Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Nineteen.

A Catastrophe.

At half-past two on the following afternoon he was waiting for the future in order to recommence living. During this period, to a greater extent even than the average individual in average circumstances, he was incapable of living in the present. Continually he looked either forward or back. All that he had achieved, or that had been achieved for him — the new house with its brightness and its apparatus of luxury, his books, his learning, his friends, his experience: not long since regarded by him as the precious materials of happiness — all had become negligible trifles, nothings, devoid of import. The sole condition precedent to a tolerable existence was now to have sight and speech of Hilda Lessways. He was intensely unhappy in the long stretches of time which separated one contact with her from the next. And in the brief moments of their companionship he was far too distraught, too apprehensive, too desirous, too puzzled, to be able to call himself happy. Seeing her apparently did naught to assuage the pain of his curiosity about her — not his curiosity concerning the details of her life and of her person, for these scarcely interested him, but his curiosity concerning the very essence of her being. At seven o’clock on the previous day, he had esteemed her visit as possessing a decisive importance which covered the whole field of his wishes. The visit had occurred, and he was not a whit advanced; indeed he had retrograded, for he was less content and more confused, and more preoccupied. The medicine had aggravated the disease. Nevertheless, he awaited a second dose of it in the undestroyed illusion of its curative property.

In the interval he had behaved like a very sensible man. Without appetite, he had still forced himself to eat, lest his relatives should suspect. Short of sleep, he had been careful to avoid yawning at breakfast, and had spoken in a casual tone of Hilda’s visit. He had even said to his father: “I suppose the big Columbia will be running off those overseer notices this afternoon?” And on the old man asking why he was thus interested, he had answered: “Because that girl, Miss Lessways, thought of coming down to see it. For some reason or other she’s very keen on printing, and as she’s such a friend of the Orgreaves —”

Nobody, he considered, could have done that better than he had done it.

And now that girl, Miss Lessways, was nearly due. He stood behind the counter again, waiting, waiting. He could not apply himself to anything; he could scarcely wait. He was in a state that approached fever, if not agony. To exist from half-past two to three o’clock equalled in anguish the dreadful inquietude that comes before a surgical operation.

He said to himself: “If I keep on like this I shall be in love with her one of these days.” He would not and could not believe that he already was in love with her, though the possibility presented itself to him. “No,” he said, “you don’t fall in love in a couple of days. You mustn’t tell me —” in a wise, superior, slightly scornful manner. “I dare say there’s nothing in it at all,” he said uncertainly, after having strongly denied throughout that there was anything in it.

The recollection of his original antipathy to Hilda troubled him. She was the same girl. She was the same girl who had followed him at night into his father’s garden and merited his disdain. She was the same girl who had been so unpleasant, so sharp, so rudely disconcerting in her behaviour. And he dared not say that she had altered. And yet now he could not get her out of his head. And although he would not admit that he constantly admired her, he did admit that there were moments when he admired her passionately and deemed her unique and above all women. Whence the change in himself? How to justify it? The problem was insoluble, for he was intellectually too honest to say lightly that originally he had been mistaken.

He did not pretend to solve the problem. He looked at it with perturbation, and left it. The consoling thing was that the Orgreaves had always expressed high esteem for Hilda. He leaned on the Orgreaves.

He wondered how the affair would end? It could not indefinitely continue on its present footing. How indeed would it end? Marriage . . . He apologised to himself for the thought . . . But just for the sake of argument . . . supposing . . . well, supposing the affair went so far that one day he told her . . . men did such things, young men! No! . . . Besides, she wouldn’t . . . It was absurd . . . No such idea really! . . . And then the frightful worry there would be with his father about money, and so on . . . And the telling of Clara, and of everybody. No! He simply could not imagine himself married, or about to be married. Marriage might happen to other young men, but not to him. His case was special, somehow . . . He shrank from such formidable enterprises. The mere notion of them made him tremble.

Two.

He brushed all that away impatiently, pettishly. The intense and terrible longing for her arrival persisted. It was now twenty-five to three. His father would be down soon from his after-dinner nap. Suddenly the door opened, and he saw the Orgreaves’ servant, with a cloak over her white apron, and hands red with cold. And also he saw disaster like a ghostly figure following her. His heart sickeningly sank. Martha smiled and gave him a note, which he smilingly accepted. “Miss Lessways asked me to come down with this,” she said confidentially. She was a little breathless, and she had absolutely the manner of a singing chambermaid in light opera. He opened the note, which said: “Dear Mr Clayhanger, so sorry I can’t come today. — Yours, H.L.” Nothing else. It was scrawled. “It’s all right, thanks,” he said, with an even brighter smile to the messenger, who nodded and departed.

It all occurred in an instant.

Three.

A catastrophe! He suffered then as he had never suffered.

His was no state approaching agony; it was agony itself, black and awful. She was not coming. She had not troubled herself to give a reason, nor to offer an excuse. She merely was not coming. She had showed no consideration for his feelings. It had not happened to her to reflect that she would be causing him disappointment. Disappointment was too mild a word. He had been building a marvellously beautiful castle, and with a thoughtless, careless stroke of the pen she had annihilated all his labour; she had almost annihilated him. Surely she owed him some reason, some explanation! Had she the right to play fast and loose with him like that? “What a shame!” he sobbed violently in his heart, with an excessive and righteous resentment. He was innocent; he was blameless; and she tortured him thus! He supposed that all women were like her . . . “What a shame!” He pitied himself for a victim. And there was no glint of hope anywhere. In half an hour he would have been near her, with her, guiding her to the workshop, discussing the machine with her; and savouring her uniqueness; feasting on her delicious and adorable personality! . . . ‘So sorry I can’t come today!’ “She doesn’t understand. She can’t understand!” he said to himself. “No woman, however cruel, would ever knowingly be so cruel as she has been. It isn’t possible!” Then he sought excuse for her, and then he cast the excuse away angrily. She was not coming. There was no ground beneath his feet. He was so exquisitely miserable that he could not face a future of even ten hours ahead. He could not look at what his existence would be till bedtime. The blow had deprived him of all force, all courage. It was a wanton blow. He wished savagely that he had never seen her . . . No! no! He could not call on the Orgreaves that night. He could not do it. She might be out. And then . . .

His father entered, and began to grumble. Both Edwin and Maggie had known since the beginning of dinner that Darius was quaking on the precipice of a bad bilious attack. Edwin listened to the rising storm of words. He had to resume the thread of his daily life. He knew what affliction was.

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