Perhaps she was afraid of miracles. Mr. Scales sitting on her mother’s doorstep in the middle of the snowy night had assuredly the air of a miracle, of something dreamed in a dream, of something pathetically and impossibly appropriate—’pat,’ as they say in the Five Towns. But he was a tangible fact there. And years afterwards, in the light of further knowledge of Mr. Scales, Sophia came to regard his being on the doorstep as the most natural and characteristic thing in the world. Real miracles never seem to be miracles, and that which at the first blush resembles one usually proves to be an instance of the extremely prosaic.
“Is that you, Mrs. Baines?” asked Gerald Scales, in a half-witted voice, looking up, and then getting to his feet. “Is this your house? So it is! Well, I’d no idea I was sitting on your doorstep.”
He smiled timidly, nay, sheepishly, while the women and Mr. Povey surrounded him with their astonished faces under the light of the gas-lamp. Certainly he was very pale.
“But whatever is the matter, Mr. Scales?” Mrs. Baines demanded in an anxious tone. “Are you ill? Have you been suddenly—”
“Oh no,” said the young man lightly. “It’s nothing. Only I was set on just now, down there,”—he pointed to the depths of King Street.
“Set on!” Mrs. Baines repeated, alarmed.
“That makes the fourth case in a week, that we know of!” said Mr. Povey. “It really is becoming a scandal.”
The fact was that, owing to depression of trade, lack of employment, and rigorous weather, public security in the Five Towns was at that period not as perfect as it ought to have been. In the stress of hunger the lower classes were forgetting their manners—and this in spite of the altruistic and noble efforts of their social superiors to relieve the destitution due, of course, to short-sighted improvidence. When (the social superiors were asking in despair) will the lower classes learn to put by for a rainy day? (They might have said a snowy and a frosty day.) It was ‘really too bad’ of the lower classes, when everything that could be done was being done for them, to kill, or even attempt to kill, the goose that lays the golden eggs! And especially in a respectable town! What, indeed, were things coming to? Well, here was Mr. Gerald Scales, gentleman from Manchester, a witness and victim to the deplorable moral condition of the Five Towns. What would he think of the Five Towns? The evil and the danger had been a topic of discussion in the shop for a week past, and now it was brought home to them.
“I hope you weren’t—” said Mrs. Baines, apologetically and sympathetically.
“Oh no!” Mr. Scales interrupted her quite gaily. “I managed to beat them off. Only my elbow—”
Meanwhile it was continuing to snow.
“Do come in!” said Mrs. Baines.
“I couldn’t think of troubling you,” said Mr. Scales. “I’m all right now, and I can find my way to the Tiger.”