Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Fifteen.

The Insult.

The cold bath, the early excursion into the oblong of meadow that was beginning to be a garden, the brisk stimulating walk down Trafalgar Road to business — all these novel experiences, which for a year Edwin had been anticipating with joyous eagerness as bliss final and sure, had lost their savour on the following morning. He had been ingenuous enough to believe that he would be happy in the new house — that the new house somehow meant the rebirth of himself and his family. Strange delusion! The bath-splashings and the other things gave him no pleasure, because he was saying to himself all the time, “There’s going to be a row this morning. There’s going to be a regular shindy this morning!” Yet he was accustomed to his father’s scenes . . . Not a word at breakfast, for which indeed Darius was very late. But a thick cloud over the breakfast-table! Maggie showed that she felt the cloud. So did even Mrs Nixon. The niece alone, unskilled in the science of meteorology, did not notice it, and was pertly bright. Edwin departed before his father, hurrying. He knew that his father, starting from the luxurious books, would ask him brutally what he meant by daring to draw out his share from the Club without mentioning the affair, and particularly without confiding to his safe custody the whole sum withdrawn. He knew that his father would persist in regarding the fifty pounds as sacred, as the ark of the covenant, and on the basis of the alleged outrage would build one of those cold furies that seemed to give him so perverse a delight. On the other hand, despite his father’s peculiar intonation of the names of Edwin’s authors — Voltaire and Byron — he did not fear to be upbraided for possessing himself of loose and poisonous literature. It was a point to his father’s credit that he never attempted any kind of censorship. Edwin never knew whether this attitude was the result of indifference or due to a grim sporting instinct.

There was no sign of trouble in the shop until noon. Darius was very busy superintending the transformation of the former living-rooms upstairs into supplementary workshops, and also the jobbing builder was at work according to the plans of Osmond Orgreave. But at five minutes past twelve — just before Stifford went out to his dinner — Darius entered the ebonised cubicle, and said curtly to Edwin, who was writing there —

“Show me your book.”

This demand surprised Edwin. ‘His’ book was the shop-sales book. He was responsible for it, and for the petty cash-book, and for the shop till. His father’s private cash-book was utterly unknown to him, and he had no trustworthy idea of the financial totality of the business; but the management of the shop till gave him the air of being in his father’s confidence accustomed him to the discipline of anxiety, and also somewhat flattered him.

He produced the book. The last complete page had not been added up.

“Add this,” said his father.

Darius himself added up the few lines on the incomplete page.

“Stiff;” he shouted, “bring me the sales-slip.”

The amounts of sales conducted by Stifford himself were written on a slip of paper from which Edwin transferred the items at frequent intervals to the book.

“Go to yer dinner,” said Darius to Stifford, when he appeared at the door of the cubicle with the slip.

“It’s not quite time yet, sir.”

“Go to yer dinner, I tell ye.”

Stifford had three-quarters of an hour for his dinner.

Two.

Darius combined the slip with the book and made a total.

“Petty cash,” he muttered shortly.

Edwin produced the petty cash-book, a volume of very trifling importance.

“Now bring me the till.”

Edwin went out of the cubicle and brought the till, which was a large and battered japanned cash-box with a lid in two independent parts, from its well-concealed drawer behind the fancy-counter. Darius counted the coins in it and made calculations on blotting-paper, breathing stertorously all the time.

“What on earth are you trying to get at?” Edwin asked, with innocent familiarity. He thought that the Club-share crisis had been postponed by one of his father’s swift strange caprices.

Darius turned on him glaring: “I’m trying to get at where ye got the brass from to buy them there books as I saw last night. Where did ye get it from? There’s nowt wrong here, unless ye’re a mighty lot cleverer than I take ye for. Where did ye get it from? Ye don’t mean to tell me as ye saved it up!”

Edwin had had some shocks in his life. This was the greatest. He could feel his cheeks and his hands growing dully hot, and his eyes smarting; and he was suddenly animated by an almost murderous hatred and an inexpressible disgust for his father, who in the grossness of his perceptions and his notions had imagined his son to be a thief. “Loathsome beast!” he thought savagely.

“I’m waiting,” said his father.

“I’ve drawn my Club money,” said Edwin.

For an instant the old man was at a loss; then he understood. He had entirely forgotten the maturing of the Club share, and assuredly he had not dreamed that Edwin would accept and secrete so vast a sum as fifty pounds without uttering a word. Darius had made a mistake, and a bad one; but in those days fathers were never wrong; above all they never apologised. In Edwin’s wicked act of concealment Darius could choose new and effective ground, and he did so.

“And what dost mean by doing that and saying nowt? Sneaking —”

“What do you mean by calling me a thief?” Edwin and Darius were equally startled by this speech. Edwin knew not what had come over him, and Darius, never having been addressed in such a dangerous tone by his son, was at a loss.

“I never called ye a thief.”

“Yes, you did! Yes, you did!” Edwin nearly shouted now. “You starve me for money, until I haven’t got sixpence to bless myself with. You couldn’t get a man to do what I do for twice what you pay me. And then you call me a thief. And then you jump down my throat because I spend a bit of money of my own.” He snorted. He knew that he was quite mad, but there was a strange drunken pleasure in this madness.

“Hold yer tongue, lad!” said Darius, as stiffly as he could. But Darius, having been unprepared, was intimidated. Darius vaguely comprehended that a new and disturbing factor had come into his life. “Make a less row!” he went on more strongly. “D’ye want all th’ street to hear ye?”

“I won’t make a less row. You make as much noise as you want, and I’ll make as much noise as I want!” Edwin cried louder and louder. And then in bitter scorn, “Thief, indeed!”

“I never called ye a —”

“Let me come out!” Edwin shouted. They were very close together. Darius saw that his son’s face was all drawn. Edwin snatched his hat off its hook, pushed violently past his father and, sticking his hands deep in his pockets, strode into the street.

Three.

In four minutes he was hammering on the front door of the new house. Maggie opened, in alarm. Edwin did not see how alarmed she was by his appearance.

“What —”

“Father thinks I’ve been stealing his damned money!” Edwin snapped, in a breaking voice. The statement was not quite accurate, but it suited his boiling anger to put it in the present tense instead of in the past. He hesitated an instant in the hall, throwing a look behind at Maggie, who stood entranced with her hand on the latch of the open door. Then he bounded upstairs, and shut himself in his room with a tremendous bang that shook the house. He wanted to cry, but he would not.

Nobody disturbed him till about two o’clock, when Maggie knocked at the door, and opened it, without entering.

“Edwin, I’ve kept your dinner hot.”

“No, thanks.” He was standing with his legs wide apart on the hearth rug.

“Father’s had his dinner and gone.”

“No, thanks.”

She closed the door again.

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