The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 7

Bricks and Mortar

i

In the summer of that year the occurrence of a white rash of posters on hoardings and on certain houses and shops, was symptomatic of organic change in the town. The posters were iterations of a mysterious announcement and summons, which began with the august words: “By Order of the Trustees of the late William Clews Mericarp, Esq.” Mericarp had been a considerable owner of property in Bursley. After a prolonged residence at Southport, he had died, at the age of eighty-two, leaving his property behind. For sixty years he had been a name, not a figure; and the news of his death, which was assuredly an event, incited the burgesses to gossip, for they had come to regard him as one of the invisible immortals. Constance was shocked, though she had never seen Mericarp. (“Everybody dies nowadays!” she thought.) He owned the Baines–Povey shop, and also Mr. Critchlow’s shop. Constance knew not how often her father and, later, her husband, had renewed the lease of those premises that were now hers; but from her earliest recollections rose a vague memory of her father talking to her mother about ‘Mericarp’s rent,’ which was and always had been a hundred a year. Mericarp had earned the reputation of being ‘a good landlord.’ Constance said sadly: “We shall never have another as good!” When a lawyer’s clerk called and asked her to permit the exhibition of a poster in each of her shop-windows, she had misgivings for the future; she was worried; she decided that she would determine the lease next year, so as to be on the safe side; but immediately afterwards she decided that she could decide nothing.

The posters continued: “To be sold by auction, at the Tiger Hotel at six-thirty for seven o’clock precisely.” What six-thirty had to do with seven o’clock precisely no one knew. Then, after stating the name and credentials of the auctioneer, the posters at length arrived at the objects to be sold: “All those freehold messuages and shops and copyhold tenements namely.” Houses were never sold by auction in Bursley. At moments of auction burgesses were reminded that the erections they lived in were not houses, as they had falsely supposed, but messuages. Having got as far as ‘namely’ the posters ruled a line and began afresh: “Lot I. All that extensive and commodious shop and messuage with the offices and appurtenances thereto belonging situate and being No. 4 St. Luke’s Square in the parish of Bursley in the County of Stafford and at present in the occupation of Mrs. Constance Povey widow under a lease expiring in September 1889.” Thus clearly asserting that all Constance’s shop was for sale, its whole entirety, and not a fraction or slice of it merely, the posters proceeded: “Lot 2. All that extensive and commodious shop and messuage with the offices and appurtenances thereto belonging situate and being No. 3 St. Luke’s Square in the parish of Bursley in the County of Stafford and at present in the occupation of Charles Critchlow chemist under an agreement for a yearly tenancy.” The catalogue ran to fourteen lots. The posters, lest any one should foolishly imagine that a non-legal intellect could have achieved such explicit and comprehensive clarity of statement, were signed by a powerful firm of solicitors in Hanbridge. Happily in the Five Towns there were no metaphysicians; otherwise the firm might have been expected to explain, in the ‘further particulars and conditions’ which the posters promised, how even a messuage could ‘be’ the thing at which it was ‘situate.’

Within a few hours of the outbreak of the rash, Mr. Critchlow abruptly presented himself before Constance at the millinery counter; he was waving a poster.

“Well!” he exclaimed grimly. “What next, eh?”

“Yes, indeed!” Constance responded.

“Are ye thinking o’ buying?” he asked. All the assistants, including Miss Insull, were in hearing, but he ignored their presence.

“Buying!” repeated Constance. “Not me! I’ve got quite enough house property as it is.”

Like all owners of real property, she usually adopted towards her possessions an attitude implying that she would be willing to pay somebody to take them from her.

“Shall you?” she added, with Mr. Critchlow’s own brusqueness.

“Me! Buy property in St. Luke’s Square!” Mr. Critchlow sneered. And then left the shop as suddenly as he had entered it.

The sneer at St. Luke’s Square was his characteristic expression of an opinion which had been slowly forming for some years. The Square was no longer what it had been, though individual businesses might be as good as ever. For nearly twelve months two shops had been to let in it. And once, bankruptcy had stained its annals. The tradesmen had naturally searched for a cause in every direction save the right one, the obvious one; and naturally they had found a cause. According to the tradesmen, the cause was ‘this football.’ The Bursley Football Club had recently swollen into a genuine rival of the ancient supremacy of the celebrated Knype Club. It had transformed itself into a limited company, and rented a ground up the Moorthorne Road, and built a grand stand. The Bursley F.C. had ‘tied’ with the Knype F.C. on the Knype ground — a prodigious achievement, an achievement which occupied a column of the Athletic News one Monday morning! But were the tradesmen civically proud of this glory? No! They said that ‘this football’ drew people out of the town on Saturday afternoons, to the complete abolition of shopping. They said also that people thought of nothing but ‘this football;’ and, nearly in the same breath, that only roughs and good-for-nothings could possibly be interested in such a barbarous game. And they spoke of gate-money, gambling, and professionalism, and the end of all true sport in England. In brief, something new had come to the front and was submitting to the ordeal of the curse.

The sale of the Mericarp estate had a particular interest for respectable stake-inthe-town persons. It would indicate to what extent, if at all, ‘this football’ was ruining Bursley. Constance mentioned to Cyril that she fancied she might like to go to the sale, and as it was dated for one of Cyril’s off-nights Cyril said that he fancied he might like to go too. So they went together; Samuel used to attend property sales, but he had never taken his wife to one. Constance and Cyril arrived at the Tiger shortly after seven o’clock, and were directed to a room furnished and arranged as for a small public meeting of philanthropists. A few gentlemen were already present, but not the instigating trustees, solicitors, and auctioneers. It appeared that ‘six-thirty for seven o’clock precisely’ meant seven-fifteen. Constance took a Windsor chair in the corner nearest the door, and motioned Cyril to the next chair; they dared not speak; they moved on tiptoe; Cyril inadvertently dragged his chair along the floor, and produced a scrunching sound; he blushed, as though he had desecrated a church, and his mother made a gesture of horror. The remainder of the company glanced at the corner, apparently pained by this negligence. Some of them greeted Constance, but self-consciously, with a sort of shamed air; it might have been that they had all nefariously gathered together there for the committing of a crime. Fortunately Constance’s widowhood had already lost its touching novelty, so that the greetings, if self-conscious, were at any rate given without unendurable commiseration and did not cause awkwardness.

When the official world arrived, fussy, bustling, bearing documents and a hammer, the general feeling of guilty shame was intensified. Useless for the auctioneer to try to dissipate the gloom by means of bright gestures and quick, cheerful remarks to his supporters! Cyril had an idea that the meeting would open with a hymn, until the apparition of a tapster with wine showed him his error. The auctioneer very particularly enjoined the tapster to see to it that no one lacked for his thirst, and the tapster became self-consciously energetic. He began by choosing Constance for service. In refusing wine, she blushed; then the fellow offered a glass to Cyril, who went scarlet, and mumbled ‘No’ with a lump in his throat; when the tapster’s back was turned, he smiled sheepishly at his mother. The majority of the company accepted and sipped. The auctioneer sipped and loudly smacked, and said: “Ah!”

Mr. Critchlow came in.

And the auctioneer said again: “Ah! I’m always glad when the tenants come. That’s always a good sign.”

He glanced round for approval of this sentiment. But everybody seemed too stiff to move. Even the auctioneer was self-conscious.

“Waiter! Offer wine to Mr. Critchlow!” he exclaimed bullyingly, as if saying: “Man! what on earth are you thinking of, to neglect Mr. Critchlow?”

“Yes, sir; yes, sir,” said the waiter, who was dispensing wine as fast as a waiter can.

The auction commenced.

Seizing the hammer, the auctioneer gave a short biography of William Clews Mericarp, and, this pious duty accomplished, called upon a solicitor to read the conditions of sale. The solicitor complied and made a distressing exhibition of self-consciousness. The conditions of sale were very lengthy, and apparently composed in a foreign tongue; and the audience listened to this elocution with a stoical pretence of breathless interest.

Then the auctioneer put up all that extensive and commodious messuage and shop situate and being No. 4, St. Luke’s Square. Constance and Cyril moved their limbs surreptitiously, as though being at last found out. The auctioneer referred to John Baines and to Samuel Povey, with a sense of personal loss, and then expressed his pleasure in the presence of ‘the ladies;’ he meant Constance, who once more had to blush.

“Now, gentlemen,” said the auctioneer, “what do you say for these famous premises? I think I do not exaggerate when I use the word ‘famous.’”

Some one said a thousand pounds, in the terrorized voice of a delinquent.

“A thousand pounds,” repeated the auctioneer, paused, sipped, and smacked.

“Guineas,” said another voice self-accused of iniquity.

“A thousand and fifty,” said the auctioneer.

Then there was a long interval, an interval that tightened the nerves of the assembly.

“Now, ladies and gentlemen,” the auctioneer adjured.

The first voice said sulkily: “Eleven hundred.”

And thus the bids rose to fifteen hundred, lifted bit by bit, as it were, by the magnetic force of the auctioneer’s personality. The man was now standing up, in domination. He bent down to the solicitor’s head; they whispered together.

“Gentlemen,” said the auctioneer, “I am happy to inform you that the sale is now open.” His tone translated better than words his calm professional beatitude. Suddenly in a voice of wrath he hissed at the waiter: “Waiter, why don’t you serve these gentlemen?”

“Yes, sir; yes, sir.”

The auctioneer sat down and sipped at leisure, chatting with his clerk and the solicitor and the solicitor’s clerk.

When he rose it was as a conqueror. “Gentlemen, fifteen hundred is bid. Now, Mr. Critchlow.”

Mr. Critchlow shook his head. The auctioneer threw a courteous glance at Constance, who avoided it.

After many adjurations, he reluctantly raised his hammer, pretended to let it fall, and saved it several times.

And then Mr. Critchlow said: “And fifty.”

“Fifteen hundred and fifty is bid,” the auctioneer informed the company, electrifying the waiter once more. And when he had sipped he said, with feigned sadness: “Come, gentlemen, you surely don’t mean to let this magnificent lot go for fifteen hundred and fifty pounds?”

But they did mean that.

The hammer fell, and the auctioneer’s clerk and the solicitor’s clerk took Mr. Critchlow aside and wrote with him.

Nobody was surprised when Mr. Critchlow bought Lot No. 2, his own shop.

Constance whispered then to Cyril that she wished to leave. They left, with unnatural precautions, but instantly regained their natural demeanour in the dark street.

“Well, I never! Well, I never!” she murmured outside, astonished and disturbed.

She hated the prospect of Mr. Critchlow as a landlord. And yet she could not persuade herself to leave the place, in spite of decisions.

The sale demonstrated that football had not entirely undermined the commercial basis of society in Bursley; only two Lots had to be withdrawn.

ii

On Thursday afternoon of the same week the youth whom Constance had ended by hiring for the manipulation of shutters and other jobs unsuitable for fragile women, was closing the shop. The clock had struck two. All the shutters were up except the last one, in the midst of the doorway. Miss Insull and her mistress were walking about the darkened interior, putting dust-sheets well over the edges of exposed goods; the other assistants had just left. The bull-terrier had wandered into the shop as he almost invariably did at closing time — for he slept there, an efficient guard — and had lain down by the dying stove; though not venerable, he was stiffening into age.

“You can shut,” said Miss Insull to the youth.

But as the final shutter was ascending to its position, Mr. Critchlow appeared on the pavement.

“Hold on, young fellow!” Mr. Critchlow commanded, and stepped slowly, lifting up his long apron, over the horizontal shutter on which the perpendicular shutters rested in the doorway.

“Shall you be long, Mr. Critchlow?” the youth asked, posing the shutter. “Or am I to shut?”

“Shut, lad,” said Mr. Critchlow, briefly. “I’ll go out by th’ side door.”

“Here’s Mr. Critchlow!” Miss Insull called out to Constance, in a peculiar tone. And a flush, scarcely perceptible, crept very slowly over her dark features. In the twilight of the shop, lit only by a few starry holes in the shutters, and by the small side-window, not the keenest eye could have detected that flush.

“Mr. Critchlow!” Constance murmured the exclamation. She resented his future ownership of her shop. She thought he was come to play the landlord, and she determined to let him see that her mood was independent and free, that she would as lief give up the business as keep it. In particular she meant to accuse him of having deliberately deceived her as to his intentions on his previous visit.

“Well, missis!” the aged man greeted her. “We’ve made it up between us. Happen some folk’ll think we’ve taken our time, but I don’t know as that’s their affair.”

His little blinking eyes had a red border. The skin of his pale small face was wrinkled in millions of minute creases. His arms and legs were marvellously thin and sharply angular. The corners of his heliotrope lips were turned down, as usual, in a mysterious comment on the world; and his smile, as he fronted Constance with his excessive height, crowned the mystery.

Constance stared, at a loss. It surely could not after all be true, the substance of the rumours that had floated like vapours in the Square for eight years and more!

“What . . .?” she began.

“Me, and her!” He jerked his head in the direction of Miss Insull.

The dog had leisurely strolled forward to inspect the edges of the fiance’s trousers. Miss Insull summoned the animal with a noise of fingers, and then bent down and caressed it. A strange gesture proving the validity of Charles Critchlow’s discovery that in Maria Insull a human being was buried!

Miss Insull was, as near as any one could guess, forty years of age. For twenty-five years she had served in the shop, passing about twelve hours a day in the shop; attending regularly at least three religious services at the Wesleyan Chapel or School on Sundays, and sleeping with her mother, whom she kept. She had never earned more than thirty shillings a week, and yet her situation was considered to be exceptionally good. In the eternal fusty dusk of the shop she had gradually lost such sexual characteristics and charms as she had once possessed. She was as thin and flat as Charles Critchlow himself. It was as though her bosom had suffered from a prolonged drought at a susceptible period of development, and had never recovered. The one proof that blood ran in her veins was the pimply quality of her ruined complexion, and the pimples of that brickish expanse proved that the blood was thin and bad. Her hands and feet were large and ungainly; the skin of the fingers was roughened by coarse contacts to the texture of emery-paper. On six days a week she wore black; on the seventh a kind of discreet half-mourning. She was honest, capable, and industrious; and beyond the confines of her occupation she had no curiosity, no intelligence, no ideas. Superstitions and prejudices, deep and violent, served her for ideas; but she could incomparably sell silks and bonnets, braces and oilcloth; in widths, lengths, and prices she never erred; she never annoyed a customer, nor foolishly promised what could not be performed, nor was late nor negligent, nor disrespectful. No one knew anything about her, because there was nothing to know. Subtract the shop-assistant from her, and naught remained. Benighted and spiritually dead, she existed by habit.

But for Charles Critchlow she happened to be an illusion. He had cast eyes on her and had seen youth, innocence, virginity. During eight years the moth Charles had flitted round the lamp of her brilliance, and was now singed past escape. He might treat her with what casualness he chose; he might ignore her in public; he might talk brutally about women; he might leave her to wonder dully what he meant, for months at a stretch: but there emerged indisputable from the sum of his conduct the fact that he wanted her. He desired her; she charmed him; she was something ornamental and luxurious for which he was ready to pay — and to commit follies. He had been a widower since before she was born; to him she was a slip of a girl. All is relative in this world. As for her, she was too indifferent to refuse him. Why refuse him? Oysters do not refuse.

“I’m sure I congratulate you both,” Constance breathed, realizing the import of Mr. Critchlow’s laconic words. “I’m sure I hope you’ll be happy.”

“That’ll be all right,” said Mr. Critchlow.

“Thank you, Mrs. Povey,” said Maria Insull.

Nobody seemed to know what to say next. “It’s rather sudden,” was on Constance’s tongue, but did not achieve utterance, being patently absurd.

“Ah!” exclaimed Mr. Critchlow, as though himself contemplating anew the situation.

Miss Insull gave the dog a final pat.

“So that’s settled,” said Mr. Critchlow. “Now, missis, ye want to give up this shop, don’t ye?”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Constance answered uneasily.

“Don’t tell me!” he protested. “Of course ye want to give up the shop.”

“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Constance.

“Ye’ve not lived in th’ shop all ye’re life. I said th’ shop. Listen here!” he continued. “I’ve got a proposal to make to you. You can keep on the house, and I’ll take the shop off ye’re hands. Now?” He looked at her inquiringly.

Constance was taken aback by the brusqueness of the suggestion, which, moreover, she did not understand.

“But how —” she faltered.

“Come here,” said Mr. Critchlow, impatiently, and he moved towards the house-door of the shop, behind the till.

“Come where? What do you want?” Constance demanded in a maze.

“Here!” said Mr. Critchlow, with increasing impatience. “Follow me, will ye?”

Constance obeyed. Miss Insull sidled after Constance, and the dog after Miss Insull. Mr. Critchlow went through the doorway and down the corridor, past the cutting-out room to his right. The corridor then turned at a right-angle to the left and ended at the parlour door, the kitchen steps being to the left.

Mr. Critchlow stopped short of the kitchen steps, and extended his arms, touching the walls on either side.

“Here!” he said, tapping the walls with his bony knuckles. “Here! Suppose I brick ye this up, and th’ same upstairs between th’ showroom and th’ bedroom passage, ye’ve got your house to yourself. Ye say ye’ve lived here all your life. Well, what’s to prevent ye finishing up here? The fact is,” he added, “it would only be making into two houses again what was two houses to start with, afore your time, missis.”

“And what about the shop?” cried Constance.

“Ye can sell us th’ stock at a valuation.”

Constance suddenly comprehended the scheme. Mr. Critchlow would remain the chemist, while Mrs. Critchlow became the head of the chief drapery business in the town. Doubtless they would knock a hole through the separating wall on the other side, to balance the bricking-up on this side. They must have thought it all out in detail. Constance revolted.

“Yes!” she said, a little disdainfully. “And my goodwill? Shall you take that at a valuation too?”

Mr. Critchlow glanced at the creature for whom he was ready to scatter thousands of pounds. She might have been a Phryne and he the infatuated fool. He glanced at her as if to say: “We expected this, and this is where we agreed it was to stop.”

“Ay!” he said to Constance. “Show me your goodwill. Lap it up in a bit of paper and hand it over, and I’ll take it at a valuation. But not afore, missis! Not afore! I’m making ye a very good offer. Twenty pound a year, I’ll let ye th’ house for. And take th’ stock at a valuation. Think it over, my lass.”

Having said what he had to say, Charles Critchlow departed, according to his custom. He unceremoniously let himself out by the side door, and passed with wavy apron round the corner of King Street into the Square and so to his own shop, which ignored the Thursday half-holiday. Miss Insull left soon afterwards.

iii

Constance’s pride urged her to refuse the offer. But in truth her sole objection to it was that she had not thought of the scheme herself. For the scheme really reconciled her wish to remain where she was with her wish to be free of the shop.

“I shall make him put me in a new window in the parlour — one that will open!” she said positively to Cyril, who accepted Mr. Critchlow’s idea with fatalistic indifference.

After stipulating for the new window, she closed with the offer. Then there was the stock-taking, which endured for weeks. And then a carpenter came and measured for the window. And a builder and a mason came and inspected doorways, and Constance felt that the end was upon her. She took up the carpet in the parlour and protected the furniture by dustsheets. She and Cyril lived between bare boards and dustsheets for twenty days, and neither carpenter nor mason reappeared. Then one surprising day the old window was removed by the carpenter’s two journeymen, and late in the afternoon the carpenter brought the new window, and the three men worked till ten o’clock at night, fixing it. Cyril wore his cap and went to bed in his cap, and Constance wore a Paisley shawl. A painter had bound himself beyond all possibility of failure to paint the window on the morrow. He was to begin at six a.m.; and Amy’s alarm-clock was altered so that she might be up and dressed to admit him. He came a week later, administered one coat, and vanished for another ten days. Then two masons suddenly came with heavy tools, and were shocked to find that all was not prepared for them. (After three carpetless weeks Constance had relaid her floors.) They tore off wall-paper, sent cascades of plaster down the kitchen steps, withdrew alternate courses of bricks from the walls, and, sated with destruction, hastened away. After four days new red bricks began to arrive, carried by a quite guiltless hodman who had not visited the house before. The hodman met the full storm of Constance’s wrath. It was not a vicious wrath, rather a good-humoured wrath; but it impressed the hodman. “My house hasn’t been fit to live in for a month,” she said in fine. “If these walls aren’t built tomorrow, upstairs AND down — tomorrow, mind! — don’t let any of you dare to show your noses here again, for I won’t have you. Now you’ve brought your bricks. Off with you, and tell your master what I say!”

It was effective. The next day subdued and plausible workmen of all sorts awoke the house with knocking at six-thirty precisely, and the two doorways were slowly bricked up. The curious thing was that, when the barrier was already a foot high on the ground-floor Constance remembered small possessions of her own which she had omitted to remove from the cutting-out room. Picking up her skirts, she stepped over into the region that was no more hers, and stepped back with the goods. She had a bandanna round her head to keep the thick dust out of her hair. She was very busy, very preoccupied with nothings. She had no time for sentimentalities. Yet when the men arrived at the topmost course and were at last hidden behind their own erection, and she could see only rough bricks and mortar, she was disconcertingly overtaken by a misty blindness and could not even see bricks and mortar. Cyril found her, with her absurd bandanna, weeping in a sheet-covered rocking-chair in the sacked parlour. He whistled uneasily, remarked: “I say, mother, what about tea?” and then, hearing the heavy voices of workmen above, ran with relief upstairs. Tea had been set in the drawing-room, he was glad to learn that from Amy, who informed him also that she should ‘never get used to them there new walls,’ not as long as she lived.

He went to the School of Art that night. Constance, alone, could find nothing to do. She had willed that the walls should be built, and they had been built; but days must elapse before they could be plastered, and after the plaster still more days before the papering. Not for another month, perhaps, would her house be free of workmen and ripe for her own labours. She could only sit in the dust-drifts and contemplate the havoc of change, and keep her eyes as dry as she could. The legal transactions were all but complete; little bills announcing the transfer of the business lay on the counters in the shop at the disposal of customers. In two days Charles Critchlow would pay the price of a desire realized. The sign was painted out and new letters sketched thereon in chalk. In future she would be compelled, if she wished to enter the shop, to enter it as a customer and from the front. Yes, she saw that, though the house remained hers, the root of her life had been wrenched up.

And the mess! It seemed inconceivable that the material mess could ever be straightened away!

Yet, ere the fields of the county were first covered with snow that season, only one sign survived of the devastating revolution, and that was a loose sheet of wall-paper that had been too soon pasted on to new plaster and would not stick. Maria Insull was Maria Critchlow. Constance had been out into the Square and seen the altered sign, and seen Mrs. Critchlow’s taste in window-curtains, and seen — most impressive sight of all — that the grimy window of the abandoned room at the top of the abandoned staircase next to the bedroom of her girlhood, had been cleaned and a table put in front of it. She knew that the chamber, which she herself had never entered, was to be employed as a storeroom, but the visible proof of its conversion so strangely affected her that she had not felt able to go boldly into the shop, as she had meant to do, and make a few purchases in the way of friendliness. “I’m a silly woman!” she muttered. Later, she did venture, timidly abrupt, into the shop, and was received with fitting state by Mrs. Critchlow (as desiccated as ever), who insisted on allowing her the special trade discount. And she carried her little friendly purchases round to her own door in King Street. Trivial, trivial event! Constance, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, did both. She accused herself of developing a hysterical faculty in tears, and strove sagely against it.

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