It was during the month of June that Aunt Harriet came over from Axe to spend a few days with her little sister, Mrs. Baines. The railway between Axe and the Five Towns had not yet been opened; but even if it had been opened Aunt Harriet would probably not have used it. She had always travelled from Axe to Bursley in the same vehicle, a small waggonette which she hired from Bratt’s livery stables at Axe, driven by a coachman who thoroughly understood the importance, and the peculiarities, of Aunt Harriet.
Mrs. Baines had increased in stoutness, so that now Aunt Harriet had very little advantage over her, physically. But the moral ascendency of the elder still persisted. The two vast widows shared Mrs. Baines’s bedroom, spending much of their time there in long, hushed conversations—interviews from which Mrs. Baines emerged with the air of one who has received enlightenment and Aunt Harriet with the air of one who has rendered it. The pair went about together, in the shop, the showroom, the parlour, the kitchen, and also into the town, addressing each other as ‘Sister,’ ‘Sister.’ Everywhere it was ‘sister,’ ‘sister,’ ’my sister,’ ‘your dear mother,’ ‘your Aunt Harriet.’ They referred to each other as oracular sources of wisdom and good taste. Respectability stalked abroad when they were afoot. The whole Square wriggled uneasily as though God’s eye were peculiarly upon it. The meals in the parlour became solemn collations, at which shone the best silver and the finest diaper, but from which gaiety and naturalness seemed to be banished. (I say ‘seemed’ because it cannot be doubted that Aunt Harriet was natural, and there were moments when she possibly considered herself to be practising gaiety—a gaiety more desolating than her severity.) The younger generation was extinguished, pressed flat and lifeless under the ponderosity of the widows.
Mr. Povey was not the man to be easily flattened by ponderosity of any kind, and his suppression was a striking proof of the prowess of the widows; who, indeed, went over Mr. Povey like traction-engines, with the sublime unconsciousness of traction-engines, leaving an inanimate object in the road behind them, and scarce aware even of the jolt. Mr. Povey hated Aunt Harriet, but, lying crushed there in the road, how could he rebel? He felt all the time that Aunt Harriet was adding him up, and reporting the result at frequent intervals to Mrs. Baines in the bedroom. He felt that she knew everything about him—even to those tears which had been in his eyes. He felt that he could hope to do nothing right for Aunt Harriet, that absolute perfection in the performance of duty would make no more impression on her than a caress on the fly-wheel of a traction-engine. Constance, the dear Constance, was also looked at askance. There was nothing in Aunt Harriet’s demeanour to her that you could take hold of, but there was emphatically something that you could not take hold of—a hint, an inkling, that insinuated to Constance, “Have a care, lest peradventure you become the second cousin of the scarlet woman.”