Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Nine.

The Town.

James Yarlett was worthy of his nickname. He stood six feet four and a half inches in height, and his girth was proportionate; he had enormous hands and feet, large features, and a magnificent long dark brown beard; owing to this beard his necktie was never seen. But the most magnificent thing about him was his bass voice, acknowledged to be the finest bass in the town, and one of the finest even in Hanbridge, where, in his earlier prime, James had lived as a ‘news comp’ on the “Staffordshire Signal.” He was now a ‘jobbing comp’ in Bursley, because Bursley was his native town and because he preferred jobbing. He made the fourth and heaviest member of the celebrated Bursley Male Glee Party, the other three being Arthur Smallrice, an old man with a striking falsetto voice, Abraham Harracles, and Jos Rawnpike (pronounced Rampick). These men were accustomed to fame, and Big James was the king of them, though the mildest. They sang at dinners, free-and-easies, concerts, and Martinmas tea-meetings. They sang for the glory, and when there was no demand for their services, they sang to themselves, for the sake of singing. Each of them was a star in some church or chapel choir. And except Arthur Smallrice, they all shared a certain elasticity of religious opinion. Big James, for example, had varied in ten years from Wesleyan, through Old Church, to Roman Catholic up at Bleakridge. It all depended on niceties in the treatment accorded to him, and on the choice of anthems. Moreover, he liked a change.

He was what his superiors called ‘a very superior man.’ Owing to the more careful enunciation required in singing, he had lost a great deal of the Five Towns accent, and one cannot be a compositor for a quarter of a century without insensibly acquiring an education and a store of knowledge far excelling the ordinary. His manner was gentle, and perhaps somewhat pompous, as is common with very big men; but you could never be sure whether an extremely subdued humour did not underlie his pomposity. He was a bachelor, aged forty-five, and lived quietly with a married sister at the bottom of Woodisun Bank, near the National Schools. The wonder was that, with all his advantages, he had not more deeply impressed himself upon Bursley as an individuality, and not merely as a voice. But he seemed never to seek to do so. He was without ambition; and, though curiously careful sometimes about preserving his own dignity, and beyond question sensitive by temperament, he showed marked respect, and even humility, to the worldly-successful. Despite his bigness and simplicity there was something small about him which came out in odd trifling details. Thus it was characteristic of Big James to ask Edwin to be waiting for him at the back gates in Woodisun Bank when he might just as easily have met him at the side door by the closed shop in Wedgwood Street.

Edwin, who from mere pride had said nothing to his sisters about the impending visit to the Dragon, was a little surprised and dashed to see Big James in broadcloth and a high hat; for he had not dreamed of changing his own everyday suit, nor had it occurred to him that the Dragon was a temple of ceremoniousness. Big James looked enormous. The wide lapel of his shining frock-coat was buttoned high up under his beard and curved downwards for a distance of considerably more than a yard to his knees: it was a heroic frock-coat. The sleeves were wide, but narrowing at the wrists, and the white wristbands were very tight. The trousers fell in ample folds on the uppers of the gigantic boots. Big James had a way of sticking out his chest and throwing his head back which would have projected the tip of his beard ten inches forth from his body, had the beard been stiff; but the soft silkiness of the beard frustrated this spectacular phenomenon which would have been very interesting to witness.

Two.

The pair stepped across Trafalgar Road together, Edwin, though he tried to be sedate, nothing but a frisking morsel by the side of the vast monument. Compared with the architectural grandeur of Mr Varlett, his thin, supple, free-moving limbs had an almost pathetic appearance of ephemeral fragility.

Big James directed himself to the archway leading to the Dragon stables, and there he saw an ostler or oddman. Edwin, feeling the imminence of an ordeal, surreptitiously explored a pocket to be sure that the proof of the wedding-card was safely there.

The ostler raised his reddish eyebrows to Big James. Big James jerked his head to one side, indicating apparently the entire Dragon, and simultaneously conveying a query. The ostler paused immobile an instant and then shook his insignificant turnip-pate. Big James turned away. No word had been spoken; nevertheless, the men had exchanged a dialogue which might be thus put into words —

“I wasn’t thinking to see ye so soon,” from the ostler.

“Then nobody of any importance has yet gone into the assembly room?” from Big James.

“Nobody worth speaking of, and won’t, for a while,” from the other.

“Then I’ll take a turn,” from Big James.

The latter now looked down at Edwin, and addressed him in words —

“Seemingly we’re too soon, Mr Edwin. What do you say to a turn round the town — playground way? I doubted we should be too soon.”

Edwin showed alacrity. As a schoolboy it had been definitely forbidden to him to go out at night; and unless sent on a special and hurried errand, he had scarcely seen the physiognomy of the streets after eight o’clock. He had never seen the playground in the evening. And this evening the town did not seem like the same town; it had become a new and mysterious town of adventure. And yet Edwin was not fifty yards away from his own bedroom.

They ascended Duck Bank together, Edwin proud to be with a celebrity of the calibre of Big James, and Big James calmly satisfied to show himself thus formally with his master’s son. It appeared almost incredible that those two immortals, so diverse, had issued from the womb practically alike; that a few brief years on the earth had given Big James such a tremendous physical advantage. Several hours’ daily submission to the exact regularities of lines of type and to the unvarying demands of minutely adjusted machines in motion had stamped Big James’s body and mind with the delicate and quasi-finicking preciseness which characterises all compositors and printers; and the continual monotonous performance of similar tasks that employed his faculties while never absorbing or straining them, had soothed and dulled the fever of life in him to a beneficent calm, a calm refined and beautified by the pleasurable exercise of song. Big James had seldom known a violent emotion. He had craved nothing, sought for nothing, and lost nothing.

Edwin, like Big James in progress from everlasting to everlasting, was all inchoate, unformed, undisciplined, and burning with capricious fires; all expectant, eager, reluctant, tingling, timid, innocently and wistfully audacious. By taking the boy’s hand, Big James might have poetically symbolised their relation.

Three.

“Are you going to sing to-night at the Dragon, Mr Yarlett?” asked Edwin. He lengthened his step to Big James’s, controlled his ardent body, and tried to remember that he was a man with a man.

“I am, young sir,” said Big James. “There is a party of us.”

“Is it the Male Glee Party?” Edwin pursued.

“Yes, Mr Edwin.”

“Then Mr Smallrice will be there?”

“He will, Mr Edwin.”

“Why can Mr Smallrice sing such high notes?”

Big James slowly shook his head, as Edwin looked up at him. “I tell you what it is, young sir. It’s a gift, that’s what it is, same as I can sing low.”

“But Mr Smallrice is very old, isn’t he?”

“There’s a parrot in a cage over at the Duck, there, as is eighty-five years old, and that’s proved by record kept, young sir.”

“No!” protested Edwin’s incredulity politely.

“By record kept,” said Big James.

“Do you often sing at the Dragon, Mr Yarlett?”

“Time was,” said Big James, “when some of us used to sing there every night, Sundays excepted, and concerts and whatnot excepted. Aye! For hours and hours every night. And still do sometimes.”

“After your work?”

“After our work. Aye! And often till dawn in summer. One o’clock, two o’clock, half-past two o’clock, every night. But now they say that this new Licensing Act will close every public-house in this town at eleven o’clock, and a straight-up eleven at that!”

“But what do you do it for?”

“What do we do it for? We do it to pass the time and the glass, young sir. Not as I should like you to think as I ever drank, Mr Edwin. One quart of ale I take every night, and have ever done; no more, no less.”

“But”— Edwin’s rapid, breaking voice interrupted eagerly the deep majestic tones —“aren’t you tired the next day? I should be!”

“Never,” said Big James. “I get up from my bed as fresh as a daisy at six sharp. And I’ve known the nights when my bed ne’er saw me.”

“You must be strong, Mr Yarlett, my word!” Edwin exclaimed. These revelations of the habits and prowess of Big James astounded him. He had never suspected that such things went on in the town.

“Aye! Middling!”

“I suppose it’s a free-and-easy at the Dragon, to-night, Mr Yarlett?”

“In a manner of speaking,” said Big James.

“I wish I could stay for it.”

“And why not?” Big James suggested, and looked down at Edwin with half-humorous incertitude.

Edwin shrugged his shoulders superiorly, indicating by instinct, in spite of himself, that possibly Big James was trespassing over the social line that divided them. And yet Big James’s father would have condescended to Edwin’s grandfather. Only, Edwin now belonged to the employing class, whilst Big James belonged to the employed. Already Edwin, whose father had been thrashed by workmen whom a compositor would hesitate to call skilled — already Edwin had the mien natural to a ruler, and Big James, with dignified deference, would submit unresentingly to his attitude. It was the subtlest thing. It was not that Edwin obscurely objected to the suggestion of his being present at the free-and-easy; it was that he objected (but nicely, and with good nature) to any assumption of Big James’s right to influence him towards an act that his father would not approve. Instead of saying, “Why not?” Big James ought to have said: “Nobody but you can decide that, as your father’s away.” James ought to have been strictly impartial.

Four.

“Well,” said Big James, when they arrived at the playground, which lay north of the covered Meat Market or Shambles, “it looks as if they hadn’t been able to make a start yet at the Blood Tub.” His tone was marked by a calm, grand disdain, as of one entertainer talking about another.

The Blood Tub, otherwise known as Snaggs’s, was the centre of nocturnal pleasure in Bursley. It stood almost on the very spot where the jawbone of a whale had once lain, as a supreme natural curiosity. It represented the softened manners which had developed out of the old medievalism of the century. It had supplanted the bear-pit and the cock-pit. It corresponded somewhat with the ideals symbolised by the new Town Hall. In the tiny odorous beer-houses of all the undulating, twisting, reddish streets that surrounded the contiguous open spaces of Duck Bank, the playground, the market-place, and Saint Luke’s Square, the folk no longer discussed eagerly what chance on Sunday morning the municipal bear would have against five dogs. They had progressed as far as a free library, boxing-gloves, rabbit-coursing, and the Blood Tub.

This last was a theatre with wooden sides and a canvas roof, and it would hold quite a crowd of people. In front of it was a platform, and an orchestra, lighted by oil flares that, as Big James and Edwin approached, were gaining strength in the twilight. Leaning against the platform was a blackboard on which was chalked the announcement of two plays: “The Forty Thieves” (author unstated) and Cruikshank’s “The Bottle.” The orchestra, after terrific concussions, fell silent, and then a troupe of players in costume, cramped on the narrow trestle boards, performed a sample scene from “The Forty Thieves,” just to give the crowd in front an idea of the wonders of this powerful work. And four thieves passed and repassed behind the screen hiding the doors, and reappeared nine times as four fresh thieves until the tale of forty was complete. And then old Hammerad, the beloved clown who played the drum (and whose wife kept a barber’s shop in Buck Row and shaved for a penny), left his drum and did two minutes’ stiff clowning, and then the orchestra burst forth again, and the brazen voice of old Snaggs (in his moleskin waistcoat) easily rode the storm, adjuring the folk to walk up and walk up: which some of the folk did do. And lastly the band played “God Save the Queen,” and the players, followed by old Snaggs, processionally entered the booth.

“I lay they come out again,” said Big James, with grim blandness.

“Why?” asked Edwin. He was absolutely new to the scene.

“I lay they haven’t got twenty couple inside,” said Big James.

And in less than a minute the troupe did indeed emerge, and old Snaggs expostulated with a dilatory public, respectfully but firmly. It had been a queer year for Mr Snaggs. Rain had ruined the Wakes; rain had ruined everything; rain had nearly ruined him. July was obviously not a month in which a self-respecting theatre ought to be open, but Mr Snaggs had got to the point of catching at straws. He stated that in order to prove his absolute bona fides the troupe would now give a scene from that world-renowned and unique drama, “The Bottle,” after which the performance really would commence, since he could not as a gentleman keep his kind patrons within waiting any longer. His habit, which emphasised itself as he grew older, was to treat the staring crowd in front of his booth like a family of nephews and nieces. The device was quite useless, for the public’s stolidity was impregnable. It touched the heroic. No more granitic and crass stolidity could have been discovered in England. The crowd stood; it exercised no other function of existence. It just stood, and there it would stand until convinced that the gratis part of the spectacle was positively at an end.

Five.

With a ceremonious gesture signifying that he assumed the young sir’s consent, Big James turned away. He had displayed to Edwin the poverty and the futility of the Blood Tub. Edwin would perhaps have liked to stay. The scenes enacted on the outer platform were certainly tinged with the ridiculous, but they were the first histrionics that he had ever witnessed; and he could not help thinking, hoping, in spite of his common sense, that within the booth all was different, miraculously transformed into the grand and the impressive. Left to himself, he would surely have preferred an evening at the Blood Tub to a business interview with Mr Enoch Peake at the Dragon. But naturally he had to scorn the Blood Tub with a scorn equal to the massive and silent scorn of Big James. And on the whole he considered that he was behaving as a man with another man rather well. He sought by depreciatory remarks to keep the conversation at its proper adult level.

Big James led him through the market-place, where a few vegetable, tripe, and gingerbread stalls — relics of the day’s market — were still attracting customers in the twilight. These slatternly and picturesque groups, beneath their flickering yellow flares, were encamped at the gigantic foot of the Town Hall porch as at the foot of a precipice. The monstrous black walls of the Town Hall rose and were merged in gloom; and the spire of the Town Hall, on whose summit stood a gold angel holding a gold crown, rose right into the heavens and was there lost. It was marvellous that this town, by adding stone to stone, had upreared this monument which, in expressing the secret nobility of its ideals, dwarfed the town. On every side of it the beer-houses, full of a dulled, savage ecstasy of life, gleamed brighter than the shops. Big James led Edwin down through the mysteries of the Cock Yard and up along Bugg’s Gutter, and so back to the Dragon.

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