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- The Old Wives' Tale - 132/132 -

"Never you fear!" said he. "I shall die in my bed."

And he was absolutely convinced that he would, and not as the result of any accident, either! The nurse would not allow him to remain in the room.

Lily suggested that Constance might like her to write to Cyril. It was only in order to make sure of Cyril's correct address. He had gone on a tour through Italy with some friends of whom Constance knew nothing. The address appeared to be very uncertain; there were several addresses, poste restante in various towns. Cyril had sent postcards to his mother. Dick and Lily went to the post- office and telegraphed to foreign parts. Though Constance was too ill to know how ill she was, though she had no conception of the domestic confusion caused by her illness, her brain was often remarkably clear, and she could reflect in long, sane meditations above the uneasy sea of her pain. In the earlier hours of the night, after the nurses had been changed, and Mary had gone to bed exhausted with stair-climbing, and Lily Holl was recounting the day to Dick up at the grocer's, and the day-nurse was already asleep, and the night-nurse had arranged the night, then, in the faintly-lit silence of the chamber, Constance would argue with herself for an hour at a time. She frequently thought of Sophia. In spite of the fact that Sophia was dead she still pitied Sophia as a woman whose life had been wasted. This idea of Sophia's wasted and sterile life, and of the far-reaching importance of adhering to principles, recurred to her again and again. "Why did she run away with him? If only she had not run away!" she would repeat. And yet there had been something so fine about Sophia! Which made Sophia's case all the more pitiable! Constance never pitied herself. She did not consider that Fate had treated her very badly. She was not very discontented with herself. The invincible commonsense of a sound nature prevented her, in her best moments, from feebly dissolving in self-pity. She had lived in honesty and kindliness for a fair number of years, and she had tasted triumphant hours. She was justly respected, she had a position, she had dignity, she was well-off. She possessed, after all, a certain amount of quiet self-conceit. There existed nobody to whom she would 'knuckle down,' or could be asked to 'knuckle down.' True, she was old! So were thousands of other people in Bursley. She was in pain. So there were thousands of other people. With whom would she be willing to exchange lots? She had many dissatisfactions. But she rose superior to them. When she surveyed her life, and life in general, she would think, with a sort of tart but not sour cheerfulness: "Well, that is what life is!" Despite her habit of complaining about domestic trifles, she was, in the essence of her character, 'a great body for making the best of things.' Thus she did not unduly bewail her excursion to the Town Hall to vote, which the sequel had proved to be ludicrously supererogatory. "How was I to know?" she said.

The one matter in which she had gravely to reproach herself was her indulgent spoiling of Cyril after the death of Samuel Povey. But the end of her reproaches always was: "I expect I should do the same again! And probably it wouldn't have made any difference if I hadn't spoiled him!" And she had paid tenfold for the weakness. She loved Cyril, but she had no illusions about him; she saw both sides of him. She remembered all the sadness and all the humiliations which he had caused her. Still, her affection was unimpaired. A son might be worse than Cyril was; he had admirable qualities. She did not resent his being away from England while she lay ill. "If it was serious," she said, "he would not lose a moment." And Lily and Dick were a treasure to her. In those two she really had been lucky. She took great pleasure in contemplating the splendour of the gift with which she would mark her appreciation of them at their approaching wedding. The secret attitude of both of them towards her was one of good-natured condescension, expressed in the tone in which they would say to each other, 'the old lady.' Perhaps they would have been startled to know that Constance lovingly looked down on both of them. She had unbounded admiration for their hearts; but she thought that Dick was a little too brusque, a little too clownish, to be quite a gentleman. And though Lily was perfectly ladylike, in Constance's opinion she lacked backbone, or grit, or independence of spirit. Further, Constance considered that the disparity of age between them was excessive. It is to be doubted whether, when all was said, Constance had such a very great deal to learn from the self-confident wisdom of these young things.

After a period of self-communion, she would sometimes fall into a shallow delirium. In all her delirium she was invariably wandering to and fro, lost, in the long underground passage leading from the scullery past the coal-cellar and the cinder-cellar to the backyard. And she was afraid of the vast-obscure of those regions, as she had been in her infancy.

It was not acute rheumatism, but a supervening pericarditis that in a few days killed her. She died in the night, alone with the night-nurse. By a curious chance the Wesleyan minister, hearing that she was seriously ill, had called on the previous day. She had not asked for him; and this pastoral visit, from a man who had always said that the heavy duties of the circuit rendered pastoral visits almost impossible, made her think. In the evening she had requested that Fossette should be brought upstairs.

Thus she was turned out of her house, but not by the Midland Clothiers Company. Old people said to one another: "Have you heard that Mrs. Povey is dead? Eh, dear me! There'll be no one left soon." These old people were bad prophets. Her friends genuinely regretted her, and forgot the tediousness of her sciatica. They tried, in their sympathetic grief, to picture to themselves all that she had been through in her life. Possibly they imagined that they succeeded in this imaginative attempt. But they did not succeed. No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.

Cyril was not at the funeral. He arrived three days later. (As he had no interest in the love affairs of Dick and Lily, the couple were robbed of their wedding-present. The will, fifteen years old, was in Cyril's favour.) But the immortal Charles Critchlow came to the funeral, full of calm, sardonic glee, and without being asked. Though fabulously senile, he had preserved and even improved his faculty for enjoying a catastrophe. He now went to funerals with gusto, contentedly absorbed in the task of burying his friends one by one. It was he who said, in his high, trembling, rasping, deliberate voice: "It's a pity her didn't live long enough to hear as Federation is going on after all! That would ha' worritted her." (For the unscrupulous advocates of Federation had discovered a method of setting at naught the decisive result of the referendum, and that day's Signal was fuller than ever of Federation.)

When the short funeral procession started, Mary and the infirm Fossette (sole relic of the connection between the Baines family and Paris) were left alone in the house. The tearful servant prepared the dog's dinner and laid it before her in the customary soup-plate in the customary corner. Fossette sniffed at it, and then walked away and lay down with a dog's sigh in front of the kitchen fire. She had been deranged in her habits that day; she was conscious of neglect, due to events which passed her comprehension. And she did not like it. She was hurt, and her appetite was hurt. However, after a few minutes, she began to reconsider the matter. She glanced at the soup-plate, and, on the chance that it might after all contain something worth inspection, she awkwardly balanced herself on her old legs and went to it again.


The Old Wives' Tale - 132/132

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