The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 6

The Widow

i

Constance, alone in the parlour, stood expectant by the set tea-table. She was not wearing weeds; her mother and she, on the death of her father, had talked of the various disadvantages of weeds; her mother had worn them unwillingly, and only because a public opinion not sufficiently advanced had intimidated her. Constance had said: “If ever I’m a widow I won’t wear them,” positively, in the tone of youth; and Mrs. Baines had replied: “I hope you won’t, my dear.” That was over twenty years ago, but Constance perfectly remembered. And now, she was a widow! How strange and how impressive was life! And she had kept her word; not positively, not without hesitations; for though times were changed, Bursley was still Bursley; but she had kept it.

This was the first Monday after Samuel’s funeral. Existence in the house had been resumed on the plane which would henceforth be the normal plane. Constance had put on for tea a dress of black silk with a jet brooch of her mother’s. Her hands, just meticulously washed, had that feeling of being dirty which comes from roughening of the epidermis caused by a day spent in fingering stuffs. She had been ‘going through’ Samuel’s things, and her own, and ranging all anew. It was astonishing how little the man had collected, of ‘things,’ in the course of over half a century. All his clothes were contained in two long drawers and a short one. He had the least possible quantity of haberdashery and linen, for he invariably took from the shop such articles as he required, when he required them, and he would never preserve what was done with. He possessed no jewellery save a set of gold studs, a scarf-ring, and a wedding-ring; the wedding-ring was buried with him. Once, when Constance had offered him her father’s gold watch and chain, he had politely refused it, saying that he preferred his own — a silver watch (with a black cord) which kept excellent time; he had said later that she might save the gold watch and chain for Cyril when he was twenty-one. Beyond these trifles and a half-empty box of cigars and a pair of spectacles, he left nothing personal to himself. Some men leave behind them a litter which takes months to sift and distribute. But Samuel had not the mania for owning. Constance put his clothes in a box to be given away gradually (all except an overcoat and handkerchiefs which might do for Cyril); she locked up the watch and its black cord, the spectacles and the scarf-ring; she gave the gold studs to Cyril; she climbed on a chair and hid the cigar-box on the top of her wardrobe; and scarce a trace of Samuel remained!

By his own wish the funeral had been as simple and private as possible. One or two distant relations, whom Constance scarcely knew and who would probably not visit her again until she too was dead, came — and went. And lo! the affair was over. The simple celerity of the funeral would have satisfied even Samuel, whose tremendous self-esteem hid itself so effectually behind such externals that nobody had ever fully perceived it. Not even Constance quite knew Samuel’s secret opinion of Samuel. Constance was aware that he had a ridiculous side, that his greatest lack had been a lack of spectacular dignity. Even in the coffin, where nevertheless most people are finally effective, he had not been imposing — with his finicky little grey beard persistently sticking up.

The vision of him in his coffin — there in the churchyard, just at the end of King Street! — with the lid screwed down on that unimportant beard, recurred frequently in the mind of the widow, as something untrue and misleading. She had to say to herself: “Yes, he is really there! And that is why I have this particular feeling in my heart.” She saw him as an object pathetic and wistful, not majestic. And yet she genuinely thought that there could not exist another husband quite so honest, quite so just, quite so reliable, quite so good, as Samuel had been. What a conscience he had! How he would try, and try, to be fair with her! Twenty years she could remember, of ceaseless, constant endeavour on his part to behave rightly to her! She could recall many an occasion when he had obviously checked himself, striving against his tendency to cold abruptness and to sullenness, in order to give her the respect due to a wife. What loyalty was his! How she could depend on him! How much better he was than herself (she thought with modesty)!

His death was an amputation for her. But she faced it with calmness. She was not bowed with sorrow. She did not nurse the idea that her life was at an end; on the contrary, she obstinately put it away from her, dwelling on Cyril. She did not indulge in the enervating voluptuousness of grief. She had begun in the first hours of bereavement by picturing herself as one marked out for the blows of fate. She had lost her father and her mother, and now her husband. Her career seemed to be punctuated by interments. But after a while her gentle commonsense came to insist that most human beings lose their parents, and that every marriage must end in either a widower or a widow, and that all careers are punctuated by interments. Had she not had nearly twenty-one years of happy married life? (Twenty-one years — rolled up! The sudden thought of their naive ignorance of life, hers and his, when they were first married, brought tears into her eyes. How wise and experienced she was now!) And had she not Cyril? Compared to many women, she was indeed very fortunate.

The one visitation which had been specially hers was the disappearance of Sophia. And yet even that was not worse than the death outright of Sophia, was perhaps not so bad. For Sophia might return out of the darkness. The blow of Sophia’s flight had seemed unique when it was fresh, and long afterwards; had seemed to separate the Baines family from all other families in a particular shame. But at the age of forty-three Constance had learnt that such events are not uncommon in families, and strange sequels to them not unknown. Thinking often of Sophia, she hoped wildly and frequently.

She looked at the clock; she had a little spasm of nervousness lest Cyril might fail to keep his word on that first day of their new regular life together. And at the instant he burst into the room, invading it like an armed force, having previously laid waste the shop in his passage.

“I’m not late, mother! I’m not late!” he cried proudly.

She smiled warmly, happy in him, drawing out of him balm and solace. He did not know that in that stout familiar body before him was a sensitive, trembling soul that clutched at him ecstatically as the one reality in the universe. He did not know that that evening meal, partaken of without hurry after school had released him to her, was to be the ceremonial sign of their intimate unity and their interdependence, a tender and delicious proof that they were ‘all in all to each other’: he saw only his tea, for which he was hungry — just as hungry as though his father were not scarcely yet cold in the grave.

But he saw obscurely that the occasion demanded something not quite ordinary, and so exerted himself to be boyishly charming to his mother. She said to herself ‘how good he was.’ He felt at ease and confident in the future, because he detected beneath her customary judicial, impartial mask a clear desire to spoil him.

After tea, she regretfully left him, at his home-lessons, in order to go into the shop. The shop was the great unsolved question. What was she to do with the shop? Was she to continue the business or to sell it? With the fortunes of her father and her aunt, and the economies of twenty years, she had more than sufficient means. She was indeed rich, according to the standards of the Square; nay, wealthy! Therefore she was under no material compulsion to keep the shop. Moreover, to keep it would mean personal superintendence and the burden of responsibility, from which her calm lethargy shrank. On the other hand, to dispose of the business would mean the breaking of ties and leaving the premises: and from this also she shrank. Young Lawton, without being asked, had advised her to sell. But she did not want to sell. She wanted the impossible: that matters should proceed in the future as in the past, that Samuel’s death should change nothing save in her heart.

In the meantime Miss Insull was priceless. Constance thoroughly understood one side of the shop; but Miss Insull understood both, and the finance of it also. Miss Insull could have directed the establishment with credit, if not with brilliance. She was indeed directing it at that moment. Constance, however, felt jealous of Miss Insull; she was conscious of a slight antipathy towards the faithful one. She did not care to be in the hands of Miss Insull.

There were one or two customers at the millinery counter. They greeted her with a deplorable copiousness of tact. Most tactfully they avoided any reference to Constance’s loss; but by their tone, their glances, at Constance and at each other, and their heroically restrained sighs, they spread desolation as though they had been spreading ashes instead of butter on bread. The assistants, too, had a special demeanour for the poor lone widow which was excessively trying to her. She wished to be natural, and she would have succeeded, had they not all of them apparently conspired together to make her task impossible.

She moved away to the other side of the shop, to Samuel’s desk, at which he used to stand, staring absently out of the little window into King Street while murmurously casting figures. She lighted the gas-jet there, arranged the light exactly to suit her, and then lifted the large flap of the desk and drew forth some account books.

“Miss Insull!” she called, in a low, clear voice, with a touch of haughtiness and a touch of command in it. The pose, a comical contradiction of Constance’s benevolent character, was deliberately adopted; it illustrated the effects of jealousy on even the softest disposition.

Miss Insull responded. She had no alternative but to respond. And she gave no sign of resenting her employer’s attitude. But then Miss Insull seldom did give any sign of being human.

The customers departed, one after another, obsequiously sped by the assistants, who thereupon lowered the gases somewhat, according to secular rule; and in the dim eclipse, as they restored boxes to shelves, they could hear the tranquil, regular, half-whispered conversation of the two women at the desk, discussing accounts; and then the chink of gold.

Suddenly there was an irruption. One of the assistants sprang instinctively to the gas; but on perceiving that the disturber of peace was only a slatternly girl, hatless and imperfectly clean, she decided to leave the gas as it was, and put on a condescending, suspicious demeanour.

“If you please, can I speak to the missis?” said the girl, breathlessly.

She seemed to be about eighteen years of age, fat and plain. Her blue frock was torn, and over it she wore a rough brown apron, caught up at one corner to the waist. Her bare forearms were of brick-red colour.

“What is it?” demanded the assistant.

Miss Insull looked over her shoulder across the shop. “It must be Maggie’s — Mrs. Hollins’s daughter!” said Miss Insull under her breath.

“What can she want?” said Constance, leaving the desk instantly; and to the girl, who stood sturdily holding her own against the group of assistants: “You are Mrs. Hollins’s daughter, aren’t you?”

“Yes, mum.”

“What’s your name?”

“Maggie, mum. And, if you please, mother’s sent me to ask if you’ll kindly give her a funeral card.”

“A funeral card?”

“Yes. Of Mr. Povey. She’s been expecting of one, and she thought as how perhaps you’d forgotten it, especially as she wasn’t asked to the funeral.”

The girl stopped.

Constance perceived that by mere negligence she had seriously wounded the feelings of Maggie, senior. The truth was, she had never thought of Maggie. She ought to have remembered that funeral cards were almost the sole ornamentation of Maggie’s abominable cottage.

“Certainly,” she replied after a pause. “Miss Insull, there are a few cards left in the desk, aren’t there? Please put me one in an envelope for Mrs. Hollins.”

She gave the heavily bordered envelope to the ruddy wench, who enfolded it in her apron, and with hurried, shy thanks ran off.

“Tell your mother I send her a card with pleasure,” Constance called after the girl.

The strangeness of the hazards of life made her thoughtful. She, to whom Maggie had always seemed an old woman, was a widow, but Maggie’s husband survived as a lusty invalid. And she guessed that Maggie, vilely struggling in squalor and poverty, was somehow happy in her frowsy, careless way.

She went back to the accounts, dreaming.

ii

When the shop had been closed, under her own critical and precise superintendence, she extinguished the last gas in it and returned to the parlour, wondering where she might discover some entirely reliable man or boy to deal with the shutters night and morning. Samuel had ordinarily dealt with the shutters himself, and on extraordinary occasions and during holidays Miss Insull and one of her subordinates had struggled with their unwieldiness. But the extraordinary occasion had now become ordinary, and Miss Insull could not be expected to continue indefinitely in the functions of a male. Constance had a mind to engage an errand-boy, a luxury against which Samuel had always set his face. She did not dream of asking the herculean Cyril to open and shut shop.

He had apparently finished his home-lessons. The books were pushed aside, and he was sketching in lead-pencil on a drawing-block. To the right of the fireplace, over the sofa, there hung an engraving after Landseer, showing a lonely stag paddling into a lake. The stag at eve had drunk or was about to drink his fill, and Cyril was copying him. He had already indicated a flight of birds in the middle distance; vague birds on the wing being easier than detailed stags, he had begun with the birds.

Constance put a hand on his shoulder. “Finished your lessons?” she murmured caressingly.

Before speaking, Cyril gazed up at the picture with a frowning, busy expression, and then replied in an absent-minded voice:

“Yes.” And after a pause: “Except my arithmetic. I shall do that in the morning before breakfast.”

“Oh, Cyril!” she protested.

It had been a positive ordinance, for a long time past, that there should be no sketching until lessons were done. In his father’s lifetime Cyril had never dared to break it.

He bent over his block, feigning an intense absorption. Constance’s hand slipped from his shoulder. She wanted to command him formally to resume his lessons. But she could not. She feared an argument; she mistrusted herself. And, moreover, it was so soon after his father’s death!

“You know you won’t have time tomorrow morning!” she said weakly.

“Oh, mother!” he retorted superiorly. “Don’t worry.” And then, in a cajoling tone: “I’ve wanted to do that stag for ages.”

She sighed and sat down in her rocking-chair. He went on sketching, rubbing out, and making queer expostulatory noises against his pencil, or against the difficulties needlessly invented by Sir Edwin Landseer. Once he rose and changed the position of the gas-bracket, staring fiercely at the engraving as though it had committed a sin.

Amy came to lay the supper. He did not acknowledge that she existed.

“Now, Master Cyril, after you with that table, if you please!” She announced herself brusquely, with the privilege of an old servant and a woman who would never see thirty again.

“What a nuisance you are, Amy!” he gruffly answered. “Look here, mother, can’t Amy lay the cloth on that half of the table? I’m right in the middle of my drawing. There’s plenty of room there for two.”

He seemed not to be aware that, in the phrase ‘plenty of room for two,’ he had made a callous reference to their loss. The fact was, there WAS plenty of room for two.

Constance said quickly: “Very well, Amy. For this once.”

Amy grunted, but obeyed.

Constance had to summon him twice from art to nourishment. He ate with rapidity, frequently regarding the picture with half-shut, searching eyes. When he had finished, he refilled his glass with water, and put it next to his sketching-block.

“You surely aren’t thinking of beginning to paint at this time of night!” Constance exclaimed, astonished.

“Oh YES, mother!” he fretfully appealed. “It’s not late.”

Another positive ordinance of his father’s had been that there should be nothing after supper except bed. Nine o’clock was the latest permissible moment for going to bed. It was now less than a quarter to.

“It only wants twelve minutes to nine,” Constance pointed out.

“Well, what if it does?”

“Now, Cyril,” she said, “I do hope you are going to be a good boy, and not cause your mother anxiety.”

But she said it too kindly.

He said sullenly: “I do think you might let me finish it. I’ve begun it. It won’t take me long.”

She made the mistake of leaving the main point. “How can you possibly choose your colours properly by gas-light?” she said.

“I’m going to do it in sepia,” he replied in triumph.

“It mustn’t occur again,” she said.

He thanked God for a good supper, and sprang to the harmonium, where his paint-box was. Amy cleared away. Constance did crochet-work. There was silence. The clock struck nine, and it also struck half-past nine. She warned him repeatedly. At ten minutes to ten she said persuasively:

“Now, Cyril, when the clock strikes ten I shall really put the gas out.”

The clock struck ten.

“Half a mo, half a mo!” he cried. “I’ve done! I’ve done!”

Her hand was arrested.

Another four minutes elapsed, and then he jumped up. “There you are!” he said proudly, showing her the block. And all his gestures were full of grace and cajolery.

“Yes, it’s very good,” Constance said, rather indifferently.

“I don’t believe you care for it!” he accused her, but with a bright smile.

“I care for your health,” she said. “Just look at that clock!”

He sat down in the other rocking-chair, deliberately.

“Now, Cyril!”

“Well, mother, I suppose you’ll let me take my boots off!” He said it with teasing good-humour.

When he kissed her good night, she wanted to cling to him, so affectionate was his kiss; but she could not throw off the habits of restraint which she had been originally taught and had all her life practised. She keenly regretted the inability.

In her bedroom, alone, she listened to his movements as he undressed. The door between the two rooms was unlatched. She had to control a desire to open it ever so little and peep at him. He would not have liked that. He could have enriched her heart beyond all hope, and at no cost to himself; but he did not know his power. As she could not cling to him with her hands, she clung to him with that heart of hers, while moving sedately up and down the room, alone. And her eyes saw him through the solid wood of the door. At last she got heavily into bed. She thought with placid anxiety, in the dark: “I shall have to be firm with Cyril.” And she thought also, simultaneously: “He really must be a good boy. He MUST.” And clung to him passionately, without shame! Lying alone there in the dark, she could be as unrestrained and girlish as her heart chose. When she loosed her hold she instantly saw the boy’s father arranged in his coffin, or flitting about the room. Then she would hug that vision too, for the pleasure of the pain it gave her.

iii

She was reassured as to Cyril during the next few days. He did not attempt to repeat his ingenious naughtiness of the Monday evening, and he came directly home for tea; moreover he had, as a kind of miracle performed to dazzle her, actually arisen early on the Tuesday morning and done his arithmetic. To express her satisfaction she had manufactured a specially elaborate straw-frame for the sketch after Sir Edwin Landseer, and had hung it in her bedroom: an honour which Cyril appreciated. She was as happy as a woman suffering from a recent amputation can be; and compared with the long nightmare created by Samuel’s monomania and illness, her existence seemed to be now a beneficent calm.

Cyril, she thought, had realized the importance in her eyes of tea, of that evening hour and that companionship which were for her the flowering of the day. And she had such confidence in his goodness that she would pour the boiling water on the Horniman tea-leaves even before he arrived: certainty could not be more sure. And then, on the Friday of the first week, he was late! He bounded in, after dark, and the state of his clothes indicated too clearly that he had been playing football in the mud that was a grassy field in summer.

“Have you been kept in, my boy?” she asked, for the sake of form.

“No, mother,” he said casually. “We were just kicking the ball about a bit. Am I late?”

“Better go and tidy yourself,” she said, not replying to his question. “You can’t sit down in that state. And I’ll have some fresh tea made. This is spoilt.”

“Oh, very well!”

Her sacred tea — the institution which she wanted to hallow by long habit, and which was to count before everything with both of them — had been carelessly sacrificed to the kicking of a football in mud! And his father buried not ten days! She was wounded: a deep, clean, dangerous wound that would not bleed. She tried to be glad that he had not lied; he might easily have lied, saying that he had been detained for a fault and could not help being late. No! He was not given to lying; he would lie, like any human being, when a great occasion demanded such prudence, but he was not a liar; he might fairly be called a truthful boy. She tried to be glad, and did not succeed. She would have preferred him to have lied.

Amy, grumbling, had to boil more water.

When he returned to the parlour, superficially cleaned, Constance expected him to apologize in his roundabout boyish way; at any rate to woo and wheedle her, to show by some gesture that he was conscious of having put an affront on her. But his attitude was quite otherwise. His attitude was rather brusque and overbearing and noisy. He ate a very considerable amount of jam, far too quickly, and then asked for more, in a tone of a monarch who calls for his own. And ere tea was finished he said boldly, apropos of nothing:

“I say, mother, you’ll just have to let me go to the School of Art after Easter.”

And stared at her with a fixed challenge in his eyes.

He meant, by the School of Art, the evening classes at the School of Art. His father had decided absolutely against the project. His father had said that it would interfere with his lessons, would keep him up too late at night, and involve absence from home in the evening. The last had always been the real objection. His father had not been able to believe that Cyril’s desire to study art sprang purely from his love of art; he could not avoid suspecting that it was a plan to obtain freedom in the evenings — that freedom which Samuel had invariably forbidden. In all Cyril’s suggestions Samuel had been ready to detect the same scheme lurking. He had finally said that when Cyril left school and took to a vocation, then he could study art at night if he chose, but not before.

“You know what your father said!” Constance replied.

“But, mother! That’s all very well! I’m sure father would have agreed. If I’m going to take up drawing I ought to do it at once. That’s what the drawing-master says, and I suppose he ought to know.” He finished on a tone of insolence.

“I can’t allow you to do it yet,” said Constance, quietly. “It’s quite out of the question. Quite!”

He pouted and then he sulked. It was war between them. At times he was the image of his Aunt Sophia. He would not leave the subject alone; but he would not listen to Constance’s reasoning. He openly accused her of harshness. He asked her how she could expect him to get on if she thwarted him in his most earnest desires. He pointed to other boys whose parents were wiser.

“It’s all very fine of you to put it on father!” he observed sarcastically.

He gave up his drawing entirely.

When she hinted that if he attended the School of Art she would be condemned to solitary evenings, he looked at her as though saying: “Well, and if you are —?” He seemed to have no heart.

After several weeks of intense unhappiness she said: “How many evenings do you want to go?”

The war was over.

He was charming again. When she was alone she could cling to him again. And she said to herself: “If we can be happy together only when I give way to him, I must give way to him.” And there was ecstasy in her yielding. “After all,” she said to herself, “perhaps it’s very important that he should go to the School of Art.” She solaced herself with such thoughts on three solitary evenings a week, waiting for him to come home.

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