Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Eighteen.

Curiosity.

He was afraid that, from some obscure motive of propriety or self-protection, she would bring Janet with her, or perhaps Alicia. On the other hand, he was afraid that she would come alone. That she should come alone seemed to him, in spite of his reason, too brazen. Moreover, if she came alone would he be equal to the situation? Would he be able to carry the thing off in a manner adequate? He lacked confidence. He desired the moment of her arrival, and yet he feared it. His heart and his brain were all confused together in a turmoil of emotion which he could not analyse nor define.

He was in love. Love had caught him, and had affected his vision so that he no longer saw any phenomenon as it actually was; neither himself, nor Hilda, nor the circumstances which were uniting them. He could not follow a train of thought. He could not remain of one opinion nor in one mind. Within himself he was perpetually discussing Hilda, and her attitude. She was marvellous! But was she? She admired him! But did she? She had shown cunning! But was it not simplicity? He did not even feel sure whether he liked her. He tried to remember what she looked like, and he positively could not. The one matter upon which he could be sure was that his curiosity was hotly engaged. If he had had to state the case in words to another he would not have gone further than the word ‘curiosity.’ He had no notion that he was in love. He did not know what love was; he had not had sufficient opportunity of learning. Nevertheless the processes of love were at work within him. Silently and magically, by the force of desire and of pride, the refracting glass was being specially ground which would enable him, which would compel him, to see an ideal Hilda when he gazed at the real Hilda. He would not see the real Hilda any more unless some cataclysm should shatter the glass. And he might be likened to a prisoner on whom the gate of freedom is shut for ever, or to a stricken sufferer of whom it is known that he can never rise again and go forth into the fields. He was as somebody to whom the irrevocable had happened. And he knew it not. None knew. None guessed. All day he went his ways, striving to conceal the whirring preoccupation of his curiosity (a curiosity which he thought showed a fine masculine dash), and succeeded fairly well. The excellent, simple Maggie alone remarked in secret that he was slightly nervous and unnatural. But even she, with all her excellent simplicity, did not divine his victimhood.

At six o’clock he was back at the shop from his tea. It was a wet, chill night. On the previous evening he had caught cold, and he was beginning to sneeze. He said to himself that Hilda could not be expected to come on such a night. But he expected her. When the shop clock showed half-past six, he glanced at his watch, which also showed half-past six. Now at any instant she might arrive. The shop door opened, and simultaneously his heart ceased to beat. But the person who came in, puffing and snorting, was his father, who stood within the shop while shaking his soaked umbrella over the exterior porch. The draught from the shiny dark street and square struck cold, and Edwin responsively sneezed; and Darius Clayhanger upbraided him for not having worn his overcoat, and he replied with foolish unconvincingness that he had got a cold, that it was nothing. Darius grunted his way into the cubicle. Edwin remained in busy idleness at the right-hand counter; Stifford was tidying the contents of drawers behind the fancy-counter. And the fizzing gas-burners, inevitable accompaniment of night at the period, kept watch above. Under the heat of the stove, the damp marks of Darius Clayhanger’s entrance disappeared more quickly than the minutes ran. It grew almost impossible for Edwin to pass the time. At moments when his father was not stirring in the cubicle, and Stifford happened to be in repose, he could hear the ticking of the clock, which he could not remember ever having heard before, except when he mounted the steps to wind it.

At a quarter to seven he said to himself that he gave up hope, while pretending that he never had hoped, and that Hilda’s presence was indifferent to him. If she came not that day she would probably come some other day. What could it matter? He was very unhappy. He said to himself that he should have a long night’s reading, but the prospect of reading had no savour. He said: “No, I shan’t go in to see them to-night, I shall stay in and nurse my cold, and read.” This was mere futile bravado, for the impartial spectator in him, though far less clear-sighted and judicial now than formerly, foresaw with certainty that if Hilda did not come he would call at the Orgreaves’. At five minutes to seven he was miserable: he had decided to hope until five minutes to seven. He made it seven in despair. Then there were signs of a figure behind the misty glass of the door. The door opened. It could not be she! Impossible that it should be she! But it was she; she had the air of being a miracle.

Two.

His feelings were complex and contradictory, flitting about and crossing each other in his mind with astounding rapidity. He wished she had not come, because his father was there, and the thought of his father would intensify his self-consciousness. He wondered why he should care whether she came or not; after all she was only a young woman who wanted to see a printing works; at best she was not so agreeable as Janet, at worst she was appalling, and moreover he knew nothing about her. He had a glimpse of her face as, with a little tightening of the lips, she shut her umbrella. What was there in that face judged impartially? Why should he be to so absurd a degree curious about her? He thought how exquisitely delicious it would be to be walking with her by the shore of a lovely lake on a summer evening, pale hills in the distance. He had this momentary vision by reason of a coloured print of the “Silver Strand” of a Scottish loch which was leaning in a gilt frame against the artists’ materials cabinet and was marked twelve-and-six. During the day he had imagined himself with her in all kinds of beautiful spots and situations. But the chief of his sensations was one of exquisite relief . . . She had come. He could wreak his hungry curiosity upon her.

Yes, she was alone. No Janet! No Alicia! How had she managed it? What had she said to the Orgreaves? That she should have come alone, and through the November rain, in the night, affected him deeply. It gave her the quality of a heroine of high adventure. It was as though she had set sail unaided, in a frail skiff, on a formidable ocean, to meet him. It was inexpressibly romantic and touching. She came towards him, her face sedately composed. She wore a small hat, a veil, and a mackintosh, and black gloves that were splashed with wet. Certainly she was a practical woman. She had said she would come, and she had come, sensibly, but how charmingly, protected against the shocking conditions of the journey. There is naught charming in a mackintosh. And yet there was, in this mackintosh! . . . Something in the contrast between its harshness and her fragility . . . The veil was supremely charming. She had half lifted it, exposing her mouth; the upper part of her flushed face was caged behind the bars of the veil; behind those bars her eyes mysteriously gleamed . . . Spanish! . . . No exaggeration in all this! He felt every bit of it honestly, as he stood at the counter in thrilled expectancy. By virtue of his impassioned curiosity, the terraces of Granada and the mantillas of senoritas were not more romantic than he had made his father’s shop and her dripping mackintosh. He tried to see her afresh; he tried to see her as though he had never seen her before; he tried desperately once again to comprehend what it was in her that piqued him. And he could not. He fell back from the attempt. Was she the most wondrous? Or was she commonplace? Was she deceiving him? Or did he alone possess the true insight? . . . Useless! He was baffled. Far from piercing her soul, he could scarcely even see her at all; that is, with intelligence. And it was always so when he was with her: he was in a dream, a vapour; he had no helm, his faculties were not under control. She robbed him of judgement.

And then the clear tones of her voice fell on the listening shop: “Good evening, Mr Clayhanger. What a night, isn’t it? I hope I’m not too late.”

Firm, business-like syllables . . . And she straightened her shoulders. He suffered. He was not happy. Whatever his feelings, he was not happy in that instant. He was not happy because he was wrung between hope and fear, alike divine. But he would not have exchanged his sensations for the extremest felicity of any other person.

They shook hands. He suggested that she should remove her mackintosh. She consented. He had no idea that the effect of the removal of the mackintosh would be so startling as it was. She stood intimately revealed in her frock. The mackintosh was formal and defensive; the frock was intimate and acquiescent.

Darius blundered out of the cubicle and Edwin had a dreadful moment introducing her to Darius and explaining their purpose. Why had he not prepared the ground in advance? His pusillanimous cowardice again! However, the directing finger of God sent a customer into the shop, and Edwin escaped with his Hilda through the aperture in the counter.

Three.

The rickety building at the back of the premises, which was still the main theatre of printing activities, was empty save for Big James, the hour of seven being past. Big James was just beginning to roll his apron round his waist, in preparation for departure. This happened to be one of the habits of his advancing age. Up till a year or two previously he would have taken off his apron and left it in the workshop; but now he could not confide it to the workshop; he must carry it about him until he reached home and a place of safety for it. When he saw Edwin and a young lady appear in the doorway, he let the apron fall over his knees again. As the day was only the second of the industrial week, the apron was almost clean; and even the office towel, which hung on a roller somewhat conspicuously near the door, was not offensive. A single gas jet burned. The workshop was in the languor of repose after toil which had officially commenced at 8 a.m.

The perfection of Big James’s attitude, an attitude symbolised by the letting down of his apron, helped to put Edwin at ease in the original and difficult circumstances. “Good evening, Mr Edwin. Good evening, miss,” was all that the man actually said with his tongue, but the formality of his majestic gestures indicated in the most dignified way his recognition of a sharp difference of class and his exact comprehension of his own role in the affair. He stood waiting: he had been about to depart, but he was entirely at the disposal of the company.

“This is Mr Yarlett, our foreman,” said Edwin, and to Big James: “Miss Lessways has just come to look round.”

Hilda smiled. Big James suavely nodded his head.

“Here are some of the types,” said Edwin, because a big case was the object nearest him, and he glanced at Big James.

In a moment the foreman was explaining to Hilda, in his superb voice, the use of the composing-stick, and he accompanied the theory by a beautiful exposition of the practice; Edwin could stand aside and watch. Hilda listened and looked with an extraordinary air of sympathetic interest. And she was so serious, so adult. But it was the quality of sympathy, he thought, that was her finest, her most attractive. It was either that or her proud independence, as of a person not accustomed to bend to the will of others or to go to others for advice. He could not be sure . . . No! Her finest quality was her mystery. Even now, as he gazed at her comfortably, she baffled him; all her exquisite little movements and intonations baffled him. Of one thing, however, he was convinced: that she was fundamentally different from other women. There was she, and there was the rest of the sex.

For appearance’s sake he threw in short phrases now and then, to which Big James, by his mere deportment, gave the importance of the words of a master.

“I suppose you printers did something special among yourselves to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of the invention of printing?” said Hilda suddenly, glancing from Edwin to Big James. And Big James and Edwin glanced at one another. Neither had ever heard of the four-hundredth anniversary of the invention of printing. In a couple of seconds Big James’s downcast eye had made it clear that he regarded this portion of the episode as master’s business.

“When was that? — let me see,” Edwin foolishly blurted out.

“Oh! Some years ago. Two or three — perhaps four.”

“I’m afraid we didn’t,” said Edwin, smiling.

“Oh!” said Hilda slowly. “I think they made a great fuss of it in London.” She relented somewhat. “I don’t really know much about it. But the other day I happened to be reading the new history of printing, you know — Cranswick’s, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes!” Edwin concurred, though he had never heard of Cranswick’s new history of printing either.

He knew that he was not emerging creditably from this portion of the episode. But he did not care. The whole of his body went hot and then cold as his mind presented the simple question: “Why had she been reading the history of printing?” Could the reason be any other than her interest in himself? Or was she a prodigy among young women, who read histories of everything in addition to being passionate about verse? He said that it was ridiculous to suppose that she would read a history of printing solely from interest in himself. Nevertheless he was madly happy for a few moments, and as it were staggered with joy. He decided to read a history of printing at once.

Big James came to the end of his expositions of the craft. The stove was dying out, and the steam-boiler cold. Big James regretted that the larger machines could not be seen in action, and that the place was getting chilly. Edwin began to name various objects that were lying about, with their functions, but it was evident that the interest of the workshop was now nearly exhausted. Big James suggested that if Miss could make it convenient to call, say, on the next afternoon, she could see the large new Columbia in motion. Edwin seized the idea and beautified it. And on this he wavered towards the door, and she followed, and Big James in dignity bowed them forth to the elevated porch, and began to rewind his flowing apron once more. They pattered down the dark steps (now protected with felt roofing) and ran across six feet of exposed yard into what had once been Mrs Nixon’s holy kitchen.

Four.

After glancing at sundry minor workshops in delicious propinquity and solitude, they mounted to the first floor, where there was an account-book ruling and binding shop: the site of the old sitting-room and the girls’ bedroom. In each chamber Edwin had to light a gas, and the corridors and stairways were traversed by the ray of matches. It was excitingly intricate. Then they went to the attics, because Edwin was determined that she should see all. There he found a forgotten candle.

“I used to work here,” he said, holding high the candle. “There was no other place for me to work in.”

They were in his old work attic, now piled with stocks of paper wrapped up in posters.

“Work? What sort of work?”

“Well — reading, drawing, you know . . . At that very table.” To be sure, there the very table was, thick with dust! It had been too rickety to deserve removal to the heights of Bleakridge. He was touched by the sight of the table now, though he saw it at least once every week. His existence at the corner of Duck Square seemed now to have been beautiful and sad, seemed to be far off and historic. And the attic seemed unhappy in its present humiliation.

“But there’s no fireplace,” murmured Hilda.

“I know,” said Edwin.

“But how did you do in winter?”

“I did without.”

He had in fact been less of a martyr than those three telling words would indicate. Nevertheless it appeared to him that he really had been a martyr; and he was glad. He could feel her sympathy and her quiet admiration vibrating through the air towards him. Had she not said that she had never met anybody like him? He turned and looked at her. Her eyes glittered in the candle-light with tears too proud to fall. Solemn and exquisite bliss! Profound anxiety and apprehension! He was an arena where all the sensations of which a human being is capable struggled in blind confusion.

Afterwards, he could recall her visit only in fragments. The next fragment that he recollected was the last. She stood outside the door in her mackintosh. The rain had ceased. She was going. Behind them he could feel his father in the cubicle, and Stifford arranging the toilette of the shop for the night.

“Please don’t come out here,” she enjoined, half in entreaty, half in command. Her solicitude thrilled him. He was on the step, she was on the pavement: so that he looked down at her, with the sodden, light-reflecting slope of Duck Square for a background to her.

“Oh! I’m all right. Well, you’ll come tomorrow afternoon?”

“No, you aren’t all right. You’ve got a cold and you’ll make it worse, and this isn’t the end of winter, it’s the beginning; I think you’re very liable to colds.”

“N-no!” he said, enchanted, beside himself in an ecstasy of pleasure. “I shall expect you tomorrow about three.”

“Thank you,” she said simply. “I’ll come.”

They shook hands.

“Now do go in!”

She vanished round the corner.

All the evening he neither read nor spoke.

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