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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Old Wives' Tale By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9574

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"Now, really, Mr. Povey, this is not like you," said Mrs. Baines, who, on her way into the shop, had discovered the Indispensable in the cutting-out room.

It is true that the cutting-out room was almost Mr. Povey's sanctum, whither he retired from time to time to cut out suits of clothes and odd garments for the tailoring department. It is true that the tailoring department flourished with orders, employing several tailors who crossed legs in their own homes, and that appointments were continually being made with customers for trying-on in that room. But these considerations did not affect Mrs. Baines's attitude of disapproval.

"I'm just cutting out that suit for the minister," said Mr. Povey.

The Reverend Mr. Murley, superintendent of the Wesleyan Methodist circuit, called on Mr. Baines every week. On a recent visit Mr. Baines had remarked that the parson's coat was ageing into green, and had commanded that a new suit should be built and presented to Mr. Murley. Mr. Murley, who had a genuine mediaeval passion for souls, and who spent his money and health freely in gratifying the passion, had accepted the offer strictly on behalf of Christ, and had carefully explained to Mr. Povey Christ's use for multifarious pockets.

"I see you are," said Mrs. Baines tartly. "But that's no reason why you should be without a coat-and in this cold room too. You with toothache!"

The fact was that Mr. Povey always doffed his coat when cutting out.

Instead of a coat he wore a tape-measure.

"My tooth doesn't hurt me," said he, sheepishly, dropping the great scissors and picking up a cake of chalk.

"Fiddlesticks!" said Mrs. Baines.

This exclamation shocked Mr. Povey. It was not unknown on the lips of Mrs. Baines, but she usually reserved it for members of her own sex. Mr. Povey could not recall that she had ever applied it to any statement of his. "What's the matter with the woman?" he thought. The redness of her face did not help him to answer the question, for her face was always red after the operations of Friday in the kitchen.

"You men are all alike," Mrs. Baines continued. "The very thought of the dentist's cures you. Why don't you go in at once to Mr. Critchlow and have it out-like a man?"

Mr. Critchlow extracted teeth, and his shop sign said "Bone-setter and chemist." But Mr. Povey had his views.

"I make no account of Mr. Critchlow as a dentist," said he.

"Then for goodness' sake go up to Oulsnam's."

"When? I can't very well go now, and to-morrow is Saturday."

"Why can't you go now?"

"Well, of course, I COULD go now," he admitted.

"Let me advise you to go, then, and don't come back with that tooth in your head. I shall be having you laid up next. Show some pluck, do!"

"Oh! pluck-!" he protested, hurt.

At that moment Constance came down the passage singing.

"Constance, my pet!" Mrs. Baines called.

"Yes, mother." She put her head into the room. "Oh!" Mr. Povey was assuming his coat.

"Mr. Povey is going to the dentist's."

"Yes, I'm going at once," Mr. Povey confirmed.

"Oh! I'm so GLAD!" Constance exclaimed. Her face expressed a pure sympathy, uncomplicated by critical sentiments. Mr. Povey rapidly bathed in that sympathy, and then decided that he must show himself a man of oak and iron.

"It's always best to get these things done with," said he, with stern detachment. "I'll just slip my overcoat on."

"Here it is," said Constance, quickly. Mr. Povey's overcoat and hat were hung on a hook immediately outside the room, in the passage. She gave him the overcoat, anxious to be of service.

"I didn't call you in here to be Mr. Povey's valet," said Mrs. Baines to herself with mild grimness; and aloud: "I can't stay in the shop long, Constance, but you can be there, can't you, till Mr. Povey comes back? And if anything happens run upstairs and tell me."

"Yes, mother," Constance eagerly consented. She hesitated and then turned to obey at once.

"I want to speak to you first, my pet," Mrs. Baines stopped her. And her tone was peculiar, charged with import, confidential, and therefore very flattering to Constance.

"I think I'll go out by the side-door," said Mr. Povey. "It'll be nearer."

This was truth. He would save about ten yards, in two miles, by going out through the side-door instead of through the shop. Who could have guessed that he was ashamed to be seen going to the dentist's, afraid lest, if he went through the shop, Mrs. Baines might follow him and utter some remark prejudicial to his dignity before the assistants? (Mrs. Baines could have guessed, and did.)

"You won't want that tape-measure," said Mrs. Baines, dryly, as Mr. Povey dragged open the side-door. The ends of the forgotten tape-measure were dangling beneath coat

and overcoat.

"Oh!" Mr. Povey scowled at his forgetfulness.

"I'll put it in its place," said Constance, offering to receive the tape-measure.

"Thank you," said Mr. Povey, gravely. "I don't suppose they'll be long over my bit of a job," he added, with a difficult, miserable smile.

Then he went off down King Street, with an exterior of gay briskness and dignified joy in the fine May morning. But there was no May morning in his cowardly human heart.

"Hi! Povey!" cried a voice from the Square.

But Mr. Povey disregarded all appeals. He had put his hand to the plough, and he would not look back.

"Hi! Povey!"

Useless!

Mrs. Baines and Constance were both at the door. A middle-aged man was crossing the road from Boulton Terrace, the lofty erection of new shops which the envious rest of the Square had decided to call "showy." He waved a hand to Mrs. Baines, who kept the door open.

"It's Dr. Harrop," she said to Constance. "I shouldn't be surprised if that baby's come at last, and he wanted to tell Mr. Povey."

Constance blushed, full of pride. Mrs. Povey, wife of "our Mr. Povey's" renowned cousin, the high-class confectioner and baker in Boulton Terrace, was a frequent subject of discussion in the Baines family, but this was absolutely the first time that Mrs. Baines had acknowledged, in presence of Constance, the marked and growing change which had characterized Mrs. Povey's condition during recent months. Such frankness on the part of her mother, coming after the decision about leaving school, proved indeed that Constance had ceased to be a mere girl.

"Good morning, doctor."

The doctor, who carried a little bag and wore riding-breeches (he was the last doctor in Bursley to abandon the saddle for the dog-cart), saluted and straightened his high, black stock.

"Morning! Morning, missy! Well, it's a boy."

"What? Yonder?" asked Mrs. Baines, indicating the confectioner's.

Dr. Harrop nodded. "I wanted to inform him," said he, jerking his shoulder in the direction of the swaggering coward.

"What did I tell you, Constance?" said Mrs. Baines, turning to her daughter.

Constance's confusion was equal to her pleasure. The alert doctor had halted at the foot of the two steps, and with one hand in the pocket of his "full-fall" breeches, he gazed up, smiling out of little eyes, at the ample matron and the slender virgin.

"Yes," he said. "Been up most of th' night. Difficult! Difficult!"

"It's all RIGHT, I hope?"

"Oh yes. Fine child! Fine child! But he put his mother to some trouble, for all that. Nothing fresh?" This time he lifted his eyes to indicate Mr. Baines's bedroom.

"No," said Mrs. Baines, with a different expression.

"Keeps cheerful?"

"Yes."

"Good! A very good morning to you."

He strode off towards his house, which was lower down the street.

"I hope she'll turn over a new leaf now," observed Mrs. Baines to Constance as she closed the door. Constance knew that her mother was referring to the confectioner's wife; she gathered that the hope was slight in the extreme.

"What did you want to speak to me about, mother?" she asked, as a way out of her delicious confusion.

"Shut that door," Mrs. Baines replied, pointing to the door which led to the passage; and while Constance obeyed, Mrs. Baines herself shut the staircase-door. She then said, in a low, guarded voice-

"What's all this about Sophia wanting to be a school-teacher?"

"Wanting to be a school-teacher?" Constance repeated, in tones of amazement.

"Yes. Hasn't she said anything to you?"

"Not a word!"

"Well, I never! She wants to keep on with Miss Chetwynd and be a teacher." Mrs. Baines had half a mind to add that Sophia had mentioned London. But she restrained herself. There are some things which one cannot bring one's self to say. She added, "Instead of going into the shop!"

"I never heard of such a thing!" Constance murmured brokenly, in the excess of her astonishment. She was rolling up Mr. Povey's tape-measure.

"Neither did I!" said Mrs. Baines.

"And shall you let her, mother?"

"Neither your father nor I would ever dream of it!" Mrs. Baines replied, with calm and yet terrible decision. "I only mentioned it to you because I thought Sophia would have told you something."

"No, mother!"

As Constance put Mr. Povey's tape-measure neatly away in its drawer under the cutting-out counter, she thought how serious life was-what with babies and Sophias. She was very proud of her mother's confidence in her; this simple pride filled her ardent breast with a most agreeable commotion. And she wanted to help everybody, to show in some way how much she sympathized with and loved everybody. Even the madness of Sophia did not weaken her longing to comfort Sophia.

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