The Old Wives' Tale, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 5

End of Constance

i

When, on a June afternoon about twelve months later, Lily Holl walked into Mrs. Povey’s drawing-room overlooking the Square, she found a calm, somewhat optimistic old lady — older than her years — which were little more than sixty — whose chief enemies were sciatica and rheumatism. The sciatica was a dear enemy of long standing, always affectionately referred to by the forgiving Constance as ‘my sciatica’; the rheumatism was a new-comer, unprivileged, spoken of by its victim apprehensively and yet disdainfully as ‘this rheumatism.’ Constance was now very stout. She sat in a low easy-chair between the oval table and the window, arrayed in black silk. As the girl Lily came in, Constance lifted her head with a bland smile, and Lily kissed her, contentedly. Lily knew that she was a welcome visitor. These two had become as intimate as the difference between their ages would permit; of the two, Constance was the more frank. Lily as well as Constance was in mourning. A few months previously her aged grandfather, ‘Holl, the grocer,’ had died. The second of his two sons, Lily’s father, had then left the business established by the brothers at Hanbridge in order to manage, for a time, the parent business in St. Luke’s Square. Alderman Holl’s death had delayed Lily’s marriage. Lily took tea with Constance, or at any rate paid a call, four or five times a week. She listened to Constance.

Everybody considered that Constance had ‘come splendidly through’ the dreadful affair of Sophia’s death. Indeed, it was observed that she was more philosophic, more cheerful, more sweet, than she had been for many years. The truth was that, though her bereavement had been the cause of a most genuine and durable sorrow, it had been a relief to her. When Constance was over fifty, the energetic and masterful Sophia had burst in upon her lethargic tranquillity and very seriously disturbed the flow of old habits. Certainly Constance had fought Sophia on the main point, and won; but on a hundred minor points she had either lost or had not fought. Sophia had been ‘too much’ for Constance, and it had been only by a wearying expenditure of nervous force that Constance had succeeded in holding a small part of her own against the unconscious domination of Sophia. The death of Mrs. Scales had put an end to all the strain, and Constance had been once again mistress in Constance’s house. Constance would never have admitted these facts, even to herself; and no one would ever have dared to suggest them to her. For with all her temperamental mildness she had her formidable side.

She was slipping a photograph into a plush-covered photograph album.

“More photographs?” Lily questioned. She had almost exactly the same benignant smile that Constance had. She seemed to be the personification of gentleness — one of those feather-beds that some capricious men occasionally have the luck to marry. She was capable, with a touch of honest, simple stupidity. All her character was displayed in the tone in which she said: “More photographs?” It showed an eager responsive sympathy with Constance’s cult for photographs, also a slight personal fondness for photographs, also a dim perception that a cult for photographs might be carried to the ridiculous, and a kind desire to hide all trace of this perception. The voice was thin, and matched the pale complexion of her delicate face.

Constance’s eyes had a quizzical gleam behind her spectacles as she silently held up the photograph for Lily’s inspection.

Lily, sitting down, lowered the corners of her soft lips when she beheld the photograph, and nodded her head several times, scarce perceptibly.

“Her ladyship has just given it to me,” whispered Constance.

“Indeed!” said Lily, with an extraordinary accent.

‘Her ladyship’ was the last and best of Constance’s servants, a really excellent creature of thirty, who had known misfortune, and who must assuredly have been sent to Constance by the old watchful Providence. They ‘got on together’ nearly perfectly. Her name was Mary. After ten years of turmoil, Constance in the matter of servants was now at rest.

“Yes,” said Constance. “She’s named it to me several times — about having her photograph taken, and last week I let her go. I told you, didn’t I? I always consider her in every way, all her little fancies and everything. And the copies came today. I wouldn’t hurt her feelings for anything. You may be sure she’ll take a look into the album next time she cleans the room.”

Constance and Lily exchanged a glance agreeing that Constance had affably stretched a point in deciding to put the photograph of a servant between the same covers with photographs of her family and friends. It was doubtful whether such a thing had ever been done before.

One photograph usually leads to another, and one photograph album to another photograph album.

“Pass me that album on the second shelf of the Canterbury; my dear,” said Constance.

Lily rose vivaciously, as though to see the album on the second shelf of the Canterbury had been the ambition of her life.

They sat side by side at the table, Lily turning over the pages. Constance, for all her vast bulk, continually made little nervous movements. Occasionally she would sniff and occasionally a mysterious noise would occur in her chest; she always pretended that this noise was a cough, and would support the pretence by emitting a real cough immediately after it.

“Why!” exclaimed Lily. “Have I seen that before?”

“I don’t know, my dear,” said Constance. “HAVE you?”

It was a photograph of Sophia taken a few years previously by ‘a very nice gentleman,’ whose acquaintance the sisters had made during a holiday at Harrogate. It portrayed Sophia on a knoll, fronting the weather.

“It’s Mrs. Scales to the life — I can see that,” said Lily.

“Yes,” said Constance. “Whenever there was a wind she always stood like that, and took long deep breaths of it.”

This recollection of one of Sophia’s habits recalled the whole woman to Constance’s memory, and drew a picture of her character for the girl who had scarcely known her.

“It’s not like ordinary photographs. There’s something special about it,” said Lily, enthusiastically. “I don’t think I ever saw a photograph like that.”

“I’ve got another copy of it in my bedroom,” said Constance. “I’ll give you this one.”

“Oh, Mrs. Povey! I couldn’t think —!”

“Yes, yes!” said Constance, removing the photograph from the page.

“Oh, THANK you!” said Lily.

“And that reminds me,” said Constance, getting up with great difficulty from her chair.

“Can I find anything for you?” Lily asked.

“No, no!” said Constance, leaving the room.

She returned in a moment with her jewel-box, a receptacle of ebony with ivory ornamentations.

“I’ve always meant to give you this,” said Constance, taking from the box a fine cameo brooch. “I don’t seem to fancy wearing it myself. And I should like to see you wearing it. It was mother’s. I believe they’re coming into fashion again. I don’t see why you shouldn’t wear it while you’re in mourning. They aren’t half so strict now about mourning as they used to be.”

“Truly!” murmured Lily, ecstatically. They kissed. Constance seemed to breathe out benevolence, as with trembling hands she pinned the brooch at Lily’s neck. She lavished the warm treasure of her heart on Lily, whom she regarded as an almost perfect girl, and who had become the idol of her latter years.

“What a magnificent old watch!” said Lily, as they delved together in the lower recesses of the box. “AND the chain to it!”

“That was father’s,” said Constance. “He always used to swear by it. When it didn’t agree with the Town Hall, he used to say: ‘Then th’ Town Hall’s wrong.’ And it’s curious, the Town Hall WAS wrong. You know the Town Hall clock has never been a good timekeeper. I’ve been thinking of giving that watch and chain to Dick.”

“HAVE you?” said Lily.

“Yes. It’s just as good as it was when father wore it. My husband never would wear it. He preferred his own. He had little fancies like that. And Cyril takes after his father.” She spoke in her ‘dry’ tone. “I’ve almost decided to give it to Dick — that is, if he behaves himself. Is he still on with this ballooning?”

Lily Smiled guiltily: “Oh yes!”

“Well,” said Constance, “I never heard the like! If he’s been up and come down safely, that ought to be enough for him. I wonder you let him do it, my dear.”

“But how can I stop him? I’ve no control over him.”

“But do you mean to say that he’d still do it if you told him seriously you didn’t want him to?”

“Yes,” said Lily; and added: “So I shan’t tell him.”

Constance nodded her head, musing over the secret nature of men. She remembered too well the cruel obstinacy of Samuel, who had nevertheless loved her. And Dick Povey was a thousand times more bizarre than Samuel. She saw him vividly, a little boy, whizzing down King Street on a boneshaker, and his cap flying off. Afterwards it had been motor-cars! Now it was balloons! She sighed. She was struck by the profound instinctive wisdom just enunciated by the girl.

“Well,” she said, “I shall see. I’ve not made up my mind yet. What’s the young man doing this afternoon, by the way?”

“He’s gone to Birmingham to try to sell two motor-lorries. He won’t be back home till late. He’s coming over here tomorrow.”

It was an excellent illustration of Dick Povey’s methods that at this very moment Lily heard in the Square the sound of a motor-car, which happened to be Dick’s car. She sprang up to look.

“Why!” she cried, flushing. “Here he is now!”

“Bless us, bless us!” muttered Constance, closing the box.

When Dick, having left his car in King Street, limped tempestuously into the drawing-room, galvanizing it by his abundant vitality into a new life, he cried joyously: “Sold my lorries! Sold my lorries!” And he explained that by a charming accident he had disposed of them to a chance buyer in Hanbridge, just before starting for Birmingham. So he had telephoned to Birmingham that the matter was ‘off,’ and then, being ‘at a loose end,’ he had come over to Bursley in search of his betrothed. At Holl’s shop they had told him that she was with Mrs. Povey. Constance glanced at him, impressed by his jolly air of success. He seemed exactly like his breezy and self-confident advertisements in the Signal. He was absolutely pleased with himself. He triumphed over his limp — that ever-present reminder of a tragedy. Who would dream, to look at his blond, laughing, scintillating face, astonishingly young for his years, that he had once passed through such a night as that on which his father had killed his mother while he lay immovable and cursing, with a broken knee, in bed? Constance had heard all about that scene from her husband, and she paused in wonder at the contrasting hazards of existence.

Dick Povey brought his hands together with a resounding smack, and then rubbed them rapidly.

“AND a good price, too!” he exclaimed blithely. “Mrs. Povey, I don’t mind telling you that I’ve netted seventy pounds odd this afternoon.”

Lily’s eyes expressed her proud joy.

“I hope pride won’t have a fall,” said Constance, with a calm smile out of which peeped a hint of a rebuke. “That’s what I hope. I must just go and see about tea.”

“I can’t stay for tea — really,” said Dick.

“Of course you can,” said Constance, positively. “Suppose you’d been at Birmingham? It’s weeks since you stayed to tea.”

“Oh, well, thanks!” Dick yielded, rather snubbed.

“Can’t I save you a journey, Mrs. Povey?” Lily asked, eagerly thoughtful.

“No, thank you, my dear. There are one or two little things that need my attention.” And Constance departed with her jewel-box.

Dick, having assured himself that the door was closed, assaulted Lily with a kiss.

“Been here long?” he inquired.

“About an hour and a half.”

“Glad to see me?”

“Oh, Dick!” she protested.

“Old lady’s in one of her humours, eh?”

“No, no! Only she was just talking about balloons — you know. She’s very much up in arms.”

“You ought to keep her off balloons. Balloons may be the ruin of her wedding-present to us, my child.”

“Dick! How can you talk like that? . . . It’s all very well saying I ought to keep her off balloons. You try to keep her off balloons when once she begins, and see!”

“What started her?”

“She said she was thinking of giving you old Mr. Baines’s gold watch and chain — if you behaved yourself.”

“Thank you for nothing!” said Dick. “I don’t want it.”

“Have you seen it?”

“Have I seen it? I should say I had seen it. She’s mentioned it once or twice before.”

“Oh! I didn’t know.”

“I don’t see myself carting that thing about. I much prefer my own. What do you think of it?”

“Of course it is rather clumsy,” said Lily. “But if she offered it to you, you couldn’t refuse it, and you’d simply have to wear it.”

“Well, then,” said Dick, “I must try to behave myself just badly enough to keep off the watch, but not badly enough to upset her notions about wedding-presents.”

“Poor old thing!” Lily murmured, compassionately.

Then Lily put her hand silently to her neck.

“What’s that?”

“She’s just given it to me.”

Dick approached very near to examine the cameo brooch. “Hm!” he murmured. It was an adverse verdict. And Lily coincided with it by a lift of the eyebrows.

“And I suppose you’ll have to wear that!” said Dick.

“She values it as much as anything she’s got, poor old thing!” said Lily. “It belonged to her mother. And she says cameos are coming into fashion again. It really is rather good, you know.”

“I wonder where she learnt that!” said Dick, drily. “I see you’ve been suffering from the photographs again.”

“Well,” said Lily, “I much prefer the photographs to helping her to play Patience. The way she cheats herself — it’s too silly! I—”

She stopped. The door which had after all not been latched, was pushed open, and the antique Fossette introduced herself painfully into the room. Fossette had an affection for Dick Povey.

“Well, Methusaleh!” he greeted the animal loudly. She could scarcely wag her tail, nor shake the hair out of her dim eyes in order to look up at him. He stooped to pat her.

“That dog does smell,” said Lily, bluntly.

“What do you expect? What she wants is the least dose of prussic acid. She’s a burden to herself.”

“It’s funny that if you venture to hint to Mrs. Povey that the dog is offensive she gets quite peppery,” said Lily.

“Well, that’s very simple,” said Dick. “Don’t hint, that’s all! Hold your nose and your tongue too.”

“Dick, I do wish you wouldn’t be so absurd.”

Constance returned into the room, cutting short the conversation.

“Mrs. Povey,” said Dick, in a voice full of gratitude, “Lily has just been showing me her brooch —”

He noticed that she paid no heed to him, but passed hurriedly to the window.

“What’s amiss in the Square?” Constance exclaimed. “When I was in the parlour just now I saw a man running along Wedgwood Street, and I said to myself, what’s amiss?”

Dick and Lily joined her at the window.

Several people were hurrying down the Square, and then a man came running with a doctor from the market-place. All these persons disappeared from view under the window of Mrs. Povey’s drawing-room, which was over part of Mrs. Critchlow’s shop. As the windows of the shop projected beyond the walls of the house it was impossible, from the drawing-room window, to see the pavement in front of the shop.

“It must be something on the pavement — or in the shop!” murmured Constance.

“Oh, ma’am!” said a startled voice behind the three. It was Mary, original of the photograph, who had run unperceived into the drawing-room. “They say as Mrs. Critchlow has tried to commit suicide!”

Constance started back. Lily went towards her, with an instinctive gesture of supporting consolation.

“Maria Critchlow tried to commit suicide!” Constance muttered.

“Yes, ma’am! But they say she’s not done it.”

“By Jove! I’d better go and see if I can help, hadn’t I?” cried Dick Povey, hobbling off, excited and speedy. “Strange, isn’t it?” he exclaimed afterwards, “how I manage to come in for things? Sheer chance that I was here today! But it’s always like that! Somehow something extraordinary is always happening where I am.” And this too ministered to his satisfaction, and to his zest for life.

ii

When, in the evening, after all sorts of comings and goings, he finally returned to the old lady and the young one, in order to report the upshot, his demeanour was suitably toned to Constance’s mood. The old lady had been very deeply disturbed by the tragedy, which, as she said, had passed under her very feet while she was calmly talking to Lily.

The whole truth came out in a short space of time. Mrs. Critchlow was suffering from melancholia. It appeared that for long she had been depressed by the failing trade of the shop, which was none of her fault. The state of the Square had steadily deteriorated. Even the ‘Vaults’ were not what they once were. Four or five shops had been shut up, as it were definitely, the landlords having given up hope of discovering serious tenants. And, of those kept open, the majority were struggling desperately to make ends meet. Only Holl’s and a new upstart draper, who had widely advertised his dress-making department, were really flourishing. The confectionery half of Mr. Brindley’s business was disappearing. People would not go to Hanbridge for their bread or for their groceries, but they would go for their cakes. These electric trams had simply carried to Hanbridge the cream, and much of the milk, of Bursley’s retail trade. There were unprincipled tradesmen in Hanbridge ready to pay the car-fares of any customer who spent a crown in their establishments. Hanbridge was the geographical centre of the Five Towns, and it was alive to its situation. Useless for Bursley to compete! If Mrs. Critchlow had been a philosopher, if she had known that geography had always made history, she would have given up her enterprise a dozen years ago. But Mrs. Critchlow was merely Maria Insull. She had seen Baines’s in its magnificent prime, when Baines’s almost conferred a favour on customers in serving them. At the time when she took over the business under the wing of her husband, it was still a good business. But from that instant the tide had seemed to turn. She had fought, and she kept on fighting, stupidly. She was not aware that she was fighting against evolution, not aware that evolution had chosen her for one of its victims! She could understand that all the other shops in the Square should fail, but not that Baines’s should fail! She was as industrious as ever, as good a buyer, as good a seller, as keen for novelties, as economical, as methodical! And yet the returns dropped and dropped.

She naturally had no sympathy from Charles, who now took small interest even in his own business, or what was left of it, and who was coldly disgusted at the ultimate cost of his marriage. Charles gave her no money that he could avoid giving her. The crisis had been slowly approaching for years. The assistants in the shop had said nothing, or had only whispered among themselves, but now that the crisis had flowered suddenly in an attempted self-murder, they all spoke at once, and the evidences were pieced together into a formidable proof of the strain which Mrs. Critchlow had suffered. It appeared that for many months she had been depressed and irritable, that sometimes she would sit down in the midst of work and declare, with every sign of exhaustion, that she could do no more. Then with equal briskness she would arise and force herself to labour. She did not sleep for whole nights. One assistant related how she had complained of having had no sleep whatever for four nights consecutively. She had noises in the ears and a chronic headache. Never very plump, she had grown thinner and thinner. And she was for ever taking pills: this information came from Charles’s manager. She had had several outrageous quarrels with the redoubtable Charles, to the stupefaction of all who heard or saw them. . . . Mrs. Critchlow standing up to her husband! Another strange thing was that she thought the bills of several of the big Manchester firms were unpaid, when as a fact they had been paid. Even when shown the receipts she would not be convinced, though she pretended to be convinced. She would recommence the next day. All this was sufficiently disconcerting for female assistants in the drapery. But what could they do?

Then Maria Critchlow had gone a step further. She had summoned the eldest assistant to her corner and had informed her, with all the solemnity of a confession made to assuage a conscience which has been tortured too long, that she had on many occasions been guilty of sexual irregularity with her late employer, Samuel Povey. There was no truth whatever in this accusation (which everybody, however, took care not to mention to Constance); it merely indicated, perhaps, the secret aspirations of Maria Insull, the virgin. The assistant was properly scandalized, more by the crudity of Mrs. Critchlow’s language than by the alleged sin buried in the past. Goodness knows what the assistant would have done! But two hours later Maria Critchlow tried to commit suicide by stabbing herself with a pair of scissors. There was blood in the shop.

With as little delay as possible she had been driven away to the asylum. Charles Critchlow, enveloped safely in the armour of his senile egotism, had shown no emotion, and very little activity. The shop was closed. And as a general draper’s it never opened again. That was the end of Baines’s. Two assistants found themselves without a livelihood. The small tumble with the great.

Constance’s emotion was more than pardonable; it was justified. She could not eat and Lily could not persuade her to eat. In an unhappy moment Dick Povey mentioned — he never could remember how, afterwards — the word Federation! And then Constance, from a passive figure of grief became a menace. She overwhelmed Dick Povey with her anathema of Federation, for Dick was a citizen of Hanbridge, where this detestable movement for Federation had had its birth. All the misfortunes of St. Luke’s Square were due to that great, busy, grasping, unscrupulous neighbour. Had not Hanbridge done enough, without wanting to merge all the Five Towns into one town, of which of course itself would be the centre? For Constance, Hanbridge was a borough of unprincipled adventurers, bent on ruining the ancient ‘Mother of the Five Towns’ for its own glory and aggrandizement. Let Constance hear no more of Federation! Her poor sister Sophia had been dead against Federation, and she had been quite right! All really respectable people were against it! The attempted suicide of Mrs. Critchlow sealed the fate of Federation and damned it for ever, in Constance’s mind. Her hatred of the idea of it was intensified into violent animosity; insomuch that in the result she died a martyr to the cause of Bursley’s municipal independence.

iii

It was on a muddy day in October that the first great battle for and against Federation was fought in Bursley. Constance was suffering severely from sciatica. She was also suffering from disgust with the modern world.

Unimaginable things had happened in the Square. For Constance, the reputation of the Square was eternally ruined. Charles Critchlow, by that strange good fortune which always put him in the right when fairly he ought to have been in the wrong, had let the Baines shop and his own shop and house to the Midland Clothiers Company, which was establishing branches throughout Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and adjacent counties. He had sold his own chemist’s stock and gone to live in a little house at the bottom of Kingstreet. It is doubtful whether he would have consented to retire had not Alderman Holl died earlier in the year, thus ending a long rivalry between the old men for the patriarchate of the Square. Charles Critchlow was as free from sentiment as any man, but no man is quite free from it, and the ancient was in a position to indulge sentiment had he chosen. His business was not a source of loss, and he could still trust his skinny hands and peering eyes to make up a prescription. However, the offer of the Midland Clothiers Company tempted him, and as the undisputed ‘father’ of the Square he left the Square in triumph.

The Midland Clothiers Company had no sense of the proprieties of trade. Their sole idea was to sell goods. Having possessed themselves of one of the finest sites in a town which, after all was said and done, comprised nearly forty thousand inhabitants, they set about to make the best of that site. They threw the two shops into one, and they caused to be constructed a sign compared to which the spacious old ‘Baines’ sign was a postcard. They covered the entire frontage with posters of a theatrical description — coloured posters! They occupied the front page of the Signal, and from that pulpit they announced that winter was approaching, and that they meant to sell ten thousand overcoats at their new shop in Bursley at the price of twelve and sixpence each. The tailoring of the world was loudly and coarsely defied to equal the value of those overcoats. On the day of opening they arranged an orchestra or artillery of phonographs upon the leads over the window of that part of the shop which had been Mr. Critchlow’s. They also carpeted the Square with handbills, and flew flags from their upper storeys. The immense shop proved to be full of overcoats; overcoats were shown in all the three great windows; in one window an overcoat was disposed as a receptacle for water, to prove that the Midland twelve-and-sixpenny overcoats were impermeable by rain. Overcoats flapped in the two doorways. These devices woke and drew the town, and the town found itself received by bustling male assistants very energetic and rapid, instead of by demure anaemic virgins. At moments towards evening the shop was populous with custom; the number of overcoats sold was prodigious. On another day the Midland sold trousers in a like manner, but without the phonographs. Unmistakably the Midland had shaken the Square and demonstrated that commerce was still possible to fearless enterprise.

Nevertheless the Square was not pleased. The Square was conscious of shame, of dignity departed. Constance was divided between pain and scornful wrath. For her, what the Midland had done was to desecrate a shrine. She hated those flags, and those flaring, staring posters on the honest old brick walls, and the enormous gilded sign, and the windows all filled with a monotonous repetition of the same article, and the bustling assistants. As for the phonographs, she regarded them as a grave insult; they had been within twenty feet of her drawing-room window! Twelve-and-sixpenny overcoats! It was monstrous, and equally monstrous was the gullibility of the people. How could an overcoat at twelve and sixpence be ‘good.’ She remembered the overcoats made and sold in the shop in the time of her father and her husband, overcoats of which the inconvenience was that they would not wear out! The Midland, for Constance, was not a trading concern, but something between a cheap-jack and a circus. She could scarcely bear to walk down the Square, to such a degree did the ignoble frontage of the Midland offend her eye and outrage her ancestral pride. She even said that she would give up her house.

But when, on the twenty-ninth of September, she received six months’ notice, signed in Critchlow’s shaky hand, to quit the house — it was wanted for the Midland’s manager, the Midland having taken the premises on condition that they might eject Constance if they chose — the blow was an exceedingly severe one. She had sworn to go — but to be turned out, to be turned out of the house of her birth and out of her father’s home, that was different! Her pride, injured as it was, had a great deal to support. It became necessary for her to recollect that she was a Baines. She affected magnificently not to care. But she could not refrain from telling all her acquaintances that she was being turned out of her house, and asking them what they thought of THAT; and when she met Charles Critchlow in the street she seared him with the heat of her resentment. The enterprise of finding a new house and moving into it loomed before her gigantic, terrible, the idea of it was alone sufficient to make her ill.

Meanwhile, in the matter of Federation, preparations for the pitched battle had been going forward, especially in the columns of the Signal, where the scribes of each one of the Five Towns had proved that all the other towns were in the clutch of unscrupulous gangs of self-seekers. After months of argument and recrimination, all the towns except Bursley were either favourable or indifferent to the prospect of becoming a part of the twelfth largest town in the United Kingdom. But in Bursley the opposition was strong, and the twelfth largest town in the United Kingdom could not spring into existence without the consent of Bursley. The United Kingdom itself was languidly interested in the possibility of suddenly being endowed with a new town of a quarter of a million inhabitants. The Five Towns were frequently mentioned in the London dailies, and London journalists would write such sentences as: “The Five Towns, which are of course, as everybody knows, Hanbridge, Bursley, Knype, Longshaw, and Turnhill. . . . ” This was renown at last, for the most maligned district in the country! And then a Cabinet Minister had visited the Five Towns, and assisted at an official inquiry, and stated in his hammering style that he meant personally to do everything possible to accomplish the Federation of the Five Towns: an incautious remark, which infuriated, while it flattered, the opponents of Federation in Bursley. Constance, with many other sensitive persons, asked angrily what right a Cabinet Minister had to take sides in a purely local affair. But the partiality of the official world grew flagrant. The Mayor of Bursley openly proclaimed himself a Federationist, though there was a majority on the Council against him. Even ministers of religion permitted themselves to think and to express opinions. Well might the indignant Old Guard imagine that the end of public decency had come! The Federationists were very ingenious individuals. They contrived to enrol in their ranks a vast number of leading men. Then they hired the Covered Market, and put a platform in it, and put all these leading men on the platform, and made them all speak eloquently on the advantages of moving with the times. The meeting was crowded and enthusiastic, and readers of the Signal next day could not but see that the battle was won in advance, and that anti-Federation was dead. In the following week, however, the anti-Federationists held in the Covered Market an exactly similar meeting (except that the display of leading men was less brilliant), and demanded of a floor of serried heads whether the old Mother of the Five Towns was prepared to put herself into the hands of a crew of highly-paid bureaucrats at Hanbridge, and was answered by a wild defiant “No,” that could be heard on Duck Bank. Readers of the Signal next day were fain to see that the battle had not been won in advance. Bursley was lukewarm on the topics of education, slums, water, gas, electricity. But it meant to fight for that mysterious thing, its identity. Was the name of Bursley to be lost to the world? To ask the question was to give the answer.

Then dawned the day of battle, the day of the Poll, when the burgesses were to indicate plainly by means of a cross on a voting paper whether or not they wanted Federation. And on this day Constance was almost incapacitated by sciatica. It was a heroic day. The walls of the town were covered with literature, and the streets dotted with motor-cars and other vehicles at the service of the voters. The greater number of these vehicles bore large cards with the words, “Federation this time.” And hundreds of men walked briskly about with circular cards tied to their lapels, as though Bursley had been a race-course, and these cards too had the words, “Federation this time.” (The reference was to a light poll which had been taken several years before, when no interest had been aroused and the immature project yet defeated by a six to one majority.) All partisans of Federation sported a red ribbon; all Anti–Federationists sported a blue ribbon. The schools were closed and the Federationists displayed their characteristic lack of scruple in appropriating the children. The Federationists, with devilish skill, had hired the Bursley Town Silver Prize Band, an organization of terrific respectability, and had set it to march playing through the town followed by wagonettes crammed with children, who sang:

Vote, vote, vote for Federation, Don’t be stupid, old and slow, We are sure that it will be Good for the communitie, So vote, vote, vote, and make it go.

How this performance could affect the decision of grave burgesses at the polls was not apparent; but the Anti–Federationists feared that it might, and before noon was come they had engaged two bands and had composed in committee, the following lyric in reply to the first one:

Down, down, down, with Federation, As we are we’d rather stay; When the vote on Saturday’s read Federation will be dead, Good old Bursley’s sure to win the day.

They had also composed another song, entitled “Dear old Bursley,” which, however, they made the fatal error of setting to the music of “Auld Lang Syne.” The effect was that of a dirge, and it perhaps influenced many voters in favour of the more cheerful party. The Anti–Federationists, indeed, never regained the mean advantage filched by unscrupulous Federationists with the help of the Silver Prize Band and a few hundred infants. The odds were against the Anti–Federationists. The mayor had actually issued a letter to the inhabitants accusing the Anti–Federationists of unfair methods! This was really too much! The impudence of it knocked the breath out of its victims, and breath is very necessary in a polling contest. The Federationists, as one of their prominent opponents admitted, ‘had it all their own way,’ dominating both the streets and the walls. And when, early in the afternoon, Mr. Dick Povey sailed over the town in a balloon that was plainly decorated with the crimson of Federation, it was felt that the cause of Bursley’s separate identity was for ever lost. Still, Bursley, with the willing aid of the public-houses, maintained its gaiety.

iv

Towards dusk a stout old lady, with grey hair, and a dowdy bonnet, and an expensive mantle, passed limping, very slowly, along Wedgwood Street and up the Cock Yard towards the Town Hall. Her wrinkled face had an anxious look, but it was also very determined. The busy, joyous Federationists and Anti–Federationists who knew her not saw merely a stout old lady fussing forth, and those who knew her saw merely Mrs. Povey and greeted her perfunctorily, a woman of her age and gait being rather out of place in that feverish altercation of opposed principles. But it was more than a stout old lady, it was more than Mrs. Povey that waddled with such painful deliberation through the streets — it was a miracle.

In the morning Constance had been partially incapacitated by her sciatica; so much so, at any rate, that she had perceived the advisability of remaining on the bedroom floor instead of descending to the parlour. Therefore Mary had lighted the drawing-room fire, and Constance had ensconced herself by it, with Fossette in a basket. Lily Holl had called early, and had been very sympathetic, but rather vague. The truth was that she was concealing the imminent balloon ascent which Dick Povey, with his instinct for the picturesque, had somehow arranged, in conjunction with a well-known Manchester aeronaut, for the very day of the poll. That was one of various matters that had to be ‘kept from’ the old lady. Lily herself was much perturbed about the balloon ascent. She had to run off and see Dick before he started, at the Football Ground at Bleakridge, and then she had to live through the hours till she should receive a telegram to the effect that Dick had come down safely or that Dick had broken his leg in coming down, or that Dick was dead. It was a trying time for Lily. She had left Constance after a brief visit, with a preoccupied unusual air, saying that as the day was a special day, she should come in again ‘if she could.’ And she did not forget to assure Constance that Federation would beyond any question whatever be handsomely beaten at the poll; for this was another matter as to which it was deemed advisable to keep the old lady ‘in the dark,’ lest the foolish old lady should worry and commit indiscretions.

After that Constance had been forgotten by the world of Bursley, which could pay small heed to sciatical old ladies confined to sofas and firesides. She was in acute pain, as Mary could see when at intervals she hovered round her. Assuredly it was one of Constance’s bad days, one of those days on which she felt that the tide of life had left her stranded in utter neglect. The sound of the Bursley Town Silver Prize Band aroused her from her mournful trance of suffering. Then the high treble of children’s voices startled her. She defied her sciatica, and, grimacing, went to the window. And at the first glimpse she could see that the Federation Poll was going to be a much more exciting affair than she had imagined. The great cards swinging from the wagonettes showed her that Federation was at all events still sufficiently alive to make a formidable impression on the eye and the ear. The Square was transformed by this clamour in favour of Federation; people cheered, and sang also, as the procession wound down the Square. And she could distinctly catch the tramping, martial syllables, “Vote, vote, vote.” She was indignant. The pother, once begun, continued. Vehicles flashed frequently across the Square, most of them in the crimson livery. Little knots and processions of excited wayfarers were a recurring feature of the unaccustomed traffic, and the large majority of them flaunted the colours of Federation. Mary, after some errands of shopping, came upstairs and reported that ‘it was simply “Federation” everywhere,’ and that Mr. Brindley, a strong Federationist, was ‘above a bit above himself’; further, that the interest in the poll was tremendous and universal. She said there were ‘crowds and crowds’ round the Town Hall. Even Mary, generally a little placid and dull, had caught something of the contagious vivacity.

Constance remained at the window till dinner, and after dinner she went to it again. It was fortunate that she did not think of looking up into the sky when Dick’s balloon sailed westwards; she would have guessed instantly that Dick was in that balloon, and her grievances would have been multiplied. The vast grievance of the Federation scheme weighed on her to the extremity of her power to bear. She was not a politician; she had no general ideas; she did not see the cosmic movement in large curves. She was incapable of perceiving the absurdity involved in perpetuating municipal divisions which the growth of the district had rendered artificial, vexatious, and harmful. She saw nothing but Bursley, and in Bursley nothing but the Square. She knew nothing except that the people of Bursley, who once shopped in Bursley, now shopped in Hanbridge, and that the Square was a desert infested by cheap-jacks. And there were actually people who wished to bow the neck to Hanbridge, who were ready to sacrifice the very name of Bursley to the greedy humour of that pushing Chicago! She could not understand such people. Did they know that poor Maria Critchlow was in a lunatic asylum because Hanbridge was so grasping? Ah, poor Maria was already forgotten! Did they know that, as a further indirect consequence, she, the daughter of Bursley’s chief tradesman, was to be thrown out of the house in which she was born? She wished, bitterly, as she stood there at the window, watching the triumph of Federation, that she had bought the house and shop at the Mericarp sale years ago. She would have shown them, as owner, what was what! She forgot that the property which she already owned in Bursley was a continual annoyance to her, and that she was always resolving to sell it at no matter what loss.

She said to herself that she had a vote, and that if she had been ‘at all fit to stir out’ she would certainly have voted. She said to herself that it had been her duty to vote. And then by an illusion of her wrought nerves, tightened minute by minute throughout the day, she began to fancy that her sciatica was easier. She said: “If only I could go out!” She might have a cab, of any of the parading vehicles would be glad to take her to the Town Hall, and, perhaps, as a favour, to bring her back again. But no! She dared not go out. She was afraid, really afraid that even the mild Mary might stop her. Otherwise, she could have sent Mary for a cab. And supposing that Lily returned, and caught her going out or coming in! She ought not to go out. Yet her sciatica was strangely better. It was folly to think of going out. Yet . . .! And Lily did not come. She was rather hurt that Lily had not paid her a second visit. Lily was neglecting her. . . . She would go out. It was not four minutes’ walk for her to the Town Hall, and she was better. And there had been no shower for a long time, and the wind was drying the mud in the roadways. Yes, she would go.

Like a thief she passed into her bedroom and put on her things; and like a thief she crept downstairs, and so, without a word to Mary, into the street. It was a desperate adventure. As soon as she was in the street she felt all her weakness, all the fatigue which the effort had already cost her. The pain returned. The streets were still wet and foul, the wind cold, and the sky menacing. She ought to go back. She ought to admit that she had been a fool to dream of the enterprise. The Town Hall seemed to be miles off, at the top of a mountain. She went forward, however, steeled to do her share in the killing of Federation. Every step caused her a gnashing of her old teeth. She chose the Cock Yard route, because if she had gone up the Square she would have had to pass Holl’s shop, and Lily might have spied her.

This was the miracle that breezy politicians witnessed without being aware that it was a miracle. To have impressed them, Constance ought to have fainted before recording her vote, and made herself the centre of a crowd of gapers. But she managed, somehow, to reach home again on her own tortured feet, and an astounded and protesting Mary opened the door to her. Rain was descending. She was frightened, then, by the hardihood of her adventure, and by its atrocious results on her body. An appalling exhaustion rendered her helpless. But the deed was done.

v

The next morning, after a night which she could not have described, Constance found herself lying flat in bed, with all her limbs stretched out straight. She was conscious that her face was covered with perspiration. The bell-rope hung within a foot of her head, but she had decided that, rather than move in order to pull it, she would prefer to wait for assistance until Mary came of her own accord. Her experiences of the night had given her a dread of the slightest movement; anything was better than movement. She felt vaguely ill, with a kind of subdued pain, and she was very thirsty and somewhat cold. She knew that her left arm and leg were extraordinarily tender to the touch. When Mary at length entered, clean and fresh and pale in all her mildness, she found the mistress the colour of a duck’s egg, with puffed features, and a strangely anxious expression.

“Mary,” said Constance, “I feel so queer. Perhaps you’d better run up and tell Miss Holl, and ask her to telephone for Dr. Stirling.”

This was the beginning of Constance’s last illness. Mary most impressively informed Miss Holl that her mistress had been out on the previous afternoon in spite of her sciatica, and Lily telephoned the fact to the Doctor. Lily then came down to take charge of Constance. But she dared not upbraid the invalid.

“Is the result out?” Constance murmured.

“Oh yes,” said Lily, lightly. “There’s a majority of over twelve hundred against Federation. Great excitement last night! I told you yesterday morning that Federation was bound to be beaten.”

Lily spoke as though the result throughout had been a certainty; her tone to Constance indicated: “Surely you don’t imagine that I should have told you untruths yesterday morning merely to cheer you up!” The truth was, however, that towards the end of the day nearly every one had believed Federation to be carried. The result had caused great surprise. Only the profoundest philosophers had not been surprised to see that the mere blind, deaf, inert forces of reaction, with faulty organization, and quite deprived of the aid of logic, had proved far stronger than all the alert enthusiasm arrayed against them. It was a notable lesson to reformers.

“Oh!” murmured Constance, startled. She was relieved; but she would have liked the majority to be smaller. Moreover, her interest in the question had lessened. It was her limbs that preoccupied her now.

“You look tired,” she said feebly to Lily.

“Do I?” said Lily, shortly, hiding the fact that she had spent half the night in tending Dick Povey, who, in a sensational descent near Macclesfield, had been dragged through the tops of a row of elm trees to the detriment of an elbow-joint; the professional aeronaut had broken a leg.

Then Dr. Stirling came.

“I’m afraid my sciatica’s worse, Doctor,” said Constance, apologetically.

“Did you expect it to be better?” said he, gazing at her sternly. She knew then that some one had saved her the trouble of confessing her escapade.

However, her sciatica was not worse. Her sciatica had not behaved basely. What she was suffering from was the preliminary advances of an attack of acute rheumatism. She had indeed selected the right month and weather for her escapade! Fatigued by pain, by nervous agitation, and by the immense moral and physical effort needed to carry her to the Town Hall and back, she had caught a chill, and had got her feet damp. In such a subject as herself it was enough. The doctor used only the phrase ‘acute rheumatism.’ Constance did not know that acute rheumatism was precisely the same thing as that dread disease, rheumatic fever, and she was not informed. She did not surmise for a considerable period that her case was desperately serious. The doctor explained the summoning of two nurses, and the frequency of his own visits, by saying that his chief anxiety was to minimise the fearful pain as much as possible, and that this end could only be secured by incessant watchfulness. The pain was certainly formidable. But then Constance was well habituated to formidable pain. Sciatica, at its most active, cannot be surpassed even by rheumatic fever. Constance had been in nearly continuous pain for years. Her friends, however sympathetic, could not appreciate the intensity of her torture. They were just as used to it as she was. And the monotony and particularity of her complaints (slight though the complaints were in comparison with their cause) necessarily blunted the edge of compassion. “Mrs. Povey and her sciatica again! Poor thing, she really is a little tedious!” They were apt not to realise that sciatica is even more tedious than complaints about sciatica.

She asked one day that Dick should come to see her. He came with his arm in a sling, and told her charily that he had hurt his elbow through dropping his stick and slipping downstairs.

“Lily never told me,” said Constance, suspiciously.

“Oh, it’s simply nothing!” said Dick. Not even the sick room could chasten him of his joy in the magnificent balloon adventure.

“I do hope you won’t go running any risks!” said Constance.

“Never you fear!” said he. “I shall die in my bed.”

And he was absolutely convinced that he would, and not as the result of any accident, either! The nurse would not allow him to remain in the room.

Lily suggested that Constance might like her to write to Cyril. It was only in order to make sure of Cyril’s correct address. He had gone on a tour through Italy with some friends of whom Constance knew nothing. The address appeared to be very uncertain; there were several addresses, poste restante in various towns. Cyril had sent postcards to his mother. Dick and Lily went to the post-office and telegraphed to foreign parts. Though Constance was too ill to know how ill she was, though she had no conception of the domestic confusion caused by her illness, her brain was often remarkably clear, and she could reflect in long, sane meditations above the uneasy sea of her pain. In the earlier hours of the night, after the nurses had been changed, and Mary had gone to bed exhausted with stair-climbing, and Lily Holl was recounting the day to Dick up at the grocer’s, and the day-nurse was already asleep, and the night-nurse had arranged the night, then, in the faintly-lit silence of the chamber, Constance would argue with herself for an hour at a time. She frequently thought of Sophia. In spite of the fact that Sophia was dead she still pitied Sophia as a woman whose life had been wasted. This idea of Sophia’s wasted and sterile life, and of the far-reaching importance of adhering to principles, recurred to her again and again. “Why did she run away with him? If only she had not run away!” she would repeat. And yet there had been something so fine about Sophia! Which made Sophia’s case all the more pitiable! Constance never pitied herself. She did not consider that Fate had treated her very badly. She was not very discontented with herself. The invincible commonsense of a sound nature prevented her, in her best moments, from feebly dissolving in self-pity. She had lived in honesty and kindliness for a fair number of years, and she had tasted triumphant hours. She was justly respected, she had a position, she had dignity, she was well-off. She possessed, after all, a certain amount of quiet self-conceit. There existed nobody to whom she would ‘knuckle down,’ or could be asked to ‘knuckle down.’ True, she was old! So were thousands of other people in Bursley. She was in pain. So there were thousands of other people. With whom would she be willing to exchange lots? She had many dissatisfactions. But she rose superior to them. When she surveyed her life, and life in general, she would think, with a sort of tart but not sour cheerfulness: “Well, that is what life is!” Despite her habit of complaining about domestic trifles, she was, in the essence of her character, ‘a great body for making the best of things.’ Thus she did not unduly bewail her excursion to the Town Hall to vote, which the sequel had proved to be ludicrously supererogatory. “How was I to know?” she said.

The one matter in which she had gravely to reproach herself was her indulgent spoiling of Cyril after the death of Samuel Povey. But the end of her reproaches always was: “I expect I should do the same again! And probably it wouldn’t have made any difference if I hadn’t spoiled him!” And she had paid tenfold for the weakness. She loved Cyril, but she had no illusions about him; she saw both sides of him. She remembered all the sadness and all the humiliations which he had caused her. Still, her affection was unimpaired. A son might be worse than Cyril was; he had admirable qualities. She did not resent his being away from England while she lay ill. “If it was serious,” she said, “he would not lose a moment.” And Lily and Dick were a treasure to her. In those two she really had been lucky. She took great pleasure in contemplating the splendour of the gift with which she would mark her appreciation of them at their approaching wedding. The secret attitude of both of them towards her was one of good-natured condescension, expressed in the tone in which they would say to each other, ‘the old lady.’ Perhaps they would have been startled to know that Constance lovingly looked down on both of them. She had unbounded admiration for their hearts; but she thought that Dick was a little too brusque, a little too clownish, to be quite a gentleman. And though Lily was perfectly ladylike, in Constance’s opinion she lacked backbone, or grit, or independence of spirit. Further, Constance considered that the disparity of age between them was excessive. It is to be doubted whether, when all was said, Constance had such a very great deal to learn from the self-confident wisdom of these young things.

After a period of self-communion, she would sometimes fall into a shallow delirium. In all her delirium she was invariably wandering to and fro, lost, in the long underground passage leading from the scullery past the coal-cellar and the cinder-cellar to the backyard. And she was afraid of the vast-obscure of those regions, as she had been in her infancy.

It was not acute rheumatism, but a supervening pericarditis that in a few days killed her. She died in the night, alone with the night-nurse. By a curious chance the Wesleyan minister, hearing that she was seriously ill, had called on the previous day. She had not asked for him; and this pastoral visit, from a man who had always said that the heavy duties of the circuit rendered pastoral visits almost impossible, made her think. In the evening she had requested that Fossette should be brought upstairs.

Thus she was turned out of her house, but not by the Midland Clothiers Company. Old people said to one another: “Have you heard that Mrs. Povey is dead? Eh, dear me! There’ll be no one left soon.” These old people were bad prophets. Her friends genuinely regretted her, and forgot the tediousness of her sciatica. They tried, in their sympathetic grief, to picture to themselves all that she had been through in her life. Possibly they imagined that they succeeded in this imaginative attempt. But they did not succeed. No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.

Cyril was not at the funeral. He arrived three days later. (As he had no interest in the love affairs of Dick and Lily, the couple were robbed of their wedding-present. The will, fifteen years old, was in Cyril’s favour.) But the immortal Charles Critchlow came to the funeral, full of calm, sardonic glee, and without being asked. Though fabulously senile, he had preserved and even improved his faculty for enjoying a catastrophe. He now went to funerals with gusto, contentedly absorbed in the task of burying his friends one by one. It was he who said, in his high, trembling, rasping, deliberate voice: “It’s a pity her didn’t live long enough to hear as Federation is going on after all! That would ha’ worritted her.” (For the unscrupulous advocates of Federation had discovered a method of setting at naught the decisive result of the referendum, and that day’s Signal was fuller than ever of Federation.)

When the short funeral procession started, Mary and the infirm Fossette (sole relic of the connection between the Baines family and Paris) were left alone in the house. The tearful servant prepared the dog’s dinner and laid it before her in the customary soup-plate in the customary corner. Fossette sniffed at it, and then walked away and lay down with a dog’s sigh in front of the kitchen fire. She had been deranged in her habits that day; she was conscious of neglect, due to events which passed her comprehension. And she did not like it. She was hurt, and her appetite was hurt. However, after a few minutes, she began to reconsider the matter. She glanced at the soup-plate, and, on the chance that it might after all contain something worth inspection, she awkwardly balanced herself on her old legs and went to it again.

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