Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Three.

Entry into the World.

Edwin came steeply out of the cinder-strewn back streets by Woodisun Bank [hill] into Duck Square, nearly at the junction of Trafalgar Road and Wedgwood Street. A few yards down Woodisun Bank, cocks and hens were scurrying, with necks horizontal, from all quarters, and were even flying, to the call of a little old woman who threw grain from the top step of her porch. On the level of the narrow pavement stood an immense constable, clad in white trousers, with a gun under his arm for the killing of mad dogs; he was talking to the woman, and their two heads were exactly at the same height. On a pair of small double gates near the old woman’s cottage were painted the words, “Steam Printing Works. No admittance except on business.” And from as far as Duck Square could be heard the puff-puff which proved the use of steam in this works to which idlers and mere pleasure-seekers were forbidden access.

Duck Square was one of the oldest, if the least imposing, of all the public places in Bursley. It had no traffic across it, being only a sloping rectangle, like a vacant lot, with Trafalgar Road and Wedgwood Street for its exterior sides, and no outlet on its inner sides. The buildings on those inner sides were low and humble and, as it were, withdrawn from the world, the chief of them being the ancient Duck Inn, where the hand-bell ringers used to meet. But Duck Square looked out upon the very birth of Trafalgar Road, that wide, straight thoroughfare, whose name dates it, which had been invented, in the lifetime of a few then living, to unite Bursley with Hanbridge. It also looked out upon the birth of several old pack-horse roads which Trafalgar Road had supplanted. One of these was Woodisun Bank, that wound slowly up hill and down dale, apparently always choosing the longest and hardest route, to Hanbridge; and another was Aboukir Street, formerly known as Warm Lane, that reached Hanbridge in a manner equally difficult and unhurried. At the junction of Trafalgar Road and Aboukir Street stood the Dragon Hotel, once the great posting-house of the town, from which all roads started. Duck Square had watched coaches and waggons stop at and start from the Dragon Hotel for hundreds of years. It had seen the Dragon rebuilt in brick and stone, with fine bay windows on each storey, in early Georgian times, and it had seen even the new structure become old and assume the dignity of age. Duck Square could remember strings of pack-mules driven by women, ‘trapesing’ in zigzags down Woodisun Bank and Warm Lane, and occasionally falling, with awful smashes of the crockery they carried, in the deep, slippery, scarce passable mire of the first slants into the valley. Duck Square had witnessed the slow declension of these roads into mere streets, and slum streets at that, and the death of all mules, and the disappearance of all coaches and all neighing and prancing and whipcracking romance; while Trafalgar Road, simply because it was straight and broad and easily graded, flourished with toll-bars and a couple of pair-horsed trams that ran on lines. And many people were proud of those cushioned trams; but perhaps they had never known that coach-drivers used to tell each other about the state of the turn at the bottom of Warm Lane (since absurdly renamed in honour of an Egyptian battle), and that Woodisun Bank (now unnoticed save by doubtful characters, policemen, and schoolboys) was once regularly ‘taken’ by four horses at a canter. The history of human manners is crunched and embedded in the very macadam of that part of the borough, and the burgesses unheedingly tread it down every day and talk gloomily about the ugly smoky prose of industrial manufacture. And yet the Dragon Hotel, safely surviving all revolutions by the mighty virtue and attraction of ale, stands before them to remind them of the interestingness of existence.

Two.

At the southern corner of Trafalgar Road and Wedgwood Street, with Duck Square facing it, the Dragon Hotel and Warm Lane to its right, and Woodisun Bank creeping inconspicuously down to its left, stood a three-storey building consisting of house and shop, the frontage being in Wedgwood Street. Over the double-windowed shop was a discreet signboard in gilt letters, “D. Clayhanger, Printer and Stationer,” but above the first floor was a later and much larger sign, with the single word, “Steam-printing.” All the brickwork of the facade was painted yellow, and had obviously been painted yellow many times; the woodwork of the plate-glass windows was a very dark green approaching black. The upper windows were stumpy, almost square, some dirty and some clean and curtained, with prominent sills and architraves. The line of the projecting spouting at the base of the roof was slightly curved through subsidence; at either end of the roof-ridge rose twin chimneys each with three salmon-coloured chimney-pots. The gigantic word ‘Steam-printing’ could be seen from the windows of the Dragon, from the porch of the big Wesleyan chapel higher up the slope, from the Conservative Club and the playground at the top of the slope; and as for Duck Square itself, it could see little else. The left-hand shop window was alluringly set out with the lighter apparatus of writing and reading, and showed incidentally several rosy pictures of ideal English maidens; that to the right was grim and heavy with ledgers, inks, and variegated specimens of steam-printing.

Three.

In the wedge-shaped doorway between the windows stood two men, one middle-aged and one old, one bareheaded and the other with a beaver hat, engaged in conversation. They were talking easily, pleasantly, with free gestures, the younger looking down in deferential smiles at the elder, and the elder looking up benignantly at the younger. You could see that, having begun with a business matter, they had quitted it for a topic of the hour. But business none the less went forward, the shop functioned, the presses behind the shop were being driven by steam as advertised; a customer emerged, and was curtly nodded at by the proprietor as he squeezed past; a girl with a small flannel apron over a large cotton apron went timidly into the shop. The trickling, calm commerce of a provincial town was proceeding, bit being added to bit and item to item, until at the week’s end a series of apparent nothings had swollen into the livelihood of near half a score of people. And nobody perceived how interesting it was, this interchange of activities, this ebb and flow of money, this sluggish rise and fall of reputations and fortunes, stretching out of one century into another and towards a third! Printing had been done at that corner, though not by steam, since the time of the French Revolution. Bibles and illustrated herbals had been laboriously produced by hand at that corner, and hawked on the backs of asses all over the county; and nobody heard romance in the puffing of the hidden steam-engine multiplying catalogues and billheads on the self-same spot at the rate of hundreds an hour.

The younger and bigger of the two men chatting in the doorway was Darius Clayhanger, Edwin’s father, and the first printer to introduce steam into Bursley. His age was then under forty-five, but he looked more. He was dressed in black, with an ample shirt-front and a narrow black cravat tied in an angular bow; the wristbands were almost tight on the wrists, and, owing to the shortness of the alpaca coat-sleeves, they were very visible even as Darius Clayhanger stood, with his two hands deep in the horizontal pockets of his ‘full-fall’ trousers. They were not precisely dirty, these wristbands, nor was the shirt-front, nor the turned-down pointed collar, but all the linen looked as though it would scarcely be wearable the next day. Clayhanger’s linen invariably looked like that, not dirty and not clean; and further, he appeared to wear eternally the same suit, ever on the point of being done for and never being done for. The trousers always had marked transverse creases; the waistcoat always showed shiningly the outline of every article in the pockets thereof, and it always had a few stains down the front (and never more than a few), and the lowest button insecure. The coat, faintly discoloured round the collar and fretted at the cuffs, fitted him easily and loosely like the character of an old crony; it was as if it had grown up with him, and had expanded with his girth. His head was a little bald on the top, but there was still a great deal of mixed brown and greyish hair at the back and the sides, and the moustache, hanging straight down with an effect recalling the mouth of a seal, was plenteous and defiant — a moustache of character, contradicting the full placidity of the badly shaved chin. Darius Clayhanger had a habit, when reflective or fierce, of biting with his upper teeth as far down as he could on the lower lip; this trick added emphasis to the moustache. He stood, his feet in their clumsy boots planted firmly about sixteen inches apart, his elbows sticking out, and his head bent sideways, listening to and answering his companion with mien now eager, now roguish, now distinctly respectful.

The older man, Mr Shushions, was apparently very old. He was one of those men of whom one says in conclusion that they are very old. He seemed to be so fully occupied all the time in conducting those physical operations which we perform without thinking of them, that each in his case became a feat. He balanced himself on his legs with conscious craft; he directed carefully his shaking and gnarled hand to his beard in order to stroke it. When he collected his thoughts into a sentence and uttered it in his weak, quavering voice, he did something wonderful; he listened closely, as though to an imperfectly acquired foreign language; and when he was not otherwise employed, he gave attention to the serious business of breathing. He wore a black silk stock, in a style even more antique than his remarkable headgear, and his trousers were very tight. He had survived into another and a more fortunate age than his own.

Four.

Edwin, his heavy bag on his shoulders, found the doorway blocked by these two. He hesitated with a diffident charming smile, feeling, as he often did in front of his father, that he ought to apologise for his existence, and yet fiercely calling himself an ass for such a sentiment. Darius Clayhanger nodded at him carelessly, but not without a surprising benevolence, over his shoulder.

“This is him,” said Darius briefly.

Edwin was startled to catch a note of pride in his father’s voice.

Little Mr Shushions turned slowly and looked up at Edwin’s face (for he was shorter even than the boy), and gradually acquainted himself with the fact that Edwin was the son of his father.

“Is this thy son, Darius?” he asked; and his ancient eyes were shining.

Edwin had scarcely ever heard any one address his father by his Christian name.

Darius nodded; and then, seeing the old man’s hand creeping out towards him, Edwin pulled off his cap and took the hand, and was struck by the hot smooth brittleness of the skin and the earnest tremulous weakness of the caressing grasp. Edwin had never seen Mr Shushions before.

“Nay, nay, my boy,” trembled the old man, “don’t bare thy head to me . . . not to me! I’m one o’ th’ ould sort. Eh, I’m rare glad to see thee!” He kept Edwin’s hand, and stared long at him, with his withered face transfigured by solemn emotion. Slowly he turned towards Darius, and pulled himself together. “Thou’st begotten a fine lad, Darius! . . . a fine, honest lad!”

“So-so!” said Darius gruffly, whom Edwin was amazed to see in a state of agitation similar to that of Mr Shushions.

The men gazed at each other; Edwin looked at the ground and other unresponsive objects.

“Edwin,” his father said abruptly, “run and ask Big James for th’ proof of that Primitive Methodist hymn-paper; there’s a good lad.”

And Edwin hastened through the shadowy shop as if loosed from a captivity, and in passing threw his satchel down on a bale of goods.

Five.

He comprehended nothing of the encounter; neither as to the origin of the old man’s status in his father’s esteem, nor as to the cause of his father’s strange emotion. He regarded the old man impatiently as an aged simpleton, probably over pious, certainly connected with the Primitive Methodists. His father had said ‘There’s a good lad’ almost cajolingly. And this was odd; for, though nobody could be more persuasively agreeable than his father when he chose, the occasions when he cared to exert his charm, especially over his children, were infrequent, and getting more so. Edwin also saw something symbolically ominous in his being sent direct to the printing office. It was no affair of his to go to the printing office. He particularly did not want to go to the printing office.

However, he met Big James, with flowing beard and flowing apron, crossing the yard. Big James was brushing crumbs from the beard.

“Father wants the proof of some hymn-paper — I don’t know what,” he said. “I was just coming —”

“So was I, Mister Edwin,” replied Big James in his magnificent voice, and with his curious humorous smile. And he held up a sheet of paper in his immense hand, and strode majestically on towards the shop.

Here was another detail that struck the boy. Always Big James had addressed him as ‘Master Edwin’ or ‘Master Clayhanger.’ Now it was ‘Mister.’ He had left school. Big James was, of course, aware of that, and Big James had enough finesse and enough gentle malice to change instantly the ‘master’ to ‘mister.’ Edwin was scarcely sure if Big James was not laughing at him. He could not help thinking that Big James had begun so promptly to call him ‘mister’ because the foreman compositor expected that the son of the house would at once begin to take a share in the business. He could not help thinking that his father must have so informed Big James. And all this vaguely disturbed Edwin, and reminded him of his impending battle and of the complex forces marshalled against him. And his hand, wandering in his pockets, touched that unfortunate report which stated that he had lost one place during the term.

Six.

He lingered in the blue-paved yard, across which cloud-shadows swept continually, and then Big James came back and spectacularly ascended the flight of wooden steps to the printing office, and disappeared. Edwin knew that he must return to the shop to remove his bag, for his father would assuredly reprimand him if he found it where it had been untidily left. He sidled, just like an animal, to the doorway, and then slipped up to the counter, behind the great mahogany case of ‘artists’ materials.’ His father and the old man were within the shop now, and Edwin overheard that they were discussing a topic that had lately been rife in religious circles, namely, Sir Henry Thompson’s ingenious device for scientifically testing the efficacy of prayer, known as the ‘Prayer Gauge.’ The scheme was to take certain hospitals and to pray for the patients in particular wards, leaving other wards unprayed for, and then to tabulate and issue the results.

Mr Shushions profoundly resented the employment of such a dodge; the mere idea of it shocked him, as being blasphemous; and Darius Clayhanger deferentially and feelingly agreed with him, though Edwin had at least once heard his father refer to the topic with the amused and non-committal impartiality of a man who only went to chapel when he specially felt like going.

“I’ve preached in the pulpits o’ our Connexion,” said Mr Shushions with solemn, quavering emotion, “for over fifty year, as you know. But I’d ne’er gi’ out another text if Primitives had ought to do wi’ such a flouting o’ th’ Almighty. Nay, I’d go down to my grave dumb afore God!”

He had already been upset by news of a movement that was on foot for deferring Anniversary Sermons from August to September, so that people should be more free to go away for a holiday, and collections be more fruitful. What! Put off God’s ordinance, to enable chapel-members to go ‘a-wakesing’! Monstrous! Yet September was tried, in spite of Mr Shushions, and when even September would not work satisfactorily, God’s ordinance was shifted boldly to May, in order to catch people, and their pockets well before the demoralisation incident to holidays.

Edwin thought that his father and the mysterious old man would talk for ever, and timorously he exposed himself to obtain possession of his satchel, hoping to escape unseen. But Mr Shushions saw him, and called him, and took his hand again.

“Eh, my boy,” he said, feebly shaking the hand, “I do pray as you’ll grow up to be worthy o’ your father. That’s all as I pray for.”

Edwin had never considered his father as an exemplar. He was a just and unmerciful judge of his father, against whom he had a thousand grievances. And in his heart he resentfully despised Mr Shushions, and decided again that he was a simpleton, and not a very tactful one. But then he saw a round yellow tear slowly form in the red rim of the old man’s eye and run crookedly down that wrinkled cheek. And his impatient scorn expired. The mere sight of him, Edwin, had brought the old man to weeping! And the tear was so genuine, so convincing, so majestic that it induced in Edwin a blank humility. He was astounded, mystified; but he was also humbled. He himself was never told, and he never learnt, the explanation of that epic tear.

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