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   Chapter 35 No.35

The Old Wives' Tale By Arnold Bennett Characters: 12420

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

In the summer of that year the occurrence of a white rash of posters on hoardings and on certain houses and shops, was symptomatic of organic change in the town. The posters were iterations of a mysterious announcement and summons, which began with the august words: "By Order of the Trustees of the late William Clews Mericarp, Esq." Mericarp had been a considerable owner of property in Bursley. After a prolonged residence at Southport, he had died, at the age of eighty-two, leaving his property behind. For sixty years he had been a name, not a figure; and the news of his death, which was assuredly an event, incited the burgesses to gossip, for they had come to regard him as one of the invisible immortals. Constance was shocked, though she had never seen Mericarp. ("Everybody dies nowadays!" she thought.) He owned the Baines-Povey shop, and also Mr. Critchlow's shop. Constance knew not how often her father and, later, her husband, had renewed the lease of those premises that were now hers; but from her earliest recollections rose a vague memory of her father talking to her mother about 'Mericarp's rent,' which was and always had been a hundred a year. Mericarp had earned the reputation of being 'a good landlord.' Constance said sadly: "We shall never have another as good!" When a lawyer's clerk called and asked her to permit the exhibition of a poster in each of her shop-windows, she had misgivings for the future; she was worried; she decided that she would determine the lease next year, so as to be on the safe side; but immediately afterwards she decided that she could decide nothing.

The posters continued: "To be sold by auction, at the Tiger Hotel at six-thirty for seven o'clock precisely." What six-thirty had to do with seven o'clock precisely no one knew. Then, after stating the name and credentials of the auctioneer, the posters at length arrived at the objects to be sold: "All those freehold messuages and shops and copyhold tenements namely." Houses were never sold by auction in Bursley. At moments of auction burgesses were reminded that the erections they lived in were not houses, as they had falsely supposed, but messuages. Having got as far as 'namely' the posters ruled a line and began afresh: "Lot I. All that extensive and commodious shop and messuage with the offices and appurtenances thereto belonging situate and being No. 4 St. Luke's Square in the parish of Bursley in the County of Stafford and at present in the occupation of Mrs. Constance Povey widow under a lease expiring in September 1889." Thus clearly asserting that all Constance's shop was for sale, its whole entirety, and not a fraction or slice of it merely, the posters proceeded: "Lot 2. All that extensive and commodious shop and messuage with the offices and appurtenances thereto belonging situate and being No. 3 St. Luke's Square in the parish of Bursley in the County of Stafford and at present in the occupation of Charles Critchlow chemist under an agreement for a yearly tenancy." The catalogue ran to fourteen lots. The posters, lest any one should foolishly imagine that a non-legal intellect could have achieved such explicit and comprehensive clarity of statement, were signed by a powerful firm of solicitors in Hanbridge. Happily in the Five Towns there were no metaphysicians; otherwise the firm might have been expected to explain, in the 'further particulars and conditions' which the posters promised, how even a messuage could 'be' the thing at which it was 'situate.'

Within a few hours of the outbreak of the rash, Mr. Critchlow abruptly presented himself before Constance at the millinery counter; he was waving a poster.

"Well!" he exclaimed grimly. "What next, eh?"

"Yes, indeed!" Constance responded.

"Are ye thinking o' buying?" he asked. All the assistants, including

Miss Insull, were in hearing, but he ignored their presence.

"Buying!" repeated Constance. "Not me! I've got quite enough house property as it is."

Like all owners of real property, she usually adopted towards her possessions an attitude implying that she would be willing to pay somebody to take them from her.

"Shall you?" she added, with Mr. Critchlow's own brusqueness.

"Me! Buy property in St. Luke's Square!" Mr. Critchlow sneered. And then left the shop as suddenly as he had entered it.

The sneer at St. Luke's Square was his characteristic expression of an opinion which had been slowly forming for some years. The Square was no longer what it had been, though individual businesses might be as good as ever. For nearly twelve months two shops had been to let in it. And once, bankruptcy had stained its annals. The tradesmen had naturally searched for a cause in every direction save the right one, the obvious one; and naturally they had found a cause. According to the tradesmen, the cause was 'this football.' The Bursley Football Club had recently swollen into a genuine rival of the ancient supremacy of the celebrated Knype Club. It had transformed itself into a limited company, and rented a ground up the Moorthorne Road, and built a grand stand. The Bursley F.C. had 'tied' with the Knype F.C. on the Knype ground-a prodigious achievement, an achievement which occupied a column of the Athletic News one Monday morning! But were the tradesmen civically proud of this glory? No! They said that 'this football' drew people out of the town on Saturday afternoons, to the complete abolition of shopping. They said also that people thought of nothing but 'this football;' and, nearly in the same breath, that only roughs and good-for-nothings could possibly be interested in such a barbarous game. And they spoke of gate-money, gambling, and professionalism, and the end of all true sport in England. In brief, something new had come to the front and was submitting to the ordeal of the curse.

The sale of the Mericarp estate had a particular interest for respectable stake-in-the-town persons. It would indicate to what extent, if at all, 'this football' was ruining Bursley. Constance mentioned to Cyril that she fancied she might like to go to the sale, and as it was dated for one of Cyril's off-nights Cyril said that he fancied he migh

t like to go too. So they went together; Samuel used to attend property sales, but he had never taken his wife to one. Constance and Cyril arrived at the Tiger shortly after seven o'clock, and were directed to a room furnished and arranged as for a small public meeting of philanthropists. A few gentlemen were already present, but not the instigating trustees, solicitors, and auctioneers. It appeared that 'six-thirty for seven o'clock precisely' meant seven-fifteen. Constance took a Windsor chair in the corner nearest the door, and motioned Cyril to the next chair; they dared not speak; they moved on tiptoe; Cyril inadvertently dragged his chair along the floor, and produced a scrunching sound; he blushed, as though he had desecrated a church, and his mother made a gesture of horror. The remainder of the company glanced at the corner, apparently pained by this negligence. Some of them greeted Constance, but self-consciously, with a sort of shamed air; it might have been that they had all nefariously gathered together there for the committing of a crime. Fortunately Constance's widowhood had already lost its touching novelty, so that the greetings, if self-conscious, were at any rate given without unendurable commiseration and did not cause awkwardness.

When the official world arrived, fussy, bustling, bearing documents and a hammer, the general feeling of guilty shame was intensified. Useless for the auctioneer to try to dissipate the gloom by means of bright gestures and quick, cheerful remarks to his supporters! Cyril had an idea that the meeting would open with a hymn, until the apparition of a tapster with wine showed him his error. The auctioneer very particularly enjoined the tapster to see to it that no one lacked for his thirst, and the tapster became self-consciously energetic. He began by choosing Constance for service. In refusing wine, she blushed; then the fellow offered a glass to Cyril, who went scarlet, and mumbled 'No' with a lump in his throat; when the tapster's back was turned, he smiled sheepishly at his mother. The majority of the company accepted and sipped. The auctioneer sipped and loudly smacked, and said: "Ah!"

Mr. Critchlow came in.

And the auctioneer said again: "Ah! I'm always glad when the tenants come. That's always a good sign."

He glanced round for approval of this sentiment. But everybody seemed too stiff to move. Even the auctioneer was self-conscious.

"Waiter! Offer wine to Mr. Critchlow!" he exclaimed bullyingly, as if saying: "Man! what on earth are you thinking of, to neglect Mr. Critchlow?"

"Yes, sir; yes, sir," said the waiter, who was dispensing wine as fast as a waiter can.

The auction commenced.

Seizing the hammer, the auctioneer gave a short biography of William Clews Mericarp, and, this pious duty accomplished, called upon a solicitor to read the conditions of sale. The solicitor complied and made a distressing exhibition of self-consciousness. The conditions of sale were very lengthy, and apparently composed in a foreign tongue; and the audience listened to this elocution with a stoical pretence of breathless interest.

Then the auctioneer put up all that extensive and commodious messuage and shop situate and being No. 4, St. Luke's Square. Constance and Cyril moved their limbs surreptitiously, as though being at last found out. The auctioneer referred to John Baines and to Samuel Povey, with a sense of personal loss, and then expressed his pleasure in the presence of 'the ladies;' he meant Constance, who once more had to blush.

"Now, gentlemen," said the auctioneer, "what do you say for these famous premises? I think I do not exaggerate when I use the word 'famous.'"

Some one said a thousand pounds, in the terrorized voice of a delinquent.

"A thousand pounds," repeated the auctioneer, paused, sipped, and smacked.

"Guineas," said another voice self-accused of iniquity.

"A thousand and fifty," said the auctioneer.

Then there was a long interval, an interval that tightened the nerves of the assembly.

"Now, ladies and gentlemen," the auctioneer adjured.

The first voice said sulkily: "Eleven hundred."

And thus the bids rose to fifteen hundred, lifted bit by bit, as it were, by the magnetic force of the auctioneer's personality. The man was now standing up, in domination. He bent down to the solicitor's head; they whispered together.

"Gentlemen," said the auctioneer, "I am happy to inform you that the sale is now open." His tone translated better than words his calm professional beatitude. Suddenly in a voice of wrath he hissed at the waiter: "Waiter, why don't you serve these gentlemen?"

"Yes, sir; yes, sir."

The auctioneer sat down and sipped at leisure, chatting with his clerk and the solicitor and the solicitor's clerk.

When he rose it was as a conqueror. "Gentlemen, fifteen hundred is bid.

Now, Mr. Critchlow."

Mr. Critchlow shook his head. The auctioneer threw a courteous glance at Constance, who avoided it.

After many adjurations, he reluctantly raised his hammer, pretended to let it fall, and saved it several times.

And then Mr. Critchlow said: "And fifty."

"Fifteen hundred and fifty is bid," the auctioneer informed the company, electrifying the waiter once more. And when he had sipped he said, with feigned sadness: "Come, gentlemen, you surely don't mean to let this magnificent lot go for fifteen hundred and fifty pounds?"

But they did mean that.

The hammer fell, and the auctioneer's clerk and the solicitor's clerk took Mr. Critchlow aside and wrote with him.

Nobody was surprised when Mr. Critchlow bought Lot No. 2, his own shop.

Constance whispered then to Cyril that she wished to leave. They left, with unnatural precautions, but instantly regained their natural demeanour in the dark street.

"Well, I never! Well, I never!" she murmured outside, astonished and disturbed.

She hated the prospect of Mr. Critchlow as a landlord. And yet she could not persuade herself to leave the place, in spite of decisions.

The sale demonstrated that football had not entirely undermined the commercial basis of society in Bursley; only two Lots had to be withdrawn.

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