. Critchlow, positively.
“There’s naught in it to spin out.” Then a silence, punctuated by the sound of
stitching. Constance would really have preferred not
to converse with the old man; but the desire for reassurance, for the
calming of her own fears, forced her to speak, though she knew
well that Mr. Critchlow was precisely the last man in the
town to give moral assistance if he thought it was wanted. “I do hope everything will be all right!”
she murmured. “Everything’ll be all right!” he said gaily.
“Everything’ll be all right. Only it’ll be all wrong for Dan.” “Whatever do you mean, Mr. Critchlow?” she
protested. Nothing, she reflected, could rouse pity in
that heart, not even a tragedy like Daniel’s. She bit her lip for
having spoken. “Well,” he said in loud tones, frankly addressing
the girls round the stove as much as Constance. “I’ve met
with some rare good arguments this new year, no mistake! There’s
been some as say that Dan never meant to do it. That’s as may be.
But if it’s a good reason for not hanging, there’s an end to
capital punishment in this country. ‘Never meant’! There’s a lot
of ’em as ‘never meant’! Then I’m told as she was a gallivanting
woman and no housekeeper, and as often drunk as sober.
I’d no call to be told that. If strangling is a right punishment
for a wife as spends her time in drinking brandy instead of sweeping
floors and airing sheets, then Dan’s safe. But I don’t seem
to see Judge Lindley telling the jury as it is. I’ve been a juryman
under Judge Lindley myself–and more than once–and I don’t seem
to see him, like!” He paused with his mouth open. “As for all them
nobs,” he continued, “including th’ rector, as have gone to Stafford
to kiss the book and swear that Dan’s reputation is second
to none–if they could ha’ sworn as Dan wasn’t in th’ house at all
that night, if they could ha’ sworn he was in Jericho, there’d
ha’ been some sense in their going. But as it is, they’d ha’ done
better to stop at home and mind their business. Bless us! Sam wanted
ME to go!” He laughed again, in the faces of the horrified
and angry women. “I’m surprised at you, Mr. Critchlow! I really
am!” Constance exclaimed. And the assistants inarticulately supported
her with vague sounds. Miss Insull got up and poked the stove. Every
soul in the establishment was loyally convinced that Daniel
Povey would be acquitted, and to breathe a doubt on the brightness
of this certainty was a hideous crime. The conviction
was not within the domain of reason; it was an act of faith;
and arguments merely fretted, without in the slightest degree disturbing
it. “Ye may be!” Mr. Critchlow gaily concurred.
He was very content. Just as he shuffled round to leave the shop,
Cyril entered. “Good afternoon, Mr. Critchlow,” said Cyril,
sheepishly polite. Mr. Critchlow gazed hard at the boy, then
nodded his head several times rapidly, as though to say: “Here’s another
fool in the making! So the generations follow one another!”
He made no answer to the salutation, and departed. Cyril ran round to his mother’s corner, pitching
his bag on to the showroom stairs as he passed them. Taking
off his hat, he kissed her, and she unbuttoned his overcoat with
her cold hands. “What’s old Methuselah after?” he demanded. “Hush!” Constance softly corrected him. “He
came in to tell me the trial had started.” “Oh, I knew that! A boy bought a paper and
I saw it. I say, mother, will father be in the paper?” And
then in a different tone: “I say, mother, what is there for tea?” When his stomach had learnt exactly what there
was for tea, the boy began to show an immense and talkative
curiosity in the trial. He would not set himself to his home-lessons.
“It’s no use, mother,” he said, “I can’t.” They returned
to the shop together, and Cyril would go every moment to the door
to listen for the cry of a newsboy. Presently he hit upon the idea
that perhaps newsboys might be crying the special edition of the
Signal in the market- place, in front of the Town Hall, to the neglect
of St. Luke’s Square. And nothing would satisfy him but
he must go forth and see. He went, without his overcoat, promising
to run. The shop waited with a strange anxiety. Cyril had created,
by his restless movements to and fro, an atmosphere of strained
expectancy. It seemed now as if the whole town stood with
beating heart, fearful of tidings and yet burning to get them. Constance
pictured Stafford, which she had never seen, and a
court of justice, which she had never seen, and her husband and Daniel
in it. And she waited. Cyril ran in. “No!” he announced breathlessly.
“Nothing yet.” “Don’t take cold, now you’re hot,” Constance
advised. But he would keep near the door. Soon he ran
off again. And perhaps fifteen seconds after he had gone,
the strident cry of a Signal boy was heard in the distance, faint
and indistinct at first, then clearer and louder. “There’s a paper!” said the apprentice. “Sh!” said Constance, listening. “Sh!” echoed Miss Insull. “Yes, it is!” said Constance. “Miss Insull,
just step out and get a paper. Here’s a halfpenny.” The halfpenny passed quickly from one thimbled
hand to another. Miss Insull scurried. She came in triumphantly with the sheet, which
Constance tremblingly took. Constance could not find
the report at first. Miss Insull pointed to it, and read– “‘Summing up!’ Lower down, lower down! ‘After
an absence of thirty-five minutes the jury found the prisoner
guilty of murder, with a recommendation to mercy. The judge
assumed the black cap and pronounced sentence of death, saying that
he would forward the recommendation to the proper quarter.'” Cyril returned. “Not yet!” he was saying–when
he saw the paper lying on the counter. His crest fell. Long after the shop was shut, Constance and
Cyril waited in the parlour for the arrival of the master of the
house. Constance was in the blackest despair. She saw nothing but
death around her. She thought: misfortunes never come singly. Why
did not Samuel come? All was ready for him, everything that her
imagination could suggest, in the way of food, remedies, and
the means of warmth. Amy was not allowed to go to bed, lest she
might be needed. Constance did not even hint that Cyril should
go to bed. The dark, dreadful minutes ticked themselves off on
the mantelpiece until only five minutes separated Constance from
the moment when she would not know what to do next. It was twenty-five
minutes past eleven. If at half-past Samuel did not appear,
then he could not come that night, unless the last train from
Stafford was inconceivably late. The sound of a carriage! It ceased at the
door. Mother and son sprang up. Yes, it was Samuel! She beheld him once more.
And the sight of his condition, moral and physical, terrified her.
His great strapping son and Amy helped him upstairs. “Will he
ever come down those stairs again?” This thought lanced Constance’s
heart. The pain was come and gone in a moment, but it had surprised
her tranquil commonsense, which was naturally opposed to,
and gently scornful of, hysterical fears. As she puffed, with
her stoutness, up the stairs, that bland cheerfulness of hers cost
her an immense effort of will. She was profoundly troubled; great
disasters seemed to be slowly approaching her from all quarters. Should she send for the doctor? No. To do
so would only be a concession to the panic instinct. She knew
exactly what was the matter with Samuel: a severe cough persistently
neglected, no more. As she had expressed herself many times
to inquirers, “He’s never been what you may call ill.” Nevertheless,
as she laid him in bed and possetted him, how frail and fragile
he looked! And he was so exhausted that he would not even talk
about the trial. “If he’s not better to-morrow I shall send
for the doctor!” she said to herself. As for his getting up, she
swore she would keep him in bed by force if necessary. IV The next morning she was glad and proud that
she had not yielded to a scare. For he was most strangely and
obviously better. He had slept heavily, and she had slept a little.
True that Daniel was condemned to death! Leaving Daniel to his
fate, she was conscious of joy springing in her heart. How absurd
to have asked herself: “Will he ever come down those stairs again?”! A message reached her from the forgotten shop
during the morning, that Mr. Lawton had called to see Mr. Povey.
Already Samuel had wanted to arise, but she had forbidden it
in the tone of a woman who is dangerous, and Samuel had been very
reasonable. He now said that Mr. Lawton must be asked up. She glanced
round the bedroom. It was ‘done’; it was faultlessly correct
as a sick chamber. She agreed to the introduction into it of the
man from another sphere, and after a preliminary minute she left the
two to talk together. This visit of young Lawton’s was a dramatic
proof of Samuel’s importance, and of the importance of the matter
in hand. The august occasion demanded etiquette, and etiquette
said that a wife should depart from her husband when he had
to transact affairs beyond the grasp of a wife. The idea of a petition to the Home Secretary
took shape at this interview, and before the day was out it had
spread over the town and over the Five Towns, and it was in the
Signal. The Signal spoke of Daniel Povey as ‘the condemned man.’
And the phrase startled the whole district into an indignant
agitation for his reprieve. The district woke up to the fact
that a Town Councillor, a figure in the world, an honest tradesman
of unspotted character, was cooped solitary in a little cell at Stafford,
waiting to be hanged by the neck till he was dead. The district
determined that this must not and should not be. Why! Dan
Povey had actually once been Chairman of the Bursley Society for the
Prosecution of Felons, that association for annual eating
and drinking, whose members humorously called each other ‘felons’!
Impossible, monstrous, that an ex-chairman of the ‘Felons’
should be a sentenced criminal! However, there was nothing to fear. No Home
Secretary would dare to run counter to the jury’s recommendation
and the expressed wish of the whole district. Besides, the Home Secretary’s
nephew was M.P. for the Knype division. Of course a verdict
of guilty had been inevitable. Everybody recognized that
now. Even Samuel and all the hottest partisans of Daniel Povey
recognized it. They talked as if they had always foreseen it,
directly contradicting all that they had said on only the previous
day. Without any sense of any inconsistency or of shame, they took
up an absolutely new position. The structure of blind faith had
once again crumbled at the assault of realities, and unhealthy, un-English
truths, the statement of which would have meant ostracism
twenty-four hours earlier, became suddenly the platitudes of
the Square and the market-place. Despatch was necessary in the affair of the
petition, for the condemned man had but three Sundays. But there
was delay at the beginning, because neither young Lawton nor
any of his colleagues was acquainted with the proper formula of
a petition to the Home Secretary for the reprieve of a criminal condemned
to death. No such petition had been made in the district
within living memory. And at first, young Lawton could not get sight
or copy of any such petition anywhere, in the Five Towns or out
of them. Of course there must exist a proper formula, and of
course that formula and no other could be employed. Nobody was bold
enough to suggest that young Lawton should commence the petition,
“To the Most Noble the Marquis of Welwyn, K.C.B., May it please your
Lordship,” and end it, “And your petitioners will ever pray!”
and insert between those phrases a simple appeal for the reprieve,
with a statement of reasons. No! the formula consecrated by
tradition must be found. And, after Daniel had arrived a day
and a half nearer death, it was found. A lawyer at Alnwick had
the draft of a petition which had secured for a murderer
in Northumberland twenty years’ penal servitude instead of sudden death,
and on request he lent it to young Lawton. The prime movers
in the petition felt that Daniel Povey was now as good as saved.
Hundreds of forms were printed to receive signatures, and these forms,
together with copies of the petition, were laid on the counters
of all the principal shops, not merely in Bursley, but
in the other towns. They were also to be found at the offices
of the Signal, in railway waiting-rooms, and in the various
reading-rooms; and on the second of Daniel’s three Sundays they
were exposed in the porches of churches and chapels. Chapel-keepers
and vergers would come to Samuel and ask with the heavy inertia
of their stupidity: “About pens and ink, sir?” These officials
had the air of audaciously disturbing the sacrosanct routine
of centuries in order to confer a favour. Samuel continued to improve. His cough shook
him less, and his appetite increased. Constance allowed him
to establish himself in the drawing-room, which was next to the bedroom,
and of which the grate was particularly efficient. Here, in
an old winter overcoat, he directed the vast affair of the petition,
which grew daily to vaster proportions. Samuel dreamed of twenty
thousand signatures. Each sheet held twenty signatures, and several
times a day he counted the sheets; the supply of forms actually
failed once, and Constance herself had to hurry to the printers
to order more. Samuel was put into a passion by this carelessness
of the printers. He offered Cyril sixpence for every
sheet of signatures which the boy would obtain. At first Cyril
was too shy to canvass, but his father made him blush, and in a few
hours Cyril had developed into an eager canvasser. One whole
day he stayed away from school to canvas. Altogether he earned
over fifteen shillings, quite honestly except that he got
a companion to forge a couple of signatures with addresses lacking
at the end of a last sheet, generously rewarding him with sixpence,
the value of the entire sheet. When Samuel had received a thousand sheets
with twenty thousand signatures, he set his heart on twenty-five
thousand signatures. And he also announced his firm intention of
accompanying young Lawton to London with the petition. The petition
had, in fact, become one of the most remarkable petitions
of modern times. So the Signal said. The Signal gave a daily account
of its progress, and its progress was astonishing. In certain
streets every householder had signed it. The first sheets
had been reserved for the signatures of members of Parliament, ministers
of religion, civic dignitaries, justices of the peace,
etc. These sheets were nobly filled. The aged Rector of Bursley signed
first of all; after him the Mayor of Bursley, as was right;
then sundry M.P.’s. Samuel emerged from the drawing-room. He went
into the parlour, and, later, into the shop; and no evil consequence
followed. His cough was nearly, but not quite, cured. The
weather was extraordinarily mild for the season. He repeated
that he should go with the petition to London; and he went;
Constance could not validly oppose the journey. She, too, was
a little intoxicated by the petition. It weighed considerably over
a hundredweight. The crowning signature, that of the M.P. for Knype,
was duly obtained in London, and Samuel’s one disappointment
was that his hope of twenty-five thousand signatures had fallen
short of realization– by only a few score. The few score could have
been got had not time urgently pressed. He returned from London
a man of mark, full of confidence; but his cough was worse again. His confidence in the power of public opinion
and the inherent virtue of justice might have proved to be
well placed, had not the Home Secretary happened to be one of your
humane officials. The Marquis of Welwyn was celebrated through every
stratum of the governing classes for his humane instincts,
which were continually fighting against his sense of duty. Unfortunately
his sense of duty, which he had inherited from several
centuries of ancestors, made havoc among his humane instincts on nearly
every occasion of conflict. It was reported that he suffered
horribly in consequence. Others also suffered, for he
was never known to advise a remission of a sentence of flogging.
Certain capital sentences he had commuted, but he did not
commute Daniel Povey’s. He could not permit himself to be influenced
by a wave of popular sentiment, and assuredly not by his own nephew’s
signature. He gave to the case the patient, remorseless
examination which he gave to every case. He spent a sleepless night
in trying to discover a reason for yielding to his humane
instincts, but without success. As Judge Lindley remarked
in his confidential report, the sole arguments in favour of Daniel
were provocation and his previous high character; and these
were no sort of an argument. The provocation was utterly inadequate,
and the previous high character was quite too ludicrously beside
the point. So once more the Marquis’s humane instincts were routed
and he suffered horribly. On the Sunday morning after the day on which
the Signal had printed the menu of Daniel Povey’s supreme
breakfast, and the exact length of the ‘drop’ which the executioner
had administered to him, Constance and Cyril stood together
at the window of the large bedroom. The boy was in his best clothes;
but Constance’s garments gave no sign of the Sabbath. She
wore a large apron over an old dress that was rather tight for her.
She was pale and looked ill. “Oh, mother!” Cyril exclaimed suddenly. “Listen!
I’m sure I can hear the band.” She checked him with a soundless movement
of her lips; and they both glanced anxiously at the silent bed,
Cyril with a gesture of apology for having forgotten that he must
make no noise. The strains of the band came from down King
Street, in the direction of St. Luke’s Church. The music
appeared to linger a long time in the distance, and then it approached,
growing louder, and the Bursley Town Silver Prize Band passed
under the window at the solemn pace of Handel’s “Dead March.”
The effect of that requiem, heavy with its own inherent beauty
and with the vast weight of harrowing tradition, was to wring
the tears from Constance’s eyes; they fell on her aproned
bosom, and she sank into a chair. And though, the cheeks of the
trumpeters were puffed out, and though the drummer had to protrude
his stomach and arch his spine backwards lest he should tumble
over his drum, there was majesty in the passage of the band. The boom
of the drum, desolating the interruptions of the melody,
made sick the heart, but with a lofty grief; and the dirge seemed
to be weaving a purple pall that covered every meanness. The bandsmen were not all in black, but they
all wore crape on their sleeves and their instruments were knotted
with crape. They carried in their hats a black-edged card.
Cyril held one of these cards in his hands. It ran thus: SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF DANIEL POVEY A TOWN
MORNING 8TH FEBRUARY 1888 “HE WAS MORE SINNED AGAINST THAN SINNING.” In the wake of the band came the aged Rector,
bare-headed, and wearing a surplice over his overcoat; his
thin white hair was disarranged by the breeze that played in the
chilly sunshine; his hands were folded on a gilt-edged book. A
curate, churchwardens, and sidesmen followed. And after these, tramping
through the dark mud in a procession that had apparently no
end, wound the unofficial male multitude, nearly all in mourning,
and all, save the more aristocratic, carrying the memorial
card in their hats. Loafers, women, and children had collected
on the drying pavements, and a window just opposite Constance
was ornamented with the entire family of the landlord of
the Sun Vaults. In the great bar of the Vaults a barman was craning
over the pitchpine screen that secured privacy to drinkers. The
procession continued without break, eternally rising over the verge
of King Street ‘bank,’ and eternally vanishing round the
corner into St. Luke’s Square; at intervals it was punctuated by
a clergyman, a Nonconformist minister, a town crier, a group
of foremen, or a few Rifle Volunteers. The watching crowd grew
as the procession lengthened. Then another band was heard, also
playing the march from Saul. The first band had now reached
the top of the Square, and was scarcely audible from King Street.
The reiterated glitter in the sun of memorial cards in hats gave
the fanciful illusion of an impossible whitish snake that was straggling
across the town. Three-quarters of an hour elapsed before the
tail of the snake came into view, and a rabble of unkempt boys
closed in upon it, filling the street, “I shall go to the drawing-room window, mother,”
said Cyril. She nodded. He crept out of the bedroom. St. Luke’s Square was a sea of hats and memorial
cards. Most of the occupiers of the Square had hung out flags
at half-mast, and a flag at half-mast was flying over the Town
Hall in the distance. Sightseers were at every window. The two bands
had united at the top of the Square; and behind them, on a North
Staffordshire Railway lorry, stood the white-clad Rector
and several black figures. The Rector was speaking; but only
those close to the lorry could hear his feeble treble voice. Such was the massive protest of Bursley against
what Bursley regarded as a callous injustice. The execution
of Daniel Povey had most genuinely excited the indignation of
the town. That execution was not only an injustice; it was an insult,
a humiliating snub. And the worst was that the rest of the country
had really discovered no sympathetic interest in the
affair. Certain London papers, indeed, in commenting casually on
the execution, had slurred the morals and manners of the Five
Towns, professing to regard the district as notoriously beyond
the realm of the Ten Commandments. This had helped to render furious
the townsmen. This, as much as anything, had encouraged
the spontaneous outburst of feeling which had culminated in a St. Luke’s
Square full of people with memorial cards in their hats.
The demonstration had scarcely been organized; it had somehow organized
itself, employing the places of worship and a few
clubs as centres of gathering. And it proved an immense success.
There were seven or eight thousand people in the Square, and the
pity was that England as a whole could not have had a glimpse of
the spectacle. Since the execution of the elephant, nothing had
so profoundly agitated Bursley. Constance, who left the bedroom momentarily
for the drawing-room, reflected that the death and
burial of Cyril’s honoured grandfather, though a resounding
event, had not caused one-tenth of the stir which she beheld. But
then John Baines had killed nobody. The Rector spoke too long; every one felt
that. But at length he finished. The bands performed the Doxology,
and the immense multitudes began to disperse by the eight
streets that radiate from the Square. At the same time one o’clock
struck, and the public-houses opened with their customary
admirable promptitude. Respectable persons, of course, ignored the
public-houses and hastened homewards to a delayed dinner. But
in a town of over thirty thousand souls there are sufficient
dregs to fill all the public-houses on an occasion of ceremonial
excitement. Constance saw the bar of the Vaults crammed with individuals
whose sense of decent fitness was imperfect. The barman and
the landlord and the principal members of the landlord’s family
were hard put to it to quench that funereal thirst. Constance, as
she ate a little meal in the bedroom, could not but witness the
orgy. A bandsman with his silver instrument was prominent at the
counter. At five minutes to three the Vaults spewed forth a
squirt of roysterers who walked on the pavement as on a tight-rope;
among them was the bandsman, his silver instrument only half
enveloped in its bag of green serge. He established an equilibrium
in the gutter. It would not have mattered so seriously if he had not
been a bandsman. The barman and the landlord pushed the ultimate
sot by force into the street and bolted the door (till six o’clock)
just as a policeman strolled along, the first policeman of the
day. It became known that similar scenes were enacting at the thresholds
of other inns. And the judicious were sad. VI When the altercation between the policeman
and the musician in the gutter was at its height, Samuel Povey became
restless; but since he had scarcely stirred through the performances
of the bands, it was probably not the cries of the drunkard
that had aroused him. He had shown very little interest in the preliminaries
of the great demonstration. The flame of his passion
for the case of Daniel Povey seemed to have shot up on the
day before the execution, and then to have expired. On that
day he went to Stafford in order, by permit of the prison
governor, to see his cousin for the last time. His condition then
was undoubtedly not far removed from monomania. ‘Unhinged’ was
the conventional expression which frequently rose in Constance’s
mind as a description of the mind of her husband; but
she fought it down; she would not have it; it was too crude–with
its associations. She would only admit that the case had ‘got
on’ his mind. A startling proof of this was that he actually
suggested taking Cyril with him to see the condemned man. He
wished Cyril to see Daniel; he said gravely that he thought Cyril
ought to see him. The proposal was monstrous, inexplicable–or
explicable only by the assumption that his mind, while not unhinged,
had temporarily lost its balance. Constance opposed an absolute
negative, and Samuel being in every way enfeebled, she overcame.
As for Cyril, he was divided between fear and curiosity.
On the whole, perhaps Cyril regretted that he would not be able
to say at school that he had had speech with the most celebrated killer
of the age on the day before his execution. Samuel returned hysterical from Stafford.
His account of the scene, which he gave in a very loud voice,
was a most absurd and yet pathetic recital, obviously distorted
by memory. When he came to the point of the entrance of Dick Povey,
who was still at the hospital, and who had been specially driven
to Stafford and carried into the prison, he wept without restraint.
His hysteria was painful in a very high degree. He went to bed–of his own accord, for his
cough had improved again. And on the following day, the day of
the execution, he remained in bed till the afternoon. In the
evening the Rector sent for him to the Rectory to discuss the proposed
demonstration. On the next day, Saturday, he said he should
not get up. Icy showers were sweeping the town, and his cough was
worse after the evening visit to the Rector. Constance had no apprehensions
about him. The most dangerous part of the winter was over,
and there was nothing now to force him into indiscretions. She said
to herself calmly that he should stay in bed as long as he liked,
that he could not have too much repose after the cruel fatigues,
physical and spiritual, which he had suffered. His cough
was short, but not as troublesome as in the past; his face flushed,
dusky, and settled in gloom; and he was slightly feverish, with
quick pulse and quick breathing–the symptoms of a renewed cold.
He passed a wakeful night, broken by brief dreams in which he
talked. At dawn he had some hot food, asked what day it was, frowned,
and seemed to doze off at once. At eleven o’clock he had refused
food. And he had intermittently dozed during the progress of
the demonstration and its orgiastic sequel. Constance had food ready for his waking, and
she approached the bed and leaned over him. The fever had increased
somewhat, the breathing was more rapid, and his lips were
covered with tiny purple pimples. He feebly shook his head,
with a disgusted air, at her mention of food. It was this obstinate
refusal of food which first alarmed her. A little uncomfortable
suspicion shot up in her: Surely there’s nothing the MATTER with
him? Something–impossible to say what–caused
her to bend still lower, and put her ear to his chest. She heard within
that mysterious box a rapid succession of thin, dry, crackling
sounds: sounds such as she would have produced by rubbing her hair
between her fingers close to her ear. The crepitation ceased,
then recommenced, and she perceived that it coincided with the intake
of his breath. He coughed; the sounds were intensified; a spasm
of pain ran over his face; and he put his damp hand to his side. “Pain in my side!” he whispered with difficulty. Constance stepped into the drawing-room, where
Cyril was sketching by the fire. “Cyril,” she said, “go across and ask Dr.
Harrop to come round at once. And if he isn’t in, then his new partner.” “Is it for father?” “Yes.” “What’s the matter?” “Now do as I say, please,” said Constance,
sharply, adding: “I don’t know what’s the matter. Perhaps nothing.
But I’m not satisfied.” The venerable Harrop pronounced the word ‘pneumonia.’
It was acute double pneumonia that Samuel had got. During
the three worst months of the year, he had escaped the fatal
perils which await a man with a flat chest and a chronic cough,
who ignores his condition and defies the weather. But a journey
of five hundred yards to the Rectory had been one journey
too many. The Rectory was so close to the shop that he had not troubled
to wrap himself up as for an excursion to Stafford. He survived
the crisis of the disease and then died of toxsemia, caused
by a heart that would not do its duty by the blood. A casual death,
scarce noticed in the reaction after the great febrile demonstration!
Besides, Samuel Povey never could impose himself on
the burgesses. He lacked individuality. He was little. I have
often laughed at Samuel Povey. But I liked and respected him.
He was a very honest man. I have always been glad to think that,
at the end of his life, destiny took hold of him and displayed,
to the observant, the vein of greatness which runs through every
soul without exception. He embraced a cause, lost it, and
died of it. CHAPTER VI THE WIDOW I Constance, alone in the parlour, stood expectant
by the set tea- table. She was not wearing weeds; her mother
and she, on the death of her father, had talked of the various disadvantages
of weeds; her mother had worn them unwillingly, and
only because a public opinion not sufficiently advanced had intimidated
her. Constance had said: “If ever I’m a widow I won’t wear
them,” positively, in the tone of youth; and Mrs. Baines had replied:
“I hope you won’t, my dear.” That was over twenty years ago,
but Constance perfectly remembered. And now, she was a widow! How
strange and how impressive was life! And she had kept her
word; not positively, not without hesitations; for though times
were changed, Bursley was still Bursley; but she had kept it. This was the first Monday after Samuel’s funeral.
Existence in the house had been resumed on the plane which
would henceforth be the normal plane. Constance had put on for tea
a dress of black silk with a jet brooch of her mother’s. Her hands,
just meticulously washed, had that feeling of being dirty which
comes from roughening of the epidermis caused by a day
spent in fingering stuffs. She had been ‘going through’ Samuel’s
things, and her own, and ranging all anew. It was astonishing how
little the man had collected, of ‘things,’ in the course of over
half a century. All his clothes were contained in two long drawers
and a short one. He had the least possible quantity of haberdashery
and linen, for he invariably took from the shop such articles
as he required, when he required them, and he would never preserve
what was done with. He possessed no jewellery save a set of gold
studs, a scarf-ring, and a wedding-ring; the wedding-ring was buried
with him. Once, when Constance had offered him her father’s
gold watch and chain, he had politely refused it, saying that he
preferred his own–a silver watch (with a black cord) which kept
excellent time; he had said later that she might save the gold watch
and chain for Cyril when he was twenty-one. Beyond these trifles
and a half-empty box of cigars and a pair of spectacles, he left
nothing personal to himself. Some men leave behind them a litter
which takes months to sift and distribute. But Samuel had not the
mania for owning. Constance put his clothes in a box to be given
away gradually (all except an overcoat and handkerchiefs
which might do for Cyril); she locked up the watch and its black
cord, the spectacles and the scarf-ring; she gave the gold studs
to Cyril; she climbed on a chair and hid the cigar-box on the top
of her wardrobe; and scarce a trace of Samuel remained! By his own wish the funeral had been as simple
and private as possible. One or two distant relations, whom
Constance scarcely knew and who would probably not visit her
again until she too was dead, came–and went. And lo! the affair was
over. The simple celerity of the funeral would have satisfied
even Samuel, whose tremendous self-esteem hid itself so effectually
behind such externals that nobody had ever fully perceived
it. Not even Constance quite knew Samuel’s secret opinion
of Samuel. Constance was aware that he had a ridiculous side, that
his greatest lack had been a lack of spectacular dignity. Even
in the coffin, where nevertheless most people are finally effective,
he had not been imposing–with his finicky little grey beard
persistently sticking up. The vision of him in his coffin–there in
the churchyard, just at the end of King Street!–with the lid screwed
down on that unimportant beard, recurred frequently in
the mind of the widow, as something untrue and misleading. She had
to say to herself: “Yes, he is really there! And that is why
I have this particular feeling in my heart.” She saw him as an object
pathetic and wistful, not majestic. And yet she genuinely
thought that there could not exist another husband quite so honest,
quite so just, quite so reliable, quite so good, as Samuel
had been. What a conscience he had! How he would try, and try,
to be fair with her! Twenty years she could remember, of ceaseless,
constant endeavour on his part to behave rightly to her! She
could recall many an occasion when he had obviously checked himself,
striving against his tendency to cold abruptness and to sullenness,
in order to give her the respect due to a wife. What loyalty
was his! How she could depend on him! How much better he was
than herself (she thought with modesty)! His death was an amputation for her. But she
faced it with calmness. She was not bowed with sorrow. She
did not nurse the idea that her life was at an end; on the contrary,
she obstinately put it away from her, dwelling on Cyril. She
did not indulge in the enervating voluptuousness of grief. She
had begun in the first hours of bereavement by picturing herself
as one marked out for the blows of fate. She had lost her father
and her mother, and now her husband. Her career seemed to be punctuated
by interments. But after a while her gentle commonsense came
to insist that most human beings lose their parents, and that
every marriage must end in either a widower or a widow, and that all
careers are punctuated by interments. Had she not had
nearly twenty-one years of happy married life? (Twenty-one years–rolled
up! The sudden thought of their naive ignorance of life,
hers and his, when they were first married, brought tears into her
eyes. How wise and experienced she was now!) And had she not
Cyril? Compared to many women, she was indeed very fortunate. The one visitation which had been specially
hers was the disappearance of Sophia. And yet even that
was not worse than the death outright of Sophia, was perhaps not
so bad. For Sophia might return out of the darkness. The blow of Sophia’s
flight had seemed unique when it was fresh, and long afterwards;
had seemed to separate the Baines family from all other
families in a particular shame. But at the age of forty-three Constance
had learnt that such events are not uncommon in families,
and strange sequels to them not unknown. Thinking often of Sophia,
she hoped wildly and frequently. She looked at the clock; she had a little
spasm of nervousness lest Cyril might fail to keep his word on
that first day of their new regular life together. And at the instant
he burst into the room, invading it like an armed force, having
previously laid waste the shop in his passage. “I’m not late, mother! I’m not late!” he cried
proudly. She smiled warmly, happy in him, drawing out
of him balm and solace. He did not know that in that stout
familiar body before him was a sensitive, trembling soul that clutched
at him ecstatically as the one reality in the universe.
He did not know that that evening meal, partaken of without
hurry after school had released him to her, was to be the ceremonial
sign of their intimate unity and their interdependence,
a tender and delicious proof that they were ‘all in all to each other’:
he saw only his tea, for which he was hungry–just as hungry
as though his father were not scarcely yet cold in the grave. But he saw obscurely that the occasion demanded
something not quite ordinary, and so exerted himself to
be boyishly charming to his mother. She said to herself ‘how good
he was.’ He felt at ease and confident in the future, because he detected
beneath her customary judicial, impartial mask a clear
desire to spoil him. After tea, she regretfully left him, at his
home-lessons, in order to go into the shop. The shop was the great
unsolved question. What was she to do with the shop? Was she
to continue the business or to sell it? With the fortunes of her father
and her aunt, and the economies of twenty years, she had more
than sufficient means. She was indeed rich, according to the standards
of the Square; nay, wealthy! Therefore she was under no material
compulsion to keep the shop. Moreover, to keep it would
mean personal superintendence and the burden of responsibility,
from which her calm lethargy shrank. On the other hand, to
dispose of the business would mean the breaking of ties and
leaving the premises: and from this also she shrank. Young Lawton,
without being asked, had advised her to sell. But she did not want
to sell. She wanted the impossible: that matters should proceed
in the future as in the past, that Samuel’s death should change
nothing save in her heart. In the meantime Miss Insull was priceless.
Constance thoroughly understood one side of the shop; but Miss
Insull understood both, and the finance of it also. Miss Insull could
have directed the establishment with credit, if not with brilliance.
She was indeed directing it at that moment. Constance, however,
felt jealous of Miss Insull; she was conscious of a slight
antipathy towards the faithful one. She did not care to be in the
hands of Miss Insull. There were one or two customers at the millinery
counter. They greeted her with a deplorable copiousness
of tact. Most tactfully they avoided any reference to Constance’s
loss; but by their tone, their glances, at Constance and at each other,
and their heroically restrained sighs, they spread desolation
as though they had been spreading ashes instead of butter
on bread. The assistants, too, had a special demeanour for
the poor lone widow which was excessively trying to her. She wished
to be natural, and she would have succeeded, had they not all
of them apparently conspired together to make her task impossible. She moved away to the other side of the shop,
to Samuel’s desk, at which he used to stand, staring absently out
of the little window into King Street while murmurously casting
figures. She lighted the gas-jet there, arranged the light exactly
to suit her, and then lifted the large flap of the desk and
drew forth some account books. “Miss Insull!” she called, in a low, clear
voice, with a touch of haughtiness and a touch of command in it.
The pose, a comical contradiction of Constance’s benevolent character,
was deliberately adopted; it illustrated the effects
of jealousy on even the softest disposition. Miss Insull responded. She had no alternative
but to respond. And she gave no sign of resenting her employer’s
attitude. But then Miss Insull seldom did give any sign of being
human. The customers departed, one after another,
obsequiously sped by the assistants, who thereupon lowered the
gases somewhat, according to secular rule; and in the dim
eclipse, as they restored boxes to shelves, they could hear
the tranquil, regular, half-whispered conversation of the two women
at the desk, discussing accounts; and then the chink of
gold. Suddenly there was an irruption. One of the
assistants sprang instinctively to the gas; but on perceiving
that the disturber of peace was only a slatternly girl, hatless
and imperfectly clean, she decided to leave the gas as it was, and
put on a condescending, suspicious demeanour. “If you please, can I speak to the missis?”
said the girl, breathlessly. She seemed to be about eighteen years of age,
fat and plain. Her blue frock was torn, and over it she wore
a rough brown apron, caught up at one corner to the waist. Her
bare forearms were of brick-red colour. “What is it?” demanded the assistant. Miss Insull looked over her shoulder across
the shop. “It must be Maggie’s–Mrs. Hollins’s daughter!” said Miss
Insull under her breath. “What can she want?” said Constance, leaving
the desk instantly; and to the girl, who stood sturdily holding
her own against the group of assistants: “You are Mrs. Hollins’s
daughter, aren’t you?” “Yes, mum.” “What’s your name?” “Maggie, mum. And, if you please, mother’s
sent me to ask if you’ll kindly give her a funeral card.” “A funeral card?” “Yes. Of Mr. Povey. She’s been expecting of
one, and she thought as how perhaps you’d forgotten it, especially
as she wasn’t asked to the funeral.” The girl stopped. Constance perceived that by mere negligence
she had seriously wounded the feelings of Maggie, senior. The
truth was, she had never thought of Maggie. She ought to have
remembered that funeral cards were almost the sole ornamentation of
Maggie’s abominable cottage. “Certainly,” she replied after a pause. “Miss
Insull, there are a few cards left in the desk, aren’t there?
Please put me one in an envelope for Mrs. Hollins.” She gave the heavily bordered envelope to
the ruddy wench, who enfolded it in her apron, and with hurried,
shy thanks ran off. “Tell your mother I send her a card with pleasure,”
Constance called after the girl. The strangeness of the hazards of life made
her thoughtful. She, to whom Maggie had always seemed an old woman,
was a widow, but Maggie’s husband survived as a lusty invalid.
And she guessed that Maggie, vilely struggling in squalor and poverty,
was somehow happy in her frowsy, careless way. She went back to the accounts, dreaming. II When the shop had been closed, under her own
critical and precise superintendence, she extinguished the last
gas in it and returned to the parlour, wondering where she might
discover some entirely reliable man or boy to deal with the shutters
night and morning. Samuel had ordinarily dealt with the shutters
himself, and on extraordinary occasions and during holidays
Miss Insull and one of her subordinates had struggled with their
unwieldiness. But the extraordinary occasion had now become ordinary,
and Miss Insull could not be expected to continue indefinitely
in the functions of a male. Constance had a mind to engage an
errand-boy, a luxury against which Samuel had always set his face.
She did not dream of asking the herculean Cyril to open and shut
shop. He had apparently finished his home-lessons.
The books were pushed aside, and he was sketching in lead-pencil
on a drawing-block. To the right of the fireplace, over the sofa,
there hung an engraving after Landseer, showing a lonely stag paddling
into a lake. The stag at eve had drunk or was about to drink
his fill, and Cyril was copying him. He had already indicated
a flight of birds in the middle distance; vague birds on the wing being
easier than detailed stags, he had begun with the birds. Constance put a hand on his shoulder. “Finished
your lessons?” she murmured caressingly. Before speaking, Cyril gazed up at the picture
with a frowning, busy expression, and then replied in an absent-minded
voice: “Yes.” And after a pause: “Except my arithmetic.
I shall do that in the morning before breakfast.” “Oh, Cyril!” she protested. It had been a positive ordinance, for a long
time past, that there should be no sketching until lessons were
done. In his father’s lifetime Cyril had never dared to break it. He bent over his block, feigning an intense
absorption. Constance’s hand slipped from his shoulder.
She wanted to command him formally to resume his lessons. But she
could not. She feared an argument; she mistrusted herself. And,
moreover, it was so soon after his father’s death! “You know you won’t have time to-morrow morning!”
she said weakly. “Oh, mother!” he retorted superiorly. “Don’t
worry.” And then, in a cajoling tone: “I’ve wanted to do that stag
for ages.” She sighed and sat down in her rocking-chair.
He went on sketching, rubbing out, and making queer expostulatory
noises against his pencil, or against the difficulties
needlessly invented by Sir Edwin Landseer. Once he rose
and changed the position of the gas-bracket, staring fiercely
at the engraving as though it had committed a sin. Amy came to lay the supper. He did not acknowledge
that she existed. “Now, Master Cyril, after you with that table,
if you please!” She announced herself brusquely, with the privilege
of an old servant and a woman who would never see thirty again. “What a nuisance you are, Amy!” he gruffly
answered. “Look here, mother, can’t Amy lay the cloth on that half
of the table? I’m right in the middle of my drawing. There’s
plenty of room there for two.” He seemed not to be aware that, in the phrase
‘plenty of room for two,’ he had made a callous reference to their
loss. The fact was, there WAS plenty of room for two. Constance said quickly: “Very well, Amy. For
this once.” Amy grunted, but obeyed. Constance had to summon him twice from art
to nourishment. He ate with rapidity, frequently regarding the picture
with half-shut, searching eyes. When he had finished, he refilled
his glass with water, and put it next to his sketching-block. “You surely aren’t thinking of beginning to
paint at this time of night!” Constance exclaimed, astonished. “Oh YES, mother!” he fretfully appealed. “It’s
not late.” Another positive ordinance of his father’s
had been that there should be nothing after supper except bed.
Nine o’clock was the latest permissible moment for going to bed.
It was now less than a quarter to. “It only wants twelve minutes to nine,” Constance
pointed out. “Well, what if it does?” “Now, Cyril,” she said, “I do hope you are
going to be a good boy, and not cause your mother anxiety.” But she said it too kindly. He said sullenly: “I do think you might let
me finish it. I’ve begun it. It won’t take me long.” She made the mistake of leaving the main point.
“How can you possibly choose your colours properly by gas-light?”
she said. “I’m going to do it in sepia,” he replied
in triumph. “It mustn’t occur again,” she said. He thanked God for a good supper, and sprang
to the harmonium, where his paint-box was. Amy cleared away.
Constance did crochet- work. There was silence. The clock struck
nine, and it also struck half-past nine. She warned him repeatedly.
At ten minutes to ten she said persuasively: “Now, Cyril, when the clock strikes ten I
shall really put the gas out.” The clock struck ten. “Half a mo, half a mo!” he cried. “I’ve done!
I’ve done!” Her hand was arrested. Another four minutes elapsed, and then he
jumped up. “There you are!” he said proudly, showing her the block.
And all his gestures were full of grace and cajolery. “Yes, it’s very good,” Constance said, rather
indifferently. “I don’t believe you care for it!” he accused
her, but with a bright smile. “I care for your health,” she said. “Just
look at that clock!” He sat down in the other rocking-chair, deliberately. “Now, Cyril!” “Well, mother, I suppose you’ll let me take
my boots off!” He said it with teasing good-humour. When he kissed her good night, she wanted
to cling to him, so affectionate was his kiss; but she could not
throw off the habits of restraint which she had been originally
taught and had all her life practised. She keenly regretted the inability. In her bedroom, alone, she listened to his
movements as he undressed. The door between the two rooms
was unlatched. She had to control a desire to open it ever so little
and peep at him. He would not have liked that. He could have enriched
her heart beyond all hope, and at no cost to himself; but he
did not know his power. As she could not cling to him with
her hands, she clung to him with that heart of hers, while moving
sedately up and down the room, alone. And her eyes saw him through
the solid wood of the door. At last she got heavily into bed. She
thought with placid anxiety, in the dark: “I shall have to be
firm with Cyril.” And she thought also, simultaneously: “He really
must be a good boy. He MUST.” And clung to him passionately, without
shame! Lying alone there in the dark, she could be as unrestrained
and girlish as her heart chose. When she loosed her hold
she instantly saw the boy’s father arranged in his coffin, or flitting
about the room. Then she would hug that vision too, for the
pleasure of the pain it gave her. III She was reassured as to Cyril during the next
few days. He did not attempt to repeat his ingenious naughtiness
of the Monday evening, and he came directly home for tea; moreover
he had, as a kind of miracle performed to dazzle her, actually
arisen early on the Tuesday morning and done his arithmetic. To
express her satisfaction she had manufactured a specially
elaborate straw- frame for the sketch after Sir Edwin Landseer,
and had hung it in her bedroom: an honour which Cyril appreciated.
She was as happy as a woman suffering from a recent amputation
can be; and compared with the long nightmare created by Samuel’s
monomania and illness, her existence seemed to be now a beneficent
calm. Cyril, she thought, had realized the importance
in her eyes of tea, of that evening hour and that companionship
which were for her the flowering of the day. And she had
such confidence in his goodness that she would pour the boiling water
on the Horniman tea-leaves even before he arrived: certainty
could not be more sure. And then, on the Friday of the first
week, he was late! He bounded in, after dark, and the state of his
clothes indicated too clearly that he had been playing football
in the mud that was a grassy field in summer. “Have you been kept in, my boy?” she asked,
for the sake of form. “No, mother,” he said casually. “We were just
kicking the ball about a bit. Am I late?” “Better go and tidy yourself,” she said, not
replying to his question. “You can’t sit down in that state.
And I’ll have some fresh tea made. This is spoilt.” “Oh, very well!” Her sacred tea–the institution which she
wanted to hallow by long habit, and which was to count before everything
with both of them –had been carelessly sacrificed to the kicking
of a football in mud! And his father buried not ten days! She
was wounded: a deep, clean, dangerous wound that would not bleed.
She tried to be glad that he had not lied; he might easily have
lied, saying that he had been detained for a fault and could not
help being late. No! He was not given to lying; he would lie, like
any human being, when a great occasion demanded such prudence,
but he was not a liar; he might fairly be called a truthful
boy. She tried to be glad, and did not succeed. She would have
preferred him to have lied. Amy, grumbling, had to boil more water. When he returned to the parlour, superficially
cleaned, Constance expected him to apologize in his roundabout
boyish way; at any rate to woo and wheedle her, to show by some
gesture that he was conscious of having put an affront on her.
But his attitude was quite otherwise. His attitude was rather brusque
and overbearing and noisy. He ate a very considerable amount
of jam, far too quickly, and then asked for more, in a tone
of a monarch who calls for his own. And ere tea was finished he said
boldly, apropos of nothing: “I say, mother, you’ll just have to let me
go to the School of Art after Easter.” And stared at her with a fixed challenge in
his eyes. He meant, by the School of Art, the evening
classes at the School of Art. His father had decided absolutely
against the project. His father had said that it would interfere with
his lessons, would keep him up too late at night, and involve
absence from home in the evening. The last had always been the
real objection. His father had not been able to believe that Cyril’s
desire to study art sprang purely from his love of art; he
could not avoid suspecting that it was a plan to obtain freedom
in the evenings– that freedom which Samuel had invariably forbidden.
In all Cyril’s suggestions Samuel had been ready to detect
the same scheme lurking. He had finally said that when Cyril
left school and took to a vocation, then he could study art at
night if he chose, but not before. “You know what your father said!” Constance
replied. “But, mother! That’s all very well! I’m sure
father would have agreed. If I’m going to take up drawing I
ought to do it at once. That’s what the drawing-master says, and I
suppose he ought to know.” He finished on a tone of insolence. “I can’t allow you to do it yet,” said Constance,
quietly. “It’s quite out of the question. Quite!” He pouted and then he sulked. It was war between
them. At times he was the image of his Aunt Sophia. He would
not leave the subject alone; but he would not listen to Constance’s
reasoning. He openly accused her of harshness. He asked her how
she could expect him to get on if she thwarted him in his most earnest
desires. He pointed to other boys whose parents were wiser. “It’s all very fine of you to put it on father!”
he observed sarcastically. He gave up his drawing entirely. When she hinted that if he attended the School
of Art she would be condemned to solitary evenings, he looked
at her as though saying: “Well, and if you are–?” He seemed to have
no heart. After several weeks of intense unhappiness
she said: “How many evenings do you want to go?” The war was over. He was charming again. When she was alone
she could cling to him again. And she said to herself: “If we can
be happy together only when I give way to him, I must give way to
him.” And there was ecstasy in her yielding. “After all,” she
said to herself, “perhaps it’s very important that he should
go to the School of Art.” She solaced herself with such thoughts
on three solitary evenings a week, waiting for him to come home. CHAPTER VII BRICKS AND MORTAR I In the summer of that year the occurrence
of a white rash of posters on hoardings and on certain houses
and shops, was symptomatic of organic change in the town.
The posters were iterations of a mysterious announcement and
summons, which began with the august words: “By Order of the Trustees
of the late William Clews Mericarp, Esq.” Mericarp had
been a considerable owner of property in Bursley. After a prolonged
residence at Southport, he had died, at the age of eighty-two,
leaving his property behind. For sixty years he had been
a name, not a figure; and the news of his death, which was assuredly
an event, incited the burgesses to gossip, for they had come
to regard him as one of the invisible immortals. Constance was shocked,
though she had never seen Mericarp. (“Everybody dies nowadays!”
she thought.) He owned the Baines-Povey shop, and also Mr.
Critchlow’s shop. Constance knew not how often her father and,
later, her husband, had renewed the lease of those premises that
were now hers; but from her earliest recollections rose a vague
memory of her father talking to her mother about ‘Mericarp’s rent,’
which was and always had been a hundred a year. Mericarp
had earned the reputation of being ‘a good landlord.’ Constance
said sadly: “We shall never have another as good!” When a
lawyer’s clerk called and asked her to permit the exhibition of
a poster in each of her shop-windows, she had misgivings for the future;
she was worried; she decided that she would determine the lease
next year, so as to be on the safe side; but immediately afterwards
she decided that she could decide nothing. The posters continued: “To be sold by auction,
at the Tiger Hotel at six-thirty for seven o’clock precisely.”
What six-thirty had to do with seven o’clock precisely no one knew.
Then, after stating the name and credentials of the auctioneer,
the posters at length arrived at the objects to be sold: “All those
freehold messuages and shops and copyhold tenements namely.”
Houses were never sold by auction in Bursley. At moments of auction
burgesses were reminded that the erections they lived in
were not houses, as they had falsely supposed, but messuages. Having
got as far as ‘namely’ the posters ruled a line and began afresh:
“Lot I. All that extensive and commodious shop and messuage
with the offices and appurtenances thereto belonging situate and
being No. 4 St. Luke’s Square in the parish of Bursley in the County
of Stafford and at present in the occupation of Mrs. Constance
Povey widow under a lease expiring in September 1889.” Thus clearly
asserting that all Constance’s shop was for sale, its whole entirety,
and not a fraction or slice of it merely, the posters
proceeded: “Lot 2. All that extensive and commodious shop and messuage
with the offices and appurtenances thereto belonging situate
and being No. 3 St. Luke’s Square in the parish of Bursley in
the County of Stafford and at present in the occupation of Charles
Critchlow chemist under an agreement for a yearly tenancy.”
The catalogue ran to fourteen lots. The posters, lest any one should
foolishly imagine that a non-legal intellect could have achieved
such explicit and comprehensive clarity of statement, were signed
by a powerful firm of solicitors in Hanbridge. Happily in the
Five Towns there were no metaphysicians; otherwise the firm might
have been expected to explain, in the ‘further particulars and conditions’
which the posters promised, how even a messuage could
‘be’ the thing at which it was ‘situate.’ Within a few hours of the outbreak of the
rash, Mr. Critchlow abruptly presented himself before Constance
at the millinery counter; he was waving a poster. “Well!” he exclaimed grimly. “What next, eh?” “Yes, indeed!” Constance responded. “Are ye thinking o’ buying?” he asked. All
the assistants, including Miss Insull, were in hearing, but
he ignored their presence. “Buying!” repeated Constance. “Not me! I’ve
got quite enough house property as it is.” Like all owners of real property, she usually
adopted towards her possessions an attitude implying that she
would be willing to pay somebody to take them from her. “Shall you?” she added, with Mr. Critchlow’s
own brusqueness. “Me! Buy property in St. Luke’s Square!” Mr.
Critchlow sneered. And then left the shop as suddenly as he had
entered it. The sneer at St. Luke’s Square was his characteristic
expression of an opinion which had been slowly forming
for some years. The Square was no longer what it had been, though
individual businesses might be as good as ever. For nearly
twelve months two shops had been to let in it. And once, bankruptcy
had stained its annals. The tradesmen had naturally searched
for a cause in every direction save the right one, the obvious
one; and naturally they had found a cause. According to the tradesmen,
the cause was ‘this football.’ The Bursley Football Club had recently
swollen into a genuine rival of the ancient supremacy of
the celebrated Knype Club. It had transformed itself into a limited
company, and rented a ground up the Moorthorne Road, and built
a grand stand. The Bursley F.C. had ‘tied’ with the Knype F.C.
on the Knype ground–a prodigious achievement, an achievement which
occupied a column of the Athletic News one Monday morning! But
were the tradesmen civically proud of this glory? No! They said
that ‘this football’ drew people out of the town on Saturday afternoons,
to the complete abolition of shopping. They said
also that people thought of nothing but ‘this football;’ and, nearly
in the same breath, that only roughs and good-for-nothings could
possibly be interested in such a barbarous game. And they
spoke of gate-money, gambling, and professionalism, and the end
of all true sport in England. In brief, something new had come
to the front and was submitting to the ordeal of the curse. The sale of the Mericarp estate had a particular
interest for respectable stake-in-the-town persons. It
would indicate to what extent, if at all, ‘this football’ was ruining
Bursley. Constance mentioned to Cyril that she fancied she might
like to go to the sale, and as it was dated for one of Cyril’s
off-nights Cyril said that he fancied he might like to go too. So
they went together; Samuel used to attend property sales, but
he had never taken his wife to one. Constance and Cyril arrived at
the Tiger shortly after seven o’clock, and were directed to
a room furnished and arranged as for a small public meeting of
philanthropists. A few gentlemen were already present, but not the
instigating trustees, solicitors, and auctioneers. It appeared that
‘six-thirty for seven o’clock precisely’ meant seven-fifteen.
Constance took a Windsor chair in the corner nearest the door,
and motioned Cyril to the next chair; they dared not speak; they
moved on tiptoe; Cyril inadvertently dragged his chair along
the floor, and produced a scrunching sound; he blushed, as
though he had desecrated a church, and his mother made a
gesture of horror. The remainder of the company glanced at the corner,
apparently pained by this negligence. Some of them greeted Constance,
but self- consciously, with a sort of shamed air; it
might have been that they had all nefariously gathered together
there for the committing of a crime. Fortunately Constance’s
widowhood had already lost its touching novelty, so that
the greetings, if self- conscious, were at any rate given without
unendurable commiseration and did not cause awkwardness. When the official world arrived, fussy, bustling,
bearing documents and a hammer, the general feeling
of guilty shame was intensified. Useless for the auctioneer to
try to dissipate the gloom by means of bright gestures and quick,
cheerful remarks to his supporters! Cyril had an idea that the
meeting would open with a hymn, until the apparition of a tapster
with wine showed him his error. The auctioneer very particularly enjoined
the tapster to see to it that no one lacked for his thirst,
and the tapster became self-consciously energetic. He began
by choosing Constance for service. In refusing wine, she blushed;
then the fellow offered a glass to Cyril, who went scarlet,
and mumbled ‘No’ with a lump in his throat; when the tapster’s back
was turned, he smiled sheepishly at his mother. The majority
of the company accepted and sipped. The auctioneer sipped
and loudly smacked, and said: “Ah!” Mr. Critchlow came in. And the auctioneer said again: “Ah! I’m always
glad when the tenants come. That’s always a good sign.” He glanced round for approval of this sentiment.
But everybody seemed too stiff to move. Even the auctioneer
was self-conscious. “Waiter! Offer wine to Mr. Critchlow!” he
exclaimed bullyingly, as if saying: “Man! what on earth are you thinking
of, to neglect Mr. Critchlow?” “Yes, sir; yes, sir,” said the waiter, who
was dispensing wine as fast as a waiter can. The auction commenced. Seizing the hammer, the auctioneer gave a
short biography of William Clews Mericarp, and, this pious duty
accomplished, called upon a solicitor to read the conditions of
sale. The solicitor complied and made a distressing exhibition
of self-consciousness. The conditions of sale were very lengthy,
and apparently composed in a foreign tongue; and the audience listened
to this elocution with a stoical pretence of breathless interest. Then the auctioneer put up all that extensive
and commodious messuage and shop situate and being No. 4,
St. Luke’s Square. Constance and Cyril moved their limbs surreptitiously,
as though being at last found out. The auctioneer referred
to John Baines and to Samuel Povey, with a sense of personal
loss, and then expressed his pleasure in the presence of
‘the ladies;’ he meant Constance, who once more had to blush. “Now, gentlemen,” said the auctioneer, “what
do you say for these famous premises? I think I do not exaggerate
when I use the word ‘famous.'” Some one said a thousand pounds, in the terrorized
voice of a delinquent. “A thousand pounds,” repeated the auctioneer,
paused, sipped, and smacked. “Guineas,” said another voice self-accused
of iniquity. “A thousand and fifty,” said the auctioneer. Then there was a long interval, an interval
that tightened the nerves of the assembly. “Now, ladies and gentlemen,” the auctioneer
adjured. The first voice said sulkily: “Eleven hundred.” And thus the bids rose to fifteen hundred,
lifted bit by bit, as it were, by the magnetic force of the auctioneer’s
personality. The man was now standing up, in domination.
He bent down to the solicitor’s head; they whispered together. “Gentlemen,” said the auctioneer, “I am happy
to inform you that the sale is now open.” His tone translated
better than words his calm professional beatitude. Suddenly in a
voice of wrath he hissed at the waiter: “Waiter, why don’t you
serve these gentlemen?” “Yes, sir; yes, sir.” The auctioneer sat down and sipped at leisure,
chatting with his clerk and the solicitor and the solicitor’s
clerk. When he rose it was as a conqueror. “Gentlemen,
fifteen hundred is bid. Now, Mr. Critchlow.” Mr. Critchlow shook his head. The auctioneer
threw a courteous glance at Constance, who avoided it. After many adjurations, he reluctantly raised
his hammer, pretended to let it fall, and saved it several
times. And then Mr. Critchlow said: “And fifty.” “Fifteen hundred and fifty is bid,” the auctioneer
informed the company, electrifying the waiter once more.
And when he had sipped he said, with feigned sadness: “Come, gentlemen,
you surely don’t mean to let this magnificent lot go for fifteen
hundred and fifty pounds?” But they did mean that. The hammer fell, and the auctioneer’s clerk
and the solicitor’s clerk took Mr. Critchlow aside and wrote with
him. Nobody was surprised when Mr. Critchlow bought
Lot No. 2, his own shop. Constance whispered then to Cyril that she
wished to leave. They left, with unnatural precautions, but instantly
regained their natural demeanour in the dark street. “Well, I never! Well, I never!” she murmured
outside, astonished and disturbed. She hated the prospect of Mr. Critchlow as
a landlord. And yet she could not persuade herself to leave the place,
in spite of decisions. The sale demonstrated that football had not
entirely undermined the commercial basis of society in Bursley;
only two Lots had to be withdrawn. II On Thursday afternoon of the same week the
youth whom Constance had ended by hiring for the manipulation of
shutters and other jobs unsuitable for fragile women, was closing
the shop. The clock had struck two. All the shutters were up except
the last one, in the midst of the doorway. Miss Insull and
her mistress were walking about the darkened interior, putting
dust-sheets well over the edges of exposed goods; the other assistants
had just left. The bull-terrier had wandered into the shop
as he almost invariably did at closing time–for he slept
there, an efficient guard–and had lain down by the dying stove;
though not venerable, he was stiffening into age. “You can shut,” said Miss Insull to the youth. But as the final shutter was ascending to
its position, Mr. Critchlow appeared on the pavement. “Hold on, young fellow!” Mr. Critchlow commanded,
and stepped slowly, lifting up his long apron, over the
horizontal shutter on which the perpendicular shutters rested in
the doorway. “Shall you be long, Mr. Critchlow?” the youth
asked, posing the shutter. “Or am I to shut?” “Shut, lad,” said Mr. Critchlow, briefly.
“I’ll go out by th’ side door.” “Here’s Mr. Critchlow!” Miss Insull called
out to Constance, in a peculiar tone. And a flush, scarcely perceptible,
crept very slowly over her dark features. In the twilight
of the shop, lit only by a few starry holes in the shutters,
and by the small side- window, not the keenest eye could have detected
that flush. “Mr. Critchlow!” Constance murmured the exclamation.
She resented his future ownership of her shop. She thought
he was come to play the landlord, and she determined to let him
see that her mood was independent and free, that she would as lief
give up the business as keep it. In particular she meant to accuse
him of having deliberately deceived her as to his intentions
on his previous visit. “Well, missis!” the aged man greeted her.
“We’ve made it up between us. Happen some folk’ll think we’ve
taken our time, but I don’t know as that’s their affair.” His little blinking eyes had a red border.
The skin of his pale small face was wrinkled in millions of minute
creases. His arms and legs were marvellously thin and sharply
angular. The corners of his heliotrope lips were turned down, as
usual, in a mysterious comment on the world; and his smile, as he
fronted Constance with his excessive height, crowned the mystery. Constance stared, at a loss. It surely could
not after all be true, the substance of the rumours that had
floated like vapours in the Square for eight years and more! “What …?” she began. “Me, and her!” He jerked his head in the direction
of Miss Insull. The dog had leisurely strolled forward to
inspect the edges of the fiance’s trousers. Miss Insull summoned the
animal with a noise of fingers, and then bent down and caressed it.
A strange gesture proving the validity of Charles Critchlow’s
discovery that in Maria Insull a human being was buried! Miss Insull was, as near as any one could
guess, forty years of age. For twenty-five years she had served
in the shop, passing about twelve hours a day in the shop; attending
regularly at least three religious services at the Wesleyan Chapel
or School on Sundays, and sleeping with her mother, whom
she kept. She had never earned more than thirty shillings a
week, and yet her situation was considered to be exceptionally
good. In the eternal fusty dusk of the shop she had gradually lost
such sexual characteristics and charms as she had once
possessed. She was as thin and flat as Charles Critchlow himself.
It was as though her bosom had suffered from a prolonged drought
at a susceptible period of development, and had never recovered.
The one proof that blood ran in her veins was the pimply quality
of her ruined complexion, and the pimples of that brickish
expanse proved that the blood was thin and bad. Her hands and
feet were large and ungainly; the skin of the fingers was roughened
by coarse contacts to the texture of emery-paper. On six days
a week she wore black; on the seventh a kind of discreet half-mourning.
She was honest, capable, and industrious; and beyond the confines
of her occupation she had no curiosity, no intelligence,
no ideas. Superstitions and prejudices, deep and violent,
served her for ideas; but she could incomparably sell silks
and bonnets, braces and oilcloth; in widths, lengths, and prices
she never erred; she never annoyed a customer, nor foolishly promised
what could not be performed, nor was late nor negligent, nor
disrespectful. No one knew anything about her, because there was
nothing to know. Subtract the shop-assistant from her, and
naught remained. Benighted and spiritually dead, she existed
by habit. But for Charles Critchlow she happened to
be an illusion. He had cast eyes on her and had seen youth, innocence,
virginity. During eight years the moth Charles had flitted round
the lamp of her brilliance, and was now singed past escape.
He might treat her with what casualness he chose; he might ignore
her in public; he might talk brutally about women; he might
leave her to wonder dully what he meant, for months at a stretch:
but there emerged indisputable from the sum of his conduct the
fact that he wanted her. He desired her; she charmed him; she
was something ornamental and luxurious for which he was ready to pay–and
to commit follies. He had been a widower since before
she was born; to him she was a slip of a girl. All is relative
in this world. As for her, she was too indifferent to refuse him.
Why refuse him? Oysters do not refuse. “I’m sure I congratulate you both,” Constance
breathed, realizing the import of Mr. Critchlow’s laconic words.
“I’m sure I hope you’ll be happy.” “That’ll be all right,” said Mr. Critchlow. “Thank you, Mrs. Povey,” said Maria Insull. Nobody seemed to know what to say next. “It’s
rather sudden,” was on Constance’s tongue, but did not achieve
utterance, being patently absurd. “Ah!” exclaimed Mr. Critchlow, as though himself
contemplating anew the situation. Miss Insull gave the dog a final pat. “So that’s settled,” said Mr. Critchlow. “Now,
missis, ye want to give up this shop, don’t ye?” “I’m not so sure about that,” Constance answered
uneasily. “Don’t tell me!” he protested. “Of course
ye want to give up the shop.” “I’ve lived here all my life,” said Constance. “Ye’ve not lived in th’ shop all ye’re life.
I said th’ shop. Listen here!” he continued. “I’ve got a proposal
to make to you. You can keep on the house, and I’ll take the
shop off ye’re hands. Now?” He looked at her inquiringly. Constance was taken aback by the brusqueness
of the suggestion, which, moreover, she did not understand. “But how–” she faltered. “Come here,” said Mr. Critchlow, impatiently,
and he moved towards the house-door of the shop, behind the till. “Come where? What do you want?” Constance
demanded in a maze. “Here!” said Mr. Critchlow, with increasing
impatience. “Follow me, will ye?” Constance obeyed. Miss Insull sidled after
Constance, and the dog after Miss Insull. Mr. Critchlow went through
the doorway and down the corridor, past the cutting-out room to
his right. The corridor then turned at a right-angle to the left and
ended at the parlour door, the kitchen steps being to the left. Mr. Critchlow stopped short of the kitchen
steps, and extended his arms, touching the walls on either side. “Here!” he said, tapping the walls with his
bony knuckles. “Here! Suppose I brick ye this up, and th’ same upstairs
between th’ showroom and th’ bedroom passage, ye’ve got
your house to yourself. Ye say ye’ve lived here all your
life. Well, what’s to prevent ye finishing up here? The fact is,”
he added, “it would only be making into two houses again what
was two houses to start with, afore your time, missis.” “And what about the shop?” cried Constance. “Ye can sell us th’ stock at a valuation.” Constance suddenly comprehended the scheme.
Mr. Critchlow would remain the chemist, while Mrs. Critchlow became
the head of the chief drapery business in the town. Doubtless
they would knock a hole through the separating wall on the other
side, to balance the bricking-up on this side. They must have thought
it all out in detail. Constance revolted. “Yes!” she said, a little disdainfully. “And
my goodwill? Shall you take that at a valuation too?” Mr. Critchlow glanced at the creature for
whom he was ready to scatter thousands of pounds. She might have
been a Phryne and he the infatuated fool. He glanced at her as
if to say: “We expected this, and this is where we agreed it was to
stop.” “Ay!” he said to Constance. “Show me your
goodwill. Lap it up in a bit of paper and hand it over, and I’ll take
it at a valuation. But not afore, missis! Not afore! I’m making
ye a very good offer. Twenty pound a year, I’ll let ye th’ house
for. And take th’ stock at a valuation. Think it over, my lass.” Having said what he had to say, Charles Critchlow
departed, according to his custom. He unceremoniously
let himself out by the side door, and passed with wavy apron round
the corner of King Street into the Square and so to his own shop,
which ignored the Thursday half-holiday. Miss Insull left soon
afterwards. III Constance’s pride urged her to refuse the
offer. But in truth her sole objection to it was that she had not
thought of the scheme herself. For the scheme really reconciled
her wish to remain where she was with her wish to be free of the shop. “I shall make him put me in a new window in
the parlour–one that will open!” she said positively to Cyril,
who accepted Mr. Critchlow’s idea with fatalistic indifference. After stipulating for the new window, she
closed with the offer. Then there was the stock-taking, which endured
for weeks. And then a carpenter came and measured for the window.
And a builder and a mason came and inspected doorways, and Constance
felt that the end was upon her. She took up the carpet in the
parlour and protected the furniture by dustsheets. She and Cyril
lived between bare boards and dustsheets for twenty days, and
neither carpenter nor mason reappeared. Then one surprising day
the old window was removed by the carpenter’s two journeymen,
and late in the afternoon the carpenter brought the new window,
and the three men worked till ten o’clock at night, fixing it.
Cyril wore his cap and went to bed in his cap, and Constance
wore a Paisley shawl. A painter had bound himself beyond all possibility
of failure to paint the window on the morrow. He was to
begin at six a.m.; and Amy’s alarm-clock was altered so that she
might be up and dressed to admit him. He came a week later, administered
one coat, and vanished for another ten days. Then two masons
suddenly came with heavy tools, and were shocked to find that
all was not prepared for them. (After three carpetless weeks Constance
had relaid her floors.) They tore off wall-paper, sent cascades
of plaster down the kitchen steps, withdrew alternate courses
of bricks from the walls, and, sated with destruction, hastened
away. After four days new red bricks began to arrive, carried by
a quite guiltless hodman who had not visited the house before.
The hodman met the full storm of Constance’s wrath. It was not
a vicious wrath, rather a good-humoured wrath; but it impressed
the hodman. “My house hasn’t been fit to live in for a month,”
she said in fine. “If these walls aren’t built to-morrow, upstairs
AND down–to- morrow, mind!–don’t let any of you dare to
show your noses here again, for I won’t have you. Now you’ve brought
your bricks. Off with you, and tell your master what I say!” It was effective. The next day subdued and
plausible workmen of all sorts awoke the house with knocking at
six-thirty precisely, and the two doorways were slowly bricked up.
The curious thing was that, when the barrier was already a foot
high on the ground-floor Constance remembered small possessions of
her own which she had omitted to remove from the cutting-out room.
Picking up her skirts, she stepped over into the region that
was no more hers, and stepped back with the goods. She had a
bandanna round her head to keep the thick dust out of her hair. She
was very busy, very preoccupied with nothings. She had no time
for sentimentalities. Yet when the men arrived at the topmost course
and were at last hidden behind their own erection, and she
could see only rough bricks and mortar, she was disconcertingly
overtaken by a misty blindness and could not even see bricks and
mortar. Cyril found her, with her absurd bandanna, weeping in
a sheet-covered rocking- chair in the sacked parlour. He whistled uneasily,
remarked: “I say, mother, what about tea?” and then, hearing
the heavy voices of workmen above, ran with relief upstairs.
Tea had been set in the drawing-room, he was glad to learn that
from Amy, who informed him also that she should ‘never get used to
them there new walls,’ not as long as she lived. He went to the School of Art that night. Constance,
alone, could find nothing to do. She had willed that the
walls should be built, and they had been built; but days must elapse
before they could be plastered, and after the plaster still more
days before the papering. Not for another month, perhaps,
would her house be free of workmen and ripe for her own labours. She
could only sit in the dust-drifts and contemplate the havoc of change,
and keep her eyes as dry as she could. The legal transactions
were all but complete; little bills announcing the transfer of the
business lay on the counters in the shop at the disposal of customers.
In two days Charles Critchlow would pay the price of a
desire realized. The sign was painted out and new letters sketched
thereon in chalk. In future she would be compelled, if she wished
to enter the shop, to enter it as a customer and from the front.
Yes, she saw that, though the house remained hers, the root of
her life had been wrenched up. And the mess! It seemed inconceivable that
the material mess could ever be straightened away! Yet, ere the fields of the county were first
covered with snow that season, only one sign survived of the
devastating revolution, and that was a loose sheet of wall-paper that
had been too soon pasted on to new plaster and would not stick.
Maria Insull was Maria Critchlow. Constance had been out into
the Square and seen the altered sign, and seen Mrs. Critchlow’s
taste in window- curtains, and seen–most impressive sight
of all–that the grimy window of the abandoned room at the top of
the abandoned staircase next to the bedroom of her girlhood, had been
cleaned and a table put in front of it. She knew that the chamber,
which she herself had never entered, was to be employed as a
storeroom, but the visible proof of its conversion so strangely
affected her that she had not felt able to go boldly into the shop,
as she had meant to do, and make a few purchases in the way of
friendliness. “I’m a silly woman!” she muttered. Later, she did
venture, timidly abrupt, into the shop, and was received with
fitting state by Mrs. Critchlow (as desiccated as ever), who insisted
on allowing her the special trade discount. And she carried
her little friendly purchases round to her own door in King Street.
Trivial, trivial event! Constance, not knowing whether to laugh
or cry, did both. She accused herself of developing a hysterical
faculty in tears, and strove sagely against it. CHAPTER VIII THE PROUDEST MOTHER I In the year 1893 there was a new and strange
man living at No. 4, St. Luke’s Square. Many people remarked on
the phenomenon. Very few of his like had ever been seen in Bursley
before. One of the striking things about him was the complex
way in which he secured himself by means of glittering chains. A chain
stretched across his waistcoat, passing through a special button-hole,
without a button, in the middle. To this cable were
firmly linked a watch at one end and a pencil-case at the other; the
chain also served as a protection against a thief who might attempt
to snatch the fancy waistcoat entire. Then there were longer chains,
beneath the waistcoat, partly designed, no doubt, to deflect
bullets, but serving mainly to enable the owner to haul
up penknives, cigarette-cases, match-boxes, and key-rings
from the profundities of hip-pockets. An essential portion of the
man’s braces, visible sometimes when he played at tennis, consisted
of chain, and the upper and nether halves of his cuff-links
were connected by chains. Occasionally he was to be seen chained
to a dog. A reversion, conceivably, to a mediaeval type!
Yes, but also the exemplar of the excessively modern! Externally
he was a consequence of the fact that, years previously,
the leading tailor in Bursley had permitted his son to be apprenticed
in London. The father died; the son had the wit to return
and make a fortune while creating a new type in the town, a type
of which multiple chains were but one feature, and that the
least expensive if the most salient. For instance, up to the historic
year in which the young tailor created the type, any cap was
a cap in Bursley, and any collar was a collar. But thenceforward
no cap was a cap, and no collar was a collar, which did not exactly
conform in shape and material to certain sacred caps and collars
guarded by the young tailor in his back shop. None knew why these
sacred caps and collars were sacred, but they were; their
sacredness endured for about six months, and then suddenly–again
none knew why–they fell from their estate and became lower than
offal for dogs, and were supplanted on the altar. The type brought
into existence by the young tailor was to be recognized by its
caps and collars, and in a similar manner by every other article
of attire, except its boots. Unfortunately the tailor did not sell
boots, and so imposed on his creatures no mystical creed as to boots.
This was a pity, for the boot-makers of the town happened not
to be inflamed by the type-creating passion as the tailor was, and
thus the new type finished abruptly at the edges of the tailor’s
trousers. The man at No. 4, St. Luke’s Square had comparatively
small and narrow feet, which gave him an advantage;
and as he was endowed with a certain vague general physical distinction
he managed, despite the eternal untidiness of his hair,
to be eminent among the type. Assuredly the frequent sight of
him in her house flattered the pride of Constance’s eye, which
rested on him almost always with pleasure. He had come into the
house with startling abruptness soon after Cyril left school and
was indentured to the head-designer at “Peel’s,” that classic earthenware
manufactory. The presence of a man in her abode disconcerted
Constance at the beginning; but she soon grew accustomed to
it, perceiving that a man would behave as a man, and must be expected
to do so. This man, in truth, did what he liked in all things.
Cyril having always been regarded by both his parents as
enormous, one would have anticipated a giant in the new man; but,
queerly, he was slim, and little above the average height.
Neither in enormity nor in many other particulars did he resemble
the Cyril whom he had supplanted. His gestures were lighter and
quicker; he had nothing of Cyril’s ungainliness; he had not Cyril’s
limitless taste for sweets, nor Cyril’s terrific hatred of gloves,
barbers, and soap. He was much more dreamy than Cyril, and much
busier. In fact, Constance only saw him at meal-times. He was
at Peel’s in the day and at the School of Art every night. He would
dream during a meal, even; and, without actually saying so,
he gave the impression that he was the busiest man in
Bursley, wrapped in occupations and preoccupations as in a blanket–a
blanket which Constance had difficulty in penetrating. Constance wanted to please him; she lived
for nothing but to please him; he was, however, exceedingly difficult
to please, not in the least because he was hypercritical
and exacting, but because he was indifferent. Constance, in
order to satisfy her desire of pleasing, had to make fifty efforts,
in the hope that he might chance to notice one. He was a good
man, amazingly industrious–when once Constance had got him
out of bed in the morning; with no vices; kind, save when Constance
mistakenly tried to thwart him; charming, with a curious strain
of humour that Constance only half understood. Constance
was unquestionably vain about him, and she could honestly find in
him little to blame. But whereas he was the whole of her universe,
she was merely a dim figure in the background of his. Every now
and then, with his gentle, elegant raillery, he would apparently
rediscover her, as though saying: “Ah! You’re still there, are
you?” Constance could not meet him on the plane where his interests
lay, and he never knew the passionate intensity of her absorption
in that minor part of his life which moved on her plane. He never
worried about her solitude, or guessed that in throwing her
a smile and a word at supper he was paying her meagrely for three
hours of lone rocking in a rocking-chair. The worst of it was that she was quite incurable.
No experience would suffice to cure her trick of continually
expecting him to notice things which he never did notice. One
day he said, in the midst of a silence: “By the way, didn’t father
leave any boxes of cigars?” She had the steps up into her bedroom
and reached down from the dusty top of the wardrobe the box
which she had put there after Samuel’s funeral. In handing him the
box she was doing a great deed. His age was nineteen and she was
ratifying his precocious habit of smoking by this solemn
gift. He entirely ignored the box for several days. She said
timidly: “Have you tried those cigars?” “Not yet,” he replied.
“I’ll try ’em one of these days.” Ten days later, on a Sunday when
he chanced not to have gone out with his aristocratic friend
Matthew Peel- Swynnerton, he did at length open the box
and take out a cigar. “Now,” he observed roguishly, cutting the
cigar, “we shall see, Mrs. Plover!” He often called her Mrs. Plover,
for fun. Though she liked him to be sufficiently interested in
her to tease her, she did not like being called Mrs. Plover, and
she never failed to say: “I’m not Mrs. Plover.” He smoked the
cigar slowly, in the rocking-chair, throwing his head back and
sending clouds to the ceiling. And afterwards he remarked: “The
old man’s cigars weren’t so bad.” “Indeed!” she answered tartly, as
if maternally resenting this easy patronage. But in secret she was
delighted. There was something in her son’s favourable verdict
on her husband’s cigars that thrilled her. And she looked at him. Impossible to see in
him any resemblance to his father! Oh! He was a far more brilliant,
more advanced, more complicated, more seductive being than his
homely father! She wondered where he had come from. And yet …! If
his father had lived, what would have occurred between them?
Would the boy have been openly smoking cigars in the house at
nineteen? She laboriously interested herself, so far
as he would allow, in his artistic studies and productions. A back
attic on the second floor was now transformed into a studio–a
naked apartment which smelt of oil and of damp clay. Often there
were traces of clay on the stairs. For working in clay he demanded
of his mother a smock, and she made a smock, on the model of a genuine
smock which she obtained from a country-woman who sold eggs
and butter in the Covered Market. Into the shoulders of the
smock she put a week’s fancy-stitching, taking the pattern from an
old book of embroidery. One day when he had seen her stitching
morn, noon, and afternoon, at the smock, he said, as she rocked
idly after supper: “I suppose you haven’t forgotten all about
the smock I asked you for, have you, mater?” She knew that he was
teasing her; but, while perfectly realizing how foolish she
was, she nearly always acted as though his teasing was serious; she
picked up the smock again from the sofa. When the smock was finished
he examined it intently; then exclaimed with an air of surprise:
“By Jove! That’s beautiful! Where did you get this pattern?”
He continued to stare at it, smiling in pleasure. He turned over
the tattered leaves of the embroidery-book with the same naive, charmed
astonishment, and carried the book away to the studio. “I must
show that to Swynnerton,” he said. As for her, the epithet
‘beautiful’ seemed a strange epithet to apply to a mere piece of
honest stitchery done in a pattern, and a stitch with which she
had been familiar all her life. The fact was she understood his
‘art’ less and less. The sole wall decoration of his studio was a Japanese
print, which struck her as being entirely preposterous,
considered as a picture. She much preferred his own early
drawings of moss-roses and picturesque castles–things that he now
mercilessly contemned. Later, he discovered her cutting out another
smock. “What’s that for?” he inquired. “Well,” she said, “you
can’t manage with one smock. What shall you do when that one has
to go to the wash?” “Wash!” he repeated vaguely. “There’s no need
for it to go to the wash.” “Cyril,” she replied, “don’t try my
patience! I was thinking of making you half-a-dozen.” He whistled.
“With all that stitching?” he questioned, amazed at the undertaking.
“Why not?” she said. In her young days, no seamstress
ever made fewer than half-a-dozen of anything, and it was usually
a dozen; it was sometimes half-a-dozen dozen. “Well,” he murmured,
“you have got a nerve! I’ll say that.” Similar things happened
whenever he showed that he was pleased. If he said of a dish,
in the local tongue: “I could do a bit of that!” or if he simply smacked
his lips over it, she would surfeit him with that dish. II On a hot day in August, just before they were
to leave Bursley for a month in the Isle of Man, Cyril came home,
pale and perspiring, and dropped on to the sofa. He wore a grey
alpaca suit, and, except his hair, which in addition to being
very untidy was damp with sweat, he was a masterpiece of slim elegance,
despite the heat. He blew out great sighs, and rested
his head on the antimacassared arm of the sofa. “Well, mater,” he said, in a voice of factitious
calm, “I’ve got it.” He was looking up at the ceiling. “Got what?” “The National Scholarship. Swynnerton says
it’s a sheer fluke. But I’ve got it. Great glory for the Bursley School
of Art!” “National Scholarship?” she said. “What’s
that? What is it?” “Now, mother!” he admonished her, not without
testiness. “Don’t go and say I’ve never breathed a word about it!” He lit a cigarette, to cover his self-consciousness,
for he perceived that she was moved far beyond the
ordinary. Never, in fact, not even by the death of her
husband, had she received such a frightful blow as that which
the dreamy Cyril had just dealt her. It was not a complete surprise, but it was
nearly a complete surprise. A few months previously he certainly
had mentioned, in his incidental way, the subject of a National
Scholarship. Apropos of a drinking-cup which he had designed, he
had said that the director of the School of Art had suggested
that it was good enough to compete for the National, and that
as he was otherwise qualified for the competition he might as
well send the cup to South Kensington. He had added that Peel-Swynnerton
had laughed at the notion as absurd. On that occasion she
had comprehended that a National Scholarship involved residence in
London. She ought to have begun to live in fear, for Cyril had
a most disturbing habit of making a mere momentary reference to matters
which he deemed very important and which occupied a large
share of his attention. He was secretive by nature, and the rigidity
of his father’s rule had developed this trait in his character.
But really he had spoken of the competition with such an extreme
casualness that with little effort she had dismissed it from
her anxieties as involving a contingency so remote as to be
negligible. She had, genuinely, almost forgotten it. Only at rare
intervals had it wakened in her a dull transitory pain–like
the herald of a fatal malady. And, as a woman in the opening stage
of disease, she had hastily reassured herself: “How silly of me!
This can’t possibly be anything serious!” And now she was condemned. She knew it. She
knew there could be no appeal. She knew that she might as usefully
have besought mercy from a tiger as from her good, industrious,
dreamy son. “It means a pound a week,” said Cyril, his
self-consciousness intensified by her silence and by the dreadful
look on her face. “And of course free tuition.” “For how long?” she managed to say. “Well,” said he, “that depends. Nominally
for a year. But if you behave yourself it’s always continued for
three years.” If he stayed for three years he would never come
back: that was a certainty. How she rebelled, furious and despairing,
against the fortuitous cruelty of things! She was sure that he had
not, till then, thought seriously of going to London. But
the fact that the Government would admit him free to its classrooms
and give him a pound a week besides, somehow forced him to
go to London. It was not the lack of means that would have prevented
him from going. Why, then, should the presence of means induce
him to go? There was no logical reason. The whole affair was
disastrously absurd. The art-master at the Wedgwood Institution
had chanced, merely chanced, to suggest that the drinking-cup
should be sent to South Kensington. And the result of this caprice
was that she was sentenced to solitude for life! It was too
monstrously, too incredibly wicked! With what futile and bitter execration she
murmured in her heart the word ‘If.’ If Cyril’s childish predilections
had not been encouraged! If he had only been content to
follow his father’s trade! If she had flatly refused to sign his
indenture at Peel’s and pay the premium! If he had not turned
from, colour to clay! If the art-master had not had that fatal ‘idea’!
If the judges for the competition had decided otherwise! If
only she had brought Cyril up in habits of obedience, sacrificing
temporary peace to permanent security! For after all he could not abandon her without
her consent. He was not of age. And he would want a lot more money,
which he could obtain from none but her. She could refuse.
… No! She could not refuse. He was the master,
the tyrant. For the sake of daily pleasantness she had weakly
yielded to him at the start! She had behaved badly to herself and
to him. He was spoiled. She had spoiled him. And he was about
to repay her with lifelong misery, and nothing would deflect
him from his course. The usual conduct of the spoilt child! Had
she not witnessed it, and moralized upon it, in other families? “You don’t seem very chirpy over it, mater!”
he said. She went out of the room. His joy in the prospect
of departure from the Five Towns, from her, though he masked
it, was more manifest than she could bear. The Signal, the next day, made a special item
of the news. It appeared that no National Scholarship had
been won in the Five Towns for eleven years. The citizens were
exhorted to remember that Mr. Povey had gained his success in open
competition with the cleverest young students of the entire kingdom–and
in a branch of art which he had but recently taken up; and
further, that the Government offered only eight scholarships
each year. The name of Cyril Povey passed from lip to lip. And nobody
who met Constance, in street or shop, could refrain from informing
her that she ought to be a proud mother, to have such a son,
but that truly they were not surprised … and how proud his poor father
would have been! A few sympathetically hinted that maternal pride
was one of those luxuries that may cost too dear. III The holiday in the Isle of Man was of course
ruined for her. She could scarcely walk because of the weight
of a lump of lead that she carried in her bosom. On the brightest
days the lump of lead was always there. Besides, she was so obese.
In ordinary circumstances they might have stayed beyond
the month. An indentured pupil is not strapped to the wheel
like a common apprentice. Moreover, the indentures were
to be cancelled. But Constance did not care to stay. She had to
prepare for his departure to London. She had to lay the faggots
for her own martyrdom. In this business of preparation she showed
as much silliness, she betrayed as perfect a lack of perspective,
as the most superior son could desire for a topic of affectionate
irony. Her preoccupation with petty things of no importance
whatever was worthy of the finest traditions of fond motherhood.
However, Cyril’s careless satire had no effect on her,
save that once she got angry, thereby startling him; he quite
correctly and sagely laid this unprecedented outburst to the account
of her wrought nerves, and forgave it. Happily for the smoothness
of Cyril’s translation to London, young Peel-Swynnerton
was acquainted with the capital, had a brother in Chelsea, knew
of reputable lodgings, was, indeed, an encyclopaedia of the town,
and would himself spend a portion of the autumn there. Otherwise,
the preliminaries which his mother would have insisted on by means
of tears and hysteria might have proved fatiguing to Cyril. The day came when on that day week Cyril would
be gone. Constance steadily fabricated cheerfulness against the
prospect. She said: “Suppose I come with you?” He smiled in toleration of this joke as being
a passable quality of joke. And then she smiled in the same sense,
hastening to agree with him that as a joke it was not a bad joke. In the last week he was very loyal to his
tailor. Many a young man would have commanded new clothes after, not
before, his arrival in London. But Cyril had faith in his creator. On the day of departure the household, the
very house itself, was in a state of excitation. He was to leave
early. He would not listen to the project of her accompanying
him as far as Knype, where the Loop Line joined the main. She might
go to Bursley Station and no further. When she rebelled
he disclosed the merest hint of his sullen-churlish side, and she
at once yielded. During breakfast she did not cry, but the aspect
of her face made him protest. “Now, look here, mater! Just try to remember
that I shall be back for Christmas. It’s barely three months.”
And he lit a cigarette. She made no reply. Amy lugged a Gladstone bag down the crooked
stairs. A trunk was already close to the door; it had wrinkled
the carpet and deranged the mat. “You didn’t forget to put the hair-brush in,
did you, Amy?” he asked. “N–no, Mr. Cyril,” she blubbered. “Amy!” Constance sharply corrected her, as
Cyril ran upstairs, “I wonder you can’t control yourself better than
that.” Amy weakly apologized. Although treated almost
as one of the family, she ought not to have forgotten that
she was a servant. What right had she to weep over Cyril’s luggage?
This question was put to her in Constance’s tone. The cab came. Cyril tumbled downstairs with
exaggerated carelessness, and with exaggerated carelessness
he joked at the cabman. “Now, mother!” he cried, when the luggage
was stowed. “Do you want me to miss this train?” But he knew that the
margin of time was ample. It was his fun! “Nay, I can’t be hurried!” she said, fixing
her bonnet. “Amy, as soon as we are gone you can clear this table.” She climbed heavily into the cab. “That’s it! Smash the springs!” Cyril teased
her. The horse got a stinging cut to recall him
to the seriousness of life. It was a fine, bracing autumn morning,
and the driver felt the need of communicating his abundant energy
to some one or something. They drove off, Amy staring after
them from the door. Matters had been so marvellously well arranged
that they arrived at the station twenty minutes before the train
was due. “Never mind!” Cyril mockingly comforted his
mother. “You’d rather be twenty minutes too soon than one minute
too late, wouldn’t you?” His high spirits had to come out somehow. Gradually the minutes passed, and the empty
slate-tinted platform became dotted with people to whom that train
was nothing but a Loop Line train, people who took that train
every week-day of their lives and knew all its eccentricities. And they heard the train whistle as it started
from Turnhill. And Cyril had a final word with the porter who
was in charge of the luggage. He made a handsome figure, and he
had twenty pounds in his pocket. When he returned to Constance
she was sniffing, and through her veil he could see that her eyes
were circled with red. But through her veil she could see nothing.
The train rolled in, rattling to a standstill. Constance lifted
her veil and kissed him; and kissed her life out. He smelt the
odour of her crape. He was, for an instant, close to her, close;
and he seemed to have an overwhelmingly intimate glimpse into her secrets;
he seemed to be choked in the sudden strong emotion of that
crape. He felt queer. “Here you are, sir! Second smoker!” called
the porter. The daily frequenters of the train boarded
it with their customary disgust. “I’ll write as soon as ever I get there!”
said Cyril, of his own accord. It was the best he could muster. With what grace he raised his hat! A sliding-away; clouds of steam; and she shared
the dead platform with milk-cans, two porters, and Smith’s noisy
boy! She walked home, very slowly and painfully.
The lump of lead was heavier than ever before. And the townspeople
saw the proudest mother in Bursley walking home. “After all,” she argued with her soul angrily,
petulantly, “could you expect the boy to do anything else? He
is a serious student, he has had a brilliant success, and is he
to be tied to your apron-strings? The idea is preposterous. It
isn’t as if he was an idler, or a bad son. No mother could have
a better son. A nice thing, that he should stay all his life in
Bursley simply because you don’t like being left alone!” Unfortunately one might as well argue with
a mule as with one’s soul. Her soul only kept on saying monotonously:
“I’m a lonely old woman now. I’ve nothing to live for any more,
and I’m no use to anybody. Once I was young and proud. And this
is what my life has come to! This is the end!” When she reached home, Amy had not touched
the breakfast things; the carpet was still wrinkled, and the mat
still out of place. And, through the desolating atmosphere of
reaction after a terrific crisis, she marched directly upstairs,
entered his plundered room, and beheld the disorder of
the bed in which he had slept.

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