The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 4



“Now, Master Cyril,” Amy protested, “will you leave that fire alone? It’s not you that can mend my fires.”

A boy of nine, great and heavy for his years, with a full face and very short hair, bent over the smoking grate. It was about five minutes to eight on a chilly morning after Easter. Amy, hastily clad in blue, with a rough brown apron, was setting the breakfast table. The boy turned his head, still bending.

“Shut up, Ame,” he replied, smiling. Life being short, he usually called her Ame when they were alone together. “Or I’ll catch you one in the eye with the poker.”

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said Amy. “And you know your mother told you to wash your feet this morning, and you haven’t done. Fine clothes is all very well, but —”

“Who says I haven’t washed my feet?” asked Cyril, guiltily.

Amy’s mention of fine clothes referred to the fact that he was that morning wearing his Sunday suit for the first time on a week-day.

“I say you haven’t,” said Amy.

She was more than three times his age still, but they had been treating each other as intellectual equals for years.

“And how do you know?” asked Cyril, tired of the fire.

“I know,” said Amy.

“Well, you just don’t, then!” said Cyril. “And what about YOUR feet? I should be sorry to see your feet, Ame.”

Amy was excusably annoyed. She tossed her head. “My feet are as clean as yours any day,” she said. “And I shall tell your mother.”

But he would not leave her feet alone, and there ensued one of those endless monotonous altercations on a single theme which occur so often between intellectual equals when one is a young son of the house and the other an established servant who adores him. Refined minds would have found the talk disgusting, but the sentiment of disgust seemed to be unknown to either of the wranglers. At last, when Amy by superior tactics had cornered him, Cyril said suddenly:

“Oh, go to hell!”

Amy banged down the spoon for the bacon gravy. “Now I shall tell your mother. Mark my words, this time I SHALL tell your mother.”

Cyril felt that in truth he had gone rather far. He was perfectly sure that Amy would not tell his mother. And yet, supposing that by some freak of her nature she did! The consequences would be unutterable; the consequences would more than extinguish his private glory in the use of such a dashing word. So he laughed, a rather silly, giggling laugh, to reassure himself.

“You daren’t,” he said.

“Daren’t I?” she said grimly. “You’ll see. I don’t know where you learn! It fair beats me. But it isn’t Amy Bates as is going to be sworn at. As soon as ever your mother comes into this room!”

The door at the foot of the stairs creaked and Constance came into the room. She was wearing a dress of majenta merino, and a gold chain descended from her neck over her rich bosom. She had scarcely aged in five years. It would have been surprising if she had altered much, for the years had passed over her head at an incredible rate. To her it appeared only a few months since Cyril’s first and last party.

“Are you all ready, my pet? Let me look at you.” Constance greeted the boy with her usual bright, soft energy.

Cyril glanced at Amy, who averted her head, putting spoons into three saucers.

“Yes, mother,” he replied in a new voice.

“Did you do what I told you?”

“Yes, mother,” he said simply.

“That’s right.”

Amy made a faint noise with her lips, and departed.

He was saved once more. He said to himself that never again would he permit his soul to be disturbed by any threat of old Ame’s.

Constance’s hand descended into her pocket and drew out a hard paper packet, which she clapped on to her son’s head.

“Oh, mother!” He pretended that she had hurt him, and then he opened the packet. It contained Congleton butterscotch, reputed a harmless sweetmeat.

“Good!” he cried, “good! Oh! Thanks, mother.”

“Now don’t begin eating them at once.”

“Just one, mother.”

“No! And how often have I told you to keep your feet off that fender. See how it’s bent. And it’s nobody but you.”


“It’s no use being sorry if you persist in doing it.”

“Oh, mother, I had such a funny dream!”

They chatted until Amy came up the stairs with tea and bacon. The fire had developed from black to clear red.

“Run and tell father that breakfast is ready.”

After a little delay a spectacled man of fifty, short and stoutish, with grey hair and a small beard half grey and half black, entered from the shop. Samuel had certainly very much aged, especially in his gestures, which, however, were still quick. He sat down at once — his wife and son were already seated — and served the bacon with the rapid assurance of one who needs not to inquire about tastes and appetites. Not a word was said, except a brief grace by Samuel. But there was no restraint. Samuel had a mild, benignant air. Constance’s eyes were a fountain of cheerfulness. The boy sat between them and ate steadily.

Mysterious creature, this child, mysteriously growing and growing in the house! To his mother he was a delicious joy at all times save when he disobeyed his father. But now for quite a considerable period there had been no serious collision. The boy seemed to be acquiring virtue as well as sense. And really he was charming. So big, truly enormous (every one remarked on it), and yet graceful, lithe, with a smile that could ravish. And he was distinguished in his bearing. Without depreciating Samuel in her faithful heart, Constance saw plainly the singular differences between Samuel and the boy. Save that he was dark, and that his father’s ‘dangerous look’ came into those childish eyes occasionally, Cyril had now scarcely any obvious resemblance to his father. He was a Baines. This naturally deepened Constance’s family pride. Yes, he was mysterious to Constance, though probably not more so than any other boy to any other parent. He was equally mysterious to Samuel, but otherwise Mr. Povey had learned to regard him in the light of a parcel which he was always attempting to wrap up in a piece of paper imperceptibly too small. When he successfully covered the parcel at one corner it burst out at another, and this went on for ever, and he could never get the string on. Nevertheless, Mr. Povey had unabated confidence in his skill as a parcel-wrapper. The boy was strangely subtle at times, but then at times he was astoundingly ingenuous, and then his dodges would not deceive the dullest. Mr. Povey knew himself more than a match for his son. He was proud of him because he regarded him as not an ordinary boy; he took it as a matter of course that his boy should not be an ordinary boy. He never, or very rarely, praised Cyril. Cyril thought of his father as a man who, in response to any request, always began by answering with a thoughtful, serious ‘No, I’m afraid not.’

“So you haven’t lost your appetite!” his mother commented.

Cyril grinned. “Did you expect me to, mother?”

“Let me see,” said Samuel, as if vaguely recalling an unimportant fact. “It’s today you begin to go to school, isn’t it?”

“I wish father wouldn’t be such a chump!” Cyril reflected. And, considering that this commencement of school (real school, not a girls’ school, as once) had been the chief topic in the house for days, weeks; considering that it now occupied and filled all hearts, Cyril’s reflection was excusable.

“Now, there’s one thing you must always remember, my boy,” said Mr. Povey. “Promptness. Never be late either in going to school or in coming home. And in order that you may have no excuse”— Mr. Povey pressed on the word ‘excuse’ as though condemning Cyril in advance —“here’s something for you!” He said the last words quickly, with a sort of modest shame.

It was a silver watch and chain.

Cyril was staggered. So also was Constance, for Mr. Povey could keep his own counsel. At long intervals he would prove, thus, that he was a mighty soul, capable of sublime deeds. The watch was the unique flowering of Mr. Povey’s profound but harsh affection. It lay on the table like a miracle. This day was a great day, a supremely exciting day in Cyril’s history, and not less so in the history of his parents.

The watch killed its owner’s appetite dead.

Routine was ignored that morning. Father did not go back into the shop. At length the moment came when father put on his hat and overcoat to take Cyril, and Cyril’s watch and satchel, to the Endowed School, which had quarters in the Wedgwood Institution close by. A solemn departure, and Cyril could not pretend by his demeanour that it was not! Constance desired to kiss him, but refrained. He would not have liked it. She watched them from the window. Cyril was nearly as tall as his father; that is to say, not nearly as tall, but creeping up his father’s shoulder. She felt that the eyes of the town must be on the pair. She was very happy, and nervous.

At dinner-time a triumph seemed probable, and at tea-time, when Cyril came home under a mortar-board hat and with a satchel full of new books and a head full of new ideas, the triumph was actually and definitely achieved. He had been put into the third form, and he announced that he should soon be at the top of it. He was enchanted with the life of school; he liked the other boys, and it appeared that the other boys liked him. The fact was that, with a new silver watch and a packet of sweets, he had begun his new career in the most advantageous circumstances. Moreover, he possessed qualities which ensure success at school. He was big, and easy, with a captivating smile and a marked aptitude to learn those things which boys insist on teaching to their new comrades. He had muscle, a brave demeanour, and no conceit.

During tea the parlour began, to accustom itself to a new vocabulary, containing such words as ‘fellows,’ ‘kept in,‘m’ lines,’ ‘rot,’ ‘recess,’ ‘jolly.’ To some of these words the parents, especially Mr. Povey, had an instinct to object, but they could not object, somehow they did not seem to get an opportunity to object; they were carried away on the torrent, and after all, their excitement and pleasure in the exceeding romantic novelty of existence were just as intense and nearly as ingenuous as their son’s.

He demonstrated that unless he was allowed to stay up later than aforetime he would not be able to do his home-work, and hence would not keep that place in the school to which his talents entitled him. Mr. Povey suggested, but only with half a heart, that he should get up earlier in the morning. The proposal fell flat. Everybody knew and admitted that nothing save the scorpions of absolute necessity, or a tremendous occasion such as that particular morning’s, would drive Cyril from his bed until the smell of bacon rose to him from the kitchen. The parlour table was consecrated to his lessons. It became generally known that ‘Cyril was doing his lessons.’ His father scanned the new text-books while Cyril condescendingly explained to him that all others were superseded and worthless. His father contrived to maintain an air of preserving his mental equilibrium, but not his mother; she gave it up, she who till that day had under his father’s direction taught him nearly all that he knew, and Cyril passed above her into regions of knowledge where she made no pretence of being able to follow him.

When the lessons were done, and Cyril had wiped his fingers on bits of blotting-paper, and his father had expressed qualified approval and had gone into the shop, Cyril said to his mother, with that delicious hesitation which overtook him sometimes:


“Well, my pet.”

“I want you to do something for me.”

“Well, what is it?”

“No, you must promise.”

“I’ll do it if I can.”

“But you CAN. It isn’t doing. It’s NOT doing.”

“Come, Cyril, out with it.”

“I don’t want you to come in and look at me after I’m asleep any more.”

“But, you silly boy, what difference can it make to you if you’re asleep?”

“I don’t want you to. It’s like as if I was a baby. You’ll have to stop doing it some day, and so you may as well stop now.”

It was thus that he meant to turn his back on his youth.

She smiled. She was incomprehensibly happy. She continued to smile.

“Now you’ll promise, won’t you, mother?”

She rapped him on the head with her thimble, lovingly. He took the gesture for consent.

“You are a baby,” she murmured.

“Now I shall trust you,” he said, ignoring this. “Say ‘honour bright.’”

“Honour bright.”

With what a long caress her eyes followed him, as he went up to bed on his great sturdy legs! She was thankful that school had not contaminated her adorable innocent. If she could have been Ame for twenty-four hours, she perhaps would not have hesitated to put butter into his mouth lest it should melt.

Mr. Povey and Constance talked late and low that night. They could neither of them sleep; they had little desire to sleep. Constance’s face said to her husband: “I’ve always stuck up for that boy, in spite of your severities, and you see how right I was!” And Mr. Povey’s face said: “You see now the brilliant success of my system. You see how my educational theories have justified themselves. Never been to a school before, except that wretched little dame’s school, and he goes practically straight to the top of the third form — at nine years of age!” They discussed his future. There could be no sign of lunacy in discussing his future up to a certain point, but each felt that to discuss the ultimate career of a child nine years old would not be the act of a sensible parent; only foolish parents would be so fond. Yet each was dying to discuss his ultimate career. Constance yielded first to the temptation, as became her. Mr. Povey scoffed, and then, to humour Constance, yielded also. The matter was soon fairly on the carpet. Constance was relieved to find that Mr. Povey had no thought whatever of putting Cyril in the shop. No; Mr. Povey did not desire to chop wood with a razor. Their son must and would ascend. Doctor! Solicitor! Barrister! Not barrister — barrister was fantastic. When they had argued for about half an hour Mr. Povey intimated suddenly that the conversation was unworthy of their practical commonsense, and went to sleep.


Nobody really thought that this almost ideal condition of things would persist: an enterprise commenced in such glory must surely traverse periods of difficulty and even of temporary disaster. But no! Cyril seemed to be made specially for school. Before Mr. Povey and Constance had quite accustomed themselves to being the parents of ‘a great lad,’ before Cyril had broken the glass of his miraculous watch more than once, the summer term had come to an end and there arrived the excitations of the prize-giving, as it was called; for at that epoch the smaller schools had not found the effrontery to dub the breaking-up ceremony a ‘speech-day.’ This prize-giving furnished a particular joy to Mr. and Mrs. Povey. Although the prizes were notoriously few in number — partly to add to their significance, and partly to diminish their cost (the foundation was poor)— Cyril won a prize, a box of geometrical instruments of precision; also he reached the top of his form, and was marked for promotion to the formidable Fourth. Samuel and Constance were bidden to the large hall of the Wedgwood Institution of a summer afternoon, and they saw the whole Board of Governors raised on a rostrum, and in the middle, in front of what he referred to, in his aristocratic London accent, as ‘a beggarly array of rewards,’ the aged and celebrated Sir Thomas Wilbraham Wilbraham, exM.P., last respectable member of his ancient line. And Sir Thomas gave the box of instruments to Cyril, and shook hands with him. And everybody was very well dressed. Samuel, who had never attended anything but a National School, recalled the simple rigours of his own boyhood, and swelled. For certainly, of all the parents present, he was among the richest. When, in the informal promiscuities which followed the prize distribution, Cyril joined his father and mother, sheepishly, they duly did their best to make light of his achievements, and failed. The walls of the hall were covered with specimens of the pupils’ skill, and the headmaster was observed to direct the attention of the mighty to a map done by Cyril. Of course it was a map of Ireland, Ireland being the map chosen by every map-drawing schoolboy who is free to choose. For a third-form boy it was considered a masterpiece. In the shading of mountains Cyril was already a prodigy. Never, it was said, had the Macgillycuddy Reeks been indicated by a member of that school with a more amazing subtle refinement than by the young Povey. From a proper pride in themselves, from a proper fear lest they should be secretly accused of ostentation by other parents, Samuel and Constance did not go near that map. For the rest, they had lived with it for weeks, and Samuel (who, after all, was determined not to be dirt under his son’s feet) had scratched a blot from it with a completeness that defied inquisitive examination.

The fame of this map, added to the box of compasses and Cyril’s own desire, pointed to an artistic career. Cyril had always drawn and daubed, and the drawing-master of the Endowed School, who was also headmaster of the Art School, had suggested that the youth should attend the Art School one night a week. Samuel, however, would not listen to the idea; Cyril was too young. It is true that Cyril was too young, but Samuel’s real objection was to Cyril’s going out alone in the evening. On that he was adamant.

The Governors had recently made the discovery that a sports department was necessary to a good school, and had rented a field for cricket, football, and rounders up at Bleakridge, an innovation which demonstrated that the town was moving with the rapid times. In June this field was open after school hours till eight p.m. as well as on Saturdays. The Squire learnt that Cyril had a talent for cricket, and Cyril wished to practise in the evenings, and was quite ready to bind himself with Bible oaths to rise at no matter what hour in the morning for the purpose of home lessons. He scarcely expected his father to say ‘Yes’ as his father never did say ‘Yes,’ but he was obliged to ask. Samuel nonplussed him by replying that on fine evenings, when he could spare time from the shop, he would go up to Bleakridge with his son. Cyril did not like this in the least. Still, it might be tried. One evening they went, actually, in the new steam-car which had superseded the old horse-cars, and which travelled all the way to Longshaw, a place that Cyril had only heard of. Samuel talked of the games played in the Five Towns in his day, of the Titanic sport of prison-bars, when the team of one ‘bank’ went forth to the challenge of another ‘bank,’ preceded by a drum-and-fife band, and when, in the heat of the chase, a man might jump into the canal to escape his pursuer; Samuel had never played at cricket.

Samuel, with a very young grandson of Fan (deceased), sat in dignity on the grass and watched his cricketer for an hour and a half (while Constance kept an eye on the shop and superintended its closing). Samuel then conducted Cyril home again. Two days later the father of his own accord offered to repeat the experience. Cyril refused. Disagreeable insinuations that he was a baby in arms had been made at school in the meantime.

Nevertheless, in other directions Cyril sometimes surprisingly conquered. For instance, he came home one day with the information that a dog that was not a bull-terrier was not worth calling a dog. Fan’s grandson had been carried off in earliest prime by a chicken-bone that had pierced his vitals, and Cyril did indeed persuade his father to buy a bull-terrier. The animal was a superlative of forbidding ugliness, but father and son vied with each other in stern critical praise of his surpassing beauty, and Constance, from good nature, joined in the pretence. He was called Lion, and the shop, after one or two untoward episodes, was absolutely closed to him.

But the most striking of Cyril’s successes had to do with the question of the annual holiday. He spoke of the sea soon after becoming a schoolboy. It appeared that his complete ignorance of the sea prejudicially affected him at school. Further, he had always loved the sea; he had drawn hundreds of three-masted ships with studding-sails set, and knew the difference between a brig and a brigantine. When he first said: “I say, mother, why can’t we go to Llandudno instead of Buxton this year?” his mother thought he was out of his senses. For the idea of going to any place other than Buxton was inconceivable! Had they not always been to Buxton? What would their landlady say? How could they ever look her in the face again? Besides . . . well . . .! They went to Llandudno, rather scared, and hardly knowing how the change had come about. But they went. And it was the force of Cyril’s will, Cyril the theoretic cypher, that took them.


The removal of the Endowed School to more commodious premises in the shape of Shawport Hall, an ancient mansion with fifty rooms and five acres of land round about it, was not a change that quite pleased Samuel or Constance. They admitted the hygienic advantages, but Shawport Hall was three-quarters of a mile distant from St. Luke’s Square — in the hollow that separates Bursley from its suburb of Hillport; whereas the Wedgwood Institution was scarcely a minute away. It was as if Cyril, when he set off to Shawport Hall of a morning, passed out of their sphere of influence. He was leagues off, doing they knew not what. Further, his dinner-hour was cut short by the extra time needed for the journey to and fro, and he arrived late for tea; it may be said that he often arrived very late for tea; the whole machinery of the meal was disturbed. These matters seemed to Samuel and Constance to be of tremendous import, seemed to threaten the very foundations of existence. Then they grew accustomed to the new order, and wondered sometimes, when they passed the Wedgwood Institution and the insalubrious Cock Yard — once sole playground of the boys — that the school could ever have ‘managed’ in the narrow quarters once allotted to it.

Cyril, though constantly successful at school, a rising man, an infallible bringer-home of excellent reports, and a regular taker of prizes, became gradually less satisfactory in the house. He was ‘kept in’ occasionally, and although his father pretended to hold that to be kept in was to slur the honour of a spotless family, Cyril continued to be kept in; a hardened sinner, lost to shame. But this was not the worst. The worst undoubtedly was that Cyril was ‘getting rough.’ No definite accusation could be laid against him; the offence was general, vague, everlasting; it was in all he did and said, in every gesture and movement. He shouted, whistled, sang, stamped, stumbled, lunged. He omitted such empty rites as saying ‘Yes’ or ‘Please,’ and wiping his nose. He replied gruffly and nonchalantly to polite questions, or he didn’t reply until the questions were repeated, and even then with a ‘lost’ air that was not genuine. His shoelaces were a sad sight, and his finger-nails no sight at all for a decent woman; his hair was as rough as his conduct; hardly at the pistol’s point could he be forced to put oil on it. In brief, he was no longer the nice boy that he used to be. He had unmistakably deteriorated. Grievous! But what can you expect when YOUR boy is obliged, month after month and year after year, to associate with other boys? After all, he was a GOOD boy, said Constance, often to herself and now and then to Samuel. For Constance, his charm was eternally renewed. His smile, his frequent ingenuousness, his funny self-conscious gesture when he wanted to ‘get round’ her — these characteristics remained; and his pure heart remained; she could read that in his eyes. Samuel was inimical to his tastes for sports and his triumphs therein. But Constance had pride in all that. She liked to feel him and to gaze at him, and to smell that faint, uncleanly odour of sweat that hung in his clothes.

In this condition he reached the advanced age of thirteen. And his parents, who despite their notion of themselves as wide-awake parents were a simple pair, never suspected that his heart, conceived to be still pure, had become a crawling, horrible mass of corruption.

One day the head-master called at the shop. Now, to see a head-master walking about the town during school-hours is a startling spectacle, and is apt to give you the same uncanny sensation as when, alone in a room, you think you see something move which ought not to move. Mr. Povey was startled. Mr. Povey had a thumping within his breast as he rubbed his hands and drew the head-master to the private corner where his desk was. “What can I do for you today?” he almost said to the head-master. But he did not say it. The boot was emphatically not on that leg. The head-master talked to Mr. Povey, in tones carefully low, for about a quarter of an hour, and then he closed the interview. Mr. Povey escorted him across the shop, and the head-master said with ordinary loudness: “Of course it’s nothing. But my experience is that it’s just as well to be on the safe side, and I thought I’d tell you. Forewarned is forearmed. I have other parents to see.” They shook hands at the door. Then Mr. Povey stepped out on to the pavement and, in front of the whole Square, detained an unwilling head-master for quite another minute.

His face was deeply flushed as he returned into the shop. The assistants bent closer over their work. He did not instantly rush into the parlour and communicate with Constance. He had dropped into a way of conducting many operations by his own unaided brain. His confidence in his skill had increased with years. Further, at the back of his mind, there had established itself a vision of Mr. Povey as the seat of government and of Constance and Cyril as a sort of permanent opposition. He would not have admitted that he saw such a vision, for he was utterly loyal to his wife; but it was there. This unconfessed vision was one of several causes which had contributed to intensify his inherent tendency towards Machiavellianism and secretiveness. He said nothing to Constance, nothing to Cyril; but, happening to encounter Amy in the showroom, he was inspired to interrogate her sharply. The result was that they descended to the cellar together, Amy weeping. Amy was commanded to hold her tongue. And as she went in mortal fear of Mr. Povey she did hold her tongue.

Nothing occurred for several days. And then one morning — it was Constance’s birthday: children are nearly always horribly unlucky in their choice of days for sin — Mr. Povey, having executed mysterious movements in the shop after Cyril’s departure to school, jammed his hat on his head and ran forth in pursuit of Cyril, whom he intercepted with two other boys, at the corner of Oldcastle Street and Acre Passage.

Cyril stood as if turned into salt. “Come back home!” said Mr. Povey, grimly; and for the sake of the other boys: “Please.”

“But I shall be late for school, father,” Cyril weakly urged.

“Never mind.”

They passed through the shop together, causing a terrific concealed emotion, and then they did violence to Constance by appearing in the parlour. Constance was engaged in cutting straws and ribbons to make a straw-frame for a water-colour drawing of a moss-rose which her pure-hearted son had given her as a birthday present.

“Why — what —?” she exclaimed. She said no more at the moment because she was sure, from the faces of her men, that the time was big with fearful events.

“Take your satchel off,” Mr. Povey ordered coldly. “And your mortar-board,” he added with a peculiar intonation, as if glad thus to prove that Cyril was one of those rude boys who have to be told to take their hats off in a room.

“Whatever’s amiss?” Constance murmured under her breath, as Cyril obeyed the command. “Whatever’s amiss?”

Mr. Povey made no immediate answer. He was in charge of these proceedings, and was very anxious to conduct them with dignity and with complete effectiveness. Little fat man over fifty, with a wizened face, grey-haired and grey-bearded, he was as nervous as a youth. His heart beat furiously. And Constance, the portly matron who would never see forty again, was just as nervous as a girl. Cyril had gone very white. All three felt physically sick.

“What money have you got in your pockets?” Mr. Povey demanded, as a commencement.

Cyril, who had had no opportunity to prepare his case, offered no reply.

“You heard what I said,” Mr. Povey thundered.

“I’ve got three-halfpence,” Cyril murmured glumly, looking down at the floor. His lower lip seemed to hang precariously away from his gums.

“Where did you get that from?”

“It’s part of what mother gave me,” said the boy.

“I did give him a threepenny bit last week,” Constance put in guiltily. “It was a long time since he had had any money.”

“If you gave it him, that’s enough,” said Mr. Povey, quickly, and to the boy: “That’s all you’ve got?”

“Yes, father,” said the boy.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, father.”

Cyril was playing a hazardous game for the highest stakes, and under grave disadvantages; and he acted for the best. He guarded his own interests as well as he could.

Mr. Povey found himself obliged to take a serious risk. “Empty your pockets, then.”

Cyril, perceiving that he had lost that particular game, emptied his pockets.

“Cyril,” said Constance, “how often have I told you to change your handkerchiefs oftener! Just look at this!”

Astonishing creature! She was in the seventh hell of sick apprehension, and yet she said that!

After the handkerchief emerged the common schoolboy stock of articles useful and magic, and then, last, a silver florin!

Mr. Povey felt relief.

“Oh, Cyril!” whimpered Constance.

“Give it your mother,” said Mr. Povey.

The boy stepped forward awkwardly, and Constance, weeping, took the coin.

“Please look at it, mother,” said Mr. Povey. “And tell me if there’s a cross marked on it.”

Constance’s tears blurred the coin. She had to wipe her eyes.

“Yes,” she whispered faintly. “There’s something on it.”

“I thought so,” said Mr. Povey. “Where did you steal it from?” he demanded.

“Out of the till,” answered Cyril.

“Have you ever stolen anything out of the till before?”


“Yes, what.”

“Yes, father.”

“Take your hands out of your pockets and stand up straight, if you can. How often?”

“I— I don’t know, father.”

“I blame myself,” said Mr. Povey, frankly. “I blame myself. The till ought always to be locked. All tills ought always to be locked. But we felt we could trust the assistants. If anybody had told me that I ought not to trust you, if anybody had told me that my own son would be the thief, I should have — well, I don’t know what I should have said!”

Mr. Povey was quite justified in blaming himself. The fact was that the functioning of that till was a patriarchal survival, which he ought to have revolutionized, but which it had never occurred to him to revolutionize, so accustomed to it was he. In the time of John Baines, the till, with its three bowls, two for silver and one for copper (gold had never been put into it), was invariably unlocked. The person in charge of the shop took change from it for the assistants, or temporarily authorized an assistant to do so. Gold was kept in a small linen bag in a locked drawer of the desk. The contents of the till were never checked by any system of book-keeping, as there was no system of book-keeping; when all transactions, whether in payment or receipt, are in cash — the Baineses never owed a penny save the quarterly wholesale accounts, which were discharged instantly to the travellers — a system of book-keeping is not indispensable. The till was situate immediately at the entrance to the shop from the house; it was in the darkest part of the shop, and the unfortunate Cyril had to pass it every day on his way to school. The thing was a perfect device for the manufacture of young criminals.

“And how have you been spending this money?” Mr. Povey inquired.

Cyril’s hands slipped into his pockets again. Then, noticing the lapse, he dragged them out.

“Sweets,” said he.

“Anything else?”

“Sweets and things.”

“Oh!” said Mr. Povey. “Well, now you can go down into the cinder-cellar and bring up here all the things there are in that little box in the corner. Off you go!”

And off went Cyril. He had to swagger through the kitchen.

“What did I tell you, Master Cyril?” Amy unwisely asked of him. “You’ve copped it finely this time.”

‘Copped’ was a word which she had learned from Cyril.

“Go on, you old bitch!” Cyril growled.

As he returned from the cellar, Amy said angrily:

“I told you I should tell your father the next time you called me that, and I shall. You mark my words.”

“Cant! cant!” he retorted. “Do you think I don’t know who’s been canting? Cant! cant!”

Upstairs in the parlour Samuel was explaining the matter to his wife. There had been a perfect epidemic of smoking in the school. The head-master had discovered it and, he hoped, stamped it out. What had disturbed the head-master far more than the smoking was the fact that a few boys had been found to possess somewhat costly pipes, cigar-holders, or cigarette-holders. The head-master, wily, had not confiscated these articles; he had merely informed the parents concerned. In his opinion the articles came from one single source, a generous thief; he left the parents to ascertain which of them had brought a thief into the world.

Further information Mr. Povey had culled from Amy, and there could remain no doubt that Cyril had been providing his chums with the utensils of smoking, the till supplying the means. He had told Amy that the things which he secreted in the cellar had been presented to him by blood-brothers. But Mr. Povey did not believe that. Anyhow, he had marked every silver coin in the till for three nights, and had watched the till in the mornings from behind the merino-pile; and the florin on the parlour-table spoke of his success as a detective.

Constance felt guilty on behalf of Cyril. As Mr. Povey outlined his case she could not free herself from an entirely irrational sensation of sin; at any rate of special responsibility. Cyril seemed to be her boy and not Samuel’s boy at all. She avoided her husband’s glance. This was very odd.

Then Cyril returned, and his parents composed their faces and he deposited, next to the florin, a sham meerschaum pipe in a case, a tobacco-pouch, a cigar of which one end had been charred but the other not cut, and a half-empty packet of cigarettes without a label.

Nothing could be hid from Mr. Povey. The details were distressing.

“So Cyril is a liar and a thief, to say nothing of this smoking!” Mr. Povey concluded.

He spoke as if Cyril had invented strange and monstrous sins. But deep down in his heart a little voice was telling him, as regards the smoking, that HE had set the example. Mr. Baines had never smoked. Mr. Critchlow never smoked. Only men like Daniel smoked.

Thus far Mr. Povey had conducted the proceedings to his own satisfaction. He had proved the crime. He had made Cyril confess. The whole affair lay revealed. Well — what next? Cyril ought to have dissolved in repentance; something dramatic ought to have occurred. But Cyril simply stood with hanging, sulky head, and gave no sign of proper feeling.

Mr. Povey considered that, until something did happen, he must improve the occasion.

“Here we have trade getting worse every day,” said he (it was true), “and you are robbing your parents to make a beast of yourself, and corrupting your companions! I wonder your mother never smelt you!”

“I never dreamt of such a thing!” said Constance, grievously.

Besides, a young man clever enough to rob a till is usually clever enough to find out that the secret of safety in smoking is to use cachous and not to keep the stuff in your pockets a minute longer than you can help.

“There’s no knowing how much money you have stolen,” said Mr. Povey. “A thief!”

If Cyril had stolen cakes, jam, string, cigars, Mr. Povey would never have said ‘thief’ as he did say it. But money! Money was different. And a till was not a cupboard or a larder. A till was a till. Cyril had struck at the very basis of society.

“And on your mother’s birthday!” Mr. Povey said further.

“There’s one thing I can do!” he said. “I can burn all this. Built on lies! How dared you?”

And he pitched into the fire — not the apparatus of crime, but the water-colour drawing of a moss-rose and the straws and the blue ribbon for bows at the corners.

“How dared you?” he repeated.

“You never gave me any money,” Cyril muttered.

He thought the marking of coins a mean trick, and the dragging-in of bad trade and his mother’s birthday roused a familiar devil that usually slept quietly in his breast.

“What’s that you say?” Mr. Povey almost shouted.

“You never gave me any money,” the devil repeated in a louder tone than Cyril had employed.

(It was true. But Cyril ‘had only to ask’ and he would have received all that was good for him.)

Mr. Povey sprang up. Mr. Povey also had a devil. The two devils gazed at each other for an instant; and then, noticing that Cyril’s head was above Mr. Povey’s, the elder devil controlled itself. Mr. Povey had suddenly had as much drama as he wanted.

“Get away to bed!” said he with dignity.

Cyril went, defiantly.

“He’s to have nothing but bread and water, mother,” Mr. Povey finished. He was, on the whole, pleased with himself.

Later in the day Constance reported, tearfully, that she had been up to Cyril and that Cyril had wept. Which was to Cyril’s credit. But all felt that life could never be the same again. During the remainder of existence this unspeakable horror would lift its obscene form between them. Constance had never been so unhappy. Occasionally, when by herself, she would rebel for a brief moment, as one rebels in secret against a mummery which one is obliged to treat seriously. “After all,” she would whisper, “suppose he HAS taken a few shillings out of the till! What then? What does it matter?” But these moods of moral insurrection against society and Mr. Povey were very transitory. They were come and gone in a flash.

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