The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 4

End of Sophia

i

The kitchen steps were as steep, dark, and difficult as ever. Up those steps Sophia Scales, nine years older than when she had failed to persuade Constance to leave the Square, was carrying a large basket, weighted with all the heaviness of Fossette. Sophia, despite her age, climbed the steps violently, and burst with equal violence into the parlour, where she deposited the basket on the floor near the empty fireplace. She was triumphant and breathless. She looked at Constance, who had been standing near the door in the attitude of a shocked listener.

“There!” said Sophia. “Did you hear how she talked?”

“Yes,” said Constance. “What shall you do?”

“Well,” said Sophia. “I had a very good mind to order her out of the house at once. But then I thought I would take no notice. Her time will be up in three weeks. It’s best to be indifferent. If once they see they can upset you. . . . However, I wasn’t going to leave Fossette down there to her tender mercies a moment longer. She’s simply not looked after her at all.”

Sophia went on her knees to the basket, and, pulling aside the dog’s hair, round about the head, examined the skin. Fossette was a sick dog and behaved like one. Fossette, too, was nine years older, and her senility was offensive. She was to no sense a pleasant object.

“See here,” said Sophia.

Constance also knelt to the basket.

“And here,” said Sophia. “And here.”

The dog sighed, the insincere and pity-seeking sigh of a spoilt animal. Fossette foolishly hoped by such appeals to be spared the annoying treatment prescribed for her by the veterinary surgeon.

While the sisters were coddling her, and protecting her from her own paws, and trying to persuade her that all was for the best, another aged dog wandered vaguely into the room: Spot. Spot had very few teeth, and his legs were stiff. He had only one vice, jealousy. Fearing that Fossette might be receiving the entire attention of his mistresses, he had come to inquire into the situation. When he found the justification of his gloomiest apprehensions, he nosed obstinately up to Constance, and would not be put off. In vain Constance told him at length that he was interfering with the treatment. In vain Sophia ordered him sharply to go away. He would not listen to reason, being furious with jealousy. He got his foot into the basket.

“Will you!” exclaimed Sophia angrily, and gave him a clout on his old head. He barked snappishly, and retired to the kitchen again, disillusioned, tired of the world, and nursing his terrific grievance. “I do declare,” said Sophia, “that dog gets worse and worse.”

Constance said nothing.

When everything was done that could be done for the aged virgin in the basket, the sisters rose from their knees, stiffly; and they began to whisper to each other about the prospects of obtaining a fresh servant. They also debated whether they could tolerate the criminal eccentricities of the present occupant of the cave for yet another three weeks. Evidently they were in the midst of a crisis. To judge from Constance’s face every imaginable woe had been piled on them by destiny without the slightest regard for their powers of resistance. Her eyes had the permanent look of worry, and there was in them also something of the self-defensive. Sophia had a bellicose air, as though the creature in the cave had squarely challenged her, and she was decided to take up the challenge. Sophia’s tone seemed to imply an accusation of Constance. The general tension was acute.

Then suddenly their whispers expired, and the door opened and the servant came in to lay the supper. Her nose was high, her gaze cruel, radiant, and conquering. She was a pretty and an impudent girl of about twenty-three. She knew she was torturing her old and infirm mistresses. She did not care. She did it purposely. Her motto was: War on employers, get all you can out of them, for they will get all they can out of you. On principle — the sole principle she possessed — she would not stay in a place more than six months. She liked change. And employers did not like change. She was shameless with men. She ignored all orders as to what she was to eat and what she was not to eat. She lived up to the full resources of her employers. She could be to the last degree slatternly. Or she could be as neat as a pin, with an apron that symbolized purity and propriety, as to-night. She could be idle during a whole day, accumulating dirty dishes from morn till eve. On the other hand she could, when she chose, work with astonishing celerity and even thoroughness. In short, she was born to infuriate a mistress like Sophia and to wear out a mistress like Constance. Her strongest advantage in the struggle was that she enjoyed altercation; she revelled in a brawl; she found peace tedious. She was perfectly calculated to convince the sisters that times had worsened, and that the world would never again be the beautiful, agreeable place it once had been.

Her gestures as she laid the table were very graceful, in the pert style. She dropped forks into their appointed positions with disdain; she made slightly too much noise; when she turned she manoeuvred her swelling hips as though for the benefit of a soldier in a handsome uniform.

Nothing but the servant had been changed in that house. The harmonium on which Mr. Povey used occasionally to play was still behind the door; and on the harmonium was the tea-caddy of which Mrs. Baines used to carry the key on her bunch. In the corner to the right of the fireplace still hung the cupboard where Mrs. Baines stored her pharmacopoeia. The rest of the furniture was arranged as it had been arranged when the death of Mrs. Baines endowed Mr. and Mrs. Povey with all the treasures of the house at Axe. And it was as good as ever; better than ever. Dr. Stirling often expressed the desire for a corner cupboard like Mrs. Baines’s corner cupboard. One item had been added: the ‘Peel’ compote which Matthew Peel–Swynnerton had noticed in the dining-room of the Pension Frensham. This majestic piece, which had been reserved by Sophia in the sale of the pension, stood alone on a canterbury in the drawingroom. She had stored it, with a few other trifles, in Paris, and when she sent for it and the packing-case arrived, both she and Constance became aware that they were united for the rest of their lives. Of worldly goods, except money, securities, and clothes, that compote was practically all that Sophia owned. Happily it was a first-class item, doing no shame to the antique magnificence of the drawing-room.

In yielding to Constance’s terrible inertia, Sophia had meant nevertheless to work her own will on the interior of the house. She had meant to bully Constance into modernizing the dwelling. She did bully Constance, but the house defied her. Nothing could be done to that house. If only it had had a hall or lobby a complete transformation would have been possible. But there was no access to the upper floor except through the parlour. The parlour could not therefore be turned into a kitchen and the basement suppressed, and the ladies of the house could not live entirely on the upper floor. The disposition of the rooms had to remain exactly as it had always been. There was the same draught under the door, the same darkness on the kitchen stairs, the same difficulties with tradesmen in the distant backyard, the same twist in the bedroom stairs, the same eternal ascending and descending of pails. An efficient cooking-stove, instead of the large and capacious range, alone represented the twentieth century in the fixtures of the house.

Buried at the root of the relations between the sisters was Sophia’s grudge against Constance for refusing to leave the Square. Sophia was loyal. She would not consciously give with one hand while taking away with the other, and in accepting Constance’s decision she honestly meant to close her eyes to its stupidity. But she could not entirely succeed. She could not avoid thinking that the angelic Constance had been strangely and monstrously selfish in refusing to quit the Square. She marvelled that a woman of Constance’s sweet and calm disposition should be capable of so vast and ruthless an egotism. Constance must have known that Sophia would not leave her, and that the habitation of the Square was a continual irk to Sophia. Constance had never been able to advance a single argument for remaining in the Square. And yet she would not budge. It was so inconsistent with the rest of Constance’s behaviour. See Sophia sitting primly there by the table, a woman approaching sixty, with immense experience written on the fine hardness of her worn and distinguished face! Though her hair is not yet all grey, nor her figure bowed, you would imagine that she would, in her passage through the world, have learnt better than to expect a character to be consistent. But no! She was ever disappointed and hurt by Constance’s inconsistency! And see Constance, stout and bowed, looking more than her age with hair nearly white and slightly trembling hands! See that face whose mark is meekness and the spirit of conciliation, the desire for peace — you would not think that that placid soul could, while submitting to it, inly rage against the imposed weight of Sophia’s individuality. “Because I wouldn’t turn out of my house to please her,” Constance would say to herself, “she fancies she is entitled to do just as she likes.” Not often did she secretly rebel thus, but it occurred sometimes. They never quarrelled. They would have regarded separation as a disaster. Considering the difference of their lives, they agreed marvellously in their judgment of things. But that buried question of domicile prevented a complete unity between, them. And its subtle effect was to influence both of them to make the worst, instead of the best, of the trifling mishaps that disturbed their tranquillity. When annoyed, Sophia would meditate upon the mere fact that they lived in the Square for no reason whatever, until it grew incredibly shocking to her. After all it was scarcely conceivable that they should be living in the very middle of a dirty, ugly, industrial town simply because Constance mulishly declined to move. Another thing that curiously exasperated both of them upon occasion was that, owing to a recurrence of her old complaint of dizziness after meals, Sophia had been strictly forbidden to drink tea, which she loved. Sophia chafed under the deprivation, and Constance’s pleasure was impaired because she had to drink it alone.

While the brazen and pretty servant, mysteriously smiling to herself, dropped food and utensils on to the table, Constance and Sophia attempted to converse with negligent ease upon indifferent topics, as though nothing had occurred that day to mar the beauty of ideal relations between employers and employed. The pretence was ludicrous. The young wench saw through it instantly, and her mysterious smile developed almost into a laugh.

“Please shut the door after you, Maud,” said Sophia, as the girl picked up her empty tray.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Maud, politely.

She went out and left the door open.

It was a defiance, offered from sheer, youthful, wanton mischief.

The sisters looked at each other, their faces gravely troubled, aghast, as though they had glimpsed the end of civilized society, as though they felt that they had lived too long into an age of decadence and open shame. Constance’s face showed despair — she might have been about to be pitched into the gutter without a friend and without a shilling — but Sophia’s had the reckless courage that disaster breeds.

Sophia jumped up, and stepped to the door. “Maud,” she called out.

No answer.

“Maud, do you hear me?”

The suspense was fearful.

Still no answer.

Sophia glanced at Constance. “Either she shuts this door, or she leaves this house at once, even if I have to fetch a policeman!”

And Sophia disappeared down the kitchen steps. Constance trembled with painful excitement. The horror of existence closed in upon her. She could imagine nothing more appalling than the pass to which they had been brought by the modern change in the lower classes.

In the kitchen, Sophia, conscious that the moment held the future of at least the next three weeks, collected her forces.

“Maud,” she said, “did you not hear me call you?”

Maud looked up from a book — doubtless a wicked book.

“No, ma’am.”

“You liar!” thought Sophia. And she said: “I asked you to shut the parlour door, and I shall be obliged if you will do so.”

Now Maud would have given a week’s wages for the moral force to disobey Sophia. There was nothing to compel her to obey. She could have trampled on the fragile and weak Sophia. But something in Sophia’s gaze compelled her to obey. She flounced; she bridled; she mumbled; she unnecessarily disturbed the venerable Spot; but she obeyed. Sophia had risked all, and she had won something.

“And you should light the gas in the kitchen,” said Sophia magnificently, as Maud followed her up the steps. “Your young eyes may be very good now, but you are not going the way to preserve them. My sister and I have often told you that we do not grudge you gas.”

With stateliness she rejoined Constance, and sat down to the cold supper. And as Maud clicked the door to, the sisters breathed relief. They envisaged new tribulations, but for a brief instant there was surcease.

Yet they could not eat. Neither of them, when it came to the point, could swallow. The day had been too exciting, too distressing. They were at the end of their resources. And they did not hide from each other that they were at the end of their resources. The illness of Fossette, without anything else, had been more than enough to ruin their tranquillity. But the illness of Fossette was as nothing to the ingenious naughtiness of the servant. Maud had a sense of temporary defeat, and was planning fresh operations; but really it was Maud who had conquered. Poor old things, they were in such a ‘state’ that they could not eat!

“I’m not going to let her think she can spoil my appetite!” said Sophia, dauntless. Truly that woman’s spirit was unquenchable.

She cut a couple of slices off the cold fowl; she cut a tomato into slices; she disturbed the butter; she crumbled bread on the cloth, and rubbed bits of fowl over the plates, and dirtied knives and forks. Then she put the slices of fowl and bread and tomato into a piece of tissue paper, and silently went upstairs with the parcel and came down again a moment afterwards empty-handed.

After an interval she rang the bell, and lighted the gas.

“We’ve finished, Maud. You can clear away.”

Constance thirsted for a cup of tea. She felt that a cup of tea was the one thing that would certainly keep her alive. She longed for it passionately. But she would not demand it from Maud. Nor would she mention it to Sophia, lest Sophia, flushed by the victory of the door, should incur new risks. She simply did without. On empty stomachs they tried pathetically to help each other in games of Patience. And when the blithe Maud passed through the parlour on the way to bed, she saw two dignified and apparently calm ladies, apparently absorbed in a delightful game of cards, apparently without a worry in the world. They said “Good night, Maud,” cheerfully, politely, and coldly. It was a heroic scene. Immediately afterwards Sophia carried Fossette up to her own bedroom.

ii

The next afternoon the sisters, in the drawing-room, saw Dr. Stirling’s motor-car speeding down the Square. The doctor’s partner, young Harrop, had died a few years before at the age of over seventy, and the practice was much larger than it had ever been, even in the time of old Harrop. Instead of two or three horses, Stirling kept a car, which was a constant spectacle in the streets of the district.

“I do hope he’ll call in,” said Mrs. Povey, and sighed.

Sophia smiled to herself with a little scorn. She knew that Constance’s desire for Dr. Stirling was due simply to the need which she felt of telling some one about the great calamity that had happened to them that morning. Constance was utterly absorbed by it, in the most provincial way. Sophia had said to herself at the beginning of her sojourn in Bursley, and long afterwards, that she should never get accustomed to the exasperating provinciality of the town, exemplified by the childish preoccupation of the inhabitants with their own two-penny affairs. No characteristic of life in Bursley annoyed her more than this. None had oftener caused her to yearn in a brief madness for the desert-like freedom of great cities. But she had got accustomed to it. Indeed, she had almost ceased to notice it. Only occasionally, when her nerves were more upset than usual, did it strike her.

She went into Constance’s bedroom to see whether the doctor’s car halted in King Street. It did.

“He’s here,” she called out to Constance.

“I wish you’d go down, Sophia,” said Constance. “I can’t trust that minx ——”

So Sophia went downstairs to superintend the opening of the door by the minx.

The doctor was radiant, according to custom.

“I thought I’d just see how that dizziness was going on,” said he as he came up the steps.

“I’m glad you’ve come,” said Sophia, confidentially. Since the first days of their acquaintanceship they had always been confidential. “You’ll do my sister good today.”

Just as Maud was closing the door a telegraph-boy arrived, with a telegram addressed to Mrs. Scales. Sophia read it and then crumpled it in her hand.

“What’s wrong with Mrs. Povey today?” the doctor asked, when the servant had withdrawn.

“She only wants a bit of your society,” said Sophia. “Will you go up? You know the way to the drawing-room. I’ll follow.”

As soon as he had gone she sat down on the sofa, staring out of the window. Then with a grunt: “Well, that’s no use, anyway!” she went upstairs after the doctor. Already Constance had begun upon her recital.

“Yes,” Constance was saying. “And when I went down this morning to keep an eye on the breakfast, I thought Spot was very quiet —” She paused. “He was dead in the drawer. She pretended she didn’t know, but I’m sure she did. Nothing will convince me that she didn’t poison that dog with the mice-poison we had last year. She was vexed because Sophia took her up sharply about Fossette last night, and she revenged herself on the other dog. It would just be like her. Don’t tell me! I know. I should have packed her off at once, but Sophia thought better not. We couldn’t prove anything, as Sophia says. Now, what do you think of it, doctor?”

Constance’s eyes suddenly filled with tears.

“Ye’d had Spot a long time, hadn’t ye?” he said sympathetically.

She nodded. “When I was married,” said she, “the first thing my husband did was to buy a fox-terrier, and ever since we’ve always had a fox-terrier in the house.” This was not true, but Constance was firmly convinced of its truth.

“It’s very trying,” said the doctor. “I know when my Airedale died, I said to my wife I’d never have another dog — unless she could find me one that would live for ever. Ye remember my Airedale?”

“Oh, quite well!”

“Well, my wife said I should be bound to have another one sooner or later, and the sooner the better. She went straight off to Oldcastle and bought me a spaniel pup, and there was such a to-do training it that we hadn’t too much time to think about Piper.”

Constance regarded this procedure as somewhat callous, and she said so, tartly. Then she recommenced the tale of Spot’s death from the beginning, and took it as far as his burial, that afternoon, by Mr. Critchlow’s manager, in the yard. It had been necessary to remove and replace paving-stones.

“Of course,” said Dr. Stirling, “ten years is a long time. He was an old dog. Well, you’ve still got the celebrated Fossette.” He turned to Sophia.

“Oh yes,” said Constance, perfunctorily. “Fossette’s ill. The fact is that if Fossette hadn’t been ill, Spot would probably have been alive and well now.”

Her tone exhibited a grievance. She could not forget that Sophia had harshly dismissed Spot to the kitchen, thus practically sending him to his death. It seemed very hard to her that Fossette, whose life had once been despaired of, should continue to exist, while Spot, always healthy and unspoilt, should die untended, and by treachery. For the rest, she had never liked Fossette. On Spot’s behalf she had always been jealous of Fossette.

“Probably alive and well now!” she repeated, with a peculiar accent.

Observing that Sophia maintained a strange silence, Dr. Stirling suspected a slight tension in the relations of the sisters, and he changed the subject. One of his great qualities was that he refrained from changing a subject introduced by a patient unless there was a professional reason for changing it.

“I’ve just met Richard Povey in the town,” said he. “He told me to tell ye that he’ll be round in about an hour or so to take you for a spin. He was in a new car, which he did his best to sell to me, but he didn’t succeed.”

“It’s very kind of Dick,” said Constance. “But this afternoon really we’re not —”

“I’ll thank ye to take it as a prescription, then,” replied the doctor. “I told Dick I’d see that ye went. Splendid June weather. No dust after all that rain. It’ll do ye all the good in the world. I must exercise my authority. The truth is, I’ve gradually been losing all control over ye. Ye do just as ye like.”

“Oh, doctor, how you do run on!” murmured Constance, not quite well pleased today by his tone.

After the scene between Sophia and herself at Buxton, Constance had always, to a certain extent, in the doctor’s own phrase, ‘got her knife into him.’ Sophia had, then, in a manner betrayed him. Constance and the doctor discussed that matter with frankness, the doctor humorously accusing her of being ‘hard’ on him. Nevertheless the little cloud between them was real, and the result was often a faint captiousness on Constance’s part in judging the doctor’s behaviour.

“He’s got a surprise for ye, has Dick!” the doctor added.

Dick Povey, after his father’s death and his own partial recovery, had set up in Hanbridge as a bicycle agent. He was permanently lamed, and he hopped about with a thick stick. He had succeeded with bicycles and had taken to automobiles, and he was succeeding with automobiles. People were at first startled that he should advertise himself in the Five Towns. There was an obscure general feeling that because his mother had been a drunkard and his father a murderer, Dick Povey had no right to exist. However, when it had recovered from the shock of seeing Dick Povey’s announcement of bargains in the Signal, the district most sensibly decided that there was no reason why Dick Povey should not sell bicycles as well as a man with normal parents. He was now supposed to be acquiring wealth rapidly. It was said that he was a marvellous chauffeur, at once daring and prudent. He had one day, several years previously, overtaken the sisters in the rural neighbourhood of Sneyd, where they had been making an afternoon excursion. Constance had presented him to Sophia, and he had insisted on driving the ladies home. They had been much impressed by his cautious care of them, and their natural prejudice against anything so new as a motorcar had been conquered instantly. Afterwards he had taken them out for occasional runs. He had a great admiration for Constance, founded on gratitude to Samuel Povey; and as for Sophia, he always said to her that she would be an ornament to any car.

“You haven’t heard his latest, I suppose?” said the doctor, smiling.

“What is it?” Sophia asked perfunctorily.

“He wants to take to ballooning. It seems he’s been up once.”

Constance made a deprecating noise with her lips.

“However, that’s not his surprise,” the doctor added, smiling again at the floor. He was sitting on the music-stool, and saying to himself, behind his mask of effulgent good-nature: “It gets more and more uphill work, cheering up these two women. I’ll try them on Federation.”

Federation was the name given to the scheme for blending the Five Towns into one town, which would be the twelfth largest town in the kingdom. It aroused fury in Bursley, which saw in the suggestion nothing but the extinction of its ancient glory to the aggrandizement of Hanbridge. Hanbridge had already, with the assistance of electric cars that whizzed to and fro every five minutes, robbed Bursley of two-thirds of its retail trade — as witness the steady decadence of the Square! — and Bursley had no mind to swallow the insult and become a mere ward of Hanbridge. Bursley would die fighting. Both Constance and Sophia were bitter opponents of Federation. They would have been capable of putting Federationists to the torture. Sophia in particular, though so long absent from her native town, had adopted its cause with characteristic vigour. And when Dr. Stirling wished to practise his curative treatment of taking the sisters ‘out of themselves,’ he had only to start the hare of Federation and the hunt would be up in a moment. But this afternoon he did not succeed with Sophia, and only partially with Constance. When he stated that there was to be a public meeting that very night, and that Constance as a ratepayer ought to go to it and vote, if her convictions were genuine, she received his chaff with a mere murmur to the effect that she did not think she should go. Had the man forgotten that Spot was dead? At length he became grave, and examined them both as to their ailments, and nodded his head, and looked into vacancy while meditating upon each case. And then, when he had inquired where they meant to go for their summer holidays, he departed.

“Aren’t you going to see him out?” Constance whispered to Sophia, who had shaken hands with him at the drawingroom door. It was Sophia who did the running about, owing to the state of Constance’s sciatic nerve. Constance had, indeed, become extraordinarily inert, leaving everything to Sophia.

Sophia shook her head. She hesitated; then approached Constance, holding out her hand and disclosing the crumpled telegram.

“Look at that!” said she.

Her face frightened Constance, who was always expectant of new anxieties and troubles. Constance straightened out the paper with difficulty, and read —

“Mr. Gerald Scales is dangerously ill here. Boldero, 49, Deansgate, Manchester.”

All through the inexpressibly tedious and quite unnecessary call of Dr. Stirling —(Why had he chosen to call just then? Neither of them was ill)— Sophia had held that telegram concealed in her hand and its information concealed in her heart. She had kept her head up, offering a calm front to the world. She had given no hint of the terrible explosion — for an explosion it was. Constance was astounded at her sister’s self-control, which entirely passed her comprehension. Constance felt that worries would never cease, but would rather go on multiplying until death ended all. First, there had been the frightful worry of the servant; then the extremely distressing death and burial of Spot — and now it was Gerald Scales turning up again! With what violence was the direction of their thoughts now shifted! The wickedness of maids was a trifle; the death of pets was a trifle. But the reappearance of Gerald Scales! That involved the possibility of consequences which could not even be named, so afflictive was the mere prospect to them. Constance was speechless, and she saw that Sophia was also speechless.

Of course the event had been bound to happen. People do not vanish never to be heard of again. The time surely arrives when the secret is revealed. So Sophia said to herself — now!

She had always refused to consider the effect of Gerald’s reappearance. She had put the idea of it away from her, determined to convince herself that she had done with him finally and for ever. She had forgotten him. It was years since he had ceased to disturb her thoughts — many years. “He MUST be dead,” she had persuaded herself. “It is inconceivable that he should have lived on and never come across me. If he had been alive and learnt that I had made money, he would assuredly have come to me. No, he must be dead!”

And he was not dead! The brief telegram overwhelmingly shocked her. Her life had been calm, regular, monotonous. And now it was thrown into an indescribable turmoil by five words of a telegram, suddenly, with no warning whatever. Sophia had the right to say to herself: “I have had my share of trouble, and more than my share!” The end of her life promised to be as awful as the beginning. The mere existence of Gerald Scales was a menace to her. But it was the simple impact of the blow that affected her supremely, beyond ulterior things. One might have pictured fate as a cowardly brute who had struck this ageing woman full in the face, a felling blow, which however had not felled her. She staggered, but she stuck on her legs. It seemed a shame — one of those crude, spectacular shames which make the blood boil — that the gallant, defenceless creature should be so maltreated by the bully, destiny.

“Oh, Sophia!” Constance moaned. “What trouble is this?”

Sophia’s lip curled with a disgusted air. Under that she hid her suffering.

She had not seen him for thirty-six years. He must be over seventy years of age, and he had turned up again like a bad penny, doubtless a disgrace! What had he been doing in those thirty-six years? He was an old, enfeebled man now! He must be a pretty sight! And he lay at Manchester, not two hours away!

Whatever feelings were in Sophia’s heart, tenderness was not among them. As she collected her wits from the stroke, she was principally aware of the sentiment of fear. She recoiled from the future.

“What shall you do?” Constance asked. Constance was weeping.

Sophia tapped her foot, glancing out of the window.

“Shall you go to see him?” Constance continued.

“Of course,” said Sophia. “I must!”

She hated the thought of going to see him. She flinched from it. She felt herself under no moral obligation to go. Why should she go? Gerald was nothing to her, and had no claim on her of any kind. This she honestly believed. And yet she knew that she must go to him. She knew it to be impossible that she should not go.

“Now?” demanded Constance.

Sophia nodded.

“What about the trains? . . . Oh, you poor dear!” The mere idea of the journey to Manchester put Constance out of her wits, seeming a business of unparalleled complexity and difficulty.

“Would you like me to come with you?”

“Oh no! I must go by myself.”

Constance was relieved by this. They could not have left the servant in the house alone, and the idea of shutting up the house without notice or preparation presented itself to Constance as too fantastic.

By a common instinct they both descended to the parlour.

“Now, what about a time-table? What about a time-table?” Constance mumbled on the stairs. She wiped her eyes resolutely. “I wonder whatever in this world has brought him at last to that Mr. Boldero’s in Deansgate?” she asked the walls.

As they came into the parlour, a great motor-car drove up before the door, and when the pulsations of its engine had died away, Dick Povey hobbled from the driver’s seat to the pavement. In an instant he was hammering at the door in his lively style. There was no avoiding him. The door had to be opened. Sophia opened it. Dick Povey was over forty, but he looked considerably younger. Despite his lameness, and the fact that his lameness tended to induce corpulence, he had a dashing air, and his face, with its short, light moustache, was boyish. He seemed to be always upon some joyous adventure.

“Well, aunties,” he greeted the sisters, having perceived Constance behind Sophia; he often so addressed them. “Has Dr. Stirling warned you that I was coming? Why haven’t you got your things on?”

Sophia observed a young woman in the car.

“Yes,” said he, following her gaze, “you may as well look. Come down, miss. Come down, Lily. You’ve got to go through with it.” The young woman, delicately confused and blushing, obeyed. “This is Miss Lily Holl,” he went on. “I don’t know whether you would remember her. I don’t think you do. It’s not often she comes to the Square. But, of course, she knows you by sight. Granddaughter of your old neighbour, Alderman Holl! We are engaged to be married, if you please.”

Constance and Sophia could not decently pour out their griefs on the top of such news. The betrothed pair had to come in and be congratulated upon their entry into the large realms of mutual love. But the sisters, even in their painful quandary, could not help noticing what a nice, quiet, ladylike girl Lily Holl was. Her one fault appeared to be that she was too quiet. Dick Povey was not the man to pass time in formalities, and he was soon urging departure.

“I’m sorry we can’t come,” said Sophia. “I’ve got to go to Manchester now. We are in great trouble.”

“Yes, in great trouble,” Constance weakly echoed.

Dick’s face clouded sympathetically. And both the affianced began to see that to which the egotism of their happiness had blinded them. They felt that long, long years had elapsed since these ageing ladies had experienced the delights which they were feeling.

“Trouble? I’m sorry to hear that!” said Dick.

“Can you tell me the trains to Manchester?” asked Sophia.

“No,” said Dick, quickly, “But I can drive you there quicker than any train, if it’s urgent. Where do you want to go to?”

“Deansgate,” Sophia faltered.

“Look here,” said Dick, “it’s half-past three. Put yourself in my hands; I’ll guarantee at Deansgate you shall be before half-past five. I’ll look after you.”

“But ——”

“There isn’t any ‘but.’ I’m quite free for the afternoon and evening.”

At first the suggestion seemed absurd, especially to Constance. But really it was too tempting to be declined. While Sophia made ready for the journey, Dick and Lily Holl and Constance conversed in low, solemn tones. The pair were waiting to be enlightened as to the nature of the trouble; Constance, however, did not enlighten them. How could Constance say to them: “Sophia has a husband that she hasn’t seen for thirty-six years, and he’s dangerously ill, and they’ve telegraphed for her to go?” Constance could not. It did not even occur to Constance to order a cup of tea.

iii

Dick Povey kept his word. At a quarter-past five he drew up in front of No. 49, Deansgate, Manchester. “There you are!” he said, not without pride. “Now, we’ll come back in about a couple of hours or so, just to take your orders, whatever they are.” He was very comforting, with his suggestion that in him Sophia had a sure support in the background.

Without many words Sophia went straight into the shop. It looked like a jeweller’s shop, and a shop for bargains generally. Only the conventional sign over a side-entrance showed that at heart it was a pawnbroker’s. Mr. Till Boldero did a nice business in the Five Towns, and in other centres near Manchester, by selling silver-ware second-hand, or nominally second hand, to persons who wished to make presents to other persons or to themselves. He would send anything by post on approval. Occasionally he came to the Five Towns, and he had once, several years before, met Constance. They had talked. He was the son of a cousin of the late great and wealthy Boldero, sleeping partner in Birkinshaws, and Gerald’s uncle. It was from Constance that he had learnt of Sophia’s return to Bursley. Constance had often remarked to Sophia what a superior man Mr. Till Boldero was.

The shop was narrow and lofty. It seemed like a menagerie for trapped silver-ware. In glass cases right up to the dark ceiling silver vessels and instruments of all kinds lay confined. The top of the counter was a glass prison containing dozens of gold watches, together with snuff-boxes, enamels, and other antiquities. The front of the counter was also glazed, showing vases and large pieces of porcelain. A few pictures in heavy gold frames were perched about. There was a case of umbrellas with elaborate handles and rich tassels. There were a couple of statuettes. The counter, on the customers’ side, ended in a glass screen on which were the words ‘Private Office.’ On the seller’s side the prospect was closed by a vast safe. A tall young man was fumbling in this safe. Two women sat on customers’ chairs, leaning against the crystal counter. The young man came towards them from the safe, bearing a tray.

“How much is that goblet?” asked one of the women, raising her parasol dangerously among such fragility and pointing to one object among many in a case high up from the ground.

“That, madam?”

“Yes.”

“Thirty-five pounds.”

The young man disposed his tray on the counter. It was packed with more gold watches, adding to the extraordinary glitter and shimmer of the shop. He chose a small watch from the regiment.

“Now, this is something I can recommend,” he said. “It’s made by Cuthbert Butler of Blackburn. I can guarantee you that for five years.” He spoke as though he were the accredited representative of the Bank of England, with calm and absolute assurance.

The effect upon Sophia was mysteriously soothing. She felt that she was among honest men. The young man raised his head towards her with a questioning, deferential gesture.

“Can I see Mr. Boldero?” she asked. “Mrs. Scales.”

The young man’s face changed instantly to a sympathetic comprehension.

“Yes, madam. I’ll fetch him at once,” said he, and he disappeared behind the safe. The two customers discussed the watch. Then the door opened in the glass screen, and a portly, middle-aged man showed himself. He was dressed in blue broad-cloth, with a turned-down collar and a small black tie. His waistcoat displayed a plain but heavy gold watch-chain, and his cuff-links were of plain gold. His eye-glasses were gold-rimmed. He had grey hair, beard and moustache, but on the backs of his hands grew a light brown hair. His appearance was strangely mild, dignified, and confidence-inspiring. He was, in fact, one of the most respected tradesmen in Manchester.

He peered forward, looking over his eye-glasses, which he then took off, holding them up in the air by their short handle. Sophia had approached him.

“Mrs. Scales?” he said, in a very quiet, very benevolent voice. Sophia nodded. “Please come this way.” He took her hand, squeezing it commiseratingly, and drew her into the sanctum. “I didn’t expect you so soon,” he said. “I looked up th’ trains, and I didn’t see how you could get here before six.”

Sophia explained.

He led her further, through the private office, into a sort of parlour, and asked her to sit down. And he too sat down. Sophia waited, as it were, like a suitor.

“I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you, Mrs. Scales,” he said, still in that mild, benevolent voice.

“He’s dead?” Sophia asked.

Mr. Till Boldero nodded. “He’s dead. I may as well tell you that he had passed away before I telegraphed. It all happened very, very suddenly.” He paused. “Very, very suddenly!”

“Yes,” said Sophia, weakly. She was conscious of a profound sadness which was not grief, though it resembled grief. And she had also a feeling that she was responsible to Mr. Till Boldero for anything untoward that might have occurred to him by reason of Gerald.

“Yes,” said Mr. Till Boldero, deliberately and softly. “He came in last night just as we were closing. We had very heavy rain here. I don’t know how it was with you. He was wet, in a dreadful state, simply dreadful. Of course, I didn’t recognize him. I’d never seen him before, so far as my recollection goes. He asked me if I was the son of Mr. Till Boldero that had this shop in 1866. I said I was. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘you’re the only connection I’ve got. My name’s Gerald Scales. My mother was your father’s cousin. Can you do anything for me?’ he says. I could see he was ill. I had him in here. When I found he couldn’t eat nor drink I thought I’d happen better send for th’ doctor. The doctor got him to bed. He passed away at one o’clock this afternoon. I was very sorry my wife wasn’t here to look after things a bit better. But she’s at Southport, not well at all.”

“What was it?” Sophia asked briefly.

Mr. Boldero indicated the enigmatic. “Exhaustion, I suppose,” he replied.

“He’s here?” demanded Sophia, lifting her eyes to possible bedrooms.

“Yes,” said Mr. Boldero. “I suppose you would wish to see him?”

“Yes,” said Sophia.

“You haven’t seen him for a long time, your sister told me?” Mr. Boldero murmured, sympathetically.

“Not since ‘seventy,” said Sophia.

“Eh, dear! Eh, dear!” ejaculated Mr. Boldero. “I fear it’s been a sad business for ye, Mrs. Scales. Not since ‘seventy!” He sighed. “You must take it as well as you can. I’m not one as talks much, but I sympathize, with you. I do that! I wish my wife had been here to receive you.”

Tears came into Sophia’s eyes.

“Nay, nay!” he said. “You must bear up now!”

“It’s you that make me cry,” said Sophia, gratefully. “You were very good to take him in. It must have been exceedingly trying for you.”

“Oh,” he protested, “you mustn’t talk like that. I couldn’t leave a Boldero on the pavement, and an old man at that! . . . Oh, to think that if he’d only managed to please his uncle he might ha’ been one of the richest men in Lancashire. But then there’d ha’ been no Boldero Institute at Strangeways!” he added.

They both sat silent a moment.

“Will you come now? Or will you wait a bit?” asked Mr. Boldero, gently. “Just as you wish. I’m sorry as my wife’s away, that I am!”

“I’ll come now,” said Sophia, firmly. But she was stricken.

He conducted her up a short, dark flight of stairs, which gave on a passage, and at the end of the passage was a door ajar. He pushed the door open. “I’ll leave you for a moment,” he said, always in the same very restrained tone. “You’ll find me downstairs, there, if you want me.” And he moved away with hushed, deliberate tread.

Sophia went into the room, of which the white blind was drawn. She appreciated Mr. Boldero’s consideration in leaving her. She was trembling. But when she saw, in the pale gloom, the face of an aged man peeping out from under a white sheet on a naked mattress, she started back, trembling no more — rather transfixed into an absolute rigidity. That was no conventional, expected shock that she had received. It was a genuine unforeseen shock, the most violent that she had ever had. In her mind she had not pictured Gerald as a very old man. She knew that he was old; she had said to herself that he must be very old, well over seventy. But she had not pictured him. This face on the bed was painfully, pitiably old. A withered face, with the shiny skin all drawn into wrinkles! The stretched skin under the jaw was like the skin of a plucked fowl. The cheek-bones stood up, and below them were deep hollows, almost like egg-cups. A short, scraggy white beard covered the lower part of the face. The hair was scanty, irregular, and quite white; a little white hair grew in the ears. The shut mouth obviously hid toothless gums, for the lips were sucked in. The eyelids were as if pasted down over the eyes, fitting them like kid. All the skin was extremely pallid; it seemed brittle. The body, whose outlines were clear under the sheet, was very small, thin, shrunk, pitiable as the face. And on the face was a general expression of final fatigue, of tragic and acute exhaustion; such as made Sophia pleased that the fatigue and exhaustion had been assuaged in rest, while all the time she kept thinking to herself horribly: “Oh! how tired he must have been!”

Sophia then experienced a pure and primitive emotion, uncoloured by any moral or religious quality. She was not sorry that Gerald had wasted his life, nor that he was a shame to his years and to her. The manner of his life was of no importance. What affected her was that he had once been young, and that he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always came to that. Everything came to that. He had ill-treated her; he had abandoned her; he had been a devious rascal; but how trivial were such accusations against him! The whole of her huge and bitter grievance against him fell to pieces and crumbled. She saw him young, and proud, and strong, as for instance when he had kissed her lying on the bed in that London hotel — she forgot the name — in 1866; and now he was old, and worn, and horrible, and dead. It was the riddle of life that was puzzling and killing her. By the corner of her eye, reflected in the mirror of a wardrobe near the bed, she glimpsed a tall, forlorn woman, who had once been young and now was old; who had once exulted in abundant strength, and trodden proudly on the neck of circumstance, and now was old. He and she had once loved and burned and quarrelled in the glittering and scornful pride of youth. But time had worn them out. “Yet a little while,” she thought, “and I shall be lying on a bed like that! And what shall I have lived for? What is the meaning of it?” The riddle of life itself was killing her, and she seemed to drown in a sea of inexpressible sorrow.

Her memory wandered hopelessly among those past years. She saw Chirac with his wistful smile. She saw him whipped over the roof of the Gare du Nord at the tail of a balloon. She saw old Niepce. She felt his lecherous arm round her. She was as old now as Niepce had been then. Could she excite lust now? Ah! the irony of such a question! To be young and seductive, to be able to kindle a man’s eye — that seemed to her the sole thing desirable. Once she had been so! . . . Niepce must certainly have been dead for years. Niepce, the obstinate and hopeful voluptuary, was nothing but a few bones in a coffin now!

She was acquainted with affliction in that hour. All that she had previously suffered sank into insignificance by the side of that suffering.

She turned to the veiled window and idly pulled the blind and looked out. Huge red and yellow cars were swimming in thunder along Deansgate; lorries jolted and rattled; the people of Manchester hurried along the pavements, apparently unconscious that all their doings were vain. Yesterday he too had been in Deansgate, hungry for life, hating the idea of death! What a figure he must have made! Her heart dissolved in pity for him. She dropped the blind.

“My life has been too terrible!” she thought. “I wish I was dead. I have been through too much. It is monstrous, and I cannot stand it. I do not want to die, but I wish I was dead.”

There was a discreet knock on the door.

“Come in,” she said, in a calm, resigned, cheerful voice. The sound had recalled her with the swiftness of a miracle to the unconquerable dignity of human pride.

Mr. Till Boldero entered.

“I should like you to come downstairs and drink a cup of tea,” he said. He was a marvel of tact and good nature. “My wife is unfortunately not here, and the house is rather at sixes and sevens; but I have sent out for some tea.”

She followed him downstairs into the parlour. He poured out a cup of tea.

“I was forgetting,” she said. “I am forbidden tea. I mustn’t drink it.”

She looked at the cup, tremendously tempted. She longed for tea. An occasional transgression could not harm her. But no! She would not drink it.

“Then what can I get you?”

“If I could have just milk and water,” she said meekly.

Mr. Boldero emptied the cup into the slop basin, and began to fill it again.

“Did he tell you anything?” she asked, after a considerable silence.

“Nothing,” said Mr. Boldero in his low, soothing tones. “Nothing except that he had come from Liverpool. Judging from his shoes I should say he must have walked a good bit of the way.”

“At his age!” murmured Sophia, touched.

“Yes,” sighed Mr. Boldero. “He must have been in great straits. You know, he could scarcely talk at all. By the way, here are his clothes. I have had them put aside.”

Sophia saw a small pile of clothes on a chair. She examined the suit, which was still damp, and its woeful shabbiness pained her. The linen collar was nearly black, its stud of bone. As for the boots, she had noticed such boots on the feet of tramps. She wept now. These were the clothes of him who had once been a dandy living at the rate of fifty pounds a week.

“No luggage or anything, of course?” she muttered.

“No,” said Mr. Boldero. “In the pockets there was nothing whatever but this.”

He went to the mantelpiece and picked up a cheap, cracked letter case, which Sophia opened. In it were a visiting card —‘Senorita Clemenzia Borja’— and a bill-head of the Hotel of the Holy Spirit, Concepcion del Uruguay, on the back of which a lot of figures had been scrawled.

“One would suppose,” said Mr. Boldero, “that he had come from South America.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing.”

Gerald’s soul had not been compelled to abandon much in the haste of its flight.

A servant announced that Mrs. Scales’s friends were waiting for her outside in the motor-car. Sophia glanced at Mr. Till Boldero with an exacerbated anxiety on her face.

“Surely they don’t expect me to go back with them tonight!” she said. “And look at all there is to be done!”

Mr. Till Boldero’s kindness was then redoubled. “You can do nothing for HIM now,” he said. “Tell me your wishes about the funeral. I will arrange everything. Go back to your sister to-night. She will be nervous about you. And return tomorrow or the day after. . . . No! It’s no trouble, I assure you!”

She yielded.

Thus towards eight o’clock, when Sophia had eaten a little under Mr. Boldero’s superintendence, and the pawnshop was shut up, the motor-car started again for Bursley, Lily Holl being beside her lover and Sophia alone in the body of the car. Sophia had told them nothing of the nature of her mission. She was incapable of talking to them. They saw that she was in a condition of serious mental disturbance. Under cover of the noise of the car, Lily said to Dick that she was sure Mrs. Scales was ill, and Dick, putting his lips together, replied that he meant to be in King Street at nine-thirty at the latest. From time to time Lily surreptitiously glanced at Sophia — a glance of apprehensive inspection, or smiled at her silently; and Sophia vaguely responded to the smile.

In half an hour they had escaped from the ring of Manchester and were on the county roads of Cheshire, polished, flat, sinuous. It was the season of the year when there is no night — only daylight and twilight; when the last silver of dusk remains obstinately visible for hours. And in the open country, under the melancholy arch of evening, the sadness of the earth seemed to possess Sophia anew. Only then did she realize the intensity of the ordeal through which she was passing.

To the south of Congleton one of the tyres softened, immediately after Dick had lighted his lamps. He stopped the car and got down again. They were two miles Astbury, the nearest village. He had just, with the resignation of experience, reached for the tool-bag, when Lily exclaimed: “Is she asleep, or what?” Sophia was not asleep, but she was apparently not conscious.

It was a difficult and a trying situation for two lovers. Their voices changed momentarily to the tone of alarm and consternation, and then grew firm again. Sophia showed life but not reason. Lily could feel the poor old lady’s heart.

“Well, there’s nothing for it!” said Dick, briefly, when all their efforts failed to rouse her.

“What — shall you do?”

“Go straight home as quick as I can on three tyres. We must get her over to this side, and you must hold her. Like that we shall keep the weight off the other side.”

He pitched back the tool-bag into its box. Lily admired his decision.

It was in this order, no longer under the spell of the changing beauty of nocturnal landscapes, that they finished the journey. Constance had opened the door before the car came to a stop in the gloom of King Street. The young people considered that she bore the shock well, though the carrying into the house of Sophia’s inert, twitching body, with its hat forlornly awry, was a sight to harrow a soul sturdier than Constance.

When that was done, Dick said curtly: “I’m off. You stay here, of course.”

“Where are you going?” asked Lily.

“Doctor!” snapped Dick, hobbling rapidly down the steps.

iv

The extraordinary violence of the turn in affairs was what chiefly struck Constance, though it did not overwhelm her. Less than twelve hours before — nay, scarcely six hours before — she and Sophia had been living their placid and monotonous existence, undisturbed by anything worse than the indisposition or death of dogs, or the perversity of a servant. And now, the menacing Gerald Scales having reappeared, Sophia’s form lay mysterious and affrightening on the sofa; and she and Lily Holl, a girl whom she had not met till that day, were staring at Sophia side by side, intimately sharing the same alarm. Constance rose to the crisis. She no longer had Sophia’s energy and decisive peremptoriness to depend on, and the Baines in her was awakened. All her daily troubles sank away to their proper scale of unimportance. Neither the young woman nor the old one knew what to do. They could loosen clothes, vainly offer restoratives to the smitten mouth: that was all. Sophia was not unconscious, as could be judged from her eyes; but she could not speak, nor make signs; her body was frequently convulsed. So the two women waited, and the servant waited in the background. The sight of Sophia had effected an astonishing transformation in Maud. Maud was a changed girl. Constance could not recognize, in her eager deferential anxiety to be of use, the pert naughtiness of the minx. She was altered as a wanton of the middle ages would have been altered by some miraculous visitation. It might have been the turning-point in Maud’s career!

Doctor Stirling arrived in less than ten minutes. Dick Povey had had the wit to look for him at the Federation meeting in the Town Hall. And the advent of the doctor and Dick, noisily, at breakneck speed in the car, provided a second sensation. The doctor inquired quickly what had occurred. Nobody could tell him anything. Constance had already confided to Lily Holl the reason of the visit to Manchester; but that was the extent of her knowledge. Not a single person in Bursley, except Sophia, knew what had happened in Manchester. But Constance conjectured that Gerald Scales was dead — or Sophia would never have returned so soon. Then the doctor suggested that on the contrary Gerald Scales might be out of danger. And all then pictured to themselves this troubling Gerald Scales, this dark and sinister husband that had caused such a violent upheaval.

Meanwhile the doctor was at work. He sent Dick Povey to knock up Critchlow’s, if the shop should be closed, and obtain a drug. Then, after a time, he lifted Sophia, just as she was, like a bundle on his shoulder, and carried her single-handed upstairs to the second floor. He had recently been giving a course of instruction to enthusiasts of the St. John’s Ambulance Association in Bursley. The feat had an air of the superhuman. Above all else it remained printed on Constance’s mind: the burly doctor treading delicately and carefully on the crooked, creaking stairs, his precautions against damaging Sophia by brusque contacts, his stumble at the two steps in the middle of the corridor; Sophia’s horribly limp head and loosened hair; and then the tender placing of her on the bed, and the doctor’s long breath and flourish of his large handkerchief, all that under the crude lights and shadows of gas jets! The doctor was nonplussed. Constance gave him a second-hand account of Sophia’s original attack in Paris, roughly as she had heard it from Sophia. He at once said that it could not have been what the French doctor had said it was. Constance shrugged her shoulders. She was not surprised. For her there was necessarily something of the charlatan about a French doctor. She said she only knew what Sophia had told her. After a time Dr. Stirling determined to try electricity, and Dick Povey drove him up to the surgery to fetch his apparatus. The women were left alone again. Constance was very deeply impressed by Lily Holl’s sensible, sympathetic attitude. “Whatever I should have done without Miss Lily I don’t know!” she used to exclaim afterwards. Even Maud was beyond praise. It seemed to be the middle of the night when Dr. Stirling came back, but it was barely eleven o’clock, and people were only just returning from Hanbridge Theatre and Hanbridge Music Hall. The use of the electrical apparatus was a dead spectacle. Sophia’s inertness under it was agonizing. They waited, as it were, breathless for the result. And there was no result. Both injections and electricity had entirely failed to influence the paralysis of Sophia’s mouth and throat. Everything had failed. “Nothing to do but wait a bit!” said the doctor quietly. They waited in the chamber. Sophia seemed to be in a kind of coma. The distortion of her handsome face was more marked as time passed. The doctor spoke now and then in a low voice. He said that the attack had ultimately been determined by cold produced by rapid motion in the automobile. Dick Povey whispered that he must run over to Hanbridge and let Lily’s parents know that there was no cause for alarm on her account, and that he would return at once. He was very devoted. On the landing out-side the bedroom, the doctor murmured to him: “U.P.” And Dick nodded. They were great friends.

At intervals the doctor, who never knew when he was beaten, essayed new methods of dealing with Sophia’s case. New symptoms followed. It was half-past twelve when, after gazing with prolonged intensity at the patient, and after having tested her mouth and heart, he rose slowly and looked at Constance.

“It’s over?” said Constance.

And he very slightly moved his head. “Come downstairs, please,” he enjoined her, in a pause that ensued. Constance was amazingly courageous. The doctor was very solemn and very kind; Constance had never before seen him to such heroic advantage. He led her with infinite gentleness out of the room. There was nothing to stay for; Sophia had gone. Constance wanted to stay by Sophia’s body; but it was the rule that the stricken should be led away, the doctor observed this classic rule, and Constance felt that he was right and that she must obey. Lily Holl followed. The servant, learning the truth by the intuition accorded to primitive natures, burst into loud sobs, yelling that Sophia had been the most excellent mistress that servant ever had. The doctor angrily told her not to stand blubbering there, but to go into her kitchen and shut the door if she couldn’t control herself. All his accumulated nervous agitation was discharged on Maud like a thunderclap. Constance continued to behave wonderfully. She was the admiration of the doctor and Lily Holl. Then Dick Povey came back. It was settled that Lily should pass the night with Constance. At last the doctor and Dick departed together, the doctor undertaking the mortuary arrangements. Maud was hunted to bed.

Early in the morning Constance rose up from her own bed. It was five o’clock, and there had been daylight for two hours already. She moved noiselessly and peeped over the foot of the bed at the sofa. Lily was quietly asleep there, breathing with the softness of a child. Lily would have deemed that she was a very mature woman, who had seen life and much of it. Yet to Constance her face and attitude had the exquisite quality of a child’s. She was not precisely a pretty girl, but her features, the candid expression of her disposition, produced an impression that was akin to that of beauty. Her abandonment was complete. She had gone through the night unscathed, and was now renewing herself in calm, oblivious sleep. Her ingenuous girlishness was apparent then. It seemed as if all her wise and sweet behaviour of the evening could have been nothing but so many imitative gestures. It seemed impossible that a being so young and fresh could have really experienced the mood of which her gestures had been the expression. Her strong virginal simplicity made Constance vaguely sad for her.

Creeping out of the room, Constance climbed to the second floor in her dressing-gown, and entered the other chamber. She was obliged to look again upon Sophia’s body. Incredible swiftness of calamity! Who could have foreseen it? Constance was less desolated than numbed. She was as yet only touching the fringe of her bereavement. She had not begun to think of herself. She was drenched, as she gazed at Sophia’s body, not by pity for herself, but by compassion for the immense disaster of her sister’s life. She perceived fully now for the first time the greatness of that disaster. Sophia’s charm and Sophia’s beauty — what profit had they been to their owner? She saw pictures of Sophia’s career, distorted and grotesque images formed in her untravelled mind from Sophia’s own rare and compressed recitals. What a career! A brief passion, and then nearly thirty years in a boarding-house! And Sophia had never had a child; had never known either the joy or the pain of maternity. She had never even had a true home till, in all her sterile splendour, she came to Bursley. And she had ended — thus! This was the piteous, ignominious end of Sophia’s wondrous gifts of body and soul. Hers had not been a life at all. And the reason? It is strange how fate persists in justifying the harsh generalizations of Puritan morals, of the morals in which Constance had been brought up by her stern parents! Sophia had sinned. It was therefore inevitable that she should suffer. An adventure such as she had in wicked and capricious pride undertaken with Gerald Scales, could not conclude otherwise than it had concluded. It could have brought nothing but evil. There was no getting away from these verities, thought Constance. And she was to be excused for thinking that all modern progress and cleverness was as naught, and that the world would be forced to return upon its steps and start again in the path which it had left.

Up to within a few days of her death people had been wont to remark that Mrs. Scales looked as young as ever, and that she was as bright and as energetic as ever. And truly, regarding Sophia from a little distance — that handsome oval, that erect carriage of a slim body, that challenging eye! — no one would have said that she was in her sixtieth year. But look at her now, with her twisted face, her sightless orbs, her worn skin — she did not seem sixty, but seventy! She was like something used, exhausted, and thrown aside! Yes, Constance’s heart melted in an anguished pity for that stormy creature. And mingled with the pity was a stern recognition of the handiwork of divine justice. To Constance’s lips came the same phrase as had come to the lips of Samuel Povey on a different occasion: God is not mocked! The ideas of her parents and her grandparents had survived intact in Constance. It is true that Constance’s father would have shuddered in Heaven could he have seen Constance solitarily playing cards of a night. But in spite of cards, and of a son who never went to chapel, Constance, under the various influences of destiny, had remained essentially what her father had been. Not in her was the force of evolution manifest. There are thousands such.

Lily, awake, and reclothed with that unreal mien of a grown and comprehending woman, stepped quietly into the room, searching for the poor old thing, Constance. The layer-out had come.

By the first post was delivered a letter addressed to Sophia by Mr. Till Boldero. From its contents the death of Gerald Scales was clear. There seemed then to be nothing else for Constance to do. What had to be done was done for her. And stronger wills than hers put her to bed. Cyril was telegraphed for. Mr. Critchlow called, Mrs. Critchlow following — a fussy infliction, but useful in certain matters. Mr. Critchlow was not allowed to see Constance. She could hear his high grating voice in the corridor. She had to lie calm, and the sudden tranquillity seemed strange after the feverish violence of the night. Only twenty-four hours since, and she had been worrying about the death of a dog! With a body crying for sleep, she dozed off, thoughts of the mystery of life merging into the incoherence of dreams.

The news was abroad in the Square before nine o’clock. There were persons who had witnessed the arrival of the motorcar, and the transfer of Sophia to the house. Untruthful rumours had spread as to the manner of Gerald Scales’s death. Some said that he had dramatically committed suicide. But the town, though titillated, was not moved as it would have been moved by a similar event twenty years, or even ten years earlier. Times had changed in Bursley. Bursley was more sophisticated than in the old days.

Constance was afraid lest Cyril, despite the seriousness of the occasion, might exhibit his customary tardiness in coming. She had long since learnt not to rely upon him. But he came the same evening. His behaviour was in every way perfect. He showed quiet but genuine grief for the death of his aunt, and he was a model of consideration for his mother. Further, he at once assumed charge of all the arrangements, in regard both to Sophia and to her husband. Constance was surprised at the ease which he displayed in the conduct of practical affairs, and the assurance with which he gave orders. She had never seen him direct anything before. He said, indeed, that he had never directed anything before, but that there appeared to him to be no difficulties. Whereas Constance had figured a tiresome series of varied complications. As to the burial of Sophia, Cyril was vigorously in favour of an absolutely private funeral; that is to say, a funeral at which none but himself should be present. He seemed to have a passionate objection to any sort of parade. Constance agreed with him. But she said that it would be impossible not to invite Mr. Critchlow, Sophia’s trustee, and that if Mr. Critchlow were invited certain others must be invited. Cyril asked: “Why impossible?” Constance said: “Because it would be impossible. Because Mr. Critchlow would be hurt.” Cyril asked: “What does it matter if he is hurt?” and suggested that Mr. Critchlow would get over his damage. Constance grew more serious. The discussion threatened to be warm. Suddenly Cyril yielded. “All right, Mrs. Plover, all right! It shall be exactly as you choose,” he said, in a gentle, humouring tone. He had not called her ‘Mrs. Plover’ for years. She thought the hour badly chosen for verbal pleasantry, but he was so kind that she made no complaint. Thus there were six people at Sophia’s funeral, including Mr. Critchlow. No refreshments were offered. The mourners separated at the church. When both funerals were accomplished Cyril sat down and played the harmonium softly, and said that it had kept well in tune. He was extraordinarily soothing.

He had now reached the age of thirty-three. His habits were as industrious as ever, his preoccupation with his art as keen. But he had achieved no fame, no success. He earned nothing, living in comfort on an allowance from his mother. He seldom spoke of his plans and never of his hopes. He had in fact settled down into a dilletante, having learnt gently to scorn the triumphs which he lacked the force to win. He imagined that industry and a regular existence were sufficient justification in themselves for any man’s life. Constance had dropped the habit of expecting him to astound the world. He was rather grave and precise in manner, courteous and tepid, with a touch of condescension towards his environment; as though he were continually permitting the perspicacious to discern that he had nothing to learn — if the truth were known! His humour had assumed a modified form. He often smiled to himself. He was unexceptionable.

On the day after Sophia’s funeral he set to work to design a simple stone for his aunt’s tomb. He said he could not tolerate the ordinary gravestone, which always looked, to him, as if the wind might blow it over, thus negativing the idea of solidity. His mother did not in the least understand him. She thought the lettering of his tombstone affected and finicking. But she let it pass without comment, being secretly very flattered that he should have deigned to design a stone at all.

Sophia had left all her money to Cyril, and had made him the sole executor of her will. This arrangement had been agreed with Constance. The sisters thought it was the best plan. Cyril ignored Mr. Critchlow entirely, and went to a young lawyer at Hanbridge, a friend of his and of Matthew Peel–Swynnerton’s. Mr. Critchlow, aged and unaccustomed to interference, had to render accounts of his trusteeship to this young man, and was incensed. The estate was proved at over thirty-five thousand pounds. In the main, Sophia had been careful, and had even been parsimonious. She had often told Constance that they ought to spend money much more freely, and she had had a few brief fits of extravagance. But the habit of stern thrift, begun in 1870 and practised without any intermission till she came to England in 1897, had been too strong for her theories. The squandering of money pained her. And she could not, in her age, devise expensive tastes.

Cyril showed no emotion whatever on learning himself the inheritor of thirty-five thousand pounds. He did not seem to care. He spoke of the sum as a millionaire might have spoken of it. In justice to him it is to be said that he cared nothing for wealth, except in so far as wealth could gratify his eye and ear trained to artistic voluptuousness. But, for his mother’s sake, and for the sake of Bursley, he might have affected a little satisfaction. His mother was somewhat hurt. His behaviour caused her to revert in meditation again and again to the futility of Sophia’s career, and the waste of her attributes. She had grown old and hard in joyless years in order to amass this money which Cyril would spend coldly and ungratefully, never thinking of the immense effort and endless sacrifice which had gone to its collection. He would spend it as carelessly as though he had picked it up in the street. As the days went by and Constance realized her own grief, she also realized more and more the completeness of the tragedy of Sophia’s life. Headstrong Sophia had deceived her mother, and for the deception had paid with thirty years of melancholy and the entire frustration of her proper destiny.

After haunting Bursley for a fortnight in elegant black, Cyril said, without any warning, one night: “I must go the day after tomorrow, mater.” And he told her of a journey to Hungary which he had long since definitely planned with Matthew Peel–Swynnerton, and which could not be postponed, as it comprised ‘business.’ He had hitherto breathed no word of this. He was as secretive as ever. As to her holiday, he suggested that she should arrange to go away with the Holls and Dick Povey. He approved of Lily Holl and of Dick Povey. Of Dick Povey he said: “He’s one of the most remarkable chaps in the Five Towns.” And he had the air of having made Dick’s reputation. Constance, knowing there was no appeal, accepted the sentence of loneliness. Her health was singularly good.

When he was gone she said to herself: “Scarcely a fortnight and Sophia was here at this table!” She would remember every now and then, with a faint shock, that poor, proud, masterful Sophia was dead.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/old-wives-tale/book4.4.html

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