Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Thirteen.

The Oldest Sunday-school Teacher.

From the elevation of his barrel Edwin could survey, in the lordly and negligent manner of people on a height, all the detail of his immediate surroundings. Presently, in common with Hilda and the other aristocrats of barrels, he became aware of the increased vivacity of a scene which was passing at a little distance, near a hokey-pokey barrow. The chief actors in the affair appeared to be a young policeman, the owner of the hokey-pokey barrow, and an old man. It speedily grew into one of those episodes which, occurring on the outskirts of some episode immensely greater, draw too much attention to themselves and thereby outrage the sense of proportion residing in most plain men, and especially in most policemen.

“Give him a ha’porth o’ hokey,” said a derisive voice. “He hasn’t got a tooth in his head, but it wants no chewing, hokey does na’.” There was a general guffaw from the little rabble about the barrow.

“Aye! Give us some o’ that!” said the piping, silly voice of the old man. “But I mun’ get to that there platform, I’m telling ye. I’m telling all of ye.” He made a senile plunge against the body of the policeman, as against a moveless barricade, and then his hat was awry and it fell off, and somebody lifted it into the air with a neat kick so that it dropped on the barrow. All laughed. The old man laughed.

“Now, old sodger,” said the hot policeman curtly. “None o’ this! None o’ this! I advise ye civilly to be quiet; that’s what I advise ye. You can’t go on th’ platform without a ticket.”

“Nay!” piped the old man. “Don’t I tell ye I lost it down th’ Sytch!”

“And where’s yer rosette?”

“Never had any rosette,” the old man replied. “I’m th’ oldest Sunday-schoo’ teacher i’ th’ Five Towns. Aye! Fifty years and more since I was Super at Turnhill Primitive Sunday schoo’, and all Turnhill knows on it. And I’ve got to get on that there platform. I’m th’ oldest Sunday schoo’ teacher i’ th’ Five Towns. And I was Super —”

Two ribald youngsters intoned ‘Super, Super,’ and another person unceremoniously jammed the felt hat on the old man’s head.

“It’s nowt to me if ye was forty Supers,” said the policeman, with menacing disdain. “I’ve got my orders, and I’m not here to be knocked about. Where did ye have yer last drink?”

“No wine, no beer, nor spirituous liquors have I tasted for sixty-one years come Martinmas,” whimpered the old man. And he gave another lurch against the policeman. “My name’s Shushions!” And he repeated in a frantic treble, “My name’s Shushions!”

“Go and bury thysen, owd gaffer!” a Herculean young collier advised him.

“Why,” murmured Hilda, with a sharp frown, “that must be poor old Mr Shushions from Turnhill, and they’re guying him! You must stop it. Something must be done at once.”

She jumped down feverishly, and Edwin had to do likewise. He wondered how he should conduct himself so as to emerge creditably from the situation. He felt himself, and had always felt himself, to be the last man in the world capable of figuring with authority in a public altercation. He loathed public altercations. The name of Shushions meant nothing to him; he had forgotten it, if indeed he had ever wittingly heard it. And he did not at first recognise the old man. Descended from the barrel, he was merely an item in the loose-packed crowd. As, in the wake of Hilda, he pushed with false eagerness between stubborn shoulders, he heard the bands striking up again.

Two.

Approaching, he saw that the old man was very old. And then memory stirred. He began to surmise that he had met the wizened face before, that he knew something about it. And the face brought up a picture of the shop door and of his father standing beside it, a long time ago. He recalled his last day at school. Yes, of course! This was the old man named Shushions, some sort of an acquaintance of his father’s. This was the old man who had wept a surprising tear at sight of him, Edwin. The incident was so far off that it might have been recorded in history books. He had never seen Mr Shushions since. And the old man was changed, nearly out of recognition. The old man had lived too long; he had survived his dignity; he was now nothing but a bundle of capricious and obstinate instincts set in motion by ancient souvenirs remembered at hazard. The front of his face seemed to have given way in general collapse. The lips were in a hollow; the cheeks were concave; the eyes had receded; and there were pits in the forehead. The pale silvery straggling hairs might have been counted. The wrinkled skin was of a curious brown yellow, and the veins, instead of being blue, were outlined in Indian red. The impression given was that the flesh would be unpleasant and uncanny to the touch. The body was bent, and the neck eternally cricked backward in the effort of the eyes to look up. Moreover the old man was in a state of neglect. His beard alone proved that. His clothes were dirty and had the air of concealing dirt. And he was dressed with striking oddness. He wore boots that were not a pair. His collar was only fastened by one button, behind; the ends oscillated like wings; he had forgotten to fasten them in front; he had forgotten to put on a necktie; he had forgotten the use of buttons on all his garments. He had grown down into a child again, but Providence had not provided him with a nurse.

Worse than these merely material phenomena was the mumbling toothless gibber of his shrill protesting; the glassy look of idiocy from his fatigued eyes; and the inane smile and impotent frown that alternated on his features. He was a horrible and offensive old man. He was Time’s obscene victim. Edwin was revolted by the spectacle of the younger men baiting him. He was astonished that they were so short-sighted as not to be able to see the image of themselves in the old man, so imprudent as not to think of their own future, so utterly brutalised. He wanted, by the simple force of desire, to seclude and shelter the old man, to protect the old man not only from the insults of stupid and crass bullies, but from the old man himself, from his own fatuous senility. He wanted to restore to him, by a benevolent system of pretences, the dignity and the self-respect which he had innocently lost, and so to keep him decent to the eye, if not to the ear, until death came to repair its omission. And it was for his own sake, for the sake of his own image, as much as for the sake of the old man, that he wanted to do this.

Three.

All that flashed through his mind and heart in a second.

“I know this old gentleman, at least I know him by sight,” Hilda was saying to the policeman. “He’s very well known in Turnhill as an old Sunday school teacher, and I’m sure he ought to be on that platform.”

Before her eye, and her precise and haughty voice, which had no trace of the local accent, the young policeman was secretly abashed, and the louts fell back sheepishly.

“Yes, he’s a friend of my father’s — Mr Clayhanger, printer,” said Edwin, behind her.

The old man stood blinking in the glare.

The policeman, ignoring Hilda, glanced at Edwin, and touched his cap.

“His friends hadn’t ought to let him out like this, sir. Just look at him.” He sneered, and added: “I’m on point duty. If you ask me, I should say his friends ought to take him home.” He said this with a peculiar mysterious emphasis, and looked furtively at the louts for moral support in sarcasm. They encouraged him with grins.

“He must be got on to the platform, somehow,” said Hilda, and glanced at Edwin as if counting absolutely on Edwin. “That’s what he’s come for. I’m sure it means everything to him.”

“Aye!” the old man droned. “I was Super when we had to teach ’em their alphabet and give ’em a crust to start with. Many’s the man walking about in these towns i’ purple and fine raiment as I taught his letters to, and his spellings, aye, and his multiplication table — in them days!”

“That’s all very well, miss,” said the policeman, “but who’s going to get him to the platform? He’ll be dropping in a sunstroke afore ye can say knife.”

“Can’t we?” She gazed at Edwin appealingly.

“Tak’ him into a pub!” growled the collier, audacious.

At the same moment two rosettes bustled up authoritatively. One of them was the burly Albert Benbow. For the first time Edwin was conscious of genuine pleasure at the sight of his brother-in-law. Albert was a born rosette.

“What’s all this? What’s this? What is it?” he asked sharply. “Hello! What? Mr Shushions!” He bent down and looked close at the old man. “Where you been, old gentleman?” He spoke loud in his ear. “Everybody’s been asking for you. Service is well-nigh over, but ye must come up.”

The old man did not appear to grasp the significance of Albert’s patronage. Albert turned to Edwin and winked, not only for Edwin’s benefit but for that of the policeman, who smiled in a manner that infuriated Edwin.

“Queer old stick!” Albert murmured. “No doing anything with him. He’s quarrelled with everybody at Turnhill. That’s why he wanted to come to us. And of course we weren’t going to refuse the oldest Sunday school teacher in th’ Five Towns. He’s a catch . . . Come along, old gentleman!”

Mr Shushions did not stir.

“Now, Mr Shushions,” Hilda persuaded him in a voice exquisitely mild, and with a lovely gesture she bent over him. “Let these gentlemen take you up to the platform. That’s what you’ve come for, you know.”

The transformation in her amazed Edwin, who could see the tears in her eyes. The tableau of the little, silly old man looking up, and Hilda looking down at him, with her lips parted in a heavenly invitation, and one gloved hand caressing his greenish-black shoulder and the other mechanically holding the parasol aloft — this tableau was imprinted for ever on Edwin’s mind. It was a vision blended in an instant and in an instant dissolved, but for Edwin it remained one of the epochal things of his experience.

Hilda gave Edwin her parasol and quickly fastened Mr Shushions’s collar, and the old man consented to be led off between the two rosettes. The bands were playing the Austrian hymn.

“Like to come up with your young lady friend?” Albert whispered to Edwin importantly as he went.

“Oh no, thanks.” Edwin hurriedly smiled.

“Now, old gentleman,” he could hear Albert adjuring Mr Shushions, and he could see him broadly winking to the other rosettes and embracing the yielding crowd in his wink.

Thus was the doddering old fool who had given his youth to Sunday schools when Sunday schools were not patronised by princes, archbishops, and lord mayors, when Sunday schools were the scorn of the intelligent, and had sometimes to be held in public-houses for lack of better accommodation — thus was he taken off for a show and a museum curiosity by indulgent and shallow Samaritans who had not even the wit to guess that he had sown what they were reaping. And Darius Clayhanger stood oblivious at a high window of the sacred Bank. And Edwin, who, all unconscious, owed the very fact of his existence to the doting imbecile, regarded him chiefly as a figure in a tableau, as the chance instrument of a woman’s beautiful revelation. Mr Shushions’s sole crime against society was that he had forgotten to die.

Four.

Hilda Lessways would not return to the barrels. She was taciturn, and the only remark which she made bore upon the advisability of discovering Janet and Mr Orgreave. They threaded themselves out of the moving crowd and away from the hokey-pokey stall and the barrels into the tranquillity of the market-place, where the shadow of the gold angel at the top of the Town Hall spire was a mere squat shapeless stain on the irregular paving-stones. The sound of the Festival came diminished from the Square.

“You’re very fond of poetry, aren’t you?” Edwin asked her, thinking, among many other things, of her observation upon the verse of Isaac Watts.

“Of course,” she replied disagreeably. “I can’t imagine anybody wanting to read anything else.” She seemed to be ashamed of her kindness to Mr Shushions, and to wish to efface any impression of amiability that she might have made on Edwin. But she could not have done so.

“Well,” he said to himself, “there’s no getting over it. You’re the biggest caution I’ve ever come across!” His condition was one of various agitation.

Then, just as they were passing the upper end of the Cock Yard, which was an archway, Mr Orgreave and Janet appeared in the archway.

“We’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

“And so have we.”

“What have you been doing?”

“What have you been doing?”

Father and daughter were gay. They had not seen much, but they were gay. Hilda Lessways and Edwin were not gay, and Hilda would characteristically make no effort to seem that which she was not. Edwin, therefore, was driven by his own diffidence into a nervous light loquacity. He began the tale of Mr Shushions, and Hilda punctuated it with stabs of phrases.

Mr Orgreave laughed. Janet listened with eager sympathy.

“Poor old thing! What a shame!” said Janet.

But to Edwin, with the vision of Hilda’s mercifulness in his mind, even the sympathy of Janet for Mr Shushions had a quality of uncomprehending, facile condescension which slightly jarred on him.

The steam-car loitered into view, discharged two passengers, and began to manoeuvre for the return journey.

“Oh! Do let’s go home by car, father!” cried Janet. “It’s too hot for anything!”

Edwin took leave of them at the car steps. Janet was the smiling incarnation of loving-kindness. Hilda shook hands grudgingly. Through the windows of the car he saw her sternly staring at the advertisements of the interior. He went down the Cock Yard into Wedgwood Street, whence he could hear the bands again and see the pennons. He thought, “This is a funny way of spending a morning!” and wondered what he should do with himself till dinner-time. It was not yet a quarter past twelve. Still, the hours had passed with extraordinary speed. He stood aimless at the corner of the pavement, and people who, having had their fill of the sun and the spectacle in the Square, were strolling slowly away, saw a fair young man, in a stylish suit, evidently belonging to the aloof classes, gazing at nothing whatever, with his hands elegantly in his pockets.

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