Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Sixteen.

The Sequel.

“I say, Edwin,” Maggie called through the door.

“Well, come in, come in,” he replied gruffly. And as he spoke he sped from the window, where he was drumming on the pane, to the hearthrug, so that he should have the air of not having moved since Maggie’s previous visit. He knew not why he made this manoeuvre, unless it was that he thought vaguely that Maggie’s impression of the seriousness of the crisis might thereby be intensified.

She stood in the doorway, evidently placatory and sympathetic, and behind her stood Mrs Nixon, in a condition of great mental turmoil.

“I think you’d better come and have your tea,” said Maggie firmly, and yet gently. She was soft and stout, and incapable of asserting herself with dignity; but she was his elder, and there were moments when an unusual, scarce-perceptible quality in her voice would demand from him a particular attention.

He shook his head, and looked sternly at his watch, in the manner of one who could be adamant. He was astonished to see that the hour was a quarter past six.

“Where is he?” he asked.

“Father? He’s had his tea and gone back to the shop. Come along.”

“I must wash myself first,” said Edwin gloomily. He did not wish to yield, but he was undeniably very hungry indeed.

Mrs Nixon could not leave him alone at tea, worrying him with offers of specialities to tempt him. He wondered who had told the old thing about the affair. Then he reflected that she had probably heard his outburst when he entered the house. Possibly the pert, nice niece also had heard it. Maggie remained sewing at the bow-window of the dining-room while he ate a plenteous tea.

“Father said I could tell you that you could pay yourself an extra half-crown a week wages from next Saturday,” said Maggie suddenly, when she saw he had finished. It was always Edwin who paid wages in the Clayhanger establishment.

He was extremely startled by this news, with all that it implied of surrender and of pacific intentions. But he endeavoured to hide what he felt, and only snorted.

“He’s been talking, then? What did he say?”

“Oh! Not much! He told me I could tell you if I liked.”

“It would have looked better of him, if he’d told me himself,” said Edwin, determined to be ruthless. Maggie offered no response.

Two.

After about a quarter of an hour he went into the garden, and kicked stones in front of him. He could not classify his thoughts. He considered himself to be perfectly tranquillised now, but he was mistaken. As he idled in the beautiful August twilight near the garden-front of the house, catching faintly the conversation of Mrs Nixon and her niece as it floated through the open window of the kitchen, round the corner, together with quiet soothing sounds of washing-up, he heard a sudden noise in the garden-porch, and turned swiftly. His father stood there. Both of them were off guard. Their eyes met.

“Had your tea?” Darius asked, in an unnatural tone.

“Yes,” said Edwin.

Darius, having saved his face, hurried into the house, and Edwin moved down the garden, with heart sensibly beating. The encounter renewed his agitation.

And at the corner of the garden, over the hedge, which had been repaired, Janet entrapped him. She seemed to have sprung out of the ground. He could not avoid greeting her, and in order to do so he had to dominate himself by force. She was in white. She appeared always to wear white on fine summer days. Her smile was exquisitely benignant.

“So you’re installed?” she began.

They talked of the removal, she asking questions and commenting, and he giving brief replies.

“I’m all alone to-night,” she said, in a pause, “except for Alicia. Father and mother and the boys are gone to a fete at Longshaw.”

“And Miss Lessways?” he inquired self-consciously.

“Oh! She’s gone,” said Janet. “She’s gone back to London. Went yesterday.”

“Rather sudden, isn’t it?”

“Well, she had to go.”

“Does she live in London?” Edwin asked, with an air of indifference.

“She does just now.”

“I only ask because I thought from something she said she came from Turnhill way.”

“Her people do,” said Janet. “Yes, you may say she’s a Turnhill girl.”

“She seems very fond of poetry,” said Edwin.

“You’ve noticed it!” Janet’s face illuminated the dark. “You should hear her recite!”

“Recites, does she?”

“You’d have heard her that night you were here. But when she knew you were coming, she made us all promise not to ask her.”

“Really!” said Edwin. “But why? She didn’t know me. She’d never seen me.”

“Oh! She might have just seen you in the street. In fact I believe she had. But that wasn’t the reason,” Janet laughed. “It was just that you were a stranger. She’s very sensitive, you know.”

“Ye-es,” he admitted.

Three.

He took leave of Janet, somehow, and went for a walk up to Toft End, where the wind blows. His thoughts were more complex than ever in the darkness. So she had made them all promise not to ask her to recite while he was at the Orgreaves’! She had seen him, previous to that, in the street, and had obviously discussed him with Janet . . . And then, at nearly midnight, she had followed him to the new house! And on the day of the Centenary she had manoeuvred to let Janet and Mr Orgreave go in front . . . He did not like her. She was too changeable, too dark, and too light . . . But it was exciting. It was flattering. He saw again and again her gesture as she bent to Mr Shushions; and the straightening of her spine as she left the garden-porch on the night of his visit to the Orgreaves . . . Yet he did not like her. Her sudden departure, however, was a disappointment; it was certainly too abrupt . . . Probably very characteristic of her . . . Strange day! He had been suspected of theft. He had stood up to his father. He had remained away from the shop. And his father’s only retort was to give him a rise of half a crown a week!

“The old man must have had a bit of a shock!” he said to himself, grimly vain. “I lay I don’t hear another word about that fifty pounds.”

Yes, amid his profound resentment, there was some ingenuous vanity at the turn which things had taken. And he was particularly content about the rise of half a crown a week, because that relieved him from the most difficult of all the resolutions the carrying out of which was to mark the beginning of the new life. It settled the financial question, for the present at any rate. It was not enough, but it was a great deal — from his father. He was ashamed that he could not keep his righteous resentment pure from this gross satisfaction at an increase of income. The fineness of his nature was thereby hurt. But the gross satisfaction would well up in his mind.

And in the night, with the breeze on his cheek, and the lamps of the Five Towns curving out below him, he was not unhappy, despite what he had suffered and was still suffering. He had a tingling consciousness of being unusually alive.

Four.

Later, in his bedroom, shut in, and safe and independent, with the new blind drawn, and the gas fizzing in its opaline globe, he tried to read “Don Juan.” He could not. He was incapable of fixity of mind. He could not follow the sense of a single stanza. Images of his father and of Hilda Lessways mingled with reveries of the insult he had received and the triumph he had won, and all the confused wonder of the day and evening engaged his thoughts. He dwelt lovingly on the supreme disappointment of his career. He fancied what he would have been doing, and where he would have been then, if his appalling father had not made it impossible for him to be an architect. He pitied himself. But he saw the material of happiness ahead, in the faithful execution of his resolves for self-perfecting. And Hilda had flattered him. Hilda had given him a new conception of himself . . . A tiny idea arose in his brain that there was perhaps some slight excuse for his father’s suspicion of him. After all, he had been secretive. He trampled on that idea, and it arose again.

He slept very heavily, and woke with a headache. A week elapsed before his agitation entirely disappeared, and hence before he could realise how extreme that agitation had been. He was ashamed of having so madly and wildly abandoned himself to passion.

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