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   Chapter 22 No.22

The Old Wives' Tale By Arnold Bennett Characters: 9551

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


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.

"Morning, Boon."

"Morning, master."

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.

"Fox-terrier?"

"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 tho

ught 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?"

"Oh NO!"

"If that's all," said he, with bravado, "I'll write and tell her myself."

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