Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Seven.

Auntie Hamps.

Mrs Hamps had splendidly arrived. The atmosphere of the sitting-room was changed. Maggie, smiling, wore her second-best black silk apron. Clara, smiling and laughing, wore a clean long white pinafore. Mrs Nixon, with her dreamy eyes less vacant than usual, greeted Mrs Ramps effusively, and effusively gave humble thanks for kind inquiries after her health. A stranger might have thought that these women were strongly attached to one another by ties of affection and respect. Edwin never understood how his sisters, especially Maggie, could practise such vast and eternal hypocrisy with his aunt. As for him, his aunt acted on him now, as generally, like a tonic. Some effluence from her quickened him. He put away the worry in connection with his father, and gave himself up to the physical pleasures of tea.

Aunt Clara was a handsome woman. She had been called — but not by men whose manners and code she would have approved —‘a damned fine woman.’ Her age was about forty, which at that period, in a woman’s habit of mind, was the equivalent of about fifty today. Her latest photograph was considered to be very successful. It showed her standing behind a velvet chair and leaning her large but still shapely bust slightly over the chair. Her forearms, ruffled and braceleted, lay along the fringed back of the chair, and from one negligent hand depended a rose. A heavy curtain came downwards out of nothing into the picture, and the end of it lay coiled and draped on the seat of the chair. The great dress was of slate-coloured silk, with sleeves tight to the elbow, and thence, from a ribbon-bow, broadening to a wide, triangular climax that revealed quantities of lace at the wrists. The pointed ends of the sleeves were picked out with squares of velvet. A short and highly ornamental fringed and looped flounce waved grandly out behind from the waist to the level of the knees; and the stomacher recalled the ornamentation of the flounce; and both the stomacher and flounce gave contrasting value to the severe plainness of the skirt, designed to emphasise the quality of the silk. Round the neck was a lace collarette to match the furniture of the wrists, and the broad ends of the collarette were crossed on the bosom and held by a large jet brooch. Above that you saw a fine regular face, with a firm hard mouth and a very straight nose and dark eyebrows; small ears weighted with heavy jet ear-rings.

The photograph could not render the clear perfection of Aunt Clara’s rosy skin; she had the colour and the flashing eye of a girl. But it did justice to her really magnificent black hair. This hair was all her own, and the coiffure seemed as ample as a judge’s wig. From the low forehead the hair was parted exactly in the middle for about two inches; then plaited bands crossed and recrossed the scalp in profusion, forming behind a pattern exceedingly complicated, and down either side of the head, now behind the ear, now hiding it, now resting on the shoulders, now hanging clear of them, fell long multitudinous glossy curls. These curls — one of them in the photograph reached as far as the stomacher — could not have been surpassed in Bursley.

She was a woman of terrific vitality. Her dead sister had been nothing in comparison with her. She had a glorious digestion, and was the envy of her brother-in-law — who suffered much from biliousness — because she could eat with perfect impunity hot buttered toast and raw celery in large quantities. Further, she had independent means, and no children to cause anxieties. Yet she was always, as the phrase went, ‘bearing up,’ or, as another phrase went, ‘leaning hard.’ Frances Ridley Havergal was her favourite author, and Frances Ridley Havergal’s little book Lean Hard, was kept on her dressing-table. (The girls, however, averred that she never opened it.) Aunt Clara’s spiritual life must be imagined as a continual, almost physical leaning on Christ. Nevertheless she never complained, and she was seldom depressed. Her desire, and her achievement, was to be bright, to take everything cheerfully, to look obstinately on the best side of things, and to instil this religion into others.

Two.

Thus, when it was announced that father had been called out unexpectedly, leaving an order that they were not to wait for him, she said gaily that they had better be obedient and begin, though it would have been more agreeable to wait for father. And she said how beautiful the tea was, and how beautiful the toast, and how beautiful the strawberry-jam, and how beautiful the pikelets. She would herself pour some hot water into the slop basin, and put a pikelet on a plate thereon, covered, to keep warm for father. She would not hear a word about the toast being a little hard, and when Maggie in her curious quiet way ‘stuck her out’ that the toast was in fact hard, she said that that precise degree of hardness was the degree which she, for herself, preferred. Then she talked of jams, and mentioned gooseberry-jam, whereupon Clara privately put her tongue out, with the quickness of a snake, to signal to Maggie.

“Ours isn’t good this year,” said Maggie.

“I told auntie we weren’t so set up with it, a fortnight ago,” said Clara simply, like a little angel.

“Did you, dear?” Mrs Hamps exclaimed, with great surprise, almost with shocked surprise. “I’m sure it’s beautiful. I was quite looking forward to tasting it; quite! I know what your gooseberry-jam is.”

“Would you like to try it now?” Maggie suggested. “But we’ve warned you.”

“Oh, I don’t want to trouble you now. We’re all so cosy here. Any time —”

“No trouble, auntie,” said Clara, with her most captivating and innocent smile.

“Well, if you talk about ‘warning’ me, of course I must insist on having some,” said Auntie Clara.

Clara jumped up, passed behind Mrs Hamps, making a contemptuous face at those curls as she did so, and ran gracefully down to the kitchen.

“Here,” she said crossly to Mrs Nixon. “A pot of that gooseberry, please. A small one will do. She knows it’s short of sugar, and so she’s determined to try it, just out of spite; and nothing will stop her.”

Clara returned smiling to the tea-table, and Maggie neatly unsealed the jam; and Auntie Clara, with a face beaming with pleasurable anticipation, helped herself circumspectly to a spoonful.

“Beautiful!” she murmured.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit tart?” Maggie asked.

“Oh no!” protestingly.

“Don’t you?” asked Clara, with an air of delighted deferential astonishment.

“Oh no!” Mrs Hamps repeated. “It’s beautiful!” She did not smack her lips over it, because she would have considered it unladylike to smack her lips, but by less offensive gestures she sought to convey her unbounded pleasure in the jam. “How much sugar did you put in?” she inquired after a while. “Half and half?”

“Yes,” said Maggie.

“They do say gooseberries were a tiny bit sour this year, owing to the weather,” said Mrs Hamps reflectively.

Clara kicked Edwin under the table, as it were viciously, but her delightful innocent smile, directed vaguely upon Mrs Hamps, did not relax. Such duplicity passed Edwin’s comprehension; it seemed to him purposeless. Yet he could not quite deny that there might be a certain sting, a certain insinuation, in his auntie’s last remark.

Three.

Then Mr Clayhanger entered, blowing forth a long breath as if trying to repulse the oppressive heat of the July afternoon. He came straight to the table, with a slightly preoccupied air, quickly, his arms motionless at his sides, and slanting a little outwards. Mr Clayhanger always walked like this, with motionless arms so that in spite of a rather clumsy and heavy step, the upper part of him appeared to glide along. He shook hands genially with Auntie Clara, greeting her almost as grandiosely as she greeted him, putting on for a moment the grand manner, not without dignity. Each admired the other. Each often said that the other was ‘wonderful.’ Each undoubtedly flattered the other, made a fuss of the other. Mr Clayhanger’s admiration was the greater. The bitterest thing that Edwin had ever heard Maggie say was: “It’s something to be thankful for that she’s his deceased wife’s sister!” And she had said the bitter thing with such quiet bitterness! Edwin had not instantly perceived the point of it.

Darius Clayhanger then sat down, with a thud, snatched at the cup of tea which Maggie had placed before him, and drank half of it with a considerable indrawing noise. No one asked where or why he had been detained; it was not etiquette to do so. If father had been ‘called away,’ or had ‘had to go away,’ or was ‘kept somewhere,’ the details were out of deference allowed to remain in mystery, respected by curiosity . . . ‘Father-business.’ . . . All business was sacred. He himself had inculcated this attitude.

In a short silence the sound of the bell that the carman rang before the tram started for Hanbridge floated in through the open window.

“There’s the tram!” observed Auntie Clara, apparently with warm and special interest in the phenomena of the tram. Then another little silence.

“Auntie,” said Clara, writhing about youthfully on her chair.

“Can’t ye sit still a bit?” the father asked, interrupting her roughly, but with good humour. “Ye’ll be falling off th’ chair in a minute.”

Clara blushed swiftly, and stopped.

“Yes, love?” Auntie Clara encouraged her. It was as if Auntie Clara had said: “Your dear father is of course quite right, more than right, to insist on your sitting properly at table. However, do not take the correction too much to heart. I sympathise with all your difficulties.”

“I was only going to ask you,” Clara went on, in a weaker, stammering voice, “if you knew that Edwin’s left school today.” Her archness had deserted her.

“Mischievous little thing!” thought Edwin. “Why must she deliberately go and draw attention to that?” And he too blushed, feeling as if he owed an apology to the company for having left school.

“Oh yes!” said Auntie Clara with eager benevolence. “I’ve got something to say about that to my nephew.”

Mr Clayhanger searched in a pocket of his alpaca, and drew forth an open envelope.

“Here’s the lad’s report, auntie,” said he. “Happen ye’d like to look at it.”

“I should indeed!” she replied fervently. “I’m sure it’s a very good one.”

Four.

She took the paper, and assumed her spectacles.

“Conduct — Excellent,” she read, poring with enthusiasm over the document. And she read again: “Conduct — Excellent.” Then she went down the list of subjects, declaiming the number of marks for each; and at the end she read: “Position in class next term: Third. Splendid, Eddy!” she exclaimed.

“I thought you were second,” said Clara, in her sharp manner.

Edwin blushed again, and hesitated.

“Eh? What’s that? What’s that?” his father demanded. “I didn’t notice that. Third?”

“Charlie Orgreave beat me in the examination,” Edwin muttered.

“Well, that’s a pretty how d’ye do!” said his father. “Going down one! Ye ought to ha’ been first instead o’ third. And would ha’ been, happen, if ye’d pegged at it.”

“Now I won’t have that! I won’t have it!” Auntie Clara protested, laughingly showing her fine teeth and gazing first at Darius, and then at Edwin, from under her spectacles, her head being thrown back and the curls hanging far behind. “No one shall say that Edwin doesn’t work, not even his father, while his auntie’s about! Because I know he does work! And besides, he hasn’t gone down. It says, ‘position next term’— not this term. You were still second today, weren’t you, my boy?”

“I suppose so. Yes,” Edwin answered, pulling himself together.

“Well! There you are!” Auntie Clara’s voice rang triumphantly. She was opening her purse. “And there you are!” she repeated, popping half a sovereign down in front of him. “That’s a little present from your auntie on your leaving school.”

“Oh, auntie!” he cried feebly.

“Oh!” cried Clara, genuinely startled.

Mrs Hamps was sometimes thus astoundingly munificent. It was she who had given the schooner to Edwin. And her presents of elaborately enveloped and costly toilet soap on the birthdays of the children, and at Christmas, were massive. Yet Clara always maintained that she was the meanest old thing imaginable. And Maggie had once said that she knew that Auntie Clara made her servant eat dripping instead of butter. To give inferior food to a servant was to Maggie the unforgivable in parsimony.

“Well,” Mr Clayhanger warningly inquired, “what do you say to your aunt?”

“Thank you, auntie,” Edwin sheepishly responded, fingering the coin.

It was a princely sum. And she had stuck up for him famously in the matter of the report. Strange that his father should not have read the report with sufficient attention to remark the fall to third place! Anyway, that aspect of the affair was now safely over, and it seemed to him that he had not lost much prestige by it. He would still be able to argue with his father on terms not too unequal, he hoped.

Five.

As the tea drew to an end, and the plates of toast, bread and butter, and tea-cake grew emptier, and the slop-basin filled, and only Maggie’s flowers remained fresh and immaculate amid the untidy debris of the meal; and as Edwin and Clara became gradually indifferent to jam, and then inimical to it; and as the sounds of the street took on the softer quality of summer evening, and the first filmy shades of twilight gathered imperceptibly in the corners of the room, and Mr Clayhanger performed the eructations which signified that he had had enough; so Mrs Hamps prepared herself for one of her classic outbursts of feeling.

“Well!” she said at last, putting her spoon to the left of her cup as a final indication that seriously she would drink no more. And she gave a great sigh. “School over! And the only son going out into the world! How time flies!” And she gave another great sigh, implying an immense melancholy due to this vision of the reality of things. Then she remembered her courage, and the device of leaning hard, and all her philosophy.

“But it’s all for the best!” she broke forth in a new brave tone. “Everything is ordered for the best. We must never forget that! And I’m quite sure that Edwin will be a very great credit to us all, with help from above.”

She proceeded powerfully in this strain. She brought in God, Christ, and even the Holy Spirit. She mentioned the dangers of the world, and the disguises of the devil, and the unspeakable advantages of a good home, and the special goodness of Mr Clayhanger and of Maggie, yes, and of her little Clara; and the pride which they all had in Edwin, and the unique opportunities which he had of doing good, by example, and also, soon, by precept, for others younger than himself would begin to look up to him; and again her personal pride in him, and her sure faith in him; and what a solemn hour it was . . .

Nothing could stop her. The girls loathed these exhibitions. Maggie always looked at the table during their progress, and she felt as though she had done something wrong and was ashamed of it. Clara not merely felt like a criminal — she felt like an unrepentant criminal; she blushed, she glanced nervously about the room, and all the time she repeated steadily in her heart a highly obscene word which she had heard at school. This unspoken word, hurled soundlessly but savagely at her aunt in that innocent heart, afforded much comfort to Clara in the affliction. Even Edwin, who was more lenient in all ways than his sisters, profoundly deplored these moralisings of his aunt. They filled him with a desire to run fast and far, to be alone at sea, or to be deep somewhere in the bosom of the earth. He could not understand this side of his auntie’s individuality. But there was no delivery from Mrs Hamps. The only person who could possibly have delivered them seemed to enjoy the sinister thraldom. Mr Clayhanger listened with appreciative and admiring nods; he appeared to be quite sincere. And Edwin could not understand his father either. “How simple father must be!” he thought vaguely. Whereas Clara fatalistically dismissed her father’s attitude as only one more of the preposterously unreasonable phenomena which she was constantly meeting in life; and she persevered grimly with her obscene word.

Six.

“Eh!” said Mrs Hamps enthusiastically, after a trifling pause. “It does me good when I think what a help you’ll be to your father in the business, with that clever head of yours.”

She gazed at him fondly.

Now this was Edwin’s chance. He did not wish to be any help at all to his father in the business. He had other plans for himself He had never mentioned them before, because his father had never talked to him about his future career, apparently assuming that he would go into the business. He had been waiting for his father to begin. “Surely,” he had said to himself “father’s bound to speak to me sometime about what I’m going to do, and when he does I shall just tell him.” But his father never had begun; and by timidity, negligence, and perhaps ill-luck, Edwin had thus arrived at his last day at school with the supreme question not merely unsolved but unattacked. Oh he blamed himself! Any ordinary boy (he thought) would have discussed such a question naturally long ago. After all it was not a crime it was no cause for shame, to wish not to be a printer. Yet he was ashamed! Absurd! He blamed himself. But he also blamed his father. Now, however, in responding to his auntie’s remark, he could remedy all the past by simply and boldly stating that he did not want to follow his father. It would be unpleasant, of course, but the worst shock would be over in a moment, like the drawing of a tooth. He had merely to utter certain words. He must utter them. They were perfectly easy to say, and they were also of the greatest urgency. “I don’t want to be a printer.” He mumbled them over in his mind. “I don’t want to be a printer.” What could it matter to his father whether he was a printer or not? Seconds, minutes, seemed to pass. He knew that if he was so inconceivably craven as to remain silent, his self-respect would never recover from the blow. Then, in response to Mrs Hamps’s prediction about his usefulness to his father in the business, he said, with a false-jaunty, unconvinced, unconvincing air —

“Well, that remains to be seen.”

This was all he could accomplish. It seemed as if he had looked death itself in the face, and drawn away.

“Remains to be seen?” Auntie Clara repeated, with a hint of startled pain, due to this levity.

He was mute. No one suspected, as he sat there, so boyish, wistful, and uneasily squirming, that he was agonised to the very centre of his being. All the time, in his sweating soul, he kept trying to persuade himself: “I’ve given them a hint, anyhow! I’ve given them a hint, anyhow!”

“Them” included everybody at the table.

Seven.

Mr Clayhanger, completely ignoring Edwin’s reply to his aunt and her somewhat shocked repetition of it, turned suddenly towards his son and said, in a manner friendly but serious, a manner that assumed everything, a manner that begged the question, unconscious even that there was a question —

“I shall be out the better part o’ tomorrow. I want ye to be sure to be in the shop all afternoon — I’ll tell you what for downstairs.” It was characteristic of him thus to make a mystery of business in front of the women.

Edwin felt the net closing about him. Then he thought of one of those ‘posers’ which often present themselves to youths of his age.

“But tomorrow’s Saturday,” he said, perhaps perkily. “What about the Bible class?”

Six months previously a young minister of the Wesleyan Circuit, to whom Heaven had denied both a sense of humour and a sense of honour, had committed the infamy of starting a Bible class for big boys on Saturday afternoons. This outrage had appalled and disgusted the boyhood of Wesleyanism in Bursley. Their afternoon for games, their only fair afternoon in the desert of the week, to be filched from them and used against them for such an odious purpose as a Bible class! Not only Sunday school on Sunday afternoon, but a Bible class on Saturday afternoon! It was incredible. It was unbearable. It was gross tyranny, and nothing else. Nevertheless the young minister had his way, by dint of meanly calling upon parents and invoking their help. The scurvy worm actually got together a class of twelve to fifteen boys, to the end of securing their eternal welfare. And they had to attend the class, though they swore they never would, and they had to sing hymns, and they had to kneel and listen to prayers, and they had to listen to the most intolerable tedium, and to take notes of it. All this, while the sun was shining, or the rain was raining, on fields and streets and open spaces and ponds!

Edwin had been trapped in the snare. His father, after only three words from the young minister, had yielded up his son like a burnt sacrifice — and with a casual nonchalance that utterly confounded Edwin. In vain Edwin had pointed out to his elders that a Saturday afternoon of confinement must be bad for his health. His attention had been directed to his eternal health. In vain he had pointed out that on wet Saturday afternoons he frequently worked at his home-lessons, which therefore might suffer under the regime of a Bible class. His attention had been directed to the peace which passeth understanding. So he had been beaten, and was secretly twitted by Clara as an abject victim. Hence it was with a keen and peculiar feeling of triumph, of hopelessly cornering the inscrutable generation which a few months ago had cornered him, that he demanded, perhaps perkily: “What about the Bible class?”

“There’ll be no more Bible classing,” said his father, with a mild but slightly sardonic smile, as who should say: “I’m ready to make all allowances for youth; but I must get you to understand, as gently as I can, that you can’t keep on going to Bible classes for ever and ever.”

Mrs Hamps said —

“It won’t be as if you were at school. But I do hope you won’t neglect to study your Bible. Eh, but I do hope you’ll always find time for that, to your dying day!”

“Oh — but I say —” Edwin began, and stopped.

He was beaten by the mere effrontery of the replies. His father and his aunt (the latter of whom at any rate was a firm and confessed religionist, who had been responsible for converting Mr Clayhanger from Primitive Methodism to Wesleyan Methodism) did not trouble to defend their new position by argument. They made no effort to reconcile it with their position of a few months back, when the importance of heavenly welfare far exceeded the importance of any conceivable earthly welfare. The fact was that they had no argument. If God took precedence of knowledge and of health, he took precedence of a peddling shop! That was unanswerable.

Eight.

Edwin was dashed. His faith in humanity was dashed. These elders were not sincere. And as Mrs Hamps continued to embroider the original theme of her exhortation about the Bible, Edwin looked at her stealthily, and the doubt crossed his mind whether that majestic and vital woman was ever sincere about anything, even to herself — whether the whole of her daily existence, from her getting-up to her down-lying, was not a grandiose pretence.

Not that he had the least desire to cling to the Bible class, even as an alternative to the shop! No! He was much relieved to be rid of the Bible class. What overset him was the crude illogicality of the new decree, and the shameless tacit admission of previous insincerity.

Two hours later, as he stood idly at the window of his bedroom, watching the gas lamps of Trafalgar Road wax brighter in the last glooms of twilight, he was still occupied with the sham and the unreason and the lack of scruple suddenly revealed in the life of the elder generation. Unconsciously imitating a trick of his father’s when annoyed but calm, he nodded his head several times, and with his tongue against his teeth made the noise which in writing is represented by ‘tut-tut.’ Yet somehow he had always known that it would be so. At bottom, he was only pretending to himself to be shocked and outraged.

His plans were no further advanced; indeed they were put back, for this Saturday afternoon vigil in the shop would be in some sort a symbolic temporary defeat for him. Why had he not spoken out clearly? Why was he always like a baby in presence of his father? The future was all askew for him. He had forgotten his tremendous serious resolves. The touch of the half-sovereign in his pocket, however, was comforting in a universe of discomfort.

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