Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Thirteen.

One Result of Courage.

By the next morning a certain tranquillity was restored.

It was only in this relative calm that the Clayhanger family and its dependants began to realise the intensity of the experience through which they had passed, and, in particular, the strain of waiting for events after the printing office had been abandoned by its denizens, The rumour of what had happened, and of what might have happened, had spread about the premises in an instant, and in another instant all the women had collected in the yard; even Miss Ingamells had betrayed the sacred charge of the shop. Ten people were in the yard, staring at the window aperture on the first-floor and listening for ruin. Some time had elapsed before Darius would allow anybody even to mount the steps. Then the baker, the tenant of the ground-floor, had had to be fetched. A pleasant, bland man, he had consented in advance to every suggestion; he had practically made Darius a present of the ground-floor, if Darius possessed the courage to go into it, or to send others into it, The seat of deliberation had then been transferred to the alley behind. And the jobbing builder and carpenters had been fetched, and there was a palaver of tremendous length and solemnity. For hours nothing definite seemed to happen; no one ate or drank, and the current of life at the corner of Trafalgar Road and Wedgwood Street ceased to flow. Boys and men who had heard of the affair, and who had the divine gift of curiosity, gazed in rapture at the ‘No Admittance’ notice on the ramshackle double gates in Woodisun Bank, It seemed that they might never be rewarded, but their great faith was justified when a hand-cart, bearing several beams three yards long, halted at the gates and was, after a pause, laboriously pushed past them and round the corner into the alley and up the alley. The alley had been crammed to witness the taking of the beams into the baker’s storeroom. If the floor above had decided to yield, the noble, negligent carpenters would have been crushed beneath tons of machinery. At length a forest of pillars stood planted on the ground-floor amid the baker’s lumber; every beam was duly supported, and the experts pronounced that calamity was now inconceivable. Lastly, the tackle on the Demy Columbian had been loosed, and the machine, slightly askew, permitted gently to sink to full rest on the floor: and the result justified the experts.

Two.

By this time people had started to eat, but informally, as it were apologetically — Passover meals. Evening was at hand. The Clayhangers, later, had met at table. A strange repast! A strange father! The children had difficulty in speaking naturally. And then Mrs Hamps had come, ebulliently thanking God, and conveying the fact that the town was thrilled and standing utterly amazed in admiration before her heroical nephew. And yet she had said ardently that she was in no way amazed at her nephew’s coolness; she would have been surprised if he had shown himself even one degree less cool. From a long study of his character she had foreknown infallibly that in such a crisis as had supervened he would behave precisely as he had behaved. This attitude of Auntie Hamps, however, though it reduced the miraculous to the ordinary-expected, did not diminish Clara’s ingenuous awe of Edwin. From a mocker, the child had been temporarily transformed into an unwilling hero-worshipper. Mrs Hamps having departed, all the family, including Darius, had retired earlier than usual.

And now, on meeting his father and Big James and Miss Ingamells in the queer peace of the morning, in the relaxation after tension, and in the complete realisation of the occurrence, Edwin perceived from the demeanour of all that, by an instinctive action extending over perhaps five seconds of time, he had procured for himself a wondrous and apparently permanent respect. Miss Ingamells, when he went vaguely into the freshly watered shop before breakfast, greeted him in a new tone, and with startling deference asked him what he thought she had better do in regard to the addressing of a certain parcel. Edwin considered this odd; he considered it illogical; and one consequence of Miss Ingamells’s quite sincere attitude was that he despised Miss Ingamells for a moral weakling. He knew that he himself was a moral weakling, but he was sure that he could never bend, never crouch, to such a posture as Miss Ingamells’s; that she was obviously sincere only increased his secret scorn.

But his father resembled Miss Ingamells. Edwin had not dreamt that mankind, and especially his father, was characterised by such simplicity. And yet, on reflection, had he not always found in his father a peculiar ingenuousness, which he could not but look down upon? His father, whom he met crossing the yard, spoke to him almost as he might have spoken to a junior partner. It was more than odd; it was against nature, as Edwin had conceived nature.

He was so superior and lofty, yet without intending it, that he made no attempt to put himself in his father’s place. He, in the exciting moments between the first cracking sound and the second, had had a vision of wrecked machinery and timber in an abyss at his feet. His father had had a vision far more realistic and terrifying. His father had seen the whole course of his printing business brought to a standstill, and all his savings dragged out of him to pay for reconstruction and for new machinery. His father had seen loss of life which might be accounted to his negligence. His father had seen, with that pessimism which may overtake anybody in a crisis, the ruin of a career, the final frustration of his lifelong daring and obstinacy, and the end of everything. And then he had seen his son suddenly walk forth and save the frightful situation. He had always looked down upon that son as helpless, coddled, incapable of initiative or of boldness. He believed himself to be a highly remarkable man, and existence had taught him that remarkable men seldom or never have remarkable sons. Again and again had he noted the tendency of remarkable men to beget gaping and idle fools. Nevertheless, he had intensely desired to be able to be proud of his son. He had intensely desired to be able, when acquaintances should be sincerely enthusiastic about the merits of his son, to pretend, insincerely and with pride only half concealed, that his son was quite an ordinary youth.

Now his desire had been fulfilled; it had been more than fulfilled. The town would chatter about Edwin’s presence of mind for a week. Edwin’s act would become historic; it already was historic. And not only was the act in itself wonderful and admirable and epoch-making; but it proved that Edwin, despite his blondness, his finickingness, his hesitations, had grit. That was the point: the lad had grit; there was material in the lad of which much could be made. Add to this, the father’s mere instinctive gratitude — a gratitude of such unguessed depth that it had prevented him even from being ashamed of having publicly and impulsively embraced his son on the previous morning.

Edwin, in his unconscious egoism, ignored all that.

Three.

“I’ve just seen Barlow,” said Darius confidentially to Edwin. Barlow was the baker. “He’s been here afore his rounds. He’s willing to sublet me his storeroom — so that’ll be all right! Eh?”

“Yes,” said Edwin, seeing that his approval was being sought for.

“We must fix that machine plumb again.”

“I suppose the floor’s as firm as rocks now?” Edwin suggested.

“Eh! Bless ye! Yes!” said his father, with a trace of kindly impatience.

The policy of makeshift was to continue. The floor having been stayed with oak, the easiest thing and the least immediately expensive thing was to leave matters as they were. When the baker’s stores were cleared from his warehouse, Darius could use the spaces between the pillars for lumber of his own; and he could either knock an entrance-way through the wall in the yard, or he could open the nailed-down trap door and patch the ancient stairway within; or he could do nothing — it would only mean walking out into Woodisun Bank and up the alley each time he wanted access to his lumber!

And yet, after the second cracking sound on the previous day, he had been ready to vow to rent an entirely new and common-sense printing office somewhere else — if only he should be saved from disaster that once! But he had not quite vowed. And, in any case, a vow to oneself is not a vow to the Virgin. He had escaped from a danger, and the recurrence of the particular danger was impossible. Why then commit follies of prudence, when the existing arrangement of things ‘would do’?

Four.

That afternoon Darius Clayhanger, with his most mysterious air of business, told Edwin to follow him into the shop. Several hours of miscellaneous consultative pottering had passed between Darius and his compositors round and about the new printing machine, which was once more plumb and ready for action. For considerably over a week Edwin had been on his father’s general staff without any definite task or occupation having been assigned to him. His father had been too excitedly preoccupied with the arrival and erection of the machine to bestow due thought upon the activities proper to Edwin in the complex dailiness of the business. Now he meant at any rate to begin to put the boy into a suitable niche. The boy had deserved at least that.

At the desk he opened before him the daily and weekly newspaper-book, and explained its system.

“Let’s take the ‘British Mechanic,’” he said.

And he turned to the page where the title ‘British Mechanic’ was written in red ink. Underneath that title were written the names and addresses of fifteen subscribers to the paper. To the right of the names were thirteen columns, representing a quarter of the year. With his customary laboriousness, Darius described the entire process of distribution. The parcel of papers arrived and was counted, and the name of a subscriber scribbled in an abbreviated form on each copy. Some copies had to be delivered by the errand boy; these were handed to the errand boy, and a tick made against each subscriber in the column for the week: other copies were called for by the subscriber, and as each of these was taken away, similarly a tick had to be made against the name of its subscriber. Some copies were paid for in cash in the shop, some were paid in cash to the office boy, some were paid for monthly, some were paid for quarterly, and some, as Darius said grimly, were never paid for at all. No matter what the method of paying, when a copy was paid for, or thirteen copies were paid for, a crossing tick had to be made in the book for each copy. Thus, for a single quarter of “British Mechanic” nearly two hundred ticks and nearly two hundred crossing ticks had to be made in the book, if the work was properly done. However, it was never properly done — Miss Ingamells being short of leisure and the errand boy utterly unreliable — and Darius wanted it properly done. The total gross profit on a quarter of “British Mechanics” was less than five shillings, and no customers were more exigent and cantankerous than those who bought one pennyworth of goods per week, and had them delivered free, and received three months’ credit. Still, that could not be helped. A printer and stationer was compelled by usage to supply papers; and besides, paper subscribers served a purpose as a nucleus of general business.

As with the “British Mechanics,” so with seventeen other weeklies. The daily papers were fewer, but the accountancy they caused was even more elaborate. For monthly magazines there was a separate book with a separate system; here the sums involved were vaster, ranging as high as half a crown.

Darius led Edwin with patient minuteness through the whole labyrinth.

“Now,” he said, “you’re going to have sole charge of all this.”

And he said it benevolently, in the conviction that he was awarding a deserved recompense, with the mien of one who was giving dominion to a faithful steward over ten cities.

“Just look into it carefully yerself, lad,” he said at last, and left Edwin with a mixed parcel of journals upon which to practise.

Before Edwin’s eyes flickered hundreds of names, thousands of figures, and tens of thousands of ticks. His heart protested; it protested with loathing. The prospect stretching far in front of him made him feel sick. But something weak and good-natured in him forced him to smile, and to simulate a subdued ecstasy at receiving this overwhelming proof of his father’s confidence in him. As for Darius, Darius was delighted with himself and with his son, and he felt that he was behaving as a benignant father should. Edwin had proved his grit, proved that he had that uncommunicable quality, ‘character,’ and had well deserved encouragement.

Five.

The next morning, in the printing office, Edwin came upon Big James giving a lesson in composing to the younger apprentice, who in theory had ‘learned his cases.’ Big James held the composing stick in his great left hand, like a match-box, and with his great right thumb and index picked letter after letter from the case, very slowly in order to display the movement, and dropped them into the stick. In his mild, resonant tones he explained that each letter must be picked up unfalteringly in a particular way, so that it would drop face upward into the stick without any intermediate manipulation. And he explained also that the left hand must be held so that the right hand would have to travel to and fro as little as possible. He was revealing the basic mysteries of his craft, and was happy, making the while the broad series of stock pleasantries which have probably been current in composing rooms since printing was invented. Then he was silent, working more and more quickly, till his right hand could scarcely be followed in its twinklings, and the face of the apprentice duly spread in marvel, When the line was finished he drew out the rule, clapped it down on the top of the last row of letters, and gave the composing stick to the apprentice to essay.

The apprentice began to compose with his feet, his shoulders, his mouth, his eyebrows — with all his body except his hands, which nevertheless travelled spaciously far and wide.

“It’s not in seven year, nor in seventy, as you’ll learn, young son of a gun!” said Big James.

And, having unsettled the youth to his foundations with a bland thwack across the head, he resumed the composing stick and began again the exposition of the unique smooth movement which is the root of rapid type-setting.

“Here!” said Big James, when the apprentice had behaved worse than ever. “Us’ll ask Mr Edwin to have a go. Us’ll see what he’ll do.”

And Edwin, sheepish, had to comply. He was in pride bound to surpass the apprentice, and did so.

“There!” said Big James. “What did I tell ye?” He seemed to imply a prophecy that, because Edwin had saved the printing office from destruction two days previously, he would necessarily prove to be a born compositor.

The apprentice deferentially sniggered, and Edwin smiled modestly and awkwardly and departed without having accomplished what he had come to do.

By his own act of cool, nonchalant, unconsidered courage in a crisis, he had, it seemed, definitely proved himself to possess a special aptitude in all branches of the business of printer and stationer. Everybody assumed it. Everybody was pleased. Everybody saw that Providence had been kind to Darius and to his son. The fathers of the town, and the mothers, who liked Edwin’s complexion and fair hair, told each other that not every parent was so fortunate as Mr Clayhanger, and what a blessing it was that the old breed was not after all dying out in those newfangled days. Edwin could not escape from the universal assumption. He felt it round him as a net which somehow he had to cut.

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