Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Seventeen.

Challenge and Response.

Time passed, like a ship across a distant horizon, which moves but which does not seem to move. One Monday evening Edwin said that he was going round to Lane End House. He had been saying so for weeks, and hesitating. He thoroughly enjoyed going to Lane End House; there was no reason why he should not go frequently and regularly, and there were several reasons why he should. Yet his visitings were capricious because his nature was irresolute. That night he went, sticking a hat carelessly on his head, and his hands deep into his pockets. Down the slope of Trafalgar Road, in the biting November mist, between the two rows of gas-lamps that flickered feebly into the pale gloom, came a long straggling band of men who also, to compensate for the absence of overcoats, stuck hands deep into pockets, and strode quickly. With reluctance they divided for the passage of the steam-car, and closed growling together again on its rear. The potters were on strike, and a Bursley contingent was returning in embittered silence from a mass meeting at Hanbridge. When the sound of the steam-car subsided, as the car dipped over the hill-top on its descent towards Hanbridge, nothing could be heard but the tramp-tramp of the procession on the road.

Edwin hurried down the side street, and in a moment rang at the front door of the Orgreaves’. He nodded familiarly to the servant who opened, stepped on to the mat, and began contorting his legs in order to wipe the edge of his boot-soles.

“Quite a stranger, sir!” said Martha, bridling, and respectfully aware of her attractiveness for this friend of the house.

“Yes,” he laughed. “Anybody in?”

“Well, sir, I’m afraid Miss Janet and Miss Alicia are out.”

“And Mr Tom?”

“Mr Tom’s out, sir. He pretty nearly always is now, sir.” The fact was that Tom was engaged to be married, and the servant indicated, by a scarcely perceptible motion of the chin, that fiances were and ever would be all the same. “And Mr John and Mr James are out too, sir.” They also were usually out. They were both assisting their father in business, and sought relief from his gigantic conception of a day’s work by evening diversions at Hanbridge. These two former noisy Liberals had joined the Hanbridge Conservative Club because it was a club, and had a billiard-table that could only be equalled at the Five Towns Hotel at Knype.

“And Mr Orgreave?”

“He’s working upstairs, sir. Mrs Orgreave’s got her asthma, and so he’s working upstairs.”

“Well, tell them I’ve called.” Edwin turned to depart.

“I’m sure Mr Orgreave would like to know you’re here, sir,” said the maid firmly. “If you’ll just step into the breakfast-room.” That maid did as she chose with visitors for whom she had a fancy.

Two.

She conducted him to the so-called breakfast-room and shut the door on him. It was a small chamber behind the drawing-room, and shabbier than the drawing-room. In earlier days the children had used it for their lessons and hobbies. And now it was used as a sitting-room when mere cosiness was demanded by a decimated family. Edwin stooped down and mended the fire. Then he went to the wall and examined a framed water-colour of the old Sytch Pottery, which was signed with his initials. He had done it, aided by a photograph, and by Johnnie Orgreave in details of perspective, and by dint of preprandial frequentings of the Sytch, as a gift for Mrs Orgreave. It always seemed to him to be rather good.

Then he bent to examine bookshelves. Like the hall, the drawing-room, and the dining-room, this apartment too was plenteously full of everything, and littered over with the apparatus of various personalities. Only from habit did Edwin glance at the books. He knew their backs by heart. And books in quantity no longer intimidated him. Despite his grave defects as a keeper of resolves, despite his paltry trick of picking up a newspaper or periodical and reading it all through, out of sheer vacillation and mental sloth, before starting serious perusals, despite the human disinclination which he had to bracing himself, and keeping up the tension, in a manner necessary for the reading of long and difficult works, and despite sundry ignominious backslidings into original sluggishness — still he had accomplished certain literary adventures. He could not enjoy “Don Juan.” Expecting from it a voluptuous and daring grandeur, he had found in it nothing whatever that even roughly fitted into his idea of what poetry was. But he had had a passion for “Childe Harold,” many stanzas of which thrilled him again and again, bringing back to his mind what Hilda Lessways had said about poetry. And further, he had a passion for Voltaire. In Voltaire, also, he had been deceived, as in Byron. He had expected something violent, arid, closely argumentative; and he found gaiety, grace, and really the funniest jokes. He could read “Candide” almost without a dictionary, and he had intense pride in doing so, and for some time afterwards “Candide” and “La Princesse de Babylone,” and a few similar witty trifles, were the greatest stories in the world for him. Only a faint reserve in Tom Orgreave’s responsive enthusiasm made him cautiously reflect.

He could never be intimate with Tom, because Tom somehow never came out from behind his spectacles. But he had learnt much from him, and in especial a familiarity with the less difficult of Bach’s preludes and fugues, which Tom loved to play. Edwin knew not even the notes of music, and he was not sure that Bach gave him pleasure. Bach affected him strangely. He would ask for Bach out of a continually renewed curiosity, so that he could examine once more and yet again the sensations which the music produced; and the habit grew. As regards the fugues, there could be no doubt that, the fugue begun, a desire was thereby set up in him for the resolution of the confusing problem created in the first few bars, and that he waited, with a pleasant and yet a trying anxiety, for the indications of that resolution, and that the final reassuring and utterly tranquillising chords gave him deep joy. When he innocently said that he was ‘glad when the end came of a fugue,’ all the Orgreaves laughed heartily, but after laughing, Tom said that he knew what Edwin meant and quite agreed.

Three.

It was while he was glancing along the untidy and crowded shelves with sophisticated eye that the door brusquely opened. He looked up mildly, expecting a face familiar, and saw one that startled him, and heard a voice that aroused disconcerting vibrations in himself. It was Hilda Lessways. She had in her hand a copy of the “Signal.” Over fifteen months had gone since their last meeting, but not since he had last thought of her. Her features seemed strange. His memory of them had not been reliable, He had formed an image of her in his mind, and had often looked at it, and he now saw that it did not correspond with the reality. The souvenir of their brief intimacy swept back upon him, Incredible that she should be there, in front of him; and yet there she was! More than once, after reflecting on her, he had laughed, and said lightly to himself: “Well, the chances are I shall never see her again! Funny girl!” But the recollection of her gesture with Mr Shushions prevented him from dismissing her out of his head with quite that lightness . . .

“I’m ordered to tell you that Mr Orgreave will be down in a few minutes,” she said.

“Hello!” he exclaimed. “I’d no idea you were in Bursley!”

“Came today!” she replied.

“How odd,” he thought, “that I should call like this on the very day she comes!” But he pushed away that instinctive thought with the rational thought that such a coincidence could not be regarded as in any way significant.

They shook hands in the middle of the room, and she pressed his hand, while looking downwards with a smile. And his mind was suddenly filled with the idea that during all those months she had been existing somewhere, under the eye of some one, intimate with some one, and constantly conducting herself with a familiar freedom that doubtless she would not use to him. And so she was invested, for him, with mysteriousness. His interest in her was renewed in a moment, and in a form much more acute than its first form. Moreover, she presented herself to his judgement in a different aspect. He could scarcely comprehend how he had ever deemed her habitual expression to be forbidding. In fact, he could persuade himself now that she was beautiful, and even nobly beautiful. From one extreme he flew to the other. She sat down on an old sofa; he remained standing. And in the midst of a little conversation about Mrs Orgreave’s indisposition, and the absence of the members of the family (she said she had refused an invitation to go with Janet and Alicia to Hillport), she broke the thread, and remarked —

“You would have known I was coming if you’d been calling here recently.” She pushed her feet near the fender, and gazed into the fire.

“Ah! But you see I haven’t been calling recently.”

She raised her eyes to his. “I suppose you’ve never thought about me once since I left!” she fired at him. An audacious and discomposing girl!

“Oh yes, I have,” he said weakly. What could you reply to such speeches? Nevertheless he was flattered.

“Really? But you’ve never inquired about me.”

“Yes, I have.”

“Only once.”

“How do you know?”

“I asked Janet.”

“Damn her!” he said to himself, but pleased with her. And aloud, in a tone suddenly firm, “That’s nothing to go by.”

“What isn’t?”

“The number of times I’ve inquired.” He was blushing.

Four.

In the smallness of the room, sitting as it were at his feet on the sofa, surrounded and encaged by a hundred domestic objects and by the glow of the fire and the radiance of the gas, she certainly did seem to Edwin to be an organism exceedingly mysterious. He could follow with his eye every fold of her black dress, he could trace the waving of her hair, and watch the play of light in her eyes. He might have physically hurt her, he might have killed her, she was beneath his hand — and yet she was most bafflingly withdrawn, and the essence of her could not be touched nor got at. Why did she challenge him by her singular attitude? Why was she always saying such queer things to him? No other girl (he thought, in the simplicity of his inexperience) would ever talk as she talked. He wanted to test her by being rude to her. “Damn her!” he said to himself again. “Supposing I took hold of her and kissed her — I wonder what sort of a face she’d pull then!” (And a moment ago he had been appraising her as nobly beautiful! A moment ago he had been dwelling on the lovely compassion of her gesture with Mr Shushions!) This quality of daring and naughty enterprise had never before shown itself in Edwin, and he was surprised to discover in himself such impulses. But then the girl was so provocative. And somehow the sight of the girl delivered him from an excessive fear of consequences. He said to himself, “I’ll do something or I’ll say something, before I leave her to-night, just to show her!” He screwed up his resolution to the point of registering a private oath that he would indeed do or say something. Without a solemn oath he could not rely upon his valour. He knew that whatever he said or did in the nature of a bold advance would be accomplished clumsily. He knew that it would be unpleasant. He knew that inaction suited much better his instinct for tranquillity. No matter! All that was naught. She had challenged, and he had to respond. Besides, she allured . . . And, after her scene with him in the porch of the new house, had he not the right? . . . A girl who had behaved as she did that night cannot effectively contradict herself!

“I was just reading about this strike,” she said, rustling the newspaper.

“You’ve soon got into local politics.”

“Well,” she said, “I saw a lot of the men as we were driving from the station. I should think I saw two thousand of them. So of course I was interested. I made Mr Orgreave tell me all about it. Will they win?”

“It depends on the weather.” He smiled.

She remained silent, and grave. “I see!” she said, leaning her chin on her hand. At her tone he ceased smiling. She said “I see,” and she actually had seen.

“You see,” he repeated. “If it was June instead of November! But then it isn’t June. Wages are settled every year in November. So if there is to be a strike it can only begin in November.”

“But didn’t the men ask for the time of year to be changed?”

“Yes,” he said. “But you don’t suppose the masters were going to agree to that, do you?” He sneered masculinely.

“Why not?”

“Because it gives them such a pull.”

“What a shame!” Hilda exclaimed passionately. “And what a shame it is that the masters want to make the wages depend on selling prices! Can’t they see that selling prices ought to depend on wages?”

Edwin said nothing. She had knocked suddenly out of his head all ideas of flirting, and he was trying to reassemble them.

“I suppose you’re like all the rest?” she questioned gloomily.

“How like all the rest?”

“Against the men. Mr Orgreave is, and he says your father is very strongly against them.”

“Look here,” said Edwin, with an air of resentment as to which he himself could not have decided whether it was assumed or genuine, “what earthly right have you to suppose that I’m like all the rest?”

“I’m very sorry,” she surrendered. “I knew all the time you weren’t.” With her face still bent downwards, she looked up at him, smiling sadly, smiling roguishly.

“Father’s against them,” he proceeded, somewhat deflated. And he thought of all his father’s violent invective, and of Maggie’s bland acceptance of the assumption that workmen on strike were rascals — how different the excellent simple Maggie from this feverish creature on the sofa! “Father’s against them, and most people are, because they broke the last arbitration award. But I’m not my father. If you ask me, I’ll tell you what I think — workmen on strike are always in the right; at bottom I mean. You’ve only got to look at them in a crowd together. They don’t starve themselves for fun.”

He was not sure if he was convinced of the truth of these statements; but she drew them out of him by her strange power. And when he had uttered them, they appeared fine to him.

“What does your father say to that?”

“Oh!” said Edwin uneasily. “Him — and me — we don’t argue about these things.”

“Why not?”

“Well, we don’t.”

“You aren’t ashamed of your own opinions, are you?” she demanded, with a hint in her voice that she was ready to be scornful.

“You know all the time I’m not.” He repeated the phrase of her previous confession with a certain acrimonious emphasis. “Don’t you?” he added curtly.

She remained silent.

“Don’t you?” he said more loudly. And as she offered no reply, he went on, marvelling at what was coming out of his mouth. “I’ll tell you what I am ashamed of. I’m ashamed of seeing my father lose his temper. So you know!”

She said —

“I never met anybody like you before. No, never!”

At this he really was astounded, and most exquisitely flattered.

“I might say the same of you,” he replied, sticking his chin out.

“Oh no!” she said. “I’m nothing.”

The fact was that he could not foretell their conversation even ten seconds in advance. It was full of the completely unexpected. He thought to himself, “You never know what a girl like that will say next.” But what would he say next?

Five.

They were interrupted by Osmond Orgreave, with his, “Well, Edwin,” jolly, welcoming, and yet slightly quizzical. Edwin could not look him in the face without feeling self-conscious. Nor dared he glance at Hilda to see what her demeanour was like under the good-natured scrutiny of her friend’s father.

“We thought you’d forgotten us,” said Mr Orgreave. “But that’s always the way with neighbours.” He turned to Hilda. “It’s true,” he continued, jerking his head at Edwin. “He scarcely ever comes to see us, except when you’re here.”

“Steady on!” Edwin murmured. “Steady on, Mr Orgreave!” And hastily he asked a question about Mrs Orgreave’s asthma; and from that the conversation passed to the doings of the various absent members of the family.

“You’ve been working, as usual, I suppose,” said Edwin.

“Working!” laughed Mr Orgreave. “I’ve done what I could, with Hilda there! Instead of going up to Hillport with Janet, she would stop here and chatter about strikes.”

Hilda smiled at him benevolently as at one to whom she permitted everything.

“Mr Clayhanger agrees with me,” she said.

“Oh! You needn’t tell me!” protested Mr Orgreave. “I could see you were as thick as thieves over it.” He looked at Edwin. “Has she told you she wants to go over a printing works?”

“No,” said Edwin. “But I shall be very pleased to show her over ours, any time.”

She made no observation.

“Look here,” said Edwin suddenly, “I must be off. I only slipped in for a minute, really.” He did not know why he said this, for his greatest wish was to probe more deeply into the tantalising psychology of Hilda Lessways. His tongue, however, had said it, and his tongue reiterated it when Mr Orgreave urged that Janet and Alicia would be back soon and that food would then be partaken of. He would not stay. Desiring to stay, he would not. He wished to be alone, to think. Clearly Hilda had been talking about him to Mr Orgreave, and to Janet. Did she discuss him and his affairs with everybody?

Nor would he, in response to Mr Orgreave’s suggestion, promise definitely to call again on the next evening. He said he would try. Hilda took leave of him nonchalantly. He departed.

And as he made the half-circuit of the misty lawn, on his way to the gates, he muttered in his heart, where even he himself could scarcely hear: “I swore I’d do something, and I haven’t. Well, of course, when she talked seriously like that, what could I do?” But he was disgusted with himself and ashamed of his namby-pambiness.

He strolled thoughtfully up Oak Street, and down Trafalgar Road; and when he was near home, another wayfarer saw him face right about and go up Trafalgar Road and disappear at the corner of Oak Street.

The Orgreave servant was surprised to see him at the front door again when she answered a discreet ring.

“I wish you’d tell Miss Lessways I want to speak to her a moment, will you?”

“Miss Lessways?”

“Yes.” What an adventure!

“Certainly, sir. Will you come in?” She shut the door.

“Ask her to come here,” he said, smiling with deliberate confidential persuasiveness. She nodded, with a brighter smile.

The servant vanished, and Hilda came. She was as red as fire. He began hurriedly.

“When will you come to look over our works? To-morrow? I should like you to come.” He used a tone that said: “Now don’t let’s have any nonsense! You know you want to come.”

She frowned frankly. There they were in the hall, like a couple of conspirators, but she was frowning; she would not meet him half-way. He wished he had not permitted himself this caprice. What importance had a private oath? He felt ridiculous.

“What time?” she demanded, and in an instant transformed his disgust into delight.

“Any time.” His heart was beating with expectation.

“Oh no! You must fix the time.”

“Well, after tea. Say between half-past six and a quarter to seven. That do?”

She nodded.

“Good,” he murmured. “That’s all! Thanks, Goodnight!”

He hastened away, with a delicate photograph of the palm of her hand printed in minute sensations on the palm of his.

“I did it, anyhow!” he muttered loudly, in his heart. At any rate he was not shamed. At any rate he was a man. The man’s face was burning, and the damp noxious chill of the night only caressed him agreeably.

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