Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Two.

Father and Son After Seven Years.

Darius came heavily, and breathing heavily, into the little office.

“Now as all this racketing’s over,” he said crossly — he meant by ‘racketing’ the general election which had just put the Liberal party into power —“I’ll thank ye to see as all that red and blue ink is cleaned off the rollers and slabs, and the types cleaned too. I’ve told ’em ten times if I’ve told ’em once, but as far as I can make out, they’ve done naught to it yet.”

Edwin grunted without looking up.

His father was now a fattish man, and he had aged quite as much as Edwin. Some of his scanty hair was white; the rest was grey. White hair sprouted about his ears; gold gleamed in his mouth; and a pair of spectacles hung insecurely balanced half-way down his nose; his waistcoat seemed to be stretched tightly over a perfectly smooth hemisphere. He had an air of somewhat gross and prosperous untidiness. Except for the teeth, his bodily frame appeared to have fallen into disrepair, as though he had ceased to be interested in it, as though he had been using it for a long time as a mere makeshift lodging. And this impression was more marked at table; he ate exactly as if throwing food to a wild animal concealed somewhere within the hemisphere, an animal which was never seen, but which rumbled threateningly from time to time in its dark dungeon.

Of all this, Edwin had definitely noticed nothing save that his father was ‘getting stouter.’ To Edwin, Darius was exactly the same father, and for Darius, Edwin was still aged sixteen. They both of them went on living on the assumption that the world had stood still in those seven years between 1873 and 1880. If they had been asked what had happened during those seven years, they would have answered: “Oh, nothing particular!”

But the world had been whizzing ceaselessly from one miracle into another. Board schools had been opened in Bursley, wondrous affairs, with ventilation; indeed ventilation had been discovered. A Jew had been made Master of the Rolls: a spectacle at which England shivered, and then, perceiving no sign of disaster, shrugged its shoulders. Irish members had taught the House of Commons how to talk for twenty-four hours without a pause. The wages of the agricultural labourer had sprung into the air and leaped over the twelve shilling bar into regions of opulence. Moody and Sankey had found and conquered England for Christ. Landseer and Livingstone had died, and the provinces could not decide whether “Dignity and Impudence” or the penetration of Africa was the more interesting feat. Herbert Spencer had published his “Study of Sociology”; Matthew Arnold his “Literature and Dogma”; and Frederic Farrar his Life of his Lord; but here the provinces had no difficulty in deciding, for they had only heard of the last. Every effort had been made to explain by persuasion and by force to the working man that trade unions were inimical to his true welfare, and none had succeeded, so stupid was he. The British Army had been employed to put reason into the noddle of a town called Northampton which was furious because an atheist had not been elected to Parliament. Pullman cars, “The Pirates of Penzance,” Henry Irving’s “Hamlet,” spelling-bees, and Captain Webb’s channel swim had all proved that there were novelties under the sun. Bishops, archbishops, and dissenting ministers had met at Lambeth to inspect the progress of irreligious thought, with intent to arrest it. Princes and dukes had conspired to inaugurate the most singular scheme that ever was, the Kyrle Society — for bringing beauty home to the people by means of decorative art, gardening, and music. The Bulgarian Atrocities had served to give new life to all penny gaffs and blood-tubs. The “Eurydice” and the “Princess Alice” had foundered in order to demonstrate the uncertainty of existence and the courage of the island-race. The “Nineteenth Century” had been started, a little late in the day, and the “Referee.” Ireland had all but died of hunger, but had happily been saved to enjoy the benefits of Coercion. The Young Men’s Christian Association had been born again in the splendour of Exeter Hall. Bursley itself had entered on a new career as a chartered borough, with Mayor, alderman, and councillors, all in chains of silver. And among the latest miracles were Northampton’s success in sending the atheist to Parliament, the infidelity of the Tay Bridge three days after Christmas, the catastrophe of Majuba Hill, and the discovery that soldiers objected to being flogged into insensibility for a peccadillo.

But, in spite of numerous attempts, nobody had contrived to make England see that her very existence would not be threatened if museums were opened on Sunday, or that Nonconformists might be buried according to their own rites without endangering the constitution.

Two.

Darius was possibly a little uneasy in his mind about the world. Possibly there had just now begun to form in his mind the conviction, in which most men die, that all was not quite well with the world, and that in particular his native country had contracted a fatal malady since he was a boy.

He was a printer, and yet the General Election had not put sunshine in his heart. And this was strange, for a general election is the brief millennium of printers, especially of steam-printers who for dispatch can beat all rivals. During a general election the question put by a customer to a printer is not, “How much will it be?” but “How soon can I have it?” There was no time for haggling about price; and indeed to haggle about price would have been unworthy, seeing that every customer (ordinary business being at a standstill), was engaged in the salvation of England. Darius was a Liberal, but a quiet one, and he was patronised by both political parties — blue and red. As a fact, neither party could have done without him. His printing office had clattered and thundered early and late, and more than once had joined the end of one day’s work to the beginning of another; and more than once had Big James with his men and his boy (a regiment increased since 1873), stood like plotters muttering in the yard at five minutes to twelve on Sunday evening, waiting for midnight to sound, and Big James had unlocked the door of the office on the new-born Monday, and work had instantly commenced to continue till Monday was nearly dead of old age.

Once only had work been interrupted, and that was on a day when, a lot of ‘blue jobs’ being about, a squad of red fire-eaters had come up the back alley with intent to answer arguments by thwackings and wreckings; but the obstinacy of an oak door had fatigued them. The staff had enjoyed that episode. Every member of it was well paid for overtime. Darius could afford to pay conscientiously. In the printing trade, prices were steadier then than they are now. But already the discovery of competition was following upon the discovery of ventilation. Perhaps Darius sniffed it from a distance, and was disturbed thereby.

Three.

For though he was a Liberal in addition to being a printer, and he had voted Liberal, and his party had won, yet the General Election had not put sunshine in his heart. No! The tendencies of England worried him. When he read in a paper about the heretical tendencies of Robertson Smith’s Biblical articles in the “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” he said to himself that they were of a piece with the rest, and that such things were to be expected in those modern days, and that matters must have come to a pretty pass when even the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” was infected. (Still, he had sold a copy of the new edition.) He was exceedingly bitter against Ireland; and also, in secret, behind Big James’s back, against trade unions. When Edwin came home one night and announced that he had joined the Bursley Liberal Club, Darius lost his temper. Yet he was a member of the club himself. He gave no reason for his fury, except that it was foolish for a tradesman to mix himself up with politics. Edwin, however, had developed a sudden interest in politics, and had made certain promises of clerical aid, which promises he kept, saying nothing more to his father. Darius’s hero was Sir Robert Peel, simply because Sir Robert Peel had done away with the Corn Laws. Darius had known England before and after the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the difference between the two Englands was so strikingly dramatic to him that he desired no further change. He had only one date — 1846. His cup had been filled then. Never would he forget the scenes of anguishing joy that occurred at midnight of the day before the new Act became operative. From that moment he had finished with progress . . . If Edwin could only have seen those memories, shining in layers deep in his father’s heart, and hidden now by all sorts of Pliocene deposits, he would have understood his father better. But Edwin did not see into his father’s heart at all, nor even into his head. When he looked at his father he saw nothing but an ugly, stertorous old man (old, that is, to Edwin), with a peculiar and incalculable way of regarding things and a temper of growing capriciousness.

Four.

Darius was breathing and fidgeting all over him as he sat bent at the desk. His presence overwhelmed every other physical phenomenon.

“What’s this?” asked Darius, picking up the bit of paper on which Edwin had written the memorandum about “The Light of Asia.”

Edwin explained, self-consciously, lamely.

When the barometer of Darius’s temper was falling rapidly, there was a sign: a small spot midway on the bridge of his nose turned ivory-white. Edwin glanced upwards now to see if the sign was there, and it was. He flushed slightly and resumed his work.

Then Darius began.

“What did I tell ye?” he shouted. “What in the name of God’s the use o’ me telling ye things? Have I told ye not to take any more orders for books, or haven’t I? Haven’t I said over and over again that I want this shop to be known for wholesale?” He raved.

Five.

Stifford could hear. Any person who might chance to come into the shop would hear. But Darius cared neither for his own dignity nor for that of his son. He was in a passion. The real truth was that this celibate man, who never took alcohol, enjoyed losing his temper; it was his one outlet; he gave himself up almost luxuriously to a passion; he looked forward to it as some men look forward to brandy. And Edwin had never stopped him by some drastic step. At first, years before, Edwin had said to himself, trembling with resentment in his bedroom, “The next time, the very next time, he humiliates me like that in front of other people, I’ll walk out of his damned house and shop, and I swear I won’t come back until he’s apologised. I’ll bring him to his senses. He can’t do without me. Once for all I’ll stop it. What! He forces me into his business, and then insults me!”

But Edwin had never done it. Always, it was ‘the very next time’! Edwin was not capable of doing it. His father had a sort of moral brute-force, against which he could not stand firm. He soon recognised this, with his intellectual candour. Then he had tried to argue with Darius, to ‘make him see’! Worse than futile! Argument simply put Darius beside himself. So that in the end Edwin employed silence and secret scorn, as a weapon and as a defence. And somehow without a word he conveyed to Stifford and to Big James precisely what his attitude in these crises was, so that he retained their respect and avoided their pity. The outbursts still wounded him, but he was wonderfully inured.

As he sat writing under the onslaught, he said to himself, “By God! If ever I get the chance, I’ll pay you out for this some day!” And he meant it. A peep into his mind, then, would have startled Janet Orgreave, Mrs Nixon, and other persons who had a cult for the wistfulness of his appealing eyes.

He steadily maintained silence, and the conflagration burnt itself out.

“Are you going to look after the printing shop, or aren’t you?” Darius growled at length.

Edwin rose and went. As he passed through the shop, Stifford, who had in him the raw material of fine manners, glanced down, but not too ostentatiously, at a drawer under the counter.

The printing office was more crowded than ever with men and matter. Some of the composing was now done on the ground-floor. The whole organism functioned, but under such difficulties as could not be allowed to continue, even by Darius Clayhanger. Darius had finally recognised that.

“Oh!” said Edwin, in a tone of confidential intimacy to Big James, “I see they’re getting on with the cleaning! Good. Father’s beginning to get impatient, you know. It’s the bigger cases that had better be done first.”

“Right it is, Mr Edwin!” said Big James. The giant was unchanged. No sign of grey in his hair; and his cheek was smooth, apparently his philosophy put him beyond the touch of time.

“I say, Mr Edwin,” he inquired in his majestic voice. “When are we going to rearrange all this?” He gazed around.

Edwin laughed. “Soon,” he said.

“Won’t be too soon,” said Big James.

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