Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Eleven.

The Bottom of the Square.

Another procession — that of the Old Church Sunday school — came up, with standards floating and drums beating, out of the steepness of Woodisun Bank, and turned into Wedgwood Street, which thenceforward was loosely thronged by procession and sightseers. The importance of the festival was now quite manifest, for at the end of the street could be seen Saint Luke’s Square, massed with human beings in movement. Osmond Orgreave and his daughter were lost to view in the brave crowd; but after a little, Edwin distinctly saw Janet’s sunshade leave Wedgwood Street at the corner of the Wedgwood Institution and bob slowly into the Cock Yard, which was a narrow thoroughfare leading to the market-place and the Town Hall, and so to the top of Saint Luke’s Square. He said nothing, and kept straight on along Wedgwood Street past the Covered Market.

“I hope you didn’t catch cold in the rain the other night,” he remarked — grimly, as he thought.

“I should have thought it would have been you who were more likely to catch cold,” Hilda replied, in her curt manner. She looked in front of her. The words seem to him to carry a double meaning. Suddenly she moved her head, glanced full at him for an instant, and glanced behind her. “Where are they?” she inquired.

“The others? Aren’t they in front? They must be some where about.”

Unless she also had marked their deviation into the Cock Yard, why had she glanced behind her in asking where they were? She knew as well as he that they had started in front. He could only deduce that she had been as willing as himself to lose Mr Orgreave and Janet. Just then an acquaintance raised his hat to Edwin in acknowledgement of the lady’s presence, and he responded with pride. Whatever his private attitude to Hilda, he was undeniably proud to be seen in the streets with a disdainful, aloof girl unknown to the town. It was an experience entirely new to him, and it flattered him. He desired to look long at her face, to examine her expression, to make up his mind about her; but he could not, because they were walking side by side. The sole manifestation of her that he could judge was her voice. It was a remarkable voice, rather deep, with a sort of chiselled intonation. The cadences of it fell on the ear softly and yet ruthlessly, and when she had finished speaking you became aware of silence, as after a solemn utterance of destiny. What she happened to have been saying seemed to be immaterial to the effect, which was physical, vibratory.

Two.

At the border of Saint Luke’s Square, junction of eight streets, true centre of the town’s traffic, and the sole rectangular open space enclosed completely by shops, they found a line of constables which yielded only to processions and to the bearers of special rosettes. ‘The Square,’ as it was called by those who inhabited it, had been chosen for the historic scene of the day because of its preeminent claim and suitability; the least of its advantages — its slope, from the top of which it could be easily dominated by a speaker on a platform — would alone have secured for it the honours of the Centenary.

As the police cordon closed on the procession from the Old Church, definitely dividing the spectators from the spectacle, it grew clear that the spectators were in the main a shabby lot; persons without any social standing: unkempt idlers, good-for-nothings, wastrels, clay-whitened pot-girls who had to work even on that day, and who had run out for a few moments in their flannel aprons to stare, and a few score ragamuffins, whose parents were too poor or too careless to make them superficially presentable enough to figure in a procession. Nearly the whole respectability of the town was either fussily marshalling processions or gazing down at them in comfort from the multitudinous open windows of the Square. The ‘leads’ over the projecting windows of Baines’s, the chief draper’s, were crowded with members of the ruling caste.

And even within the Square, it could be seen, between the towering backs of constables, that the spectacle itself was chiefly made up of indigence bedecked. The thousands of perspiring children, penned like sheep, and driven to and fro like sheep by anxious and officious rosettes, nearly all had the air of poverty decently putting the best face on itself; they were nearly all, beneath their vague sense of importance, wistful with the resigned fatalism of the young and of the governed. They knew not precisely why they were there; but merely that they had been commanded to be there, and that they were hot and thirsty, and that for weeks they had been learning hymns by heart for this occasion, and that the occasion was glorious. Many of the rosettes themselves had a poor, driven look. None of these bought suits at Shillitoe’s, nor millinery at Baines’s. None of them gave orders for printing, nor had preferences in the form of ledgers, nor held views on Victor Hugo, nor drank wine, nor yearned for perfection in the art of social intercourse. To Edwin, who was just beginning to touch the planes of worldliness and of dilettantism in art, to Edwin, with the mysterious and haughty creature at his elbow, they seemed to have no more in common with himself and her than animals had. And he wondered by virtue of what decree he, in the Shillitoe suit, and the grand house waiting for him up at Bleakridge, had been lifted up to splendid ease above the squalid and pitiful human welter.

Three.

Such musings were scarcely more than subconscious in him. He stood now a few inches behind Hilda, and, above these thoughts, and beneath the stir and strident glitter and noise of the crawling ant-heap, his mind was intensely occupied with Hilda’s ear and her nostril. He could watch her now at leisure, for the changeful interest of the scene made conversation unnecessary and even inept. What a lobe! What a nostril! Every curve of her features seemed to express a fine arrogant acrimony and harsh truculence. At any rate she was not half alive; she was alive in every particle of herself. She gave off antipathies as a liquid gives off vapour. Moods passed across her intent face like a wind over a field. Apparently she was so rapt as to be unaware that her sunshade was not screening her. Sadness prevailed among her moods.

The mild Edwin said secretly:

“By Jove! If I had you to myself, my lady, I’d soon teach you a thing or two!” He was quite sincere, too.

His glance, roving, discovered Mrs Hamps above him, ten feet over his head, at the corner of the Baines balcony. He flushed, for he perceived that she must have been waiting to catch him. She was at her most stately and most radiant, wonderful in lavender, and she poured out on him the full opulence of a proud recognition.

Everybody should be made aware that Mrs Hamps was greeting her adored nephew, who was with a lady friend of the Orgreaves.

She leaned slightly from her cane chair.

“Isn’t it a beautiful sight?” she cried. Her voice sounded thin and weak against the complex din of the Square.

He nodded, smiling.

“Oh! I think it’s a beautiful sight!” she cried once more, ecstatic. People turned to see whom she was addressing.

But though he nodded again he did not think it was a beautiful sight. He thought it was a disconcerting sight, a sight vexatious and troublesome. And he was in no way tranquillised by the reflection that every town in England had the same sight to show at that hour.

And moreover, anticipating their next interview, he could, in fancy, plainly hear his Aunt Clara saying, with hopeless, longing benignancy: “Oh, Edwin, how I do wish I could have seen you in the Square, bearing your part!”

Hilda seemed to be oblivious of Mrs Hamps’s ejaculations, but immediately afterwards she straightened her back, with a gesture that Edwin knew, and staring into his eyes said, as it were resentfully —

“Well, they evidently aren’t here!”

And looked with scorn among the sightseers. It was clear that the crowd contained nobody of the rank and stamp of the Orgreaves.

“They may have gone up the Cock Yard — if you know where that is,” said Edwin.

“Well, don’t you think we’d better find them somehow?”

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