Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Ten.

Free and Easy.

When Edwin, shyly, followed Big James into the assembly room of the Dragon, it already held a fair sprinkling of men, and newcomers continued to drop in. They were soberly and respectably clothed, though a few had knotted handkerchiefs round their necks instead of collars and ties. The occasion was a jollity of the Bursley Mutual Burial Club. This Club, a singular example of that dogged private cooperative enterprise which so sharply distinguishes English corporate life from the corporate life of other European countries, had lustily survived from a period when men were far less sure of a decent burial than they were then, in the very prosperous early seventies. It had helped to maintain the barbaric fashion of ostentatiously expensive funerals, out of which undertakers and beer-sellers made vast sums; but it had also provided a basis of common endeavour and of fellowship. And its respectability was intense, and at the same time broad-minded. To be an established subscriber to the Burial Club was evidence of good character and of social spirit. The periodic jollities of this company of men whose professed aim was to bury each other, had a high reputation for excellence. Up till a year previously they had always been held at the Duck, in Duck Square, opposite; but Mr Enoch Peake, Chairman of the Club, had by persistent and relentless chicane, triumphing over immense influences, changed their venue to the Dragon, whose landlady, Mrs Louisa Loggerheads, he was then courting. (It must be stated that Mrs Louisa’s name contained no slur of cantankerousness; it is merely the local word for a harmless plant, the knapweed.) He had now won Mrs Loggerheads, after being a widower thrice, and with her the second best ‘house’ in the town.

There were long benches down the room, with forms on either side of them. Big James, not without pomp, escorted a blushing Edwin to the end of one of these tables, near a small raised platform that occupied the extremity of the room. Over this platform was printed a legend: “As a bird is known by its note —”; and over the legend was a full-rigged ship in a glass case, and a pair of antlers. The walls of the room were dark brown, the ceiling grey with soot of various sorts, and the floor tiled red-and-black and sanded. Smoke rose in spirals from about a score of churchwarden pipes and as many cutties, which were charged from tin pouches, and lighted by spills of newspaper from the three double gas-jets that hung down over the benches. Two middle-aged women, one in black and the other checked, served beer, porter, and stout in mugs, and gin in glasses, passing in and out through a side door. The company talked little, and it had not yet begun seriously to drink; but, sprawled about in attitudes of restful abeyance, it was smoking religiously, and the flat noise of solemn expectorations punctuated the minutes. Edwin was easily the youngest person present — the average age appeared to be about fifty — but nobody’s curiosity seemed to be much stirred by his odd arrival, and he ceased gradually to blush. When, however, one of the women paused before him in silent question, and he had to explain that he required no drink because he had only called for a moment about a matter of business, he blushed again vigorously.

Two.

Then Mr Enoch Peake appeared. He was a short, stout old man, with fat hands, a red, minutely wrinkled face, and very small eyes. Greeted with the respect due to the owner of Cocknage Gardens, a sporting resort where all the best foot-racing and rabbit-coursing took place, he accepted it in somnolent indifference, and immediately took off his coat and sat down in cotton shirt-sleeves. Then he pulled out a red handkerchief and his tobacco-box, and set them on the table. Big James motioned to Edwin.

“Evening, Mr Peake,” said Big James, crossing the floor, “and here’s a young gent wishful for two words with you.”

Mr Peake stared vacantly.

“Young Mr Clayhanger,” explained Big James.

“It’s about this card,” Edwin began, in a whisper, drawing the wedding-card sheepishly from his pocket. “Father had to go to Manchester,” he added, when he had finished.

Mr Enoch Peake seized the card in both hands, and examined it; and Edwin could hear his heavy breathing.

Mrs Louisa Loggerheads, a comfortable, smiling administrative woman of fifty, showed herself at the service-door, and nodded with dignity to a few of the habitues.

“Missis is at door,” said Big James to Mr Peake.

“Is her?” muttered Mr Peake, not interrupting his examination of the card.

One of the serving-women, having removed Mr Peake’s coat, brought a new church warden, filled it, and carefully directed the tip towards his tight little mouth: the lips closed on it. Then she lighted a spill and applied it to the distant bowl, and the mouth puffed; and then the woman deposited the bowl cautiously on the bench. Lastly, she came with a small glass of sloe gin. Mr Peake did not move.

At length Mr Peake withdrew the pipe from his mouth, and after an interval said —

“Aye!”

He continued to stare at the card, now held in one hand.

“And is it to be printed in silver?” Edwin asked.

Mr Peake took a few more puffs.

“Aye!”

When he had stared further for a long time at the card, his hand moved slowly with it towards Edwin, and Edwin resumed possession of it.

Mrs Louisa Loggerheads had now vanished.

“Missis has gone,” said Big James.

“Has her?” muttered Mr Peake.

Edwin rose to leave, though unwillingly; but Big James asked him in polite reproach whether he should not stay for the first song. He nodded, encouraged; and sat down. He did not know that the uppermost idea in Big James’s mind for an hour past had been that Edwin would hear him sing.

Mr Peake lifted his glass, held it from him, approached his lips towards it, and emptied it at a draught. He then glanced round and said thickly —

“Gentlemen all, Mester Smallrice, Mester Harracles, Mester Rampick, and Mester Yarlett will now oblige with one o’ th’ ould favourites.”

There was some applause, a few coats were removed, and Mr Peake fixed himself in a contemplative attitude.

Three.

Messrs. Arthur Smallrice, Abraham Harracles, Jos Rawnpike, and James Yarlett rose, stepped heavily on to the little platform, and stood in a line with their hands in their pockets. “As a bird is known by its note —” was hidden by the rampart of their shoulders. They had no music. They knew the music; they had sung it a thousand times. They knew precisely the effects which they wished to produce, and the means of production. They worked together like an inspired machine. Mr Arthur Smallrice gave a rapid glance into a corner, and from that corner a concertina spoke — one short note. Then began, with no hesitating shuffling preliminaries nor mute consultations, the singing of that classic quartet, justly celebrated from Hull to Wigan and from Northallerton to Lichfield, “Loud Ocean’s Roar.” The thing was performed with absolute assurance and perfection. Mr Arthur Smallrice did the yapping of the short waves on the foam-veiled rocks, and Big James in fullest grandeur did the long and mighty rolling of the deep. It was majestic, terrific, and overwhelming. Many bars before the close Edwin was thrilled, as by an exquisite and vast revelation. He tingled from head to foot. He had never heard any singing like it, or any singing in any way comparable to it. He had never guessed that song held such possibilities of emotion. The pure and fine essential qualities of the voices, the dizzying harmonies, the fugal calls and responses, the strange relief of the unisons, and above all the free, natural mien of the singers, proudly aware that they were producing something beautiful that could not be produced more beautifully, conscious of unchallenged supremacy — all this enfevered him to an unprecedented and self-astonished enthusiasm.

He murmured under his breath, as “Loud Ocean’s Roar” died away and the little voices of the street supervened: “By Gad! By Gad!”

The applause was generous. Edwin stamped and clapped with childlike violence and fury. Mr Peake slowly and regularly thumped one fist on the bench, puffing the while. Glasses and mugs could be seen, but not heard, dancing. Mr Arthur Smallrice, Mr Abraham Harracles, Mr Jos Rawnpike, and Mr James Yarlett, entirely inattentive to the acclamations, stepped heavily from the platform and sat down. When Edwin caught Big James’s eye he clapped again, reanimating the general approval, and Big James gazed at him with bland satisfaction. Mr Enoch Peake was now, save for the rise and fall of his great chest, as immobile and brooding as an Indian god.

Four.

Edwin did not depart. He reflected that, even if his father should come home earlier than the last train and prove curious, it would be impossible for him to know the exact moment at which his son had been able to have speech with Mr Enoch Peake on the important matter of business. For aught his father could ever guess he might have been prevented from obtaining the attention of the chairman of the proceedings until, say, eleven o’clock. Also, he meant to present his conduct to his father in the light of an enterprising and fearless action showing a marked aptitude for affairs. Mr Enoch Peake, whom his father was anxious to flatter, had desired his father’s company at the Dragon, and, to save the situation, Edwin had courageously gone instead: that was it.

Besides, he would have stayed in any case. His mind was elevated above the fear of consequences.

There was some concertina-playing, with a realistic imitation of church bells borne on the wind from a distance; and then the Bursley Prize Handbell Ringers (or Campanologists) produced a whole family of real bells from under a form, and the ostler and the two women arranged a special table, and the campanologists fixed their bells on it and themselves round it, and performed a selection of Scotch and Irish airs, without once deceiving themselves as to the precise note which a chosen bell would emit when duly shaken.

Singular as was this feat, it was far less so than a young man’s performance of the ophicleide, a serpentine instrument that coiled round and about its player, and when breathed into persuasively gave forth prodigious brassy sounds that resembled the night-noises of beasts of prey. This item roused the Indian god from his umbilical contemplations, and as the young ophicleide player, somewhat breathless, passed down the room with his brazen creature in his arms, Mr Enoch Peake pulled him by the jacket-tail.

“Eh!” said Mr Enoch Peake. “Is that the ophicleide as thy father used to play at th’ owd church?”

“Yes, Mr Peake,” said the young man, with bright respect.

Mr Peake dropped his eyes again, and when the young man had gone, he murmured, to his stomach —

“I well knowed it were th’ ophicleide as his father used to play at th’ owd church!” And suddenly starting up, he continued hoarsely, “Gentlemen all, Mr James Yarlett will now kindly oblige with ‘The Miller of the Dee.’” And one of the women relighted his pipe and served him with beer.

Five.

Big James’s rendering of “The Miller of the Dee” had been renowned in the Five Towns since 1852. It was classical, hallowed. It was the only possible rendering of “The Miller of the Dee.” If the greatest bass in the world had come incognito to Bursley and sung “The Miller of the Dee,” people would have said, “Ah! But ye should hear Big James sing it!” It suited Big James. The sentiments of the song were his sentiments; he expressed them with natural simplicity; but at the same time they underwent a certain refinement at his hands; for even when he sang at his loudest Big James was refined, natty, and restrained. His instinctive gentlemanliness was invincible and all-pervading. And the real beauty and enormous power of his magnificent voice saved him by its mere distinction from the charge of being finicking. The simple sound of the voice gave pleasure. And the simple production of that sound was Big James’s deepest joy. Amid all the expected loud applause the giant looked naively for Edwin’s boyish mad enthusiasm, and felt it; and was thrilled, and very glad that he had brought Edwin. As for Edwin, Edwin was humbled that he should have been so blind to what Big James was. He had always regarded Big James as a dull, decent, somewhat peculiar fellow in a dirty apron, who was his father’s foreman. He had actually talked once to Big James of the wonderful way in which Maggie and Clara sang, and Big James had been properly respectful. But the singing of Maggie and Clara was less than nothing, the crudest amateurism, compared to these public performances of Big James’s. Even the accompanying concertina was far more cleverly handled than the Clayhanger piano had ever been handled. Yes, Edwin was humbled. And he had a great wish to be able to do something brilliantly himself — he knew not what. The intoxication of the desire for glory was upon him as he sat amid those shirt-sleeved men, near the brooding Indian god, under a crawling bluish canopy of smoke, gazing absently at the legend: “As a bird is known by its note —”

After an interval, during which Mr Enoch Peake was roused more than once, a man with a Lancashire accent recited a poem entitled “The Patent Hairbrushing Machine,” the rotary hairbrush being at that time an exceedingly piquant novelty that had only been heard of in the barbers’ shops of the Five Towns, though travellers to Manchester could boast that they had sat under it. As the principle of the new machine was easily grasped, and the sensations induced by it easily imagined, the recitation had a success which was indicated by slappings of thighs and great blowings-off of mirth. But Mr Enoch Peake preserved his tranquillity throughout it, and immediately it was over he announced with haste —

“Gentlemen all, Miss Florence Simcox — or shall us say Mrs Offlow, wife of the gentleman who has just obliged — the champion female clog-dancer of the Midlands, will now oblige.”

Six.

These words put every man whom they surprised into a state of unusual animation; and they surprised most of the company. It may be doubted whether a female clog-dancer had ever footed it in Bursley. Several public-houses possessed local champions — of a street, of a village — but these were emphatically not women. Enoch Peake had arranged this daring item in the course of his afternoon’s business at Cocknage Gardens, Mr Offlow being an expert in ratting terriers, and Mrs Offlow happening to be on a tour with her husband through the realms of her championship, a tour which mingled the varying advantages derivable from terriers, recitations, and clogs. The affair was therefore respectable beyond cavil.

Nevertheless when Florence shone suddenly at the service-door, the shortness of her red-and-black velvet skirts, and the undeniable complete visibility of her rounded calves produced an uneasy and agreeable impression that Enoch Peake, for a chairman of the Mutual Burial Club, had gone rather far, superbly far, and that his moral ascendancy over Louisa Loggerheads must indeed be truly astonishing. Louisa now stood gravely behind the dancer, in the shadow of the doorway, and the contrast between her and Florence was in every way striking enough to prove what a wonderful and mysterious man Enoch Peake was. Florence was accustomed to audiences. She was a pretty, doll-like woman, if inclined to amplitude; but the smile between those shaking golden ringlets had neither the modesty nor the false modesty nor the docility that Bursley was accustomed to think proper to the face of woman. It could have stared down any man in the place, except perhaps Mr Peake.

The gestures of Mr Offlow, and her gestures, as he arranged and prepared the surface of the little square dancing-board that was her throne, showed that he was the husband of Florence Simcox rather than she the wife of Offlow the reciter and dog-fancier. Further, it was his role to play the concertina to her: he had had to learn the concertina — possibly a secret humiliation for one whose judgement in terriers was not excelled in many public-houses.

Seven.

She danced; and the service-doorway showed a vista of open-mouthed scullions. There was no sound in the room, save the concertina and the champion clogs. Every eye was fixed on those clogs; even the little eyes of Mr Peake quitted the button of his waistcoat and burned like diamond points on those clogs. Florence herself chiefly gazed on those clogs, but occasionally her nonchalant petulant gaze would wander up and down her bare arms and across her bosom. At intervals, with her ringed fingers she would lift the short skirt — a nothing, an imperceptibility, half an inch, with glance downcast; and the effect was profound, recondite, inexplicable. Her style was not that of a male dog-dancer, but it was indubitably clog-dancing, full of marvels to the connoisseur, and to the profane naught but a highly complicated series of wooden noises. Florence’s face began to perspire. Then the concertina ceased playing, so that an undistracted attention might be given to the supremely difficult final figures of the dance.

And thus was rendered back to the people in the charming form of beauty that which the instinct of the artist had taken from the sordid ugliness of the people. The clog, the very emblem of the servitude and the squalor of brutalised populations, was changed, on the light feet of this favourite, into the medium of grace. Few of these men but at some time of their lives had worn the clog, had clattered in it through winter’s slush, and through the freezing darkness before dawn, to the manufactory and the mill and the mine, whence after a day of labour under discipline more than military, they had clattered back to their little candle-lighted homes. One of the slatterns behind the doorway actually stood in clogs to watch the dancer. The clog meant everything that was harsh, foul, and desolating; it summoned images of misery and disgust. Yet on those feet that had never worn it seriously, it became the magic instrument of pleasure, waking dulled wits and forgotten aspirations, putting upon everybody an enchantment . . . And then, suddenly, the dancer threw up one foot as high as her head and brought two clogs down together like a double mallet on the board, and stood still. It was over.

Mrs Louisa Loggerheads turned nervously away, pushing her servants in front of her. And when the society of mutual buriers had recovered from the startling shameless insolence of that last high kick, it gave the rein to its panting excitement, and roared and stamped. Edwin was staggered. The blood swept into his face, a hot tide. He was ravished, but he was also staggered. He did not know what to think of Florence, the champion female clog-dancer. He felt that she was wondrous; he felt that he could have gazed at her all night; but he felt that she had put him under the necessity of reconsidering some of his fundamental opinions. For example, he was obliged to admit within himself a lessening of scorn for the attitude toward each other of Miss Ingamells and her young man. He saw those things in a new light. And he reflected, dazzled by the unforeseen chances of existence: “Yesterday I was at school — and today I see this!” He was so preoccupied by his own intimate sensations that the idea of applauding never occurred to him, until he perceived his conspicuousness in not applauding, whereupon he clapped self-consciously.

Eight.

Miss Florence Simcox, somewhat breathless, tripped away, with simulated coyness and many curtseys. She had done her task, and as a woman she had to go: this was a gathering of members of the Mutual Burial Club, a masculine company, and not meet for females. The men pulled themselves together, remembering that their proudest quality was a stoic callousness that nothing could overthrow. They refilled pipes, ordered more beer, and resumed the mask of invulnerable solemnity.

“Aye!” muttered Mr Enoch Peake.

Edwin, with a great effort, rose and walked out. He would have liked to say good night to Big James; he did not deny that he ought to have done so; but he dared not complicate his exit. On the pavement outside, in the warm damp night, a few loitering listeners stood doggedly before an open window, hearkening, their hands deep in their pockets, motionless. And Edwin could hear Mr Enoch Peake: “Gentlemen all, Mester Arthur Smallrice, Mester Abraham Harracles, Mester Jos Rampick, and Mester James Yarlett —”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31