Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Twelve.

The Top of the Square.

In making the detour through the Cock Yard to reach Saint Luke’s Square again at the top of it, the only members of the Orgreave clan whom they encountered were Jimmie and Johnnie, who, on hearing of the disappearance of their father and Janet, merely pointed out that their father and Janet were notoriously always getting themselves lost, owing to gross carelessness about whatever they happened to be doing. The youths then departed, saying that the Bursley show was nothing, and that they were going to Hanbridge; they conveyed the idea that Hanbridge was the only place in the world for self-respecting men of fashion. But before leaving they informed Edwin that a fellow at the corner of the Square was letting out rather useful barrels on lease. This fellow proved to be an odd-jobman who had been discharged from the Duke of Wellington Vaults in the market-place for consistently intemperate language, but whose tongue was such that he had persuaded the landlord on this occasion to let him borrow a dozen stout empty barrels, and the police to let him dispose them on the pavement. Every barrel was occupied, and, perceiving this, Edwin at once became bold with the barrel-man. He did not comfortably fancy himself perched prominent on a barrel with Hilda Lessways by his side, but he could enjoy talking about it, and he wished to show Hilda that he could be as dashing as those young sparks, Jimmie and Johnnie.

“Now, mester!” shouted the barrel-man thickly, in response to Edwin’s airy remark, “these ’ere two chaps’ll shunt off for th’ price of a quart!” He indicated a couple of barrel-tenants of his own tribe, who instantly jumped down, touching their soiled caps. They were part of the barrel-man’s machinery for increasing profits. Edwin could not withdraw. His very cowardice forced him to be audacious. By the time he had satisfied the clawing greed of three dirty hands, the two barrels had cost him a shilling. Hilda’s only observation was, as Edwin helped her to the plateau of the barrel: “I do wish they wouldn’t spit on their money.” All barrels being now let to bona fide tenants and paid for, the three men sidled hastily away in order to drink luck to Sunday schools in the Duke of Wellington’s Entire. And Edwin, mounting the barrel next to Hilda’s, was thinking: “I’ve been done over that job. I ought to have got them for sixpence.” He saw how expensive it was, going about with delicately nurtured women. Never would he have offered a barrel to Maggie, and even had he done so Maggie would assuredly have said that she could make shift well enough without one.

“It’s simply perfect for seeing,” exclaimed Hilda, as he achieved her altitude. Her tone was almost cordial. He felt surprisingly at ease.

Two.

The whole Square was now suddenly revealed as a swarming mass of heads, out of which rose banners and pennons that were cruder in tint even than the frocks and hats of the little girls and the dresses and bonnets of their teachers; the men, too, by their neckties, scarves, and rosettes, added colour to colour. All the windows were chromatic with the hues of bright costumes, and from many windows and from every roof that had a flagstaff flags waved heavily against the gorgeous sky. At the bottom of the Square the lorries with infants had been arranged, and each looked like a bank of variegated flowers. The principal bands — that is to say, all the bands that could be trusted — were collected round the red baize platform at the top of the Square, and the vast sun-reflecting euphoniums, trumpets, and comets made a glittering circle about the officials and ministers and their wives and women. All denominations, for one day only, fraternised effusively together on that platform; for princes of the royal house, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Mayor of London had urged that it should be so. The Primitive Methodists’ parson discovered himself next but one to Father Milton, who on any other day would have been a Popish priest, and whose wooden substitute for a wife was the queen on a chessboard. And on all these the sun blazed torridly.

And almost in the middle of the Square an immense purple banner bellied in the dusty breeze, saying in large gold letters, “The Blood of the Lamb,” together with the name of some Sunday school, which Edwin from his barrel could not decipher.

Then a hoary white-tied notability on the platform raised his might arm very high, and a bugle called, and a voice that had filled fields in exciting times of religious revival floated in thunder across the enclosed Square, easily dominating it —

“Let us sing.”

And the conductor of the eager massed bands set them free with a gesture, and after they had played a stave, a small stentorian choir at the back of the platform broke forth, and in a moment the entire multitude, at first raggedly, but soon in good unison, was singing —

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee;

Let the water and the blood,

From Thy riven side which flowed,

Be of sin the double cure:

Cleanse from guilt and make me pure.

The volume of sound was overwhelming. Its crashing force was enough to sweep people from barrels. Edwin could feel moisture in his eyes, and he dared not look at Hilda. “Why the deuce do I want to cry?” he asked himself angrily, and was ashamed. And at the beginning of the second verse, when the glittering instruments blared forth anew, and the innumerable voices, high and loud, infantile and aged, flooded swiftly over their brassy notes, subduing them, the effect on Edwin was the same again: a tightening of the throat, and a squeezing down of the eyelids. Why was it? Through a mist he read the words “The Blood of the Lamb,” and he could picture the riven trunk of a man dying, and a torrent of blood flowing therefrom, and people like his Auntie Clara and his brother-in-law Albert plunging ecstatically into the liquid in order to be white. The picture came again in the third verse — the red fountains and the frantic bathers.

Then the notability raised his arm once more, and took off his hat, and all the males on the platform took off their hats, and presently every boy and man in the Square had uncovered his head to the strong sunshine; and at last Edwin had to do the same, and only the policemen, by virtue of their high office, could dare to affront the majesty of God. And the reverberating voice cried —

“Oh, most merciful Lord! Have pity upon us. We are brands plucked from the burning.” And continued for several minutes to descant upon the theme of everlasting torture by incandescence and thirst. Nominally addressing a deity, but in fact preaching to his audience, he announced that, even for the veriest infant on a lorry, there was no escape from the eternal fires save by complete immersion in the blood. And he was so convinced and convincing that an imaginative nose could have detected the odour of burnt flesh. And all the while the great purple banner waved insistently: “The Blood of the Lamb.”

Three.

When the prayer was finished for the benefit of the little ones, another old and favourite hymn had to be sung. (None but the classical lyrics of British Christianity had found a place in the programme of the great day.) Guided by the orchestra, the youth of Bursley and the maturity thereof chanted with gusto —

There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;

And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,

Lose all their guilty stains.

. . .

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood —

Edwin, like everybody, knew every line of the poem. With the purple banner waving there a bloody motto, he foresaw each sanguinary detail of the verse ere it came to him from the shrill childish throats. And a phrase from another hymn jumped from somewhere in his mind just as William Cowper’s ended and a speech commenced. The phrase was ‘India’s coral strand.’ In thinking upon it he forgot to listen to the speech. He saw the flags, banners, and pennons floating in the sunshine and in the heavy breeze; he felt the reverberation of the tropic sun on his head; he saw the crowded humanity of the Square attired in its crude, primary colours; he saw the great brass serpentine instruments gleaming; he saw the red dais; he saw, bursting with infancy, the immense cams to which were attached the fantastically plaited horses; he saw the venerable zealots on the dais raving lest after all the institutions whose centenary they had met to honour should not save these children from hopeless and excruciating torture for ever and ever; he saw those majestic purple folds in the centre embroidered with the legend of the blood of the mystic Paschal Lamb; he saw the meek, stupid, and superstitious faces, all turned one way, all for the moment under the empire of one horrible idea, all convinced that the consequences of sins could be prevented by an act of belief, all gloating over inexhaustible tides of blood. And it seemed to him that he was not in England any longer. It seemed to him that in the dim cellars under the shambles behind the Town Hall, where he had once been, there dwelt, squatting, a strange and savage god who would blast all those who did not enter his presence dripping with gore, be they child or grandfather. It seemed to him that the drums were tom-toms, and Baines’s a bazaar. He could fit every detail of the scene to harmonise with a vision of India’s coral strand.

There was no mist before his eyes now. His sight was so clear that he could distinguish his father at a window of the Bank, at the other top corner of the Square. Part of his mind was so idle that he could wonder how his father had contrived to get there, and whether Maggie was staying at home with Clara. But the visualisation of India’s coral strand in Saint Luke’s Square persisted. A phrase in the speech loosed some catch in him and he turned suddenly to Hilda, and in an intimate half-whisper murmured —

“More blood!”

“What?” she harshly questioned. But he knew that she understood.

“Well,” he said audaciously, “look at it! It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square!”

No one heard save she. But she put her hand on his arm protestingly. “Even if we don’t believe,” said she — not harshly, but imploringly, “we needn’t make fun.”

“We don’t believe!” And that new tone of entreaty! She had comprehended without explanation. She was a weird woman. Was there another creature, male or female, to whom he would have dared to say what he had said to her? He had chosen to say it to her because he despised her, because he wished to trample on her feelings. She roused the brute in him, and perhaps no one was more astonished than himself to witness the brute stirring. Imagine saying to the gentle and sensitive Janet: “It only wants the Ganges at the bottom of the Square —” He could not.

They stood silent, gazing and listening. And the sun went higher in the sky and blazed down more cruelly. And then the speech ended, and the speaker wiped his head with an enormous handkerchief. And the multitude, led by the brazen instruments, which in a moment it overpowered, was singing to a solemn air —

When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of Glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.

Hilda shook her head.

“What’s the matter?” he asked, leaning towards her from his barrel.

“That’s the most splendid religious verse ever written!” she said passionately. “You can say what you like. It’s worth while believing anything, if you can sing words like that and mean them!”

She had an air of restrained fury.

But fancy exciting herself over a hymn!

“Yes, it is fine, that is!” he agreed.

“Do you know who wrote it?” she demanded menacingly.

“I’m afraid I don’t remember,” he said. The hymn was one of his earliest recollections, but it had never occurred to him to be curious as to its authorship.

Her lips sneered. “Dr Watts, of course!” she snapped.

He could hear her, beneath the tremendous chanting from the Square, repeating the words to herself with her precise and impressive articulation.

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