The day sanctioned by custom in the Five Towns for the making of pastry is Saturday. But Mrs. Baines made her pastry on Friday, because Saturday afternoon was, of course, a busy time in the shop. It is true that Mrs. Baines made her pastry in the morning, and that Saturday morning in the shop was scarcely different from any other morning. Nevertheless, Mrs. Baines made her pastry on Friday morning instead of Saturday morning because Saturday afternoon was a busy time in the shop. She was thus free to do her marketing without breath-taking flurry on Saturday morning.
On the morning after Sophia’s first essay in dentistry, therefore, Mrs. Baines was making her pastry in the underground kitchen. This kitchen, Maggie’s cavern-home, had the mystery of a church, and on dark days it had the mystery of a crypt. The stone steps leading down to it from the level of earth were quite unlighted. You felt for them with the feet of faith, and when you arrived in the kitchen, the kitchen, by contrast, seemed luminous and gay; the architect may have considered and intended this effect of the staircase. The kitchen saw day through a wide, shallow window whose top touched the ceiling and whose bottom had been out of the girls’ reach until long after they had begun to go to school. Its panes were small, and about half of them were of the “knot” kind, through which no object could be distinguished; the other half were of a later date, and stood for the march of civilization. The view from the window consisted of the vast plate-glass windows of the newly built Sun vaults, and of passing legs and skirts. A strong wire grating prevented any excess of illumination, and also protected the glass from the caprices of wayfarers in King Street. Boys had a habit of stopping to kick with their full strength at the grating.
Forget-me-nots on a brown field ornamented the walls of the kitchen. Its ceiling was irregular and grimy, and a beam ran across it; in this beam were two hooks; from these hooks had once depended the ropes of a swing, much used by Constance and Sophia in the old days before they were grown up. A large range stood out from the wall between the stairs and the window. The rest of the furniture comprised a table — against the wall opposite the range — a cupboard, and two Windsor chairs. Opposite the foot of the steps was a doorway, without a door, leading to two larders, dimmer even than the kitchen, vague retreats made visible by whitewash, where bowls of milk, dishes of cold bones, and remainders of fruit-pies, reposed on stillages; in the corner nearest the kitchen was a great steen in which the bread was kept. Another doorway on the other side of the kitchen led to the first coal-cellar, where was also the slopstone and tap, and thence a tunnel took you to the second coal-cellar, where coke and ashes were stored; the tunnel proceeded to a distant, infinitesimal yard, and from the yard, by ways behind Mr. Critchlow’s shop, you could finally emerge, astonished, upon Brougham Street. The sense of the vast-obscure of those regions which began at the top of the kitchen steps and ended in black corners of larders or abruptly in the common dailiness of Brougham Street, a sense which Constance and Sophia had acquired in infancy, remained with them almost unimpaired as they grew old.
Mrs. Baines wore black alpaca, shielded by a white apron whose string drew attention to the amplitude of her waist. Her sleeves were turned up, and her hands, as far as the knuckles, covered with damp flour. Her ageless smooth paste-board occupied a corner of the table, and near it were her paste-roller, butter, some pie-dishes, shredded apples, sugar, and other things. Those rosy hands were at work among a sticky substance in a large white bowl.
“Mother, are you there?” she heard a voice from above.
“Yes, my chuck.”
Footsteps apparently reluctant and hesitating clinked on the stairs, and Sophia entered the kitchen.
“Put this curl straight,” said Mrs. Baines, lowering her head slightly and holding up her floured hands, which might not touch anything but flour. “Thank you. It bothered me. And now stand out of my light. I’m in a hurry. I must get into the shop so that I can send Mr. Povey off to the dentist’s. What is Constance doing?”
“Helping Maggie to make Mr. Povey’s bed.”
Though fat, Mrs. Baines was a comely woman, with fine brown hair, and confidently calm eyes that indicated her belief in her own capacity to accomplish whatever she could be called on to accomplish. She looked neither more nor less than her age, which was forty-five. She was not a native of the district, having been culled by her husband from the moorland town of Axe, twelve miles off. Like nearly all women who settle in a strange land upon marriage, at the bottom of her heart she had considered herself just a trifle superior to the strange land and its ways. This feeling, confirmed by long experience, had never left her. It was this feeling which induced her to continue making her own pastry — with two thoroughly trained “great girls” in the house! Constance could make good pastry, but it was not her mother’s pastry. In pastry-making everything can be taught except the “hand,” light and firm, which wields the roller. One is born with this hand, or without it. And if one is born without it, the highest flights of pastry are impossible. Constance was born without it. There were days when Sophia seemed to possess it; but there were other days when Sophia’s pastry was uneatable by any one except Maggie. Thus Mrs. Baines, though intensely proud and fond of her daughters, had justifiably preserved a certain condescension towards them. She honestly doubted whether either of them would develop into the equal of their mother.
“Now you little vixen!” she exclaimed. Sophia was stealing and eating slices of half-cooked apple. “This comes of having no breakfast! And why didn’t you come down to supper last night?”
“I don’t know. I forgot.”
Mrs. Baines scrutinized the child’s eyes, which met hers with a sort of diffident boldness. She knew everything that a mother can know of a daughter, and she was sure that Sophia had no cause to be indisposed. Therefore she scrutinized those eyes with a faint apprehension.
“If you can’t find anything better to do,” said she, “butter me the inside of this dish. Are your hands clean? No, better not touch it.”
Mrs. Baines was now at the stage of depositing little pats of butter in rows on a large plain of paste. The best fresh butter! Cooking butter, to say naught of lard, was unknown in that kitchen on Friday mornings. She doubled the expanse of paste on itself and rolled the butter in-supreme operation!
“Constance has told you — about leaving school?” said Mrs. Baines, in the vein of small-talk, as she trimmed the paste to the shape of a pie-dish.
“Yes,” Sophia replied shortly. Then she moved away from the table to the range. There was a toasting-fork on the rack, and she began to play with it.
“Well, are you glad? Your aunt Harriet thinks you are quite old enough to leave. And as we’d decided in any case that Constance was to leave, it’s really much simpler that you should both leave together.”
“Mother,” said Sophia, rattling the toasting-fork, “what am I going to do after I’ve left school?”
“I hope,” Mrs. Baines answered with that sententiousness which even the cleverest of parents are not always clever enough to deny themselves, “I hope that both of you will do what you can to help your mother — and father,” she added.
“Yes,” said Sophia, irritated. “But what am I going to DO?”
“That must be considered. As Constance is to learn the millinery, I’ve been thinking that you might begin to make yourself useful in the underwear, gloves, silks, and so on. Then between you, you would one day be able to manage quite nicely all that side of the shop, and I should be-”
“I don’t want to go into the shop, mother.”
This interruption was made in a voice apparently cold and inimical. But Sophia trembled with nervous excitement as she uttered the words. Mrs. Baines gave a brief glance at her, unobserved by the child, whose face was towards the fire. She deemed herself a finished expert in the reading of Sophia’s moods; nevertheless, as she looked at that straight back and proud head, she had no suspicion that the whole essence and being of Sophia was silently but intensely imploring sympathy.
“I wish you would be quiet with that fork,” said Mrs. Baines, with the curious, grim politeness which often characterized her relations with her daughters.
The toasting-fork fell on the brick floor, after having rebounded from the ash-tin. Sophia hurriedly replaced it on the rack.
“Then what SHALL you do?” Mrs. Baines proceeded, conquering the annoyance caused by the toasting-fork. “I think it’s me that should ask you instead of you asking me. What shall you do? Your father and I were both hoping you would take kindly to the shop and try to repay us for all the —”
Mrs. Baines was unfortunate in her phrasing that morning. She happened to be, in truth, rather an exceptional parent, but that morning she seemed unable to avoid the absurd pretensions which parents of those days assumed quite sincerely and which every good child with meekness accepted.
Sophia was not a good child, and she obstinately denied in her heart the cardinal principle of family life, namely, that the parent has conferred on the offspring a supreme favour by bringing it into the world. She interrupted her mother again, rudely.
“I don’t want to leave school at all,” she said passionately.
“But you will have to leave school sooner or later,” argued Mrs. Baines, with an air of quiet reasoning, of putting herself on a level with Sophia. “You can’t stay at school for ever, my pet, can you? Out of my way!”
She hurried across the kitchen with a pie, which she whipped into the oven, shutting the iron door with a careful gesture.
“Yes,” said Sophia. “I should like to be a teacher. That’s what I want to be.”
The tap in the coal-cellar, out of repair, could be heard distinctly and systematically dropping water into a jar on the slopstone.
“A school-teacher?” inquired Mrs. Baines.
“Of course. What other kind is there?” said Sophia, sharply. “With Miss Chetwynd.”
“I don’t think your father would like that,” Mrs. Baines replied. “I’m sure he wouldn’t like it.”
“It wouldn’t be quite suitable.”
“Why not, mother?” the girl demanded with a sort of ferocity. She had now quitted the range. A man’s feet twinkled past the window.
Mrs. Baines was startled and surprised. Sophia’s attitude was really very trying; her manners deserved correction. But it was not these phenomena which seriously affected Mrs. Baines; she was used to them and had come to regard them as somehow the inevitable accompaniment of Sophia’s beauty, as the penalty of that surpassing charm which occasionally emanated from the girl like a radiance. What startled and surprised Mrs. Baines was the perfect and unthinkable madness of Sophia’s infantile scheme. It was a revelation to Mrs. Baines. Why in the name of heaven had the girl taken such a notion into her head? Orphans, widows, and spinsters of a certain age suddenly thrown on the world — these were the women who, naturally, became teachers, because they had to become something. But that the daughter of comfortable parents, surrounded by love and the pleasures of an excellent home, should wish to teach in a school was beyond the horizons of Mrs. Baines’s common sense. Comfortable parents of today who have a difficulty in sympathizing with Mrs. Baines, should picture what their feelings would be if their Sophias showed a rude desire to adopt the vocation of chauffeur.
“It would take you too much away from home,” said Mrs. Baines, achieving a second pie.
She spoke softly. The experience of being Sophia’s mother for nearly sixteen years had not been lost on Mrs. Baines, and though she was now discovering undreamt-of dangers in Sophia’s erratic temperament, she kept her presence of mind sufficiently well to behave with diplomatic smoothness. It was undoubtedly humiliating to a mother to be forced to use diplomacy in dealing with a girl in short sleeves. In HER day mothers had been autocrats. But Sophia was Sophia.
“What if it did?” Sophia curtly demanded.
“And there’s no opening in Bursley,” said Mrs. Baines.
“Miss Chetwynd would have me, and then after a time I could go to her sister.”
“Her sister? What sister?”
“Her sister that has a big school in London somewhere.”
Mrs. Baines covered her unprecedented emotions by gazing into the oven at the first pie. The pie was doing well, under all the circumstances. In those few seconds she reflected rapidly and decided that to a desperate disease a desperate remedy must be applied.
London! She herself had never been further than Manchester. London, ‘after a time’! No, diplomacy would be misplaced in this crisis of Sophia’s development!
“Sophia,” she said, in a changed and solemn voice, fronting her daughter, and holding away from her apron those floured, ringed hands, “I don’t know what has come over you. Truly I don’t! Your father and I are prepared to put up with a certain amount, but the line must be drawn. The fact is, we’ve spoilt you, and instead of getting better as you grow up, you’re getting worse. Now let me hear no more of this, please. I wish you would imitate your sister a little more. Of course if you won’t do your share in the shop, no one can make you. If you choose to be an idler about the house, we shall have to endure it. We can only advise you for your own good. But as for this . . . ” She stopped, and let silence speak, and then finished: “Let me hear no more of it.”
It was a powerful and impressive speech, enunciated clearly in such a tone as Mrs. Baines had not employed since dismissing a young lady assistant five years ago for light conduct.
“But, mother —”
A commotion of pails resounded at the top of the stone steps. It was Maggie in descent from the bedrooms. Now, the Baines family passed its life in doing its best to keep its affairs to itself, the assumption being that Maggie and all the shop-staff (Mr. Povey possibly excepted) were obsessed by a ravening appetite for that which did not concern them. Therefore the voices of the Baineses always died away, or fell to a hushed, mysterious whisper, whenever the foot of the eavesdropper was heard.
Mrs. Baines put a floured finger to her double chin. “That will do,” said she, with finality.
Maggie appeared, and Sophia, with a brusque precipitation of herself, vanished upstairs.
“Now, really, Mr. Povey, this is not like you,” said Mrs. Baines, who, on her way into the shop, had discovered the Indispensable in the cutting-out room.
It is true that the cutting-out room was almost Mr. Povey’s sanctum, whither he retired from time to time to cut out suits of clothes and odd garments for the tailoring department. It is true that the tailoring department flourished with orders, employing several tailors who crossed legs in their own homes, and that appointments were continually being made with customers for trying-on in that room. But these considerations did not affect Mrs. Baines’s attitude of disapproval.
“I’m just cutting out that suit for the minister,” said Mr. Povey.
The Reverend Mr. Murley, superintendent of the Wesleyan Methodist circuit, called on Mr. Baines every week. On a recent visit Mr. Baines had remarked that the parson’s coat was ageing into green, and had commanded that a new suit should be built and presented to Mr. Murley. Mr. Murley, who had a genuine mediaeval passion for souls, and who spent his money and health freely in gratifying the passion, had accepted the offer strictly on behalf of Christ, and had carefully explained to Mr. Povey Christ’s use for multifarious pockets.
“I see you are,” said Mrs. Baines tartly. “But that’s no reason why you should be without a coat — and in this cold room too. You with toothache!”
The fact was that Mr. Povey always doffed his coat when cutting out. Instead of a coat he wore a tape-measure.
“My tooth doesn’t hurt me,” said he, sheepishly, dropping the great scissors and picking up a cake of chalk.
“Fiddlesticks!” said Mrs. Baines.
This exclamation shocked Mr. Povey. It was not unknown on the lips of Mrs. Baines, but she usually reserved it for members of her own sex. Mr. Povey could not recall that she had ever applied it to any statement of his. “What’s the matter with the woman?” he thought. The redness of her face did not help him to answer the question, for her face was always red after the operations of Friday in the kitchen.
“You men are all alike,” Mrs. Baines continued. “The very thought of the dentist’s cures you. Why don’t you go in at once to Mr. Critchlow and have it out — like a man?”
Mr. Critchlow extracted teeth, and his shop sign said “Bone-setter and chemist.” But Mr. Povey had his views.
“I make no account of Mr. Critchlow as a dentist,” said he.
“Then for goodness’ sake go up to Oulsnam’s.”
“When? I can’t very well go now, and tomorrow is Saturday.”
“Why can’t you go now?”
“Well, of course, I COULD go now,” he admitted.
“Let me advise you to go, then, and don’t come back with that tooth in your head. I shall be having you laid up next. Show some pluck, do!”
“Oh! pluck —!” he protested, hurt.
At that moment Constance came down the passage singing.
“Constance, my pet!” Mrs. Baines called.
“Yes, mother.” She put her head into the room. “Oh!” Mr. Povey was assuming his coat.
“Mr. Povey is going to the dentist’s.”
“Yes, I’m going at once,” Mr. Povey confirmed.
“Oh! I’m so GLAD!” Constance exclaimed. Her face expressed a pure sympathy, uncomplicated by critical sentiments. Mr. Povey rapidly bathed in that sympathy, and then decided that he must show himself a man of oak and iron.
“It’s always best to get these things done with,” said he, with stern detachment. “I’ll just slip my overcoat on.”
“Here it is,” said Constance, quickly. Mr. Povey’s overcoat and hat were hung on a hook immediately outside the room, in the passage. She gave him the overcoat, anxious to be of service.
“I didn’t call you in here to be Mr. Povey’s valet,” said Mrs. Baines to herself with mild grimness; and aloud: “I can’t stay in the shop long, Constance, but you can be there, can’t you, till Mr. Povey comes back? And if anything happens run upstairs and tell me.”
“Yes, mother,” Constance eagerly consented. She hesitated and then turned to obey at once.
“I want to speak to you first, my pet,” Mrs. Baines stopped her. And her tone was peculiar, charged with import, confidential, and therefore very flattering to Constance.
“I think I’ll go out by the side-door,” said Mr. Povey. “It’ll be nearer.”
This was truth. He would save about ten yards, in two miles, by going out through the side-door instead of through the shop. Who could have guessed that he was ashamed to be seen going to the dentist’s, afraid lest, if he went through the shop, Mrs. Baines might follow him and utter some remark prejudicial to his dignity before the assistants? (Mrs. Baines could have guessed, and did.)
“You won’t want that tape-measure,” said Mrs. Baines, dryly, as Mr. Povey dragged open the side-door. The ends of the forgotten tape-measure were dangling beneath coat and overcoat.
“Oh!” Mr. Povey scowled at his forgetfulness.
“I’ll put it in its place,” said Constance, offering to receive the tape-measure.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Povey, gravely. “I don’t suppose they’ll be long over my bit of a job,” he added, with a difficult, miserable smile.
Then he went off down King Street, with an exterior of gay briskness and dignified joy in the fine May morning. But there was no May morning in his cowardly human heart.
“Hi! Povey!” cried a voice from the Square.
But Mr. Povey disregarded all appeals. He had put his hand to the plough, and he would not look back.
Mrs. Baines and Constance were both at the door. A middle-aged man was crossing the road from Boulton Terrace, the lofty erection of new shops which the envious rest of the Square had decided to call “showy.” He waved a hand to Mrs. Baines, who kept the door open.
“It’s Dr. Harrop,” she said to Constance. “I shouldn’t be surprised if that baby’s come at last, and he wanted to tell Mr. Povey.”
Constance blushed, full of pride. Mrs. Povey, wife of “our Mr. Povey’s” renowned cousin, the high-class confectioner and baker in Boulton Terrace, was a frequent subject of discussion in the Baines family, but this was absolutely the first time that Mrs. Baines had acknowledged, in presence of Constance, the marked and growing change which had characterized Mrs. Povey’s condition during recent months. Such frankness on the part of her mother, coming after the decision about leaving school, proved indeed that Constance had ceased to be a mere girl.
“Good morning, doctor.”
The doctor, who carried a little bag and wore riding-breeches (he was the last doctor in Bursley to abandon the saddle for the dog-cart), saluted and straightened his high, black stock.
“Morning! Morning, missy! Well, it’s a boy.”
“What? Yonder?” asked Mrs. Baines, indicating the confectioner’s.
Dr. Harrop nodded. “I wanted to inform him,” said he, jerking his shoulder in the direction of the swaggering coward.
“What did I tell you, Constance?” said Mrs. Baines, turning to her daughter.
Constance’s confusion was equal to her pleasure. The alert doctor had halted at the foot of the two steps, and with one hand in the pocket of his “full-fall” breeches, he gazed up, smiling out of little eyes, at the ample matron and the slender virgin.
“Yes,” he said. “Been up most of th’ night. Difficult! Difficult!”
“It’s all RIGHT, I hope?”
“Oh yes. Fine child! Fine child! But he put his mother to some trouble, for all that. Nothing fresh?” This time he lifted his eyes to indicate Mr. Baines’s bedroom.
“No,” said Mrs. Baines, with a different expression.
“Good! A very good morning to you.”
He strode off towards his house, which was lower down the street.
“I hope she’ll turn over a new leaf now,” observed Mrs. Baines to Constance as she closed the door. Constance knew that her mother was referring to the confectioner’s wife; she gathered that the hope was slight in the extreme.
“What did you want to speak to me about, mother?” she asked, as a way out of her delicious confusion.
“Shut that door,” Mrs. Baines replied, pointing to the door which led to the passage; and while Constance obeyed, Mrs. Baines herself shut the staircase-door. She then said, in a low, guarded voice —
“What’s all this about Sophia wanting to be a school-teacher?”
“Wanting to be a school-teacher?” Constance repeated, in tones of amazement.
“Yes. Hasn’t she said anything to you?”
“Not a word!”
“Well, I never! She wants to keep on with Miss Chetwynd and be a teacher.” Mrs. Baines had half a mind to add that Sophia had mentioned London. But she restrained herself. There are some things which one cannot bring one’s self to say. She added, “Instead of going into the shop!”
“I never heard of such a thing!” Constance murmured brokenly, in the excess of her astonishment. She was rolling up Mr. Povey’s tape-measure.
“Neither did I!” said Mrs. Baines.
“And shall you let her, mother?”
“Neither your father nor I would ever dream of it!” Mrs. Baines replied, with calm and yet terrible decision. “I only mentioned it to you because I thought Sophia would have told you something.”
As Constance put Mr. Povey’s tape-measure neatly away in its drawer under the cutting-out counter, she thought how serious life was — what with babies and Sophias. She was very proud of her mother’s confidence in her; this simple pride filled her ardent breast with a most agreeable commotion. And she wanted to help everybody, to show in some way how much she sympathized with and loved everybody. Even the madness of Sophia did not weaken her longing to comfort Sophia.
That afternoon there was a search for Sophia, whom no one had seen since dinner. She was discovered by her mother, sitting alone and unoccupied in the drawing-room. The circumstance was in itself sufficiently peculiar, for on weekdays the drawing-room was never used, even by the girls during their holidays, except for the purpose of playing the piano. However, Mrs. Baines offered no comment on Sophia’s geographical situation, nor on her idleness.
“My dear,” she said, standing at the door, with a self-conscious effort to behave as though nothing had happened, “will you come and sit with your father a bit?”
“Yes, mother,” answered Sophia, with a sort of cold alacrity.
“Sophia is coming, father,” said Mrs. Baines at the open door of the bedroom, which was at right-angles with, and close to, the drawing-room door. Then she surged swishing along the corridor and went into the showroom, whither she had been called.
Sophia passed to the bedroom, the eternal prison of John Baines. Although, on account of his nervous restlessness, Mr. Baines was never left alone, it was not a part of the usual duty of the girls to sit with him. The person who undertook the main portion of the vigils was a certain Aunt Maria — whom the girls knew to be not a real aunt, not a powerful, effective aunt like Aunt Harriet of Axe — but a poor second cousin of John Baines; one of those necessitous, pitiful relatives who so often make life difficult for a great family in a small town. The existence of Aunt Maria, after being rather a “trial” to the Baineses, had for twelve years past developed into something absolutely “providential” for them. (It is to be remembered that in those days Providence was still busying himself with everybody’s affairs, and foreseeing the future in the most extraordinary manner. Thus, having foreseen that John Baines would have a “stroke” and need a faithful, tireless nurse, he had begun fifty years in advance by creating Aunt Maria, and had kept her carefully in misfortune’s way, so that at the proper moment she would be ready to cope with the stroke. Such at least is the only theory which will explain the use by the Baineses, and indeed by all thinking Bursley, of the word “providential” in connection with Aunt Maria.) She was a shrivelled little woman, capable of sitting twelve hours a day in a bedroom and thriving on the regime. At nights she went home to her little cottage in Brougham Street; she had her Thursday afternoons and generally her Sundays, and during the school vacations she was supposed to come only when she felt inclined, or when the cleaning of her cottage permitted her to come. Hence, in holiday seasons, Mr. Baines weighed more heavily on his household than at other times, and his nurses relieved each other according to the contingencies of the moment rather than by a set programme of hours.
The tragedy in ten thousand acts of which that bedroom was the scene, almost entirely escaped Sophia’s perception, as it did Constance’s. Sophia went into the bedroom as though it were a mere bedroom, with its majestic mahogany furniture, its crimson rep curtains (edged with gold), and its white, heavily tasselled counterpane. She was aged four when John Baines had suddenly been seized with giddiness on the steps of his shop, and had fallen, and, without losing consciousness, had been transformed from John Baines into a curious and pathetic survival of John Baines. She had no notion of the thrill which ran through the town on that night when it was known that John Baines had had a stroke, and that his left arm and left leg and his right eyelid were paralyzed, and that the active member of the Local Board, the orator, the religious worker, the very life of the town’s life, was permanently done for. She had never heard of the crisis through which her mother, assisted by Aunt Harriet, had passed, and out of which she had triumphantly emerged. She was not yet old enough even to suspect it. She possessed only the vaguest memory of her father before he had finished with the world. She knew him simply as an organism on a bed, whose left side was wasted, whose eyes were often inflamed, whose mouth was crooked, who had no creases from the nose to the corners of the mouth like other people, who experienced difficulty in eating because the food would somehow get between his gums and his cheek, who slept a great deal but was excessively fidgety while awake, who seemed to hear what was said to him a long time after it was uttered, as if the sense had to travel miles by labyrinthine passages to his brain, and who talked very, very slowly in a weak, trembling voice.
And she had an image of that remote brain as something with a red spot on it, for once Constance had said: “Mother, why did father have a stroke?” and Mrs. Baines had replied: “It was a haemorrhage of the brain, my dear, here”— putting a thimbled finger on a particular part of Sophia’s head.
Not merely had Constance and Sophia never really felt their father’s tragedy; Mrs. Baines herself had largely lost the sense of it — such is the effect of use. Even the ruined organism only remembered fitfully and partially that it had once been John Baines. And if Mrs. Baines had not, by the habit of years, gradually built up a gigantic fiction that the organism remained ever the supreme consultative head of the family; if Mr. Critchlow had not obstinately continued to treat it as a crony, the mass of living and dead nerves on the rich Victorian bedstead would have been of no more account than some Aunt Maria in similar case. These two persons, his wife and his friend, just managed to keep him morally alive by indefatigably feeding his importance and his dignity. The feat was a miracle of stubborn self-deceiving, splendidly blind devotion, and incorrigible pride.
When Sophia entered the room, the paralytic followed her with his nervous gaze until she had sat down on the end of the sofa at the foot of the bed. He seemed to study her for a long time, and then he murmured in his slow, enfeebled, irregular voice:
“Is that Sophia?”
“Yes, father,” she answered cheerfully.
And after another pause, the old man said: “Ay! It’s Sophia.”
And later: “Your mother said she should send ye.”
Sophia saw that this was one of his bad, dull days. He had, occasionally, days of comparative nimbleness, when his wits seized almost easily the meanings of external phenomena.
Presently his sallow face and long white beard began to slip down the steep slant of the pillows, and a troubled look came into his left eye. Sophia rose and, putting her hands under his armpits, lifted him higher in the bed. He was not heavy, but only a strong girl of her years could have done it.
“Ay!” he muttered. “That’s it. That’s it.”
And, with his controllable right hand, he took her hand as she stood by the bed. She was so young and fresh, such an incarnation of the spirit of health, and he was so far gone in decay and corruption, that there seemed in this contact of body with body something unnatural and repulsive. But Sophia did not so feel it.
“Sophia,” he addressed her, and made preparatory noises in his throat while she waited.
He continued after an interval, now clutching her arm, “Your mother’s been telling me you don’t want to go in the shop.”
She turned her eyes on him, and his anxious, dim gaze met hers. She nodded.
“Nay, Sophia,” he mumbled, with the extreme of slowness. “I’m surprised at ye . . . Trade’s bad, bad! Ye know trade’s bad?” He was still clutching her arm.
She nodded. She was, in fact, aware of the badness of trade, caused by a vague war in the United States. The words “North” and “South” had a habit of recurring in the conversation of adult persons. That was all she knew, though people were starving in the Five Towns as they were starving in Manchester.
“There’s your mother,” his thought struggled on, like an aged horse over a hilly road. “There’s your mother!” he repeated, as if wishful to direct Sophia’s attention to the spectacle of her mother. “Working hard! Con — Constance and you must help her. . . . Trade’s bad! What can I do . . . lying here?”
The heat from his dry fingers was warming her arm. She wanted to move, but she could not have withdrawn her arm without appearing impatient. For a similar reason she would not avert her glance. A deepening flush increased the lustre of her immature loveliness as she bent over him. But though it was so close he did not feel that radiance. He had long outlived a susceptibility to the strange influences of youth and beauty.
“Teaching!” he muttered. “Nay, nay! I canna’ allow that.”
Then his white beard rose at the tip as he looked up at the ceiling above his head, reflectively.
“You understand me?” he questioned finally.
She nodded again; he loosed her arm, and she turned away. She could not have spoken. Glittering tears enriched her eyes. She was saddened into a profound and sudden grief by the ridiculousness of the scene. She had youth, physical perfection; she brimmed with energy, with the sense of vital power; all existence lay before her; when she put her lips together she felt capable of outvying no matter whom in fortitude of resolution. She had always hated the shop. She did not understand how her mother and Constance could bring themselves to be deferential and flattering to every customer that entered. No, she did not understand it; but her mother (though a proud woman) and Constance seemed to practise such behaviour so naturally, so unquestioningly, that she had never imparted to either of them her feelings; she guessed that she would not be comprehended. But long ago she had decided that she would never “go into the shop.” She knew that she would be expected to do something, and she had fixed on teaching as the one possibility. These decisions had formed part of her inner life for years past. She had not mentioned them, being secretive and scarcely anxious for unpleasantness. But she had been slowly preparing herself to mention them. The extraordinary announcement that she was to leave school at the same time as Constance had taken her unawares, before the preparations ripening in her mind were complete — before, as it were, she had girded up her loins for the fray. She had been caught unready, and the opposing forces had obtained the advantage of her. But did they suppose she was beaten?
No argument from her mother! No hearing, even! Just a curt and haughty ‘Let me hear no more of this’! And so the great desire of her life, nourished year after year in her inmost bosom, was to be flouted and sacrificed with a word! Her mother did not appear ridiculous in the affair, for her mother was a genuine power, commanding by turns genuine love and genuine hate, and always, till then, obedience and the respect of reason. It was her father who appeared tragically ridiculous; and, in turn, the whole movement against her grew grotesque in its absurdity. Here was this antique wreck, helpless, useless, powerless — merely pathetic — actually thinking that he had only to mumble in order to make her ‘understand’! He knew nothing; he perceived nothing; he was a ferocious egoist, like most bedridden invalids, out of touch with life — and he thought himself justified in making destinies, and capable of making them! Sophia could not, perhaps, define the feelings which overwhelmed her; but she was conscious of their tendency. They aged her, by years. They aged her so that, in a kind of momentary ecstasy of insight, she felt older than her father himself.
“You will be a good girl,” he said. “I’m sure o’ that.”
It was too painful. The grotesqueness of her father’s complacency humiliated her past bearing. She was humiliated, not for herself, but for him. Singular creature! She ran out of the room.
Fortunately Constance was passing in the corridor, otherwise Sophia had been found guilty of a great breach of duty.
“Go to father,” she whispered hysterically to Constance, and fled upwards to the second floor.
At supper, with her red, downcast eyes, she had returned to sheer girlishness again, overawed by her mother. The meal had an unusual aspect. Mr. Povey, safe from the dentist’s, but having lost two teeth in two days, was being fed on ‘slops’— bread and milk, to wit; he sat near the fire. The others had cold pork, half a cold apple-pie, and cheese; but Sophia only pretended to eat; each time she tried to swallow, the tears came into her eyes, and her throat shut itself up. Mrs. Baines and Constance had a too careful air of eating just as usual. Mrs. Baines’s handsome ringlets dominated the table under the gas.
“I’m not so set up with my pastry today,” observed Mrs. Baines, critically munching a fragment of pie-crust.
She rang a little hand-bell. Maggie appeared from the cave. She wore a plain white bib-less apron, but no cap.
“Maggie, will you have some pie?”
“Yes, if you can spare it, ma’am.”
This was Maggie’s customary answer to offers of food.
“We can always spare it, Maggie,” said her mistress, as usual. “Sophia, if you aren’t going to use that plate, give it to me.”
Maggie disappeared with liberal pie.
Mrs. Baines then talked to Mr. Povey about his condition, and in particular as to the need for precautions against taking cold in the bereaved gum. She was a brave and determined woman; from start to finish she behaved as though nothing whatever in the household except her pastry and Mr. Povey had deviated that day from the normal. She kissed Constance and Sophia with the most exact equality, and called them ‘my chucks’ when they went up to bed.
Constance, excellent kind heart, tried to imitate her mother’s tactics as the girls undressed in their room. She thought she could not do better than ignore Sophia’s deplorable state.
“Mother’s new dress is quite finished, and she’s going to wear it on Sunday,” said she, blandly.
“If you say another word I’ll scratch your eyes out!” Sophia turned on her viciously, with a catch in her voice, and then began to sob at intervals. She did not mean this threat, but its utterance gave her relief. Constance, faced with the fact that her mother’s shoes were too big for her, decided to preserve her eyesight.
Long after the gas was out, rare sobs from Sophia shook the bed, and they both lay awake in silence.
“I suppose you and mother have been talking me over finely today?” Sophia burst forth, to Constance’s surprise, in a wet voice.
“No,” said Constance soothingly. “Mother only told me.”
“Told you what?”
“That you wanted to be a teacher.”
“And I will be, too!” said Sophia, bitterly.
“You don’t know mother,” thought Constance; but she made no audible comment.
There was another detached, hard sob. And then, such is the astonishing talent of youth, they both fell asleep.
The next morning, early, Sophia stood gazing out of the window at the Square. It was Saturday, and all over the Square little stalls, with yellow linen roofs, were being erected for the principal market of the week. In those barbaric days Bursley had a majestic edifice, black as basalt, for the sale of dead animals by the limb and rib — it was entitled ‘the Shambles’— but vegetables, fruit, cheese, eggs, and pikelets were still sold under canvas. Eggs are now offered at five farthings apiece in a palace that cost twenty-five thousand pounds. Yet you will find people in Bursley ready to assert that things generally are not what they were, and that in particular the romance of life has gone. But until it has gone it is never romance. To Sophia, though she was in a mood which usually stimulates the sense of the romantic, there was nothing of romance in this picturesque tented field. It was just the market. Holl’s, the leading grocer’s, was already open, at the extremity of the Square, and a boy apprentice was sweeping the pavement in front of it. The public-houses were open, several of them specializing in hot rum at 5.30 a.m. The town-crier, in his blue coat with red facings, crossed the Square, carrying his big bell by the tongue. There was the same shocking hole in one of Mrs. Povey’s (confectioner’s) window-curtains — a hole which even her recent travail could scarcely excuse. Such matters it was that Sophia noticed with dull, smarting eyes.
“Sophia, you’ll take your death of cold standing there like that!”
She jumped. The voice was her mother’s. That vigorous woman, after a calm night by the side of the paralytic, was already up and neatly dressed. She carried a bottle and an egg-cup, and a small quantity of jam in a table-spoon.
“Get into bed again, do! There’s a dear! You’re shivering.”
White Sophia obeyed. It was true; she was shivering. Constance awoke. Mrs. Baines went to the dressing-table and filled the egg-cup out of the bottle.
“Who’s that for, mother?” Constance asked sleepily.
“It’s for Sophia,” said Mrs. Baines, with good cheer. “Now, Sophia!” and she advanced with the egg-cup in one hand and the table-spoon in the other.
“What is it, mother?” asked Sophia, who well knew what it was.
“Castor-oil, my dear,” said Mrs. Baines, winningly.
The ludicrousness of attempting to cure obstinacy and yearnings for a freer life by means of castor-oil is perhaps less real than apparent. The strange interdependence of spirit and body, though only understood intelligently in these intelligent days, was guessed at by sensible mediaeval mothers. And certainly, at the period when Mrs. Baines represented modernity, castor-oil was still the remedy of remedies. It had supplanted cupping. And, if part of its vogue was due to its extreme unpleasantness, it had at least proved its qualities in many a contest with disease. Less than two years previously old Dr. Harrop (father of him who told Mrs. Baines about Mrs. Povey), being then aged eighty-six, had fallen from top to bottom of his staircase. He had scrambled up, taken a dose of castor-oil at once, and on the morrow was as well as if he had never seen a staircase. This episode was town property and had sunk deep into all hearts.
“I don’t want any, mother,” said Sophia, in dejection. “I’m quite well.”
“You simply ate nothing all day yesterday,” said Mrs. Baines. And she added, “Come!” As if to say, “There’s always this silly fuss with castor-oil. Don’t keep me waiting.”
“I don’t WANT any,” said Sophia, irritated and captious.
The two girls lay side by side, on their backs. They seemed very thin and fragile in comparison with the solidity of their mother. Constance wisely held her peace.
Mrs. Baines put her lips together, meaning: “This is becoming tedious. I shall have to be angry in another moment!”
“Come!” said she again.
The girls could hear her foot tapping on the floor.
“I really don’t want it, mamma,” Sophia fought. “I suppose I ought to know whether I need it or not!” This was insolence.
“Sophia, will you take this medicine, or won’t you?”
In conflicts with her children, the mother’s ultimatum always took the formula in which this phrase was cast. The girls knew, when things had arrived at the pitch of ‘or won’t you’ spoken in Mrs. Baines’s firmest tone, that the end was upon them. Never had the ultimatum failed.
There was a silence.
“And I’ll thank you to mind your manners,” Mrs. Baines added.
“I won’t take it,” said Sophia, sullenly and flatly; and she hid her face in the pillow.
It was a historic moment in the family life. Mrs. Baines thought the last day had come. But still she held herself in dignity while the apocalypse roared in her ears.
“OF COURSE I CAN’T FORCE YOU TO TAKE IT,” she said with superb evenness, masking anger by compassionate grief. “You’re a big girl and a naughty girl. And if you will be ill you must.”
Upon this immense admission, Mrs. Baines departed.
Nor was that all. In the middle of the morning, when Mrs. Baines was pricing new potatoes at a stall at the top end of the Square, and Constance choosing threepennyworth of flowers at the same stall, whom should they both see, walking all alone across the empty corner by the Bank, but Sophia Baines! The Square was busy and populous, and Sophia was only visible behind a foreground of restless, chattering figures. But she was unmistakably seen. She had been beyond the Square and was returning. Constance could scarcely believe her eyes. Mrs. Baines’s heart jumped. For let it be said that the girls never under any circumstances went forth without permission, and scarcely ever alone. That Sophia should be at large in the town, without leave, without notice, exactly as if she were her own mistress, was a proposition which a day earlier had been inconceivable. Yet there she was, and moving with a leisureliness that must be described as effrontery!
Red with apprehension, Constance wondered what would happen. Mrs. Baines said nought of her feelings, did not even indicate that she had seen the scandalous, the breath-taking sight. And they descended the Square laden with the lighter portions of what they had bought during an hour of buying. They went into the house by the King Street door; and the first thing they heard was the sound of the piano upstairs. Nothing happened. Mr. Povey had his dinner alone; then the table was laid for them, and the bell rung, and Sophia came insolently downstairs to join her mother and sister. And nothing happened. The dinner was silently eaten, and Constance having rendered thanks to God, Sophia rose abruptly to go.
“Constance, stay where you are,” said Mrs. Baines suddenly to Constance, who had meant to flee. Constance was therefore destined to be present at the happening, doubtless in order to emphasize its importance and seriousness.
“Sophia,” Mrs. Baines resumed to her younger daughter in an ominous voice. “No, please shut the door. There is no reason why everybody in the house should hear. Come right into the room — right in! That’s it. Now, what were you doing out in the town this morning?”
Sophia was fidgeting nervously with the edge of her little black apron, and worrying a seam of the carpet with her toes. She bent her head towards her left shoulder, at first smiling vaguely. She said nothing, but every limb, every glance, every curve, was speaking. Mrs. Baines sat firmly in her own rocking-chair, full of the sensation that she had Sophia, as it were, writhing on the end of a skewer. Constance was braced into a moveless anguish.
“I will have an answer,” pursued Mrs. Baines. “What were you doing out in the town this morning?”
“I just went out,” answered Sophia at length, still with eyes downcast, and in a rather simpering tone.
“Why did you go out? You said nothing to me about going out. I heard Constance ask you if you were coming with us to the market, and you said, very rudely, that you weren’t.”
“I didn’t say it rudely,” Sophia objected.
“Yes you did. And I’ll thank you not to answer back.”
“I didn’t mean to say it rudely, did I, Constance?” Sophia’s head turned sharply to her sister. Constance knew not where to look.
“Don’t answer back,” Mrs. Baines repeated sternly. “And don’t try to drag Constance into this, for I won’t have it.”
“Oh, of course Constance is always right!” observed Sophia, with an irony whose unparalleled impudence shook Mrs. Baines to her massive foundations.
“Do you want me to have to smack you, child?”
Her temper flashed out and you could see ringlets vibrating under the provocation of Sophia’s sauciness. Then Sophia’s lower lip began to fall and to bulge outwards, and all the muscles of her face seemed to slacken.
“You are a very naughty girl,” said Mrs. Baines, with restraint. (“I’ve got her,” said Mrs. Baines to herself. “I may just as well keep my temper.”)
And a sob broke out of Sophia. She was behaving like a little child. She bore no trace of the young maiden sedately crossing the Square without leave and without an escort.
(“I knew she was going to cry,” said Mrs. Baines, breathing relief.)
“I’m waiting,” said Mrs. Baines aloud.
A second sob. Mrs. Baines manufactured patience to meet the demand.
“You tell me not to answer back, and then you say you’re waiting,” Sophia blubbered thickly.
“What’s that you say? How can I tell what you say if you talk like that?” (But Mrs. Baines failed to hear out of discretion, which is better than valour.)
“It’s of no consequence,” Sophia blurted forth in a sob. She was weeping now, and tears were ricocheting off her lovely crimson cheeks on to the carpet; her whole body was trembling.
“Don’t be a great baby,” Mrs. Baines enjoined, with a touch of rough persuasiveness in her voice.
“It’s you who make me cry,” said Sophia, bitterly. “You make me cry and then you call me a great baby!” And sobs ran through her frame like waves one after another. She spoke so indistinctly that her mother now really had some difficulty in catching her words.
“Sophia,” said Mrs. Baines, with god-like calm, “it is not I who make you cry. It is your guilty conscience makes you cry. I have merely asked you a question, and I intend to have an answer.”
“I’ve told you.” Here Sophia checked the sobs with an immense effort.
“What have you told me?”
“I just went out.”
“I will have no trifling,” said Mrs. Baines. “What did you go out for, and without telling me? If you had told me afterwards, when I came in, of your own accord, it might have been different. But no, not a word! It is I who have to ask! Now, quick! I can’t wait any longer.”
(“I gave way over the castor-oil, my girl,” Mrs. Baines said in her own breast. “But not again! Not again!”)
“I don’t know,” Sophia murmured.
“What do you mean — you don’t know?”
The sobbing recommenced tempestuously. “I mean I don’t know. I just went out.” Her voice rose; it was noisy, but scarcely articulate. “What if I did go out?”
“Sophia, I am not going to be talked to like this. If you think because you’re leaving school you can do exactly as you like —”
“Do I want to leave school?” yelled Sophia, stamping. In a moment a hurricane of emotion overwhelmed her, as though that stamping of the foot had released the demons of the storm. Her face was transfigured by uncontrollable passion. “You all want to make me miserable!” she shrieked with terrible violence. “And now I can’t even go out! You are a horrid, cruel woman, and I hate you! And you can do what you like! Put me in prison if you like! I know you’d be glad if I was dead!”
She dashed from the room, banging the door with a shock that made the house rattle. And she had shouted so loud that she might have been heard in the shop, and even in the kitchen. It was a startling experience for Mrs. Baines. Mrs. Baines, why did you saddle yourself with a witness? Why did you so positively say that you intended to have an answer?
“Really,” she stammered, pulling her dignity about her shoulders like a garment that the wind has snatched off. “I never dreamed that poor girl had such a dreadful temper! What a pity it is, for her OWN sake!” It was the best she could do.
Constance, who could not bear to witness her mother’s humiliation, vanished very quietly from the room. She got halfway upstairs to the second floor, and then, hearing the loud, rapid, painful, regular intake of sobbing breaths, she hesitated and crept down again.
This was Mrs. Baines’s first costly experience of the child thankless for having been brought into the world. It robbed her of her profound, absolute belief in herself. She had thought she knew everything in her house and could do everything there. And lo! she had suddenly stumbled against an unsuspected personality at large in her house, a sort of hard marble affair that informed her by means of bumps that if she did not want to be hurt she must keep out of the way.
On the Sunday afternoon Mrs. Baines was trying to repose a little in the drawing-room, where she had caused a fire to be lighted. Constance was in the adjacent bedroom with her father. Sophia lay between blankets in the room overhead with a feverish cold. This cold and her new dress were Mrs. Baines’s sole consolation at the moment. She had prophesied a cold for Sophia, refuser of castor-oil, and it had come. Sophia had received, for standing in her nightdress at a draughty window of a May morning, what Mrs. Baines called ‘nature’s slap in the face.’ As for the dress, she had worshipped God in it, and prayed for Sophia in it, before dinner; and its four double rows of gimp on the skirt had been accounted a great success. With her lace-bordered mantle and her low, stringed bonnet she had assuredly given a unique lustre to the congregation at chapel. She was stout; but the fashions, prescribing vague outlines, broad downward slopes, and vast amplitudes, were favourable to her shape. It must not be supposed that stout women of a certain age never seek to seduce the eye and trouble the meditations of man by other than moral charms. Mrs. Baines knew that she was comely, natty, imposing, and elegant; and the knowledge gave her real pleasure. She would look over her shoulder in the glass as anxious as a girl: make no mistake.
She did not repose; she could not. She sat thinking, in exactly the same posture as Sophia’s two afternoons previously. She would have been surprised to hear that her attitude, bearing, and expression powerfully recalled those of her reprehensible daughter. But it was so. A good angel made her restless, and she went idly to the window and glanced upon the empty, shuttered Square. She too, majestic matron, had strange, brief yearnings for an existence more romantic than this; shootings across her spirit’s firmament of tailed comets; soft, inexplicable melancholies. The good angel, withdrawing her from such a mood, directed her gaze to a particular spot at the top of the square.
She passed at once out of the room — not precisely in a hurry, yet without wasting time. In a recess under the stairs, immediately outside the door, was a box about a foot square and eighteen inches deep covered with black American cloth. She bent down and unlocked this box, which was padded within and contained the Baines silver tea-service. She drew from the box teapot, sugar-bowl, milk-jug, sugar-tongs, hot-water jug, and cake-stand (a flattish dish with an arching semicircular handle)— chased vessels, silver without and silver-gilt within; glittering heirlooms that shone in the dark corner like the secret pride of respectable families. These she put on a tray that always stood on end in the recess. Then she looked upwards through the banisters to the second floor.
“Maggie!” she piercingly whispered.
“Yes, mum,” came a voice.
“Are you dressed?”
“Yes, mum. I’m just coming.”
“Well, put on your muslin.” “Apron,” Mrs. Baines implied.
“Take these for tea,” said Mrs. Baines when Maggie descended. “Better rub them over. You know where the cake is — that new one. The best cups. And the silver spoons.”
They both heard a knock at the side-door, far off, below.
“There!” exclaimed Mrs. Baines. “Now take these right down into the kitchen before you open.”
“Yes, mum,” said Maggie, departing.
Mrs. Baines was wearing a black alpaca apron. She removed it and put on another one of black satin embroidered with yellow flowers, which, by merely inserting her arm into the chamber, she had taken from off the chest of drawers in her bedroom. Then she fixed herself in the drawing-room.
Maggie returned, rather short of breath, convoying the visitor.
“Ah! Miss Chetwynd,” said Mrs. Baines, rising to welcome. “I’m sure I’m delighted to see you. I saw you coming down the Square, and I said to myself, ‘Now, I do hope Miss Chetwynd isn’t going to forget us.’”
Miss Chetwynd, simpering momentarily, came forward with that self-conscious, slightly histrionic air, which is one of the penalties of pedagogy. She lived under the eyes of her pupils. Her life was one ceaseless effort to avoid doing anything which might influence her charges for evil or shock the natural sensitiveness of their parents. She had to wind her earthly way through a forest of the most delicate susceptibilities — fern-fronds that stretched across the path, and that she must not even accidentally disturb with her skirt as she passed. No wonder she walked mincingly! No wonder she had a habit of keeping her elbows close to her sides, and drawing her mantle tight in the streets! Her prospectus talked about ‘a sound and religious course of training,’ ‘study embracing the usual branches of English, with music by a talented master, drawing, dancing, and calisthenics.’ Also ‘needlework plain and ornamental;’ also ‘moral influence;’ and finally about terms, ‘which are very moderate, and every particular, with references to parents and others, furnished on application.’ (Sometimes, too, without application.) As an illustration of the delicacy of fern-fronds, that single word ‘dancing’ had nearly lost her Constance and Sophia seven years before!
She was a pinched virgin, aged forty, and not ‘well off;’ in her family the gift of success had been monopolized by her elder sister. For these characteristics Mrs. Baines, as a matron in easy circumstances, pitied Miss Chetwynd. On the other hand, Miss Chetwynd could choose ground from which to look down upon Mrs. Baines, who after all was in trade. Miss Chetwynd had no trace of the local accent; she spoke with a southern refinement which the Five Towns, while making fun of it, envied. All her O’s had a genteel leaning towards ‘ow,’ as ritualism leans towards Romanism. And she was the fount of etiquette, a wonder of correctness; in the eyes of her pupils’ parents not so much ‘a perfect LADY’ as ‘a PERFECT lady.’ So that it was an extremely nice question whether, upon the whole, Mrs. Baines secretly condescended to Miss Chetwynd or Miss Chetwynd to Mrs. Baines. Perhaps Mrs. Baines, by virtue of her wifehood, carried the day.
Miss Chetwynd, carefully and precisely seated, opened the conversation by explaining that even if Mrs. Baines had not written she should have called in any case, as she made a practice of calling at the home of her pupils in vacation time: which was true. Mrs. Baines, it should be stated, had on Friday afternoon sent to Miss Chetwynd one of her most luxurious notes — lavender-coloured paper with scalloped edges, the selectest mode of the day — to announce, in her Italian hand, that Constance and Sophia would both leave school at the end of the next term, and giving reasons in regard to Sophia.
Before the visitor had got very far, Maggie came in with a lacquered tea-caddy and the silver teapot and a silver spoon on a lacquered tray. Mrs. Baines, while continuing to talk, chose a key from her bunch, unlocked the tea-caddy, and transferred four teaspoonfuls of tea from it to the teapot and relocked the caddy.
“Strawberry,” she mysteriously whispered to Maggie; and Maggie disappeared, bearing the tray and its contents.
“And how is your sister? It is quite a long time since she was down here,” Mrs. Baines went on to Miss Chetwynd, after whispering “strawberry.”
The remark was merely in the way of small-talk — for the hostess felt a certain unwilling hesitation to approach the topic of daughters — but it happened to suit the social purpose of Miss Chetwynd to a nicety. Miss Chetwynd was a vessel brimming with great tidings.
“She is very well, thank you,” said Miss Chetwynd, and her expression grew exceedingly vivacious. Her face glowed with pride as she added, “Of course everything is changed now.”
“Indeed?” murmured Mrs. Baines, with polite curiosity.
“Yes,” said Miss Chetwynd. “You’ve not heard?”
“No,” said Mrs. Baines. Miss Chetwynd knew that she had not heard.
“About Elizabeth’s engagement? To the Reverend Archibald Jones?”
It is the fact that Mrs. Baines was taken aback. She did nothing indiscreet; she did not give vent to her excusable amazement that the elder Miss Chetwynd should be engaged to any one at all, as some women would have done in the stress of the moment. She kept her presence of mind.
“This is really MOST interesting!” said she.
It was. For Archibald Jones was one of the idols of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, a special preacher famous throughout England. At ‘Anniversaries’ and ‘Trust sermons,’ Archibald Jones had probably no rival. His Christian name helped him; it was a luscious, resounding mouthful for admirers. He was not an itinerant minister, migrating every three years. His function was to direct the affairs of the ‘Book Room,’ the publishing department of the Connexion. He lived in London, and shot out into the provinces at week-ends, preaching on Sundays and giving a lecture, tinctured with bookishness, ‘in the chapel’ on Monday evenings. In every town he visited there was competition for the privilege of entertaining him. He had zeal, indefatigable energy, and a breezy wit. He was a widower of fifty, and his wife had been dead for twenty years. It had seemed as if women were not for this bright star. And here Elizabeth Chetwynd, who had left the Five Towns a quarter of a century before at the age of twenty, had caught him! Austere, moustached, formidable, desiccated, she must have done it with her powerful intellect! It must be a union of intellects! He had been impressed by hers, and she by his, and then their intellects had kissed. Within a week fifty thousand women in forty counties had pictured to themselves this osculation of intellects, and shrugged their shoulders, and decided once more that men were incomprehensible. These great ones in London, falling in love like the rest! But no! Love was a ribald and voluptuous word to use in such a matter as this. It was generally felt that the Reverend Archibald Jones and Miss Chetwynd the elder would lift marriage to what would now be termed an astral plane.
After tea had been served, Mrs. Baines gradually recovered her position, both in her own private esteem and in the deference of Miss Aline Chetwynd.
“Yes,” said she. “You can talk about your sister, and you can call HIM Archibald, and you can mince up your words. But have you got a tea-service like this? Can you conceive more perfect strawberry jam than this? Did not my dress cost more than you spend on your clothes in a year? Has a man ever looked at you? After all, is there not something about my situation . . . in short, something . . .?”
She did not say this aloud. She in no way deviated from the scrupulous politeness of a hostess. There was nothing in even her tone to indicate that Mrs. John Baines was a personage. Yet it suddenly occurred to Miss Chetwynd that her pride in being the prospective sister-inlaw of the Rev. Archibald Jones would be better for a while in her pocket. And she inquired after Mr. Baines. After this the conversation limped somewhat.
“I suppose you weren’t surprised by my letter?” said Mrs. Baines.
“I was and I wasn’t,” answered Miss Chetwynd, in her professional manner and not her manner of a prospective sister-inlaw. “Of course I am naturally sorry to lose two such good pupils, but we can’t keep our pupils for ever.” She smiled; she was not without fortitude — it is easier to lose pupils than to replace them. “Still”— a pause —“what you say of Sophia is perfectly true, perfectly. She is quite as advanced as Constance. Still”— another pause and a more rapid enunciation —“Sophia is by no means an ordinary girl.”
“I hope she hasn’t been a very great trouble to you?”
“Oh NO!” exclaimed Miss Chetwynd. “Sophia and I have got on very well together. I have always tried to appeal to her reason. I have never FORCED her . . . Now, with some girls . . . In some ways I look on Sophia as the most remarkable girl — not pupil — but the most remarkable — what shall I say? — individuality, that I have ever met with.” And her demeanour added, “And, mind you, this is something — from me!”
“Indeed!” said Mrs. Baines. She told herself, “I am not your common foolish parent. I see my children impartially. I am incapable of being flattered concerning them.”
Nevertheless she was flattered, and the thought shaped itself that really Sophia was no ordinary girl.
“I suppose she has talked to you about becoming a teacher?” asked Miss Chetwynd, taking a morsel of the unparalleled jam.
She held the spoon with her thumb and three fingers. Her fourth finger, in matters of honest labour, would never associate with the other three; delicately curved, it always drew proudly away from them.
“Has she mentioned that to you?” Mrs. Baines demanded, startled.
“Oh yes!” said Miss Chetwynd. “Several times. Sophia is a very secretive girl, very — but I think I may say I have always had her confidence. There have been times when Sophia and I have been very near each other. Elizabeth was much struck with her. Indeed, I may tell you that in one of her last letters to me she spoke of Sophia and said she had mentioned her to Mr. Jones, and Mr. Jones remembered her quite well.”
Impossible for even a wise, uncommon parent not to be affected by such an announcement!
“I dare say your sister will give up her school now,” observed Mrs. Baines, to divert attention from her self-consciousness.
“Oh NO!” And this time Mrs. Baines had genuinely shocked Miss Chetwynd. “Nothing would induce Elizabeth to give up the cause of education. Archibald takes the keenest interest in the school. Oh no! Not for worlds!”
“THEN YOU THINK SOPHIA WOULD MAKE A GOOD TEACHER?” asked Mrs. Baines with apparent inconsequence, and with a smile. But the words marked an epoch in her mind. All was over.
“I think she is very much set on it and —”
“That wouldn’t affect her father — or me,” said Mrs. Baines quickly.
“Certainly not! I merely say that she is very much set on it. Yes, she would, at any rate, make a teacher far superior to the average.” (“That girl has got the better of her mother without me!” she reflected.) “Ah! Here is dear Constance!”
Constance, tempted beyond her strength by the sounds of the visit and the colloquy, had slipped into the room.
“I’ve left both doors open, mother,” she excused herself for quitting her father, and kissed Miss Chetwynd.
She blushed, but she blushed happily, and really made a most creditable debut as a young lady. Her mother rewarded her by taking her into the conversation. And history was soon made.
So Sophia was apprenticed to Miss Aline Chetwynd. Mrs. Baines bore herself greatly. It was Miss Chetwynd who had urged, and her respect for Miss Chetwynd . . . Also somehow the Reverend Archibald Jones came into the cause.
Of course the idea of Sophia ever going to London was ridiculous, ridiculous! (Mrs. Baines secretly feared that the ridiculous might happen; but, with the Reverend Archibald Jones on the spot, the worst could be faced.) Sophia must understand that even the apprenticeship in Bursley was merely a trial. They would see how things went on. She had to thank Miss Chetwynd.
“I made Miss Chetwynd come and talk to mother,” said Sophia magnificently one night to simple Constance, as if to imply, ‘Your Miss Chetwynd is my washpot.’
To Constance, Sophia’s mere enterprise was just as staggering as her success. Fancy her deliberately going out that Saturday morning, after her mother’s definite decision, to enlist Miss Chetwynd in her aid!
There is no need to insist on the tragic grandeur of Mrs. Baines’s renunciation — a renunciation which implied her acceptance of a change in the balance of power in her realm. Part of its tragedy was that none, not even Constance, could divine the intensity of Mrs. Baines’s suffering. She had no confidant; she was incapable of showing a wound. But when she lay awake at night by the organism which had once been her husband, she dwelt long and deeply on the martyrdom of her life. What had she done to deserve it? Always had she conscientiously endeavoured to be kind, just, patient. And she knew herself to be sagacious and prudent. In the frightful and unguessed trials of her existence as a wife, surely she might have been granted consolations as a mother! Yet no; it had not been! And she felt all the bitterness of age against youth — youth egotistic, harsh, cruel, uncompromising; youth that is so crude, so ignorant of life, so slow to understand! She had Constance. Yes, but it would be twenty years before Constance could appreciate the sacrifice of judgment and of pride which her mother had made, in a sudden decision, during that rambling, starched, simpering interview with Miss Aline Chetwynd. Probably Constance thought that she had yielded to Sophia’s passionate temper! Impossible to explain to Constance that she had yielded to nothing but a perception of Sophia’s complete inability to hear reason and wisdom. Ah! Sometimes as she lay in the dark, she would, in fancy, snatch her heart from her bosom and fling it down before Sophia, bleeding, and cry: “See what I carry about with me, on your account!” Then she would take it back and hide it again, and sweeten her bitterness with wise admonitions to herself.
All this because Sophia, aware that if she stayed in the house she would be compelled to help in the shop, chose an honourable activity which freed her from the danger. Heart, how absurd of you to bleed!
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47