Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Six.

In the House.

To return to Edwin. On that Friday afternoon of the breaking-up he was, in the local phrase, at a loose end. That is, he had no task, no programme, and no definite desires. Not knowing, when he started out in the morning, whether school would formally end before or after the dinner-hour, he had taken his dinner with him, as usual, and had eaten it at Oldcastle. Thus, though the family dinner had not begun when he reached home, he had no share in it, partly because he was not hungry, and partly because he was shy about having left school. The fact that he had left school affected him as he was affected by the wearing of a new suit for the first time, or by the cutting of his hair after a prolonged neglect of the barber. It inspired him with a wish to avoid his kind, and especially his sisters, Maggie and Clara. Clara might make some facetious remark. Edwin could never forget the Red Indian glee with which Clara had danced round him when for the first time — and quite unprepared for the exquisite shock — she had seen him in long trousers. There was also his father. He wanted to have a plain talk with his father — he knew that he would not be at peace until he had had that talk — and yet in spite of himself he had carefully kept out of his father’s way during all the afternoon, save for a moment when, strolling with affected nonchalance up to Darius’s private desk in the shop, he had dropped thereon his school report, and strolled off again.

Towards six o’clock he was in his bedroom, an attic with a floor very much more spacious than its ceiling, and a window that commanded the slope of Trafalgar Road towards Bleakridge. It had been his room, his castle, his sanctuary, for at least ten years, since before his mother’s death of cancer. He did not know that he loved it, with all its inconveniences and makeshifts; but he did love it, and he was jealous for it; no one should lay a hand on it to rearrange what he had once arranged. His sisters knew this; the middle-aged servant knew it; even his father, with a curt laugh, would humorously acquiesce in the theory of the sacredness of Edwin’s bedroom. As for Edwin, he saw nothing extraordinary in his attitude concerning his bedroom; and he could not understand, and he somewhat resented, that the household should perceive anything comic in it. He never went near his sisters’ bedroom, never wished to go near it, never thought about it.

Two.

Now he sat idly on the patchwork counterpane of his bed and gazed at the sky. He was feeling a little happier, a little less unsettled, for his stomach was empty and his mind had begun to fix itself with pleasure on the images of hot toast and jam. He ‘wanted his tea:’ the manner in which he glanced at his old silver watch proved that. He wished only that before six o’clock struck he could settle upon the necessary changes in his bedroom. A beautiful schooner, which for over a year, with all sails spread, had awaited the breeze in a low dark corner to the right of the window, would assuredly have to be dismissed to the small, empty attic. Once that schooner had thrilled him; the slight rake of its masts and the knotted reality of its rigging had thrilled him; and to navigate it had promised the most delicious sensations conceivable. Now, one moment it was a toy as silly as a doll, and the next moment it thrilled him once more, and he could believe again its promises of bliss — and then he knew that it was for ever a vain toy, and he was sad, and his sadness was pleasure. He had already stacked most of his school-books in the other attic. He would need a table and a lamp; he knew not for what precise purpose; but a table and a lamp were necessary to the continuance of his self-respect. The only question was, Should he remodel his bedroom, or should he demand the other attic, and plant his flag in it and rule over it in addition to his bedroom? Had he the initiative and the energy to carry out such an enterprise? He was not able to make up his mind. And, moreover, he could not decide anything until after that plain talk with his father.

His sister Clara’s high voice sounded outside, on the landing, or half-way up the attic stairs.

“Ed-win! Ed-win!”

“What’s up?” he called in answer, rising with a nervous start. The door of the room was unlatched.

“You’re mighty mysterious in your bedroom,” said Clara’s voice behind the door.

“Come in! Come in! Why don’t you come in?” he replied, with good-natured impatience. But somehow he could not speak in a natural tone. The mere fact that he had left school that day and that the world awaited him, and that everybody in the house knew this, rendered him self-conscious.

Three.

Clara entered, with a curious sidelong movement, half-winning and half-serpentine. She was aged fourteen, a very fair and very slight girl, with a thin face and thin lips, and extraordinarily slender hands; in general appearance fragile. She wore a semi-circular comb on the crown of her head, and her abundant hair hung over her shoulders in two tight pigtails. Edwin considered that Clara was harsh and capricious; he had much fault to find with her; but nevertheless the sight of her usually affected him pleasurably (of course without his knowing it), and he never for long sat definitely in adverse judgement upon her. Her gestures had a charm for him which he felt but did not realise. And this charm was similar to his own charm. But nothing would have so surprised him as to learn that he himself had any charm at all. He would have laughed, and been ashamed — to hear that his gestures and the play of his features had an ingratiating, awkward, and wistful grace; he would have tried to cure that.

“Father wants you,” said Clara, her hand on the handle of the thin attic-door hung with odd garments.

Edwin’s heart fell instantly, and all the agreeable images of tea vanished from his mind. His father must have read the school report and perceived that Edwin had been beaten by Charlie Orgreave, a boy younger than himself!

“Did he send you up for me?” Edwin asked.

“No,” said Clara, frowning. “But I heard him calling out for you all over. So Maggie told me to run up. Not that I expect any thanks.” She put her head forward a little.

The episode, and Clara’s tone, showed clearly the nature and force of the paternal authority in the house. It was an authority with the gift of getting its commands anticipated.

“All right! I’m coming,” said Edwin superiorly.

“I know what you want,” Clara said teasingly as she turned towards the passage.

“What do I want?”

“You want the empty attic all to yourself, and a fine state it would be in in a month, my word!”

“How do you know I want the empty attic?” Edwin repelled the onslaught; but he was considerably taken aback. It was a mystery to him how those girls, and Clara in particular, got wind of his ideas before he had even formulated them definitely to himself. It was also a mystery to him how they could be so tremendously interested in matters which did not concern them.

“You never mind!” Clara gibed, with a smile that was malicious, but charmingly malicious. “I know!”

She had merely seen him staring into the empty attic, and from that brief spectacle she had by divination constructed all his plans.

Four.

The Clayhanger sitting-room, which served as both dining-room and drawing-room, according to the more primitive practices of those days, was over one half of the shop, and looked on Duck Square. Owing to its northern aspect it scarcely ever saw the sun. The furniture followed the universal fashion of horse-hair, mahogany, and wool embroidery. There was a piano, with a high back-fretted wood over silk pleated in rays from the centre; a bookcase whose lower part was a cupboard; a sofa; and a large leather easy-chair which did not match the rest of the room. This easy-chair had its back to the window and its front legs a little towards the fireplace, so that Mr Clayhanger could read his newspaper with facility in daytime. At night the light fell a little awkwardly from the central chandelier, and Mr Clayhanger, if he happened to be reading, would continually shift his chair an inch or two to left or right, backwards or forwards, and would also continually glance up at the chandelier, as if accusing it of not doing its best. A common sight in the sitting-room was Mr Clayhanger balanced on a chair, the table having been pushed away, screwing the newest burner into the chandelier. When he was seated in his easy-chair the piano could not be played, because there was not sufficient space for the stool between the piano and his chair; nor could the fire be made up without disturbing him, because the japanned coal-box was on the same side of the hearth-rug as the chair. Thus, when the fire languished and Mr Clayhanger neglected it, the children had either to ask permission to step over his legs, or suggest that he should attend to the fire himself. Occasionally, when he was in one of his gay moods, he would humorously impede the efforts of the fire-maker with his feet, and if the fire-maker was Clara or Edwin, the child would tickle him, which brought him to his senses and forced him to shout: “None o’ that! None o’ that!”

The position of Mr Clayhanger’s easy-chair — a detail apparently trifling — was in reality a strongly influencing factor in the family life, for it meant that the father’s presence obsessed the room. And it could not be altered, for it depended on the window; the window was too small to be quite efficient. When the children reflected upon the history of their childhood they saw one important aspect of it as a long series of detached hours spent in the sitting-room, in a state of desire to do something that could not be done without disturbing father, and in a state of indecision whether or not to disturb him. If by chance, as sometimes occurred, he chose to sit on the sofa, which was unobtrusive in the corner away from the window, between the fireplace and the door, the room was instantly changed into something larger, freer, and less inconvenient.

Five.

As the hour was approaching six, Edwin, on the way downstairs, looked in at the sitting-room for his father; but Darius was not there.

“Where’s father?” he demanded.

“I don’t know, I’m sure,” said Maggie, at the sewing-machine. Maggie was aged twenty; dark, rather stout, with an expression at once benevolent and worried. She rarely seemed to belong to the same generation as her brother and sister. She consorted on equal terms with married women, and talked seriously of the same things as they did. Mr Clayhanger treated her somewhat differently from the other two. Yet, though he would often bid them accept her authority, he would now and then impair that authority by roughly ‘dressing her down’ at the meal-table. She was a capable girl; she had much less firmness, and much more good-nature, than she seemed to have. She could not assert herself adequately. She ‘managed’ very well; indeed she had ‘done wonders’ in filling the place of the mother who had died when Clara was four and Edwin six, and she herself only ten. Responsibility, apprehension, and strained effort had printed their marks on her features. But the majority of acquaintances were more impressed by her good intention than by her capacity; they would call her ‘a nice thing.’ The discerning minority, while saying with admiring conviction that she was ‘a very fine girl,’ would regret that somehow she had not the faculty of ‘making the best of herself,’ of ‘putting her best foot foremost.’ And would they not heartily stand up for her with the superficial majority!

A thin, grey-haired, dreamy-eyed woman hurried into the room, bearing a noisy tray and followed by Clara with a white cloth. This was Mrs Nixon, the domestic staff of the Clayhanger household for years. Clara and Mrs Nixon swept Maggie’s sewing materials from the corner of the table on to a chair, put Maggie’s flower-glasses on to the ledge of the bookcase, folded up the green cloth, and began rapidly to lay the tea. Simultaneously Maggie, glancing at the clock, closed up her sewing-machine, and deposited her work in a basket. Clara, leaving the table, stooped to pick up the bits of cotton and white stuff that littered the carpet. The clock struck six.

“Now, sharpy!” she exclaimed curtly to Edwin, who stood hesitatingly with his hands in his pockets. “Can’t you help Maggie to push that sewing-machine into the corner?”

“What on earth’s up?” he inquired vaguely, but starting forward to help Maggie.

“She’ll be here in a minute,” said Maggie, almost under her breath, as she fitted on the cover of the sewing-machine.

“Who?” asked Edwin. “Oh! Auntie! I’d forgotten it was her night.”

“As if anyone could forget!” murmured Clara, with sarcastic unbelief.

By this time the table was completely set.

Six.

Edwin wondered mildly, as he often wondered, at the extremely bitter tone in which Clara always referred to their Aunt Clara Hamps — when Mrs Hamps was not there. Even Maggie’s private attitude to Auntie Clara was scarcely more Christian. Mrs Hamps was the widowed younger sister of their mother, and she had taken a certain share in the supervision of Darius Clayhanger’s domestic affairs after the death of Mrs Clayhanger. This latter fact might account, partially but not wholly, for the intense and steady dislike in which she was held by Maggie, Clara, and Mrs Nixon. Clara hated her own name because she had been ‘called after’ her auntie. Mr Clayhanger ‘got on’ excellently with his sister-in-law. He ‘thought highly’ of her, and was indeed proud to have her for a relative. In their father’s presence the girls never showed their dislike of Mrs Hamps; it was a secret pleasure shared between them and Mrs Nixon, and only disclosed to Edwin because the girls were indifferent to what Edwin might think. They casually despised him for somehow liking his auntie, for not seeing through her wiles; but they could count on his loyalty to themselves.

“Are you ready for tea, or aren’t you?” Clara asked him. She frequently spoke to him as if she was the elder instead of the younger.

“Yes,” he said. “But I must find father.”

He went off, but he did not find his father in the shop, and after a few futile minutes he returned upstairs. Mrs Nixon preceded him, carrying the tea-urn, and she told him that his father had sent word into the kitchen that they were not to ‘wait tea’ for him.

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