Matthew Peel–Swynnerton sat in the long dining-room of the Pension Frensham, Rue Lord Byron, Paris; and he looked out of place there. It was an apartment about thirty feet in length, and of the width of two windows, which sufficiently lighted one half of a very long table with round ends. The gloom of the other extremity was illumined by a large mirror in a tarnished gilt frame, which filled a good portion of the wall opposite the windows. Near the mirror was a high folding-screen of four leaves, and behind this screen could be heard the sound of a door continually shutting and opening. In the long wall to the left of the windows were two doors, one dark and important, a door of state, through which a procession of hungry and a procession of sated solemn self-conscious persons passed twice daily, and the other, a smaller door, glazed, its glass painted with wreaths of roses, not an original door of the house, but a late breach in the wall, that seemed to lead to the dangerous and to the naughty. The wall-paper and the window drapery were rich and forbidding, dark in hue, mysterious of pattern. Over the state-door was a pair of antlers. And at intervals, so high up as to defy inspection, engravings and oil-paintings made oblong patches on the walls. They were hung from immense nails with porcelain heads, and they appeared to depict the more majestic aspect of man and nature. One engraving, over the mantelpiece and nearer earth than the rest, unmistakably showed Louis Philippe and his family in attitudes of virtue. Beneath this royal group, a vast gilt clock, flanked by pendants of the same period, gave the right time — a quarter past seven.
And down the room, filling it, ran the great white table, bordered with bowed heads and the backs of chairs. There were over thirty people at the table, and the peculiarly restrained noisiness of their knives and forks on the plates proved that they were a discreet and a correct people. Their clothes — blouses, bodices, and jackets — did not flatter the lust of the eye. Only two or three were in evening dress. They spoke little, and generally in a timorous tone, as though silence had been enjoined. Somebody would half-whisper a remark, and then his neighbour, absently fingering her bread and lifting gaze from her plate into vacancy, would conscientiously weigh the remark and half-whisper in reply: “I dare say.” But a few spoke loudly and volubly, and were regarded by the rest, who envied them, as underbred.
Food was quite properly the chief preoccupation. The diners ate as those eat who are paying a fixed price per day for as much as they can consume while observing the rules of the game. Without moving their heads they glanced out of the corners of their eyes, watching the manoeuvres of the three starched maids who served. They had no conception of food save as portions laid out in rows on large silver dishes, and when a maid bent over them deferentially, balancing the dish, they summed up the offering in an instant, and in an instant decided how much they could decently take, and to what extent they could practise the theoretic liberty of choice. And if the food for any reason did not tempt them, or if it egregiously failed to coincide with their aspirations, they considered themselves aggrieved. For, according to the game, they might not command; they had the right to seize all that was presented under their noses, like genteel tigers; and they had the right to refuse: that was all. The dinner was thus a series of emotional crises for the diners, who knew only that full dishes and clean plates came endlessly from the banging door behind the screen, and that ravaged dishes and dirty plates vanished endlessly through the same door. They were all eating similar food simultaneously; they began together and they finished together. The flies that haunted the paper-bunches which hung from the chandeliers to the level of the flower-vases, were more free. The sole event that chequered the exact regularity of the repast was the occasional arrival of a wine-bottle for one of the guests. The receiver of the wine-bottle signed a small paper in exchange for it and wrote largely a number on the label of the bottle; then, staring at the number and fearing that after all it might be misread by a stupid maid or an unscrupulous compeer, he would rewrite the number on another part of the label, even more largely.
Matthew Peel–Swynnerton obviously did not belong to this world. He was a young man of twenty-five or so, not handsome, but elegant. Though he was not in evening dress, though he was, as a fact, in a very light grey suit, entirely improper to a dinner, he was elegant. The suit was admirably cut, and nearly new; but he wore it as though he had never worn anything else. Also his demeanour, reserved yet free from self-consciousness, his method of handling a knife and fork, the niceties of his manner in transferring food from the silver dishes to his plate, the tone in which he ordered half a bottle of wine — all these details infallibly indicated to the company that Matthew Peel–Swynnerton was their superior. Some folks hoped that he was the son of a lord, or even a lord. He happened to be fixed at the end of the table, with his back to the window, and there was a vacant chair on either side of him; this situation favoured the hope of his high rank. In truth, he was the son, the grandson, and several times the nephew, of earthenware manufacturers. He noticed that the large ‘compote’ (as it was called in his trade) which marked the centre of the table, was the production of his firm. This surprised him, for Peel, Swynnerton and Co., known and revered throughout the Five Towns as ‘Peels,’ did not cater for cheap markets. A late guest startled the room, a fat, flabby, middle-aged man whose nose would have roused the provisional hostility of those who have convinced themselves that Jews are not as other men. His nose did not definitely brand him as a usurer and a murderer of Christ, but it was suspicious. His clothes hung loose, and might have been anybody’s clothes. He advanced with brisk assurance to the table, bowed, somewhat too effusively, to several people, and sat down next to Peel–Swynnerton. One of the maids at once brought him a plate of soup, and he said: “Thank you, Marie,” smiling at her. He was evidently a habitue of the house. His spectacled eyes beamed the superiority which comes of knowing girls by their names. He was seriously handicapped in the race for sustenance, being two and a half courses behind, but he drew level with speed and then, having accomplished this, he sighed, and pointedly engaged Peel–Swynnerton with his sociable glance.
“Ah!” he breathed out. “Nuisance when you come in late, sir!”
Peel–Swynnerton gave a reluctant affirmative.
“Doesn’t only upset you! It upsets the house! Servants don’t like it!”
“No,” murmured Peel–Swynnerton, “I suppose not.”
“However, it’s not often I’m late,” said the man. “Can’t help it sometimes. Business! Worst of these French business people is that they’ve no notion of time. Appointments . . .! God bless my soul!”
“Do you come here often?” asked Peel–Swynnerton. He detested the fellow, quite inexcusably, perhaps because his serviette was tucked under his chin; but he saw that the fellow was one of your determined talkers, who always win in the end. Moreover, as being clearly not an ordinary tourist in Paris, the fellow mildly excited his curiosity.
“I live here,” said the other. “Very convenient for a bachelor, you know. Have done for years. My office is just close by. You may know my name — Lewis Mardon.”
Peel–Swynnerton hesitated. The hesitation convicted him of not ‘knowing his Paris’ well.
“House-agent,” said Lewis Mardon, quickly.
“Oh yes,” said Peel–Swynnerton, vaguely recalling a vision of the name among the advertisements on newspaper kiosks.
“I expect,” Mr. Mardon went on, “my name is as well-known as anybody’s in Paris.”
“I suppose so,” assented Peel–Swynnerton.
The conversation fell for a few moments.
“Staying here long?” Mr. Mardon demanded, having added up Peel–Swynnerton as a man of style and of means, and being puzzled by his presence at that table.
“I don’t know,” said Peel–Swynnerton.
This was a lie, justified in the utterer’s opinion as a repulse to Mr. Mardon’s vulgar inquisitiveness, such inquisitiveness as might have been expected from a fellow who tucked his serviette under his chin. Peel–Swynnerton knew exactly how long he would stay. He would stay until the day after the morrow; he had only about fifty francs in his pocket. He had been making a fool of himself in another quarter of Paris, and he had descended to the Pension Frensham as a place where he could be absolutely sure of spending not more than twelve francs a day. Its reputation was high, and it was convenient for the Galliera Museum, where he was making some drawings which he had come to Paris expressly to make, and without which he could not reputably return to England. He was capable of foolishness, but he was also capable of wisdom, and scarcely any pressure of need would have induced him to write home for money to replace the money spent on making himself into a fool.
Mr. Mardon was conscious of a check. But, being of an accommodating disposition, he at once tried another direction.
“Good food here, eh?” he suggested.
“Very,” said Peel–Swynnerton, with sincerity. “I was quite —”
At that moment, a tall straight woman of uncertain age pushed open the principal door and stood for an instant in the doorway. Peel–Swynnerton had just time to notice that she was handsome and pale, and that her hair was black, and then she was gone again, followed by a clipped poodle that accompanied her. She had signed with a brief gesture to one of the servants, who at once set about lighting the gas-jets over the table.
“Who is that?” asked Peel–Swynnerton, without reflecting that it was now he who was making advances to the fellow whose napkin covered all his shirt-front.
“That’s the missis, that is,” said Mr. Mardon, in a lower and semi-confidential voice.
“Oh! Mrs. Frensham?”
“Yes. But her real name is Scales,” said Mr. Mardon, proudly.
“Widow, I suppose?”
“And she runs the whole show?”
“She runs the entire contraption,” said Mr. Mardon, solemnly; “and don’t you make any mistake!” He was getting familiar.
Peel–Swynnerton beat him off once more, glancing with careful, uninterested nonchalance at the gas-burners which exploded one after another with a little plop under the application of the maid’s taper. The white table gleamed more whitely than ever under the flaring gas. People at the end of the room away from the window instinctively smiled, as though the sun had begun to shine. The aspect of the dinner was changed, ameliorated; and with the reiterated statement that the evenings were drawing in though it was only July, conversation became almost general. In two minutes Mr. Mardon was genially talking across the whole length of the table. The meal finished in a state that resembled conviviality.
Matthew Peel–Swynnerton might not go out into the crepuscular delights of Paris. Unless he remained within the shelter of the Pension, he could not hope to complete successfully his reconversion from folly to wisdom. So he bravely passed through the small rose-embroidered door into a small glass-covered courtyard, furnished with palms, wicker armchairs, and two small tables; and he lighted a pipe and pulled out of his pocket a copy of The Referee. That retreat was called the Lounge; it was the only part of the Pension where smoking was not either a positive crime or a transgression against good form. He felt lonely. He said to himself grimly in one breath that pleasure was all rot, and in the next he sullenly demanded of the universe how it was that pleasure could not go on for ever, and why he was not Mr. Barney Barnato. Two old men entered the retreat and burnt cigarettes with many precautions. Then Mr. Lewis Mardon appeared and sat down boldly next to Matthew, like a privileged friend. After all, Mr. Mardon was better than nobody whatever, and Matthew decided to suffer him, especially as he began without preliminary skirmishing to talk about life in Paris. An irresistible subject! Mr. Mardon said in a worldly tone that the existence of a bachelor in Paris might easily be made agreeable. But that, of course, for himself — well, he preferred, as a general rule, the Pension Frensham sort of thing; and it was excellent for his business. Still he could not . . . he knew . . . He compared the advantages of what he called ‘knocking about’ in Paris, with the equivalent in London. His information about London was out of date, and Peel–Swynnerton was able to set him right on important details. But his information about Paris was infinitely precious and interesting to the younger man, who saw that he had hitherto lived under strange misconceptions.
“Have a whiskey?” asked Mr. Mardon, suddenly. “Very good here!” he added.
“Thanks!” drawled Peel–Swynnerton.
The temptation to listen to Mr. Mardon as long as Mr. Mardon would talk was not to be overcome. And presently, when the old men had departed, they were frankly telling each other stories in the dimness of the retreat. Then, when the supply of stories came to an end, Mr. Mardon smacked his lips over the last drop of whiskey and ejaculated: “Yes!” as if giving a general confirmation to all that had been said.
“Do have one with me,” said Matthew, politely. It was the least he could do.
The second supply of whiskies was brought into the Lounge by Mr. Mardon’s Marie. He smiled on her familiarly, and remarked that he supposed she would soon be going to bed after a hard day’s work. She gave a moue and a flounce in reply, and swished out.
“Carries herself well, doesn’t she?” observed Mr. Mardon, as though Marie had been an exhibit at an agricultural show. “Ten years ago she was very fresh and pretty, but of course it takes it out of ’em, a place like this!”
“But still,” said Peel–Swynnerton, “they must like it or they wouldn’t stay — that is, unless things are very different here from what they are in England.”
The conversation seemed to have stimulated him to examine the woman question in all its bearings, with philosophic curiosity.
“Oh! They LIKE it,” Mr. Mardon assured him, as one who knew. “Besides, Mrs. Scales treats ’em very well. I know THAT. She’s told me. She’s very particular”— he looked around to see if walls had ears —“and, by Jove, you’ve got to be; but she treats ’em well. You’d scarcely believe the wages they get, and pickings. Now at the Hotel Moscow — know the Hotel Moscow?”
Happily Peel–Swynnerton did. He had been advised to avoid it because it catered exclusively for English visitors, but in the Pension Frensham he had accepted something even more exclusively British than the Hotel Moscow. Mr. Mardon was quite relieved at his affirmative.
“The Hotel Moscow is a limited company now,” said he; “English.”
“Yes. I floated it. It was my idea. A great success! That’s how I know all about the Hotel Moscow.” He looked at the walls again. “I wanted to do the same here,” he murmured, and Peel–Swynnerton had to show that he appreciated this confidence. “But she never would agree. I’ve tried her all ways. No go! It’s a thousand pities.”
“Paying thing, eh?”
“This place? I should say it was! And I ought to be able to judge, I reckon. Mrs. Scales is one of the shrewdest women you’d meet in a day’s march. She’s made a lot of money here, a lot of money. And there’s no reason why a place like this shouldn’t be five times as big as it is. Ten times. The scope’s unlimited, my dear sir. All that’s wanted is capital. Naturally she has capital of her own, and she could get more. But then, as she says, she doesn’t want the place any bigger. She says it’s now just as big as she can handle. That isn’t so. She’s a woman who could handle anything — a born manager — but even if it was so, all she would have to do would be to retire — only leave us the place and the name. It’s the name that counts. And she’s made the name of Frensham worth something, I can tell you!”
“Did she get the place from her husband?” asked Peel–Swynnerton. Her own name of Scales intrigued him.
Mr. Mardon shook his head. “Bought it on her own, after the husband’s time, for a song — a song! I know, because I knew the original Frenshams.”
“You must have been in Paris a long time,” said Peel–Swynnerton.
Mr. Mardon could never resist an opportunity to talk about himself. His was a wonderful history. And Peel–Swynnerton, while scorning the man for his fatuity, was impressed. And when that was finished —
“Yes!” said Mr. Mardon after a pause, reaffirming everything in general by a single monosyllable.
Shortly afterwards he rose, saying that his habits were regular.
“Good-night,” he said with a mechanical smile.
“G-good-night,” said Peel–Swynnerton, trying to force the tone of fellowship and not succeeding. Their intimacy, which had sprung up like a mushroom, suddenly fell into dust. Peel–Swynnerton’s unspoken comment to Mr. Mardon’s back was: “Ass!” Still, the sum of Peel–Swynnerton’s knowledge had indubitably been increased during the evening. And the hour was yet early. Half-past ten! The Folies–Marigny, with its beautiful architecture and its crowds of white toilettes, and its frothing of champagne and of beer, and its musicians in tight red coats, was just beginning to be alive — and at a distance of scarcely a stone’s-throw! Peel–Swynnerton pictured the terraced, glittering hall, which had been the prime origin of his exceeding foolishness. And he pictured all the other resorts, great and small, garlanded with white lanterns, in the Champs Elysees; and the sombre aisles of the Champs Elysees where mysterious pale figures walked troublingly under the shade of trees, while snatches of wild song or absurd brassy music floated up from the resorts and restaurants. He wanted to go out and spend those fifty francs that remained in his pocket. After all, why not telegraph to England for more money? “Oh, damn it!” he said savagely, and stretched his arms and got up. The Lounge was very small, gloomy and dreary.
One brilliant incandescent light burned in the hall, crudely illuminating the wicker fauteuils, a corded trunk with a blue-and-red label on it, a Fitzroy barometer, a map of Paris, a coloured poster of the Compagnie Transatlantique, and the mahogany retreat of the hall-portress. In that retreat was not only the hall-portress — an aged woman with a white cap above her wrinkled pink face — but the mistress of the establishment. They were murmuring together softly; they seemed to be well disposed to one another. The portress was respectful, but the mistress was respectful also. The hall, with its one light tranquilly burning, was bathed in an honest calm, the calm of a day’s work accomplished, of gradual relaxation from tension, of growing expectation of repose. In its simplicity it affected Peel–Swynnerton as a medicine tonic for nerves might have affected him. In that hall, though exterior nocturnal life was but just stirring into activity, it seemed that the middle of the night had come, and that these two women alone watched in a mansion full of sleepers. And all the recitals which Peel–Swynnerton and Mr. Mardon had exchanged sank to the level of pitiably foolish gossip. Peel–Swynnerton felt that his duty to the house was to retire to bed. He felt, too, that he could not leave the house without saying that he was going out, and that he lacked the courage deliberately to tell these two women that he was going out — at that time of night! He dropped into one of the chairs and made a second attempt to peruse The Referee. Useless! Either his mind was outside in the Champs Elysees, or his gaze would wander surreptitiously to the figure of Mrs. Scales. He could not well distinguish her face because it was in the shadow of the mahogany.
Then the portress came forth from her box, and, slightly bent, sped actively across the hall, smiling pleasantly at the guest as she passed him, and disappeared up the stairs. The mistress was alone in the retreat. Peel–Swynnerton jumped up brusquely, dropping the paper with a rustle, and approached her.
“Excuse me,” he said deferentially. “Have any letters come for me to-night?”
He knew that the arrival of letters for him was impossible, since nobody knew his address.
“What name?” The question was coldly polite, and the questioner looked him full in the face. Undoubtedly she was a handsome woman. Her hair was greying at the temples, and the skin was withered and crossed with lines. But she was handsome. She was one of those women of whom to their last on earth the stranger will say: “When she was young she must have been worth looking at!”— with a little transient regret that beautiful young women cannot remain for ever young. Her voice was firm and even, sweet in tone, and yet morally harsh from incessant traffic — with all varieties of human nature. Her eyes were the impartial eyes of one who is always judging. And evidently she was a proud, even a haughty creature, with her careful, controlled politeness. Evidently she considered herself superior to no matter what guest. Her eyes announced that she had lived and learnt, that she knew more about life than any one whom she was likely to meet, and that having preeminently succeeded in life, she had tremendous confidence in herself. The proof of her success was the unique Frensham’s. A consciousness of the uniqueness of Frensham’s was also in those eyes. Theoretically Matthew Peel–Swynnerton’s mental attitude towards lodging-house keepers was condescending, but here it was not condescending. It had the real respectfulness of a man who for the moment at any rate is impressed beyond his calculations. His glance fell as he said —
“Peel–Swynnerton.” Then he looked up again.
He said the words awkwardly, and rather fearfully, as if aware that he was playing with fire. If this Mrs. Scales was the long-vanished aunt of his friend, Cyril Povey, she must know those two names, locally so famous. Did she start? Did she show a sign of being perturbed? At first he thought he detected a symptom of emotion, but in an instant he was sure that he had detected nothing of the sort, and that it was silly to suppose that he was treading on the edge of a romance. Then she turned towards the letter-rack at her side, and he saw her face in profile. It bore a sudden and astonishing likeness to the profile of Cyril Povey; a resemblance unmistakable and finally decisive. The nose, and the curve of the upper lip were absolutely Cyril’s. Matthew Peel–Swynnerton felt very queer. He felt like a criminal in peril of being caught in the act, and he could not understand why he should feel so. The landlady looked in the ‘P’ pigeon-hole, and in the ‘S’ pigeon-hole.
“No,” she said quietly, “I see nothing for you.”
Taken with a swift rash audacity, he said: “Have you had any one named Povey here recently?”
“Yes. Cyril Povey, of Bursley — in the Five Towns.”
He was very impressionable, very sensitive, was Matthew Peel–Swynnerton. His voice trembled as he spoke. But hers also trembled in reply.
“Not that I remember! No! Were you expecting him to be here?”
“Well, it wasn’t at all sure,” he muttered. “Thank you. Good-night.”
“Good-night,” she said, apparently with the simple perfunctoriness of the landlady who says good-night to dozens of strangers every evening.
He hurried away upstairs, and met the portress coming down. “Well, well!” he thought. “Of all the queer things —!” And he kept nodding his head. At last he had encountered something REALLY strange in the spectacle of existence. It had fallen to him to discover the legendary woman who had fled from Bursley before he was born, and of whom nobody knew anything. What news for Cyril! What a staggering episode! He had scarcely any sleep that night. He wondered whether he would be able to meet Mrs. Scales without self-consciousness on the morrow. However, he was spared the curious ordeal of meeting her. She did not appear at all on the following day; nor did he see her before he left. He could not find a pretext for asking why she was invisible.
The hansom of Matthew Peel–Swynnerton drew up in front of No. 26, Victoria Grove, Chelsea; his kit-bag was on the roof of the cab. The cabman had a red flower in his buttonhole. Matthew leaped out of the vehicle, holding his straw hat on his head with one hand. On reaching the pavement he checked himself suddenly and became carelessly calm. Another straw-hatted and grey-clad figure was standing at the side-gate of No. 26 in the act of lighting a cigarette.
“Hello, Matt!” exclaimed the second figure, languidly, and in a veiled voice due to the fact that he was still holding the match to the cigarette and puffing. “What’s the meaning of all this fluster? You’re just the man I want to see.”
He threw away the match with a wave of the arm, and took Matthew’s hand for a moment, blowing a double shaft of smoke through his nose.
“I want to see you, too,” said Matthew. “And I’ve only got a minute. I’m on my way to Euston. I must catch the twelve-five.”
He looked at his friend, and could positively see no feature of it that was not a feature of Mrs. Scales’s face. Also, the elderly woman held her body in exactly the same way as the young man. It was entirely disconcerting.
“Have a cigarette,” answered Cyril Povey, imperturbably. He was two years younger than Matthew, from whom he had acquired most of his vast and intricate knowledge of life and art, with certain leading notions of deportment; whose pupil indeed he was in all the things that matter to young men. But he had already surpassed his professor. He could pretend to be old much more successfully than Matthew could.
The cabman approvingly watched the ignition of the second cigarette, and then the cabman pulled out a cigar, and showed his large, white teeth, as he bit the end off it. The appearance and manner of his fare, the quality of the kit-bag, and the opening gestures of the interview between the two young dukes, had put the cabman in an optimistic mood. He had no apprehensions of miserly and ungentlemanly conduct by his fare upon the arrival at Euston. He knew the language of the tilt of a straw hat. And it was a magnificent day in London. The group of the two elegances dominated by the perfection of the cabman made a striking tableau of triumphant masculinity, content with itself, and needing nothing.
Matthew lightly took Cyril’s arm and drew him further down the street, past the gate leading to the studio (hidden behind a house) which Cyril rented.
“Look here, my boy,” he began, “I’ve found your aunt.”
“Well, that’s very nice of you,” said Cyril, solemnly. “That’s a friendly act. May I ask what aunt?”
“Mrs. Scales,” said Matthew. “You know —”
“Not the —” Cyril’s face changed.
“Yes, precisely!” said Matthew, feeling that he was not being cheated of the legitimate joy caused by making a sensation. Assuredly he had made a sensation in Victoria Grove.
When he had related the whole story, Cyril said: “Then she doesn’t know you know?”
“I don’t think so. No, I’m sure she doesn’t. She may guess.”
“But how can you be certain you haven’t made a mistake? It may be that —”
“Look here, my boy,” Matthew interrupted him. “I’ve not made any mistake.”
“But you’ve no proof.”
“Proof be damned!” said Matthew, nettled. “I tell you it’s HER!”
“Oh! All right! All right! What puzzles me most is what the devil you were doing in a place like that. According to your description of it, it must be a —”
“I went there because I was broke,” said Matthew.
“Pretty stiff, that!” commented Cyril, when Matthew had narrated the prologue to Frensham’s.
“Well, she absolutely swore she never took less than two hundred francs. And she looked it, too! And she was worth it! I had the time of my life with that woman. I can tell you one thing — no more English for me! They simply aren’t in it.”
“How old was she?”
Matthew reflected judicially. “I should say she was thirty.” The gaze of admiration and envy was upon him. He had the legitimate joy of making a second sensation. “I’ll let you know more about that when I come back,” he added. “I can open your eyes, my child.”
Cyril smiled sheepishly. “Why can’t you stay now?” he asked. “I’m going to take the cast of that Verrall girl’s arm this afternoon, and I know I can’t do it alone. And Robson’s no good. You’re just the man I want.”
“Can’t!” said Matthew.
“Well, come into the studio a minute, anyhow.”
“Haven’t time; I shall miss my train.”
“I don’t care if you miss forty trains. You must come in. You’ve got to see that fountain,” Cyril insisted crossly.
Matthew yielded. When they emerged into the street again, after six minutes of Cyril’s savage interest in his own work, Matthew remembered Mrs. Scales.
“Of course you’ll write to your mother?” he said.
“Yes,” said Cyril, “I’ll write; but if you happen to see her, you might tell her.”
“I will,” said Matthew. “Shall you go over to Paris?”
“What! To see Auntie?” He smiled. “I don’t know. Depends. If the mater will fork out all my exes . . . it’s an idea,” he said lightly, and then without any change of tone, “Naturally, if you’re going to idle about here all morning you aren’t likely to catch the twelve-five.”
Matthew got into the cab, while the driver, the stump of a cigar between his exposed teeth, leaned forward and lifted the reins away from the tilted straw hat.
“By-the-by, lend me some silver,” Matthew demanded. “It’s a good thing I’ve got my return ticket. I’ve run it as fine as ever I did in my life.”
Cyril produced eight shillings in silver. Secure in the possession of these riches, Matthew called to the driver —
“Euston — like hell!”
“Yes, sir,” said the driver, calmly.
“Not coming my way I suppose?” Matthew shouted as an afterthought, just when the cab began to move.
“No. Barber’s,” Cyril shouted in answer, and waved his hand.
The horse rattled into Fulham Road.
Three days later Matthew Peel–Swynnerton was walking along Bursley Market Place when, just opposite the Town Hall, he met a short, fat, middle-aged lady dressed in black, with a black embroidered mantle, and a small bonnet tied with black ribbon and ornamented with jet fruit and crape leaves. As she stepped slowly and carefully forward she had the dignified, important look of a provincial woman who has always been accustomed to deference in her native town, and whose income is ample enough to extort obsequiousness from the vulgar of all ranks. But immediately she caught sight of Matthew, her face changed. She became simple and naive. She blushed slightly, smiling with a timid pleasure. For her, Matthew belonged to a superior race. He bore the almost sacred name of Peel. His family had been distinguished in the district for generations. ‘Peel!’ You could without impropriety utter it in the same breath with ‘Wedgwood.’ And ‘Swynnerton’ stood not much lower. Neither her self-respect, which was great, nor her commonsense, which far exceeded the average, could enable her to extend as far as the Peels the theory that one man is as good as another. The Peels never shopped in St. Luke’s Square. Even in its golden days the Square could not have expected such a condescension. The Peels shopped in London or in Stafford; at a pinch, in Oldcastle. That was the distinction for the ageing stout lady in black. Why, she had not in six years recovered from her surprise that her son and Matthew Peel–Swynnerton treated each other rudely as equals! She and Matthew did not often meet, but they liked each other. Her involuntary meekness flattered him. And his rather elaborate homage flattered her. He admired her fundamental goodness, and her occasional raps at Cyril seemed to put him into ecstasies of joy.
“Well, Mrs. Povey,” he greeted her, standing over her with his hat raised. (It was a fashion he had picked up in Paris.) “Here I am, you see.”
“You’re quite a stranger, Mr. Matthew. I needn’t ask you how you are. Have you been seeing anything of my boy lately?”
“Not since Wednesday,” said Matthew. “Of course he’s written to you?”
“There’s no ‘of course’ about it,” she laughed faintly. “I had a short letter from him on Wednesday morning. He said you were in Paris.”
“But since that — hasn’t he written?”
“If I hear from him on Sunday I shall be lucky, bless ye!” said Constance, grimly. “It’s not letter-writing that will kill Cyril.”
“But do you mean to say he hasn’t —” Matthew stopped.
“Whatever’s amiss?” asked Constance. Matthew was at a loss to know what to do or say. “Oh, nothing.”
“Now, Mr. Matthew, do please —” Constance’s tone had suddenly quite changed. It had become firm, commanding, and gravely suspicious. The conversation had ceased to be small-talk for her.
Matthew saw how nervous and how fragile she was. He had never noticed before that she was so sensitive to trifles, though it was notorious that nobody could safely discuss Cyril with her in terms of chaff. He was really astounded at that youth’s carelessness, shameful carelessness. That Cyril’s attitude to his mother was marked by a certain benevolent negligence — this Matthew knew; but not to have written to her with the important news concerning Mrs. Scales was utterly inexcusable; and Matthew determined that he would tell Cyril so. He felt very sorry for Mrs. Povey. She seemed pathetic to him, standing there in ignorance of a tremendous fact which she ought to have been aware of. He was very content that he had said nothing about Mrs. Scales to anybody except his own mother, who had prudently enjoined silence upon him, saying that his one duty, having told Cyril, was to keep his mouth shut until the Poveys talked. Had it not been for his mother’s advice he would assuredly have spread the amazing tale, and Mrs. Povey might have first heard of it from a stranger’s gossip, which would have been too cruel upon her.
“Oh!” Matthew tried to smile gaily, archly. “You’re bound to hear from Cyril tomorrow.”
He wanted to persuade her that he was concealing merely some delightful surprise from her. But he did not succeed. With all his experience of the world and of women he was not clever enough to deceive that simple woman.
“I’m waiting, Mr. Matthew,” she said, in a tone that flattened the smile out of Matthew’s sympathetic face. She was ruthless. The fact was, she had in an instant convinced herself that Cyril had met some girl and was engaged to be married. She could think of nothing else. “What has Cyril been doing?” she added, after a pause.
“It’s nothing to do with Cyril,” said he.
“Then what is it?”
“It was about — Mrs. Scales,” he murmured, nearly trembling. As she offered no response, merely looking around her in a peculiar fashion, he said: “Shall we walk along a bit?” And he turned in the direction in which she had been going. She obeyed the suggestion.
“What did ye say?” she asked. The name of Scales for a moment had no significance for her. But when she comprehended it she was afraid, and so she said vacantly, as though wishing to postpone a shock: “What did ye say?”
“I said it was about Mrs. Scales. You know I m-met her in Paris.” And he was saying to himself: “I ought not to be telling this poor old thing here in the street. But what can I do?”
“Nay, nay!” she muttered.
She stopped and looked at him with a worried expression. Then he observed that the hand that carried her reticule was making strange purposeless curves in the air, and her rosy face went the colour of cream, as though it had been painted with one stroke of an unseen brush. Matthew was very much put about.
“Hadn’t you better —” he began.
“Eh,” she said; “I must sit me —” Her bag dropped.
He supported her to the door of Allman’s shop, the ironmonger’s. Unfortunately, there were two steps up into the shop, and she could not climb them. She collapsed like a sack of flour on the first step. Young Edward Allman ran to the door. He was wearing a black apron and fidgeting with it in his excitement.
“Don’t lift her up — don’t try to lift her up, Mr. Peel–Swynnerton!” he cried, as Matthew instinctively began to do the wrong thing.
Matthew stopped, looking a fool and feeling one, and he and young Allman contemplated each other helpless for a second across the body of Constance Povey. A part of the Market Place now perceived that the unusual was occurring. It was Mr. Shawcross, the chemist next door to Allman’s who dealt adequately with the situation. He had seen all, while selling a Kodak to a young lady, and he ran out with salts. Constance recovered very rapidly. She had not quite swooned. She gave a long sigh, and whispered weakly that she was all right. The three men helped her into the lofty dark shop, which smelt of nails and of stove-polish, and she was balanced on a ricketty chair.
“My word!” exclaimed young Allman, in his loud voice, when she could smile and the pink was returning reluctantly to her cheeks. “You mustn’t frighten us like that, Mrs. Povey!”
Matthew said nothing. He had at last created a genuine sensation. Once again he felt like a criminal, and could not understand why.
Constance announced that she would walk slowly home, down the Cock-yard and along Wedgwood Street. But when, glancing round in her returned strength, she saw the hedge of faces at the doorway, she agreed with Mr. Shawcross that she would do better to have a cab. Young Allman went to the door and whistled to the unique cab that stands for ever at the grand entrance to the Town Hall.
“Mr. Matthew will come with me,” said Constance.
“Certainly, with pleasure,” said Matthew.
And she passed through the little crowd of gapers on Mr. Shawcross’s arm.
“Just take care of yourself, missis,” said Mr. Shawcross to her, through the window of the cab. “It’s fainting weather, and we’re none of us any younger, seemingly.”
“I’m awfully sorry I upset you, Mrs. Povey,” said Matthew, when the cab moved.
She shook her head, refusing his apology as unnecessary. Tears filled her eyes. In less than a minute the cab had stopped in front of Constance’s light-grained door. She demanded her reticule from Matthew, who had carried it since it fell. She would pay the cabman. Never before had Matthew permitted a woman to pay for a cab in which he had ridden; but there was no arguing with Constance. Constance was dangerous.
Amy Bates, still inhabiting the cave, had seen the cab-wheels through the grating of her window and had panted up the kitchen stairs to open the door ere Constance had climbed the steps. Amy, decidedly over forty, was a woman of authority. She wanted to know what was the matter, and Constance had to tell her that she had ‘felt unwell.’ Amy took the hat and mantle and departed to prepare a cup of tea. When they were alone Constance said to Matthew:
“Now. Mr. Matthew, will you please tell me?”
“It’s only this,” he began.
And as he told it, in quite a few words, it indeed had the air of being ‘only that.’ And yet his voice shook, in sympathy with the ageing woman’s controlled but visible emotion. It seemed to him that gladness should have filled the absurd little parlour, but the spirit that presided had no name; it was certainly not joy. He himself felt very sad, desolated. He would have given much money to have been spared the experience. He knew simply that in the memory of the stout, comical, nice woman in the rocking-chair he had stirred old, old things, wakened slumbers that might have been eternal. He did not know that he was sitting on the very spot where the sofa had been on which Samuel Povey lay when a beautiful and shameless young creature of fifteen extracted his tooth. He did not know that Constance was sitting in the very chair in which the memorable Mrs. Baines had sat in vain conflict with that same unconquerable girl. He did not know ten thousand matters that were rushing violently about in the vast heart of Constance.
She cross-questioned him in detail. But she did not put the questions which he in his innocence expected; such as, if her sister looked old, if her hair was grey, if she was stout or thin. And until Amy, mystified and resentful, had served the tea, on a little silver tray, she remained comparatively calm. It was in the middle of a gulp of tea that she broke down, and Matthew had to take the cup from her.
“I can’t thank you, Mr. Matthew,” she wept. “I couldn’t thank you enough.”
“But I’ve done nothing,” he protested.
She shook her head. “I never hoped for this. Never hoped for it!” she went on. “It makes me so happy — in a way. . . . You mustn’t take any notice of me. I’m silly. You must kindly write down that address for me. And I must write to Cyril at once. And I must see Mr. Critchlow.”
“It’s really very funny that Cyril hasn’t written to you,” said Matthew.
“Cyril has not been a good son,” she said with sudden, solemn coldness. “To think that he should have kept that . . .!” She wept again.
At length Matthew saw the possibility of leaving. He felt her warm, soft, crinkled hand round his fingers.
“You’ve behaved very nicely over this,” she said. “And very cleverly. In EVERY thing — both over there and here. Nobody could have shown a nicer feeling than you’ve shown. It’s a great comfort to me that my son has got you for a friend.”
When he thought of his escapades, and of all the knowledge, unutterable in Bursley, fantastically impossible in Bursley, which he had imparted to her son, he marvelled that the maternal instinct should be so deceived. Still, he felt that her praise of him was deserved.
Outside, he gave vent to a ‘Phew’ of relief. He smiled, in his worldliest manner. But the smile was a sham. A pretence to himself! A childish attempt to disguise from himself how profoundly he had been moved by a natural scene!
On the night when Matthew Peel–Swynnerton spoke to Mrs. Scales, Matthew was not the only person in the Pension Frensham who failed to sleep. When the old portress came downstairs from her errand, she observed that her mistress was leaving the mahogany retreat.
“She is sleeping tranquilly, the poor one!” said the portress, discharging her commission, which had been to learn the latest news of the mistress’s indisposed dog, Fossette. In saying this her ancient, vibrant voice was rich with sympathy for the suffering animal. And she smiled. She was rather like a figure out of an almshouse, with her pink, apparently brittle skin, her tight black dress, and frilled white cap. She stooped habitually, and always walked quickly, with her head a few inches in advance of her feet. Her grey hair was scanty. She was old; nobody perhaps knew exactly how old. Sophia had taken her with the Pension, over a quarter of a century before, because she was old and could not easily have found another place. Although the clientele was almost exclusively English, she spoke only French, explaining herself to Britons by means of benevolent smiles.
“I think I shall go to bed, Jacqueline,” said the mistress, in reply.
A strange reply, thought Jacqueline. The unalterable custom of Jacqueline was to retire at midnight and to rise at five-thirty. Her mistress also usually retired about midnight, and during the final hour mistress and portress saw a good deal of each other. And considering that Jacqueline had just been sent up into the mistress’s own bedroom to glance at Fossette, and that the bulletin was satisfactory, and that madame and Jacqueline had several customary daily matters to discuss, it seemed odd that madame should thus be going instantly to bed. However, Jacqueline said nothing but:
“Very well, madame. And the number 32?”
“Arrange yourself as you can,” said the mistress, curtly.
“It is well, madame. Good evening, madame, and a good night.”
Jacqueline, alone in the hall, reentered her box and set upon one of those endless, mysterious tasks which occupied her when she was not rushing to and fro or whistling up the tubes.
Sophia, scarcely troubling even to glance into Fossette’s round basket, undressed, put out the light, and got into bed. She felt extremely and inexplicably gloomy. She did not wish to reflect; she strongly wished not to reflect; but her mind insisted on reflection — a monotonous, futile, and distressing reflection. Povey! Povey! Could this be Constance’s Povey, the unique Samuel Povey? That is to say, not he, but his son, Constance’s son. Had Constance a grown-up son? Constance must be over fifty now, perhaps a grandmother! Had she really married Samuel Povey? Possibly she was dead. Certainly her mother must be dead, and Aunt Harriet and Mr. Critchlow. If alive, her mother must be at least eighty years of age.
The cumulative effect of merely remaining inactive when one ought to be active, was terrible. Undoubtedly she should have communicated with her family. It was silly not to have done so. After all, even if she had, as a child, stolen a trifle of money from her wealthy aunt, what would that have mattered? She had been proud. She was criminally proud. That was her vice. She admitted it frankly. But she could not alter her pride. Everybody had some weak spot. Her reputation for sagacity, for commonsense, was, she knew, enormous; she always felt, when people were talking to her, that they regarded her as a very unusually wise woman. And yet she had been guilty of the capital folly of cutting herself off from her family. She was ageing, and she was alone in the world. She was enriching herself; she had the most perfectly managed and the most respectable Pension in the world (she sincerely believed), and she was alone in the world. Acquaintances she had — French people who never offered nor accepted hospitality other than tea or wine, and one or two members of the English commercial colony — but her one friend was Fossette, aged three years! She was the most solitary person on earth. She had heard no word of Gerald, no word of anybody. Nobody whatever could truly be interested in her fate. This was what she had achieved after a quarter of a century of ceaseless labour and anxiety, during which she had not once been away from the Rue Lord Byron for more than thirty hours at a stretch. It was appalling — the passage of years; and the passage of years would grow more appalling. Ten years hence, where would she be? She pictured herself dying. Horrible!
Of course there was nothing to prevent her from going back to Bursley and repairing the grand error of her girlhood. No, nothing except the fact that her whole soul recoiled from the mere idea of any such enterprise! She was a fixture in the Rue Lord Byron. She was a part of the street. She knew all that happened or could happen there. She was attached to it by the heavy chains of habit. In the chill way of long use she loved it. There! The incandescent gas-burner of the street-lamp outside had been turned down, as it was turned down every night! If it is possible to love such a phenomenon, she loved that phenomenon. That phenomenon was a portion of her life, dear to her.
An agreeable young man, that Peel–Swynnerton! Then evidently, since her days in Bursley, the Peels and the Swynnertons, partners in business, must have intermarried, or there must have been some affair of a will. Did he suspect who she was? He had had a very self-conscious, guilty look. No! He could not have suspected who she was. The idea was ridiculous. Probably he did not even know that her name was Scales. And even if he knew her name, he had probably never heard of Gerald Scales, or the story of her flight. Why, he could not have been born until after she had left Bursley! Besides, the Peels were always quite aloof from the ordinary social life of the town. No! He could not have suspected her identity. It was infantile to conceive such a thing.
And yet, she inconsequently proceeded in the tangle of her afflicted mind, supposing he had suspected it! Supposing by some queer chance, he had heard her forgotten story, and casually put two and two together! Supposing even that he were merely to mention in the Five Towns that the Pension Frensham was kept by a Mrs. Scales. ‘Scales? Scales?’ people might repeat. ‘Now, what does that remind me of?’ And the ball might roll and roll till Constance or somebody picked it up! And then . . .
Moreover — a detail of which she had at first unaccountably failed to mark the significance — this Peel–Swynnerton was a friend of the Mr. Povey as to whom he had inquired. In that case it could not be the same Povey. Impossible that the Peels should be on terms of friendship with Samuel Povey or his connections! But supposing after all they were! Supposing something utterly unanticipated and revolutionary had happened in the Five Towns!
She was disturbed. She was insecure. She foresaw inquiries being made concerning her. She foresaw an immense family fuss, endless tomfoolery, the upsetting of her existence, the destruction of her calm. And she sank away from that prospect. She could not face it. She did not want to face it. “No,” she cried passionately in her soul, “I’ve lived alone, and I’ll stay as I am. I can’t change at my time of life.” And her attitude towards a possible invasion of her solitude became one of resentment. “I won’t have it! I won’t have it! I will be left alone. Constance! What can Constance be to me, or I to her, now?” The vision of any change in her existence was in the highest degree painful to her. And not only painful! It frightened her. It made her shrink. But she could not dismiss it. . . . She could not argue herself out of it. The apparition of Matthew Peel–Swynnerton had somehow altered the very stuff of her fibres.
And surging on the outskirts of the central storm of her brain were ten thousand apprehensions about the management of the Pension. All was black, hopeless. The Pension might have been the most complete business failure that gross carelessness and incapacity had ever provoked. Was it not the fact that she had to supervise everything herself, that she could depend on no one? Were she to be absent even for a single day the entire structure would inevitably fall. Instead of working less she worked harder. And who could guarantee that her investments were safe?
When dawn announced itself, slowly discovering each object in the chamber, she was ill. Fever seemed to rage in her head. And in and round her mouth she had strange sensations. Fossette stirred in the basket near the large desk on which multifarious files and papers were ranged with minute particularity.
“Fossette!” she tried to call out; but no sound issued from her lips. She could not move her tongue. She tried to protrude it, and could not. For hours she had been conscious of a headache. Her heart sank. She was sick with fear. Her memory flashed to her father and his seizure. She was his daughter! Paralysis! “Ca serait le comble!” she thought in French, horrified. Her fear became abject! “Can I move at all?” she thought, and madly jerked her head. Yes, she could move her head slightly on the pillow, and she could stretch her right arm, both arms. Absurd cowardice! Of course it was not a seizure! She reassured herself. Still, she could not put her tongue out. Suddenly she began to hiccough, and she had no control over the hiccough. She put her hand to the bell, whose ringing would summon the man who slept in a pantry off the hall, and suddenly the hiccough ceased. Her hand dropped. She was better. Besides, what use in ringing for a man if she could not speak to him through the door? She must wait for Jacqueline. At six o’clock every morning, summer and winter, Jacqueline entered her mistress’s bedroom to release the dog for a moment’s airing under her own supervision. The clock on the mantelpiece showed five minutes past three. She had three hours to wait. Fossette pattered across the room, and sprang on to the bed and nestled down. Sophia ignored her, but Fossette, being herself unwell and torpid, did not seem to care.
Jacqueline was late. In the quarter of an hour between six o’clock and a quarter past, Sophia suffered the supreme pangs of despair and verged upon insanity. It appeared to her that her cranium would blow off under pressure from within. Then the door opened silently, a few inches. Usually Jacqueline came into the room, but sometimes she stood behind the door and called in her soft, trembling voice, “Fossette! Fossette!” And on this morning she did not come into the room. The dog did not immediately respond. Sophia was in an agony. She marshalled all her volition, all her self-control and strength, to shout:
It came out of her, a horribly difficult and misshapen birth, but it came. She was exhausted.
“Yes, madame.” Jacqueline entered.
As soon as she had a glimpse of Sophia she threw up her hands. Sophia stared at her, wordless.
“I will fetch the doctor — myself,” whispered Jacqueline, and fled.
“Jacqueline!” The woman stopped. Then Sophia determined to force herself to make a speech, and she braced her muscles to an unprecedented effort. “Say not a word to the others.” She could not bear that the whole household should know of her illness. Jacqueline nodded and vanished, the dog following. Jacqueline understood. She lived in the place with her mistress as with a fellow-conspirator.
Sophia began to feel better. She could get into a sitting posture, though the movement made her dizzy. By working to the foot of the bed she could see herself in the glass of the wardrobe. And she saw that the lower part of her face was twisted out of shape.
The doctor, who knew her, and who earned a lot of money in her house, told her frankly what had happened. Paralysie glosso-labio-laryngee was the phrase he used. She understood. A very slight attack; due to overwork and worry. He ordered absolute rest and quiet.
“Impossible!” she said, genuinely convinced that she alone was indispensable.
“Repose the most absolute!” he repeated.
She marvelled that a few words with a man who chanced to be named Peel–Swynnerton could have resulted in such a disaster, and drew a curious satisfaction from this fearful proof that she was so highly-strung. But even then she did not realize how profoundly she had been disturbed.
“My darling Sophia —”
The inevitable miracle had occurred. Her suspicions concerning that Mr. Peel–Swynnerton were well-founded, after all! Here was a letter from Constance! The writing on the envelope was not Constance’s; but even before examining it she had had a peculiar qualm. She received letters from England nearly every day asking about rooms and prices (and on many of them she had to pay threepence excess postage, because the writers carelessly or carefully forgot that a penny stamp was not sufficient); there was nothing to distinguish this envelope, and yet her first glance at it had startled her; and when, deciphering the smudged post-mark, she made out the word ‘Bursley,’ her heart did literally seem to stop, and she opened the letter in quite violent tremulation, thinking to herself: “The doctor would say this is very bad for me.” Six days had elapsed since her attack, and she was wonderfully better; the distortion of her face had almost disappeared. But the doctor was grave; he ordered no medicine, merely a tonic; and monotonously insisted on ‘repose the most absolute,’ on perfect mental calm. He said little else, allowing Sophia to judge from his silences the seriousness of her condition. Yes, the receipt of such a letter must be bad for her!
She controlled herself while she read it, lying in her dressing-gown against several pillows on the bed; a mist did not form in her eyes, nor did she sob, nor betray physically that she was not reading an order for two rooms for a week. But the expenditure of nervous force necessary to self-control was terrific.
Constance’s handwriting had changed; it was, however, easily recognizable as a development of the neat calligraphy of the girl who could print window-tickets. The ‘S’ of Sophia was formed in the same way as she had formed it in the last letter which she had received from her at Axe!
“MY DARLING SOPHIA,
“I cannot tell you how overjoyed I was to learn that after all these years you are alive and well, and doing so well too. I long to see you, my dear sister. It was Mr. Peel–Swynnerton who told me. He is a friend of Cyril’s. Cyril is the name of my son. I married Samuel in 1867. Cyril was born in 1874 at Christmas. He is now twenty-two, and doing very well in London as a student of sculpture, though so young. He won a National Scholarship. There were only eight, of which he won one, in all England. Samuel died in 1888. If you read the papers you must have seen about the Povey affair. I mean of course Mr. Daniel Povey, Confectioner. It was that that killed poor Samuel. Poor mother died in 1875. It doesn’t seem so long. Aunt Harriet and Aunt Maria are both dead. Old Dr. Harrop is dead, and his son has practically retired. He has a partner, a Scotchman. Mr. Critchlow has married Miss Insull. Did you ever hear of such a thing? They have taken over the shop, and I live in the house part, the other being bricked up. Business in the Square is not what it used to be. The steam trams take all the custom to Hanbridge, and they are talking of electric trams, but I dare say it is only talk. I have a fairly good servant. She has been with me a long time, but servants are not what they were. I keep pretty well, except for my sciatica and palpitation. Since Cyril went to London I have been very lonely. But I try to cheer up and count my blessings. I am sure I have a great deal to be thankful for. And now this news of you! Please write to me a long letter, and tell me all about yourself. It is a long way to Paris. But surely now you know I am still here, you will come and pay me a visit — at least. Everybody would be most glad to see you. And I should be so proud and glad. As I say, I am all alone. Mr. Critchlow says I am to say there is a deal of money waiting for you. You know he is the trustee. There is the half-share of mother’s and also of Aunt Harriet’s, and it has been accumulating. By the way, they are getting up a subscription for Miss Chetwynd, poor old thing. Her sister is dead, and she is in poverty. I have put myself down for L20. Now, my dear sister, please do write to me at once. You see it is still the old address. I remain, my darling Sophia, with much love, your affectionate sister,
“P.S. — I should have written yesterday, but I was not fit. Every time I sat down to write, I cried.”
“Of course,” said Sophia to Fossette, “she expects me to go to her, instead of her coming to me! And yet who’s the busiest?”
But this observation was not serious. It was merely a trifle of affectionate malicious embroidery that Sophia put on the edge of her deep satisfaction. The very spirit of simple love seemed to emanate from the paper on which Constance had written. And this spirit woke suddenly and completely Sophia’s love for Constance. Constance! At that moment there was assuredly for Sophia no creature in the world like Constance. Constance personified for her the qualities of the Baines family. Constance’s letter was a great letter, a perfect letter, perfect in its artlessness; the natural expression of the Baines character at its best. Not an awkward reference in the whole of it! No clumsy expression of surprise at anything that she, Sophia, had done, or failed to do! No mention of Gerald! Just a sublime acceptance of the situation as it was, and the assurance of undiminished love! Tact? No; it was something finer than tact! Tact was conscious, skilful. Sophia was certain that the notion of tactfulness had not entered Constance’s head. Constance had simply written out of her heart. And that was what made the letter so splendid. Sophia was convinced that no one but a Baines could have written such a letter. She felt that she must rise to the height of that letter, that she too must show her Baines blood. And she went primly to her desk, and began to write (on private notepaper) in that imperious large hand of hers that was so different from Constance’s. She began a little stiffly, but after a few lines her generous and passionate soul was responding freely to the appeal of Constance. She asked that Mr. Critchlow should pay L20 for her to the Miss Chetwynd fund. She spoke of her Pension and of Paris, and of her pleasure in Constance’s letter. But she said nothing as to Gerald, nor as to the possibility of a visit to the Five Towns. She finished the letter in a blaze of love, and passed from it as from a dream to the sterile banality of the daily life of the Pension Frensham, feeling that, compared to Constance’s affection, nothing else had any worth.
But she would not consider the project of going to Bursley. Never, never would she go to Bursley. If Constance chose to come to Paris and see her, she would be delighted, but she herself would not budge. The mere notion of any change in her existence intimidated her. And as for returning to Bursley itself . . . no, no!
Nevertheless, at the Pension Frensham, the future could not be as the past. Sophia’s health forbade that. She knew that the doctor was right. Every time that she made an effort, she knew intimately and speedily that the doctor was right. Only her will-power was unimpaired; the machinery by which will-power is converted into action was mysteriously damaged. She was aware of the fact. But she could not face it yet. Time would have to elapse before she could bring herself to face that fact. She was getting an old woman. She could no longer draw on reserves. Yet she persisted to every one that she was quite recovered, and was abstaining from her customary work simply from an excess of prudence. Certainly her face had recovered. And the Pension, being a machine all of whose parts were in order, continued to run, apparently, with its usual smoothness. It is true that the excellent chef began to peculate, but as his cuisine did not suffer, the result was not noticeable for a long period. The whole staff and many of the guests knew that Sophia had been indisposed; and they knew no more.
When by hazard Sophia observed a fault in the daily conduct of the house, her first impulse was to go to the root of it and cure it, her second was to leave it alone, or to palliate it by some superficial remedy. Unperceived, and yet vaguely suspected by various people, the decline of the Pension Frensham had set in. The tide, having risen to its highest, was receding, but so little that no one could be sure that it had turned. Every now and then it rushed up again and washed the furthest stone.
Sophia and Constance exchanged several letters. Sophia said repeatedly that she could not leave Paris. At length she roundly asked Constance to come and pay her a visit. She made the suggestion with fear — for the prospect of actually seeing her beloved Constance alarmed her — but she could do no less than make it. And in a few days she had a reply to say that Constance would have come, under Cyril’s charge, but that her sciatica was suddenly much worse, and she was obliged to lie down every day after dinner to rest her legs. Travelling was impossible for her. The fates were combining against Sophia’s decision.
And now Sophia began to ask herself about her duty to Constance. The truth was that she was groping round to find an excuse for reversing her decision. She was afraid to reverse it, yet tempted. She had the desire to do something which she objected to doing. It was like the desire to throw one’s self over a high balcony. It drew her, drew her, and she drew back against it. The Pension was now tedious to her. It bored her even to pretend to be the supervising head of the Pension. Throughout the house discipline had loosened.
She wondered when Mr. Mardon would renew his overtures for the transformation of her enterprise into a limited company. In spite of herself she would deliberately cross his path and give him opportunities to begin on the old theme. He had never before left her in peace for so long a period. No doubt she had, upon his last assault, absolutely convinced him that his efforts had no smallest chance of success, and he had made up his mind to cease them. With a single word she could wind him up again. The merest hint, one day when he was paying his bill, and he would be beseeching her. But she could not utter the word.
Then she began to say openly that she did not feel well, that the house was too much for her, and that the doctor had imperatively commanded rest. She said this to every one except Mardon. And every one somehow persisted in not saying it to Mardon. The doctor having advised that she should spend more time in the open air, she would take afternoon drives in the Bois with Fossette. It was October. But Mr. Mardon never seemed to hear of those drives.
One morning he met her in the street outside the house.
“I’m sorry to hear you’re so unwell,” he said confidentially, after they had discussed the health of Fossette.
“So unwell!” she exclaimed as if resenting the statement. “Who told you I was so unwell?”
“Jacqueline. She told me you often said that what you needed was a complete change. And it seems the doctor says so, too.”
“Oh! doctors!” she murmured, without however denying the truth of Jacqueline’s assertion. She saw hope in Mr. Mardon’s eyes.
“Of course, you know,” he said, still more confidentially, “if you SHOULD happen to change your mind, I’m always ready to form a little syndicate to take this”— he waved discreetly at the Pension —“off your hands.”
She shook her head violently, which was strange, considering that for weeks she had been wishing to hear such words from Mr. Mardon.
“You needn’t give it up altogether,” he said. “You could retain your hold on it. We’d make you manageress, with a salary and a share in the profits. You’d be mistress just as much as you are now.”
“Oh!” said she carelessly. “IF I GAVE IT UP, I SHOULD GIVE IT UP ENTIRELY. No half measures for me.”
With the utterance of that sentence, the history of Frensham’s as a private understanding was brought to a close. Sophia knew it. Mr. Mardon knew it. Mr. Mardon’s heart leapt. He saw in his imagination the formation of the preliminary syndicate, with himself at its head, and then the resale by the syndicate to a limited company at a profit. He saw a nice little profit for his own private personal self of a thousand or so — gained in a moment. The plant, his hope, which he had deemed dead, blossomed with miraculous suddenness.
“Well,” he said. “Give it up entirely, then! Take a holiday for life. You’ve deserved it, Mrs. Scales.”
She shook her head once again.
“Think it over,” he said.
“I gave you my answer years ago,” she said obstinately, while fearing lest he should take her at her word.
“Oblige me by thinking it over,” he said. “I’ll mention it to you again in a few days.”
“It will be no use,” she said.
He took his leave, waddling down the street in his vague clothes, conscious of his fame as Lewis Mardon, the great house-agent of the Champs Elysees, known throughout Europe and America.
In a few days he did mention it again.
“There’s only one thing that makes me dream of it even for a moment,” said Sophia. “And that is my sister’s health.”
“Your sister!” he exclaimed. He did not know she had a sister. Never had she spoken of her family.
“Yes. Her letters are beginning to worry me.”
“Does she live in Paris?”
“No. In Staffordshire. She has never left home.”
And to preserve her pride intact she led Mr. Mardon to think that Constance was in a most serious way, whereas in truth Constance had nothing worse than her sciatica, and even that was somewhat better.
Thus she yielded.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51