Tales of the Five Towns Part 11

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'Why! You _are_ back early, father! How----' She stopped. Something in the old man's glance gave her a premonition of disaster. To this day she does not know what accident brought him from Manchester two hours sooner than usual, and to Machin Street instead of Pireford.

'Has young Timmis been here?' he inquired curtly.

'Yes.'

'Ha!' with subdued, sinister satisfaction, 'I saw him going out. He didna see me.' Ezra Brunt deposited his hat and sat down.

Intimate with all her father's various moods, she saw instantly and with terrible certainty that a series of chances had fatally combined themselves against her. If only she had not happened to tell Clive that her father would be at Manchester this day! If only her father had adhered to his customary hour of return! If only Clive had had the sense to make his proposal openly at Pireford some evening! If only he had left a little earlier! If only her father had not caught him going out by the side-door on a Thursday afternoon when the place was empty!

Here, she guessed, was the suggestion of furtiveness which had raised her father's unreasoning anger, often fierce, and always incalculable.

'Clive Timmis has asked me to marry him, father.'

'Has he!'

'Surely you must have known, father, that he and I were seeing each other a great deal.'

'Not from your lips, my girl.'

'Well, father----' Again she stopped, this strong and capable woman, gifted with a fine brain to organize and a powerful will to command. She quailed, robbed of speech, before the causeless, vindictive, and infantile wrath of an old man who happened to be in a bad temper. She actually felt like a naughty schoolgirl before him. Such is the tremendous influence of lifelong habit, the irresistible power of the _patria potestas_ when it has never been relaxed. Ezra Brunt saw in front of him only a cowering child. 'Clive is coming up to see you to-night,' she went on timidly, clearing her throat.

'Humph! Is he?'

The rosy and tender dream of five minutes ago lay in fragments at Eva's feet. She brooded with stricken apprehension upon the forms of obstruction which his despotism might choose.

The next morning Clive and his uncle breakfasted together as usual in the parlour behind, the chemist's shop.

'Uncle,' said Clive brusquely, when the meal was nearly finished, 'I'd better tell you that I've proposed to Eva Brunt.'

Old George Timmis lowered the _Manchester Guardian_ and gazed at Clive over his steel-rimmed spectacles.

'She is a good girl,' he remarked; 'she will make you a good wife. Have you spoken to her father?'

'That's the point. I saw him last night, and I'll tell you what he said.

These were his words: "You can marry my daughter, Mr. Timmis, when your uncle agrees to part with his shop!"'

'That I shall never do, nephew,' said the aged patriarch quietly and deliberately.

'Of course you won't, uncle. I shouldn't think of suggesting it. I'm merely telling you what he said.' Clive laughed harshly. 'Why,' he added, 'the man must be mad!'

'What did the young woman say to that?' his uncle inquired.

Clive frowned.

'I didn't see her last night,' he said. 'I didn't ask to see her. I was too angry.'

Just then the post arrived, and there was a letter for Clive, which he read and put carefully in his waistcoat pocket.

'Eva writes asking me to go to Pireford to-night,' he said, after a pause. 'I'll soon settle it, depend on that. If Ezra Brunt refuses his consent, so much the worse for him. I wonder whether he actually imagines that a grown man and a grown woman are to be.... Ah well, I can't talk about it! It's too silly. I'll be off to the works.'

When Clive reached Pireford that night, Eva herself opened the door to him. She was wearing a gray frock, and over it a large white ap.r.o.n, perfectly plain.

'My girls are both out to-night,' she said, 'and I was making some puffs for the sewing-meeting tea. Come into the breakfast-room.... This way,'

she added, guiding him. He had entered the house on the previous night for the first time. She spoke hurriedly, and, instead of stopping in the breakfast-room, wandered uncertainly through it into the greenhouse, to which it gave access by means of a French window. In the dark, confined s.p.a.ce, amid the close-packed blossoms, they stood together. She bent down to smell at a musk-plant. He took her hand and drew her soft and yielding form towards him and kissed her warm face.

'Oh, Clive!' she said. 'Whatever are we to do?'

'Do?' he replied, enchanted by her instinctive feminine surrender and reliance upon him, which seemed the more precious in that creature so proud and reserved to all others. 'Do! Where is your father?'

'Reading the _Signal_ in the dining-room.'

Every business man in the Five Towns reads the _Staffords.h.i.+re Signal_ from beginning to end every night.

'I will see him. Of course he is your father; but I will just tell him--as decently as I can--that neither you nor I will stand this nonsense.'

'You mustn't--you mustn't see him.'

'Why not?'

'It will only lead to unpleasantness.'

'That can't be helped.'

'He never, never changes when once he has _said_ a thing. I know him.'

Clive was arrested by something in her tone, something new to him, that in its poignant finality seemed to have caught up and expressed in a single instant that bitterness of a lifetime's renunciation which falls to the lot of most women.

'Will you come outside?' he asked in a different voice.

Without replying, she led the way down the long garden, which ended in an ivy-grown brick wall and a panorama of the immense valley of industries below. It was a warm, cloudy evening. The last silver tinge of an August twilight lay on the shoulder of the hill to the left. There was no moon, but the splendid watch-fires of labour flamed from ore-heap and furnace across the whole expanse, performing their nightly miracle of beauty. Trains crept with noiseless mystery along the middle distance, under their canopies of yellow steam. Further off the far-extending streets of Hanbridge made a map of starry lines on the blackness. To the south-east stared the cold, blue electric lights of Knype railway-station. All was silent, save for a distant thunderous roar, the giant breathing of the forge at Cauldon Bar Ironworks.

Eva leaned both elbows on the wall and looked forth.

'Do you mean to say,' said Clive, 'that Mr. Brunt will actually stick by what he has said?'

'Like grim death,' said Eva.

'But what's his idea?'

'Oh! how can I tell you?' she burst out pa.s.sionately.

'Perhaps I did wrong. Perhaps I ought to have warned him earlier--said to him, "Father, Clive Timmis is courting me!" Ugh! He cannot bear to be surprised about anything. But yet he must have known.... It was all an accident, Clive--all an accident. He saw you leaving the shop yesterday.

He would say he _caught_ you leaving the shop--_sneaking_ off like----'

'But, Eva----'

'I know--I know! Don't tell me! But it was that, I am sure. He would resent the mere look of things, and then he would think and think, and the notion of your uncle's shop would occur to him again, after all these years. I can see his thoughts as plain ... My dear, if he had not seen you at Machin Street yesterday, or if you had seen him and spoken to him, all might have gone right. He would have objected, but he would have given way in a day or two. Now he will never give way! I asked you just now what was to be done, but I knew all the time that there was nothing.'

Tales of the Five Towns Part 11

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Tales of the Five Towns Part 11 summary

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