Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Eight.

In the Shop.

“Here, lad!” said his father to Edwin, as soon as he had scraped up the last crumbs of cheese from his plate at the end of dinner on the following day.

Edwin rose obediently and followed him out of the room. Having waited at the top of the stairs until his father had reached the foot, he leaned forward as far as he could with one hand on the rail and the other pressing against the wall, swooped down to the mat at the bottom, without touching a single step on the way, and made a rocket-like noise with his mouth, He had no other manner of descending the staircase, unless he happened to be in disgrace. His father went straight to the desk in the corner behind the account-book window, assumed his spectacles, and lifted the lid of the desk.

“Here!” he said, in a low voice. “Mr Enoch Peake is stepping in this afternoon to look at this here.” He displayed the proof — an unusually elaborate wedding card, which announced the marriage of Mr Enoch Peake with Mrs Louisa Loggerheads. “Ye know him as I mean?”

“Yes,” said Edwin, “The stout man. The Cocknage Gardens man.”

“That’s him. Well ye’ll tell him I’ve been called away. Tell him who ye are. Not but what he’ll know. Tell him I think it might be better”— Darius’s thick finger ran along a line of print —“if we put —‘widow of the late Simon Loggerheads Esquire,’ instead of —‘Esq.’ See? Otherwise it’s all right. Tell him I say as otherwise it’s all right. And ask him if he’ll have it printed in silver, and how many he wants, and show him this sample envelope. Now, d’ye understand?”

“Yes,” said Edwin, in a tone to convey, not disrespectfully, that there was nothing to understand. Curious, how his father had the air of bracing all his intellect as if to a problem!

“Then ye’ll take it to Big James, and he can start Chawner on it. Th’ job’s promised for Monday forenoon.”

“Will Big James be working?” asked Edwin, for it was Saturday afternoon, when, though the shop remained open, the printing office was closed.

“They’re all on overtime,” said Mr Clayhanger; and then he added, in a voice still lower, and with a surreptitious glance at Miss Ingamells, the shop-woman, who was stolidly enfolding newspapers in wrappers at the opposite counter, “See to it yourself, now. He won’t want to talk to her about a thing like that. Tell him I told you specially. Just let me see how well ye can do it.”

“Right!” said Edwin; and to himself, superciliously: “It might be life and death.”

“We ought to be doing a lot o’ business wi’ Enoch Peake, later on,” Mr Clayhanger finished, in a whisper.

“I see,” said Edwin, impressed, perceiving that he had perhaps been supercilious too soon.

Mr Clayhanger returned his spectacles to their case, and taking his hat from its customary hook behind him, over the job-files, consulted his watch and passed round the counter to go. Then he stopped.

“I’m going to Manchester,” he murmured confidentially. “To see if I can pick up a machine as I’ve heard of.”

Edwin was flattered. At the dinner-table Mr Clayhanger had only vouchsafed that he had a train to catch, and would probably not be in till late at night.

The next moment he glimpsed Darius through the window, his arms motionless by his sides and sticking slightly out; hurrying in the sunshine along Wedgwood Street in the direction of Shawport station.

Two.

So this was business! It was not the business he desired and meant to have; and he was uneasy at the extent to which he was already entangled in it; but it was rather amusing, and his father had really been very friendly. He felt a sense of importance.

Soon afterwards Clara ran into the shop to speak to Miss Ingamells. The two chatted and giggled together.

“Father’s gone to Manchester,” he found opportunity to say to Clara as she was leaving.

“Why aren’t you doing those prizes he told you to do?” retorted Clara, and vanished, She wanted none of Edwin’s superior airs.

During dinner Mr Clayhanger had instructed his son to go through the Sunday school prize stock and make an inventory of it.

This injunction from the child Clara, which Miss Ingamells had certainly overheard, prevented him, as an independent man, from beginning his work for at least ten minutes. He whistled, opened his father’s desk and stared vacantly into it, examined the pen-nib case in detail, and tore off two leaves from the date calendar so that it should be ready for Monday. He had a great scorn for Miss Ingamells, who was a personable if somewhat heavy creature of twenty-eight, because she kept company with a young man. He had caught them arm-inarm and practically hugging each other, one Sunday afternoon in the street. He could see naught but silliness in that kind of thing.

The entrance of a customer caused him to turn abruptly to the high shelves where the books were kept. He was glad that the customer was not Mr Enoch Peake, the expectation of whose arrival made him curiously nervous. He placed the step-ladder against the shelves, climbed up, and began to finger volumes and parcels of volumes. The dust was incredible. The disorder filled him with contempt. It was astounding that his father could tolerate such disorder; no doubt the whole shop was in the same condition. “Thirteen Archie’s Old Desk,” he read on a parcel, but when he opened the parcel he found seven “From Jest to Earnest.” Hence he had to undo every parcel. However, the work was easy. He first wrote the inventory in pencil, then he copied it in ink; then he folded it, and wrote very carefully on the back, because his father had a mania for endorsing documents in the legal manner: “Inventory of Sunday school prize stock.” And after an instant’s hesitation he added his own initials. Then he began to tie up and restore the parcels and the single volumes. None of all this literature had any charm for him. He possessed five or six such books, all gilt and chromatic, which had been awarded to him at Sunday school, ‘suitably inscribed,’ for doing nothing in particular; and he regarded them without exception as frauds upon boyhood. However, Clara had always enjoyed reading them. But lying flat on one of the top shelves he discovered, nearly at the end of his task, an oblong tome which did interest him: “Cazenove’s Architectural Views of European Capitals, with descriptive letterpress.” It had an old-fashioned look, and was probably some relic of his father’s predecessor in the establishment. Another example of the lack of order which prevailed!

Three.

He took the volume to the retreat of the desk, and there turned over its pages of coloured illustrations. At first his interest in them, and in the letterpress, was less instinctive than deliberate. He said to himself: “Now, if there is anything in me, I ought really to be interested in this, and I must be interested in it.” And he was. He glanced carelessly at the clock, which was hung above the shelves of exercise-books and notebooks, exactly opposite the door. A quarter past four. The afternoon was quietly passing, and he had not found it too tedious. In the background of the task which (he considered) he had accomplished with extraordinary efficiency, his senses noted faintly the continual trickle of customers, all of whom were infallibly drawn to Miss Ingamells’s counter by her mere watchful and receptive appearance. He had heard phrases and ends of phrases, such as: “No, we haven’t anything smaller,” “A camel-hair brush,” “Gum but not glue,” “Very sorry, sir. I’ll speak firmly to the paper boy,” and the sound of coins dragged along the counter, the sound of the testing of half a sovereign, the opening and shutting of the till-drawer; and occasionally Miss Ingamells exclaiming to herself upon the stupidity of customers after a customer had gone; and once Miss Ingamells crossing angrily to fix the door ajar which some heedless customer had closed: “Did they suppose that people didn’t want air like other people?” And now it was a quarter past four. Undoubtedly he had a peculiar, and pleasant, feeling of importance. In another half-minute he glanced at the clock again, and it was a quarter to five.

What hypnotism attracted him towards the artists’ materials cabinet which stood magnificent, complicated, and complete in the middle of the shop, like a monument? His father, after one infantile disastrous raid, had absolutely forbidden any visitation of that cabinet, with its glass case of assorted paints, crayons, brushes and pencils, and its innumerable long drawers full of paper and cards and wondrous perfectly equipped boxes, and T-squares and set-squares, with a hundred other contrivances. But of course the order had now ceased to have force. Edwin had left school; and, if he was not a man, he was certainly not a boy. He began to open the drawers, at first gingerly, then boldly; after all it was no business of Miss Ingamells’s! And, to be just, Miss Ingamells made no sort of pretence that it was any business of hers. She proceeded with her own business. Edwin opened a rather large wooden water-colour box. It was marked five and sixpence. It seemed to comprise everything needed for the production of the most entrancing and majestic architectural views, and as Edwin took out its upper case and discovered still further marvellous devices and apparatus in its basement beneath, he dimly but passionately saw, in his heart, bright masterpieces that ought to be the fruit of that box. There was a key to it. He must have it. He would have given all that he possessed for it, if necessary.

Four.

“Miss Ingamells,” he said: and, as she did not look up immediately, “I say, Miss Ingamells! How much does father take off in the shilling to auntie when she buys anything?”

“Don’t ask me, Master Edwin,” said Miss Ingamells; “I don’t know, How should I know?”

“Well, then,” he muttered, “I shall pay full price for it — that’s all.” He could not wait, and he wanted to be on the safe side.

Miss Ingamells gave him change for his half-sovereign in a strictly impartial manner, to indicate that she accepted no responsibility. And the squaring of Edwin’s shoulders conveyed to Miss Ingamells that he advised her to keep carefully within her own sphere, and not to make impertinent inquiries about the origin of the half-sovereign, which he could see intrigued her acutely. He now owned the box; it was not a box of colours, but a box of enchantment. He had had colour-boxes before, but nothing to compare with this, nothing that could have seemed magical to anybody wiser than a very small boy. Then he bought some cartridge-paper; he considered that cartridge-paper would be good enough for preliminary experiments.

Five.

It was while he was paying for the cartridge-paper — he being, as was indeed proper, on the customers’ side of the counter — that a heavy loutish boy in an apron entered the shop, blushing. Edwin turned away. This was Miss Ingamells’s affair.

“If ye please, Mester Peake’s sent me. He canna come in this afternoon — he’s got a bit o’ ratting on — and will Mester Clayhanger step across to th’ Dragon to-night after eight, with that there peeper [paper] as he knows on?”

At the name of Peake, Edwin started. He had utterly forgotten the matter.

“Master Edwin,” said Miss Ingamells drily. “You know all about that, don’t you?” Clearly she resented that he knew all about that while she didn’t.

“Oh! Yes,” Edwin stammered. “What did you say?” It was his first piece of real business.

“If you please, Mester Peake sent me.” The messenger blundered through his message again word for word.

“Very well. I’ll attend to it,” said Edwin, as nonchalantly as he could.

Nevertheless he was at a loss what to do, simple though the situation might have seemed to a person with an experience of business longer than Edwin’s. Just as three hours previously his father had appeared to be bracing all his intellect to a problem that struck Edwin as entirely simple, so now Edwin seemed to be bracing all his intellect to another aspect of the same problem. Time, revenging his father! . . . What! Go across to the Dragon and in cold blood demand Mr Enoch Peake, and then parley with Mr Enoch Peake as one man with another! He had never been inside the Dragon. He had been brought up in the belief that the Dragon was a place of sin. The Dragon was included in the generic term —‘gin-palace,’ and quite probably in the Siamese-twin term —‘gaming-saloon.’ Moreover, to discuss business with Mr Enoch Peake . . . Mr Enoch Peake was as mysterious to Edwin as, say, a Chinese mandarin! Still, business was business, and something would have to be done. He did not know what. Ought he to go to the Dragon? His father had not foreseen the possibility of this development. He instantly decided one fundamental: he would not consult Miss Ingamells; no, nor even Maggie! There remained only Big James. He went across to see Big James, who was calmly smoking a pipe on the little landing at the top of the steps leading to the printing office.

Big James showed no astonishment.

“You come along o’ me to the Dragon to-night, young sir, at eight o’clock, or as soon after as makes no matter, and I’ll see as you see Mr Enoch Peake. I shall be coming up Woodisun Bank at eight o’clock, or as soon after as makes no matter. You be waiting for me at the back gates there, and I’ll see as you see Mr Enoch Peake.”

“Are you going to the Dragon?”

“Am I going to the Dragon, young sir!” exclaimed Big James, in his majestic voice.

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