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- The Old Wives' Tale - 6/132 -
green "flock" wall paper, and the tea-urn, and the rocking-chairs with their antimacassars, and the harmonium in rosewood with a Chinese paper-mache tea-caddy on the top of it; even with the carpet, certainly the most curious parlour carpet that ever was, being made of lengths of the stair-carpet sewn together side by side. That corner cupboard was already old in service; it had held the medicines of generations. It gleamed darkly with the grave and genuine polish which comes from ancient use alone. The key which Constance chose from her bunch was like the cupboard, smooth and shining with years; it fitted and turned very easily, yet with a firm snap. The single wide door opened sedately as a portal.
The girls examined the sacred interior, which had the air of being inhabited by an army of diminutive prisoners, each crying aloud with the full strength of its label to be set free on a mission.
"There it is!" said Sophia eagerly.
And there it was: a blue bottle, with a saffron label, "Caution. POISON. Laudanum. Charles Critchlow, M.P.S. Dispensing Chemist. St. Luke's Square, Bursley."
Those large capitals frightened the girls. Constance took the bottle as she might have taken a loaded revolver, and she glanced at Sophia. Their omnipotent, all-wise mother was not present to tell them what to do. They, who had never decided, had to decide now. And Constance was the elder. Must this fearsome stuff, whose very name was a name of fear, be introduced in spite of printed warnings into Mr. Povey's mouth? The responsibility was terrifying.
"Perhaps I'd just better ask Mr. Critchlow," Constance faltered.
The expectation of beneficent laudanum had enlivened Mr. Povey, had already, indeed, by a sort of suggestion, half cured his toothache.
"Oh no!" he said. "No need to ask Mr. Critchlow ... Two or three drops in a little water." He showed impatience to be at the laudanum.
The girls knew that an antipathy existed between the chemist and Mr. Povey.
"It's sure to be all right," said Sophia. "I'll get the water."
With youthful cries and alarms they succeeded in pouring four mortal dark drops (one more than Constance intended) into a cup containing a little water. And as they handed the cup to Mr. Povey their faces were the faces of affrighted comical conspirators. They felt so old and they looked so young.
Mr. Povey imbibed eagerly of the potion, put the cup on the mantelpiece, and then tilted his head to the right so as to submerge the affected tooth. In this posture he remained, awaiting the sweet influence of the remedy. The girls, out of a nice modesty, turned away, for Mr. Povey must not swallow the medicine, and they preferred to leave him unhampered in the solution of a delicate problem. When next they examined him, he was leaning back in the rocking-chair with his mouth open and his eyes shut.
"Has it done you any good, Mr. Povey?"
"I think I'll lie down on the sofa for a minute," was Mr. Povey's strange reply; and forthwith he sprang up and flung himself on to the horse-hair sofa between the fireplace and the window, where he lay stripped of all his dignity, a mere beaten animal in a grey suit with peculiar coat-tails, and a very creased waistcoat, and a lapel that was planted with pins, and a paper collar and close- fitting paper cuffs.
Constance ran after him with the antimacassar, which she spread softly on his shoulders; and Sophia put another one over his thin little legs, all drawn up.
They then gazed at their handiwork, with secret self-accusations and the most dreadful misgivings.
"He surely never swallowed it!" Constance whispered.
"He's asleep, anyhow," said Sophia, more loudly.
Mr. Povey was certainly asleep, and his mouth was very wide open-- like a shop-door. The only question was whether his sleep was not an eternal sleep; the only question was whether he was not out of his pain for ever.
Then he snored--horribly; his snore seemed a portent of disaster.
Sophia approached him as though he were a bomb, and stared, growing bolder, into his mouth.
"Oh, Con," she summoned her sister, "do come and look! It's too droll!"
In an instant all their four eyes were exploring the singular landscape of Mr. Povey's mouth. In a corner, to the right of that interior, was one sizeable fragment of a tooth, that was attached to Mr. Povey by the slenderest tie, so that at each respiration of Mr. Povey, when his body slightly heaved and the gale moaned in the cavern, this tooth moved separately, showing that its long connection with Mr. Povey was drawing to a close.
"That's the one," said Sophia, pointing. "And it's as loose as anything. Did you ever see such a funny thing?"
The extreme funniness of the thing had lulled in Sophia the fear of Mr. Povey's sudden death.
"I'll see how much he's taken," said Constance, preoccupied, going to the mantelpiece.
"Why, I do believe---" Sophia began, and then stopped, glancing at the sewing-machine, which stood next to the sofa.
It was a Howe sewing-machine. It had a little tool-drawer, and in the tool-drawer was a small pair of pliers. Constance, engaged in sniffing at the lees of the potion in order to estimate its probable deadliness, heard the well-known click of the little tool-drawer, and then she saw Sophia nearing Mr. Povey's mouth with the pliers.
"Sophia!" she exclaimed, aghast. "What in the name of goodness are you doing?"
"Nothing," said Sophia.
The next instant Mr. Povey sprang up out of his laudanum dream.
"It jumps!" he muttered; and, after a reflective pause, "but it's much better." He had at any rate escaped death.
Sophia's right hand was behind her back.
Just then a hawker passed down King Street, crying mussels and cockles.
"Oh!" Sophia almost shrieked. "Do let's have mussels and cockles for tea!" And she rushed to the door, and unlocked and opened it, regardless of the risk of draughts to Mr. Povey.
In those days people often depended upon the caprices of hawkers for the tastiness of their teas; but it was an adventurous age, when errant knights of commerce were numerous and enterprising. You went on to your doorstep, caught your meal as it passed, withdrew, cooked it and ate it, quite in the manner of the early Briton.
Constance was obliged to join her sister on the top step. Sophia descended to the second step.
"Fresh mussels and cockles all alive oh!" bawled the hawker, looking across the road in the April breeze. He was the celebrated Hollins, a professional Irish drunkard, aged in iniquity, who cheerfully saluted magistrates in the street, and referred to the workhouse, which he occasionally visited, as the Bastile.
Sophia was trembling from head to foot.
"What ARE you laughing at, you silly thing?" Constance demanded.
Sophia surreptitiously showed the pliers, which she had partly thrust into her pocket. Between their points was a most perceptible, and even recognizable, fragment of Mr. Povey.
This was the crown of Sophia's career as a perpetrator of the unutterable.
"What!" Constance's face showed the final contortions of that horrified incredulity which is forced to believe.
Sophia nudged her violently to remind her that they were in the street, and also quite close to Mr. Povey.
"Now, my little missies," said the vile Hollins. "Three pence a pint, and how's your honoured mother to-day? Yes, fresh, so help me God!"
The two girls came up the unlighted stone staircase which led from Maggie's cave to the door of the parlour. Sophia, foremost, was carrying a large tray, and Constance a small one. Constance, who had nothing on her tray but a teapot, a bowl of steaming and balmy-scented mussels and cockles, and a plate of hot buttered toast, went directly into the parlour on the left. Sophia had in her arms the entire material and apparatus of a high tea for two, including eggs, jam, and toast (covered with the slop-basin turned upside down), but not including mussels and cockles. She turned to the right, passed along the corridor by the cutting-out room, up two steps into the sheeted and shuttered gloom of the closed shop, up the showroom stairs, through the showroom, and so into the
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