The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 2

The Tooth

i

The two girls came up the unlighted stone staircase which led from Maggie’s cave to the door of the parlour. Sophia, foremost, was carrying a large tray, and Constance a small one. Constance, who had nothing on her tray but a teapot, a bowl of steaming and balmy-scented mussels and cockles, and a plate of hot buttered toast, went directly into the parlour on the left. Sophia had in her arms the entire material and apparatus of a high tea for two, including eggs, jam, and toast (covered with the slop-basin turned upside down), but not including mussels and cockles. She turned to the right, passed along the corridor by the cutting-out room, up two steps into the sheeted and shuttered gloom of the closed shop, up the showroom stairs, through the showroom, and so into the bedroom corridor. Experience had proved it easier to make this long detour than to round the difficult corner of the parlour stairs with a large loaded tray. Sophia knocked with the edge of the tray at the door of the principal bedroom. The muffled oratorical sound from within suddenly ceased, and the door was opened by a very tall, very thin, black-bearded man, who looked down at Sophia as if to demand what she meant by such an interruption.

“I’ve brought the tea, Mr. Critchlow,” said Sophia.

And Mr. Critchlow carefully accepted the tray.

“Is that my little Sophia?” asked a faint voice from the depths of the bedroom.

“Yes, father,” said Sophia.

But she did not attempt to enter the room. Mr. Critchlow put the tray on a white-clad chest of drawers near the door, and then he shut the door, with no ceremony. Mr. Critchlow was John Baines’s oldest and closest friend, though decidedly younger than the draper. He frequently “popped in” to have a word with the invalid; but Thursday afternoon was his special afternoon, consecrated by him to the service of the sick. From two o’clock precisely till eight o’clock precisely he took charge of John Baines, reigning autocratically over the bedroom. It was known that he would not tolerate invasions, nor even ambassadorial visits. No! He gave up his weekly holiday to this business of friendship, and he must be allowed to conduct the business in his own way. Mrs. Baines herself avoided disturbing Mr. Critchlow’s ministrations on her husband. She was glad to do so; for Mr. Baines was never to be left alone under any circumstances, and the convenience of being able to rely upon the presence of a staid member of the Pharmaceutical Society for six hours of a given day every week outweighed the slight affront to her prerogatives as wife and house-mistress. Mr. Critchlow was an extremely peculiar man, but when he was in the bedroom she could leave the house with an easy mind. Moreover, John Baines enjoyed these Thursday afternoons. For him, there was ‘none like Charles Critchlow.’ The two old friends experienced a sort of grim, desiccated happiness, cooped up together in the bedroom, secure from women and fools generally. How they spent the time did not seem to be certainly known, but the impression was that politics occupied them. Undoubtedly Mr. Critchlow was an extremely peculiar man. He was a man of habits. He must always have the same things for his tea. Black-currant jam, for instance. (He called it “preserve.”) The idea of offering Mr. Critchlow a tea which did not comprise black-currant jam was inconceivable by the intelligence of St. Luke’s Square. Thus for years past, in the fruit-preserving season, when all the house and all the shop smelt richly of fruit boiling in sugar, Mrs. Baines had filled an extra number of jars with black-currant jam, ‘because Mr. Critchlow wouldn’t TOUCH any other sort.’

So Sophia, faced with the shut door of the bedroom, went down to the parlour by the shorter route. She knew that on going up again, after tea, she would find the devastated tray on the doormat.

Constance was helping Mr. Povey to mussels and cockles. And Mr. Povey still wore one of the antimacassars. It must have stuck to his shoulders when he sprang up from the sofa, woollen antimacassars being notoriously parasitic things. Sophia sat down, somewhat self-consciously. The serious Constance was also perturbed. Mr. Povey did not usually take tea in the house on Thursday afternoons; his practice was to go out into the great, mysterious world. Never before had he shared a meal with the girls alone. The situation was indubitably unexpected, unforeseen; it was, too, piquant, and what added to its piquancy was the fact that Constance and Sophia were, somehow, responsible for Mr. Povey. They felt that they were responsible for him. They had offered the practical sympathy of two intelligent and well-trained young women, born nurses by reason of their sex, and Mr. Povey had accepted; he was now on their hands. Sophia’s monstrous, sly operation in Mr. Povey’s mouth did not cause either of them much alarm, Constance having apparently recovered from the first shock of it. They had discussed it in the kitchen while preparing the teas; Constance’s extraordinarily severe and dictatorial tone in condemning it had led to a certain heat. But the success of the impudent wrench justified it despite any irrefutable argument to the contrary. Mr. Povey was better already, and he evidently remained in ignorance of his loss.

“Have some?” Constance asked of Sophia, with a large spoon hovering over the bowl of shells.

“Yes, PLEASE,” said Sophia, positively.

Constance well knew that she would have some, and had only asked from sheer nervousness.

“Pass your plate, then.”

Now when everybody was served with mussels, cockles, tea, and toast, and Mr. Povey had been persuaded to cut the crust off his toast, and Constance had, quite unnecessarily, warned Sophia against the deadly green stuff in the mussels, and Constance had further pointed out that the evenings were getting longer, and Mr. Povey had agreed that they were, there remained nothing to say. An irksome silence fell on them all, and no one could lift it off. Tiny clashes of shell and crockery sounded with the terrible clearness of noises heard in the night. Each person avoided the eyes of the others. And both Constance and Sophia kept straightening their bodies at intervals, and expanding their chests, and then looking at their plates; occasionally a prim cough was discharged. It was a sad example of the difference between young women’s dreams of social brilliance and the reality of life. These girls got more and more girlish, until, from being women at the administering of laudanum, they sank back to about eight years of age — perfect children — at the tea-table.

The tension was snapped by Mr. Povey. “My God!” he muttered, moved by a startling discovery to this impious and disgraceful oath (he, the pattern and exemplar — and in the presence of innocent girlhood too!). “I’ve swallowed it!”

“Swallowed what, Mr. Povey?” Constance inquired.

The tip of Mr. Povey’s tongue made a careful voyage of inspection all round the right side of his mouth.

“Oh yes!” he said, as if solemnly accepting the inevitable. “I’ve swallowed it!”

Sophia’s face was now scarlet; she seemed to be looking for some place to hide it. Constance could not think of anything to say.

“That tooth has been loose for two years,” said Mr. Povey, “and now I’ve swallowed it with a mussel.”

“Oh, Mr. Povey!” Constance cried in confusion, and added, “There’s one good thing, it can’t hurt you any more now.”

“Oh!” said Mr. Povey. “It wasn’t THAT tooth that was hurting me. It’s an old stump at the back that’s upset me so this last day or two. I wish it had been.”

Sophia had her teacup close to her red face. At these words of Mr. Povey her cheeks seemed to fill out like plump apples. She dashed the cup into its saucer, spilling tea recklessly, and then ran from the room with stifled snorts.

“Sophia!” Constance protested.

“I must just —” Sophia incoherently spluttered in the doorway. “I shall be all right. Don’t ——”

Constance, who had risen, sat down again.

ii

Sophia fled along the passage leading to the shop and took refuge in the cutting-out room, a room which the astonishing architect had devised upon what must have been a backyard of one of the three constituent houses. It was lighted from its roof, and only a wooden partition, eight feet high, separated it from the passage. Here Sophia gave rein to her feelings; she laughed and cried together, weeping generously into her handkerchief and wildly giggling, in a hysteria which she could not control. The spectacle of Mr. Povey mourning for a tooth which he thought he had swallowed, but which in fact lay all the time in her pocket, seemed to her to be by far the most ridiculous, side-splitting thing that had ever happened or could happen on earth. It utterly overcame her. And when she fancied that she had exhausted and conquered its surpassing ridiculousness, this ridiculousness seized her again and rolled her anew in depths of mad, trembling laughter.

Gradually she grew calmer. She heard the parlour door open, and Constance descend the kitchen steps with a rattling tray of tea-things. Tea, then, was finished, without her! Constance did not remain in the kitchen, because the cups and saucers were left for Maggie to wash up as a fitting coda to Maggie’s monthly holiday. The parlour door closed. And the vision of Mr. Povey in his antimacassar swept Sophia off into another convulsion of laughter and tears. Upon this the parlour door opened again, and Sophia choked herself into silence while Constance hastened along the passage. In a minute Constance returned with her woolwork, which she had got from the showroom, and the parlour received her. Not the least curiosity on the part of Constance as to what had become of Sophia!

At length Sophia, a faint meditative smile being all that was left of the storm in her, ascended slowly to the showroom, through the shop. Nothing there of interest! Thence she wandered towards the drawing-room, and encountered Mr. Critchlow’s tray on the mat. She picked it up and carried it by way of the showroom and shop down to the kitchen, where she dreamily munched two pieces of toast that had cooled to the consistency of leather. She mounted the stone steps and listened at the door of the parlour. No sound! This seclusion of Mr. Povey and Constance was really very strange. She roved right round the house, and descended creepingly by the twisted house-stairs, and listened intently at the other door of the parlour. She now detected a faint regular snore. Mr. Povey, a prey to laudanum and mussels, was sleeping while Constance worked at her fire-screen! It was now in the highest degree odd, this seclusion of Mr. Povey and Constance; unlike anything in Sophia’s experience! She wanted to go into the parlour, but she could not bring herself to do so. She crept away again, forlorn and puzzled, and next discovered herself in the bedroom which she shared with Constance at the top of the house; she lay down in the dusk on the bed and began to read “The Days of Bruce;” but she read only with her eyes.

Later, she heard movements on the house-stairs, and the familiar whining creak of the door at the foot thereof. She skipped lightly to the door of the bedroom.

“Good-night, Mr. Povey. I hope you’ll be able to sleep.”

Constance’s voice!

“It will probably come on again.”

Mr. Povey’s voice, pessimistic!

Then the shutting of doors. It was almost dark. She went back to the bed, expecting a visit from Constance. But a clock struck eight, and all the various phenomena connected with the departure of Mr. Critchlow occurred one after another. At the same time Maggie came home from the land of romance. Then long silences! Constance was now immured with her father, it being her “turn” to nurse; Maggie was washing up in her cave, and Mr. Povey was lost to sight in his bedroom. Then Sophia heard her mother’s lively, commanding knock on the King Street door. Dusk had definitely yielded to black night in the bedroom. Sophia dozed and dreamed. When she awoke, her ear caught the sound of knocking. She jumped up, tiptoed to the landing, and looked over the balustrade, whence she had a view of all the first-floor corridor. The gas had been lighted; through the round aperture at the top of the porcelain globe she could see the wavering flame. It was her mother, still bonneted, who was knocking at the door of Mr. Povey’s room. Constance stood in the doorway of her parents’ room. Mrs. Baines knocked twice with an interval, and then said to Constance, in a resonant whisper that vibrated up the corridor ——

“He seems to be fast asleep. I’d better not disturb him.”

“But suppose he wants something in the night?”

“Well, child, I should hear him moving. Sleep’s the best thing for him.”

Mrs. Baines left Mr. Povey to the effects of laudanum, and came along the corridor. She was a stout woman, all black stuff and gold chain, and her skirt more than filled the width of the corridor. Sophia watched her habitual heavy mounting gesture as she climbed the two steps that gave variety to the corridor. At the gas-jet she paused, and, putting her hand to the tap, gazed up into the globe.

“Where’s Sophia?” she demanded, her eyes fixed on the gas as she lowered the flame.

“I think she must be in bed, mother,” said Constance, nonchalantly.

The returned mistress was point by point resuming knowledge and control of that complicated machine — her household.

Then Constance and her mother disappeared into the bedroom, and the door was shut with a gentle, decisive bang that to the silent watcher on the floor above seemed to create a special excluding intimacy round about the figures of Constance and her father and mother. The watcher wondered, with a little prick of jealousy, what they would be discussing in the large bedroom, her father’s beard wagging feebly and his long arms on the counterpane, Constance perched at the foot of the bed, and her mother walking to and fro, putting her cameo brooch on the dressing-table or stretching creases out of her gloves. Certainly, in some subtle way, Constance had a standing with her parents which was more confidential than Sophia’s.

iii

When Constance came to bed, half an hour later, Sophia was already in bed. The room was fairly spacious. It had been the girls’ retreat and fortress since their earliest years. Its features seemed to them as natural and unalterable as the features of a cave to a cave-dweller. It had been repapered twice in their lives, and each papering stood out in their memories like an epoch; a third epoch was due to the replacing of a drugget by a resplendent old carpet degraded from the drawing-room. There was only one bed, the bedstead being of painted iron; they never interfered with each other in that bed, sleeping with a detachment as perfect as if they had slept on opposite sides of St. Luke’s Square; yet if Constance had one night lain down on the half near the window instead of on the half near the door, the secret nature of the universe would have seemed to be altered. The small fire-grate was filled with a mass of shavings of silver paper; now the rare illnesses which they had suffered were recalled chiefly as periods when that silver paper was crammed into a large slipper-case which hung by the mantelpiece, and a fire of coals unnaturally reigned in its place — the silver paper was part of the order of the world. The sash of the window would not work quite properly, owing to a slight subsidence in the wall, and even when the window was fastened there was always a narrow slit to the left hand between the window and its frame; through this slit came draughts, and thus very keen frosts were remembered by the nights when Mrs. Baines caused the sash to be forced and kept at its full height by means of wedges — the slit of exposure was part of the order of the world.

They possessed only one bed, one washstand, and one dressing-table; but in some other respects they were rather fortunate girls, for they had two mahogany wardrobes; this mutual independence as regards wardrobes was due partly to Mrs. Baines’s strong commonsense, and partly to their father’s tendency to spoil them a little. They had, moreover, a chest of drawers with a curved front, of which structure Constance occupied two short drawers and one long one, and Sophia two long drawers. On it stood two fancy work-boxes, in which each sister kept jewellery, a savings-bank book, and other treasures, and these boxes were absolutely sacred to their respective owners. They were different, but one was not more magnificent than the other. Indeed, a rigid equality was the rule in the chamber, the single exception being that behind the door were three hooks, of which Constance commanded two.

“Well,” Sophia began, when Constance appeared. “How’s darling Mr. Povey?” She was lying on her back, and smiling at her two hands, which she held up in front of her.

“Asleep,” said Constance. “At least mother thinks so. She says sleep is the best thing for him.”

“‘It will probably come on again,’” said Sophia.

“What’s that you say?” Constance asked, undressing.

“‘It will probably come on again.’”

These words were a quotation from the utterances of darling Mr. Povey on the stairs, and Sophia delivered them with an exact imitation of Mr. Povey’s vocal mannerism.

“Sophia,” said Constance, firmly, approaching the bed, “I wish you wouldn’t be so silly!” She had benevolently ignored the satirical note in Sophia’s first remark, but a strong instinct in her rose up and objected to further derision. “Surely you’ve done enough for one day!” she added.

For answer Sophia exploded into violent laughter, which she made no attempt to control. She laughed too long and too freely while Constance stared at her.

I don’t know what’s come over you!” said Constance.

“It’s only because I can’t look at it without simply going off into fits!” Sophia gasped out. And she held up a tiny object in her left hand.

Constance started, flushing. “You don’t mean to say you’ve kept it!” she protested earnestly. “How horrid you are, Sophia! Give it me at once and let me throw it away. I never heard of such doings. Now give it me!”

“No,” Sophia objected, still laughing. “I wouldn’t part with it for worlds. It’s too lovely.”

She had laughed away all her secret resentment against Constance for having ignored her during the whole evening and for being on such intimate terms with their parents. And she was ready to be candidly jolly with Constance.

“Give it me,” said Constance, doggedly.

Sophia hid her hand under the clothes. “You can have his old stump, when it comes out, if you like. But not this. What a pity it’s the wrong one!”

“Sophia, I’m ashamed of you! Give it me.”

Then it was that Sophia first perceived Constance’s extreme seriousness. She was surprised and a little intimidated by it. For the expression of Constance’s face, usually so benign and calm, was harsh, almost fierce. However, Sophia had a great deal of what is called “spirit,” and not even ferocity on the face of mild Constance could intimidate her for more than a few seconds. Her gaiety expired and her teeth were hidden.

“I’ve said nothing to mother ——” Constance proceeded.

“I should hope you haven’t,” Sophia put in tersely.

“But I certainly shall if you don’t throw that away,” Constance finished.

“You can say what you like,” Sophia retorted, adding contemptuously a term of opprobrium which has long since passed out of use: “Cant!”

“Will you give it me or won’t you?”

“No!”

It was a battle suddenly engaged in the bedroom. The atmosphere had altered completely with the swiftness of magic. The beauty of Sophia, the angelic tenderness of Constance, and the youthful, naive, innocent charm of both of them, were transformed into something sinister and cruel. Sophia lay back on the pillow amid her dark-brown hair, and gazed with relentless defiance into the angry eyes of Constance, who stood threatening by the bed. They could hear the gas singing over the dressing-table, and their hearts beating the blood wildly in their veins. They ceased to be young without growing old; the eternal had leapt up in them from its sleep.

Constance walked away from the bed to the dressing-table and began to loose her hair and brush it, holding back her head, shaking it, and bending forward, in the changeless gesture of that rite. She was so disturbed that she had unconsciously reversed the customary order of the toilette. After a moment Sophia slipped out of bed and, stepping with her bare feet to the chest of drawers, opened her work-box and deposited the fragment of Mr. Povey therein; she dropped the lid with an uncompromising bang, as if to say, “We shall see if I am to be trod upon, miss!” Their eyes met again in the looking-glass. Then Sophia got back into bed.

Five minutes later, when her hair was quite finished, Constance knelt down and said her prayers. Having said her prayers, she went straight to Sophia’s work-box, opened it, seized the fragment of Mr. Povey, ran to the window, and frantically pushed the fragment through the slit into the Square.

“There!” she exclaimed nervously.

She had accomplished this inconceivable transgression of the code of honour, beyond all undoing, before Sophia could recover from the stupefaction of seeing her sacred work-box impudently violated. In a single moment one of Sophia’s chief ideals had been smashed utterly, and that by the sweetest, gentlest creature she had ever known. It was a revealing experience for Sophia — and also for Constance. And it frightened them equally. Sophia, staring at the text, “Thou God seest me,” framed in straw over the chest of drawers, did not stir. She was defeated, and so profoundly moved in her defeat that she did not even reflect upon the obvious inefficacy of illuminated texts as a deterrent from evil-doing. Not that she eared a fig for the fragment of Mr. Povey! It was the moral aspect of the affair, and the astounding, inexplicable development in Constance’s character, that staggered her into silent acceptance of the inevitable.

Constance, trembling, took pains to finish undressing with dignified deliberation. Sophia’s behaviour under the blow seemed too good to be true; but it gave her courage. At length she turned out the gas and lay down by Sophia. And there was a little shuffling, and then stillness for a while.

“And if you want to know,” said Constance in a tone that mingled amicableness with righteousness, “mother’s decided with Aunt Harriet that we are BOTH to leave school next term.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/old-wives-tale/book1.2.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31