Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Ten.

The Centenary.

It was immediately after this that the “Centenary”— mispronounced in every manner conceivable — began to obsess the town. Superior and aloof persons, like the Orgreaves, had for weeks heard a good deal of vague talk about the Centenary from people whom intellectually they despised, and had condescended to the Centenary as an amiable and excusable affair which lacked interest for them. They were wrong. Edwin had gone further, and had sniffed at the Centenary, to everybody except his father. And Edwin was especially wrong. On the antepenultimate day of June he first uneasily suspected that he had committed a fault of appraisement. That was when his father brusquely announced that by request of the Mayor all places of business in the town would be closed in honour of the Centenary. It was the Centenary of the establishment of Sunday schools.

Edwin hated Sunday schools. Nay, he venomously resented them, though they had long ceased to incommode him. They were connected in his memory with atrocious tedium, pietistic insincerity, and humiliating contacts. At the bottom of his mind he still regarded them as a malicious device of parents for wilfully harassing and persecuting inoffensive, helpless children. And he had a particular grudge against them because he alone of his father’s offspring had been chosen for the nauseating infliction. Why should his sisters have been spared and he doomed? He became really impatient when Sunday schools were under discussion, and from mere irrational annoyance he would not admit that Sunday schools had any good qualities whatever. He knew nothing of their history, and wished to know nothing.

Nevertheless, when the day of the Centenary dawned — and dawned in splendour — he was compelled, even within himself, to treat Sunday schools with more consideration. And, in fact, for two or three days previously the gathering force of public opinion had been changing his attitude from stern hatred to a sort of half-hearted derision. Now, the derision was mysteriously transformed into an inimical respect. By what? By he knew not what. By something without a name in the air which the mind breathes. He felt it at six o’clock, ere he arose. Lying in bed he felt it. The day was to be a festival. The shop would not open, nor the printing office. The work of preparing for the removal would be suspended. The way of daily life would be quite changed. He was free — that was, nearly free. He said to himself that of course his excited father would expect him to witness the celebrations and to wear his best clothes, and that was a bore. But therein he was not quite honest. For he secretly wanted to witness the celebrations and to wear his best clothes. His curiosity was hungry. He admitted, what many had been asserting for weeks, that the Centenary was going to be a big thing; and his social instinct wished him to share in the pride of it.

“It’s a grand day!” exclaimed his father, cheerful and all glossy as he looked out upon Duck Square before breakfast, “It’ll be rare and hot!” And it was a grand day; one of the dazzling spectacular blue-and-gold days of early summer. And Maggie was in finery. And Edwin too! Useless for him to pretend that a big thing was not afoot — and his father in a white waistcoat! Breakfast was positively talkative, though the conversation was naught but a repeating and repeating of what the arrangements were, and of what everybody had decided to do. The three lingered over breakfast, because there was no reason to hurry. And then even Maggie left the sitting-room without a care, for though Clara was coming for dinner Mrs Nixon could be trusted. Mrs Nixon, if she had time, would snatch half an hour in the afternoon to see what remained to be seen of the show. Families must eat. And if Mrs Nixon was stopped by duty from assisting at this Centenary, she must hope to be more at liberty for the next.

Two.

At nine o’clock, in a most delicious mood of idleness, Edwin strolled into the shop. His father had taken down one shutter from the doorway, and slanted it carelessly against another on the pavement. A blind man or a drunkard might have stumbled against it and knocked it over. The letters had been hastily opened. Edwin could see them lying in disorder on the desk in the little office. The dust-sheets thought the day was Sunday. He stood in the narrow aperture and looked forth. Duck Square was a shimmer of sunshine. The Dragon and the Duck and the other public-house at the top corner seemed as usual, stolidly confident in the thirst of populations. But the Borough Dining Rooms, next door but one to the corner of Duck Square and Wedgwood Street, were not as usual. The cart of Doy, the butcher, had halted laden in front of the Borough Dining Rooms, and the anxious proprietor, attended by his two little daughters (aproned and sleeved for hard work in imitation of their stout, perspiring mother), was accepting unusual joints from it. Ticklish weather for meat — you could see that from the man’s gestures. Even on ordinary days those low-ceiled dining-rooms, stretching far back from the street in a complicated vista of interiors, were apt to be crowded; for the quality of the eightpenny dinner could be relied upon. Edwin imagined what a stifling, deafening inferno of culinary odours and clatter they would be at one o’clock, at two o’clock.

Three hokey-pokey ice-cream hand-carts, one after another, turned the corner of Trafalgar Road and passed in front of him along Wedgwood Street. Three! The men pushing them, one an Italian, seemed to wear nothing but shirt and trousers, with a straw hat above and vague slippers below. The steam-car lumbered up out of the valley of the road and climbed Duck Bank, throwing its enormous shadow to the left. It was half full of bright frocks and suits. An irregular current of finery was setting in to the gates of the Wesleyan School yard at the top of the Bank. And ceremoniously bedecked individuals of all ages hurried in this direction and in that, some with white handkerchiefs over flowered hats, a few beneath parasols. All the town’s store of Sunday clothes was in use. The humblest was crudely gay. Pawnbrokers had full tills and empty shops, for twenty-four hours.

Then a procession appeared, out of Moorthorne Road, from behind the Wesleyan Chapel-keeper’s house. And as it appeared it burst into music. First a purple banner, upheld on crimson poles with gilded lance-points; then a brass band in full note; and then children, children, children — little, middling, and big. As the procession curved down into Trafalgar Road, it grew in stature, until, towards the end of it, the children were as tall as the adults who walked fussily as hens, proudly as peacocks, on its flank. And last came a railway lorry on which dozens of tiny infants had been penned; and the horses of the lorry were ribboned and their manes and tails tightly plaited; on that grand day they could not be allowed to protect themselves against flies; they were sacrificial animals.

A power not himself drew Edwin to the edge of the pavement. He could read on the immense banner: “Moorthorne Saint John’s Sunday School.” These, then, were church folk. And indeed the next moment he descried a curate among the peacocks. The procession made another curve into Wedgwood Street, on its way to the supreme rendezvous in Saint Luke’s Square. The band blared; the crimson cheeks of the trumpeters sucked in and out; the drum-men leaned backwards to balance his burden, and banged. Every soul of the variegated company, big and little, was in a perspiration. The staggering bearers of the purple banner, who held the great poles in leathern sockets slung from the shoulders, and their acolytes before and behind who kept the banner upright by straining at crimson halyards, sweated most of all. Every foot was grey with dust, and the dark trousers of boys and men showed dust. The steamy whiff of humanity struck Edwin’s nostrils. Up hill and down dale the procession had already walked over two miles. Yet it was alert, joyous, and expectant: a chattering procession. From the lorry rose a continuous faint shriek of infantile voices. Edwin was saddened as by pathos. I believe that as he gazed at the procession waggling away along Wedgwood Street he saw Sunday schools in a new light.

And that was the opening of the day. There were to be dozens of such processions. Some would start only in the town itself; but others were coming from the villages like Red Cow, five sultry miles off.

Three.

A young woman under a sunshade came slowly along Wedgwood Street. She was wearing a certain discreet amount of finery, but her clothes did not fit well, and a thin mantle was arranged so as to lessen as much as possible the obviousness of the fact that she was about to become a mother. The expression of her face was discontented and captious. Edwin did not see her until she was close upon him, and then he immediately became self-conscious and awkward.

“Hello, Clara!” he greeted her, with his instinctive warm, transient smile, holding out his hand sheepishly. It was a most extraordinary and amazing thing that he could never regard the ceremony of shaking hands with a relative as other than an affectation of punctilio. Happily he was not wearing his hat; had it been on his head he would never have taken it off, and yet would have cursed himself for not doing so.

“We are grand!” exclaimed Clara, limply taking his hand and dropping it as an article of no interest. In her voice there was still some echo of former sprightliness. The old Clara in her had not till that moment beheld the smart and novel curves of Edwin’s Shillitoe suit, and the satiric cry came unbidden from her heart.

Edwin gave an uneasy laugh, which was merely the outlet for his disgust. Not that he was specially disgusted with Clara, for indeed marriage had assuaged a little the tediousness of some of her mannerisms, even if it had taken away from her charm. He was disgusted more comprehensively by the tradition, universal in his class and in most classes, according to which relatives could not be formally polite to one another. He obeyed the tradition as slavishly as anyone, but often said to himself that he would violate the sacred rule if only he could count on a suitable response; he knew that he could not count on a suitable response; and he had no mind to be in the excruciating position of one who, having started “God save the Queen” at a meeting, finds himself alone in the song. Why could not he and Clara behave together as, for instance, he and Janet Orgreave would behave together, with dignity, with worldliness, with mutual deference? But no! It was impossible, and would ever be so. They had been too brutally intimate, and the result was irremediable.

“She’s got no room to talk about personal appearance, anyway!” he thought sardonically.

There was another extraordinary and amazing thing. He was ashamed of her condition! He could not help the feeling. In vain he said to himself that her condition was natural and proper. In vain he remembered the remark of the sage that a young woman in her condition was the most beautiful sight in the world. He was ashamed of it. And he did not think it beautiful; he thought it ugly. It worried him. What — his sister? Other men’s sisters, yes; but his! He forgot that he himself had been born. He could scarcely bear to look at Clara. Her face was thin, and changed in colour; her eyes were unnaturally lustrous and large, bold and fatigued; she looked ill, really ill; and she was incredibly unornamental. And this was she whom he could remember as a graceful child! And it was all perfectly correct and even laudable! So much so that young Clara undoubtedly looked down, now, as from a superior height, upon both himself and Maggie!

“Where’s father?” she asked. “Just shut my sunshade.”

“Oh! Somewhere about. I expect he’ll be along in a minute. Albert coming?” He followed her into the shop.

“Albert!” she protested, shocked. “Albert can’t possibly come till one o’clock. Didn’t you know he’s one of the principal stewards in Saint Luke’s Square? He says we aren’t to wait dinner for him if he isn’t prompt.”

“Oh!” Edwin replied, and put the sunshade on the counter.

Clara sat down heavily on a chair, and began to fan herself with a handkerchief. In spite of the heat of exercise her face was of a pallid yellow.

“I suppose you’re going to stay here all morning?” Edwin inquired.

“Well,” said Clara, “you don’t see me walking up and down the streets all morning, do you? Albert said I was to be sure and go upstairs at once and not move. He said there’d be plenty to see for a long time yet from the sitting-room window, and then afterwards I could lie down.”

Albert said! Albert said! Clara’s intonation of this frequent phrase always jarred on Edwin. It implied that Albert was the supreme fount of wisdom and authority in Bursley. Whereas to Edwin, Albert was in fact a mere tedious, self-important manufacturer in a small way, with whom he had no ideas in common. “A decent fellow at bottom,” the fastidious Edwin was bound to admit to himself by reason of slight glimpses which he had had of Albert’s uncouth good-nature; but pietistic, overbearing, and without humour.

“Where’s Maggie?” Clara demanded.

“I think she’s putting her things on,” said Edwin.

“But didn’t she understand I was coming early?” Clara’s voice was querulous, and she frowned.

“I don’t know,” said Edwin.

He felt that if they remained together for hours, he and Clara would never rise above this plane of conversation — personal, factual, perfectly devoid of wide interest. They would never reach an exchange of general ideas; they never had done. He did not think that Clara had any general ideas.

“I hear you’re getting frightfully thick with the Orgreaves,” Clara observed, with a malicious accent and smile, as if to imply that he was getting frightfully above himself, and — simultaneously — that the Orgreaves were after all no better than other people.

“Who told you that?” He walked towards the doorway uneasily. The worst was that he could not successfully pretend that these sisterly attacks were lost on him.

“Never mind who told me,” said Clara.

Her voice took on a sudden charming roguish quality, and he could hear again the girl of fourteen. His heart at once softened to her. The impartial and unmoved spectator that sat somewhere in Edwin, as in everybody who possesses artistic sensibility, watching his secret life as from a conning tower, thought how strange this was. He stared out into the street. And then a face appeared at the aperture left by the removed shutter. It was Janet Orgreave’s, and it hesitated. Edwin gave a nervous start.

Four.

Janet was all in white again, and her sunshade was white, with regular circular holes in it to let through spots of sunlight which flecked her face. Edwin had not recovered from the blow of her apparition just at that moment, when he saw Hilda Lessways beyond her. Hilda was slate-coloured, and had a black sunshade. His heart began to thump; it might have been a dramatic and dangerous crisis that had suddenly come about. And to Edwin the situation did in fact present itself as critical: his sister behind, and these two so different girls in front. Yet there was nothing critical in it whatsoever. He shook hands as in a dream, wondering what he should do, trying to summon out of himself the man of the world.

“Do come in,” he urged them, hoping they would refuse.

“Oh no. We mustn’t come in,” said Janet, smiling gratefully. Hilda did not smile; she had not even smiled in shaking hands; and she had shaken hands without conviction.

Edwin heard a hurried step in the shop, and then the voice of Maggie, maternal and protective, in a low exclamation of surprise: “You, dear!” And then the sound of a smacking kiss, and Clara’s voice, thin, weak, and confiding: “Yes, I’ve come.” “Come upstairs, do!” said Maggie imploringly. “Come and be comfortable.” Then steps, ceasing to be heard as the sisters left the shop at the back. The solicitude of Maggie for Clara during the last few months had seemed wonderful to Edwin, as also Clara’s occasional childlike acceptance of it.

“But you must come in!” he said more boldly to the visitors, asking himself whether either Janet on Hilda had caught sight of his sisters in the gloom of the shop.

They entered, Hilda stiffly. Each with the same gesture closed her parasol before passing through the slit between the shutters into the deep shade. But whereas Janet smiled with pleasant anticipation as though she was going into heaven, Hilda wrinkled her forehead when her parasol would not subside at the first touch.

Janet talked of the Centenary; said they had decided only that morning to come down into the town and see whatever was to be seen; said with an angelic air of apologising to the Centenary that up at Lane End House they had certainly been under-estimating its importance and its interest as a spectacle; said that it was most astonishing to see all the shops closed. And Edwin interjected vague replies, pulling the chair out of the little ebonised cubicle so that they could both sit down. And Hilda remained silent. And Edwin’s thoughts were diving darkly beneath Janet’s chatter as in a deep sea beneath light waves. He heard and answered Janet with a minor part of his being that functioned automatically.

“She’s a caution!” reflected the main Edwin, obsessed in secret by Hilda Lessways. Who could have guessed, by looking at her, that only three evenings before she had followed him in the night to question him, to squeeze his hand, and to be rude to him? Did Janet know? Did anyone? No! He felt sure that he and she had the knowledge of that interview to themselves. She sat down glum, almost glowering. She was no more worldly than Maggie and Clara were worldly. Than they, she had no more skill to be sociable. And in appearance she was scarcely more stylish. But she was not as they, and it was useless vindictively to disparage her by pretending that she was. She could be passionate concerning Victor Hugo. She was capable of disturbing herself about the abstract question of belief. He had not heard her utter a single word in the way of common girlish conversation.

The doubt again entered his mind whether indeed her visit to the porch of the new house had been due to a genuine interest in abstract questions and not to a fancy for himself. “Yes,” he reflected, “that must have been it.”

In two days his pride in the affair had lost its first acuteness, though it had continued to brighten every moment of his life, and though he had not ceased to regret that he had no intimate friend to whom he could recount it in solemn and delicious intimacy. Now, philosophically, he stamped on his pride as on a fire. And he affected to be relieved at the decision that the girl had been moved by naught but a sort of fanaticism. But he was not relieved by the decision. The decision itself was not genuine. He still clung to the notion that she had followed him for himself. He preferred that she should have taken a fancy to him, even though he discovered no charm in her, no beauty, no solace, nothing but matter for repulsion. He wanted her to think of him, in spite of his distaste for her; to think of him hopelessly. “You are an ass!” murmured the impartial watcher in the conning tower. And he was. But he did not care. It was agreeable thus to be an ass . . . His pride flared up again, and instead of stamping he blew on it.

“By Jove!” he thought, eyeing her slyly, “I’ll make you show your hand — you see if I don’t! You think you can play with me, but you can’t!” He was as violent against her as if she had done him an injury instead of having squeezed his hand in the dark. Was it not injurious to have snapped at him, when he refused her invitation to stand by her against the wall in the porch, “You needn’t be afraid”? Janet would never have said such a thing. If only she resembled Janet! . . .

During all this private soliloquising, Edwin’s mien of mild nervousness never hardened to betray his ferocity, and he said nothing that might not have been said by an innocuous idiot.

The paper boy, arrayed richly, slipped apologetically into the shop. He had certain packets to take out for delivery, and he was late. Edwin nodded to him distantly. The conversation languished.

Then the head of Mr Orgreave appeared in the aperture. The architect seemed amused. Edwin could not understand how he had ever stood in awe of Mr Orgreave, who, with all his distinction and expensiveness, was the most companionable person in the world.

“Oh! Father!” cried Janet. “What a deceitful thing you are! Do you know, Mr Edwin, he pooh-poohed us coming down: he said he was far too busy for such childish things as Centenaries! And look at him!”

Mr Orgreave, whose suit, hat, and necktie were a harmony of elegant greys, smiled with paternal ease, and swung his cane. “Come along now! Don’t let’s miss anything. Come along. Now, Edwin, you’re coming, aren’t you?”

“Did you ever see such a child?” murmured Janet, adoring him.

Edwin turned to the paper boy. “Just find my father before you go,” he commanded. “Tell him I’ve gone, and ask him if you are to put the shutter up.” The paper boy respectfully promised obedience. And Edwin was glad that the forbidding Hilda was there to witness his authority.

Janet went out first. Hilda hesitated; and Edwin, having taken his hat from its hook in the cubicle, stood attending her at the aperture. He was sorry that he could not run upstairs for a walking-stick. At last she seemed to decide to leave, yet left with apparent reluctance. Edwin followed, giving a final glance at the boy, who was tying a parcel hurriedly. Mr Orgreave and his daughter were ten yards off, arm-inarm. Edwin fell into step with Hilda Lessways. Janet looked round, and smiled and beckoned. “I wonder,” said Edwin to himself, “what the devil’s going to happen now? I’ll take my oath she stayed behind on purpose! Well —” This swaggering audacity was within. Without, even a skilled observer could have seen nothing but a faint, sheepish smile. And his heart was thumping again.

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