The Old Wives' Tale/Book II, Chapter I
BOOK II: CONSTANCE
CHAPTER I: REVOLUTION
"Well," said Mr. Povey, rising from the rocking-chair that in a previous age had been John Baines's, "I've got to make a start some time, so I may as well begin now!"
And he went from the parlour into the shop. Constance's eye followed him as far as the door, where their glances met for an instant in the transient gaze which expresses the tenderness of people who feel more than they kiss.
It was on the morning of this day that Mrs. Baines, relinquishing the sovereignty of St. Luke's Square, had gone to live as a younger sister in the house of Harriet Maddack at Axe. Constance guessed little of the secret anguish of that departure. She only knew that it was just like her mother, having perfectly arranged the entire house for the arrival of the honeymoon couple from Buxton, to flit early away so as to spare the natural blushing diffidence of the said couple. It was like her mother's commonsense and her mother's sympathetic comprehension. Further, Constance did not pursue her mother's feelings, being far too busy with her own. She sat there full of new knowledge and new importance, brimming with experience and strange, unexpected aspirations, purposes, yes--and cunnings! And yet, though the very curves of her cheeks seemed to be mysteriously altering, the old Costance still lingered in that frame, an innocent soul hesitating to spread its wings and quit for ever the body which had been its home; you could see the timid thing peeping wistfully out of the eyes of the married woman.
Constance rang the bell for Maggie to clear the table; and as she did so she had the illusion that she was not really a married woman and a house-mistress, but only a kind of counterfeit. She did most fervently hope that all would go right in the house--at any rate until she had grown more accustomed to her situation.
The hope was to be disappointed. Maggie's rather silly, obsequious smile concealed but for a moment the ineffable tragedy that had lain in wait for unarmed Constance.
"If you please, Mrs. Povey," said Maggie, as she crushed cups together on the tin tray with her great, red hands, which always looked like something out of a butcher's shop; then a pause, "Will you please accept of this?"
Now, before the wedding Maggie had already, with tears of affection, given Constance a pair of blue glass vases (in order to purchase which she had been obliged to ask for special permission to go out), and Constance wondered what was coming now from Maggie's pocket. A small piece of folded paper came from Maggie's pocket. Constance accepted of it, and read: "I begs to give one month's notice to leave. Signed Maggie. June 10, 1867."
"Maggie!" exclaimed the old Constance, terrified by this incredible occurrence, ere the married woman could strangle her.
"I never give notice before, Mrs. Povey," said Maggie, "so I don't know as I know how it ought for be done--not rightly. But I hope as you'll accept of it, Mrs. Povey."
"Oh! of course," said Mrs. Povey, primly, just as if Maggie was not the central supporting pillar of the house, just as if Maggie had not assisted at her birth, just as if the end of the world had not abruptly been announced, just as if St. Luke's Square were not inconceivable without Maggie. "But why--"
"Well, Mrs. Povey, I've been a-thinking it over in my kitchen, and I said to myself: 'If there's going to be one change there'd better be two,' I says. Not but what I wouldn't work my fingers to the bone for ye, Miss Constance."
Here Maggie began to cry into the tray.
Constance looked at her. Despite the special muslin of that day she had traces of the slatternliness of which Mrs. Baines had never been able to cure her. She was over forty, big, gawky. She had no figure, no charms of any kind. She was what was left of a woman after twenty-two years in the cave of a philanthropic family. And in her cave she had actually been thinking things over! Constance detected for the first time, beneath the dehumanized drudge, the stirrings of a separate and perhaps capricious individuality. Maggie's engagements had never been real to her employers. Within the house she had never been, in practice, anything but 'Maggie'--an organism. And now she was permitting herself ideas about changes!
"You'll soon be suited with another, Mrs. Povey," said Maggie. "There's many a--many a--" She burst into sobs.
"But if you really want to leave, what are you crying for, Maggie?" asked Mrs. Povey, at her wisest. "Have you told mother?"
"No, miss," Maggie whimpered, absently wiping her wrinkled cheeks with ineffectual muslin. "I couldn't seem to fancy telling your mother. And as you're the mistress now, I thought as I'd save it for you when you come home. I hope you'll excuse me, Mrs. Povey."
"Of course I'm very sorry. You've been a very good servant. And in these days--"
The child had acquired this turn of speech from her mother. It did not appear to occur to either of them that they were living in the sixties.
"Thank ye, miss."
"And what are you thinking of doing, Maggie? You know you won't get many places like this."
"To tell ye the truth, Mrs. Povey, I'm going to get married mysen."
"Indeed!" murmured Constance, with the perfunctoriness of habit in replying to these tidings.
"Oh! but I am, mum," Maggie insisted. "It's all settled. Mr. Hollins, mum."
"Not Hollins, the fish-hawker!"
"Yes, mum. I seem to fancy him. You don't remember as him and me was engaged in '48. He was my first, like. I broke it off because he was in that Chartist lot, and I knew as Mr. Baines would never stand that. Now he's asked me again. He's been a widower this long time."
"I'm sure I hope you'll be happy, Maggie. But what about his habits?"
"He won't have no habits with me, Mrs. Povey."
A woman was definitely emerging from the drudge.
When Maggie, having entirely ceased sobbing, had put the folded cloth in the table-drawer and departed with the tray, her mistress became frankly the girl again. No primness about her as she stood alone there in the parlour; no pretence that Maggie's notice to leave was an everyday document, to be casually glanced at--as one glances at an unpaid bill! She would be compelled to find a new servant, making solemn inquiries into character, and to train the new servant, and to talk to her from heights from which she had never addressed Maggie. At that moment she had an illusion that there were no other available, suitable servants in the whole world. And the arranged marriage? She felt that this time--the thirteenth or fourteenth time--the engagement was serious and would only end at the altar. The vision of Maggie and Hollins at the altar shocked her. Marriage was a series of phenomena, and a general state, very holy and wonderful--too sacred, somehow, for such creatures as Maggie and Hollins. Her vague, instinctive revolt against such a usage of matrimony centred round the idea of a strong, eternal smell of fish. However, the projected outrage on a hallowed institution troubled her much less than the imminent problem of domestic service.
She ran into the shop--or she would have run if she had not checked her girlishness betimes--and on her lips, ready to be whispered importantly into a husband's astounded ear, were the words, "Maggie has given notice! Yes! Truly!" But Samuel Povey was engaged. He was leaning over the counter and staring at an outspread paper upon which a certain Mr. Yardley was making strokes with a thick pencil. Mr. Yardley, who had a long red beard, painted houses and rooms. She knew him only by sight. In her mind she always associated him with the sign over his premises in Trafalgar Road, "Yardley Bros., Authorised plumbers. Painters. Decorators. Paper-hangers. Facia writers." For years, in childhood, she had passed that sign without knowing what sort of things 'Bros,' and 'Facia' were, and what was the mysterious similarity between a plumber and a version of the Bible. She could not interrupt her husband, he was wholly absorbed; nor could she stay in the shop (which appeared just a little smaller than usual), for that would have meant an unsuccessful endeavour to front the young lady-assistants as though nothing in particular had happened to her. So she went sedately up the showroom stairs and thus to the bedroom floors of the house--her house! Mrs. Povey's house! She even climbed to Constance's old bedroom; her mother had stripped the bed--that was all, except a slight diminution of this room, corresponding to that of the shop! Then to the drawing-room. In the recess outside the drawing-room door the black box of silver plate still lay. She had expected her mother to take it; but no! Assuredly her mother was one to do things handsomely--when she did them. In the drawing-room, not a tassel of an antimacassar touched! Yes, the fire-screen, the luscious bunch of roses on an expanse of mustard, which Constance had worked for her mother years ago, was gone! That her mother should have clung to just that one souvenir, out of all the heavy opulence of the drawing-room, touched Constance intimately. She perceived that if she could not talk to her husband she must write to her mother. And she sat down at the oval table and wrote, "Darling mother, I am sure you will be very surprised to hear. ... She means it. ... I think she is making a serious mistake. Ought I to put an advertisement in the Signal, or will it do if. ... Please write by return. We are back and have enjoyed ourselves very much. Sam says he enjoys getting up late. ..." And so on to the last inch of the fourth scolloped page.
She was obliged to revisit the shop for a stamp, stamps being kept in Mr. Povey's desk in the corner--a high desk, at which you stood. Mr. Povey was now in earnest converse with Mr. Yardley at the door, and twilight, which began a full hour earlier in the shop than in the Square, had cast faint shadows in corners behind counters.
"Will you just run out with this to the pillar, Miss Dadd?"
"With pleasure, Mrs. Povey."
"Where are you going to?" Mr. Povey interrupted his conversation to stop the flying girl.
"She's just going to the post for me," Constance called out from the region of the till.
"Oh! All right!"
A trifle! A nothing! Yet somehow, in the quiet customerless shop, the episode, with the scarce perceptible difference in Samuel's tone at his second remark, was delicious to Constance. Somehow it was the REAL beginning of her wifehood. (There had been about nine other real beginnings in the past fortnight.)
Mr. Povey came in to supper, laden with ledgers and similar works which Constance had never even pretended to understand. It was a sign from him that the honeymoon was over. He was proprietor now, and his ardour for ledgers most justifiable. Still, there was the question of her servant.
"Never!" he exclaimed, when she told him all about the end of the world. A 'never' which expressed extreme astonishment and the liveliest concern!
But Constance had anticipated that he would have been just a little more knocked down, bowled over, staggered, stunned, flabbergasted. In a swift gleam of insight she saw that she had been in danger of forgetting her role of experienced, capable married woman.
"I shall have to set about getting a fresh one," she said hastily, with an admirable assumption of light and easy casualness.
Mr. Povey seemed to think that Hollins would suit Maggie pretty well. He made no remark to the betrothed when she answered the final bell of the night.
He opened his ledgers, whistling.
"I think I shall go up, dear," said Constance. "I've a lot of things to put away."
"Do," said he. "Call out when you've done."
"Sam!" she cried from the top of the crooked stairs.
No answer. The door at the foot was closed.
"Hello?" Distantly, faintly.
"I've done all I'm going to do to-night."
And she ran back along the corridor, a white figure in the deep gloom, and hurried into bed, and drew the clothes up to her chin.
In the life of a bride there are some dramatic moments. If she has married the industrious apprentice, one of those moments occurs when she first occupies the sacred bed-chamber of her ancestors, and the bed on which she was born. Her parents' room had always been to Constance, if not sacred, at least invested with a certain moral solemnity. She could not enter it as she would enter another room. The course of nature, with its succession of deaths, conceptions, and births, slowly makes such a room august with a mysterious quality which interprets the grandeur of mere existence and imposes itself on all. Constance had the strangest sensations in that bed, whose heavy dignity of ornament symbolized a past age; sensations of sacrilege and trespass, of being a naughty girl to whom punishment would accrue for this shocking freak. Not since she was quite tiny had she slept in that bed--one night with her mother, before her father's seizure, when he had been away. What a limitless, unfathomable bed it was then! Now it was just a bed--so she had to tell herself--like any other bed. The tiny child that, safely touching its mother, had slept in the vast expanse, seemed to her now a pathetic little thing; its image made her feel melancholy. And her mind dwelt on sad events: the death of her father, the flight of darling Sophia; the immense grief, and the exile, of her mother. She esteemed that she knew what life was, and that it was grim. And she sighed. But the sigh was an affectation, meant partly to convince herself that she was grown- up, and partly to keep her in countenance in the intimidating bed. This melancholy was factitious, was less than transient foam on the deep sea of her joy. Death and sorrow and sin were dim shapes to her; the ruthless egoism of happiness blew them away with a puff, and their wistful faces vanished. To see her there in the bed, framed in mahogany and tassels, lying on her side, with her young glowing cheeks, and honest but not artless gaze, and the rich curve of her hip lifting the counterpane, one would have said that she had never heard of aught but love.
Mr. Povey entered, the bridegroom, quickly, firmly, carrying it off rather well, but still self-conscious. "After all," his shoulders were trying to say, "what's the difference between this bedroom and the bedroom of a boarding-house? Indeed, ought we not to feel more at home here? Besides, confound it, we've been married a fortnight!"
"Doesn't it give you a funny feeling, sleeping in this room? It does me," said Constance. Women, even experienced women, are so foolishly frank. They have no decency, no self-respect.
"Really?" replied Mr. Povey, with loftiness, as who should say: "What an extraordinary thing that a reasonable creature can have such fancies! Now to me this room is exactly like any other room." And he added aloud, glancing away from the glass, where he was unfastening his necktie: "It's not a bad room at all." This, with the judicial air of an auctioneer.
Not for an instant did he deceive Constance, who read his real sensations with accuracy. But his futile poses did not in the slightest degree lessen her respect for him. On the contrary, she admired him the more for them; they were a sort of embroidery on the solid stuff of his character. At that period he could not do wrong for her. The basis of her regard for him was, she often thought, his honesty, his industry, his genuine kindliness of act, his grasp of the business, his perseverance, his passion for doing at once that which had to be done. She had the greatest admiration for his qualities, and he was in her eyes an indivisible whole; she could not admire one part of him and frown upon another. Whatever he did was good because he did it. She knew that some people were apt to smile at certain phases of his individuality; she knew that far down in her mother's heart was a suspicion that she had married ever so little beneath her. But this knowledge did not disturb her. She had no doubt as to the correctness of her own estimate.
Mr. Povey was an exceedingly methodical person, and he was also one of those persons who must always be 'beforehand' with time. Thus at night he would arrange his raiment so that in the morning it might be reassumed in the minimum of minutes. He was not a man, for example, to leave the changing of studs from one shirt to another till the morrow. Had it been practicable, he would have brushed his hair the night before. Constance already loved to watch his meticulous preparations. She saw him now go into his old bedroom and return with a paper collar, which he put on the dressing-table next to a black necktie. His shop-suit was laid out on a chair.
"Oh, Sam!" she exclaimed impulsively, "you surely aren't going to begin wearing those horrid paper collars again!" During the honeymoon he had worn linen collars.
Her tone was perfectly gentle, but the remark, nevertheless, showed a lack of tact. It implied that all his life Mr. Povey had been enveloping his neck in something which was horrid. Like all persons with a tendency to fall into the ridiculous, Mr. Povey was exceedingly sensitive to personal criticisms. He flushed darkly.
"I didn't know they were 'horrid,'" he snapped. He was hurt and angry. Anger had surprised him unawares.
Both of them suddenly saw that they were standing on the edge of a chasm, and drew back. They had imagined themselves to be wandering safely in a flowered meadow, and here was this bottomless chasm! It was most disconcerting.
Mr. Povey's hand hovered undecided over the collar. "However--" he muttered.
She could feel that he was trying with all his might to be gentle and pacific. And she was aghast at her own stupid clumsiness, she so experienced!
"Just as you like, dear," she said quickly. "Please!"
"Oh no!" And he did his best to smile, and went off gawkily with the collar and came back with a linen one.
Her passion for him burned stronger than ever. She knew then that she did not love him for his good qualities, but for something boyish and naive that there was about him, an indescribable something that occasionally, when his face was close to hers, made her dizzy.
The chasm had disappeared. In such moments, when each must pretend not to have seen or even suspected the chasm, small-talk is essential.
"Wasn't that Mr. Yardley in the shop to-night?" began Constance.
"What did he want?"
"I'd sent for him. He's going to paint us a signboard."
Useless for Samuel to make-believe that nothing in this world is more ordinary than a signboard.
"Oh!" murmured Constance. She said no more, the episode of the paper collar having weakened her self-confidence.
But a signboard!
What with servants, chasms, and signboards, Constance considered that her life as a married woman would not be deficient in excitement. Long afterwards, she fell asleep, thinking of Sophia.
A few days later Constance was arranging the more precious of her wedding presents in the parlour; some had to be wrapped in tissue and in brown paper and then tied with string and labelled; others had special cases of their own, leather without and velvet within. Among the latter was the resplendent egg-stand holding twelve silver-gilt egg-cups and twelve chased spoons to match, presented by Aunt Harriet. In the Five Towns' phrase, 'it must have cost money.' Even if Mr. and Mrs. Povey had ten guests or ten children, and all the twelve of them were simultaneously gripped by a desire to eat eggs at breakfast or tea--even in this remote contingency Aunt Harriet would have been pained to see the egg-stand in use; such treasures are not designed for use. The presents, few in number, were mainly of this character, because, owing to her mother's heroic cession of the entire interior, Constance already possessed every necessary. The fewness of the presents was accounted for by the fact that the wedding had been strictly private and had taken place at Axe. There is nothing like secrecy in marriage for discouraging the generous impulses of one's friends. It was Mrs. Baines, abetted by both the chief parties, who had decided that the wedding should be private and secluded. Sophia's wedding had been altogether too private and secluded; but the casting of a veil over Constance's (whose union was irreproachable) somehow justified, after the event, the circumstances of Sophia's, indicating as it did that Mrs. Baines believed in secret weddings on principle. In such matters Mrs. Baines was capable of extraordinary subtlety.
And while Constance was thus taking her wedding presents with due seriousness, Maggie was cleaning the steps that led from the pavement of King Street to the side-door, and the door was ajar. It was a fine June morning.
Suddenly, over the sound of scouring, Constance heard a dog's low growl and then the hoarse voice of a man:
"Mester in, wench?"
"Happen he is, happen he isn't," came Maggie's answer. She had no fancy for being called wench.
Constance went to the door, not merely from curiosity, but from a feeling that her authority and her responsibilities as house- mistress extended to the pavement surrounding the house.
The famous James Boon, of Buck Row, the greatest dog-fancier in the Five Towns, stood at the bottom of the steps: a tall, fat man, clad in stiff, stained brown and smoking a black clay pipe less than three inches long. Behind him attended two bull-dogs.
"Morning, missis!" cried Boon, cheerfully. "I've heerd tell as th' mister is looking out for a dog, as you might say."
"I don't stay here with them animals a-sniffing at me--no, that I don't!" observed Maggie, picking herself up.
"Is he?" Constance hesitated. She knew that Samuel had vaguely referred to dogs; she had not, however, imagined that he regarded a dog as aught but a beautiful dream. No dog had ever put paw into that house, and it seemed impossible that one should ever do so. As for those beasts of prey on the pavement ...!
"Ay!" said James Boon, calmly.
"I'll tell him you're here," said Constance. "But I don't know if he's at liberty. He seldom is at this time of day. Maggie, you'd better come in."
She went slowly to the shop, full of fear for the future.
"Sam," she whispered to her husband, who was writing at his desk, "here's a man come to see you about a dog."
Assuredly he was taken aback. Still, he behaved with much presence of mind.
"Oh, about a dog! Who is it?"
"It's that Jim Boon. He says he's heard you want one."
The renowned name of Jim Boon gave him pause; but he had to go through with the affair, and he went through with it, though nervously. Constance followed his agitated footsteps to the side- door.
They began to talk dogs, Mr. Povey, for his part, with due caution.
"Now, there's a dog!" said Boon, pointing to one of the bull-dogs, a miracle of splendid ugliness.
"Yes," responded Mr. Povey, insincerely. "He is a beauty. What's it worth now, at a venture?"
"I'll tak' a hundred and twenty sovereigns for her," said Boon. "Th' other's a bit cheaper--a hundred."
"Oh, Sam!" gasped Constance.
And even Mr. Povey nearly lost his nerve. "That's more than I want to give," said he timidly.
"But look at her!" Boon persisted, roughly snatching up the more expensive animal, and displaying her cannibal teeth.
Mr. Povey shook his head. Constance glanced away.
"That's not quite the sort of dog I want," said Mr. Povey.
"Yes, that's more like," Mr. Povey agreed eagerly.
"What'll ye run to?"
"Oh," said Mr. Povey, largely, "I don't know."
"Will ye run to a tenner?"
"I thought of something cheaper."
"Well, hoo much? Out wi' it, mester."
"Not more than two pounds," said Mr. Povey. He would have said one pound had he dared. The prices of dogs amazed him.
"I thowt it was a dog as ye wanted!" said Boon. "Look 'ere, mester. Come up to my yard and see what I've got."
"I will," said Mr. Povey.
"And bring missis along too. Now, what about a cat for th' missis? Or a gold-fish?"
The end of the episode was that a young lady aged some twelve months entered the Povey household on trial. Her exiguous legs twinkled all over the parlour, and she had the oddest appearance in the parlour. But she was so confiding, so affectionate, so timorous, and her black nose was so icy in that hot weather, that Constance loved her violently within an hour. Mr. Povey made rules for her. He explained to her that she must never, never go into the shop. But she went, and he whipped her to the squealing point, and Constance cried an instant, while admiring her husband's firmness.
The dog was not all.
On another day Constance, prying into the least details of the parlour, discovered a box of cigars inside the lid of the harmonium, on the keyboard. She was so unaccustomed to cigars that at first she did not realize what the object was. Her father had never smoked, nor drunk intoxicants; nor had Mr. Critchlow. Nobody had ever smoked in that house, where tobacco had always been regarded as equally licentious with cards, 'the devil's playthings.' Certainly Samuel had never smoked in the house, though the sight of the cigar-box reminded Constance of an occasion when her mother had announced an incredulous suspicion that Mr. Povey, fresh from an excursion into the world on a Thursday evening, 'smelt of smoke.'
She closed the harmonium and kept silence.
That very night, coming suddenly into the parlour, she caught Samuel at the harmonium. The lid went down with a resonant bang that awoke sympathetic vibrations in every corner of the room.
"What is it?" Constance inquired, jumping.
"Oh, nothing!" replied Mr. Povey, carelessly. Each was deceiving the other: Mr. Povey hid his crime, and Constance hid her knowledge of his crime. False, false! But this is what marriage is.
And the next day Constance had a visit in the shop from a possible new servant, recommended to her by Mr. Holl, the grocer.
"Will you please step this way?" said Constance, with affable primness, steeped in the novel sense of what it is to be the sole responsible mistress of a vast household. She preceded the girl to the parlour, and as they passed the open door of Mr. Povey's cutting-out room, Constance had the clear vision and titillating odour of her husband smoking a cigar. He was in his shirt-sleeves, calmly cutting out, and Fan (the lady companion), at watch on the bench, yapped at the possible new servant.
"I think I shall try that girl," said she to Samuel at tea. She said nothing as to the cigar; nor did he.
On the following evening, after supper, Mr. Povey burst out:
"I think I'll have a weed! You didn't know I smoked, did you?"
Thus Mr. Povey came out in his true colours as a blood, a blade, and a gay spark.
But dogs and cigars, disconcerting enough in their degree, were to the signboard, when the signboard at last came, as skim milk is to hot brandy. It was the signboard that, more startlingly than anything else, marked the dawn of a new era in St. Luke's Square. Four men spent a day and a half in fixing it; they had ladders, ropes, and pulleys, and two of them dined on the flat lead roof of the projecting shop-windows. The signboard was thirty-five feet long and two feet in depth; over its centre was a semicircle about three feet in radius; this semicircle bore the legend, judiciously disposed, "S. Povey. Late." All the sign-board proper was devoted to the words, "John Baines," in gold letters a foot and a half high, on a green ground.
The Square watched and wondered; and murmured: "Well, bless us! What next?"
It was agreed that in giving paramount importance to the name of his late father-in-law, Mr. Povey had displayed a very nice feeling.
Some asked with glee: "What'll the old lady have to say?"
Constance asked herself this, but not with glee. When Constance walked down the Square homewards, she could scarcely bear to look at the sign; the thought of what her mother might say frightened her. Her mother's first visit of state was imminent, and Aunt Harriet was to accompany her. Constance felt almost sick as the day approached. When she faintly hinted her apprehensions to Samuel, he demanded, as if surprised--
"Haven't you mentioned it in one of your letters?"
"If that's all," said he, with bravado, "I'll write and tell her myself."
So that Mrs. Baines was duly apprised of the signboard before her arrival. The letter written by her to Constance after receiving Samuel's letter, which was merely the amiable epistle of a son-in- law anxious to be a little more than correct, contained no reference to the signboard. This silence, however, did not in the least allay Constance's apprehensions as to what might occur when her mother and Samuel met beneath the signboard itself. It was therefore with a fearful as well as an eager, loving heart that Constance opened her side-door and ran down the steps when the waggonette stopped in King Street on the Thursday morning of the great visit of the sisters. But a surprise awaited her. Aunt Harriet had not come. Mrs. Baines explained, as she soundly kissed her daughter, that at the last moment Aunt Harriet had not felt well enough to undertake the journey. She sent her fondest love, and cake. Her pains had recurred. It was these mysterious pains which had prevented the sisters from coming to Bursley earlier. The word "cancer"--the continual terror of stout women--had been on their lips, without having been actually uttered; then there was a surcease, and each was glad that she had refrained from the dread syllables. In view of the recurrence, it was not unnatural that Mrs. Baines's vigorous cheerfulness should be somewhat forced.
"What is it, do you think?" Constance inquired.
Mrs. Baines pushed her lips out and raised her eyebrows--a gesture which meant that the pains might mean God knew what.
"I hope she'll be all right alone," observed Constance. "Of course," said Mrs. Baines, quickly. "But you don't suppose I was going to disappoint you, do you?" she added, looking round as if to defy the fates in general.
This speech, and its tone, gave intense pleasure to Constance; and, laden with parcels, they mounted the stairs together, very content with each other, very happy in the discovery that they were still mother and daughter, very intimate in an inarticulate way.
Constance had imagined long, detailed, absorbing, and highly novel conversations between herself and her mother upon this their first meeting after her marriage. But alone in the bedroom, and with a clear half-hour to dinner, they neither of them seemed to have a great deal to impart.
Mrs. Baines slowly removed her light mantle and laid it with precautions on the white damask counterpane. Then, fingering her weeds, she glanced about the chamber. Nothing was changed. Though Constance had, previous to her marriage, envisaged certain alterations, she had determined to postpone them, feeling that one revolutionist in a house was enough.
"Well, my chick, you all right?" said Mrs. Baines, with hearty and direct energy, gazing straight into her daughter's eyes.
Constance perceived that the question was universal in its comprehensiveness, the one unique expression that the mother would give to her maternal concern and curiosity, and that it condensed into six words as much interest as would have overflowed into a whole day of the chatter of some mothers. She met the candid glance, flushing.
"Oh YES!" she answered with ecstatic fervour. "Perfectly!"
And Mrs. Baines nodded, as if dismissing THAT. "You're stouter," said she, curtly. "If you aren't careful you'll be as big as any of us."
The interview fell to a lower plane of emotion. It even fell as far as Maggie. What chiefly preoccupied Constance was a subtle change in her mother. She found her mother fussy in trifles. Her manner of laying down her mantle, of smoothing out her gloves, and her anxiety that her bonnet should not come to harm, were rather trying, were perhaps, in the very slightest degree, pitiable. It was nothing; it was barely perceptible, and yet it was enough to alter Constance's mental attitude to her mother. "Poor dear!" thought Constance. "I'm afraid she's not what she was." Incredible that her mother could have age in less than six weeks! Constance did not allow for the chemistry that had been going on in herself.
The encounter between Mrs. Baines and her son-in-law was of the most satisfactory nature. He was waiting in the parlour for her to descend. He made himself exceedingly agreeable, kissing her, and flattering her by his evidently sincere desire to please. He explained that he had kept an eye open for the waggonette, but had been called away. His "Dear me!" on learning about Aunt Harriet lacked nothing in conviction, though both women knew that his affection for Aunt Harriet would never get the better of his reason. To Constance, her husband's behaviour was marvellously perfect. She had not suspected him to be such a man of the world. And her eyes said to her mother, quite unconsciously: "You see, after all, you didn't rate Sam as high as you ought to have done. Now you see your mistake."
As they sat waiting for dinner, Constance and Mrs. Baines on the sofa, and Samuel on the edge of the nearest rocking-chair, a small scuffling noise was heard outside the door which gave on the kitchen steps, the door yielded to pressure, and Fan rushed importantly in, deranging mats. Fan's nose had been hinting to her that she was behind the times, not up-to-date in the affairs of the household, and she had hurried from the kitchen to make inquiries. It occurred to her en route that she had been washed that morning. The spectacle of Mrs. Baines stopped her. She stood, with her legs slightly out-stretched, her nose lifted, her ears raking forward, her bright eyes blinking, and her tail undecided. "I was sure I'd never smelt anything like that before," she was saying to herself, as she stared at Mrs. Baines.
And Mrs. Baines, staring at Fan, had a similar though not the same sentiment. The silence was terrible. Constance took on the mien of a culprit, and Sam had obviously lost his easy bearing of a man of the world. Mrs. Baines was merely thunderstruck.
Suddenly Fan's tail began to wag more quickly; and then, having looked in vain for encouragement to her master and mistress, she gave one mighty spring and alighted in Mrs. Baines's lap. It was an aim she could not have missed. Constance emitted an "Oh, FAN!" of shocked terror, and Samuel betrayed his nervous tension by an involuntary movement. But Fan had settled down into that titanic lap as into heaven. It was a greater flattery than Mr. Povey's.
"So your name's Fan!" murmured Mrs. Baines, stroking the animal. "You are a dear!"
"Yes, isn't she?" said Constance, with inconceivable rapidity.
The danger was past. Thus, without any explanation, Fan became an accepted fact.
The next moment Maggie served the Yorkshire pudding.
"Well, Maggie," said Mrs. Baines. "So you are going to get married this time? When is it?"
"And you leave here on Saturday?"
"Well, I must have a talk with you before I go."
During the dinner, not a word as to the signboard! Several times the conversation curved towards that signboard in the most alarming fashion, but invariably it curved away again, like a train from another train when two trains are simultaneously leaving a station. Constance had frights, so serious as to destroy her anxiety about the cookery. In the end she comprehended that her mother had adopted a silently disapproving attitude. Fan was socially very useful throughout the repast.
After dinner Constance was on pins lest Samuel should light a cigar. She had not requested him not to do so, for though she was entirely sure of his affection, she had already learned that a husband is possessed by a demon of contrariety which often forces him to violate his higher feelings. However, Samuel did not light a cigar. He went off to superintend the shutting-up of the shop, while Mrs. Baines chatted with Maggie and gave her L5 for a wedding present. Then Mr. Critchlow called to offer his salutations.
A little before tea Mrs. Baines announced that she would go out for a short walk by herself.
"Where has she gone to?" smiled Samuel, superiorly, as with Constance at the window he watched her turn down King Street towards the church.
"I expect she has gone to look at father's grave," said Constance.
"Oh!" muttered Samuel, apologetically.
Constance was mistaken. Before reaching the church, Mrs. Baines deviated to the right, got into Brougham Street and thence, by Acre Lane, into Oldcastle Street, whose steep she climbed. Now, Oldcastle Street ends at the top of St. Luke's Square, and from the corner Mrs. Baines had an excellent view of the signboard. It being Thursday afternoon, scarce a soul was about. She returned to her daughter's by the same extraordinary route, and said not a word on entering. But she was markedly cheerful.
The waggonette came after tea, and Mrs. Baines made her final preparations to depart. The visit had proved a wonderful success; it would have been utterly perfect if Samuel had not marred it at the very door of the waggonette. Somehow, he contrived to be talking of Christmas. Only a person of Samuel's native clumsiness would have mentioned Christmas in July.
"You know you'll spend Christmas with us!" said he into the waggonette.
"Indeed I shan't!" replied Mrs. Baines. "Aunt Harriet and I will expect you at Axe. We've already settled that."
Mr. Povey bridled. "Oh no!" he protested, hurt by this summariness.
Having had no relatives, except his cousin the confectioner, for many years, he had dreamt of at last establishing a family Christmas under his own roof, and the dream was dear to him.
Mrs. Baines said nothing. "We couldn't possibly leave the shop," said Mr. Povey.
"Nonsense!" Mrs. Baines retorted, putting her lips together. "Christmas Day is on a Monday."
The waggonette in starting jerked her head towards the door and set all her curls shaking. No white in those curls yet, scarcely a touch of grey!
"I shall take good care we don't go there anyway," Mr. Povey mumbled, in his heat, half to himself and half to Constance.
He had stained the brightness of the day.