The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 3

Towards Hotel Life

i

SOPHIA wore list slippers in the morning. It was a habit which she had formed in the Rue Lord Byron — by accident rather than with an intention to utilize list slippers for the effective supervision of servants. These list slippers were the immediate cause of important happenings in St. Luke’s Square. Sophia had been with Constance one calendar month — it was, of course, astonishing how quickly the time had passed! — and she had become familiar with the house. Restraint had gradually ceased to mark the relations of the sisters. Constance, in particular, hid nothing from Sophia, who was made aware of the minor and major defects of Amy and all the other creakings of the household machine. Meals were eaten off the ordinary tablecloths, and on the days for ‘turning out’ the parlour, Constance assumed, with a little laugh, that Sophia would excuse Amy’s apron, which she had not had time to change. In brief, Sophia was no longer a stranger, and nobody felt bound to pretend that things were not exactly what they were. In spite of the foulness and the provinciality of Bursley, Sophia enjoyed the intimacy with Constance. As for Constance, she was enchanted. The inflections of their voices, when they were talking to each other very privately, were often tender, and these sudden surprising tendernesses secretly thrilled both of them.

On the fourth Sunday morning Sophia put on her dressing-gown and those list slippers very early, and paid a visit to Constance’s bedroom. She was somewhat concerned about Constance, and her concern was pleasurable to her. She made the most of it. Amy, with her lifelong carelessness about doors, had criminally failed to latch the street-door of the parlour on the previous morning, and Constance had only perceived the omission by the phenomenon of frigidity in her legs at breakfast. She always sat with her back to the door, in her mother’s fluted rocking-chair; and Sophia on the spot, but not in the chair, occupied by John Baines in the forties, and in the seventies and later by Samuel Povey. Constance had been alarmed by that frigidity. “I shall have a return of my sciatica!” she had exclaimed, and Sophia was startled by the apprehension in her tone. Before evening the sciatica had indeed revisited Constance’s sciatic nerve, and Sophia for the first time gained an idea of what a pulsating sciatica can do in the way of torturing its victim. Constance, in addition to the sciatica, had caught a sneezing cold, and the act of sneezing caused her the most acute pain. Sophia had soon stopped the sneezing. Constance was got to bed. Sophia wished to summon the doctor, but Constance assured her that the doctor would have nothing new to advise. Constance suffered angelically. The weak and exquisite sweetness of her smile, as she lay in bed under the stress of twinging pain amid hot-water bottles, was amazing to Sophia. It made her think upon the reserves of Constance’s character, and upon the variety of the manifestations of the Baines’ blood.

So on the Sunday morning she had arisen early, just after Amy.

She discovered Constance to be a little better, as regards the neuralgia, but exhausted by the torments of a sleepless night. Sophia, though she had herself not slept well, felt somehow conscience-stricken for having slept at all.

“You poor dear!” she murmured, brimming with sympathy. “I shall make you some tea at once, myself.”

“Oh, Amy will do it,” said Constance.

Sophia repeated with a resolute intonation: “I shall make it myself.” And after being satisfied that there was no instant need for a renewal of hot-water bottles, she went further downstairs in those list slippers.

As she was descending the dark kitchen steps she heard Amy’s voice in pettish exclamation: “Oh, get out, YOU!” followed by a yelp from Fossette. She had a swift movement of anger, which she controlled. The relations between her and Fossette were not marked by transports, and her rule over dogs in general was severe; even when alone she very seldom kissed the animal passionately, according to the general habit of people owning dogs. But she loved Fossette. And, moreover, her love for Fossette had been lately sharpened by the ridicule which Bursley had showered upon that strange beast. Happily for Sophia’s amour propre, there was no means of getting Fossette shaved in Bursley, and thus Fossette was daily growing less comic to the Bursley eye. Sophia could therefore without loss of dignity yield to force of circumstances what she would not have yielded to popular opinion. She guessed that Amy had no liking for the dog, but the accent which Amy had put upon the ‘you’ seemed to indicate that Amy was making distinctions between Fossette and Spot, and this disturbed Sophia much more than Fossette’s yelp.

Sophia coughed, and entered the kitchen.

Spot was lapping his morning milk out of a saucer, while Fossette stood wistfully, an amorphous mass of thick hair, under the table.

“Good morning, Amy,” said Sophia, with dreadful politeness.

“Good morning, m’m,” said Amy, glumly.

Amy knew that Sophia had heard that yelp, and Sophia knew that she knew. The pretence of politeness was horrible. Both the women felt as though the kitchen was sanded with gunpowder and there were lighted matches about. Sophia had a very proper grievance against Amy on account of the open door of the previous day. Sophia thought that, after such a sin, the least Amy could do was to show contrition and amiability and an anxiety to please: which things Amy had not shown. Amy had a grievance against Sophia because Sophia had recently thrust upon her a fresh method of cooking green vegetables. Amy was a strong opponent of new or foreign methods. Sophia was not aware of this grievance, for Amy had hidden it under her customary cringing politeness to Sophia.

They surveyed each other like opposing armies.

“What a pity you have no gas-stove here! I want to make some tea at once for Mrs. Povey,” said Sophia, inspecting the just-born fire.

“Gas-stove, m’m?” said Amy, hostilely. It was Sophia’s list slippers which had finally decided Amy to drop the mask of deference.

She made no effort to aid Sophia; she gave no indication as to where the various necessaries for tea were to be found. Sophia got the kettle, and washed it out. Sophia got the smallest tea-pot, and, as the tea-leaves had been left in it, she washed out the teapot also, with exaggerated noise and meticulousness. Sophia got the sugar and the other trifles, and Sophia blew up the fire with the bellows. And Amy did nothing in particular except encourage Spot to drink.

“Is that all the milk you give to Fossette?” Sophia demanded coldly, when it had come to Fossette’s turn. She was waiting for the water to boil. The saucer for the bigger dog, who would have made two of Spot, was not half full.

“It’s all there is to spare, m’m,” Amy rasped.

Sophia made no reply. Soon afterwards she departed, with the tea successfully made. If Amy had not been a mature woman of over forty she would have snorted as Sophia went away. But Amy was scarcely the ordinary silly girl.

Save for a certain primness as she offered the tray to her sister, Sophia’s demeanour gave no sign whatever that the Amazon in her was aroused. Constance’s eager trembling pleasure in the tea touched her deeply, and she was exceedingly thankful that Constance had her, Sophia, as a succour in time of distress.

A few minutes later, Constance, having first asked Sophia what time it was by the watch in the watch-case on the chest of drawers (the Swiss clock had long since ceased to work), pulled the red tassel of the bell-cord over her bed. A bell tinkled far away in the kitchen.

“Anything I can do?” Sophia inquired.

“Oh no, thanks,” said Constance. “I only want my letters, if the postman has come. He ought to have been here long ago.” Sophia had learned during her stay that Sunday morning was the morning on which Constance expected a letter from Cyril. It was a definite arrangement between mother and son that Cyril should write on Saturdays, and Constance on Sundays. Sophia knew that Constance set store by this letter, becoming more and more preoccupied about Cyril as the end of the week approached. Since Sophia’s arrival Cyril’s letter had not failed to come, but once it had been naught save a scribbled line or two, and Sophia gathered that it was never a certainty, and that Constance was accustomed, though not reconciled, to disappointments. Sophia had been allowed to read the letters. They left a faint impression on her mind that her favourite was perhaps somewhat negligent in his relations with his mother.

There was no reply to the bell. Constance rang again without effect.

With a brusque movement Sophia left the bedroom by way of Cyril’s room.

“Amy,” she called over the banisters, “do you not hear your mistress’s bell?”

“I’m coming as quick as I can, m’m.” The voice was still very glum.

Sophia murmured something inarticulate, staying till assured that Amy really was coming, and then she passed back into Cyril’s bedroom. She waited there, hesitant, not exactly on the watch, not exactly unwilling to assist at an interview between Amy and Amy’s mistress; indeed, she could not have surely analyzed her motive for remaining in Cyril’s bedroom, with the door ajar between that room and Constance’s.

Amy reluctantly mounted the stairs and went into her mistress’s bedroom with her chin in the air. She thought that Sophia had gone up to the second storey, where she ‘belonged.’ She stood in silence by the bed, showing no sympathy with Constance, no curiosity as to the indisposition. She objected to Constance’s attack of sciatica, as being a too permanent reproof of her carelessness as to doors.

Constance also waited, for the fraction of a second, as if expectant.

“Well, Amy,” she said at length in her voice weakened by fatigue and pain. “The letters?”

“There ain’t no letters,” said Amy, grimly. “You might have known, if there’d been any, I should have brought ’em up. Postman went past twenty minutes agone. I’m always being interrupted, and it isn’t as if I hadn’t got enough to do — now!”

She turned to leave, and was pulling the door open.

“Amy!” said a voice sharply. It was Sophia’s.

The servant jumped, and in spite of herself obeyed the implicit, imperious command to stop.

“You will please not speak to your mistress in that tone, at any rate while I’m here,” said Sophia, icily. “You know she is ill and weak. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

“I never ——” Amy began.

“I don’t want to argue,” Sophia said angrily. “Please leave the room.”

Amy obeyed. She was cowed, in addition to being staggered.

To the persons involved in it, this episode was intensely dramatic. Sophia had surmised that Constance permitted liberties of speech to Amy; she had even guessed that Amy sometimes took licence to be rude. But that the relations between them were such as to allow the bullying of Constance by an Amy downright insolent — this had shocked and wounded Sophia, who suddenly had a vision of Constance as the victim of a reign of terror. “If the creature will do this while I’m here,” said Sophia to herself, “what does she do when they are alone together in the house?”

“Well,” she exclaimed, “I never heard of such goings-on! And you let her talk to you in that style! My dear Constance!”

Constance was sitting up in bed, the small tea-tray on her knees. Her eyes were moist. The tears had filled them when she knew that there was no letter. Ordinarily the failure of Cyril’s letter would not have made her cry, but weakness had impaired her self-control. And the tears having once got into her eyes, she could not dismiss them. There they were!

“She’s been with me such a long time,” Constance murmured. “She takes liberties. I’ve corrected her once or twice.”

“Liberties!” Sophia repeated the word. “Liberties!”

“Of course I really ought not to allow it,” said Constance. “I ought to have put a stop to it long since.”

“Well,” said Sophia, rather relieved by this symptom of Constance’s secret mind, “I do hope you won’t think I’m meddlesome, but truly it was too much for me. The words were out of my mouth before I——” She stopped.

“You were quite right, quite right,” said Constance, seeing before her in the woman of fifty the passionate girl of fifteen.

“I’ve had a good deal of experience of servants,” said Sophia.

“I know you have,” Constance put in.

“And I’m convinced that it never pays to stand any sauce. Servants don’t understand kindness and forbearance. And this sort of thing grows and grows till you can’t call your soul your own.”

“You are quite right,” Constance said again, with even more positiveness.

Not merely the conviction that Sophia was quite right, but the desire to assure Sophia that Sophia was not meddlesome, gave force to her utterance. Amy’s allusion to extra work shamed Amy’s mistress as a hostess, and she was bound to make amends.

“Now as to that woman,” said Sophia in a lower voice, as she sat down confidentially on the edge of the bed. And she told Constance about Amy and the dogs, and about Amy’s rudeness in the kitchen. “I should never have DREAMT of mentioning such things,” she finished. “But under the circumstances I feel it right that you should know. I feel you ought to know.”

And Constance nodded her head in thorough agreement. She did not trouble to go into articulate apologies to her guest for the actual misdeeds of her servant. The sisters were now on a plane of intimacy where such apologies would have been supererogatory. Their voices fell lower and lower, and the case of Amy was laid bare and discussed to the minutest detail.

Gradually they realized that what had occurred was a crisis. They were both very excited, apprehensive, and rather too consciously defiant. At the same time they were drawn very close to each other, by Sophia’s generous indignation and by Constance’s absolute loyalty.

A long time passed before Constance said, thinking about something else:

“I expect it’s been delayed in the post.”

“Cyril’s letter? Oh, no doubt! If you knew the posts in France, my word!”

Then they determined, with little sighs, to face the crisis cheerfully.

In truth it was a crisis, and a great one. The sensation of the crisis affected the atmosphere of the entire house. Constance got up for tea and managed to walk to the drawing-room. And when Sophia, after an absence in her own room, came down to tea and found the tea all served, Constance whispered:

“She’s given notice! And Sunday too!”

“What did she say?”

“She didn’t say much,” Constance replied vaguely, hiding from Sophia that Amy had harped on the too great profusion of mistresses in that house. “After all, it’s just as well. She’ll be all right. She’s saved a good bit of money, and she has friends.”

“But how foolish of her to give up such a good place!”

“She simply doesn’t care,” said Constance, who was a little hurt by Amy’s defection. “When she takes a thing into her head she simply doesn’t care. She’s got no common sense. I’ve always known that.”

“So you’re going to leave, Amy?” said Sophia that evening, as Amy was passing through the parlour on her way to bed. Constance was already arranged for the night.

“I am, m’m,” answered Amy, precisely.

Her tone was not rude, but it was firm. She had apparently reconnoitred her position in calmness.

“I’m sorry I was obliged to correct you this morning,” said Sophia, with cheerful amicableness, pleased in spite of herself with the woman’s tone. “But I think you will see that I had reason to.”

“I’ve been thinking it over, m’m,” said Amy, with dignity, “and I see as I must leave.”

There was a pause.

“Well, you know best. . . . Good night, Amy.”

“Good night, m’m.”

“She’s a decent woman,” thought Sophia, “but hopeless for this place now.”

The sisters were fronted with the fact that Constance had a month in which to find a new servant, and that a new servant would have to be trained in well-doing and might easily prove disastrous. Both Constance and Amy were profoundly disturbed by the prospective dissolution of a bond which dated from the seventies. And both were decided that there was no alternative to the dissolution. Outsiders knew merely that Mrs. Povey’s old servant was leaving. Outsiders merely saw Mrs. Povey’s advertisement in the Signal for a new servant. They could not read hearts. Some of the younger generation even said superiorly that old-fashioned women like Mrs. Povey seemed to have servants on the brain, etc., etc.

ii

“Well, have you got your letter?” Sophia demanded cheerfully of Constance when she entered the bedroom the next morning.

Constance merely shook her head. She was very depressed. Sophia’s cheerfulness died out. As she hated to be insincerely optimistic, she said nothing. Otherwise she might have remarked: “Perhaps the afternoon post will bring it.” Gloom reigned. To Constance particularly, as Amy had given notice and as Cyril was ‘remiss,’ it seemed really that the time was out of joint and life unworth living. Even the presence of Sophia did not bring her much comfort. Immediately Sophia left the room Constance’s sciatica began to return, and in a severe form. She had regretted this, less for the pain than because she had just assured Sophia, quite honestly, that she was not suffering; Sophia had been sceptical. After that it was of course imperative that Constance should get up as usual. She had said that she would get up as usual. Besides, there was the immense enterprise of obtaining a new servant! Worries loomed mountainous. Suppose Cyril were dangerously ill, and unable to write! Suppose something had happened to him! Supposing she never did obtain a new servant!

Sophia, up in her room, was endeavouring to be philosophical, and to see the world brightly. She was saying to herself that she must take Constance in hand, that what Constance lacked was energy, that Constance must be stirred out of her groove. And in the cavernous kitchen Amy, preparing the nine-o’clock breakfast, was meditating upon the ingratitude of employers and wondering what the future held for her. She had a widowed mother in the picturesque village of Sneyd, where the mortal and immortal welfare of every inhabitant was watched over by God’s vicegerent, the busy Countess of Chell; she possessed about two hundred pounds of her own; her mother for years had been begging Amy to share her home free of expense. But nevertheless Amy’s mind was black with foreboding and vague dejection. The house was a house of sorrow, and these three women, each solitary, the devotees of sorrow. And the two dogs wandered disconsolate up and down, aware of the necessity for circumspection, never guessing that the highly peculiar state of the atmosphere had been brought about by nothing but a half-shut door and an incorrect tone.

As Sophia, fully dressed this time, was descending to breakfast, she heard Constance’s voice, feebly calling her, and found the convalescent still in bed. The truth could not be concealed. Constance was once more in great pain, and her moral condition was not favourable to fortitude.

“I wish you had told me, to begin with,” Sophia could not help saying, “then I should have known what to do.”

Constance did not defend herself by saying that the pain had only recurred since their first interview that morning. She just wept.

“I’m very low!” she blubbered.

Sophia was surprised. She felt that this was not ‘being a Baines.’

During the progress of that interminable April morning, her acquaintance with the possibilities of sciatica as an agent destructive of moral fibre was further increased. Constance had no force at all to resist its activity. The sweetness of her resignation seemed to melt into nullity. She held to it that the doctor could do nothing for her.

About noon, when Sophia was moving anxiously around her, she suddenly screamed.

“I feel as if my leg was going to burst!” she cried.

That decided Sophia. As soon as Constance was a little easier she went downstairs to Amy.

“Amy,” she said, “it’s a Doctor Stirling that your mistress has when she’s ill, isn’t it?”

“Yes, m’m.”

“Where is his surgery?”

“Well, m’m, he did live just opposite, with Dr. Harrop, but latterly he’s gone to live at Bleakridge.”

“I wish you would put your things on, and run up there and ask him to call as soon as he can.”

“I will, m’m,” said Amy, with the greatest willingness. “I thought I heard missis cry out.” She was not effusive. She was better than effusive: kindly and helpful with a certain reserve.

“There’s something about that woman I like,” said Sophia, to herself. For a proved fool, Amy was indeed holding her own rather well.

Dr. Stirling drove down about two o’clock. He had now been established in the Five Towns for more than a decade, and the stamp of success was on his brow and on the proud forehead of his trotting horse. He had, in the phrase of the Signal, ‘identified himself with the local life of the district.’ He was liked, being a man of broad sympathies. In his rich Scotch accent he could discuss with equal ability the flavour of whisky or of a sermon, and he had more than sufficient tact never to discuss either whiskies or sermons in the wrong place. He had made a speech (responding for the learned professions) at the annual dinner of the Society for the Prosecution of Felons, and this speech (in which praise of red wine was rendered innocuous by praise of books — his fine library was notorious) had classed him as a wit with the American consul, whose post-prandial manner was modelled on Mark Twain’s. He was thirty-five years of age, tall and stoutish, with a chubby boyish face that the razor left chiefly blue every morning.

The immediate effect of his arrival on Constance was miraculous. His presence almost cured her for a moment, just as though her malady had been toothache and he a dentist. Then, when he had finished his examination, the pain resumed its sway over her.

In talking to her and to Sophia, he listened very seriously to all that they said; he seemed to regard the case as the one case that had ever aroused his genuine professional interest; but as it unfolded itself, in all its difficulty and urgency, so he seemed, in his mind, to be discovering wondrous ways of dealing with it; these mysterious discoveries seemed to give him confidence, and his confidence was communicated to the patient by means of faint sallies of humour. He was a highly skilled doctor. This fact, however, had no share in his popularity; which was due solely to his rare gift of taking a case very seriously while remaining cheerful.

He said he would return in a quarter of an hour, and he returned in thirteen minutes with a hypodermic syringe, with which he attacked the pain in its central strongholds.

“What is it?” asked Constance, breathing gratitude for the relief.

He paused, looking at her roguishly from under lowered eyelids.

“I’d better not tell ye,” he said. “It might lead ye into mischief.”

“Oh, but you must tell me, doctor,” Constance insisted, anxious that he should live up to his reputation for Sophia’s benefit.

“It’s hydrochloride of cocaine,” he said, and lifted a finger. “Beware of the cocaine habit. It’s ruined many a respectable family. But if I hadn’t had a certain amount of confidence in yer strength of character, Mrs. Povey, I wouldn’t have risked it.”

“He will have his joke, will the doctor!” Constance smiled, in a brighter world.

He said he should come again about half-past five, and he arrived about half-past six, and injected more cocaine. The special importance of the case was thereby established. On this second visit, he and Sophia soon grew rather friendly. When she conducted him downstairs again he stopped chatting with her in the parlour for a long time, as though he had nothing else on earth to do, while his coachman walked the horse to and fro in front of the door.

His attitude to her flattered Sophia, for it showed that he took her for no ordinary woman. It implied a continual assumption that she must be a mine of interest for any one who was privileged to delve into her memory. So far, among Constance’s acquaintance, Sophia had met no one who showed more than a perfunctory curiosity as to her life. Her return was accepted with indifference. Her escapade of thirty years ago had entirely lost its dramatic quality. Many people indeed had never heard that she had run away from home to marry a commercial traveller; and to those who remembered, or had been told, it seemed a sufficiently banal exploit — after thirty years! Her fear, and Constance’s, that the town would be murmurous with gossip was ludicrously unfounded. The effect of time was such that even Mr. Critchlow appeared to have forgotten even that she had been indirectly responsible for her father’s death. She had nearly forgotten it herself; when she happened to think of it she felt no shame, no remorse, seeing the death as purely accidental, and not altogether unfortunate. On two points only was the town inquisitive: as to her husband, and as to the precise figure at which she had sold the pension. The town knew that she was probably not a widow, for she had been obliged to tell Mr. Critchlow, and Mr. Critchlow in some hour of tenderness had told Maria. But nobody had dared to mention the name of Gerald Scales to her. With her fashionable clothes, her striking mien of command, and the legend of her wealth, she inspired respect, if not awe, in the townsfolk. In the doctor’s attitude there was something of amaze; she felt it. Though the dull apathy of the people she had hitherto met was assuredly not without its advantageous side for her tranquillity of mind, it had touched her vanity, and the gaze of the doctor soothed the smart. He had so obviously divined her interestingness; he so obviously wanted to enjoy it.

“I’ve just been reading Zola’s ‘Downfall,’” he said.

Her mind searched backwards, and recalled a poster.

“Oh!” she replied. “‘La Debacle’?”

“Yes. What do ye think of it?” His eyes lighted at the prospect of a talk. He was even pleased to hear her give him the title in French.

“I haven’t read it,” she said, and she was momentarily sorry that she had not read it, for she could see that he was dashed. The doctor had supposed that residence in a foreign country involved a knowledge of the literature of that country. Yet he had never supposed that residence in England involved a knowledge of English literature. Sophia had read practically nothing since 1870; for her the latest author was Cherbuliez. Moreover, her impression of Zola was that he was not at all nice, and that he was the enemy of his race, though at that date the world had scarcely heard of Dreyfus. Dr. Stirling had too hastily assumed that the opinions of the bourgeois upon art differ in different countries.

“And ye actually were in the siege of Paris?” he questioned, trying again.

“Yes.”

“AND the commune?”

“Yes, the commune too.”

“Well!” he exclaimed. “It’s incredible! When I was reading the ‘Downfall’ the night before last, I said to myself that you must have been through a lot of all that. I didn’t know I was going to have the pleasure of a chat with ye so soon.”

She smiled. “But how did you know I was in the siege of Paris?” she asked, curious.

“How do I know? I know because I’ve seen that birthday card ye sent to Mrs. Povey in 1871, after it was over. It’s one of her possessions, that card is. She showed it me one day when she told me ye were coming.”

Sophia started. She had quite forgotten that card. It had not occurred to her that Constance would have treasured all those cards that she had despatched during the early years of her exile. She responded as well as she could to his eagerness for personal details concerning the siege and the commune. He might have been disappointed at the prose of her answers, had he not been determined not to be disappointed.

“Ye seem to have taken it all very quietly,” he observed.

“Eh yes!” she agreed, not without pride. “But it’s a long time since.”

Those events, as they existed in her memory, scarcely warranted the tremendous fuss subsequently made about them. What were they, after all? Such was her secret thought. Chirac himself was now nothing but a faint shadow. Still, were the estimate of those events true or false, she was a woman who had been through them, and Dr. Stirling’s high appreciation of that fact was very pleasant to her. Their friendliness approached intimacy. Night had fallen. Outside could be heard the champing of a bit.

“I must be getting on,” he said at last; but he did not move.

“Then there is nothing else I am to do for my sister?” Sophia inquired.

“I don’t think so,” said he. “It isn’t a question of medicine.”

“Then what is it a question of?” Sophia demanded bluntly.

“Nerves,” he said. “It’s nearly all nerves. I know something about Mrs. Povey’s constitution now, and I was hoping that your visit would do her good.”

“She’s been quite well — I mean what you may call quite well — until the day before yesterday, when she sat in that draught. She was better last night, and then this morning I find her ever so much worse.”

“No worries?” The doctor looked at her confidentially.

“What CAN she have in the way of worries?” exclaimed Sophia. “That’s to say — real worries.”

“Exactly!” the doctor agreed.

“I tell her she doesn’t know what worry is,” said Sophia.

“So do I!” said the doctor, his eyes twinkling.

“She was a little upset because she didn’t receive her usual Sunday letter from Cyril yesterday. But then she was weak and low.”

“Clever youth, Cyril!” mused the doctor.

“I think he’s a particularly nice boy,” said Sophia, eagerly,

“So you’ve seen him?”

“Of course,” said Sophia, rather stiffly. Did the doctor suppose that she did not know her own nephew? She went back to the subject of her sister. “She is also a little bothered, I think, because the servant is going to leave.”

“Oh! So Amy is going to leave, is she?” He spoke still lower. “Between you and me, it’s no bad thing.”

“I’m so glad you think so.”

“In another few years the servant would have been the mistress here. One can see these things coming on, but it’s so difficult to do anything. In fact ye can’t do anything.”

“I did something,” said Sophia, sharply. “I told the woman straight that it shouldn’t go on while I was in the house. I didn’t suspect it at first — but when I found it out . . . I can tell you!” She let the doctor imagine what she could tell him.

He smiled. “No,” he said. “I can easily understand that ye didn’t suspect anything at first. When she’s well and bright Mrs. Povey could hold her own — so I’m told. But it was certainly slowly getting worse.”

“Then people talk about it?” said Sophia, shocked.

“As a native of Bursley, Mrs. Scales,” said the doctor, “ye ought to know what people in Bursley do!” Sophia put her lips together. The doctor rose, smoothing his waistcoat. “What does she bother with servants at all for?” he burst out. “She’s perfectly free. She hasn’t got a care in the world, if she only knew it. Why doesn’t she go out and about, and enjoy herself? She wants stirring up, that’s what your sister wants.”

“You’re quite right,” Sophia burst out in her turn. “That’s precisely what I say to myself; precisely! I was thinking it over only this morning. She wants stirring up. She’s got into a rut.”

“She needs to be jolly. Why doesn’t she go to some seaside place, and live in a hotel, and enjoy herself? Is there anything to prevent her?”

“Nothing whatever.”

“Instead of being dependent on a servant! I believe in enjoying one’s self — when ye’ve got the money to do it with! Can ye imagine anybody living in Bursley, for pleasure? And especially in St. Luke’s Square, right in the thick of it all! Smoke! Dirt! No air! No light! No scenery! No amusements! What does she do it for? She’s in a rut.”

“Yes, she’s in a rut,” Sophia repeated her own phrase, which he had copied.

“My word!” said the doctor. “Wouldn’t I clear out and enjoy myself if I could! Your sister’s a young woman.”

“Of course she is!” Sophia concurred, feeling that she herself was even younger. “Of course she is!”

“And except that she’s nervously organized, and has certain predispositions, there’s nothing the matter with her. This sciatica — I don’t say it would be cured, but it might be, by a complete change and throwing off all these ridiculous worries. Not only does she live in the most depressing conditions, but she suffers tortures for it, and there’s absolutely no need for her to be here at all.”

“Doctor,” said Sophia, solemnly, impressed, “you are quite right. I agree with every word you say.”

“Naturally she’s attached to the place,” he continued, glancing round the room. “I know all about that. After living here all her life! But she’s got to break herself of her attachment. It’s her duty to do so. She ought to show a little energy. I’m deeply attached to my bed in the morning, but I have to leave it.”

“Of course,” said Sophia, in an impatient tone, as though disgusted with every person who could not perceive, or would not subscribe to, these obvious truths that the doctor was uttering. “Of course!”

“What she needs is the bustle of life in a good hotel, a good hydro, for instance. Among jolly people. Parties! Games! Excursions! She wouldn’t be the same woman. You’d see. Wouldn’t I do it, if I could? Strathpeffer. She’d soon forget her sciatica. I don’t know what Mrs. Povey’s annual income is, but I expect that if she took it into her head to live in the dearest hotel in England, there would be no reason why she shouldn’t.”

Sophia lifted her head and smiled in calm amusement. “I expect so,” she said superiorly.

“A hotel — that’s the life. No worries. If ye want anything ye ring a bell. If a waiter gives notice, it’s some one else who has the worry, not you. But you know all about that, Mrs. Scales.”

“No one better,” murmured Sophia.

“Good evening,” he said abruptly, sticking out his hand. “I’ll be down in the morning.”

“Did you ever mention this to my sister?” Sophia asked him, rising.

“Yes,” said he. “But it’s no use. Oh yes, I’ve told her. But she does really think it’s quite impossible. She wouldn’t even hear of going to live in London with her beloved son. She won’t listen.”

“I never thought of that,” said Sophia. “Good night.”

Their hand-grasp was very intimate and mutually comprehending. He was pleased by the quick responsiveness of her temperament, and the masterful vigour which occasionally flashed out in her replies. He noticed the hardly perceptible distortion of her handsome, worn face, and he said to himself: “She’s been through a thing or two,” and: “She’ll have to mind her p’s and q’s.” Sophia was pleased because he admired her, and because with her he dropped his bedside jocularities, and talked plainly as a sensible man will talk when he meets an uncommonly wise woman, and because he echoed and amplified her own thoughts. She honoured him by standing at the door till he had driven off.

For a few moments she mused solitary in the parlour, and then, lowering the gas, she went upstairs to her sister, who lay in the dark. Sophia struck a match.

“You’ve been having quite a long chat with the doctor,” said Constance. “He’s very good company, isn’t he? What did he talk about this time?”

“He wanted to know about Paris and so on,” Sophia answered.

“Oh! I believe he’s a rare student.”

Lying there in the dark, the simple Constance never suspected that those two active and strenuous ones had been arranging her life for her, so that she should be jolly and live for twenty years yet. She did not suspect that she had been tried and found guilty of sinful attachments, and of being in a rut, and of lacking the elements of ordinary sagacity. It had not occurred to her that if she was worried and ill, the reason was to be found in her own blind and stupid obstinacy. She had thought herself a fairly sensible kind of creature.

iii

The sisters had an early supper together in Constance’s bedroom. Constance was much easier. Having a fancy that a little movement would be beneficial, she had even got up for a few moments and moved about the room. Now she sat ensconced in pillows. A fire burned in the old-fashioned ineffectual grate. From the Sun Vaults opposite came the sound of a phonograph singing an invitation to God to save its gracious queen. This phonograph was a wonderful novelty, and filled the Sun nightly. For a few evenings it had interested the sisters, in spite of themselves, but they had soon sickened of it and loathed it. Sophia became more and more obsessed by the monstrous absurdity of the simple fact that she and Constance were there, in that dark inconvenient house, wearied by the gaiety of public-houses, blackened by smoke, surrounded by mud, instead of being luxuriously installed in a beautiful climate, amid scenes of beauty and white cleanliness. Secretly she became more and more indignant.

Amy entered, bearing a letter in her coarse hand. As Amy unceremoniously handed the letter to Constance, Sophia thought: “If she was my servant she would hand letters on a tray.” (An advertisement had already been sent to the Signal.)

Constance took the letter trembling. “Here it is at last,” she cried.

When she had put on her spectacles and read it, she exclaimed:

“Bless us! Here’s news! He’s coming down! That’s why he didn’t write on Saturday as usual.”

She gave the letter to Sophia to read. It ran —

“Sunday midnight.

“DEAR MOTHER,

“Just a line to say I am coming down to Bursley on Wednesday, on business with Peels. I shall get to Knype at 5.28, and take the Loop. I’ve been very busy, and as I was coming down I didn’t write on Saturday. I hope you didn’t worry. Love to yourself and Aunt Sophia.

“Yours, C.”

“I must send him a line,” said Constance, excitedly.

“What? To-night?”

“Yes. Amy can easily catch the last post with it. Otherwise he won’t know that I’ve got his letter.”

She rang the bell.

Sophia thought: “His coming down is really no excuse for his not writing on Saturday. How could she guess that he was coming down? I shall have to put in a little word to that young man. I wonder Constance is so blind. She is quite satisfied now that his letter has come.” On behalf of the elder generation she rather resented Constance’s eagerness to write in answer.

But Constance was not so blind. Constance thought exactly as Sophia thought. In her heart she did not at all justify or excuse Cyril. She remembered separately almost every instance of his carelessness in her regard. “Hope I didn’t worry, indeed!” she said to herself with a faint touch of bitterness, apropos of the phrase in his letter.

Nevertheless she insisted on writing at once. And Amy had to bring the writing materials.

“Mr. Cyril is coming down on Wednesday,” she said to Amy with great dignity.

Amy’s stony calmness was shaken, for Mr. Cyril was a great deal to Amy. Amy wondered how she would be able to look Mr. Cyril in the face when he knew that she had given notice.

In the middle of writing, on her knee, Constance looked up at Sophia, and said, as though defending herself against an accusation: “I didn’t write to him yesterday, you know, or today.”

“No,” Sophia murmured assentingly.

Constance rang the bell yet again, and Amy was sent out to the post.

Soon afterwards the bell was rung for a fourth time, and not answered.

“I suppose she hasn’t come back yet. But I thought I heard the door. What a long time she is!”

“What do you want?” Sophia asked.

“I just want to speak to her,” said Constance.

When the bell had been rung seven or eight times, Amy at length reappeared, somewhat breathless.

“Amy,” said Constance, “let me examine those sheets, will you?”

“Yes’m,” said Amy, apparently knowing what sheets, of all the various and multitudinous sheets in that house.

“And the pillow-cases,” Constance added as Amy left the room.

So it continued. The next day the fever heightened. Constance was up early, before Sophia, and trotting about the house like a girl. Immediately after breakfast Cyril’s bedroom was invested and revolutionized; not till evening was order restored in that chamber. And on the Wednesday morning it had to be dusted afresh. Sophia watched the preparations, and the increasing agitation of Constance’s demeanour, with an astonishment which she had real difficulty in concealing. “Is the woman absolutely mad?” she asked herself. The spectacle was ludicrous: or it seemed so to Sophia, whose career had not embraced much experience of mothers. It was not as if the manifestations of Constance’s anxiety were dignified or original or splendid. They were just silly, ordinary fussinesses; they had no sense in them. Sophia was very careful to make no observation. She felt that before she and Constance were very much older she had a very great deal to do, and that a subtle diplomacy and wary tactics would be necessary. Moreover, Constance’s angelic temper was slightly affected by the strain of expectation. She had a tendency to rasp. After the high-tea was set she suddenly sprang on to the sofa and lifted down the ‘Stag at Eve’ engraving. The dust on the top of the frame incensed her.

“What are you going to do?” Sophia asked, in a final marvel.

“I’m going to change it with that one,” said Constance, pointing to another engraving opposite the fireplace. “He said the effect would be very much better if they were changed. And his lordship is very particular.”

Constance did not go to Bursley station to meet her son. She explained that it upset her to do so, and that also Cyril preferred her not to come.

“Suppose I go to meet him,” said Sophia, at half-past five. The idea had visited her suddenly. She thought: “Then I could talk to him before any one else.”

“Oh, do!” Constance agreed.

Sophia put her things on with remarkable expedition. She arrived at the station a minute before the train came in. Only a few persons emerged from the train, and Cyril was not among them. A porter said that there was not supposed to be any connection between the Loop Line trains and the main line expresses, and that probably the express had missed the Loop. She waited thirty-five minutes for the next Loop, and Cyril did not emerge from that train either.

Constance opened the front-door to her, and showed a telegram —

“Sorry prevented last moment. Writing. CYRIL.”

Sophia had known it. Somehow she had known that it was useless to wait for the second train. Constance was silent and calm; Sophia also.

“What a shame! What a shame!” thumped Sophia’s heart.

It was the most ordinary episode. But beneath her calm she was furious against her favourite. She hesitated.

“I’m just going out a minute,” she said.

“Where?” asked Constance. “Hadn’t we better have tea? I suppose we must have tea.”

“I shan’t be long. I want to buy something.”

Sophia went to the post-office and despatched a telegram. Then, partially eased, she returned to the arid and painful desolation of the house.

iv

The next evening Cyril sat at the tea-table in the parlour with his mother and his aunt. To Constance his presence there had something of the miraculous in it. He had come, after all! Sophia was in a rich robe, and for ornament wore an old silver-gilt neck-chain, which was clasped at the throat, and fell in double to her waist, where it was caught in her belt. This chain interested Cyril. He referred to it once or twice, and then he said: “Just let me have a LOOK at that chain,” and put out his hand; and Sophia leaned forward so that he could handle it. His fingers played with it thus for some seconds; the picture strikingly affected Constance. At length he dropped it, and said: “H’m!” After a pause he said: “Louis Sixteenth, eh?” and Sophia said:

“They told me so. But it’s nothing; it only cost thirty francs, you know.” And Cyril took her up sharply:

“What does that matter?” Then after another pause he asked: “How often do you break a link of it?”

“Oh, often,” she said. “It’s always getting shorter.”

And he murmured mysteriously: “H’m!”

He was still mysterious, withdrawn within himself extraordinarily uninterested in his physical surroundings. But that evening he talked more than he usually did. He was benevolent, and showed a particular benevolence towards his mother, apparently exerting himself to answer her questions with fullness and heartiness, as though admitting frankly her right to be curious. He praised the tea; he seemed to notice what he was eating. He took Spot on his knee, and gazed in admiration at Fossette.

“By Jove!” he said, “that’s a dog, that is! . . . All the same. . . . ” And he burst out laughing.

“I won’t have Fossette laughed at,” Sophia warned him.

“No, seriously,” he said, in his quality of an amateur of dogs; “she is very fine.” Even then he could not help adding: “What you can see of her!”

Whereupon Sophia shook her head, deprecating such wit. Sophia was very lenient towards him. Her leniency could be perceived in her eyes, which followed his movements all the time. “Do you think he is like me, Constance?” she asked.

“I wish I was half as good-looking,” said Cyril, quickly; and Constance said:

“As a baby he was very like you. He was a handsome baby. He wasn’t at all like you when he was at school. These last few years he’s begun to be like you again. He’s very much changed since he left school; he was rather heavy and clumsy then.”

“Heavy and clumsy!” exclaimed Sophia. “Well, I should never have believed it!”

“Oh, but he was!” Constance insisted.

“Now, mater,” said Cyril, “it’s a pity you don’t want that cake cutting into. I think I could have eaten a bit of that cake. But of course if it’s only for show . . .!”

Constance sprang up, seizing a knife.

“You shouldn’t tease your mother,” Sophia told him. “He doesn’t really want any, Constance; he’s regularly stuffed himself.”

And Cyril agreed, “No, no, mater, don’t cut it; I really couldn’t. I was only gassing.”

But Constance could never clearly see through humour of that sort. She cut three slices of cake, and she held the plate towards Cyril.

“I tell you I really couldn’t!” he protested.

“Come!” she said obstinately. “I’m waiting! How much longer must I hold this plate?”

And he had to take a slice. So had Sophia. When she was roused, they both of them had to yield to Constance.

With the dogs, and the splendour of the tea-table under the gas, and the distinction of Sophia and Cyril, and the conversation, which on the whole was gay and free, rising at times to jolly garrulity, the scene in her parlour ought surely to have satisfied Constance utterly. She ought to have been quite happy, as her sciatica had raised the siege for a space. But she was not quite happy. The circumstances of Cyril’s arrival had disturbed her; they had in fact wounded her, though she would scarcely admit the wound. In the morning she had received a brief letter from Cyril to say that he had not been able to come, and vaguely promising, or half-promising, to run down at a later date. That letter had the cardinal defects of all Cyril’s relations with his mother; it was casual, and it was not candid. It gave no hint of the nature of the obstacle which had prevented him from coming. Cyril had always been too secretive. She was gravely depressed by the letter, which she did not show to Sophia, because it impaired her dignity as a mother, and displayed her son in a bad light. Then about eleven o’clock a telegram had come for Sophia.

“That’s all right,” Sophia had said, on reading it. “He’ll be here this evening!” And she had handed over the telegram, which read —

“Very well. Will come same train today.”

And Constance learned that when Sophia had rushed out just before tea on the previous evening, it was to telegraph to Cyril.

“What did you say to him?” Constance asked.

“Oh!” said Sophia, with a careless air, “I told him I thought he ought to come. After all, you’re more important than any business, Constance! And I don’t like him behaving like that. I was determined he should come!”

Sophia had tossed her proud head.

Constance had pretended to be pleased and grateful. But the existence of a wound was incontestable. Sophia, then, could do more with Cyril than she could! Sophia had only met him once, and could simply twist him round her little finger. He would never have done so much for his mother. A fine sort of an obstacle it must have been, if a single telegram from Sophia could overcome it . . .! And Sophia, too, was secretive. She had gone out and had telegraphed, and had not breathed a word until she got the reply, sixteen hours later. She was secretive, and Cyril was secretive. They resembled one another. They had taken to one another. But Sophia was a curious mixture. When Constance had asked her if she should go to the station again to meet Cyril, she had replied scornfully: “No, indeed! I’ve done going to meet Cyril. People who don’t arrive must not expect to be met.”

When Cyril drove up to the door, Sophia had been in attendance. She hurried down the steps. “Don’t say anything about my telegram,” she had rapidly whispered to Cyril; there was no time for further explanation. Constance was at the top of the steps. Constance had not heard the whisper, but she had seen it; and she saw a guilty, puzzled look on Cyril’s face, afterwards an ineffectively concealed conspiratorial look on both their faces. They had ‘something between them,’ from which she, the mother, was shut out! Was it not natural that she should be wounded? She was far too proud to mention the telegrams. And as neither Cyril nor Sophia mentioned them, the circumstances leading to Cyril’s change of plan were not referred to at all, which was very curious. Then Cyril was more sociable than he had ever been; he was different, under his aunt’s gaze. Certainly he treated his mother faultlessly. But Constance said to herself: “It is because she is here that he is so specially nice to me.”

When tea was finished and they were going upstairs to the drawing-room, she asked him, with her eye on the ‘Stag at Eve’ engraving:

“Well, is it a success?”

“What?” His eye followed hers. “Oh, you’ve changed it! What did you do that for, mater?”

“You said it would be better like that,” she reminded him.

“Did I?” He seemed genuinely surprised. “I don’t remember. I believe it is better, though,” he added. “It might be even better still if you turned it the other way up.”

He pulled a face to Sophia, and screwed up his shoulders, as if to indicate: “I’ve done it, this time!”

“How? The other way up?” Constance queried. Then as she comprehended that he was teasing her, she said: “Get away with you!” and pretended to box his ears. “You were fond enough of that picture at one time!” she said ironically.

“Yes, I was, mater,” he submissively agreed. “There’s no getting over that.” And he pressed her cheeks between his hands and kissed her.

In the drawing-room he smoked cigarettes and played the piano — waltzes of his own composition. Constance and Sophia did not entirely comprehend those waltzes. But they agreed that all were wonderful and that one was very pretty indeed. (It soothed Constance that Sophia’s opinion coincided with hers.) He said that that waltz was the worst of the lot. When he had finished with the piano, Constance informed him about Amy. “Oh! She told me,” he said, “when she brought me my water. I didn’t mention it because I thought it would be rather a sore subject.” Beneath the casualness of his tone there lurked a certain curiosity, a willingness to hear details. He heard them.

At five minutes to ten, when Constance had yawned, he threw a bomb among them on the hearthrug.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve got an appointment with Matthew at the Conservative Club at ten o’clock. I must go. Don’t wait up for me.”

Both women protested, Sophia the more vivaciously. It was Sophia now who was wounded.

“It’s business,” he said, defending himself. “He’s going away early tomorrow, and it’s my only chance.” And as Constance did not brighten he went on: “Business has to be attended to. You mustn’t think I’ve got nothing to do but enjoy myself.”

No hint of the nature of the business! He never explained. As to business, Constance knew only that she allowed him three hundred a year, and paid his local tailor. The sum had at first seemed to her enormous, but she had grown accustomed to it.

“I should have preferred you to see Mr. Peel–Swynnerton here,” said Constance. “You could have had a room to yourselves. I do not like you going out at ten o’clock at night to a club.”

“Well, good night, mater,” he said, getting up. “See you tomorrow. I shall take the key out of the door. It’s true my pocket will never be the same again.”

Sophia saw Constance into bed, and provided her with two hot-water bottles against sciatica. They did not talk much.

v

Sophia sat waiting on the sofa in the parlour. It appeared to her that, though little more than a month had elapsed since her arrival in Bursley, she had already acquired a new set of interests and anxieties. Paris and her life there had receded in the strangest way. Sometimes for hours she would absolutely forget Paris. Thoughts of Paris were disconcerting; for either Paris or Bursley must surely be unreal! As she sat waiting on the sofa Paris kept coming into her mind. Certainly it was astonishing that she should be just as preoccupied with her schemes for the welfare of Constance as she had ever been preoccupied with schemes for the improvement of the Pension Frensham. She said to herself: “My life has been so queer — and yet every part of it separately seemed ordinary enough — how will it end?”

Then there were footfalls on the steps outside, and a key was put into the door, which she at once opened.

“Oh!” exclaimed Cyril, startled, and also somewhat out of countenance. “You’re still up! Thanks.” He came in, smoking the end of a cigar. “Fancy having to cart that about!” he murmured, holding up the great old-fashioned key before inserting it in the lock on the inside.

“I stayed up,” said Sophia, “because I wanted to talk to you about your mother, and it’s so difficult to get a chance.”

Cyril smiled, not without self-consciousness, and dropped into his mother’s rocking-chair, which he had twisted round with his feet to face the sofa.

“Yes,” he said. “I was wondering what was the real meaning of your telegram. What was it?” He blew out a lot of smoke and waited for her reply.

“I thought you ought to come down,” said Sophia, cheerfully but firmly. “It was a fearful disappointment to your mother that you didn’t come yesterday. And when she’s expecting a letter from you and it doesn’t come, it makes her ill.”

“Oh, well!” he said. “I’m glad it’s no worse. I thought from your telegram there was something seriously wrong. And then when you told me not to mention it — when I came in . . .!”

She saw that he failed to realize the situation, and she lifted her head challengingly.

“You neglect your mother, young man,” she said.

“Oh, come now, auntie!” he answered quite gently. “You mustn’t talk like that. I write to her every week. I’ve never missed a week. I come down as often as ——”

“You miss the Sunday sometimes,” Sophia interrupted him.

“Perhaps,” he said doubtfully. “But what ——”

“Don’t you understand that she simply lives for your letters? And if one doesn’t come, she’s very upset indeed — can’t eat! And it brings on her sciatica, and I don’t know what!”

He was taken aback by her boldness, her directness.

“But how silly of her! A fellow can’t always ——”

“It may be silly. But there it is. You can’t alter her. And, after all, what would it cost you to be more attentive, even to write to her twice a week? You aren’t going to tell me you’re so busy as all that! I know a great deal more about young men than your mother does.” She smiled like an aunt.

He answered her smile sheepishly.

“If you’ll only put yourself in your mother’s place . . .!”

“I expect you’re quite right,” he said at length. “And I’m much obliged to you for telling me. How was I to know?” He threw the end of the cigar, with a large sweeping gesture, into the fire.

“Well, anyhow, you know now!” she said curtly; and she thought: “You OUGHT to have known. It was your business to know.” But she was pleased with the way in which he had accepted her criticism, and the gesture with which he threw away the cigar-end struck her as very distinguished.

“That’s all right!” he said dreamily, as if to say: “That’s done with.” And he rose.

Sophia, however, did not stir.

“Your mother’s health is not what it ought to be,” she went on, and gave him a full account of her conversation with the doctor.

“Really!” Cyril murmured, leaning on the mantel-piece with his elbow and looking down at her. “Stirling said that, did he? I should have thought she would have been better where she is, in the Square.”

“Why better in the Square?”

“Oh, I don’t know!”

“Neither do I!”

“She’s always been here.”

“Yes.” said Sophia, “she’s been here a great deal too long.”

“What do YOU suggest?” Cyril asked, with impatience in his voice against this new anxiety that was being thrust upon him.

“Well,” said Sophia, “what should you say to her coming to London and living with you?”

Cyril started back. Sophia could see that he was genuinely shocked. “I don’t think that would do at all,” he said.

“Why?”

“Oh! I don’t think it would. London wouldn’t suit her. She’s not that sort of woman. I really thought she was quite all right down here. She wouldn’t like London.” He shook his head, looking up at the gas; his eyes had a dangerous glare.

“But supposing she said she did?”

“Look here,” Cyril began in a new and brighter tone. “Why don’t you and she keep house together somewhere? That would be the very —”

He turned his head sharply. There was a noise on the staircase, and the staircase door opened with its eternal creak.

“Yes,” said Sophia. “The Champs Elysees begins at the Place de la Concorde, and ends ——. Is that you, Constance?”

The figure of Constance filled the doorway. Her face was troubled. She had heard Cyril in the street, and had come down to see why he remained so long in the parlour. She was astounded to find Sophia with him. There they were, as intimate as cronies, chattering about Paris! Undoubtedly she was jealous! Never did Cyril talk like that to her!

“I thought you were in bed and asleep, Sophia,” she said weakly. “It’s nearly one o’clock.”

“No,” said Sophia. “I didn’t seem to feel like going to bed; and then Cyril happened to come in.”

But neither she nor Cyril could look innocent. And Constance glanced from one to the other apprehensively.

The next morning Cyril received a letter which, he said — with no further explanation — forced him to leave at once. He intimated that there had been danger in his coming just then, and that matters had turned out as he had feared.

“You think over what I said,” he whispered to Sophia when they were alone for an instant, “and let me know.”

vi

A week before Easter the guests of the Rutland Hotel in the Broad Walk, Buxton, being assembled for afternoon tea in the “lounge” of that establishment, witnessed the arrival of two middle-aged ladies and two dogs. Critically to examine newcomers was one of the amusements of the occupants of the lounge. This apartment, furnished “in the oriental style,” made a pretty show among the photographs in the illustrated brochure of the hotel, and, though draughty, it was of all the public rooms the favourite. It was draughty because only separated from the street (if the Broad Walk can be called a street) by two pairs of swinging-doors — in charge of two page-boys. Every visitor entering the hotel was obliged to pass through the lounge, and for newcomers the passage was an ordeal; they were made to feel that they had so much to learn, so much to get accustomed to; like passengers who join a ship at a port of call, they felt that the business lay before them of creating a niche for themselves in a hostile and haughty society. The two ladies produced a fairly favourable impression at the outset by reason of their two dogs. It is not every one who has the courage to bring dogs into an expensive private hotel; to bring one dog indicates that you are not accustomed to deny yourself small pleasures for the sake of a few extra shillings; to bring two indicates that you have no fear of hotel-managers and that you are in the habit of regarding your own whim as nature’s law. The shorter and stouter of the two ladies did not impose herself with much force on the collective vision of the Rutland; she was dressed in black, not fashionably, though with a certain unpretending richness; her gestures were timid and nervous; evidently she relied upon her tall companion to shield her in the first trying contacts of hotel life. The tall lady was of a different stamp. Handsome, stately, deliberate, and handsomely dressed in colours, she had the assured hard gaze of a person who is thoroughly habituated to the inspection of strangers. She curtly asked one of the page-boys for the manager, and the manager’s wife tripped rapidly down the stairs in response, and was noticeably deferential — Her voice was quiet and commanding, the voice of one who gives orders that are obeyed. The opinion of the lounge was divided as to whether or not they were sisters.

They vanished quietly upstairs in convoy of the manager’s wife, and they did not reappear for the lounge tea, which in any case would have been undrinkably stewed. It then became known, by the agency of one of those guests, to be found in every hotel, who acquire all the secrets of the hotel by the exercise of unabashed curiosity on the personnel, that the two ladies had engaged two bedrooms, Nos. 17 and 18, and the sumptuous private parlour with a balcony on the first floor, styled “C” in the nomenclature of rooms. This fact definitely established the position of the new arrivals in the moral fabric of the hotel. They were wealthy. They had money to throw away. For even in a select hotel like the Rutland it is not everybody who indulges in a private sitting-room; there were only four such apartments in the hotel, as against fifty bedrooms.

At dinner they had a small table to themselves in a corner. The short lady wore a white shawl over her shoulders. Her almost apologetic manner during the meal confirmed the view that she must be a very simple person, unused to the world and its ways. The other continued to be imperial. She ordered half-a-bottle of wine and drank two glasses. She stared about her quite self-unconsciously, whereas the little woman divided her glances between her companion and her plate. They did not talk much. Immediately after dinner they retired. “Widows in easy circumstances” was the verdict; but the contrast between the pair held puzzles that piqued the inquisitive.

Sophia had conquered again. Once more Sophia had resolved to accomplish a thing and she had accomplished it. Events had fallen out thus. The advertisement for a general servant in the Signal had been a disheartening failure. A few answers were received, but of an entirely unsatisfactory character. Constance, a great deal more than Sophia, had been astounded by the bearing and the demands of modern servants. Constance was in despair. If Constance had not had an immense pride she would have been ready to suggest to Sophia that Amy should be asked to ‘stay on.’ But Constance would have accepted a modern impudent wench first. It was Maria Critchlow who got Constance out of her difficulty by giving her particulars of a reliable servant who was about to leave a situation in which she had stayed for eight years. Constance did not imagine that a servant recommended by Maria Critchlow would suit her, but, being in a quandary, she arranged to see the servant, and both she and Sophia were very pleased with the girl — Rose Bennion by name. The mischief was that Rose would not be free until about a month after Amy had left. Rose would have left her old situation, but she had a fancy to go and spend a fortnight with a married sister at Manchester before settling into new quarters. Constance and Sophia felt that this caprice of Rose’s was really very tiresome and unnecessary. Of course Amy might have been asked to ‘stay on’ just for a month. Amy would probably have volunteered to do so had she been aware of the circumstances. She was not, however, aware of the circumstances. And Constance was determined not to be beholden to Amy for anything. What could the sisters do? Sophia, who conducted all the interviews with Rose and other candidates, said that it would be a grave error to let Rose slip. Besides, they had no one to take her place, no one who could come at once.

The dilemma was appalling. At least, it seemed appalling to Constance, who really believed that no mistress had ever been so ‘awkwardly fixed.’ And yet, when Sophia first proposed her solution, Constance considered it to be a quite impossible solution. Sophia’s idea was that they should lock up the house and leave it on the same day as Amy left it, to spend a few weeks in some holiday resort. To begin with, the idea of leaving the house empty seemed to Constance a mad idea. The house had never been left empty. And then — going for a holiday in April! Constance had never been for a holiday except in the month of August. No! The project was beset with difficulties and dangers which could not be overcome nor provided against. For example, “We can’t come back to a dirty house,” said Constance. “And we can’t have a strange servant coming here before us.” To which Sophia had replied: “Then what SHALL you do?” And Constance, after prodigious reflection on the frightful pass to which destiny had brought her, had said that she supposed she would have to manage with a charwoman until Rose’s advent. She asked Sophia if she remembered old Maggie. Sophia, of course, perfectly remembered. Old Maggie was dead, as well as the drunken, amiable Hollins, but there was a young Maggie (wife of a bricklayer) who went out charing in the spare time left from looking after seven children. The more Constance meditated upon young Maggie, the more was she convinced that young Maggie would meet the case. Constance felt she could trust young Maggie.

This expression of trust in Maggie was Constance’s undoing. Why should they not go away, and arrange with Maggie to come to the house a few days before their return, to clean and ventilate? The weight of reason overbore Constance. She yielded unwillingly, but she yielded. It was the mention of Buxton that finally moved her. She knew Buxton. Her old landlady at Buxton was dead, and Constance had not visited the place since before Samuel’s death; nevertheless its name had a reassuring sound to her ears, and for sciatica its waters and climate were admitted to be the best in England. Gradually Constance permitted herself to be embarked on this perilous enterprise of shutting up the house for twenty-five days. She imparted the information to Amy, who was astounded. Then she commenced upon her domestic preparations. She wrapped Samuel’s Family Bible in brown paper; she put Cyril’s straw-framed copy of Sir Edwin Landseer away in a drawer, and she took ten thousand other precautions. It was grotesque; it was farcical; it was what you please. And when, with the cab at the door and the luggage on the cab, and the dogs chained together, and Maria Critchlow waiting on the pavement to receive the key, Constance put the key into the door on the outside, and locked up the empty house, Constance’s face was tragic with innumerable apprehensions. And Sophia felt that she had performed a miracle. She had.

On the whole the sisters were well received in the hotel, though they were not at an age which commands popularity. In the criticism which was passed upon them — the free, realistic and relentless criticism of private hotels — Sophia was at first set down as overbearing. But in a few days this view was modified, and Sophia rose in esteem. The fact was that Sophia’s behaviour changed after forty-eight hours. The Rutland Hotel was very good. It was so good as to disturb Sophia’s profound beliefs that there was in the world only one truly high-class pension, and that nobody could teach the creator of that unique pension anything about the art of management. The food was excellent; the attendance in the bedrooms was excellent (and Sophia knew how difficult of attainment was excellent bedroom attendance); and to the eye the interior of the Rutland presented a spectacle far richer than the Pension Frensham could show. The standard of comfort was higher. The guests had a more distinguished appearance. It is true that the prices were much higher. Sophia was humbled. She had enough sense to adjust her perspective. Further, she found herself ignorant of many matters which by the other guests were taken for granted and used as a basis for conversation. Prolonged residence in Paris would not justify this ignorance; it seemed rather to intensify its strangeness. Thus, when someone of cosmopolitan experience, having learnt that she had lived in Paris for many years, asked what had been going on lately at the Comedie Francaise, she had to admit that she had not been in a French theatre for nearly thirty years. And when, on a Sunday, the same person questioned her about the English chaplain in Paris, lo! she knew nothing but his name, had never even seen him. Sophia’s life, in its way, had been as narrow as Constance’s. Though her experience of human nature was wide, she had been in a groove as deep as Constance’s. She had been utterly absorbed in doing one single thing.

By tacit agreement she had charge of the expedition. She paid all the bills. Constance protested against the expensiveness of the affair several times, but Sophia quietened her by sheer force of individuality. Constance had one advantage over Sophia. She knew Buxton and its neighbourhood intimately, and she was therefore in a position to show off the sights and to deal with local peculiarities. In all other respects Sophia led.

They very soon became acclimatized to the hotel. They moved easily between Turkey carpets and sculptured ceilings; their eyes grew used to the eternal vision of themselves and other slow-moving dignities in gilt mirrors, to the heaviness of great oil-paintings of picturesque scenery, to the indications of surreptitious dirt behind massive furniture, to the grey-brown of the shirt-fronts of the waiters, to the litter of trays, boots and pails in long corridors; their ears were always awake to the sounds of gongs and bells. They consulted the barometer and ordered the daily carriage with the perfunctoriness of habit. They discovered what can be learnt of other people’s needlework in a hotel on a wet day. They performed cooperative outings with fellow-guests. They invited fellow-guests into their sitting-room. When there was an entertainment they did not avoid it. Sophia was determined to do everything that could with propriety be done, partly as an outlet for her own energy (which since she left Paris had been accumulating), but more on Constance’s account. She remembered all that Dr. Stirling had said, and the heartiness of her own agreement with his opinions. It was a great day when, under tuition of an aged lady and in the privacy of their parlour, they both began to study the elements of Patience. Neither had ever played at cards. Constance was almost afraid to touch cards, as though in the very cardboard there had been something unrighteous and perilous. But the respectability of a luxurious private hotel makes proper every act that passes within its walls. And Constance plausibly argued that no harm could come from a game which you played by yourself. She acquired with some aptitude several varieties of Patience. She said: “I think I could enjoy that, if I kept at it. But it does make my head whirl.”

Nevertheless Constance was not happy in the hotel. She worried the whole time about her empty house. She anticipated difficulties and even disasters. She wondered again and again whether she could trust the second Maggie in her house alone, whether it would not be better to return home earlier and participate personally in the cleaning. She would have decided to do so had it not been that she hesitated to subject Sophia to the inconvenience of a house upside down. The matter was on her mind, always. Always she was restlessly anticipating the day when they would leave. She had carelessly left her heart behind in St. Luke’s Square. She had never stayed in a hotel before, and she did not like it. Sciatica occasionally harassed her. Yet when it came to the point she would not drink the waters. She said she never had drunk them, and seemed to regard that as a reason why she never should. Sophia had achieved a miracle in getting her to Buxton for nearly a month, but the ultimate grand effect lacked brilliance.

Then came the fatal letter, the desolating letter, which vindicated Constance’s dark apprehensions. Rose Bennion calmly wrote to say that she had decided not to come to St. Luke’s Square. She expressed regret for any inconvenience which might possibly be caused; she was polite. But the monstrousness of it! Constance felt that this actually and truly was the deepest depth of her calamities. There she was, far from a dirty home, with no servant and no prospect of a servant! She bore herself bravely, nobly; but she was stricken. She wanted to return to the dirty home at once.

Sophia felt that the situation created by this letter would demand her highest powers of dealing with situations, and she determined to deal with it adequately. Great measures were needed, for Constance’s health and happiness were at stake. She alone could act. She knew that she could not rely upon Cyril. She still had an immense partiality for Cyril; she thought him the most charming young man she had ever known; she knew him to be industrious and clever; but in his relations with his mother there was a hardness, a touch of callousness. She explained it vaguely by saying that ‘they did not get on well together’; which was strange, considering Constance’s sweet affectionateness. Still, Constance could be a little trying — at times. Anyhow, it was soon clear to Sophia that the idea of mother and son living together in London was entirely impracticable. No! If Constance was to be saved from herself, there was no one but Sophia to save her.

After half a morning spent chiefly in listening to Constance’s hopeless comments on the monstrous letter, Sophia said suddenly that she must take the dogs for an airing. Constance did not feel equal to walking out, and she would not drive. She did not want Sophia to ‘venture,’ because the sky threatened. However, Sophia did venture, and she returned a few minutes late for lunch, full of vigour, with two happy dogs. Constance was moodily awaiting her in the dining-room. Constance could not eat. But Sophia ate, and she poured out cheerfulness and energy as from a source inexhaustible. After lunch it began to rain. Constance said she thought she should retire directly to the sitting-room. “I’m coming too,” said Sophia, who was still wearing her hat and coat and carried her gloves in her hand. In the pretentious and banal sitting-room they sat down on either side the fire. Constance put a little shawl round her shoulders, pushed her spectacles into her grey hair, folded her hands, and sighed an enormous sigh: “Oh, dear!” She was the tragic muse, aged, and in black silk.

“I tell you what I’ve been thinking,” said Sophia, folding up her gloves.

“What?” asked Constance, expecting some wonderful solution to come out of Sophia’s active brain.

“There’s no earthly reason why you should go back to Bursley. The house won’t run away, and it’s costing nothing but the rent. Why not take things easy for a bit?”

“And stay here?” said Constance, with an inflection that enlightened Sophia as to the intensity of her dislike of the existence at the Rutland.

“No, not here,” Sophia answered with quick deprecation. “There are plenty of other places we could go to.”

“I don’t think I should be easy in my mind,” said Constance. “What with nothing being settled, the house ——”

“What does it matter about the house?”

“It matters a great deal,” said Constance, seriously, and slightly hurt. “I didn’t leave things as if we were going to be away for a long time. It wouldn’t do.”

“I don’t see that anything could come to any harm, I really don’t!” said Sophia, persuasively. “Dirt can always be cleaned, after all. I think you ought to go about more. It would do you good — all the good in the world. And there is no reason why you shouldn’t go about. You are perfectly free. Why shouldn’t we go abroad together, for instance, you and I? I’m sure you would enjoy it very much.”

“Abroad?” murmured Constance, aghast, recoiling from the proposition as from a grave danger.

“Yes,” said Sophia, brightly and eagerly. She was determined to take Constance abroad. “There are lots of places we could go to, and live very comfortably among nice English people.” She thought of the resorts she had visited with Gerald in the sixties. They seemed to her like cities of a dream. They came back to her as a dream recurs.

“I don’t think going abroad would suit me,” said Constance.

“But why not? You don’t know. You’ve never tried, my dear.” She smiled encouragingly. But Constance did not smile. Constance was inclined to be grim.

“I don’t think it would,” said she, obstinately. “I’m one of your stay-at-homes. I’m not like you. We can’t all be alike,” she added, with her ‘tart’ accent.

Sophia suppressed a feeling of irritation. She knew that she had a stronger individuality than Constance’s.

“Well, then,” she said, with undiminished persuasiveness, “in England or Scotland. There are several places I should like to visit — Torquay, Tunbridge Wells. I’ve always under-stood that Tunbridge Wells is a very nice town indeed, with very superior people, and a beautiful climate.”

“I think I shall have to be getting back to St. Luke’s Square,” said Constance, ignoring all that Sophia had said. “There’s so much to be done.”

Then Sophia looked at Constance with a more serious and resolute air; but still kindly, as though looking thus at Constance for Constance’s own good.

“You are making a mistake, Constance,” she said, “if you will allow me to say so.”

“A mistake!” exclaimed Constance, startled.

“A very great mistake,” Sophia insisted, observing that she was creating an effect.

“I don’t see how I can be making a mistake,” Constance said, gaining confidence in herself, as she thought the matter over.

“No,” said Sophia, “I’m sure you don’t see it. But you are. You know, you are just a little apt to let yourself be a slave to that house of yours. Instead of the house existing for you, you exist for the house.”

“Oh! Sophia!” Constance muttered awkwardly. “What ideas you do have, to be sure!” In her nervousness she rose and picked up some embroidery, adjusting her spectacles and coughing. When she sat down she said: “No one could take things easier than I do as regards housekeeping. I can assure you I let dozens of little matters go, rather than bother myself.”

“Then why do you bother now?” Sophia posed her.

“I can’t leave the place like that.” Constance was hurt.

“There’s one thing I can’t understand,” said Sophia, raising her head and gazing at Constance again, “and that is, why you live in St. Luke’s Square at all.”

“I must live somewhere. And I’m sure it’s very pleasant.”

“In all that smoke! And with that dirt! And the house is very old.”

“It’s a great deal better built than a lot of those new houses by the Park,” Constance sharply retorted. In spite of herself she resented any criticism of her house. She even resented the obvious truth that it was old.

“You’ll never get a servant to stay in that cellar-kitchen, for one thing,” said Sophia, keeping calm.

“Oh! I don’t know about that! I don’t know about that! That Bennion woman didn’t object to it, anyway. It’s all very well for you, Sophia, to talk like that. But I know Bursley perhaps better than you do.” She was tart again. “And I can assure you that my house is looked upon as a very good house indeed.”

“Oh! I don’t say it isn’t; I don’t say it isn’t. But you would be better away from it. Every one says that.”

“Every one?” Constance looked up, dropping her work. “Who? Who’s been talking about me?”

“Well,” said Sophia, “the doctor, for instance.”

“Dr. Stirling? I like that! He’s always saying that Bursley is one of the healthiest climates in England. He’s always sticking up for Bursley.”

“Dr. Stirling thinks you ought to go away more — not stay always in that dark house.” If Sophia had sufficiently reflected she would not have used the adjective ‘dark.’ It did not help her cause.

“Oh, does he!” Constance fairly snorted. “Well, if it’s of any interest to Dr. Stirling, I like my dark house.”

“Hasn’t he ever told you you ought to go away more?” Sophia persisted.

“He may have mentioned it,” Constance reluctantly admitted.

“When he was talking to me he did a good deal more than mention it. And I’ve a good mind to tell you what he said.”

“Do!” said Constance, politely.

“You don’t realize how serious it is, I’m afraid,” said Sophia. “You can’t see yourself.” She hesitated a moment. Her blood being stirred by Constance’s peculiar inflection of the phrase ‘my dark house,’ her judgment was slightly obscured. She decided to give Constance a fairly full version of the conversation between herself and the doctor.

“It’s a question of your health,” she finished. “I think it’s my duty to talk to you seriously, and I have done. I hope you’ll take it as it’s meant.”

“Oh, of course!” Constance hastened to say. And she thought: “It isn’t yet three months that we’ve been together, and she’s trying already to get me under her thumb.”

A pause ensued. Sophia at length said: “There’s no doubt that both your sciatica and your palpitations are due to nerves. And you let your nerves get into a state because you worry over trifles. A change would do you a tremendous amount of good. It’s just what you need. Really, you must admit, Constance, that the idea of living always in a place like St. Luke’s Square, when you are perfectly free to do what you like and go where you like — you must admit it’s rather too much.”

Constance put her lips together and bent over her embroidery.

“Now, what do you say?” Sophia gently entreated.

“There’s some of us like Bursley, black as it is!” said Constance. And Sophia was surprised to detect tears in her sister’s voice.

“Now, my dear Constance,” she remonstrated.

“It’s no use!” cried Constance, flinging away her work, and letting her tears flow suddenly. Her face was distorted. She was behaving just like a child. “It’s no use! I’ve got to go back home and look after things. It’s no use. Here we are pitching money about in this place. It’s perfectly sinful. Drives, carriages, extras! A shilling a day extra for each dog. I never heard of such goings-on. And I’d sooner be at home. That’s it. I’d sooner be at home.” This was the first reference that Constance had made for a long time to the question of expense, and incomparably the most violent. It angered Sophia.

“We will count it that you are here as my guest,” said Sophia, loftily, “if that is how you look at it.”

“Oh no!” said Constance. “It isn’t the money I grudge. Oh no, we won’t.” And her tears were falling thick.

“Yes, we will,” said Sophia, coldly. “I’ve only been talking to you for your own good. I—”

“Well,” Constance interrupted her despairingly, “I wish you wouldn’t try to domineer over me!”

“Domineer!” exclaimed Sophia, aghast. “Well, Constance, I do think —”

She got up and went to her bedroom, where the dogs were imprisoned. They escaped to the stairs. She was shaking with emotion. This was what came of trying to help other people! Imagine Constance . . .! Truly Constance was most unjust, and quite unlike her usual self! And Sophia encouraged in her breast the feeling of injustice suffered. But a voice kept saying to her: “You’ve made a mess of this. You’ve not conquered this time. You’re beaten. And the situation is unworthy of you, of both of you. Two women of fifty quarreling like this! It’s undignified. You’ve made a mess of things.” And to strangle the voice, she did her best to encourage the feeling of injustice suffered.

‘Domineer!’

And Constance was absolutely in the wrong. She had not argued at all. She had merely stuck to her idea like a mule! How difficult and painful would be the next meeting with Constance, after this grievous miscarriage!

As she was reflecting thus the door burst open, and Constance stumbled, as it were blindly, into the bedroom. She was still weeping.

“Sophia!” she sobbed, supplicatingly, and all her fat body was trembling. “You mustn’t kill me . . . I’m like that — you can’t alter me. I’m like that. I know I’m silly. But it’s no use!” She made a piteous figure.

Sophia was aware of a lump in her throat.

“It’s all right, Constance; it’s all right. I quite understand. Don’t bother any more.”

Constance, catching her breath at intervals, raised her wet, worn face and kissed her.

Sophia remembered the very words, ‘You can’t alter her,’ which she had used in remonstrating with Cyril. And now she had been guilty of precisely the same unreason as that with which she had reproached Cyril! She was ashamed, both for herself and for Constance. Assuredly it had not been such a scene as women of their age would want to go through often. It was humiliating. She wished that it could have been blotted out as though it had never happened. Neither of them ever forgot it. They had had a lesson. And particularly Sophia had had a lesson. Having learnt, they left the Rutland, amid due ceremonies, and returned to St. Luke’s Square.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/old-wives-tale/book4.3.html

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