It was an amiable but deceitful afternoon in the third week of December. Snow fell heavily in the windows of confectioners' shops, and Father Christmas smiled in Keats's Bazaar the fawning smile of a myth who knows himself to be exploded; but beyond these and similar efforts to remedy the forgetfulness of a careless climate, there was no sign anywhere in the Five Towns, and especially in Bursley, of the immediate approach of the season of peace, goodwill, and gluttony on earth.
At the Tiger, next door to Keats's in the market-place, Mr. Josiah Topham Curtenty had put down his glass (the port was kept specially for him), and told his boon companion, Mr. Gordon, that he must be going. These two men had one powerful sentiment in common: they loved the same woman. Mr. Curtenty, aged twenty-six in heart, thirty-six in mind, and forty-six in looks, was fifty-six only in years. He was a rich man; he had made money as an earthenware manufacturer in the good old times before Satan was ingenious enough to invent German competition, American tariffs, and the price of coal; he was still making money with the aid of his son Harry, who now managed the works, but he never admitted that he was making it. No one has yet succeeded, and no one ever will succeed, in catching an earthenware manufacturer in the act of making money; he may confess with a sigh that he has performed the feat in the past, he may give utterance to a vague, preposterous hope that he will perform it again in the remote future, but as for surprising him in the very act, you would as easily surprise a hen laying an egg. Nowadays Mr. Curtenty, commercially secure, spent most of his energy in helping to shape and control the high destinies of the town. He was Deputy-Mayor, and Chairman of the General Purposes Committee of the Town Council; he was also a Guardian of the Poor, a Justice of the Peace, President of the Society for the Prosecution of Felons, a sidesman, an Oddfellow, and several other things that meant dining, shrewdness, and good-nature.
On a plain, middle-aged woman such a pinafore would have been intolerable to the sensitive eye. But on Rachel it simply had a piquant and perverse air, because she was young, with the incomparable, the unique charm of comely adolescence; it simply excited the imagination to conceive the exquisite treasures of contour and tint and texture which it veiled. Do not infer that Rachel was a coquette. Although comely, she was homely—a "downright" girl, scorning and hating all manner of pretentiousness. She had a fine best dress, and when she put it on everybody knew that it was her best; a stranger would have known. Whereas of a coquette none but her intimate companions can say whether she is wearing best or second-best on a given high occasion. Rachel used the pinafore-apron only with her best dress, and her reason for doing so was the sound, sensible reason that it was the usual and proper thing to do.