Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter One.

The Visit.

We now approach the more picturesque part of Edwin’s career. Seven years passed. Towards the end of April 1880, on a Saturday morning, Janet Orgreave, second daughter of Osmond Orgreave, the architect, entered the Clayhanger shop.

All night an April shower lasting ten hours had beaten with persistent impetuosity against the window-panes of Bursley, and hence half the town had slept ill. But at breakfast-time the clouds had been mysteriously drawn away, the winds had expired, and those drenched streets began to dry under the caressing peace of bright soft sunshine; the sky was pale blue of a delicacy unknown to the intemperate climes of the south. Janet Orgreave, entering the Clayhanger shop, brought into it with her the new morning weather. She also brought into it Edwin’s fate, or part of it, but not precisely in the sense commonly understood when the word ‘fate’ is mentioned between a young man and a young woman.

A youth stood at the left-hand or ‘fancy’ counter, very nervous. Miss Ingamells (that was) was married and the mother of three children, and had probably forgotten the difference between ‘demy’ and ‘post’ octavos; and this youth had taken her place and the place of two unsatisfactory maids in black who had succeeded her. None but males were now employed in the Clayhanger business, and everybody breathed more freely; round, sound oaths were heard where never oaths had been heard before. The young man’s name was Stifford, and he was addressed as ‘Stiff.’ He was a proof of the indiscretion of prophesying about human nature. He had been the paper boy, the minion of Edwin, and universally regarded as unreliable and almost worthless. But at sixteen a change had come over him; he parted his hair in the middle instead of at the side, arrived in the morning at 7:59 instead of at 8:05, and seemed to see the earnestness of life. Every one was glad and relieved, but every one took the change as a matter of course; the attitude of every one to the youth was: “Well, it’s not too soon!” No one saw a romantic miracle.

“I suppose you haven’t got ‘The Light of Asia’ in stock?” began Janet Orgreave, after she had greeted the youth kindly.

“I’m afraid we haven’t, miss,” said Stifford. This was an understatement. He knew beyond fear that “The Light of Asia” was not in stock.

“Oh!” murmured Janet.

“I think you said ‘The Light of Asia’?”

“Yes. ‘The Light of Asia,’ by Edwin Arnold.” Janet had a persuasive humane smile.

Stifford was anxious to have the air of obliging this smile, and he turned round to examine a shelf of prize books behind him, well aware that “The Light of Asia” was not among them. He knew “The Light of Asia,” and was proud of his knowledge; that is to say, he knew by visible and tactual evidence that such a book existed, for it had been ordered and supplied as a Christmas present four months previously, soon after its dazzling apparition in the world.

“Yes, by Edwin Arnold — Edwin Arnold,” he muttered learnedly, running his finger along gilded backs.

“It’s being talked about a great deal,” said Janet as if to encourage him.

“Yes, it is . . . No, I’m very sorry, we haven’t it in stock.” Stifford faced her again, and leaned his hands wide apart on the counter.

“I should like you to order it for me,” said Janet Orgreave in a low voice.

She asked this exactly as though she were asking a personal favour from Stifford the private individual. Such was Janet’s way. She could not help it. People often said that her desire to please, and her methods of pleasing, were unconscious. These people were wrong. She was perfectly conscious and even deliberate in her actions. She liked to please. She could please easily and she could please keenly. Therefore she strove always to please. Sometimes, when she looked in the mirror, and saw that charming, good-natured face with its rich vermilion lips eager to part in a nice, warm, sympathetic smile, she could accuse herself of being too fond of the art of pleasing. For she was a conscientious girl, and her age being twenty-five her soul was at its prime, full, bursting with beautiful impulses towards perfection. Yes, she would accuse herself of being too happy, too content, and would wonder whether she ought not to seek heaven by some austerity of scowling. Janet had everything: a kind disposition, some brains, some beauty, considerable elegance and luxury for her station, fine shoulders at a ball, universal love and esteem.

Stifford, as he gazed diffidently at this fashionable, superior, and yet exquisitely beseeching woman on the other side of the counter, was in a very unpleasant quandary. She had by her magic transformed him into a private individual, and he acutely wanted to earn that smile which she was giving him. But he could not. He was under the obligation to say ‘No’ to her innocent and delightful request; and yet could he say ‘No’? Could he bring himself to desolate her by a refusal? (She had produced in him the illusion that a refusal would indeed desolate her, though she would of course bear it with sweet fortitude.) Business was a barbaric thing at times.

“The fact is, miss,” he said at length, in his best manner, “Mr Clayhanger has decided to give up the new book business. I’m very sorry.”

Had it been another than Janet he would have assuredly said with pride: “We have decided —”

“Really!” said Janet. “I see!”

Then Stifford directed his eyes upon a square glazed structure of ebonised wood that had been insinuated and inserted into the opposite corner of the shop, behind the ledger-window. And Janet’s eyes followed his.

“I don’t know if —” he hesitated.

“Is Mr Clayhanger in?” she demanded, as if wishful to help him in the formulation of his idea, and she added: “Or Mr Edwin?” Deliciously persuasive!

Two.

The wooden structure was a lair. It had been constructed to hold Darius Clayhanger; but in practice it generally held Edwin, as his father’s schemes for the enlargement of the business carried him abroad more and more. It was a device of Edwin’s for privacy; Edwin had planned it and seen the plan executed. The theory was that a person concealed in the structure (called ‘the office’) was not technically in the shop and must not be disturbed by anyone in the shop. Only persons of authority — Darius and Edwin — had the privilege of the office, and since its occupant could hear every whisper in the shop, it was always for the occupant to decide when events demanded that he should emerge.

On Janet’s entrance, Edwin was writing in the daybook: “April 11th. Turnhill Oddfellows. 400 Contrib. Cards —” He stopped writing. He held himself still like a startled mouse. With satisfaction he observed that the door of the fortress was closed. By putting his nose near the crystal wall he could see, through the minute transparent portions of the patterned glass, without being seen. He watched Janet’s graceful gestures, and examined with pleasure the beauties of her half-season toilet; he discerned the modishness of her umbrella handle. His sensations were agreeable and yet disagreeable, for he wished both to remain where he was and to go forth and engage her in brilliant small talk. He had no small talk, except that of the salesman and the tradesman; his tongue knew not freedom; but his fancy dreamed of light, intellectual conversations with fine girls. These dreams of fancy had of late become almost habitual, for the sole reason that he had raised his hat several times to Janet, and once had shaken hands with her and said, “How d’you do, Miss Orgreave?” in response to her “How d’you do, Mr Clayhanger?” Osmond Orgreave, in whom had originated their encounter, had cut across the duologue at that point and spoilt it. But Edwin’s fancy had continued it, when he was alone late at night, in a very diverting and witty manner. And now, he had her at his disposal; he had only to emerge, and Stiff would deferentially recede, and he could chat with her at ease, starting comfortably from “The Light of Asia.” And yet he dared not; his faint heart told him in loud beats that he could only chat cleverly with a fine girl when absolutely alone in his room, in the dark.

Still, he surveyed her; he added her up; he pronounced, with a touch of conventional male patronage (caught possibly from the Liberal Club), that Janet was indubitably a nice girl and a fine girl. He would not admit that he was afraid of her, and that despite all theoretical argufying, he deemed her above him in rank.

And if he had known the full truth, he might have regretted that he had not caused the lair to be furnished with a trap-door by means of which the timid could sink into the earth.

The truth was that Janet had called purposely to inspect Edwin at leisure. “The Light of Asia” was a mere poetical pretext. “The Light of Asia” might as easily have been ordered at Hanbridge, where her father and brothers ordered all their books — in fact, more easily. Janet, with all her niceness, with all the reality of her immense good-nature, loved as well as anybody a bit of chicane where a man was concerned. Janet’s eyes could twinkle as mischievously as her quiet mother’s. Mr Orgreave having in the last eight months been in professional relations with Darius and Edwin, the Orgreave household had begun discussing Edwin again. Mr Orgreave spoke of him favourably. Mrs Orgreave said that he looked the right sort of youth, but that he had a peculiar manner. Janet said that she should not be surprised if there was something in him. Janet said also that his sister Clara was an impossible piece of goods, and that his sister Maggie was born an old maid. One of her brothers then said that that was just what was the matter with Edwin too! Mr Orgreave protested that he wasn’t so sure of that, and that occasionally Edwin would say things that were really rather good. This stimulated Mrs Orgreave’s curiosity, and she suggested that her husband should invite the young man to their house. Whereupon Mr Orgreave pessimistically admitted that he did not think Edwin could be enticed. And Janet, piqued, said, “If that’s all, I’ll have him here in a week.” They were an adventurous family, always ready for anything, always on the look-out for new sources of pleasure, full of zest in life. They liked novelties, and hospitality was their chief hobby. They made fun of nearly every body, but it was not mean fun.

Such, and not “The Light of Asia,” was the cause of Janet’s visit.

Three.

Be it said to Edwin’s shame that she would have got no further with the family plot that morning, had it not been for the chivalry of Stifford. Having allowed his eyes to rest on the lair, Stifford allowed his memory to forget the rule of the shop, and left the counter for the door of the lair, determined that Miss Orgreave should see the genuineness of his anxiety to do his utmost for so sympathetic a woman. Edwin, perceiving the intention from his lair, had to choose whether he would go out or be fetched out. Of course he preferred to go out. But he would never have gone out on his own initiative; he would have hesitated until Janet had departed, and he would then have called himself a fool. He regretted, and I too regret, that he was like that; but like that he was.

He emerged with nervous abruptness.

“Oh, how d’you do, Miss Orgreave?” he said; “I thought it was your voice.” After this he gave a little laugh, which meant nothing, certainly not amusement; it was merely a gawky habit that he had unconsciously adopted. Then he took his handkerchief out of his pocket and put it back again. Stifford fell back and had to pretend that nothing interested him less than the interview which he had precipitated.

“How d’you do, Mr Clayhanger?” said Janet.

They shook hands. Edwin wrung Janet’s hand; another gawky habit.

“I was just going to order a book,” said Janet.

“Oh yes! ‘The Light of Asia,’” said Edwin.

“Have you read it?” Janet asked.

“Yes — that is, a lot of it.”

“Have you?” exclaimed Janet. She was impressed, because really the perusal of verse was not customary in the town. And her delightful features showed generously the full extent to which she was impressed: an honest, ungrudging appreciation of Edwin’s studiousness. She said to herself: “Oh! I must certainly get him to the house.” And Edwin said to himself, “No mistake, there’s something very genuine about this girl.”

Edwin said aloud quickly, from an exaggerated apprehensiveness lest she should be rating him too high —

“It was quite an accident that I saw it. I never read that sort of thing — not as a rule.” He laughed again.

“Is it worth buying?” Now she appealed to him as an authority. She could not help doing so, and in doing so she was quite honest, for her good-nature had momentarily persuaded her that he was an authority.

“I— I don’t know,” Edwin answered, moving his neck as though his collar was not comfortable; but it was comfortable, being at least a size too large. “It depends, you know. If you read a lot of poetry, it’s worth buying. But if you don’t, it isn’t. It’s not Tennyson, you know. See what I mean?”

“Yes, quite!” said Janet, smiling with continued and growing appreciation. The reply struck her as very sagacious. She suddenly saw in a new light her father’s hints that there was something in this young man not visible to everybody. She had a tremendous respect for her father’s opinion, and now she reproached herself in that she had not attached due importance to what he had said about Edwin. “How right father always is!” she thought. Her attitude of respect for Edwin was now more securely based upon impartial intelligence than before; it owed less to her weakness for seeing the best in people. As for Edwin, he was saying to himself: “I wish to the devil I could talk to her without spluttering! Why can’t I be natural? Why can’t I be glib? Some chaps could.” And Edwin could be, with some chaps.

Four.

They were standing close together in the shop, Janet and Edwin, near the cabinet of artists’ materials. Janet, after her manner at once frank and reassuring, examined Edwin; she had come on purpose to examine him. She had never been able to decide whether or not he was good-looking, and she could not decide now. But she liked the appeal in his eyes. She did not say to herself that there was an appeal in his eyes; she said that there was ‘something in his eyes.’ Also he was moderately tall and he was slim. She said to herself that he must be very well shaped. Beginning at the bottom, his boots were clumsy, his trousers were baggy and even shiny, and they had transverse creases, not to be seen in the trousers of her own menkind; his waistcoat showed plainly the forms of every article in the pockets thereof — watch, penknife, pencil, etcetera, it was obvious that he never emptied his pockets at night; his collar was bluish-white instead of white, and its size was monstrous; his jacket had ‘worked up’ at the back of his neck, completely hiding his collar there; the side-pockets of his jacket were weighted and bulged with mysterious goods; his fair hair was rough but not curly; he had a moustache so trifling that one could not be sure whether it was a moustache or whether he had been too busy to think of shaving. Janet received all these facts into her brain, and then carelessly let them all slip out again, in her preoccupation with his eyes. She said they were sad eyes. The mouth, too, was somewhat sad (she thought), but there was a drawing down of the corners of it that seemed to make gentle fun of its sadness. Janet, perhaps out of her good-nature, liked his restless, awkward movements and the gesture of his hands, of which the articulations were too prominent, and the finger-nails too short.

“Tom reads rather a lot of poetry,” said Janet. “That’s my eldest brother.”

“That might justify you,” said Edwin doubtfully.

They both laughed. And as with Janet, so with Edwin, when he laughed, all the kindest and honestest part of him seemed to rise into his face.

“But if you don’t supply new books any more?”

“Oh!” Edwin stuttered, blushing slightly. “That’s nothing. I shall be very pleased to get it for you specially, Miss Orgreave. It’s father that decided — only last month — that the new book business was more trouble than it’s worth. It was — in a way; but I’m sorry, myself, we’ve given it up, poor as it was. Of course there are no book-buyers in this town, especially now old Lawton’s dead. But still, what with one thing or another, there was generally some book on order, and I used to see them. Of course there’s no money in it. But still . . . Father says that people buy less books than they used to — but he’s wrong there.” Edwin spoke with calm certainty. “I’ve shown him he’s wrong by our order-book, but he wouldn’t see it.” Edwin smiled, with a general mild indulgence for fathers.

“Well,” said Janet, “I’ll ask Tom first.”

“No trouble whatever to us to order it for you, I assure you. I can get it down by return of post.”

“It’s very good of you,” said Janet, genuinely persuading herself for the moment that Edwin was quite exceeding the usual bounds of complaisance.

She moved to depart.

“Father told me to tell you if I saw you that the glazing will be all finished this morning,” said she.

“Up yonder?” Edwin jerked his head to indicate the south.

And Janet delicately confirmed his assumption with a slight declension of her waving hat.

“Oh! Good!” Edwin murmured.

Janet held out her hand, to be wrung again, and assured him of her gratitude for his offer of taking trouble about the book; and he assured her that it would not be trouble but pleasure. He accompanied her to the doorway.

“I think I must come up and have a look at that glazing this afternoon,” he said, as she stood on the pavement.

She nodded, smiling benevolence and appreciation, and departed round the corner in the soft sunshine.

Edwin put on a stern, casual expression for the benefit of Stifford, as who should say: “What a trial these frivolous girls are to a man immersed in affairs!” But Stifford was not deceived. Safe within his lair, Edwin was conscious of quite a disturbing glow. He smiled to himself — a little self-consciously, though alone. Then he scribbled down in pencil “Light of Asia. Miss J. Orgreave.”

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