The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 2

The Meeting

i

Soon after dinner one day in the following spring, Mr. Critchlow knocked at Constance’s door. She was seated in the rocking-chair in front of the fire in the parlour. She wore a large ‘rough’ apron, and with the outlying parts of the apron she was rubbing the moisture out of the coat of a young wire-haired fox-terrier, for whom no more original name had been found than ‘Spot.’ It is true that he had a spot. Constance had more than once called the world to witness that she would never have a young dog again, because, as she said, she could not be always running about after them, and they ate the stuffing out of the furniture. But her last dog had lived too long; a dog can do worse things than eat furniture; and, in her natural reaction against age in dogs, and also in the hope of postponing as long as possible the inevitable sorrow and upset which death causes when it takes off a domestic pet, she had not known how to refuse the very desirable fox-terrier aged ten months that an acquaintance had offered to her. Spot’s beautiful pink skin could be seen under his disturbed hair; he was exquisitely soft to the touch, and to himself he was loathsome. His eyes continually peeped forth between corners of the agitated towel, and they were full of inquietude and shame.

Amy was assisting at this performance, gravely on the watch to see that Spot did not escape into the coal-cellar. She opened the door to Mr. Critchlow’s knock. Mr. Critchlow entered without any formalities, as usual. He did not seem to have changed. He had the same quantity of white hair, he wore the same long white apron, and his voice (which showed however an occasional tendency to shrillness) had the same grating quality. He stood fairly straight. He was carrying a newspaper in his vellum hand.

“Well, missis!” he said.

“That will do, thank you, Amy,” said Constance, quietly. Amy went slowly.

“So ye’re washing him for her!” said Mr. Critchlow.

“Yes,” Constance admitted. Spot glanced sharply at the aged man.

“An’ ye seen this bit in the paper about Sophia?” he asked, holding the Signal for her inspection.

“About Sophia?” cried Constance. “What’s amiss?”

“Nothing’s amiss. But they’ve got it. It’s in the ‘Staffordshire day by day’ column. Here! I’ll read it ye.” He drew a long wooden spectacle-case from his waistcoat pocket, and placed a second pair of spectacles on his nose. Then he sat down on the sofa, his knees sticking out pointedly, and read: “‘We understand that Mrs. Sophia Scales, proprietress of the famous Pension Frensham in the Rue Lord Byron, Paris’— it’s that famous that nobody in th’ Five Towns has ever heard of it —‘is about to pay a visit to her native town, Bursley, after an absence of over thirty years. Mrs. Scales belonged to the well-known and highly respected family of Baines. She has recently disposed of the Pension Frensham to a limited company, and we are betraying no secret in stating that the price paid ran well into five figures.’ So ye see!” Mr. Critchlow commented.

“How do those Signal people find out things?” Constance murmured.

“Eh, bless ye, I don’t know,” said Mr. Critchlow.

This was an untruth. Mr. Critchlow had himself given the information to the new editor of the Signal, who had soon been made aware of Critchlow’s passion for the press, and who knew how to make use of it.

“I wish it hadn’t appeared just today,” said Constance.

“Why?”

“Oh! I don’t know, I wish it hadn’t.”

“Well, I’ll be touring on, missis,” said Mr. Critchlow, meaning that he would go.

He left the paper, and descended the steps with senile deliberation. It was characteristic that he had shown no curiosity whatever as to the details of Sophia’s arrival.

Constance removed her apron, wrapped Spot up in it, and put him in a corner of the sofa. She then abruptly sent Amy out to buy a penny time-table.

“I thought you were going by tram to Knype,” Amy observed.

“I have decided to go by train,” said Constance, with cold dignity, as if she had decided the fate of nations. She hated such observations from Amy, who unfortunately lacked, in an increasing degree, the supreme gift of unquestioning obedience.

When Amy came breathlessly back, she found Constance in her bedroom, withdrawing crumpled balls of paper from the sleeves of her second-best mantle. Constance scarcely ever wore this mantle. In theory it was destined for chapel on wet Sundays; in practice it had remained long in the wardrobe, Sundays having been obstinately fine for weeks and weeks together. It was a mantle that Constance had never really liked. But she was not going to Knype to meet Sophia in her everyday mantle; and she had no intention of donning her best mantle for such an excursion. To make her first appearance before Sophia in the best mantle she had — this would have been a sad mistake of tactics! Not only would it have led to an anti-climax on Sunday, but it would have given to Constance the air of being in awe of Sophia. Now Constance was in truth a little afraid of Sophia; in thirty years Sophia might have grown into anything, whereas Constance had remained just Constance. Paris was a great place; and it was immensely far off. And the mere sound of that limited company business was intimidating. Imagine Sophia having by her own efforts created something which a real limited company wanted to buy and had bought! Yes, Constance was afraid, but she did not mean to show her fear in her mantle. After all, she was the elder. And she had her dignity too — and a lot of it — tucked away in her secret heart, hidden within the mildness of that soft exterior. So she had decided on the second-best mantle, which, being seldom used, had its sleeves stuffed with paper to the end that they might keep their shape and their ‘fall.’ The little balls of paper were strewed over the bed.

“There’s a train at a quarter to three, gets to Knype at ten minutes past.” said Amy. officiously. “But supposing it was only three minutes late and the London train was prompt, then you might miss her. Happen you’d better take the two fifteen to be on the safe side.”

“Let me look,” said Constance, firmly. “Please put all this paper in the wardrobe.”

She would have preferred not to follow Amy’s suggestion, but it was so incontestably wise that she was obliged to accept it.

“Unless ye go by tram,” said Amy. “That won’t mean starting quite so soon.”

But Constance would not go by tram. If she took the tram she would be bound to meet people who had read the Signal, and who would say, with their stupid vacuity: “Going to meet your sister at Knype?” And then tiresome conversations would follow. Whereas, in the train, she would choose a compartment, and would be far less likely to encounter chatterers.

There was now not a minute to lose. And the excitement which had been growing in that house for days past, under a pretence of calm, leapt out swiftly into the light of the sun, and was unashamed. Amy had to help her mistress make herself as comely as she could be made without her best dress, mantle, and bonnet. Amy was frankly consulted as to effects. The barrier of class was lowered for a space. Many years had elapsed since Constance had been conscious of a keen desire to look smart. She was reminded of the days when, in full fig for chapel, she would dash downstairs on a Sunday morning, and, assuming a pose for inspection at the threshold of the parlour, would demand of Samuel: “Shall I do?” Yes, she used to dash downstairs, like a child, and yet in those days she had thought herself so sedate and mature! She sighed, half with lancinating regret, and half in gentle disdain of that mercurial creature aged less than thirty. At fifty-one she regarded herself as old. And she was old. And Amy had the tricks and manners of an old spinster. Thus the excitement in the house was an ‘old’ excitement, and, like Constance’s desire to look smart, it had its ridiculous side, which was also its tragic side, the side that would have made a boor guffaw, and a hysterical fool cry, and a wise man meditate sadly upon the earth’s fashion of renewing itself.

At half-past one Constance was dressed, with the exception of her gloves. She looked at the clock a second time to make sure that she might safely glance round the house without fear of missing the train. She went up into the bedroom on the second-floor, her and Sophia’s old bedroom, which she had prepared with enormous care for Sophia. The airing of that room had been an enterprise of days, for, save by a minister during the sittings of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference at Bursley, it had never been occupied since the era when Maria Insull used occasionally to sleep in the house. Cyril clung to his old room on his visits. Constance had an ample supply of solid and stately furniture, and the chamber destined for Sophia was lightened in every corner by the reflections of polished mahogany. It was also fairly impregnated with the odour of furniture paste — an odour of which no housewife need be ashamed. Further, it had been repapered in a delicate blue, with one of the new ‘art’ patterns. It was a ‘Baines’ room. And Constance did not care where Sophia came from, nor what Sophia had been accustomed to, nor into what limited company Sophia had been transformed — that room was adequate! It could not have been improved upon. You had only to look at the crocheted mats — even those on the washstand under the white-and-gold ewer and other utensils. It was folly to expose such mats to the splashings of a washstand, but it was sublime folly. Sophia might remove them if she cared. Constance was house-proud; house-pride had slumbered within her; now it blazed forth.

A fire brightened the drawing-room, which was a truly magnificent apartment, a museum of valuables collected by the Baines and the Maddack families since the year 1840, tempered by the latest novelties in antimacassars and cloths. In all Bursley there could have been few drawing-rooms to compare with Constance’s. Constance knew it. She was not afraid of her drawing-room being seen by anybody.

She passed for an instant into her own bedroom, where Amy was patiently picking balls of paper from the bed.

“Now you quite understand about tea?” Constance asked.

“Oh yes, ‘m,” said Amy, as if to say: “How much oftener are you going to ask me that question?” “Are you off now, ‘m?”

“Yes,” said Constance. “Come and fasten the front-door after me.”

They descended together to the parlour. A white cloth for tea lay folded on the table. It was of the finest damask that skill could choose and money buy. It was fifteen years old, and had never been spread. Constance would not have produced it for the first meal, had she not possessed two other of equal eminence. On the harmonium were ranged several jams and cakes, a Bursley pork-pie, and some pickled salmon; with the necessary silver. All was there. Amy could not go wrong. And crocuses were in the vases on the mantelpiece. Her ‘garden,’ in the phrase which used to cause Samuel to think how extraordinarily feminine she was! It was a long time since she had had a ‘garden’ on the mantelpiece. Her interest in her chronic sciatica and in her palpitations had grown at the expense of her interest in gardens. Often, when she had finished the complicated processes by which her furniture and other goods were kept in order, she had strength only to ‘rest.’ She was rather a fragile, small, fat woman, soon out of breath, easily marred. This business of preparing for the advent of Sophia had appeared to her genuinely colossal. However, she had come through it very well. She was in pretty good health; only a little tired, and more than a little anxious and nervous, as she gave the last glance.

“Take away that apron, do!” she said to Amy, pointing to the rough apron in the corner of the sofa. “By the way, where is Spot?”

“Spot, m’m?” Amy ejaculated.

Both their hearts jumped. Amy instinctively looked out of the window. He was there, sure enough, in the gutter, studying the indescribabilities of King Street. He had obviously escaped when Amy came in from buying the time-table. The woman’s face was guilty.

“Amy, I wonder AT you!” exclaimed Constance, tragically. She opened the door.

“Well, I never did see the like of that dog!” murmured Amy.

“Spot!” his mistress commanded. “Come here at once. Do you hear me?”

Spot turned sharply and gazed motionless at Constance. Then with a toss of the head he dashed off to the corner of the Square, and gazed motionless again. Amy went forth to catch him. After an age she brought him in, squealing. He was in a state exceedingly offensive to the eye and to the nose. He had effectively got rid of the smell of soap, which he loathed. Constance could have wept. It did really appear to her that nothing had gone right that day. And Spot had the most innocent, trustful air. Impossible to make him realize that his aunt Sophia was coming. He would have sold his entire family into servitude in order to buy ten yards of King Street gutter.

“You must wash him in the scullery, that’s all there is for it,” said Constance, controlling herself. “Put that apron on, and don’t forget one of your new aprons when you open the door. Better shut him up in Mr. Cyril’s bedroom when you’ve dried him.”

And she went, charged with worries, clasping her bag and her umbrella and smoothing her gloves, and spying downwards at the folds of her mantle.

“That’s a funny way to go to Bursley Station, that is,” said Amy, observing that Constance was descending King Street instead of crossing it into Wedgwood Street. And she caught Spot ‘a fair clout on the head,’ to indicate to him that she had him alone in the house now.

Constance was taking a round-about route to the station, so that, if stopped by acquaintances, she should not be too obviously going to the station. Her feelings concerning the arrival of Sophia, and concerning the town’s attitude towards it, were very complex.

She was forced to hurry. And she had risen that morning with plans perfectly contrived for the avoidance of hurry. She disliked hurry because it always ‘put her about.’

ii

The express from London was late, so that Constance had three-quarters of an hour of the stony calmness of Knype platform when it is waiting for a great train. At last the porters began to cry, “Macclesfield, Stockport, and Manchester train;” the immense engine glided round the curve, dwarfing the carriages behind it, and Constance had a supreme tremor. The calmness of the platform was transformed into a melee. Little Constance found herself left on the fringe of a physically agitated crowd which was apparently trying to scale a precipice surmounted by windows and doors from whose apertures looked forth defenders of the train. Knype platform seemed as if it would never be reduced to order again. And Constance did not estimate highly the chances of picking out an unknown Sophia from that welter. She was very seriously perturbed. All the muscles of her face were drawn as her gaze wandered anxiously from end to end of the train.

Presently she saw a singular dog. Other people also saw it. It was of the colour of chocolate; it had a head and shoulders richly covered with hair that hung down in thousands of tufts like the tufts of a modern mop such as is bought in shops. This hair stopped suddenly rather less than halfway along the length of the dog’s body, the remainder of which was naked and as smooth as marble. The effect was to give to the inhabitants of the Five Towns the impression that the dog had forgotten an essential part of its attire and was outraging decency. The ball of hair which had been allowed to grow on the dog’s tail, and the circles of hair which ornamented its ankles, only served to intensify the impression of indecency. A pink ribbon round its neck completed the outrage. The animal had absolutely the air of a decked trollop. A chain ran taut from the creature’s neck into the middle of a small crowd of persons gesticulating over trunks, and Constance traced it to a tall and distinguished woman in a coat and skirt with a rather striking hat. A beautiful and aristocratic woman, Constance thought, at a distance! Then the strange idea came to her: “That’s Sophia!” She was sure. . . . She was not sure. . . . She was sure. The woman emerged from the crowd. Her eye fell on Constance. They both hesitated, and, as it were, wavered uncertainly towards each other.

“I should have known you anywhere,” said Sophia, with apparently careless tranquillity, as she stooped to kiss Constance, raising her veil.

Constance saw that this marvellous tranquillity must be imitated, and she imitated it very well. It was a ‘Baines’ tranquillity. But she noticed a twitching of her sister’s lips. The twitching comforted Constance, proving to her that she was not alone in foolishness. There was also something queer about the permanent lines of Sophia’s mouth. That must be due to the ‘attack’ about which Sophia had written.

“Did Cyril meet you?” asked Constance. It was all that she could think of to say.

“Oh yes!” said Sophia, eagerly. “And I went to his studio, and he saw me off at Euston. He is a VERY nice boy. I love him.”

She said ‘I love him’ with the intonation of Sophia aged fifteen. Her tone and imperious gesture sent Constance flying back to the ‘sixties. “She hasn’t altered one bit,” Constance thought with joy. “Nothing could change Sophia.” And at the back of that notion was a more general notion: “Nothing could change a Baines.” It was true that Constance’s Sophia had not changed. Powerful individualities remain undisfigured by no matter what vicissitudes. After this revelation of the original Sophia, arising as it did out of praise of Cyril, Constance felt easier, felt reassured.

“This is Fossette,” said Sophia, pulling at the chain.

Constance knew not what to reply. Surely Sophia could not be aware what she did in bringing such a dog to a place where people were so particular as they are in the Five Towns.

“Fossette!” She repeated the name in an endearing accent, half stooping towards the dog. After all, it was not the dog’s fault. Sophia had certainly mentioned a dog in her letters, but she had not prepared Constance for the spectacle of Fossette.

All that happened in a moment. A porter appeared with two trunks belonging to Sophia. Constance observed that they were superlatively ‘good’ trunks; also that Sophia’s clothes, though ‘on the showy side,’ were superlatively ‘good.’ The getting of Sophia’s ticket to Bursley occupied them next, and soon the first shock of meeting had worn off.

In a second-class compartment of the Loop Line train, with Sophia and Fossette opposite to her, Constance had leisure to ‘take in’ Sophia. She came to the conclusion that, despite her slenderness and straightness and the general effect of the long oval of her face under the hat, Sophia looked her age. She saw that Sophia must have been through a great deal; her experiences were damagingly printed in the details of feature. Seen at a distance, she might have passed for a woman of thirty, even for a girl, but seen across a narrow railway carriage she was a woman whom suffering had aged. Yet obviously her spirit was unbroken. Hear her tell a doubtful porter that of course she should take Fossette with her into the carriage! See her shut the carriage door with the expressed intention of keeping other people out! She was accustomed to command. At the same time her face had an almost set smile, as though she had said to herself: “I will die smiling.” Constance felt sorry for her. While recognizing in Sophia a superior in charm, in experience, in knowledge of the world and in force of personality, she yet with a kind of undisturbed, fundamental superiority felt sorry for Sophia.

“What do you think?” said Sophia, absently fingering Fossette. “A man came up to me at Euston, while Cyril was getting my ticket, and said, ‘Eh, Miss Baines, I haven’t seen ye for over thirty years, but I know you’re Miss Baines, or WERE— and you’re looking bonny.’ Then he went off. I think it must have been Holl, the grocer.”

“Had he got a long white beard?”

“Yes.”

“Then it was Mr. Holl. He’s been Mayor twice. He’s an alderman, you know.”

“Really!” said Sophia. “But wasn’t it queer?”

“Eh! Bless us!” exclaimed Constance. “Don’t talk about queer! It’s terrible how time flies.”

The conversation stopped, and it refused to start again. Two women who are full of affectionate curiosity about each other, and who have not seen each other for thirty years, and who are anxious to confide in each other, ought to discover no difficulty in talking; but somehow these two could not talk. Constance perceived that Sophia was impeded by the same awkwardness as herself.

“Well I never!” cried Sophia, suddenly. She had glanced out of the window and had seen two camels and an elephant in a field close to the line, amid manufactories and warehouses and advertisements of soap.

“Oh!” said Constance. “That’s Barnum’s, you know. They have what they call a central depot here, because it’s the middle of England.” Constance spoke proudly. (After all, there can be only one middle.) It was on her tongue to say, in her ‘tart’ manner, that Fossette ought to be with the camels, but she refrained. Sophia hit on the excellent idea of noting all the buildings that were new to her and all the landmarks that she remembered. It was surprising how little the district had altered.

“Same smoke!” said Sophia.

“Same smoke!” Constance agreed.

“It’s even worse,” said Sophia.

“Do you think so?” Constance was slightly piqued. “But they’re doing something now for smoke abatement.”

“I must have forgotten how dirty it was!” said Sophia. “I suppose that’s it. I’d no idea . . .!”

“Really!” said Constance. Then, in candid admission, “The fact is, it is dirty. You can’t imagine what work it makes, especially with window-curtains.”

As the train puffed under Trafalgar Road, Constance pointed to a new station that was being built there, to be called ‘Trafalgar Road’ station.

“Won’t it be strange?” said she, accustomed to the eternal sequence of Loop Lane stations — Turnhill, Bursley, Bleakridge, Hanbridge, Cauldon, Knype, Trent Vale, and Longshaw. A ‘Trafalgar Road’ inserting itself between Bleakridge and Hanbridge seemed to her excessively curious.

“Yes, I suppose it will,” Sophia agreed.

“But of course it’s not the same to you,” said Constance, dashed. She indicated the glories of Bursley Park, as the train slackened for Bursley, with modesty. Sophia gazed, and vaguely recognized the slopes where she had taken her first walk with Gerald Scales.

Nobody accosted them at Bursley Station, and they drove to the Square in a cab. Amy was at the window; she held up Spot, who was in a plenary state of cleanliness, rivalling the purity of Amy’s apron.

“Good afternoon, m’m,” said Amy, officiously, to Sophia, as Sophia came up the steps.

“Good afternoon, Amy,” Sophia replied. She flattered Amy in thus showing that she was acquainted with her name; but if ever a servant was put into her place by mere tone, Amy was put into her place on that occasion. Constance trembled at Sophia’s frigid and arrogant politeness. Certainly Sophia was not used to being addressed first by servants. But Amy was not quite the ordinary servant. She was much older than the ordinary servant, and she had acquired a partial moral dominion over Constance, though Constance would have warmly denied it. Hence Constance’s apprehension. However, nothing happened. Amy apparently did not feel the snub.

“Take Spot and put him in Mr. Cyril’s bedroom,” Constance murmured to her, as if implying: “Have I not already told you to do that?” The fact was, she was afraid for Spot’s life.

“Now, Fossette!” She welcomed the incoming poodle kindly; the poodle began at once to sniff.

The fat, red cabman was handling the trunks on the pavement, and Amy was upstairs. For a moment the sisters were alone together in the parlour.

“So here I am!” exclaimed the tall, majestic woman of fifty. And her lips twitched again as she looked round the room — so small to her.

“Yes, here you are!” Constance agreed. She bit her lip, and, as a measure of prudence to avoid breaking down, she bustled out to the cabman. A passing instant of emotion, like a fleck of foam on a wide and calm sea!

The cabman blundered up and downstairs with trunks, and saluted Sophia’s haughty generosity, and then there was quietness. Amy was already brewing the tea in the cave. The prepared tea-table in front of the fire made a glittering array.

“Now, what about Fossette?” Constance voiced anxieties that had been growing on her.

“Fossette will be quite right with me,” said Sophia, firmly.

They ascended to the guest’s room, which drew Sophia’s admiration for its prettiness. She hurried to the window and looked out into the Square.

“Would you like a fire?” Constance asked, in a rather perfunctory manner. For a bedroom fire, in seasons of normal health, was still regarded as absurd in the Square.

“Oh, no!” said Sophia; but with a slight failure to rebut the suggestion as utterly ridiculous.

“Sure?” Constance questioned.

“Quite, thank you,” said Sophia.

“Well, I’ll leave you. I expect Amy will have tea ready directly.” She went down into the kitchen. “Amy,” she said, “as soon as we’ve finished tea, light a fire in Mrs. Scales’s bedroom.”

“In the top bedroom, m’m?”

“Yes.”

Constance climbed again to her own bedroom, and shut the door. She needed a moment to herself, in the midst of this terrific affair. She sighed with relief as she removed her mantle. She thought: “At any rate we’ve met, and I’ve got her here. She’s very nice. No, she isn’t a bit altered.” She hesitated to admit that to her Sophia was the least in the world formidable. And so she said once more: “She’s very nice. She isn’t a bit altered.” And then: “Fancy her being here! She really is here.” With her perfect simplicity it did not occur to Constance to speculate as to what Sophia thought of her.

Sophia was downstairs first, and Constance found her looking at the blank wall beyond the door leading to the kitchen steps.

“So this is where you had it bricked up?” said Sophia.

“Yes,” said Constance. “That’s the place.”

“It makes me feel like people feel when they have tickling in a limb that’s been cut off!” said Sophia.

“Oh, Sophia!”

The tea received a great deal of praise from Sophia, but neither of them ate much. Constance found that Sophia was like herself: she had to be particular about her food. She tasted dainties for the sake of tasting, but it was a bird’s pecking. Not the twelfth part of the tea was consumed. They dared not indulge caprices. Only their eyes could feed.

After tea they went up to the drawing-room, and in the corridor had the startling pleasure of seeing two dogs who scurried about after each other in amity. Spot had found Fossette, with the aid of Amy’s incurable carelessness, and had at once examined her with great particularity. She seemed to be of an amiable disposition, and not averse from the lighter distractions. For a long time the sisters sat chatting together in the lit drawing-room to the agreeable sound of happy dogs playing in the dark corridor. Those dogs saved the situation, because they needed constant attention. When the dogs dozed, the sisters began to look through photograph albums, of which Constance had several, bound in plush or morocco. Nothing will sharpen the memory, evoke the past, raise the dead, rejuvenate the ageing, and cause both sighs and smiles, like a collection of photographs gathered together during long years of life. Constance had an astonishing menagerie of unknown cousins and their connections, and of townspeople; she had Cyril at all ages; she had weird daguerreotypes of her parents and their parents. The strangest of all was a portrait of Samuel Povey as an infant in arms. Sophia checked an impulse to laugh at it. But when Constance said: “Isn’t it funny?” she did allow herself to laugh. A photograph of Samuel in the year before his death was really imposing. Sophia stared at it, impressed. It was the portrait of an honest man.

“How long have you been a widow?” Constance asked in a low voice, glancing at upright Sophia over her spectacles, a leaf of the album raised against her finger.

Sophia unmistakably flushed. “I don’t know that I am a widow,” said she, with an air. “My husband left me in 1870, and I’ve never seen nor heard of him since.”

“Oh, my dear!” cried Constance, alarmed and deafened as by a clap of awful thunder. “I thought ye were a widow. Mr. Peel–Swynnerton said he was told positively ye were a widow. That’s why I never. . . . ” She stopped. Her face was troubled.

“Of course I always passed for a widow, over there,” said Sophia.

“Of course,” said Constance quickly. “I see. . . . ”

“And I may be a widow,” said Sophia.

Constance made no remark. This was a blow. Bursley was such a particular place. Doubtless, Gerald Scales had behaved like a scoundrel. That was sure!

When, immediately afterwards, Amy opened the drawing-room door (having first knocked — the practice of encouraging a servant to plunge without warning of any kind into a drawing-room had never been favoured in that house) she saw the sisters sitting rather near to each other at the walnut oval table, Mrs. Scales very upright, and staring into the fire, and Mrs. Povey ‘bunched up’ and staring at the photograph album; both seeming to Amy aged and apprehensive; Mrs. Povey’s hair was quite grey, though Mrs. Scales’ hair was nearly as black as Amy’s own. Mrs. Scales started at the sound of the knock, and turned her head.

“Here’s Mr. and Mrs. Critchlow, m’m,” announced Amy.

The sisters glanced at one another, with lifted foreheads. Then Mrs. Povey spoke to Amy as though visits at half-past eight at night were a customary phenomenon of the household. Nevertheless, she trembled to think what outrageous thing Mr. Critchlow might say to Sophia after thirty years’ absence. The occasion was great, and it might also be terrible.

“Ask them to come up,” she said calmly.

But Amy had the best of that encounter. “I have done,” she replied, and instantly produced them out of the darkness of the corridor. It was providential: the sisters had made no remark that the Critchlows might not hear.

Then Maria Critchlow, simpering, had to greet Sophia. Mrs. Critchlow was very agitated, from sheer nervousness. She curvetted; she almost pranced; and she made noises with her mouth as though she saw some one eating a sour apple. She wanted to show Sophia how greatly she had changed from the young, timid apprentice. Certainly since her marriage she had changed. As manager of other people’s business she had not felt the necessity of being effusive to customers, but as proprietress, anxiety to succeed had dragged her out of her capable and mechanical indifference. It was a pity. Her consistent dullness had had a sort of dignity; but genial, she was merely ridiculous. Animation cruelly displayed her appalling commonness and physical shabbiness. Sophia’s demeanour was not chilly; but it indicated that Sophia had no wish to be eyed over as a freak of nature.

Mr. Critchlow advanced very slowly into the room. “Ye still carry your head on a stiff neck,” said he, deliberately examining Sophia. Then with great care he put out his long thin arm and took her hand. “Well, I’m rare and glad to see ye!”

Every one was thunderstruck at this expression of joy. Mr. Critchlow had never been known to be glad to see anybody.

“Yes,” twittered Maria, “Mr. Critchlow would come in to-night. Nothing would do but he must come in to-night.”

“You didn’t tell me this afternoon,” said Constance, “that you were going to give us the pleasure of your company like this.”

He looked momentarily at Constance. “No,” he grated, “I don’t know as I did.”

His gaze flattered Sophia. Evidently he treated this experienced and sad woman of fifty as a young girl. And in presence of his extreme age she felt like a young girl, remembering the while how as a young girl she had hated him. Repulsing the assistance of his wife, he arranged an armchair in front of the fire and meticulously put himself into it. Assuredly he was much older in a drawing-room than behind the counter of his shop. Constance had noticed that in the afternoon. A live coal fell out of the fire. He bent forward, wet his fingers, picked up the coal and threw it back into the fire.

“Well,” said Sophia. “I wouldn’t have done that.”

“I never saw Mr. Critchlow’s equal for picking up hot cinders,” Maria giggled.

Mr. Critchlow deigned no remark. “When did ye leave this Paris?” he demanded of Sophia, leaning back, and putting his hands on the arms of the chair.

“Yesterday morning,” said Sophia,

“And what’n ye been doing with yeself since yesterday morning?”

“I spent last night in London,” Sophia replied.

“Oh, in London, did ye?”

“Yes. Cyril and I had an evening together.”

“Eh? Cyril! What’s yer opinion o’ Cyril, Sophia?”

“I’m very proud to have Cyril for a nephew,” said Sophia.

“Oh! Are ye?” The old man was obviously ironic.

“Yes I am,” Sophia insisted sharply. “I’m not going to hear a word said against Cyril.”

She proceeded to an enthusiastic laudation of Cyril which rather overwhelmed his mother. Constance was pleased; she was delighted. And yet somewhere in her mind was an uncomfortable feeling that Cyril, having taken a fancy to his brilliant aunt, had tried to charm her as he seldom or never tried to charm his mother. Cyril and Sophia had dazzled and conquered each other; they were of the same type; whereas she, Constance, being but a plain person, could not glitter.

She rang the bell and gave instructions to Amy about food — fruit cakes, coffee and hot milk, on a tray; and Sophia also spoke to Amy murmuring a request as to Fossette.

“Yes, Mrs. Scales,” said Amy, with eager deference.

Mrs. Critchlow smiled vaguely from a low chair near the curtained window. Then Constance lit another burner of the chandelier. In doing so, she gave a little sigh; it was a sigh of relief. Mr. Critchlow had behaved himself. Now that he and Sophia had met, the worst was over. Had Constance known beforehand that he would pay a call, she would have been agonized by apprehensions, but now that he had actually come she was glad he had come.

When he had silently sipped some hot milk, he drew a thick bunch of papers, white and blue, from his bulging breast-pocket.

“Now, Maria Critchlow,” he called, edging round his chair slightly. “Ye’d best go back home.”

Maria Critchlow was biting at a bit of walnut cake, while in her right hand, all seamed with black lines, she held a cup of coffee.

“But, Mr. Critchlow ——!” Constance protested.

“I’ve got business with Sophia, and I must get it done. I’ve got for to render an account of my stewardship to Sophia, under her father’s will, and her mother’s will, and her aunt’s will, and it’s nobody’s business but mine and Sophia’s, I reckon. Now then,” he glanced at his wife, “off with ye!”

Maria rose, half-kittenish and half-ashamed.

“Surely you don’t want to go into all that to-night,” said Sophia. She spoke softly, for she had already fully perceived that Mr. Critchlow must be managed with the tact which the capricious obstinacies of advanced age demanded. “Surely you can wait a day or two. I’m in no hurry.”

“HAVEN’T I WAITED LONG ENOUGH?” he retorted fiercely.

There was a pause. Maria Critchlow moved.

“As for you being in no hurry, Sophia,” the old man went on, “nobody can say as you’ve been in a hurry.”

Sophia had suffered a check. She glanced hesitatingly at Constance.

“Mrs. Critchlow and I will go down into the parlour,” said Constance, quickly. “There is a bit of fire there.”

“Oh no. I won’t hear of such a thing!”

“Yes, we will, won’t we, Mrs. Critchlow?” Constance insisted, cheerfully but firmly. She was determined that in her house Sophia should have all the freedom and conveniences that she could have had in her own. If a private room was needed for discussions between Sophia and her trustee, Constance’s pride was piqued to supply that room. Further, Constance was glad to get Maria out of Sophia’s sight. She was accustomed to Maria; with her it did not matter; but she did not care that the teeth of Sophia should be set on edge by the ridiculous demeanour of Maria. So those two left the drawing-room, and the old man began to open the papers which he had been preparing for weeks.

There was very little fire in the parlour, and Constance, in addition to being bored by Mrs. Critchlow’s inane and inquisitive remarks, felt chilly, which was bad for her sciatica. She wondered whether Sophia would have to confess to Mr. Critchlow that she was not certainly a widow. She thought that steps ought to be taken to ascertain, through Birkinshaws, if anything was known of Gerald Scales. But even that course was set with perils. Supposing that he still lived, an unspeakable villain (Constance could only think of him as an unspeakable villain), and supposing that he molested Sophia — what scenes! What shame in the town! Such frightful thoughts ran endlessly through Constance’s mind as she bent over the fire endeavouring to keep alive a silly conversation with Maria Critchlow.

Amy passed through the parlour to go to bed. There was no other way of reaching the upper part of the house.

“Are you going to bed, Amy?”

“Yes’m.”

“Where is Fossette?”

“In the kitchen, m’m,” said Amy, defending herself. “Mrs. Scales told me the dog might sleep in the kitchen with Spot, as they was such good friends. I’ve opened the bottom drawer, and Fossit is lying in that.”

“Mrs. Scales has brought a dog with her!” exclaimed Maria.

“Yes’m!” said Amy, drily, before Constance could answer. She implied everything in that affirmative.

“You are a family for dogs,” said Maria. “What sort of dog is it?”

“Well,” said Constance. “I don’t know exactly what they call it. It’s a French dog, one of those French dogs.” Amy was lingering at the stairfoot. “Good night, Amy, thank you.”

Amy ascended, shutting the door.

“Oh! I see!” Maria muttered. “Well, I never!”

It was ten o’clock before sounds above indicated that the first interview between trustee and beneficiary was finished.

“I’ll be going on to open our side-door,” said Maria. “Say good night to Mrs. Scales for me.” She was not sure whether Charles Critchlow had really meant her to go home, or whether her mere absence from the drawing-room had contented him. So she departed. He came down the stairs with the most tiresome slowness, went through the parlour in silence, ignoring Constance, and also Sophia, who was at his heels, and vanished.

As Constance shut and bolted the front-door, the sisters looked at each other, Sophia faintly smiling. It seemed to them that they understood each other better when they did not speak. With a glance, they exchanged their ideas on the subject of Charles Critchlow and Maria, and learnt that their ideas were similar. Constance said nothing as to the private interview. Nor did Sophia. At present, on this the first day, they could only achieve intimacy by intermittent flashes.

“What about bed?” asked Sophia.

“You must be tired,” said Constance.

Sophia got to the stairs, which received a little light from the corridor gas, before Constance, having tested the window-fastening, turned out the gas in the parlour. They climbed the lower flight of stairs together.

“I must just see that your room is all right,” Constance said.

“Must you?” Sophia smiled.

They climbed the second flight, slowly. Constance was out of breath.

“Oh, a fire! How nice!” cried Sophia. “But why did you go to all that trouble? I told you not to.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” said Constance, raising the gas in the bedroom. Her tone implied that bedroom fires were a quite ordinary incident of daily life in a place like Bursley.

“Well, my dear, I hope you’ll find everything comfortable,” said Constance.

“I’m sure I shall. Good night, dear.”

“Good night, then.”

They looked at each other again, with timid affectionateness. They did not kiss. The thought in both their minds was: “We couldn’t keep on kissing every day.” But there was a vast amount of quiet, restrained affection, of mutual confidence and respect, even of tenderness, in their tones.

About half an hour later a dreadful hullaballoo smote the ear of Constance. She was just getting into bed. She listened intently, in great alarm. It was undoubtedly those dogs fighting, and fighting to the death. She pictured the kitchen as a battlefield, and Spot slain. Opening the door, she stepped out into the corridor.

“Constance,” said a low voice above her. She jumped. “Is that you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, don’t bother to go down to the dogs; they’ll stop in a moment. Fossette won’t bite. I’m so sorry she’s upsetting the house.”

Constance stared upwards, and discerned a pale shadow. The dogs did soon cease their altercation. This short colloquy in the dark affected Constance strangely.

iii

The next morning, after a night varied by periods of wakefulness not unpleasant, Sophia arose and, taking due precautions against cold, went to the window. It was Saturday; she had left Paris on the Thursday. She looked forth upon the Square, holding aside the blind. She had expected, of course, to find that the Square had shrunk in size; but nevertheless she was startled to see how small it was. It seemed to her scarcely bigger than a courtyard. She could remember a winter morning when from the window she had watched the Square under virgin snow in the lamplight, and the Square had been vast, and the first wayfarer, crossing it diagonally and leaving behind him the irregular impress of his feet, had appeared to travel for hours over an interminable white waste before vanishing past Holl’s shop in the direction of the Town Hall. She chiefly recalled the Square under snow; cold mornings, and the coldness of the oil-cloth at the window, and the draught of cold air through the ill-fitting sash (it was put right now)! These visions of herself seemed beautiful to her; her childish existence seemed beautiful; the storms and tempests of her girlhood seemed beautiful; even the great sterile expanse of tedium when, after giving up a scholastic career, she had served for two years in the shop — even this had a strange charm in her memory.

And she thought that not for millions of pounds would she live her life over again.

In its contents the Square had not surprisingly changed during the immense, the terrifying interval that separated her from her virginity. On the east side, several shops had been thrown into one, and forced into a semblance of eternal unity by means of a coat of stucco. And there was a fountain at the north end which was new to her. No other constructional change! But the moral change, the sad declension from the ancient proud spirit of the Square — this was painfully depressing. Several establishments lacked tenants, had obviously lacked tenants for a long time; ‘To let’ notices hung in their stained and dirty upper windows, and clung insecurely to their closed shutters. And on the sign-boards of these establishments were names that Sophia did not know. The character of most of the shops seemed to have worsened; they had become pettifogging little holes, unkempt, shabby, poor; they had no brightness, no feeling of vitality. And the floor of the Square was littered with nondescript refuse. The whole scene, paltry, confined, and dull, reached for her the extreme of provinciality. It was what the French called, with a pregnant intonation, la province. This — being said, there was nothing else to say. Bursley, of course, was in the provinces; Bursley must, in the nature of things, be typically provincial. But in her mind it had always been differentiated from the common province; it had always had an air, a distinction, and especially St. Luke’s Square! That illusion was now gone. Still, the alteration was not wholly in herself; it was not wholly subjective. The Square really had changed for the worse; it might not be smaller, but it had deteriorated. As a centre of commerce it had assuredly approached very near to death. On a Saturday morning thirty years ago it would have been covered with linen-roofed stalls, and chattering country-folk, and the stir of bargains. Now, Saturday morning was like any other morning in the Square, and the glass-roof of St. Luke’s market in Wedgwood Street, which she could see from her window, echoed to the sounds of noisy commerce. In that instance business had simply moved a few yards to the east; but Sophia knew, from hints in Constance’s letters and in her talk, that business in general had moved more than a few yards, it had moved a couple of miles — to arrogant and pushing Hanbridge, with its electric light and its theatres and its big, advertising shops. The heaven of thick smoke over the Square, the black deposit on painted woodwork, the intermittent hooting of steam syrens, showed that the wholesale trade of Bursley still flourished. But Sophia had no memories of the wholesale trade of Bursley; it meant nothing to the youth of her heart; she was attached by intimate links to the retail traffic of Bursley, and as a mart old Bursley was done for.

She thought: “It would kill me if I had to live here. It’s deadening. It weighs on you. And the dirt, and the horrible ugliness! And the — way they talk, and the way they think! I felt it first at Knype station. The Square is rather picturesque, but it’s such a poor, poor little thing! Fancy having to look at it every morning of one’s life! No!” She almost shuddered.

For the time being she had no home. To Constance she was ‘paying a visit.’

Constance did not appear to realize the awful conditions of dirt, decay, and provinciality in which she was living. Even Constance’s house was extremely inconvenient, dark, and no doubt unhealthy. Cellar-kitchen, no hall, abominable stairs, and as to hygiene, simply mediaeval. She could not understand why Constance had remained in the house. Constance had plenty of money and might live where she liked, and in a good modern house. Yet she stayed in the Square. “I daresay she’s got used to it,” Sophia thought leniently. “I daresay I should be just the same in her place.” But she did not really think so, and she could not understand Constance’s state of mind.

Certainly she could not claim to have ‘added up’ Constance yet. She considered that her sister was in some respects utterly provincial — what they used to call in the Five Towns a ‘body.’ Somewhat too diffident, not assertive enough, not erect enough; with curious provincial pronunciations, accents, gestures, mannerisms, and inarticulate ejaculations; with a curious narrowness of outlook! But at the same time Constance was very shrewd, and she was often proving by some bit of a remark that she knew what was what, despite her provinciality. In judgments upon human nature they undoubtedly thought alike, and there was a strong natural general sympathy between them. And at the bottom of Constance was something fine. At intervals Sophia discovered herself secretly patronizing Constance, but reflection would always cause her to cease from patronage and to examine her own defences. Constance, besides being the essence of kindness, was no fool. Constance could see through a pretence, an absurdity, as quickly as any one. Constance did honestly appear to Sophia to be superior to any Frenchwoman that she had ever encountered. She saw supreme in Constance that quality which she had recognized in the porters at Newhaven on landing — the quality of an honest and naive goodwill, of powerful simplicity. That quality presented itself to her as the greatest in the world, and it seemed to be in the very air of England. She could even detect it in Mr. Critchlow, whom, for the rest, she liked, admiring the brutal force of his character. She pardoned his brutality to his wife. She found it proper. “After all,” she said, “supposing he hadn’t married her, what would she have been? Nothing but a slave! She’s infinitely better off as his wife. In fact she’s lucky. And it would be absurd for him to treat her otherwise than he does treat her.” (Sophia did not divine that her masterful Critchlow had once wanted Maria as one might want a star.)

But to be always with such people! To be always with Constance! To be always in the Bursley atmosphere, physical and mental!

She pictured Paris as it would be on that very morning — bright, clean, glittering; the neatness of the Rue Lord Byron, and the magnificent slanting splendour of the Champs Elysees. Paris had always seemed beautiful to her; but the life of Paris had not seemed beautiful to her. Yet now it did seem beautiful. She could delve down into the earlier years of her ownership of the Pension, and see a regular, placid beauty in her daily life there. Her life there, even so late as a fortnight ago, seemed beautiful; sad, but beautiful. It had passed into history. She sighed when she thought of the innumerable interviews with Mardon, the endless formalities required by the English and the French law and by the particularity of the Syndicate. She had been through all that. She had actually been through it and it was over. She had bought the Pension for a song and sold it for great riches. She had developed from a nobody into the desired of Syndicates. And after long, long, monotonous, strenuous years of possession the day had come, the emotional moment had come, when she had yielded up the keys of ownership to Mr. Mardon and a man from the Hotel Moscow, and had paid her servants for the last time and signed the last receipted bill. The men had been very gallant, and had requested her to stay in the Pension as their guest until she was ready to leave Paris. But she had declined that. She could not have borne to remain in the Pension under the reign of another. She had left at once and gone to a hotel with her few goods while finally disposing of certain financial questions. And one evening Jacqueline had come to see her, and had wept.

Her exit from the Pension Frensham struck her now as poignantly pathetic, in its quickness and its absence of ceremonial. Ten steps, and her career was finished, closed. Astonishing with what liquid tenderness she turned and looked back on that hard, fighting, exhausting life in Paris! For, even if she had unconsciously liked it, she had never enjoyed it. She had always compared France disadvantageously with England, always resented the French temperament in business, always been convinced that ‘you never knew where you were’ with French tradespeople. And now they flitted before her endowed with a wondrous charm; so polite in their lying, so eager to spare your feelings and to reassure you, so neat and prim. And the French shops, so exquisitely arranged! Even a butcher’s shop in Paris was a pleasure to the eye, whereas the butcher’s shop in Wedgwood Street, which she remembered of old, and which she had glimpsed from the cab — what a bloody shambles! She longed for Paris again. She longed to stretch her lungs in Paris. These people in Bursley did not suspect what Paris was. They did not appreciate and they never would appreciate the marvels that she had accomplished in a theatre of marvels. They probably never realized that the whole of the rest of the world was not more or less like Bursley. They had no curiosity. Even Constance was a thousand times more interested in relating trifles of Bursley gossip than in listening to details of life in Paris. Occasionally she had expressed a mild, vapid surprise at things told to her by Sophia; but she was not really impressed, because her curiosity did not extend beyond Bursley. She, like the rest, had the formidable, thrice-callous egotism of the provinces. And if Sophia had informed her that the heads of Parisians grew out of their navels she would have murmured: “Well, well! Bless us! I never heard of such things! Mrs. Brindley’s second boy has got his head quite crooked, poor little fellow!”

Why should Sophia feel sorrowful? She did not know. She was free; free to go where she liked and do what she liked, She had no responsibilities, no cares. The thought of her husband had long ago ceased to rouse in her any feeling of any kind. She was rich. Mr. Critchlow had accumulated for her about as much money as she had herself acquired. Never could she spend her income! She did not know how to spend it. She lacked nothing that was procurable. She had no desires except the direct desire for happiness. If thirty thousand pounds or so could have bought a son like Cyril, she would have bought one for herself. She bitterly regretted that she had no child. In this, she envied Constance. A child seemed to be the one commodity worth having. She was too free, too exempt from responsibilities. In spite of Constance she was alone in the world. The strangeness of the hazards of life overwhelmed her. Here she was at fifty, alone.

But the idea of leaving Constance, having once rejoined her, did not please Sophia. It disquieted her. She could not see herself living away from Constance. She was alone — but Constance was there.

She was downstairs first, and she had a little conversation with Amy. And she stood on the step of the front-door while Fossette made a preliminary inspection of Spot’s gutter. She found the air nipping.

Constance, when she descended, saw stretching across one side of the breakfast-table an umbrella, Sophia’s present to her from Paris. It was an umbrella such that a better could not be bought. It would have impressed even Aunt Harriet. The handle was of gold, set with a circlet of opalines. The tips of the ribs were also of gold. It was this detail which staggered Constance. Frankly, this development of luxury had been unknown and unsuspected in the Square. That the tips of the ribs should match the handle . . . that did truly beat everything! Sophia said calmly that the device was quite common. But she did not conceal that the umbrella was strictly of the highest class and that it might be shown to queens without shame. She intimated that the frame (a ‘Fox’s Paragon’), handle, and tips, would outlast many silks. Constance was childish with pleasure.

They decided to go out marketing together. The unspoken thought in their minds was that as Sophia would have to be introduced to the town sooner or later, it might as well be sooner. Constance looked at the sky. “It can’t possibly rain,” she said. “I shall take my umbrella.”

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