The uneasiness of Mrs. Baines flowed and ebbed, during the next three months, influenced by Sophia’s moods. There were days when Sophia was the old Sophia — the forbidding, difficult, waspish, and even hedgehog Sophia. But there were other days on which Sophia seemed to be drawing joy and gaiety and goodwill from some secret source, from some fount whose nature and origin none could divine. It was on these days that the uneasiness of Mrs. Baines waxed. She had the wildest suspicions; she was almost capable of accusing Sophia of carrying on a clandestine correspondence; she saw Sophia and Gerald Scales deeply and wickedly in love; she saw them with their arms round each other’s necks. . . . And then she called herself a middle-aged fool, to base such a structure of suspicion on a brief encounter in the street and on an idea, a fancy, a curious and irrational notion! Sophia had a certain streak of pure nobility in that exceedingly heterogeneous thing, her character. Moreover, Mrs. Baines watched the posts, and she also watched Sophia — she was not the woman to trust to a streak of pure nobility — and she came to be sure that Sophia’s sinfulness, if any, was not such as could be weighed in a balance, or collected together by stealth and then suddenly placed before the girl on a charger.
Still, she would have given much to see inside Sophia’s lovely head. Ah! Could she have done so, what sleep-destroying wonders she would have witnessed! By what bright lamps burning in what mysterious grottoes and caverns of the brain would her mature eyes have been dazzled! Sophia was living for months on the exhaustless ardent vitality absorbed during a magical two minutes in Wedgwood Street. She was living chiefly on the flaming fire struck in her soul by the shock of seeing Gerald Scales in the porch of the Wedgwood Institution as she came out of the Free Library with Experience Of Life tucked into her large astrakhan muff. He had stayed to meet her, then: she knew it! “After all,” her heart said, “I must be very beautiful, for I have attracted the pearl of men!” And she remembered her face in the glass. The value and the power of beauty were tremendously proved to her. He, the great man of the world, the handsome and elegant man with a thousand strange friends and a thousand interests far remote from her, had remained in Bursley on the mere chance of meeting her! She was proud, but her pride was drowned in bliss. “I was just looking at this inscription about Mr. Gladstone.” “So you decided to come out as usual!” “And may I ask what book you have chosen?” These were the phrases she heard, and to which she responded with similar phrases. And meanwhile a miracle of ecstasy had opened — opened like a flower. She was walking along Wedgwood Street by his side, slowly, on the scraped pavements, where marble bulbs of snow had defied the spade and remained. She and he were exactly of the same height, and she kept looking into his face and he into hers. This was all the miracle. Except that she was not walking on the pavement — she was walking on the intangible sward of paradise! Except that the houses had receded and faded, and the passers-by were subtilized into unnoticeable ghosts! Except that her mother and Constance had become phantasmal beings existing at an immense distance!
What had happened? Nothing! The most commonplace occurrence! The eternal cause had picked up a commercial traveller (it might have been a clerk or curate, but it in fact was a commercial traveller), and endowed him with all the glorious, unique, incredible attributes of a god, and planted him down before Sophia in order to produce the eternal effect. A miracle performed specially for Sophia’s benefit! No one else in Wedgwood Street saw the god walking along by her side. No one else saw anything but a simple commercial traveller. Yes, the most commonplace occurrence!
Of course at the corner of the street he had to go. “Till next time!” he murmured. And fire came out of his eyes and lighted in Sophia’s lovely head those lamps which Mrs. Baines was mercifully spared from seeing. And he had shaken hands and raised his hat. Imagine a god raising his hat! And he went off on two legs, precisely like a dashing little commercial traveller.
And, escorted by the equivocal Angel of Eclipses, she had turned into King Street, and arranged her face, and courageously met her mother. Her mother had not at first perceived the unusual; for mothers, despite their reputation to the contrary, really are the blindest creatures. Sophia, the naive ninny, had actually supposed that her walking along a hundred yards of pavement with a god by her side was not going to excite remark! What a delusion! It is true, certainly, that no one saw the god by direct vision. But Sophia’s cheeks, Sophia’s eyes, the curve of Sophia’s neck as her soul yearned towards the soul of the god — these phenomena were immeasurably more notable than Sophia guessed. An account of them, in a modified form to respect Mrs. Baines’s notorious dignity, had healed the mother of her blindness and led to that characteristic protest from her, “I shall be glad if you will not walk about the streets with young men,” etc.
When the period came for the reappearance of Mr. Scales, Mrs. Baines outlined a plan, and when the circular announcing the exact time of his arrival was dropped into the letter-box, she formulated the plan in detail. In the first place, she was determined to be indisposed and invisible herself, so that Mr. Scales might be foiled in any possible design to renew social relations in the parlour. In the second place, she flattered Constance with a single hint — oh, the vaguest and briefest! — and Constance understood that she was not to quit the shop on the appointed morning. In the third place, she invented a way of explaining to Mr. Povey that the approaching advent of Gerald Scales must not be mentioned. And in the fourth place, she deliberately made appointments for Sophia with two millinery customers in the showroom, so that Sophia might be imprisoned in the showroom.
Having thus left nothing to chance, she told herself that she was a foolish woman full of nonsense. But this did not prevent her from putting her lips together firmly and resolving that Mr. Scales should have no finger in the pie of HER family. She had acquired information concerning Mr. Scales, at secondhand, from Lawyer Pratt. More than this, she posed the question in a broader form — why should a young girl be permitted any interest in any young man whatsoever? The everlasting purpose had made use of Mrs. Baines and cast her off, and, like most persons in a similar situation, she was, unconsciously and quite honestly, at odds with the everlasting purpose.
On the day of Mr. Scales’s visit to the shop to obtain orders and money on behalf of Birkinshaws, a singular success seemed to attend the machinations of Mrs. Baines. With Mr. Scales punctuality was not an inveterate habit, and he had rarely been known, in the past, to fulfil exactly the prophecy of the letter of advice concerning his arrival. But that morning his promptitude was unexampled. He entered the shop, and by chance Mr. Povey was arranging unshrinkable flannels in the doorway. The two youngish little men talked amiably about flannels, dogs, and quarter-day (which was just past), and then Mr. Povey led Mr. Scales to his desk in the dark corner behind the high pile of twills, and paid the quarterly bill, in notes and gold — as always; and then Mr. Scales offered for the august inspection of Mr. Povey all that Manchester had recently invented for the temptation of drapers, and Mr. Povey gave him an order which, if not reckless, was nearer ‘handsome’ than ‘good.’ During the process Mr. Scales had to go out of the shop twice or three times in order to bring in from his barrow at the kerb-stone certain small black boxes edged with brass. On none of these excursions did Mr. Scales glance wantonly about him in satisfaction of the lust of the eye. Even if he had permitted himself this freedom he would have seen nothing more interesting than three young lady assistants seated round the stove and sewing with pricked fingers from which the chilblains were at last deciding to depart. When Mr. Scales had finished writing down the details of the order with his ivory-handled stylo, and repacked his boxes, he drew the interview to a conclusion after the manner of a capable commercial traveller; that is to say, he implanted in Mr. Povey his opinion that Mr. Povey was a wise, a shrewd and an upright man, and that the world would be all the better for a few more like him. He inquired for Mrs. Baines, and was deeply pained to hear of her indisposition while finding consolation in the assurance that the Misses Baines were well. Mr. Povey was on the point of accompanying the pattern of commercial travellers to the door, when two customers simultaneously came in-ladies. One made straight for Mr. Povey, whereupon Mr. Scales parted from him at once, it being a universal maxim in shops that even the most distinguished commercial shall not hinder the business of even the least distinguished customer. The other customer had the effect of causing Constance to pop up from her cloistral corner. Constance had been there all the time, but of course, though she heard the remembered voice, her maidenliness had not permitted that she should show herself to Mr. Scales.
Now, as he was leaving, Mr. Scales saw her, with her agreeable snub nose and her kind, simple eyes. She was requesting the second customer to mount to the showroom, where was Miss Sophia. Mr. Scales hesitated a moment, and in that moment Constance, catching his eye, smiled upon him, and nodded. What else could she do? Vaguely aware though she was that her mother was not ‘set up’ with Mr. Scales, and even feared the possible influence of the young man on Sophia, she could not exclude him from her general benevolence towards the universe. Moreover, she liked him; she liked him very much and thought him a very fine specimen of a man.
He left the door and went across to her. They shook hands and opened a conversation instantly; for Constance, while retaining all her modesty, had lost all her shyness in the shop, and could chatter with anybody. She sidled towards her corner, precisely as Sophia had done on another occasion, and Mr. Scales put his chin over the screening boxes, and eagerly prosecuted the conversation.
There was absolutely nothing in the fact of the interview itself to cause alarm to a mother, nothing to render futile the precautions of Mrs. Baines on behalf of the flower of Sophia’s innocence. And yet it held danger for Mrs. Baines, all unconscious in her parlour. Mrs. Baines could rely utterly on Constance not to be led away by the dandiacal charms of Mr. Scales (she knew in what quarter sat the wind for Constance); in her plan she had forgotten nothing, except Mr. Povey; and it must be said that she could not possibly have foreseen the effect on the situation of Mr. Povey’s character.
Mr. Povey, attending to his customer, had noticed the bright smile of Constance on the traveller, and his heart did not like it. And when he saw the lively gestures of a Mr. Scales in apparently intimate talk with a Constance hidden behind boxes, his uneasiness grew into fury. He was a man capable of black and terrible furies. Outwardly insignificant, possessing a mind as little as his body, easily abashed, he was none the less a very susceptible young man, soon offended, proud, vain, and obscurely passionate. You might offend Mr. Povey without guessing it, and only discover your sin when Mr. Povey had done something too decisive as a result of it.
The reason of his fury was jealousy. Mr. Povey had made great advances since the death of John Baines. He had consolidated his position, and he was in every way a personage of the first importance. His misfortune was that he could never translate his importance, or his sense of his importance, into terms of outward demeanour. Most people, had they been told that Mr. Povey was seriously aspiring to enter the Baines family, would have laughed. But they would have been wrong. To laugh at Mr. Povey was invariably wrong. Only Constance knew what inroads he had effected upon her.
The customer went, but Mr. Scales did not go. Mr. Povey, free to reconnoitre, did so. From the shadow of the till he could catch glimpses of Constance’s blushing, vivacious face. She was obviously absorbed in Mr. Scales. She and he had a tremendous air of intimacy. And the murmur of their chatter continued. Their chatter was nothing, and about nothing, but Mr. Povey imagined that they were exchanging eternal vows. He endured Mr. Scales’s odious freedom until it became insufferable, until it deprived him of all his self-control; and then he retired into his cutting-out room. He meditated there in a condition of insanity for perhaps a minute, and excogitated a device. Dashing back into the shop, he spoke up, half across the shop, in a loud, curt tone:
“Miss Baines, your mother wants you at once.”
He was launched on the phrase before he noticed that, during his absence, Sophia had descended from the showroom and joined her sister and Mr. Scales. The danger and scandal were now less, he perceived, but he was glad he had summoned Constance away, and he was in a state to despise consequences.
The three chatterers, startled, looked at Mr. Povey, who left the shop abruptly. Constance could do nothing but obey the call.
She met him at the door of the cutting-out room in the passage leading to the parlour.
“Where is mother? In the parlour?” Constance inquired innocently.
There was a dark flush on Mr. Povey’s face. “If you wish to know,” said he in a hard voice, “she hasn’t asked for you and she doesn’t want you.”
He turned his back on her, and retreated into his lair.
“Then what —?” she began, puzzled.
He fronted her. “Haven’t you been gabbling long enough with that jackanapes?” he spit at her. There were tears in his eyes.
Constance, though without experience in these matters, comprehended. She comprehended perfectly and immediately. She ought to have put Mr. Povey into his place. She ought to have protested with firm, dignified finality against such a ridiculous and monstrous outrage as that which Mr. Povey had committed. Mr. Povey ought to have been ruined for ever in her esteem and in her heart. But she hesitated.
“And only last Sunday — afternoon,” Mr. Povey blubbered.
(Not that anything overt had occurred, or been articulately said, between them last Sunday afternoon. But they had been alone together, and had each witnessed strange and disturbing matters in the eyes of the other.)
Tears now fell suddenly from Constance’s eyes. “You ought to be ashamed —” she stammered.
Still, the tears were in her eyes, and in his too. What he or she merely said, therefore, was of secondary importance.
Mrs. Baines, coming from the kitchen, and hearing Constance’s voice, burst upon the scene, which silenced her. Parents are sometimes silenced. She found Sophia and Mr. Scales in the shop.
That afternoon Sophia, too busy with her own affairs to notice anything abnormal in the relations between her mother and Constance, and quite ignorant that there had been an unsuccessful plot against her, went forth to call upon Miss Chetwynd, with whom she had remained very friendly: she considered that she and Miss Chetwynd formed an aristocracy of intellect, and the family indeed tacitly admitted this. She practised no secrecy in her departure from the shop; she merely dressed, in her second-best hoop, and went, having been ready at any moment to tell her mother, if her mother caught her and inquired, that she was going to see Miss Chetwynd. And she did go to see Miss Chetwynd, arriving at the house-school, which lay amid trees on the road to Turnhill, just beyond the turnpike, at precisely a quarter-past four. As Miss Chetwynd’s pupils left at four o’clock, and as Miss Chetwynd invariably took a walk immediately afterwards, Sophia was able to contain her surprise upon being informed that Miss Chetwynd was not in. She had not intended that Miss Chetwynd should be in.
She turned off to the right, up the side road which, starting from the turnpike, led in the direction of Moorthorne and Red Cow, two mining villages. Her heart beat with fear as she began to follow that road, for she was upon a terrific adventure. What most frightened her, perhaps, was her own astounding audacity. She was alarmed by something within herself which seemed to be no part of herself and which produced in her curious, disconcerting, fleeting impressions of unreality.
In the morning she had heard the voice of Mr. Scales from the showroom — that voice whose even distant murmur caused creepings of the skin in her back. And she had actually stood on the counter in front of the window in order to see down perpendicularly into the Square; by so doing she had had a glimpse of the top of his luggage on a barrow, and of the crown of his hat occasionally when he went outside to tempt Mr. Povey. She might have gone down into the shop — there was no slightest reason why she should not; three months had elapsed since the name of Mr. Scales had been mentioned, and her mother had evidently forgotten the trifling incident of New Year’s Day — but she was incapable of descending the stairs! She went to the head of the stairs and peeped through the balustrade — and she could not get further. For nearly a hundred days those extraordinary lamps had been brightly burning in her head; and now the light-giver had come again, and her feet would not move to the meeting; now the moment had arrived for which alone she had lived, and she could not seize it as it passed! “Why don’t I go downstairs?” she asked herself. “Am I afraid to meet him?”
The customer sent up by Constance had occupied the surface of her life for ten minutes, trying on hats; and during this time she was praying wildly that Mr. Scales might not go, and asserting that it was impossible he should go without at least asking for her. Had she not counted the days to this day? When the customer left Sophia followed her downstairs, and saw Mr. Scales chatting with Constance. All her self-possession instantly returned to her, and she joined them with a rather mocking smile. After Mr. Povey’s strange summons had withdrawn Constance from the corner, Mr. Scales’s tone had changed; it had thrilled her. “You are YOU,” it had said, “there is you — and there is the rest of the universe!” Then he had not forgotten; she had lived in his heart; she had not for three months been the victim of her own fancies! . . . She saw him put a piece of folded white paper on the top edge of the screening box and flick it down to her. She blushed scarlet, staring at it as it lay on the counter. He said nothing, and she could not speak. . . . He had prepared that paper, then, beforehand, on the chance of being able to give it to her! This thought was exquisite but full of terror. “I must really go,” he had said, lamely, with emotion in his voice, and he had gone — like that! And she put the piece of paper into the pocket of her apron, and hastened away. She had not even seen, as she turned up the stairs, her mother standing by the till — that spot which was the conning-tower of the whole shop. She ran, ran, breathless to the bedroom.
“I am a wicked girl!” she said quite frankly, on the road to the rendezvous. “It is a dream that I am going to meet him. It cannot be true. There is time to go back. If I go back I am safe. I have simply called at Miss Chetwynd’s and she wasn’t in, and no one can say a word. But if I go on — if I’m seen! What a fool I am to go on!”
And she went on, impelled by, amongst other things, an immense, naive curiosity, and the vanity which the bare fact of his note had excited. The Loop railway was being constructed at that period, and hundreds of navvies were at work on it between Bursley and Turnhill. When she came to the new bridge over the cutting, he was there, as he had written that he would be.
They were very nervous, they greeted each other stiffly and as though they had met then for the first time that day. Nothing was said about his note, nor about her response to it. Her presence was treated by both of them as a basic fact of the situation which it would be well not to disturb by comment. Sophia could not hide her shame, but her shame only aggravated the stinging charm of her beauty. She was wearing a hard Amazonian hat, with a lifted veil, the final word of fashion that spring in the Five Towns; her face, beaten by the fresh breeze, shone rosily; her eyes glittered under the dark hat, and the violent colours of her Victorian frock — green and crimson — could not spoil those cheeks. If she looked earthwards, frowning, she was the more adorable so. He had come down the clayey incline from the unfinished red bridge to welcome her, and when the salutations were over they stood still, he gazing apparently at the horizon and she at the yellow marl round the edges of his boots. The encounter was as far away from Sophia’s ideal conception as Manchester from Venice.
“So this is the new railway!” said she.
“Yes,” said he. “This is your new railway. You can see it better from the bridge.”
“But it’s very sludgy up there,” she objected with a pout.
“Further on it’s quite dry,” he reassured her.
From the bridge they had a sudden view of a raw gash in the earth; and hundreds of men were crawling about in it, busy with minute operations, like flies in a great wound. There was a continuous rattle of picks, resembling a muffled shower of hail, and in the distance a tiny locomotive was leading a procession of tiny waggons.
“And those are the navvies!” she murmured.
The unspeakable doings of the navvies in the Five Towns had reached even her: how they drank and swore all day on Sundays, how their huts and houses were dens of the most appalling infamy, how they were the curse of a God-fearing and respectable district! She and Gerald Scales glanced down at these dangerous beasts of prey in their yellow corduroys and their open shirts revealing hairy chests. No doubt they both thought how inconvenient it was that railways could not be brought into existence without the aid of such revolting and swinish animals. They glanced down from the height of their nice decorum and felt the powerful attraction of similar superior manners. The manners of the navvies were such that Sophia could not even regard them, nor Gerald Scales permit her to regard them, without blushing.
In a united blush they turned away, up the gradual slope. Sophia knew no longer what she was doing. For some minutes she was as helpless as though she had been in a balloon with him.
“I got my work done early,” he said; and added complacently, “As a matter of fact I’ve had a pretty good day.”
She was reassured to learn that he was not neglecting his duties. To be philandering with a commercial traveller who has finished a good day’s work seemed less shocking than dalliance with a neglecter of business; it seemed indeed, by comparison, respectable.
“It must be very interesting,” she said primly.
“What, my trade?”
“Yes. Always seeing new places and so on.”
“In a way it is,” he admitted judicially. “But I can tell you it was much more agreeable being in Paris.”
“Oh! Have you been to Paris?”
“Lived there for nearly two years,” he said carelessly. Then, looking at her, “Didn’t you notice I never came for a long time?”
“I didn’t know you were in Paris,” she evaded him.
“I went to start a sort of agency for Birkinshaws,” he said.
“I suppose you talk French like anything.”
“Of course one has to talk French,” said he. “I learnt French when I was a child from a governess — my uncle made me — but I forgot most of it at school, and at the Varsity you never learn anything — precious little, anyhow! Certainly not French!”
She was deeply impressed. He was a much greater personage than she had guessed. It had never occurred to her that commercial travellers had to go to a university to finish their complex education. And then, Paris! Paris meant absolutely nothing to her but pure, impossible, unattainable romance. And he had been there! The clouds of glory were around him. He was a hero, dazzling. He had come to her out of another world. He was her miracle. He was almost too miraculous to be true.
She, living her humdrum life at the shop! And he, elegant, brilliant, coming from far cities! They together, side by side, strolling up the road towards the Moorthorne ridge! There was nothing quite like this in the stories of Miss Sewell.
“Your uncle . . .?” she questioned vaguely.
“Yes, Mr. Boldero. He’s a partner in Birkinshaws.”
“You’ve heard of him? He’s a great Wesleyan.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “When we had the Wesleyan Conference here, he —”
“He’s always very great at Conferences,” said Gerald Scales.
“I didn’t know he had anything to do with Birkinshaws.”
“He isn’t a working partner of course,” Mr. Scales explained. “But he means me to be one. I have to learn the business from the bottom. So now you understand why I’m a traveller.”
“I see,” she said, still more deeply impressed.
“I’m an orphan,” said Gerald. “And Uncle Boldero took me in hand when I was three.”
“I SEE!” she repeated.
It seemed strange to her that Mr. Scales should be a Wesleyan — just like herself. She would have been sure that he was ‘Church.’ Her notions of Wesleyanism, with her notions of various other things, were sharply modified.
“Now tell me about you,” Mr. Scales suggested.
“Oh! I’m nothing!” she burst out.
The exclamation was perfectly sincere. Mr. Scales’s disclosures concerning himself, while they excited her, discouraged her.
“You’re the finest girl I’ve ever met, anyhow,” said Mr. Scales with gallant emphasis, and he dug his stick into the soft ground.
She blushed and made no answer.
They walked on in silence, each wondering apprehensively what might happen next.
Suddenly Mr. Scales stopped at a dilapidated low brick wall, built in a circle, close to the side of the road.
“I expect that’s an old pit-shaft,” said he.
“Yes, I expect it is.”
He picked up a rather large stone and approached the wall.
“Be careful!” she enjoined him.
“Oh! It’s all right,” he said lightly. “Let’s listen. Come near and listen.”
She reluctantly obeyed, and he threw the stone over the dirty ruined wall, the top of which was about level with his hat. For two or three seconds there was no sound. Then a faint reverberation echoed from the depths of the shaft. And on Sophia’s brain arose dreadful images of the ghosts of miners wandering for ever in subterranean passages, far, far beneath. The noise of the falling stone had awakened for her the secret terrors of the earth. She could scarcely even look at the wall without a spasm of fear.
“How strange,” said Mr. Scales, a little awe in his voice, too, “that that should be left there like that! I suppose it’s very deep.”
“Some of them are,” she trembled.
“I must just have a look,” he said, and put his hands on the top of the wall.
“Come away!” she cried.
“Oh! It’s all right!” he said again, soothingly. “The wall’s as firm as a rock.” And he took a slight spring and looked over.
She shrieked loudly. She saw him at the distant bottom of the shaft, mangled, drowning. The ground seemed to quake under her feet. A horrible sickness seized her. And she shrieked again. Never had she guessed that existence could be such pain.
He slid down from the wall, and turned to her. “No bottom to be seen!” he said. Then, observing her transformed face, he came close to her, with a superior masculine smile. “Silly little thing!” he said coaxingly, endearingly, putting forth all his power to charm.
He perceived at once that he had miscalculated the effects of his action. Her alarm changed swiftly to angry offence. She drew back with a haughty gesture, as if he had intended actually to touch her. Did he suppose, because she chanced to be walking with him, that he had the right to address her familiarly, to tease her, to call her ‘silly little thing’ and to put his face against hers? She resented his freedom with quick and passionate indignation.
She showed him her proud back and nodding head and wrathful skirts; and hurried off without a word, almost running. As for him, he was so startled by unexpected phenomena that he did nothing for a moment — merely stood looking and feeling foolish.
Then she heard him in pursuit. She was too proud to stop or even to reduce her speed.
“I didn’t mean to —” he muttered behind her.
No recognition from her.
“I suppose I ought to apologize,” he said.
“I should just think you ought,” she answered, furious.
“Well, I do!” said he. “Do stop a minute.”
“I’ll thank you not to follow me, Mr. Scales.” She paused, and scorched him with her displeasure. Then she went forward. And her heart was in torture because it could not persuade her to remain with him, and smile and forgive, and win his smile.
“I shall write to you,” he shouted down the slope.
She kept on, the ridiculous child. But the agony she had suffered as he clung to the frail wall was not ridiculous, nor her dark vision of the mine, nor her tremendous indignation when, after disobeying her, he forgot that she was a queen. To her the scene was sublimely tragic. Soon she had recrossed the bridge, but not the same she! So this was the end of the incredible adventure!
When she reached the turnpike she thought of her mother and of Constance. She had completely forgotten them; for a space they had utterly ceased to exist for her.
“You’ve been out, Sophia?” said Mrs. Baines in the parlour, questioningly. Sophia had taken off her hat and mantle hurriedly in the cutting-out room, for she was in danger of being late for tea; but her hair and face showed traces of the March breeze. Mrs. Baines, whose stoutness seemed to increase, sat in the rocking-chair with a number of The Sunday at Home in her hand. Tea was set.
“Yes, mother. I called to see Miss Chetwynd.”
“I wish you’d tell me when you are going out.”
“I looked all over for you before I started.”
“No, you didn’t, for I haven’t stirred from this room since four o’clock. . . . You should not say things like that,” Mrs. Baines added in a gentler tone.
Mrs. Baines had suffered much that day. She knew that she was in an irritable, nervous state, and therefore she said to herself, in her quality of wise woman, “I must watch myself. I mustn’t let myself go.” And she thought how reasonable she was. She did not guess that all her gestures betrayed her; nor did it occur to her that few things are more galling than the spectacle of a person, actuated by lofty motives, obviously trying to be kind and patient under what he considers to be extreme provocation.
Maggie blundered up the kitchen stairs with the teapot and hot toast; and so Sophia had an excuse for silence. Sophia too had suffered much, suffered excruciatingly; she carried at that moment a whole tragedy in her young soul, unaccustomed to such burdens. Her attitude towards her mother was half fearful and half defiant; it might be summed up in the phrase which she had repeated again and again under her breath on the way home, “Well, mother can’t kill me!”
Mrs. Baines put down the blue-covered magazine and twisted her rocking-chair towards the table.
“You can pour out the tea,” said Mrs. Baines.
“She’s not very well. She’s lying down.”
“Anything the matter with her?”
This was inaccurate. Nearly everything was the matter with Constance, who had never been less Constance than during that afternoon. But Mrs. Baines had no intention of discussing Constance’s love-affairs with Sophia. The less said to Sophia about love, the better! Sophia was excitable enough already!
They sat opposite to each other, on either side of the fire — the monumental matron whose black bodice heavily overhung the table, whose large rounded face was creased and wrinkled by what seemed countless years of joy and disillusion; and the young, slim girl, so fresh, so virginal, so ignorant, with all the pathos of an unsuspecting victim about to be sacrificed to the minotaur of Time! They both ate hot toast, with careless haste, in silence, preoccupied, worried, and outwardly nonchalant.
“And what has Miss Chetwynd got to say?” Mrs. Baines inquired.
“She wasn’t in.”
Here was a blow for Mrs. Baines, whose suspicions about Sophia, driven off by her certainties regarding Constance, suddenly sprang forward in her mind, and prowled to and fro like a band of tigers.
Still, Mrs. Baines was determined to be calm and careful. “Oh! What time did you call?”
“I don’t know. About half-past four.” Sophia finished her tea quickly, and rose. “Shall I tell Mr. Povey he can come?”
(Mr. Povey had his tea after the ladies of the house.)
“Yes, if you will stay in the shop till I come. Light me the gas before you go.”
Sophia took a wax taper from a vase on the mantelpiece, stuck it in the fire and lit the gas, which exploded in its crystal cloister with a mild report.
“What’s all that clay on your boots, child?” asked Mrs. Baines.
“Clay?” repeated Sophia, staring foolishly at her boots.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Baines. “It looks like marl. Where on earth have you been?”
She interrogated her daughter with an upward gaze, frigid and unconsciously hostile, through her gold-rimmed glasses.
“I must have picked it up on the roads,” said Sophia, and hastened to the door.
“Shut the door.”
Sophia unwillingly shut the door which she had half opened.
Sophia obeyed, with falling lip.
“You are deceiving me, Sophia,” said Mrs. Baines, with fierce solemnity. “Where have you been this afternoon?”
Sophia’s foot was restless on the carpet behind the table. “I haven’t been anywhere,” she murmured glumly.
“Have you seen young Scales?”
“Yes,” said Sophia with grimness, glancing audaciously for an instant at her mother. (“She can’t kill me: She can’t kill me,” her heart muttered. And she had youth and beauty in her favour, while her mother was only a fat middle-aged woman. “She can’t kill me,” said her heart, with the trembling, cruel insolence of the mirror-flattered child.)
“How came you to meet him?”
“Sophia, you heard what I said!”
Still no answer. Sophia looked down at the table. (“She can’t kill me.”)
“If you are going to be sullen, I shall have to suppose the worst,” said Mrs. Baines.
Sophia kept her silence.
“Of course,” Mrs. Baines resumed, “if you choose to be wicked, neither your mother nor any one else can stop you. There are certain things I CAN do, and these I SHALL do . . . Let me warn you that young Scales is a thoroughly bad lot. I know all about him. He has been living a wild life abroad, and if it hadn’t been that his uncle is a partner in Birkinshaws, they would never have taken him on again.” A pause. “I hope that one day you will be a happy wife, but you are much too young yet to be meeting young men, and nothing would ever induce me to let you have anything to do with this Scales. I won’t have it. In future you are not to go out alone. You understand me?”
Sophia kept silence.
“I hope you will be in a better frame of mind tomorrow. I can only hope so. But if you aren’t, I shall take very severe measures. You think you can defy me. But you never were more mistaken in your life. I don’t want to see any more of you now. Go and tell Mr. Povey; and call Maggie for the fresh tea. You make me almost glad that your father died even as he did. He has, at any rate, been spared this.”
Those words ‘died even as he did’ achieved the intimidation of Sophia. They seemed to indicate that Mrs. Baines, though she had magnanimously never mentioned the subject to Sophia, knew exactly how the old man had died. Sophia escaped from the room in fear, cowed. Nevertheless, her thought was, “She hasn’t killed me. I made up my mind I wouldn’t talk, and I didn’t.”
In the evening, as she sat in the shop primly and sternly sewing at hats — while her mother wept in secret on the first floor, and Constance remained hidden on the second — Sophia lived over again the scene at the old shaft; but she lived it differently, admitting that she had been wrong, guessing by instinct that she had shown a foolish mistrust of love. As she sat in the shop, she adopted just the right attitude and said just the right things. Instead of being a silly baby she was an accomplished and dazzling woman, then. When customers came in, and the young lady assistants unobtrusively turned higher the central gas, according to the regime of the shop, it was really extraordinary that they could not read in the heart of the beautiful Miss Baines the words which blazed there; “YOU’RE THE FINEST GIRL I EVER MET,” and “I SHALL WRITE TO YOU.” The young lady assistants had their notions as to both Constance and Sophia, but the truth, at least as regarded Sophia, was beyond the flight of their imaginations. When eight o’clock struck and she gave the formal order for dust-sheets, the shop being empty, they never supposed that she was dreaming about posts and plotting how to get hold of the morning’s letters before Mr. Povey.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05