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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Old Wives' Tale By Arnold Bennett Characters: 15859

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


At supper, with her red, downcast eyes, she had returned to sheer girlishness again, overawed by her mother. The meal had an unusual aspect. Mr. Povey, safe from the dentist's, but having lost two teeth in two days, was being fed on 'slops'-bread and milk, to wit; he sat near the fire. The others had cold pork, half a cold apple-pie, and cheese; but Sophia only pretended to eat; each time she tried to swallow, the tears came into her eyes, and her throat shut itself up. Mrs. Baines and Constance had a too careful air of eating just as usual. Mrs. Baines's handsome ringlets dominated the table under the gas.

"I'm not so set up with my pastry to-day," observed Mrs. Baines, critically munching a fragment of pie-crust.

She rang a little hand-bell. Maggie appeared from the cave. She wore a plain white bib-less apron, but no cap.

"Maggie, will you have some pie?"

"Yes, if you can spare it, ma'am."

This was Maggie's customary answer to offers of food.

"We can always spare it, Maggie," said her mistress, as usual. "Sophia, if you aren't going to use that plate, give it to me."

Maggie disappeared with liberal pie.

Mrs. Baines then talked to Mr. Povey about his condition, and in particular as to the need for precautions against taking cold in the bereaved gum. She was a brave and determined woman; from start to finish she behaved as though nothing whatever in the household except her pastry and Mr. Povey had deviated that day from the normal. She kissed Constance and Sophia with the most exact equality, and called them 'my chucks' when they went up to bed.

Constance, excellent kind heart, tried to imitate her mother's tactics as the girls undressed in their room. She thought she could not do better than ignore Sophia's deplorable state.

"Mother's new dress is quite finished, and she's going to wear it on

Sunday," said she, blandly.

"If you say another word I'll scratch your eyes out!" Sophia turned on her viciously, with a catch in her voice, and then began to sob at intervals. She did not mean this threat, but its utterance gave her relief. Constance, faced with the fact that her mother's shoes were too big for her, decided to preserve her eyesight.

Long after the gas was out, rare sobs from Sophia shook the bed, and they both lay awake in silence.

"I suppose you and mother have been talking me over finely to-day?"

Sophia burst forth, to Constance's surprise, in a wet voice.

"No," said Constance soothingly. "Mother only told me."

"Told you what?"

"That you wanted to be a teacher."

"And I will be, too!" said Sophia, bitterly.

"You don't know mother," thought Constance; but she made no audible comment.

There was another detached, hard sob. And then, such is the astonishing talent of youth, they both fell asleep.

The next morning, early, Sophia stood gazing out of the window at the Square. It was Saturday, and all over the Square little stalls, with yellow linen roofs, were being erected for the principal market of the week. In those barbaric days Bursley had a majestic edifice, black as basalt, for the sale of dead animals by the limb and rib-it was entitled 'the Shambles'-but vegetables, fruit, cheese, eggs, and pikelets were still sold under canvas. Eggs are now offered at five farthings apiece in a palace that cost twenty-five thousand pounds. Yet you will find people in Bursley ready to assert that things generally are not what they were, and that in particular the romance of life has gone. But until it has gone it is never romance. To Sophia, though she was in a mood which usually stimulates the sense of the romantic, there was nothing of romance in this picturesque tented field. It was just the market. Holl's, the leading grocer's, was already open, at the extremity of the Square, and a boy apprentice was sweeping the pavement in front of it. The public-houses were open, several of them specializing in hot rum at 5.30 a.m. The town-crier, in his blue coat with red facings, crossed the Square, carrying his big bell by the tongue. There was the same shocking hole in one of Mrs. Povey's (confectioner's) window-curtains-a hole which even her recent travail could scarcely excuse. Such matters it was that Sophia noticed with dull, smarting eyes.

"Sophia, you'll take your death of cold standing there like that!"

She jumped. The voice was her mother's. That vigorous woman, after a calm night by the side of the paralytic, was already up and neatly dressed. She carried a bottle and an egg-cup, and a small quantity of jam in a table-spoon.

"Get into bed again, do! There's a dear! You're shivering."

White Sophia obeyed. It was true; she was shivering. Constance awoke. Mrs. Baines went to the dressing-table and filled the egg-cup out of the bottle.

"Who's that for, mother?" Constance asked sleepily.

"It's for Sophia," said Mrs. Baines, with good cheer. "Now, Sophia!" and she advanced with the egg-cup in one hand and the table-spoon in the other.

"What is it, mother?" asked Sophia, who well knew what it was.

"Castor-oil, my dear," said Mrs. Baines, winningly.

The ludicrousness of attempting to cure obstinacy and yearnings for a freer life by means of castor-oil is perhaps less real than apparent. The strange interdependence of spirit and body, though only understood intelligently in these intelligent days, was guessed at by sensible mediaeval mothers. And certainly, at the period when Mrs. Baines represented modernity, castor-oil was still the remedy of remedies. It had supplanted cupping. And, if part of its vogue was due to its extreme unpleasantness, it had at least proved its qualities in many a contest with disease. Less than two years previously old Dr. Harrop (father of him who told Mrs. Baines about Mrs. Povey), being then aged eighty-six, had fallen from top to bottom of his staircase. He had scrambled up, taken a dose of castor-oil at once, and on the morrow was as well as if he had never seen a staircase. This episode was town property and had sunk deep into all hearts.

"I don't want any, mother," said Sophia, in dejection. "I'm quite well."

"You simply ate nothing all day yesterday," said Mrs. Baines. And she added, "Come!" As if to say, "There's always this silly fuss with castor-oil. Don't keep me waiting."

"I don't WANT any," said Sophia, irritated and captious.

The two girls lay side by side, on their backs. They seemed very thin and fragile in comparison with the solidity of their mother. Constance wisely held her peace.

Mrs. Baines put her lips together, meaning: "This is becoming tedious.

I shall have to be angry in another moment!"

"Come!" said she again.

The girls could hear her foot tapping on the floor.

"I really don't want it, mamma," Sophia fought. "I suppose I ought to know whether I need it or not!" This was insolence.

"Sophia, will you take this medicine, or won't you?"

In conflicts with her children, the mother's ultimatum always took the formula in which this phrase was cast. The girls knew, when things had arrived at the pitch of 'or won't you' spoken in Mrs. Baines's firmest tone, that the end was upon them. Never had the ultimatum failed.

There was a silence.

"And I'll thank you to mind your manners," Mrs. Baines added.

"I won't take it," said Sophia, sullenly and flatly; and she hid her face in the pillow.

It was a historic moment in the family life. Mrs. Baines thought the last day had come. But still she held herself in dignity while the apocalypse roared in her ears.

"OF COURSE I CAN'T FORCE YOU TO TAKE IT," she said with superb evenness, masking anger by compassionate grief. "You're a big girl and a naughty girl. And if you will be ill you must."

Upon this immense admission, Mrs. Baines departed.

Constance trembled.

Nor was that all. In the middle of the morning, when Mrs. Baines was pricing new potatoes at a stal

l at the top end of the Square, and Constance choosing threepennyworth of flowers at the same stall, whom should they both see, walking all alone across the empty corner by the Bank, but Sophia Baines! The Square was busy and populous, and Sophia was only visible behind a foreground of restless, chattering figures. But she was unmistakably seen. She had been beyond the Square and was returning. Constance could scarcely believe her eyes. Mrs. Baines's heart jumped. For let it be said that the girls never under any circumstances went forth without permission, and scarcely ever alone. That Sophia should be at large in the town, without leave, without notice, exactly as if she were her own mistress, was a proposition which a day earlier had been inconceivable. Yet there she was, and moving with a leisureliness that must be described as effrontery!

Red with apprehension, Constance wondered what would happen. Mrs. Baines said nought of her feelings, did not even indicate that she had seen the scandalous, the breath-taking sight. And they descended the Square laden with the lighter portions of what they had bought during an hour of buying. They went into the house by the King Street door; and the first thing they heard was the sound of the piano upstairs. Nothing happened. Mr. Povey had his dinner alone; then the table was laid for them, and the bell rung, and Sophia came insolently downstairs to join her mother and sister. And nothing happened. The dinner was silently eaten, and Constance having rendered thanks to God, Sophia rose abruptly to go.

"Sophia!"

"Yes, mother."

"Constance, stay where you are," said Mrs. Baines suddenly to Constance, who had meant to flee. Constance was therefore destined to be present at the happening, doubtless in order to emphasize its importance and seriousness.

"Sophia," Mrs. Baines resumed to her younger daughter in an ominous voice. "No, please shut the door. There is no reason why everybody in the house should hear. Come right into the room-right in! That's it. Now, what were you doing out in the town this morning?"

Sophia was fidgeting nervously with the edge of her little black apron, and worrying a seam of the carpet with her toes. She bent her head towards her left shoulder, at first smiling vaguely. She said nothing, but every limb, every glance, every curve, was speaking. Mrs. Baines sat firmly in her own rocking-chair, full of the sensation that she had Sophia, as it were, writhing on the end of a skewer. Constance was braced into a moveless anguish.

"I will have an answer," pursued Mrs. Baines. "What were you doing out in the town this morning?"

"I just went out," answered Sophia at length, still with eyes downcast, and in a rather simpering tone.

"Why did you go out? You said nothing to me about going out. I heard Constance ask you if you were coming with us to the market, and you said, very rudely, that you weren't."

"I didn't say it rudely," Sophia objected.

"Yes you did. And I'll thank you not to answer back."

"I didn't mean to say it rudely, did I, Constance?" Sophia's head turned sharply to her sister. Constance knew not where to look.

"Don't answer back," Mrs. Baines repeated sternly. "And don't try to drag Constance into this, for I won't have it."

"Oh, of course Constance is always right!" observed Sophia, with an irony whose unparalleled impudence shook Mrs. Baines to her massive foundations.

"Do you want me to have to smack you, child?"

Her temper flashed out and you could see ringlets vibrating under the provocation of Sophia's sauciness. Then Sophia's lower lip began to fall and to bulge outwards, and all the muscles of her face seemed to slacken.

"You are a very naughty girl," said Mrs. Baines, with restraint. ("I've got her," said Mrs. Baines to herself. "I may just as well keep my temper.")

And a sob broke out of Sophia. She was behaving like a little child. She bore no trace of the young maiden sedately crossing the Square without leave and without an escort.

("I knew she was going to cry," said Mrs. Baines, breathing relief.)

"I'm waiting," said Mrs. Baines aloud.

A second sob. Mrs. Baines manufactured patience to meet the demand.

"You tell me not to answer back, and then you say you're waiting,"

Sophia blubbered thickly.

"What's that you say? How can I tell what you say if you talk like that?" (But Mrs. Baines failed to hear out of discretion, which is better than valour.)

"It's of no consequence," Sophia blurted forth in a sob. She was weeping now, and tears were ricocheting off her lovely crimson cheeks on to the carpet; her whole body was trembling.

"Don't be a great baby," Mrs. Baines enjoined, with a touch of rough persuasiveness in her voice.

"It's you who make me cry," said Sophia, bitterly. "You make me cry and then you call me a great baby!" And sobs ran through her frame like waves one after another. She spoke so indistinctly that her mother now really had some difficulty in catching her words.

"Sophia," said Mrs. Baines, with god-like calm, "it is not I who make you cry. It is your guilty conscience makes you cry. I have merely asked you a question, and I intend to have an answer."

"I've told you." Here Sophia checked the sobs with an immense effort.

"What have you told me?"

"I just went out."

"I will have no trifling," said Mrs. Baines. "What did you go out for, and without telling me? If you had told me afterwards, when I came in, of your own accord, it might have been different. But no, not a word! It is I who have to ask! Now, quick! I can't wait any longer."

("I gave way over the castor-oil, my girl," Mrs. Baines said in her own breast. "But not again! Not again!")

"I don't know," Sophia murmured.

"What do you mean-you don't know?"

The sobbing recommenced tempestuously. "I mean I don't know. I just went out." Her voice rose; it was noisy, but scarcely articulate. "What if I did go out?"

"Sophia, I am not going to be talked to like this. If you think because you're leaving school you can do exactly as you like-"

"Do I want to leave school?" yelled Sophia, stamping. In a moment a hurricane of emotion overwhelmed her, as though that stamping of the foot had released the demons of the storm. Her face was transfigured by uncontrollable passion. "You all want to make me miserable!" she shrieked with terrible violence. "And now I can't even go out! You are a horrid, cruel woman, and I hate you! And you can do what you like! Put me in prison if you like! I know you'd be glad if I was dead!"

She dashed from the room, banging the door with a shock that made the house rattle. And she had shouted so loud that she might have been heard in the shop, and even in the kitchen. It was a startling experience for Mrs. Baines. Mrs. Baines, why did you saddle yourself with a witness? Why did you so positively say that you intended to have an answer?

"Really," she stammered, pulling her dignity about her shoulders like a garment that the wind has snatched off. "I never dreamed that poor girl had such a dreadful temper! What a pity it is, for her OWN sake!" It was the best she could do.

Constance, who could not bear to witness her mother's humiliation, vanished very quietly from the room. She got halfway upstairs to the second floor, and then, hearing the loud, rapid, painful, regular intake of sobbing breaths, she hesitated and crept down again.

This was Mrs. Baines's first costly experience of the child thankless for having been brought into the world. It robbed her of her profound, absolute belief in herself. She had thought she knew everything in her house and could do everything there. And lo! she had suddenly stumbled against an unsuspected personality at large in her house, a sort of hard marble affair that informed her by means of bumps that if she did not want to be hurt she must keep out of the way.

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