The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 8

The Proudest Mother

i

In the year 1893 there was a new and strange man living at No. 4, St. Luke’s Square. Many people remarked on the phenomenon. Very few of his like had ever been seen in Bursley before. One of the striking things about him was the complex way in which he secured himself by means of glittering chains. A chain stretched across his waistcoat, passing through a special button-hole, without a button, in the middle. To this cable were firmly linked a watch at one end and a pencil-case at the other; the chain also served as a protection against a thief who might attempt to snatch the fancy waistcoat entire. Then there were longer chains, beneath the waistcoat, partly designed, no doubt, to deflect bullets, but serving mainly to enable the owner to haul up penknives, cigarette-cases, match-boxes, and key-rings from the profundities of hip-pockets. An essential portion of the man’s braces, visible sometimes when he played at tennis, consisted of chain, and the upper and nether halves of his cuff-links were connected by chains. Occasionally he was to be seen chained to a dog.

A reversion, conceivably, to a mediaeval type! Yes, but also the exemplar of the excessively modern! Externally he was a consequence of the fact that, years previously, the leading tailor in Bursley had permitted his son to be apprenticed in London. The father died; the son had the wit to return and make a fortune while creating a new type in the town, a type of which multiple chains were but one feature, and that the least expensive if the most salient. For instance, up to the historic year in which the young tailor created the type, any cap was a cap in Bursley, and any collar was a collar. But thenceforward no cap was a cap, and no collar was a collar, which did not exactly conform in shape and material to certain sacred caps and collars guarded by the young tailor in his back shop. None knew why these sacred caps and collars were sacred, but they were; their sacredness endured for about six months, and then suddenly — again none knew why — they fell from their estate and became lower than offal for dogs, and were supplanted on the altar. The type brought into existence by the young tailor was to be recognized by its caps and collars, and in a similar manner by every other article of attire, except its boots. Unfortunately the tailor did not sell boots, and so imposed on his creatures no mystical creed as to boots. This was a pity, for the boot-makers of the town happened not to be inflamed by the type-creating passion as the tailor was, and thus the new type finished abruptly at the edges of the tailor’s trousers.

The man at No. 4, St. Luke’s Square had comparatively small and narrow feet, which gave him an advantage; and as he was endowed with a certain vague general physical distinction he managed, despite the eternal untidiness of his hair, to be eminent among the type. Assuredly the frequent sight of him in her house flattered the pride of Constance’s eye, which rested on him almost always with pleasure. He had come into the house with startling abruptness soon after Cyril left school and was indentured to the head-designer at “Peel’s,” that classic earthenware manufactory. The presence of a man in her abode disconcerted Constance at the beginning; but she soon grew accustomed to it, perceiving that a man would behave as a man, and must be expected to do so. This man, in truth, did what he liked in all things. Cyril having always been regarded by both his parents as enormous, one would have anticipated a giant in the new man; but, queerly, he was slim, and little above the average height. Neither in enormity nor in many other particulars did he resemble the Cyril whom he had supplanted. His gestures were lighter and quicker; he had nothing of Cyril’s ungainliness; he had not Cyril’s limitless taste for sweets, nor Cyril’s terrific hatred of gloves, barbers, and soap. He was much more dreamy than Cyril, and much busier. In fact, Constance only saw him at meal-times. He was at Peel’s in the day and at the School of Art every night. He would dream during a meal, even; and, without actually saying so, he gave the impression that he was the busiest man in Bursley, wrapped in occupations and preoccupations as in a blanket — a blanket which Constance had difficulty in penetrating.

Constance wanted to please him; she lived for nothing but to please him; he was, however, exceedingly difficult to please, not in the least because he was hypercritical and exacting, but because he was indifferent. Constance, in order to satisfy her desire of pleasing, had to make fifty efforts, in the hope that he might chance to notice one. He was a good man, amazingly industrious — when once Constance had got him out of bed in the morning; with no vices; kind, save when Constance mistakenly tried to thwart him; charming, with a curious strain of humour that Constance only half understood. Constance was unquestionably vain about him, and she could honestly find in him little to blame. But whereas he was the whole of her universe, she was merely a dim figure in the background of his. Every now and then, with his gentle, elegant raillery, he would apparently rediscover her, as though saying: “Ah! You’re still there, are you?” Constance could not meet him on the plane where his interests lay, and he never knew the passionate intensity of her absorption in that minor part of his life which moved on her plane. He never worried about her solitude, or guessed that in throwing her a smile and a word at supper he was paying her meagrely for three hours of lone rocking in a rocking-chair.

The worst of it was that she was quite incurable. No experience would suffice to cure her trick of continually expecting him to notice things which he never did notice. One day he said, in the midst of a silence: “By the way, didn’t father leave any boxes of cigars?” She had the steps up into her bedroom and reached down from the dusty top of the wardrobe the box which she had put there after Samuel’s funeral. In handing him the box she was doing a great deed. His age was nineteen and she was ratifying his precocious habit of smoking by this solemn gift. He entirely ignored the box for several days. She said timidly: “Have you tried those cigars?” “Not yet,” he replied. “I’ll try ’em one of these days.” Ten days later, on a Sunday when he chanced not to have gone out with his aristocratic friend Matthew Peel–Swynnerton, he did at length open the box and take out a cigar. “Now,” he observed roguishly, cutting the cigar, “we shall see, Mrs. Plover!” He often called her Mrs. Plover, for fun. Though she liked him to be sufficiently interested in her to tease her, she did not like being called Mrs. Plover, and she never failed to say: “I’m not Mrs. Plover.” He smoked the cigar slowly, in the rocking-chair, throwing his head back and sending clouds to the ceiling. And afterwards he remarked: “The old man’s cigars weren’t so bad.” “Indeed!” she answered tartly, as if maternally resenting this easy patronage. But in secret she was delighted. There was something in her son’s favourable verdict on her husband’s cigars that thrilled her.

And she looked at him. Impossible to see in him any resemblance to his father! Oh! He was a far more brilliant, more advanced, more complicated, more seductive being than his homely father! She wondered where he had come from. And yet . . .! If his father had lived, what would have occurred between them? Would the boy have been openly smoking cigars in the house at nineteen?

She laboriously interested herself, so far as he would allow, in his artistic studies and productions. A back attic on the second floor was now transformed into a studio — a naked apartment which smelt of oil and of damp clay. Often there were traces of clay on the stairs. For working in clay he demanded of his mother a smock, and she made a smock, on the model of a genuine smock which she obtained from a country-woman who sold eggs and butter in the Covered Market. Into the shoulders of the smock she put a week’s fancy-stitching, taking the pattern from an old book of embroidery. One day when he had seen her stitching morn, noon, and afternoon, at the smock, he said, as she rocked idly after supper: “I suppose you haven’t forgotten all about the smock I asked you for, have you, mater?” She knew that he was teasing her; but, while perfectly realizing how foolish she was, she nearly always acted as though his teasing was serious; she picked up the smock again from the sofa. When the smock was finished he examined it intently; then exclaimed with an air of surprise: “By Jove! That’s beautiful! Where did you get this pattern?” He continued to stare at it, smiling in pleasure. He turned over the tattered leaves of the embroidery-book with the same naive, charmed astonishment, and carried the book away to the studio. “I must show that to Swynnerton,” he said. As for her, the epithet ‘beautiful’ seemed a strange epithet to apply to a mere piece of honest stitchery done in a pattern, and a stitch with which she had been familiar all her life. The fact was she understood his ‘art’ less and less. The sole wall decoration of his studio was a Japanese print, which struck her as being entirely preposterous, considered as a picture. She much preferred his own early drawings of moss-roses and picturesque castles — things that he now mercilessly contemned. Later, he discovered her cutting out another smock. “What’s that for?” he inquired. “Well,” she said, “you can’t manage with one smock. What shall you do when that one has to go to the wash?” “Wash!” he repeated vaguely. “There’s no need for it to go to the wash.” “Cyril,” she replied, “don’t try my patience! I was thinking of making you half-a-dozen.” He whistled. “With all that stitching?” he questioned, amazed at the undertaking. “Why not?” she said. In her young days, no seamstress ever made fewer than half-a-dozen of anything, and it was usually a dozen; it was sometimes half-a-dozen dozen. “Well,” he murmured, “you have got a nerve! I’ll say that.” Similar things happened whenever he showed that he was pleased. If he said of a dish, in the local tongue: “I could do a bit of that!” or if he simply smacked his lips over it, she would surfeit him with that dish.

ii

On a hot day in August, just before they were to leave Bursley for a month in the Isle of Man, Cyril came home, pale and perspiring, and dropped on to the sofa. He wore a grey alpaca suit, and, except his hair, which in addition to being very untidy was damp with sweat, he was a masterpiece of slim elegance, despite the heat. He blew out great sighs, and rested his head on the antimacassared arm of the sofa.

“Well, mater,” he said, in a voice of factitious calm, “I’ve got it.” He was looking up at the ceiling.

“Got what?”

“The National Scholarship. Swynnerton says it’s a sheer fluke. But I’ve got it. Great glory for the Bursley School of Art!”

“National Scholarship?” she said. “What’s that? What is it?”

“Now, mother!” he admonished her, not without testiness. “Don’t go and say I’ve never breathed a word about it!”

He lit a cigarette, to cover his self-consciousness, for he perceived that she was moved far beyond the ordinary.

Never, in fact, not even by the death of her husband, had she received such a frightful blow as that which the dreamy Cyril had just dealt her.

It was not a complete surprise, but it was nearly a complete surprise. A few months previously he certainly had mentioned, in his incidental way, the subject of a National Scholarship. Apropos of a drinking-cup which he had designed, he had said that the director of the School of Art had suggested that it was good enough to compete for the National, and that as he was otherwise qualified for the competition he might as well send the cup to South Kensington. He had added that Peel–Swynnerton had laughed at the notion as absurd. On that occasion she had comprehended that a National Scholarship involved residence in London. She ought to have begun to live in fear, for Cyril had a most disturbing habit of making a mere momentary reference to matters which he deemed very important and which occupied a large share of his attention. He was secretive by nature, and the rigidity of his father’s rule had developed this trait in his character. But really he had spoken of the competition with such an extreme casualness that with little effort she had dismissed it from her anxieties as involving a contingency so remote as to be negligible. She had, genuinely, almost forgotten it. Only at rare intervals had it wakened in her a dull transitory pain — like the herald of a fatal malady. And, as a woman in the opening stage of disease, she had hastily reassured herself: “How silly of me! This can’t possibly be anything serious!”

And now she was condemned. She knew it. She knew there could be no appeal. She knew that she might as usefully have besought mercy from a tiger as from her good, industrious, dreamy son.

“It means a pound a week,” said Cyril, his self-consciousness intensified by her silence and by the dreadful look on her face. “And of course free tuition.”

“For how long?” she managed to say.

“Well,” said he, “that depends. Nominally for a year. But if you behave yourself it’s always continued for three years.” If he stayed for three years he would never come back: that was a certainty.

How she rebelled, furious and despairing, against the fortuitous cruelty of things! She was sure that he had not, till then, thought seriously of going to London. But the fact that the Government would admit him free to its classrooms and give him a pound a week besides, somehow forced him to go to London. It was not the lack of means that would have prevented him from going. Why, then, should the presence of means induce him to go? There was no logical reason. The whole affair was disastrously absurd. The art-master at the Wedgwood Institution had chanced, merely chanced, to suggest that the drinking-cup should be sent to South Kensington. And the result of this caprice was that she was sentenced to solitude for life! It was too monstrously, too incredibly wicked!

With what futile and bitter execration she murmured in her heart the word ‘If.’ If Cyril’s childish predilections had not been encouraged! If he had only been content to follow his father’s trade! If she had flatly refused to sign his indenture at Peel’s and pay the premium! If he had not turned from, colour to clay! If the art-master had not had that fatal ‘idea’! If the judges for the competition had decided otherwise! If only she had brought Cyril up in habits of obedience, sacrificing temporary peace to permanent security!

For after all he could not abandon her without her consent. He was not of age. And he would want a lot more money, which he could obtain from none but her. She could refuse. . . .

No! She could not refuse. He was the master, the tyrant. For the sake of daily pleasantness she had weakly yielded to him at the start! She had behaved badly to herself and to him. He was spoiled. She had spoiled him. And he was about to repay her with lifelong misery, and nothing would deflect him from his course. The usual conduct of the spoilt child! Had she not witnessed it, and moralized upon it, in other families?

“You don’t seem very chirpy over it, mater!” he said.

She went out of the room. His joy in the prospect of departure from the Five Towns, from her, though he masked it, was more manifest than she could bear.

The Signal, the next day, made a special item of the news. It appeared that no National Scholarship had been won in the Five Towns for eleven years. The citizens were exhorted to remember that Mr. Povey had gained his success in open competition with the cleverest young students of the entire kingdom — and in a branch of art which he had but recently taken up; and further, that the Government offered only eight scholarships each year. The name of Cyril Povey passed from lip to lip. And nobody who met Constance, in street or shop, could refrain from informing her that she ought to be a proud mother, to have such a son, but that truly they were not surprised . . . and how proud his poor father would have been! A few sympathetically hinted that maternal pride was one of those luxuries that may cost too dear.

iii

The holiday in the Isle of Man was of course ruined for her. She could scarcely walk because of the weight of a lump of lead that she carried in her bosom. On the brightest days the lump of lead was always there. Besides, she was so obese. In ordinary circumstances they might have stayed beyond the month. An indentured pupil is not strapped to the wheel like a common apprentice. Moreover, the indentures were to be cancelled. But Constance did not care to stay. She had to prepare for his departure to London. She had to lay the faggots for her own martyrdom.

In this business of preparation she showed as much silliness, she betrayed as perfect a lack of perspective, as the most superior son could desire for a topic of affectionate irony. Her preoccupation with petty things of no importance whatever was worthy of the finest traditions of fond motherhood. However, Cyril’s careless satire had no effect on her, save that once she got angry, thereby startling him; he quite correctly and sagely laid this unprecedented outburst to the account of her wrought nerves, and forgave it. Happily for the smoothness of Cyril’s translation to London, young Peel–Swynnerton was acquainted with the capital, had a brother in Chelsea, knew of reputable lodgings, was, indeed, an encyclopaedia of the town, and would himself spend a portion of the autumn there. Otherwise, the preliminaries which his mother would have insisted on by means of tears and hysteria might have proved fatiguing to Cyril.

The day came when on that day week Cyril would be gone. Constance steadily fabricated cheerfulness against the prospect. She said:

“Suppose I come with you?”

He smiled in toleration of this joke as being a passable quality of joke. And then she smiled in the same sense, hastening to agree with him that as a joke it was not a bad joke.

In the last week he was very loyal to his tailor. Many a young man would have commanded new clothes after, not before, his arrival in London. But Cyril had faith in his creator.

On the day of departure the household, the very house itself, was in a state of excitation. He was to leave early. He would not listen to the project of her accompanying him as far as Knype, where the Loop Line joined the main. She might go to Bursley Station and no further. When she rebelled he disclosed the merest hint of his sullen-churlish side, and she at once yielded. During breakfast she did not cry, but the aspect of her face made him protest.

“Now, look here, mater! Just try to remember that I shall be back for Christmas. It’s barely three months.” And he lit a cigarette.

She made no reply.

Amy lugged a Gladstone bag down the crooked stairs. A trunk was already close to the door; it had wrinkled the carpet and deranged the mat.

“You didn’t forget to put the hair-brush in, did you, Amy?” he asked.

“N— no, Mr. Cyril,” she blubbered.

“Amy!” Constance sharply corrected her, as Cyril ran upstairs, “I wonder you can’t control yourself better than that.”

Amy weakly apologized. Although treated almost as one of the family, she ought not to have forgotten that she was a servant. What right had she to weep over Cyril’s luggage? This question was put to her in Constance’s tone.

The cab came. Cyril tumbled downstairs with exaggerated carelessness, and with exaggerated carelessness he joked at the cabman.

“Now, mother!” he cried, when the luggage was stowed. “Do you want me to miss this train?” But he knew that the margin of time was ample. It was his fun!

“Nay, I can’t be hurried!” she said, fixing her bonnet. “Amy, as soon as we are gone you can clear this table.”

She climbed heavily into the cab.

“That’s it! Smash the springs!” Cyril teased her.

The horse got a stinging cut to recall him to the seriousness of life. It was a fine, bracing autumn morning, and the driver felt the need of communicating his abundant energy to some one or something. They drove off, Amy staring after them from the door. Matters had been so marvellously well arranged that they arrived at the station twenty minutes before the train was due.

“Never mind!” Cyril mockingly comforted his mother. “You’d rather be twenty minutes too soon than one minute too late, wouldn’t you?”

His high spirits had to come out somehow.

Gradually the minutes passed, and the empty slate-tinted platform became dotted with people to whom that train was nothing but a Loop Line train, people who took that train every week-day of their lives and knew all its eccentricities.

And they heard the train whistle as it started from Turnhill. And Cyril had a final word with the porter who was in charge of the luggage. He made a handsome figure, and he had twenty pounds in his pocket. When he returned to Constance she was sniffing, and through her veil he could see that her eyes were circled with red. But through her veil she could see nothing. The train rolled in, rattling to a standstill. Constance lifted her veil and kissed him; and kissed her life out. He smelt the odour of her crape. He was, for an instant, close to her, close; and he seemed to have an overwhelmingly intimate glimpse into her secrets; he seemed to be choked in the sudden strong emotion of that crape. He felt queer.

“Here you are, sir! Second smoker!” called the porter.

The daily frequenters of the train boarded it with their customary disgust.

“I’ll write as soon as ever I get there!” said Cyril, of his own accord. It was the best he could muster.

With what grace he raised his hat!

A sliding-away; clouds of steam; and she shared the dead platform with milk-cans, two porters, and Smith’s noisy boy!

She walked home, very slowly and painfully. The lump of lead was heavier than ever before. And the townspeople saw the proudest mother in Bursley walking home.

“After all,” she argued with her soul angrily, petulantly, “could you expect the boy to do anything else? He is a serious student, he has had a brilliant success, and is he to be tied to your apron-strings? The idea is preposterous. It isn’t as if he was an idler, or a bad son. No mother could have a better son. A nice thing, that he should stay all his life in Bursley simply because you don’t like being left alone!”

Unfortunately one might as well argue with a mule as with one’s soul. Her soul only kept on saying monotonously: “I’m a lonely old woman now. I’ve nothing to live for any more, and I’m no use to anybody. Once I was young and proud. And this is what my life has come to! This is the end!”

When she reached home, Amy had not touched the breakfast things; the carpet was still wrinkled, and the mat still out of place. And, through the desolating atmosphere of reaction after a terrific crisis, she marched directly upstairs, entered his plundered room, and beheld the disorder of the bed in which he had slept.

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