The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 5

The Traveller

i

‘Equisite, 1s. 11d.’

These singular signs were being painted in shiny black on an unrectangular parallelogram of white cardboard by Constance one evening in the parlour. She was seated, with her left side to the fire and to the fizzing gas, at the dining-table, which was covered with a checked cloth in red and white. Her dress was of dark crimson; she wore a cameo brooch and a gold chain round her neck; over her shoulders was thrown a white knitted shawl, for the weather was extremely cold, the English climate being much more serious and downright at that day than it is now. She bent low to the task, holding her head slightly askew, putting the tip of her tongue between her lips, and expending all the energy of her soul and body in an intense effort to do what she was doing as well as it could be done.

“Splendid!” said Mr. Povey.

Mr. Povey was fronting her at the table; he had his elbows on the table, and watched her carefully, with the breathless and divine anxiety of a dreamer who is witnessing the realization of his dream. And Constance, without moving any part of her frame except her head, looked up at him and smiled for a moment, and he could see her delicious little nostrils at the end of her snub nose.

Those two, without knowing or guessing it, were making history — the history of commerce. They had no suspicion that they were the forces of the future insidiously at work to destroy what the forces of the past had created, but such was the case. They were conscious merely of a desire to do their duty in the shop and to the shop; probably it had not even occurred to them that this desire, which each stimulated in the breast of the other, had assumed the dimensions of a passion. It was ageing Mr. Povey, and it had made of Constance a young lady tremendously industrious and preoccupied.

Mr. Povey had recently been giving attention to the question of tickets. It is not too much to say that Mr. Povey, to whom heaven had granted a minimum share of imagination, had nevertheless discovered his little parcel of imagination in the recesses of being, and brought it effectively to bear on tickets. Tickets ran in conventional grooves. There were heavy oblong tickets for flannels, shirting, and other stuffs in the piece; there were smaller and lighter tickets for intermediate goods; and there were diamond-shaped tickets (containing nothing but the price) for bonnets, gloves, and flimflams generally. The legends on the tickets gave no sort of original invention. The words ‘lasting,’ ‘durable,’ ‘unshrinkable,’ ‘latest,’ ‘cheap,’ ‘stylish,’ ‘novelty,’ ‘choice’ (as an adjective), ‘new,’ and ‘tasteful,’ exhausted the entire vocabulary of tickets. Now Mr. Povey attached importance to tickets, and since he was acknowledged to be the best window-dresser in Bursley, his views were entitled to respect. He dreamed of other tickets, in original shapes, with original legends. In brief, he achieved, in regard to tickets, the rare feat of ridding himself of preconceived notions, and of approaching a subject with fresh, virginal eyes. When he indicated the nature of his wishes to Mr. Chawner, the wholesale stationer who supplied all the Five Towns with shop-tickets, Mr. Chawner grew uneasy and worried; Mr. Chawner was indeed shocked. For Mr. Chawner there had always been certain well-defined genera of tickets, and he could not conceive the existence of other genera. When Mr. Povey suggested circular tickets — tickets with a blue and a red line round them, tickets with legends such as ‘unsurpassable,’ ‘very dainty,’ or ‘please note,’ Mr. Chawner hummed and hawed, and finally stated that it would be impossible to manufacture these preposterous tickets, these tickets which would outrage the decency of trade.

If Mr. Povey had not happened to be an exceedingly obstinate man, he might have been defeated by the crass Toryism of Mr. Chawner. But Mr. Povey was obstinate, and he had resources of ingenuity which Mr. Chawner little suspected. The great, tramping march of progress was not to be impeded by Mr. Chawner. Mr. Povey began to make his own tickets. At first he suffered as all reformers and inventors suffer. He used the internal surface of collar-boxes and ordinary ink and pens, and the result was such as to give customers the idea that Baineses were too poor or too mean to buy tickets like other shops. For bought tickets had an ivory-tinted gloss, and the ink was black and glossy, and the edges were very straight and did not show yellow between two layers of white. Whereas Mr. Povey’s tickets were of a bluish-white, without gloss; the ink was neither black nor shiny, and the edges were amateurishly rough: the tickets had an unmistakable air of having been ‘made out of something else’; moreover, the lettering had not the free, dashing style of Mr. Chawner’s tickets.

And did Mrs. Baines encourage him in his single-minded enterprise on behalf of HER business? Not a bit! Mrs. Baines’s attitude, when not disdainful, was inimical! So curious is human nature, so blind is man to his own advantage! Life was very complex for Mr. Povey. It might have been less complex had Bristol board and Chinese ink been less expensive; with these materials he could have achieved marvels to silence all prejudice and stupidity; but they were too costly. Still, he persevered, and Constance morally supported him; he drew his inspiration and his courage from Constance. Instead of the internal surface of collar-boxes, he tried the external surface, which was at any rate shiny. But the ink would not ‘take’ on it. He made as many experiments as Edison was to make, and as many failures. Then Constance was visited by a notion for mixing sugar with ink. Simple, innocent creature — why should providence have chosen her to be the vessel of such a sublime notion? Puzzling enigma, which, however, did not exercise Mr. Povey! He found it quite natural that she should save him. Save him she did. Sugar and ink would ‘take’ on anything, and it shone like a ‘patent leather’ boot. Further, Constance developed a ‘hand’ for lettering which outdid Mr. Povey’s. Between them they manufactured tickets by the dozen and by the score — tickets which, while possessing nearly all the smartness and finish of Mr. Chawner’s tickets, were much superior to these in originality and strikingness. Constance and Mr. Povey were delighted and fascinated by them. As for Mrs. Baines, she said little, but the modern spirit was too elated by its success to care whether she said little or much. And every few days Mr. Povey thought of some new and wonderful word to put on a ticket.

His last miracle was the word ‘exquisite.’ ‘Exquisite,’ pinned on a piece of broad tartan ribbon, appeared to Constance and Mr. Povey as the finality of appropriateness. A climax worthy to close the year! Mr. Povey had cut the card and sketched the word and figures in pencil, and Constance was doing her executive portion of the undertaking. They were very happy, very absorbed, in this strictly business matter. The clock showed five minutes past ten. Stern duty, a pure desire for the prosperity of the shop, had kept them at hard labour since before eight o’clock that morning!

The stairs-door opened, and Mrs. Baines appeared, in bonnet and furs and gloves, all clad for going out. She had abandoned the cocoon of crape, but still wore weeds. She was stouter than ever.

“What!” she cried. “Not ready! Now really!”

“Oh, mother! How you made me jump!” Constance protested. “What time is it? It surely isn’t time to go yet!”

“Look at the clock!” said Mrs. Baines, drily.

“Well, I never!” Constance murmured, confused.

“Come, put your things together, and don’t keep me waiting,” said Mrs. Baines, going past the table to the window, and lifting the blind to peep out. “Still snowing,” she observed. “Oh, the band’s going away at last! I wonder how they can play at all in this weather. By the way, what was that tune they gave us just now? I couldn’t make out whether it was ‘Redhead,’ or —”

“Band?” questioned Constance — the simpleton!

Neither she nor Mr. Povey had heard the strains of the Bursley Town Silver Prize Band which had been enlivening the season according to its usual custom. These two practical, duteous, commonsense young and youngish persons had been so absorbed in their efforts for the welfare of the shop that they had positively not only forgotten the time, but had also failed to notice the band! But if Constance had had her wits about her she would at least have pretended that she had heard it.

“What’s this?” asked Mrs. Baines, bringing her vast form to the table and picking up a ticket.

Mr. Povey said nothing. Constance said: “Mr. Povey thought of it today. Don’t you think it’s very good, mother?”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” Mrs. Baines coldly replied.

She had mildly objected already to certain words; but ‘exquisite’ seemed to her silly; it seemed out of place; she considered that it would merely bring ridicule on her shop. ‘Exquisite’ written upon a window-ticket! No! What would John Baines have thought of ‘exquisite’?

“‘Exquisite!’” She repeated the word with a sarcastic inflection, putting the accent, as every one put it, on the second syllable. “I don’t think that will quite do.”

“But why not, mother?”

“It’s not suitable, my dear.”

She dropped the ticket from her gloved hand. Mr. Povey had darkly flashed. Though he spoke little, he was as sensitive as he was obstinate. On this occasion he said nothing. He expressed his feelings by seizing the ticket and throwing it into the fire.

The situation was extremely delicate. Priceless employes like Mr. Povey cannot be treated as machines, and Mrs. Baines of course instantly saw that tact was needed.

“Go along to my bedroom and get ready, my pet,” said she to Constance. “Sophia is there. There’s a good fire. I must just speak to Maggie.” She tactfully left the room.

Mr. Povey glanced at the fire and the curling red remains of the ticket. Trade was bad; owing to weather and war, destitution was abroad; and he had been doing his utmost for the welfare of the shop; and here was the reward!

Constance’s eyes were full of tears. “Never mind!” she murmured, and went upstairs.

It was all over in a moment.

ii

In the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on Duck Bank there was a full and influential congregation. For in those days influential people were not merely content to live in the town where their fathers had lived, without dreaming of country residences and smokeless air — they were content also to believe what their fathers had believed about the beginning and the end of all. There was no such thing as the unknowable in those days. The eternal mysteries were as simple as an addition sum; a child could tell you with absolute certainty where you would be and what you would be doing a million years hence, and exactly what God thought of you. Accordingly, every one being of the same mind, every one met on certain occasions in certain places in order to express the universal mind. And in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, for example, instead of a sparse handful of persons disturbingly conscious of being in a minority, as now, a magnificent and proud majority had collected, deeply aware of its rightness and its correctness.

And the minister, backed by minor ministers, knelt and covered his face in the superb mahogany rostrum; and behind him, in what was then still called the ‘orchestra’ (though no musical instruments except the grand organ had sounded in it for decades), the choir knelt and covered their faces; and all around in the richly painted gallery and on the ground-floor, multitudinous rows of people, in easy circumstances of body and soul, knelt in high pews and covered their faces. And there floated before them, in the intense and prolonged silence, the clear vision of Jehovah on a throne, a God of sixty or so with a moustache and a beard, and a non-committal expression which declined to say whether or not he would require more bloodshed; and this God, destitute of pinions, was surrounded by white-winged creatures that wafted themselves to and fro while chanting; and afar off was an obscene monstrosity, with cloven hoofs and a tail very dangerous and rude and interfering, who could exist comfortably in the middle of a coal-fire, and who took a malignant and exhaustless pleasure in coaxing you by false pretences into the same fire; but of course you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities. Once a year, for ten minutes by the clock, you knelt thus, in mass, and by meditation convinced yourself that you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities. And the hour was very solemn, the most solemn of all the hours.

Strange that immortal souls should be found with the temerity to reflect upon mundane affairs in that hour! Yet there were undoubtedly such in the congregation; there were perhaps many to whom the vision, if clear, was spasmodic and fleeting. And among them the inhabitants of the Baines family pew! Who would have supposed that Mr. Povey, a recent convert from Primitive Methodism in King Street to Wesleyan Methodism on Duck Bank, was dwelling upon window-tickets and the injustice of women, instead of upon his relations with Jehovah and the tailed one? Who would have supposed that the gentle-eyed Constance, pattern of daughters, was risking her eternal welfare by smiling at the tailed one, who, concealing his tail, had assumed the image of Mr. Povey? Who would have supposed that Mrs. Baines, instead of resolving that Jehovah and not the tailed one should have ultimate rule over her, was resolving that she and not Mr. Povey should have ultimate rule over her house and shop? It was a pew-ful that belied its highly satisfactory appearance. (And possibly there were other pew-fuls equally deceptive.)

Sophia alone, in the corner next to the wall, with her beautiful stern face pressed convulsively against her hands, was truly busy with immortal things. Turbulent heart, the violence of her spiritual life had made her older! Never was a passionate, proud girl in a harder case than Sophia! In the splendour of her remorse for a fatal forgetfulness, she had renounced that which she loved and thrown herself into that which she loathed. It was her nature so to do. She had done it haughtily, and not with kindness, but she had done it with the whole force of her will. Constance had been compelled to yield up to her the millinery department, for Sophia’s fingers had a gift of manipulating ribbons and feathers that was beyond Constance. Sophia had accomplished miracles in the millinery. Yes, and she would be utterly polite to customers; but afterwards, when the customers were gone, let mothers, sisters, and Mr. Poveys beware of her fiery darts!

But why, when nearly three months had elapsed after her father’s death, had she spent more and more time in the shop, secretly aflame with expectancy? Why, when one day a strange traveller entered the shop and announced himself the new representative of Birkinshaws — why had her very soul died away within her and an awful sickness seized her? She knew then that she had been her own deceiver. She recognized and admitted, abasing herself lower than the lowest, that her motive in leaving Miss Chetwynd’s and joining the shop had been, at the best, very mixed, very impure. Engaged at Miss Chetwynd’s, she might easily have never set eyes on Gerald Scales again. Employed in the shop, she could not fail to meet him. In this light was to be seen the true complexion of the splendour of her remorse. A terrible thought for her! And she could not dismiss it. It contaminated her existence, this thought! And she could confide in no one. She was incapable of showing a wound. Quarter had succeeded quarter, and Gerald Scales was no more heard of. She had sacrificed her life for worse than nothing. She had made her own tragedy. She had killed her father, cheated and shamed herself with a remorse horribly spurious, exchanged content for misery and pride for humiliation — and with it all, Gerald Scales had vanished! She was ruined.

She took to religion, and her conscientious Christian virtues, practised with stern inclemency, were the canker of the family. Thus a year and a half had passed.

And then, on this last day of the year, the second year of her shame and of her heart’s widowhood, Mr. Scales had reappeared. She had gone casually into the shop and found him talking to her mother and Mr. Povey. He had come back to the provincial round and to her. She shook his hand and fled, because she could not have stayed. None had noticed her agitation, for she had held her body as in a vice. She knew the reason neither of his absence nor of his return. She knew nothing. And not a word had been said at meals. And the day had gone and the night come; and now she was in chapel, with Constance by her side and Gerald Scales in her soul! Happy beyond previous conception of happiness! Wretched beyond an unutterable woe! And none knew! What was she to pray for? To what purpose and end ought she to steel herself? Ought she to hope, or ought she to despair? “O God, help me!” she kept whispering to Jehovah whenever the heavenly vision shone through the wrack of her meditation. “O God, help me!” She had a conscience that, when it was in the mood for severity, could be unspeakably cruel to her.

And whenever she looked, with dry, hot eyes, through her gloved fingers, she saw in front of her on the wall a marble tablet inscribed in gilt letters, the cenotaph! She knew all the lines by heart, in their spacious grandiloquence; lines such as:

EVER READY WITH HIS TONGUE HIS PEN AND HIS PURSE TO HELP THE CHURCH OF HIS FATHERS IN HER HE LIVED AND IN HER HE DIED CHERISHING A DEEP AND ARDENT AFFECTION FOR HIS BELOVED FAITH AND CREED.

And again:

HIS SYMPATHIES EXTENDED BEYOND HIS OWN COMMUNITY HE WAS ALWAYS TO THE FORE IN GOOD WORKS AND HE SERVED THE CIRCUIT THE TOWN AND THE DISTRICT WITH GREAT ACCEPTANCE AND USEFULNESS.

Thus had Mr. Critchlow’s vanity been duly appeased.

As the minutes sped in the breathing silence of the chapel the emotional tension grew tighter; worshippers sighed heavily, or called upon Jehovah for a sign, or merely coughed an invocation. And then at last the clock in the middle of the balcony gave forth the single stroke to which it was limited; the ministers rose, and the congregation after them; and everybody smiled as though it was the millennium, and not simply the new year, that had set in. Then, faintly, through walls and shut windows, came the sound of bells and of steam syrens and whistles. The superintendent minister opened his hymn-book, and the hymn was sung which had been sung in Wesleyan Chapels on New Year’s morn since the era of John Wesley himself. The organ finished with a clanguor of all its pipes; the minister had a few last words with Jehovah, and nothing was left to do except to persevere in well-doing. The people leaned towards each other across the high backs of the pews.

“A happy New Year!”

“Eh, thank ye! The same to you!”

“Another Watch Night service over!”

“Eh, yes!” And a sigh.

Then the aisles were suddenly crowded, and there was a good-humoured, optimistic pushing towards the door. In the Corinthian porch occurred a great putting-on of cloaks, ulsters, goloshes, and even pattens, and a great putting-up of umbrellas. And the congregation went out into the whirling snow, dividing into several black, silent-footed processions, down Trafalgar Road, up towards the playground, along the market-place, and across Duck Square in the direction of St. Luke’s Square.

Mr. Povey was between Mrs. Baines and Constance.

“You must take my arm, my pet,” said Mrs. Baines to Sophia.

Then Mr. Povey and Constance waded on in front through the drifts. Sophia balanced that enormous swaying mass, her mother. Owing to their hoops, she had much difficulty in keeping close to her. Mrs. Baines laughed with the complacent ease of obesity, yet a fall would have been almost irremediable for her; and so Sophia had to laugh too. But, though she laughed, God had not helped her. She did not know where she was going, nor what might happen to her next.

“Why, bless us!” exclaimed Mrs. Baines, as they turned the corner into King Street. “There’s some one sitting on our door-step!”

There was: a figure swathed in an ulster, a maud over the ulster, and a high hat on the top of all. It could not have been there very long, because it was only speckled with snow. Mr. Povey plunged forward.

“It’s Mr. Scales, of all people!” said Mr. Povey.

“Mr. Scales!” cried Mrs. Baines.

And, “Mr. Scales!” murmured Sophia, terribly afraid.

Perhaps she was afraid of miracles. Mr. Scales sitting on her mother’s doorstep in the middle of the snowy night had assuredly the air of a miracle, of something dreamed in a dream, of something pathetically and impossibly appropriate —‘pat,’ as they say in the Five Towns. But he was a tangible fact there. And years afterwards, in the light of further knowledge of Mr. Scales, Sophia came to regard his being on the doorstep as the most natural and characteristic thing in the world. Real miracles never seem to be miracles, and that which at the first blush resembles one usually proves to be an instance of the extremely prosaic.

iii

“Is that you, Mrs. Baines?” asked Gerald Scales, in a half-witted voice, looking up, and then getting to his feet. “Is this your house? So it is! Well, I’d no idea I was sitting on your doorstep.”

He smiled timidly, nay, sheepishly, while the women and Mr. Povey surrounded him with their astonished faces under the light of the gas-lamp. Certainly he was very pale.

“But whatever is the matter, Mr. Scales?” Mrs. Baines demanded in an anxious tone. “Are you ill? Have you been suddenly —”

“Oh no,” said the young man lightly. “It’s nothing. Only I was set on just now, down there,”— he pointed to the depths of King Street.

“Set on!” Mrs. Baines repeated, alarmed.

“That makes the fourth case in a week, that we KNOW of!” said Mr. Povey. “It really is becoming a scandal.”

The fact was that, owing to depression of trade, lack of employment, and rigorous weather, public security in the Five Towns was at that period not as perfect as it ought to have been. In the stress of hunger the lower classes were forgetting their manners — and this in spite of the altruistic and noble efforts of their social superiors to relieve the destitution due, of course, to short-sighted improvidence. When (the social superiors were asking in despair) will the lower classes learn to put by for a rainy day? (They might have said a snowy and a frosty day.) It was ‘really too bad’ of the lower classes, when everything that could be done was being done for them, to kill, or even attempt to kill, the goose that lays the golden eggs! And especially in a respectable town! What, indeed, were things coming to? Well, here was Mr. Gerald Scales, gentleman from Manchester, a witness and victim to the deplorable moral condition of the Five Towns. What would he think of the Five Towns? The evil and the danger had been a topic of discussion in the shop for a week past, and now it was brought home to them.

“I hope you weren’t —” said Mrs. Baines, apologetically and sympathetically.

“Oh no!” Mr. Scales interrupted her quite gaily. “I managed to beat them off. Only my elbow —”

Meanwhile it was continuing to snow.

“Do come in!” said Mrs. Baines.

“I couldn’t think of troubling you,” said Mr. Scales. “I’m all right now, and I can find my way to the Tiger.”

“You must come in, if it’s only for a minute,” said Mrs. Baines, with decision. She had to think of the honour of the town.

“You’re very kind,” said Mr. Scales.

The door was suddenly opened from within, and Maggie surveyed them from the height of the two steps.

“A happy New Year, mum, to all of you.”

“Thank you, Maggie,” said Mrs. Baines, and primly added:

“The same to you!” And in her own mind she said that Maggie could best prove her desire for a happy new year by contriving in future not to ‘scamp her corners,’ and not to break so much crockery.

Sophia, scarce knowing what she did, mounted the steps.

“Mr. Scales ought to let our New Year in, my pet,” Mrs. Baines stopped her.

“Oh, of course, mother!” Sophia concurred with, a gasp, springing back nervously.

Mr. Scales raised his hat, and duly let the new year, and much snow, into the Baines parlour. And there was a vast deal of stamping of feet, agitating of umbrellas, and shaking of cloaks and ulsters on the doormat in the corner by the harmonium. And Maggie took away an armful of everything snowy, including goloshes, and received instructions to boil milk and to bring ‘mince.’ Mr. Povey said “B-r-r-r!” and shut the door (which was bordered with felt to stop ventilation); Mrs. Baines turned up the gas till it sang, and told Sophia to poke the fire, and actually told Constance to light the second gas.

Excitement prevailed.

The placidity of existence had been agreeably disturbed (yes, agreeably, in spite of horror at the attack on Mr. Scales’s elbow) by an adventure. Moreover, Mr. Scales proved to be in evening-dress. And nobody had ever worn evening-dress in that house before.

Sophia’s blood was in her face, and it remained there, enhancing the vivid richness of her beauty. She was dizzy with a strange and disconcerting intoxication. She seemed to be in a world of unrealities and incredibilities. Her ears heard with indistinctness, and the edges of things and people had a prismatic colouring. She was in a state of ecstatic, unreasonable, inexplicable happiness. All her misery, doubts, despair, rancour, churlishness, had disappeared. She was as softly gentle as Constance. Her eyes were the eyes of a fawn, and her gestures delicious in their modest and sensitive grace. Constance was sitting on the sofa, and, after glancing about as if for shelter, she sat down on the sofa by Constance’s side. She tried not to stare at Mr. Scales, but her gaze would not leave him. She was sure that he was the most perfect man in the world. A shortish man, perhaps, but a perfect. That such perfection could be was almost past her belief. He excelled all her dreams of the ideal man. His smile, his voice, his hand, his hair — never were such! Why, when he spoke — it was positively music! When he smiled — it was heaven! His smile, to Sophia, was one of those natural phenomena which are so lovely that they make you want to shed tears. There is no hyperbole in this description of Sophia’s sensations, but rather an under-statement of them. She was utterly obsessed by the unique qualities of Mr. Scales. Nothing would have persuaded her that the peer of Mr. Scales existed among men, or could possibly exist. And it was her intense and profound conviction of his complete preeminence that gave him, as he sat there in the rocking-chair in her mother’s parlour, that air of the unreal and the incredible.

“I stayed in the town on purpose to go to a New Year’s party at Mr. Lawton’s,” Mr. Scales was saying.

“Ah! So you know Lawyer Lawton!” observed Mrs. Baines, impressed, for Lawyer Lawton did not consort with tradespeople. He was jolly with them, and he did their legal business for them, but he was not of them. His friends came from afar.

“My people are old acquaintances of his,” said Mr. Scales, sipping the milk which Maggie had brought.

“Now, Mr. Scales, you must taste my mince. A happy month for every tart you eat, you know,” Mrs. Baines reminded him.

He bowed. “And it was as I was coming away from there that I got into difficulties.” He laughed.

Then he recounted the struggle, which had, however, been brief, as the assailants lacked pluck. He had slipped and fallen on his elbow on the kerb, and his elbow might have been broken, had not the snow been so thick. No, it did not hurt him now; doubtless a mere bruise. It was fortunate that the miscreants had not got the better of him, for he had in his pocket-book a considerable sum of money in notes — accounts paid! He had often thought what an excellent thing it would be if commercials could travel with dogs, particularly in winter. There was nothing like a dog.

“You are fond of dogs?” asked Mr. Povey, who had always had a secret but impracticable ambition to keep a dog.

“Yes,” said Mr. Scales, turning now to Mr. Povey.

“Keep one?” asked Mr. Povey, in a sporting tone.

“I have a fox-terrier bitch,” said Mr. Scales, “that took a first at Knutsford; but she’s getting old now.”

The sexual epithet fell queerly on the room. Mr. Povey, being a man of the world, behaved as if nothing had happened; but Mrs. Baines’s curls protested against this unnecessary coarseness. Constance pretended not to hear. Sophia did not understandingly hear. Mr. Scales had no suspicion that he was transgressing a convention by virtue of which dogs have no sex. Further, he had no suspicion of the local fame of Mrs. Baines’s mince-tarts. He had already eaten more mince-tarts than he could enjoy, before beginning upon hers, and Mrs. Baines missed the enthusiasm to which she was habituated from consumers of her pastry.

Mr. Povey, fascinated, proceeded in the direction of dogs, and it grew more and more evident that Mr. Scales, who went out to parties in evening dress, instead of going in respectable broad-cloth to watch night-services, who knew the great ones of the land, and who kept dogs of an inconvenient sex, was neither an ordinary commercial traveller nor the kind of man to which the Square was accustomed. He came from a different world.

“Lawyer Lawton’s party broke up early — at least I mean, considering —” Mrs. Baines hesitated.

After a pause Mr. Scales replied, “Yes, I left immediately the clock struck twelve. I’ve a heavy day tomorrow — I mean today.”

It was not an hour for a prolonged visit, and in a few minutes Mr. Scales was ready again to depart. He admitted a certain feebleness (‘wankiness,’ he playfully called it, being proud of his skill in the dialect), and a burning in his elbow; but otherwise he was quite well — thanks to Mrs. Baines’s most kind hospitality . . . He really didn’t know how he came to be sitting on her doorstep. Mrs. Baines urged him, if he met a policeman on his road to the Tiger, to furnish all particulars about the attempted highway robbery, and he said he decidedly would.

He took his leave with distinguished courtliness.

“If I have a moment I shall run in tomorrow morning just to let you know I’m all right,” said he, in the white street.

“Oh, do!” said Constance. Constance’s perfect innocence made her strangely forward at times.

“A happy New Year and many of them!”

“Thanks! Same to you! Don’t get lost.”

“Straight up the Square and first on the right,” called the commonsense of Mr. Povey.

Nothing else remained to say, and the visitor disappeared silently in the whirling snow. “Brrr!” murmured Mr. Povey, shutting the door. Everybody felt: “What a funny ending of the old year!”

“Sophia, my pet,” Mrs. Baines began.

But Sophia had vanished to bed.

“Tell her about her new night-dress,” said Mrs. Baines to Constance.

“Yes, mother.”

“I don’t know that I’m so set up with that young man, after all,” Mrs. Baines reflected aloud.

“Oh, mother!” Constance protested. “I think he’s just lovely.”

“He never looks you straight in the face,” said Mrs. Baines.

“Don’t tell ME!” laughed Constance, kissing her mother good night. “You’re only on your high horse because he didn’t praise your mince. I noticed it.”

iv

“If anybody thinks I’m going to stand the cold in this showroom any longer, they’re mistaken,” said Sophia the next morning loudly, and in her mother’s hearing. And she went down into the shop carrying bonnets.

She pretended to be angry, but she was not. She felt, on the contrary, extremely joyous, and charitable to all the world. Usually she would take pains to keep out of the shop; usually she was preoccupied and stern. Hence her presence on the ground-floor, and her demeanour, excited interest among the three young lady assistants who sat sewing round the stove in the middle of the shop, sheltered by the great pile of shirtings and linseys that fronted the entrance.

Sophia shared Constance’s corner. They had hot bricks under their feet, and fine-knitted wraps on their shoulders. They would have been more comfortable near the stove, but greatness has its penalties. The weather was exceptionally severe. The windows were thickly frosted over, so that Mr. Povey’s art in dressing them was quite wasted. And — rare phenomenon! — the doors of the shop were shut. In the ordinary way they were not merely open, but hidden by a display of ‘cheap lines.’ Mr. Povey, after consulting Mrs. Baines, had decided to close them, foregoing the customary display. Mr. Povey had also, in order to get a little warmth into his limbs, personally assisted two casual labourers to scrape the thick frozen snow off the pavement; and he wore his kid mittens. All these things together proved better than the evidence of barometers how the weather nipped.

Mr. Scales came about ten o’clock. Instead of going to Mr. Povey’s counter, he walked boldly to Constance’s corner, and looked over the boxes, smiling and saluting. Both the girls candidly delighted in his visit. Both blushed; both laughed — without knowing why they laughed. Mr. Scales said he was just departing and had slipped in for a moment to thank all of them for their kindness of last night —‘or rather this morning.’ The girls laughed again at this witticism. Nothing could have been more simple than his speech. Yet it appeared to them magically attractive. A customer entered, a lady; one of the assistants rose from the neighbourhood of the stove, but the daughters of the house ignored the customer; it was part of the etiquette of the shop that customers, at any rate chance customers, should not exist for the daughters of the house, until an assistant had formally drawn attention to them. Otherwise every one who wanted a pennyworth of tape would be expecting to be served by Miss Baines, or Miss Sophia, if Miss Sophia were there. Which would have been ridiculous.

Sophia, glancing sidelong, saw the assistant parleying with the customer; and then the assistant came softly behind the counter and approached the corner.

“Miss Constance, can you spare a minute?” the assistant whispered discreetly.

Constance extinguished her smile for Mr. Scales, and, turning away, lighted an entirely different and inferior smile for the customer.

“Good morning, Miss Baines. Very cold, isn’t it?”

“Good morning, Mrs. Chatterley. Yes, it is. I suppose you’re getting anxious about those —” Constance stopped.

Sophia was now alone with Mr. Scales, for in order to discuss the unnameable freely with Mrs. Chatterley her sister was edging up the counter. Sophia had dreamed of a private conversation as something delicious and impossible. But chance had favoured her. She was alone with him. And his neat fair hair and his blue eyes and his delicate mouth were as wonderful to her as ever. He was gentlemanly to a degree that impressed her more than anything had impressed her in her life. And all the proud and aristocratic instinct that was at the base of her character sprang up and seized on his gentlemanliness like a famished animal seizing on food.

“The last time I saw you,” said Mr. Scales, in a new tone, “you said you were never in the shop.”

“What? Yesterday? Did I?”

“No, I mean the last time I saw you alone,” said he.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “It’s just an accident.”

“That’s exactly what you said last time.”

“Is it?”

Was it his manner, or what he said, that flattered her, that intensified her beautiful vivacity?

“I suppose you don’t often go out?” he went on.

“What? In this weather?”

“Any time.”

“I go to chapel,” said she, “and marketing with mother.” There was a little pause. “And to the Free Library.”

“Oh yes. You’ve got a Free Library here now, haven’t you?”

“Yes. We’ve had it over a year.”

“And you belong to it? What do you read?”

“Oh, stories, you know. I get a fresh book out once a week.”

“Saturdays, I suppose?”

“No,” she said. “Wednesdays.” And she smiled. “Usually.”

“It’s Wednesday today,” said he. “Not been already?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think I shall go today. It’s too cold. I don’t think I shall venture out today.”

“You must be very fond of reading,” said he.

Then Mr. Povey appeared, rubbing his mittened hands. And Mrs. Chatterley went.

“I’ll run and fetch mother,” said Constance.

Mrs. Baines was very polite to the young man. He related his interview with the police, whose opinion was that he had been attacked by stray members of a gang from Hanbridge. The young lady assistants, with ears cocked, gathered the nature of Mr. Scales’s adventure, and were thrilled to the point of questioning Mr. Povey about it after Mr. Scales had gone. His farewell was marked by much handshaking, and finally Mr. Povey ran after him into the Square to mention something about dogs.

At half-past one, while Mrs. Baines was dozing after dinner, Sophia wrapped herself up, and with a book under her arm went forth into the world, through the shop. She returned in less than twenty minutes. But her mother had already awakened, and was hovering about the back of the shop. Mothers have supernatural gifts.

Sophia nonchalantly passed her and hurried into the parlour where she threw down her muff and a book and knelt before the fire to warm herself.

Mrs. Baines followed her. “Been to the Library?” questioned Mrs. Baines.

“Yes, mother. And it’s simply perishing.”

“I wonder at your going on a day like today. I thought you always went on Thursdays?”

“So I do. But I’d finished my book.”

“What is this?” Mrs. Baines picked up the volume, which was covered with black oil-cloth.

She picked it up with a hostile air. For her attitude towards the Free Library was obscurely inimical. She never read anything herself except The Sunday at Home, and Constance never read anything except The Sunday at Home. There were scriptural commentaries, Dugdale’s Gazetteer, Culpepper’s Herbal, and works by Bunyan and Flavius Josephus in the drawing-room bookcase; also Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And Mrs. Baines, in considering the welfare of her daughters, looked askance at the whole remainder of printed literature. If the Free Library had not formed part of the Famous Wedgwood Institution, which had been opened with immense eclat by the semi-divine Gladstone; if the first book had not been ceremoniously ‘taken out’ of the Free Library by the Chief Bailiff in person — a grandfather of stainless renown — Mrs. Baines would probably have risked her authority in forbidding the Free Library.

“You needn’t be afraid,” said Sophia, laughing. “It’s Miss Sewell’s Experience of Life.”

“A novel, I see,” observed Mrs. Baines, dropping the book.

Gold and jewels would probably not tempt a Sophia of these days to read Experience of Life; but to Sophia Baines the bland story had the piquancy of the disapproved.

The next day Mrs. Baines summoned Sophia into her bedroom.

“Sophia,” said she, trembling, “I shall be glad if you will not walk about the streets with young men until you have my permission.”

The girl blushed violently. “I— I—”

“You were seen in Wedgwood Street,” said Mrs. Baines.

“Who’s been gossiping — Mr. Critchlow, I suppose?” Sophia exclaimed scornfully.

“No one has been ‘gossiping,’” said Mrs. Baines. “Well, if I meet some one by accident in the street I can’t help it, can I?” Sophia’s voice shook.

“You know what I mean, my child,” said Mrs. Baines, with careful calm.

Sophia dashed angrily from the room.

“I like the idea of him having ‘a heavy day’!” Mrs. Baines reflected ironically, recalling a phrase which had lodged in her mind. And very vaguely, with an uneasiness scarcely perceptible, she remembered that ‘he,’ and no other, had been in the shop on the day her husband died.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/old-wives-tale/book1.5.html

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