The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 3

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 today. 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-inyour-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.

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