Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Four.

The Child-man.

The origin of the tear on the aged cheek of Mr Shushions went back about forty years, and was embedded in the infancy of Darius Clayhanger.

The earliest memory of Darius Clayhanger had to do with the capital letters Q W and S. Even as the first steam-printer in Bursley, even as the father of a son who had received a thoroughly sound middle-class education, he never noticed a capital Q W or S without recalling the Widow Susan’s school, where he had wonderingly learnt the significance of those complicated characters. The school consisted of the entire ground floor of her cottage, namely, one room, of which the far corner was occupied by a tiny winding staircase that led to the ancient widow’s bedchamber. The furniture comprised a few low forms for scholars, a table, and a chair; and there were some brilliant coloured prints on the whitewashed walls. At this school Darius acquired a knowledge of the alphabet, and from the alphabet passed to Reading–Made-Easy, and then to the Bible. He made such progress that the widow soon singled him out for honour. He was allowed the high and envied privilege of raking the ashes from under the fire-place and carrying them to the ash-pit, which ash-pit was vast and lofty, being the joint production of many cottages. To reach the summit of the ash-pit, and thence to fling backwards down its steep sides all assailants who challenged your supremacy, was a precious joy. The battles of the ash-pit, however, were not battles of giants, as no children had leisure for ash-carrying after the age of seven. A still greater honour accorded to Darius was permission to sit, during lessons, on the topmost visible step of the winding stair. The widow Susan, having taught Darius to read brilliantly, taught him to knit, and he would knit stockings for his father, mother, and sister.

At the age of seven, his education being complete, he was summoned into the world. It is true that he could neither write nor deal with the multiplication table; but there were always night-schools which studious adults of seven and upwards might attend if business permitted. Further, there was the Sunday school, which Darius had joyously frequented since the age of three, and which he had no intention of leaving. As he grew older the Sunday school became more and more enchanting to him. Sunday morning was the morning which he lived for during six days; it was the morning when his hair was brushed and combed, and perfumed with a delightful oil, whose particular fragrance he remembered throughout his life. At Sunday school he was petted and caressed. His success at Sunday school was shining. He passed over the heads of bigger boys, and at the age of six he was in a Bible class.

Upon hearing that Darius was going out into the world, the superintendent of the Sunday school, a grave whiskered young man of perhaps thirty, led him one morning out of the body of the Primitive Methodist Chapel which served as schoolroom before and after chapel service, up into the deserted gallery of the chapel, and there seated him on a stair, and knelt on the stair below him, and caressed his head, and called him a good boy, and presented him with an old battered Bible. This volume was the most valuable thing that Darius had ever possessed. He ran all the way home with it, half suffocated by his triumph. Sunday school prizes had not then been invented. The young superintendent of the Sunday school was Mr Shushions.

Two.

The man Darius was first taken to work by his mother. It was the winter of 1835, January. They passed through the marketplace of the town of Turnhill where they lived. Turnhill lies a couple of miles north of Bursley. One side of the market-place was barricaded with stacks of coal, and the other with loaves of a species of rye and straw bread. This coal and these loaves were being served out by meticulous and haughty officials, all invisibly, braided with red-tape, to a crowd of shivering, moaning, and weeping wretches, men, women and children — the basis of the population of Turnhill. Although they, were all endeavouring to make a noise they, made scarcely any noise, from mere lack of strength. Nothing could be heard, under the implacable bright sky, but faint ghosts of sound, as though people were sighing and crying from within the vacuum of a huge glass bell.

The next morning, at half-past five, Darius began his career in earnest. He was ‘mould-runner’ to a ‘muffin-maker,’ a muffin being not a comestible but a small plate, fashioned by its maker on a mould. The business of Darius was to run as hard as he could with the mould, and a newly, created plate adhering thereto, into the drying-stove. This ‘stove’ was a room lined with shelves, and having a red-hot stove and stove-pipe in the middle. As no man of seven could reach the upper shelves, a pair of steps was provided for Darius, and up these he had to scamper. Each mould with its plate had to be leaned carefully against the wall and if the soft clay of a new-born plate was damaged, Darius was knocked down. The atmosphere outside the stove was chill, but owing to the heat of the stove, Darius was obliged to work half naked. His sweat ran down his cheeks, and down his chest, and down his back, making white channels, and lastly it soaked his hair.

When there were no moulds to be sprinted into the drying-stove, and no moulds to be carried less rapidly out, Darius was engaged in clay-wedging. That is to say, he took a piece of raw clay weighing more than himself, cut it in two with a wire, raised one half above his head and crashed it down with all his force upon the other half, and he repeated the process until the clay was thoroughly soft and even in texture. At a later period it was discovered that hydraulic machinery could perform this operation more easily and more effectually than the brawny arms of a man of seven. At eight o’clock in the evening Darius was told that he had done enough for that day, and that he must arrive at five sharp the next morning to light the fire, before his master the muffin-maker began to work. When he inquired how he was to light the fire his master kicked him jovially on the thigh and suggested that he should ask another mould-runner. His master was not a bad man at heart, it was said, but on Tuesdays, after Sunday, and Saint Monday, masters were apt to be capricious.

Darius reached home at a quarter to nine, having eaten nothing but bread all day. Somehow he had lapsed into the child again. His mother took him on her knee, and wrapped her sacking apron round his ragged clothes, and cried over him and cried into his supper of porridge, and undressed him and put him to bed. But he could not sleep easily because he was afraid of being late the next morning.

Three.

And the next morning wandering about the yards of the manufactory in a storm of icy sleet a little before five o’clock, he learnt from a more experienced companion that nobody would provide him with kindling for his fire, that on the contrary everybody who happened to be on the place at that hour would unite to prevent him from getting kindling, and that he must steal it or expect to be thrashed before six o’clock. Near them a vast kiln of ware in process of firing showed a white flaming glow at each of its mouths in the black winter darkness. Darius’s mentor crept up to the archway of the great hovel which protected the kiln, and pointed like a conspirator to the figure of the guardian fireman dozing near his monster. The boy had the handle-less remains of an old spade, and with it he crept into the hovel, dangerously abstracted fire from one of the scorching mouths, and fled therewith, and the fireman never stirred. Then Darius, to whom the mentor kindly lent his spade, attempted to do the same, but being inexpert woke the fireman, who held him spellbound by his roaring voice and then flung him like a sack of potatoes bodily into the slush of the yard, and the spade after him. Happily the mentor, whose stove was now alight, lent fire to Darius, so that Darius’s stove too was cheerfully burning when his master came. And Darius was too excited to feel fatigue.

By six o’clock on Saturday night Darius had earned a shilling for his week’s work. But he could only possess himself of the shilling by going to a magnificent public-house with his master the muffin-maker. This was the first time that he had ever been inside a public-house. The place was crowded with men, women, and children eating the most lovely, hot rolls and drinking beer, in an atmosphere exquisitely warm. And behind a high counter a stout jolly man was counting piles and piles and piles of silver. Darius’s master, in company, with other boys’ masters, gave this stout man four sovereigns to change, and it was an hour before he changed them. Meanwhile Darius was instructed that he must eat a roll like the rest, together with cheese. Never had he tasted anything so luscious. He had a match with his mentor, as to which of them could spin out his roll the longer, honestly chewing all the time; and he won. Some one gave him half a glass of beer. At half-past seven he received his shilling which consisted of a sixpenny-piece and four pennies; and leaving the gay, public-house, pushed his way through a crowd of tearful women with babies in their arms at the doors, and went home. And such was the attraction of the Sunday school that he was there the next morning, with scented hair, two minutes before the opening.

Four.

In about a year Darius’s increasing knowledge of the world enabled him to rise in it. He became a handle-maker in another manufactory, and also he went about with the pride of one who could form the letters of the alphabet with a pen. In his new work he had to put a bit of clay between two moulds, and then force the top mould on to the bottom one by means of his stomach which it was necessary to press downwards and at the same time to wriggle with a peculiar movement. The workman to whom he was assigned, his new ‘master,’ attached these handles, with strange rapid skill, to beer-mugs. For Darius the labour was much lighter than that of mould-running and clay-wedging, and the pay was somewhat higher. But there were minor disadvantages. He descended by twenty steps to his toil, and worked in a long cellar which never received any air except by way of the steps and a passage, and never any daylight at all. Its sole illumination was a stove used for drying. The ‘throwers” and the ‘turners” rooms were also subterranean dungeons. When in full activity all these stinking cellars were full of men, boys, and young women, working close together in a hot twilight. Certain boys were trained contrabandists of beer, and beer came as steadily into the dungeons as though it had been laid on by a main pipe. It was not honourable even on the part of a young woman, to refuse beer, particularly when the beer happened to arrive in the late afternoon. On such occasions young men and women would often entirely omit to go home of a night, and seasoned men of the world aged eight, on descending into the dungeons early the next morning, would have a full view of pandemonium, and they would witness during the day salutary scenes of remorse, and proofs of the existence of a profound belief in the homeopathic properties of beer.

But perhaps the worst drawback of Darius’s new position was the long and irregular hours, due partly to the influences of Saint Monday and of the scenes above indicated but not described, and partly to the fact that the employes were on piece-work and entirely unhampered by grandmotherly legislation. The result was that six days’ work was generally done in four. And as the younger the workman the earlier he had to start in the morning, Darius saw scarcely enough of his bed. It was not of course to be expected that a self-supporting man of the world should rigorously confine himself to an eight-hour day or even a twelve-hour day, but Darius’s day would sometimes stretch to eighteen and nineteen hours: which on hygienic grounds could not be unreservedly defended.

Five.

One Tuesday evening his master, after three days of debauch, ordered him to be at work at three o’clock the next morning. He quickly and even eagerly agreed, for he was already intimate with his master’s rope-lash. He reached home at ten o’clock on an autumn night, and went to bed and to sleep. He woke up with a start, in the dark. There was no watch or clock in the house, from which nearly all the furniture had gradually vanished, but he knew it must be already after three o’clock; and he sprang up and rushed out. Of course he had not undressed; his life was too strenuous for mere formalities. The stars shone above him as he ran along, wondering whether after all, though late, he could by unprecedented effort make the ordained number of handles before his master tumbled into the cellar at five o’clock.

When he had run a mile he met some sewage men on their rounds, who in reply, to his question told him that the hour was half after midnight. He dared not risk a return to home and bed, for within two and a half hours he must be at work. He wandered aimlessly over the surface of the earth until he came to a tile-works, more or less unenclosed, whose primitive ovens showed a glare. He ventured within, and in spite of himself sat down on the ground near one of those heavenly ovens. And then he wanted to get up again, for he could feel the strong breath of his enemy, sleep. But he could not get up. In a state of terror he yielded himself to his enemy. Shameful cowardice on the part of a man now aged nine! God, however, is merciful, and sent to him an angel in the guise of a night-watchman, who kicked him into wakefulness and off the place. He ran on limping, beneath the stellar systems, and reached his work at half-past four o’clock.

Although he had never felt so exhausted in his long life, he set to work with fury. Useless! When his master arrived he had scarcely got through the preliminaries. He dully faced his master in the narrow stifling cellar, lit by candles impaled on nails and already peopled by the dim figures of boys, girls, and a few men. His master was of taciturn habit and merely told him to kneel down. He knelt. Two bigger boys turned hastily from their work to snatch a glimpse of the affair. The master moved to the back of the cellar and took from a box a piece of rope an inch thick and clogged with clay. At the same moment a companion offered him, in silence, a tin with a slim neck, out of which he drank deep; it contained a pint of porter owing on loan from the previous day. When the master came in due course with the rope to do justice upon the sluggard he found the lad fallen forward and breathing heavily and regularly. Darius had gone to sleep. He was awakened with some violence, but the public opinion of the dungeon saved him from a torn shirt and a bloody back.

This was Darius’s last day on a pot-bank. The next morning he and his went in procession to the Bastille, as the place was called. His father, having been too prominent and too independent in a strike, had been black-listed by every manufacturer in the district; and Darius, though nine, could not keep the family.

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