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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Old Wives' Tale By Arnold Bennett Characters: 12119

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Those singular words of Sophia's, 'But you let Constance do just as she likes,' had disturbed Mrs. Baines more than was at first apparent. They worried her like a late fly in autumn. For she had said nothing to any one about Constance's case, Mrs. Maddack of course excepted. She had instinctively felt that she could not show the slightest leniency towards the romantic impulses of her elder daughter without seeming unjust to the younger, and she had acted accordingly. On the memorable morn of Mr. Povey's acute jealousy, she had, temporarily at any rate, slaked the fire, banked it down, and hidden it; and since then no word had passed as to the state of Constance's heart. In the great peril to be feared from Mr. Scales, Constance's heart had been put aside as a thing that could wait; so one puts aside the mending of linen when earthquake shocks are about. Mrs. Baines was sure that Constance had not chattered to Sophia concerning Mr. Povey. Constance, who understood her mother, had too much commonsense and too nice a sense of propriety to do that-and yet here was Sophia exclaiming, 'But you let Constance do just as she likes.' Were the relations between Constance and Mr. Povey, then, common property? Did the young lady assistants discuss them?

As a fact, the young lady assistants did discuss them; not in the shop-for either one of the principal parties, or Mrs. Baines herself, was always in the shop, but elsewhere. They discussed little else, when they were free; how she had looked at him to-day, and how he had blushed, and so forth interminably. Yet Mrs. Baines really thought that she alone knew. Such is the power of the ineradicable delusion that one's own affairs, and especially one's own children, are mysteriously different from those of others.

After Sophia's departure Mrs. Baines surveyed her daughter and her manager at supper-time with a curious and a diffident eye. They worked, talked, and ate just as though Mrs. Baines had never caught them weeping together in the cutting-out room. They had the most matter-of-fact air. They might never have heard whispered the name of love. And there could be no deceit beneath that decorum; for Constance would not deceive. Still, Mrs. Baines's conscience was unruly. Order reigned, but nevertheless she knew that she ought to do something, find out something, decide something; she ought, if she did her duty, to take Constance aside and say: "Now, Constance, my mind is freer now. Tell me frankly what has been going on between you and Mr. Povey. I have never understood the meaning of that scene in the cutting-out room. Tell me." She ought to have talked in this strain. But she could not. That energetic woman had not sufficient energy left. She wanted rest, rest-even though it were a coward's rest, an ostrich's tranquillity-after the turmoil of apprehensions caused by Sophia. Her soul cried out for peace. She was not, however, to have peace.

On the very first Sunday after Sophia's departure, Mr. Povey did not go to chapel in the morning, and he offered no reason for his unusual conduct. He ate his breakfast with appetite, but there was something peculiar in his glance that made Mrs. Baines a little uneasy; this something she could not seize upon and define. When she and Constance returned from chapel Mr. Povey was playing "Rock of Ages" on the harmonium-again unusual! The serious part of the dinner comprised roast beef and Yorkshire pudding-the pudding being served as a sweet course before the meat. Mrs. Baines ate freely of these things, for she loved them, and she was always hungry after a sermon. She also did well with the Cheshire cheese. Her intention was to sleep in the drawing-room after the repast. On Sunday afternoons she invariably tried to sleep in the drawing-room, and she did not often fail. As a rule the girls accompanied her thither from the table, and either 'settled down' likewise or crept out of the room when they perceived the gradual sinking of the majestic form into the deep hollows of the easy-chair. Mrs. Baines was anticipating with pleasure her somnolent Sunday afternoon.

Constance said grace after meat, and the formula on this particular occasion ran thus-

"Thank God for our good dinner, Amen.-Mother, I must just run upstairs to my room." ('MY room'-Sophia being far away.)

And off she ran, strangely girlish.

"Well, child, you needn't be in such a hurry," said Mrs. Baines, ringing the bell and rising.

She hoped that Constance would remember the conditions precedent to sleep.

"I should like to have a word with you, if it's all the same to you,

Mrs. Baines," said Mr. Povey suddenly, with obvious nervousness. And

his tone struck a rude unexpected blow at Mrs. Baines's peace of mind.

It was a portentous tone.

"What about?" asked she, with an inflection subtly to remind Mr. Povey what day it was.

"About Constance," said the astonishing man.

"Constance!" exclaimed Mrs. Baines with a histrionic air of bewilderment.

Maggie entered the room, solely in response to the bell, yet a thought jumped up in Mrs. Baines's brain, "How prying servants are, to be sure!" For quite five seconds she had a grievance against Maggie. She was compelled to sit down again and wait while Maggie cleared the table. Mr. Povey put both his hands in his pockets, got up, went to the window, whistled, and generally behaved in a manner which foretold the worst.

At last Maggie vanished, shutting the door.

"What is it, Mr. Povey?"

"Oh!" said Mr. Povey, facing her with absurd nervous brusqueness, as though pretending: "Ah, yes! We have something to say-I was forgetting!" Then he began: "It's about Constance and me."

Yes, they had evidently plotted this interview. Constance had evidently taken herself off on purpose to leave Mr. Povey unhampered. They were in league. The inevitable had come. No sleep! No repose! Nothing but worry once more!

"I'm not at all satisfied with the present situation," said Mr. Povey, in a tone that corresponded to his words.

"I don't know

what you mean, Mr. Povey," said Mrs. Baines stiffly. This was a simple lie.

"Well, really, Mrs. Baines!" Mr. Povey protested, "I suppose you won't deny that you know there is something between me and Constance? I suppose you won't deny that?"

"What is there between you and Constance? I can assure you I-"

"That depends on you," Mr. Povey interrupted her. When he was nervous his manners deteriorated into a behaviour that resembled rudeness. "That depends on you!" he repeated grimly.


"Are we to be engaged or are we not?" pursued Mr. Povey, as though Mrs. Baines had been guilty of some grave lapse and he was determined not to spare her. "That's what I think ought to be settled, one way or the other. I wish to be perfectly open and aboveboard-in the future, as I have been in the past."

"But you have said nothing to me at all!" Mrs. Baines remonstrated, lifting her eyebrows. The way in which the man had sprung this matter upon her was truly too audacious.

Mr. Povey approached her as she sat at the table, shaking her ringlets and looking at her hands.

"You know there's something between us!" he insisted.

"How should I know there is something between you? Constance has never said a word to me. And have you?"

"Well," said he. "We've hidden nothing."

"What is there between you and Constance? If I may ask!"

"That depends on you," said he again.

"Have you asked her to be your wife?"

"No. I haven't exactly asked her to be my wife." He hesitated. "You see-"

Mrs. Baines collected her forces. "Have you kissed her?" This in a cold voice.

Mr. Povey now blushed. "I haven't exactly kissed her," he stammered, apparently shocked by the inquisition. "No, I should not say that I had kissed her."

It might have been that before committing himself he felt a desire for

Mrs. Baines's definition of a kiss.

"You are very extraordinary," she said loftily. It was no less than the truth.

"All I want to know is-have you got anything against me?" he demanded roughly. "Because if so-"

"Anything against you, Mr. Povey? Why should I have anything against you?"

"Then why can't we be engaged?"

She considered that he was bullying her. "That's another question," said she.

"Why can't we be engaged? Ain't I good enough?"

The fact was that he was not regarded as good enough. Mrs. Maddack had certainly deemed that he was not good enough. He was a solid mass of excellent qualities; but he lacked brilliance, importance, dignity. He could not impose himself. Such had been the verdict.

And now, while Mrs. Baines was secretly reproaching Mr. Povey for his inability to impose himself, he was most patently imposing himself on her-and the phenomenon escaped her! She felt that he was bullying her, but somehow she could not perceive his power. Yet the man who could bully Mrs. Baines was surely no common soul!

"You know my very high opinion of you," she said.

Mr. Povey pursued in a mollified tone. "Assuming that Constance is willing to be engaged, do I understand you consent?"

"But Constance is too young."

"Constance is twenty. She is more than twenty."

"In any case you won't expect me to give you an answer now."

"Why not? You know my position."

She did. From a practical point of view the match would be ideal: no fault could be found with it on that side. But Mrs. Baines could not extinguish the idea that it would be a 'come-down' for her daughter. Who, after all, was Mr. Povey? Mr. Povey was nobody.

"I must think things over," she said firmly, putting her lips together.

"I can't reply like this. It is a serious matter."

"When can I have your answer? To-morrow?"


"In a week, then?"

"I cannot bind myself to a date," said Mrs. Baines, haughtily. She felt that she was gaining ground.

"Because I can't stay on here indefinitely as things are," Mr. Povey burst out, and there was a touch of hysteria in his tone.

"Now, Mr. Povey, please do be reasonable."

"That's all very well," he went on. "That's all very well. But what I say is that employers have no right to have male assistants in their houses unless they are prepared to let their daughters marry! That's what I say! No RIGHT!"

Mrs. Baines did not know what to answer.

The aspirant wound up: "I must leave if that's the case."

"If what's the case?" she asked herself. "What has come over him?" And aloud: "You know you would place me in a very awkward position by leaving, and I hope you don't want to mix up two quite different things. I hope you aren't trying to threaten me."

"Threaten you!" he cried. "Do you suppose I should leave here for fun? If I leave it will be because I can't stand it. That's all. I can't stand it. I want Constance, and if I can't have her, then I can't stand it. What do you think I'm made of?"

"I'm sure-" she began.

"That's all very well!" he almost shouted.

"But please let me speak,' she said quietly.

"All I say is I can't stand it. That's all…. Employers have no right…. We have our feelings like other men."

He was deeply moved. He might have appeared somewhat grotesque to the strictly impartial observer of human nature. Nevertheless he was deeply and genuinely moved, and possibly human nature could have shown nothing more human than Mr. Povey at the moment when, unable any longer to restrain the paroxysm which had so surprisingly overtaken him, he fled from the parlour, passionately, to the retreat of his bedroom.

"That's the worst of those quiet calm ones," said Mrs. Baines to herself. "You never know if they won't give way. And when they do, it's awful-awful…. What did I do, what did I say, to bring it on? Nothing! Nothing!"

And where was her afternoon sleep? What was going to happen to her daughter? What could she say to Constance? How next could she meet Mr. Povey? Ah! It needed a brave, indomitable woman not to cry out brokenly: "I've suffered too much. Do anything you like; only let me die in peace!" And so saying, to let everything indifferently slide!

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