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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Old Wives' Tale By Arnold Bennett Characters: 7265

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"Sam!" she cried from the top of the crooked stairs.

No answer. The door at the foot was closed.

"Sam!"

"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 peri

od 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.

"Yes."

"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.

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