Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Twelve.

Machinery.

Rather more than a week later, Edwin had so far entered into the life of his father’s business that he could fully share the excitement caused by an impending solemnity in the printing office. He was somewhat pleased with himself, and especially with his seriousness. The memory of school was slipping away from him in the most extraordinary manner. His only school-friend, Charlie Orgreave, had departed, with all the multitudinous Orgreaves, for a month in Wales. He might have written to the Sunday; the Sunday might have written to him: but the idea of writing did not occur to either of them; they were both still sufficiently childlike to accept with fatalism all the consequences of parental caprice. Orgreave senior had taken his family to Wales; the boys were thus separated, and there was an end of it. Edwin regretted this, because Orgreave senior happened to be a very successful architect, and hence there were possibilities of getting into an architectural atmosphere. He had never been inside the home of the Sunday, nor the Sunday in his — a schoolboy friendship can flourish in perfect independence of home — but he nervously hoped that on the return of the Orgreave regiment from Wales, something favourable to his ambitions — he knew not what — would come to pass. In the meantime he was conscientiously doing his best to acquire a business training, as his father had suggested. He gave himself with an enthusiasm almost religious to the study of business methods. All the force of his resolve to perfect himself went for the moment into this immediate enterprise, and he was sorry that business methods were not more complex, mysterious, and original than they seemed to be: he was also sorry that his father did not show a greater interest in his industry and progress.

He no longer wanted to ‘play’ now. He despised play. His unique wish was to work. It struck him as curious and delightful that he really enjoyed work. Work had indeed become play. He could not do enough work to satisfy his appetite. And after the work of the day, scorning all silly notions about exercise and relaxation, he would spend the evening in his beautiful new attic, copying designs, which he would sometimes rise early to finish. He thought he had conquered the gross body, and that it was of no account. Even the desolating failures which his copies invariably proved did not much discourage him; besides, one of them had impressed both Maggie and Clara. He copied with laborious ardour undiminished. And further, he masterfully appropriated Maggie’s ticket for the Free Library, pending the preliminaries to the possession of a ticket of his own, to procure a volume on architecture. From timidity, from a singular false shame, he kept this volume in the attic, like a crime; nobody knew what the volume was. Evidence of a strange trait in his character; a trait perhaps not defensible! He argued with himself that having told his father plainly that he wanted to be an architect, he need do nothing else aggressive for the present. He had agreed to the suggestion about business training, and he must be loyal to his agreement. He pointed out to himself how right his father was. At sixteen one could scarcely begin to be an architect; it was too soon; and a good business training would not be out of place in any career or profession.

He was so wrapped up in his days and his nights that he forgot to inquire why earthenware was made in just the Five Towns. He had grown too serious for trifles — and all in about a week! True, he was feeling the temporary excitement of the printing office, which was perhaps expressed boyishly by the printing staff; but he reckoned that his share of it was quite adult, frowningly superior, and in a strictly business sense justifiable and even proper.

Two.

Darius Clayhanger’s printing office was a fine example of the policy of makeshift which governed and still governs the commercial activity of the Five Towns. It consisted of the first floor of a nondescript building which stood at the bottom of the irregularly shaped yard behind the house and shop, and which formed the southern boundary of the Clayhanger premises. The antique building had once been part of an old-fashioned pot-works, but that must have been in the eighteenth century. Kilns and chimneys of all ages, sizes, and tints rose behind it to prove that this part of the town was one of the old manufacturing quarters. The ground-floor of the building, entirely inaccessible from Clayhanger’s yard, had a separate entrance of its own in an alley that branched off from Woodisun Bank, ran parallel to Wedgwood Street, and stopped abruptly at the back gate of a saddler’s workshop. In the narrow entry you were like a creeping animal amid the undergrowth of a forest of chimneys, ovens, and high blank walls. This ground-floor had been a stable for many years; it was now, however, a baker’s storeroom. Once there had been an interior staircase leading from the ground-floor to the first-floor, but it had been suppressed in order to save floor space, and an exterior staircase constructed with its foot in Clayhanger’s yard. To meet the requirement of the staircase, one of the first-floor windows had been transformed into a door. Further, as the staircase came against one of the ground-floor windows, and as Clayhanger’s predecessor had objected to those alien windows overlooking his yard, and as numerous windows were anyhow unnecessary to a stable, all the ground-floor windows had been closed up with oddments of brick and tile, giving to the wall a very variegated and chequered appearance. Thus the ground-floor and the first-floor were absolutely divorced, the former having its entrance and light from the public alley, the latter from the private yard.

The first-floor had been a printing office for over seventy years. All the machinery in it had had to be manoeuvred up the rickety stairs, or put through one of the windows on either side of the window that had been turned into a door. When Darius Clayhanger, in his audacity, decided to print by steam, many people imagined that he would at last be compelled to rent the ground-floor or to take other premises. But no! The elasticity of the makeshift policy was not yet fully stretched. Darius, in consultation with a jobbing builder, came happily to the conclusion that he could ‘manage,’ that he could ‘make things do,’ by adding to the top of his stairs a little landing for an engine-shed. This was done, and the engine and boiler perched in the air; the shaft of the engine went through the wall; the chimney-pipe of the boiler ran up straight to the level of the roof-ridge, and was stayed with pieces of wire. A new chimney had also been pierced in the middle of the roof, for the uses of a heating stove. The original chimneys had been allowed to fall into decay. Finally, a new large skylight added interest to the roof. In a general way, the building resembled a suit of clothes that had been worn, during four of the seven ages of man, by an untidy husband with a tidy and economical wife, and then given by the wife to a poor relation of a somewhat different figure to finish. All that could be said of it was that it survived and served.

But these considerations occurred to nobody.

Three.

Edwin, quite unaware that he was an instrument in the hands of his Auntie Clara’s Providence, left the shop without due excuse and passed down the long blue-paved yard towards the printing office. He imagined that he was being drawn thither simply by his own curiosity — a curiosity, however, which he considered to be justifiable, and even laudable. The yard showed signs that the unusual had lately been happening there. Its brick pavement, in the narrow branch of it that led to the double gates in Woodisun Bank (those gates which said to the casual visitor, ‘No Admittance except on Business’), was muddy, littered, and damaged, as though a Juggernaut had passed that way. Ladders reclined against the walls. Moreover, one of the windows of the office had been taken out of its frame, leaving naught but an oblong aperture. Through this aperture Edwin could see the busy, eager forms of his father, Big James, and Chawner. Through this aperture had been lifted, in parts and by the employment of every possible combination of lever and pulley, the printing machine which Darius Clayhanger had so successfully purchased in Manchester on the day of the free-and-easy at the Dragon.

At the top of the flight of steps two apprentices, one nearly ‘out of his time,’ were ministering to the engine, which that morning did not happen to be running. The engine, giving glory to the entire establishment by virtue of the imposing word ‘steam’, was a crotchety and capricious thing, constant only in its tendency to break down. No more reliance could be placed on it than on a pampered donkey. Sometimes it would run, and sometimes it would not run, but nobody could safely prophesy its moods. Of the several machines it drove but one, the grand cylinder, the last triumph of the ingenuity of man, and even that had to be started by hand before the engine would consent to work it. The staff hated the engine, except during those rare hours when one of its willing moods coincided with a pressure of business. Then, when the steam was sputtering and the smoke smoking and the piston throbbing, and the leathern belt travelling round and round and the complete building a-tremble and a-clatter, and an attendant with clean hands was feeding the sheets at one end of the machine and another attendant with clean hands taking them off at the other, all at the rate of twenty copies per sixty seconds — then the staff loved the engine and meditated upon the wonders of their modern civilisation. The engine had been known to do its five thousand in an afternoon, and its horse-power was only one.

Four.

Edwin could not keep out of the printing office. He went inconspicuously and, as it were, by accident up the stone steps, and disappeared into the interior. When you entered the office you were first of all impressed by the multiplicity of odours competing for your attention, the chief among them being those of ink, oil, and paraffin. Despite the fact that the door was open and one window gone, the smell and heat in the office on that warm morning were notable. Old sheets of the “Manchester Examiner” had been pinned over the skylight to keep out the sun, but, as these were torn and rent, the sun was not kept out. Nobody, however, seemed to suffer inconvenience. After the odours, the remarkable feature of the place was the quantity of machinery on its uneven floor. Timid employes had occasionally suggested to Darius that the floor might yield one day and add themselves and all the machinery to the baker’s stores below; but Darius knew that floors never did yield.

In the middle of the floor was a huge and heavy heating stove, whose pipe ran straight upwards to the visible roof. The mighty cylinder machine stood to the left hand. Behind was a small rough-and-ready binding department with a guillotine cutting machine, a cardboard-cutting machine, and a perforating machine, trifles by the side of the cylinder, but still each of them formidable masses of metal heavy enough to crush a horse; the cutting machines might have served to illustrate the French Revolution, and the perforating machine the Holy Inquisition.

Then there was what was called in the office the ‘old machine,’ a relic of Clayhanger’s predecessor, and at least eighty years old. It was one of those machines whose worn physiognomies, full of character, show at once that they have a history. In construction it carried solidity to an absurd degree. Its pillars were like the piles of a pier. Once, in a historic rat-catching, a rat had got up one of them, and a piece of smouldering brown paper had done what a terrier could not do. The machine at one period of its career had been enlarged, and the neat seaming of the metal was an ecstasy to the eye of a good workman. Long ago, it was known, this machine had printed a Reform newspaper at Stockport. Now, after thus participating in the violent politics of an age heroic and unhappy, it had been put to printing small posters of auctions and tea-meetings. Its movement was double: first that of a handle to bring the bed under the platen, and second, a lever pulled over to make contact between the type and the paper. It still worked perfectly. It was so solid, and it had been so honestly made, that it could never get out of order nor wear away. And, indeed, the conscientiousness and skill of artificers in the eighteenth century are still, through that resistless machine, producing their effect in the twentieth. But it needed a strong hand to bestir its smooth plum-coloured limbs of metal, and a speed of a hundred an hour meant gentle perspiration. The machine was loved like an animal.

Near this honourable and lumbering survival stood pertly an Empire treadle-machine for printing envelopes and similar trifles. It was new, and full of natty little devices. It worked with the lightness of something unsubstantial. A child could actuate it, and it would print delicately a thousand envelopes an hour. This machine, with the latest purchase, which was away at the other end of the room near the large double-pointed case-rack, completed the tale of machines. That case-rack alone held fifty different founts of type, and there were other caseracks. The lead-rack was nearly as large, and beneath the lead-rack was a rack containing all those “furnitures” which help to hold a forme of type together without betraying themselves to the reader of the printed sheet. And under the furniture rack was the ‘random,’ full of galleys. Then there was a table with a top of solid stone, upon which the formes were bolted up. And there was the ink-slab, another solidity, upon which the ink-rollers were inked. Rollers of various weightiness lay about, and large heavy cans, and many bottles, and metal galleys, and nameless fragments of metal. Everything contributed to the impression of immense ponderosity exceeding the imagination. The fancy of being pinned down by even the lightest of these constructions was excruciating. You moved about in narrow alleys among upstanding, unyielding metallic enormities, and you felt fragile and perilously soft.

Five.

The only unintimidating phenomena in the crowded place were the lye-brushes, the dusty job-files that hung from the great transverse beams, and the proof-sheets that were scattered about. These printed things showed to what extent Darius Clayhanger’s establishment was a channel through which the life of the town had somehow to pass. Auctions, meetings, concerts, sermons, improving lectures, miscellaneous entertainments, programmes, catalogues, deaths, births, marriages, specifications, municipal notices, summonses, demands, receipts, subscription-lists, accounts, rate-forms, lists of voters, jury-lists, inaugurations, closures, bill-heads, handbills, addresses, visiting-cards, society rules, bargain-sales, lost and found notices: traces of all these matters, and more, were to be found in that office; it was impregnated with the human interest; it was dusty with the human interest; its hot smell seemed to you to come off life itself, if the real sentiment and love of life were sufficiently in you. A grand, stuffy, living, seething place, with all its metallic immobility!

Six.

Edwin sidled towards the centre of interest, the new machine, which, however, was not a new machine. Darius Clayhanger did not buy more new things than he could help. His delight was to ‘pick up’ articles that were supposed to be ‘as good as new’; occasionally he would even assert that an object bought second-hand was ‘better than new,’ because it had been ‘broken in,’ as if it were a horse. Nevertheless, the latest machine was, for a printing machine, nearly new: its age was four years only. It was a Demy Columbian Press, similar in conception and movement to the historic ‘old machine’ that had been through the Reform agitation; but how much lighter, how much handier, how much more ingenious and precise in the detail of its working! A beautiful edifice, as it stood there, gazed on admiringly by the expert eyes of Darius, in his shirt-sleeves, Big James, in his royally flowing apron, and Chawner, the journeyman compositor, who, with the two apprentices outside, completed the staff! Aided by no mechanic more skilled than a day-labourer, those men had got the machine piecemeal into the office, and had duly erected it. At that day a foreman had to be equal to anything.

The machine appeared so majestic there, so solid and immovable, that it might ever have existed where it then was. Who could credit that, less than a fortnight earlier, it had stood equally majestic, solid, and immovable in Manchester? There remained nothing to show how the miracle had been accomplished, except a bandage of ropes round the lower pillars and some pulley-tackle hanging from one of the transverse beams exactly overhead. The situation of the machine in the workshop had been fixed partly by that beam above and partly by the run of the beams that supported the floor. The stout roof-beam enabled the artificers to handle the great masses by means of the tackle; and as for the floor-beams, Darius had so far listened to warnings as to take them into account.

Seven.

“Take another impress, James,” said Darius. And when he saw Edwin, instead of asking the youth what he was wasting his time there for, he good-humouredly added: “Just watch this, my lad.” Darius was pleased with himself, his men, and his acquisition. He was in one of his moods when he could charm; he was jolly, and he held up his chin. Two days before, so interested had he been in the Demy Columbian, he had actually gone through a bilious attack while scarcely noticing it! And now the whole complex operation had been brought to a triumphant conclusion.

Big James inserted the sheet of paper, with gentle and fine movements. The journeyman turned the handle, and the bed of the machine slid horizontally forward in frictionless, stately silence. And then Big James seized the lever with his hairy arm bared to the elbow, and pulled it over. The delicate process was done with minute and level exactitude; adjusted to the thirty-second of an inch, the great masses of metal had brought the paper and the type together and separated them again. In another moment Big James drew out the sheet, and the three men inspected it, each leaning over it. A perfect impression!

“Well,” said Darius, glowing, “we’ve had a bit o’ luck in getting that up! Never had less trouble! Shows we can do better without those Foundry chaps than with ’em! James, ye can have a quart brought in, if ye’n a mind, but I won’t have them apprentices drinking! No, I won’t! Mrs Nixon’ll give ’em some nettle-beer if they fancy it.”

He was benignant. The inauguration of a new machine deserved solemn recognition, especially on a hot day. It was an event.

“An infant in arms could turn this here,” murmured the journeyman, toying with the handle that moved the bed. It was an exaggeration, but an excusable, poetical exaggeration.

Big James wiped his wrists on his apron.

Eight.

Then there was a queer sound of cracking somewhere, vague, faint, and yet formidable. Darius was standing between the machines and the dismantled window, his back to the latter. Big James and the journeyman rushed instinctively from the centre of the floor towards him. In a second the journeyman was on the window sill.

“What art doing?” Darius demanded roughly; but there was no sincerity in his voice.

“Th’ floor!” the journeyman excitedly exclaimed.

Big James stood close to the wall.

“And what about th’ floor?” Darius challenged him obstinately.

“One o’ them beams is a-going,” stammered the journeyman.

“Rubbish!” shouted Darius. But simultaneously he motioned to Edwin to move from the middle of the room, and Edwin obeyed. All four listened, with nerves stretched to the tightest. Darius was biting his lower lip with his upper teeth. His humour had swiftly changed to the savage. Every warning that had been uttered for years past concerning that floor was remembered with startling distinctness. Every impatient reassurance offered by Darius for years past suddenly seemed fatuous and perverse. How could any man in his senses expect the old floor to withstand such a terrific strain as that to which Darius had at last dared to subject it? The floor ought by rights to have given way years ago! His men ought to have declined to obey instructions that were obviously insane. These and similar thoughts visited the minds of Big James and the journeyman.

As for Edwin, his excitement was, on balance, pleasurable. In truth, he could not kill in his mind the hope that the floor would yield. The greatness of the resulting catastrophe fascinated him. He knew that he should be disappointed if the catastrophe did not occur. That it would mean ruinous damage to the extent of hundreds of pounds, and enormous worry, did not influence him. His reason did not influence him, nor his personal danger. He saw a large hook in the wall to which he could cling when the exquisite crash came, and pictured a welter of broken machinery and timber ten feet below him, and the immense pother that the affair would create in the town.

Nine.

Darius would not loose his belief in his floor. He hugged it in mute fury. He would not climb on to the window sill, nor tell Big James to do so, nor even Edwin. On the subject of the floor he was religious; he was above the appeal of the intelligence. He had always held passionately that the floor was immovable, and he always would. He had finally convinced himself of its omnipotent strength by the long process of assertion and reassertion. When a voice within him murmured that his belief in the floor had no scientific basis, he strangled the voice. So he remained, motionless, between the window and the machine.

No sound! No slightest sound! No tremor of the machine! But Darius’s breathing could be heard after a moment.

He guffawed sneeringly.

“And what next?” he defiantly asked, scowling. “What’s amiss wi’ ye all?” He put his hands in his pockets. “Dun ye mean to tell me as —”

The younger apprentice entered from the engine-shed.

“Get back there!” rolled and thundered the voice of Big James. It was the first word he had spoken, and he did not speak it in frantic, hysteric command, but with a terrible and convincing mildness. The phrase fell on the apprentice like a sandbag, and he vanished.

Darius said nothing. There was another cracking sound, louder, and unmistakably beneath the bed of the machine. And at the same instant a flake of grimy plaster detached itself from the opposite wall and dropped into pale dust on the floor. And still Darius religiously did not move, and Big James would not move. They might have been under a spell. The journeyman jumped down incautiously into the yard.

Ten.

And then Edwin, hardly knowing what he did, and certainly not knowing why he did it, walked quickly out on to the floor, seized the huge hook attached to the lower pulley of the tackle that hung from the roof-beam, pulled up the slack of the rope-bandage on the hind part of the machine, and stuck the hook into it, then walked quickly back. The hauling-rope of the tackle had been carried to the iron ring of a trap-door in the corner near Big James; this trap-door, once the outlet of the interior staircase from the ground floor, had been nailed down many years previously. Big James dropped to his knees and tightened and knotted the rope. Another and much louder noise of cracking followed, the floor visibly yielded, and the hindpart of the machine visibly sank about a quarter of an inch. But no more. The tackle held. The strain was distributed between the beam above and the beam below, and equilibrium established.

“Out! Lad! Out!” cried Darius feebly, in the wreck, not of his workshop, but of his religion. And Edwin fled down the steps, pushing the mystified apprentices before him, and followed by the men. In the yard the journeyman, entirely self-centred, was hopping about on one leg and cursing.

Eleven.

Darius, Big James, and Edwin stared in the morning sunshine at the aperture of the window and listened.

“Nay!” said Big James, after an eternity. “He’s saved it! He’s saved th’ old shop! But by gum — by gum —”

Darius turned to Edwin, and tried to say something; and then Edwin saw his father’s face working into monstrous angular shapes, and saw the tears spurt out of his eyes, and was clutched convulsively in his father’s shirt-sleeved arms. He was very proud, very pleased, but he did not like this embrace; it made him feel ashamed. He thought how Clara would have sniggered about it and caricatured it afterwards, had she witnessed it. And although he had incontestably done something which was very wonderful and very heroic, and which proved in him the most extraordinary presence of mind, he could not honestly glorify himself in his own heart, because it appeared to him that he had acted exactly like an automaton. He blankly marvelled, and thought the situation agreeably thrilling, if somewhat awkward. His father let him go. Then all Edwin’s feelings gave place to an immense stupefaction at his father’s truly remarkable behaviour. What! His father emotional! He had to begin to revise again his settled views.

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