Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Twenty.

The Man.

But he was young. Indeed to men of fifty, men just twice his age, he seemed a mere boy and incapable of grief. He was so slim, and his limbs were so loose, and his hair so fair, and his gestures often so naive, that few of the mature people who saw him daily striding up and down Trafalgar Road could have believed him to be acquainted with sorrow like their sorrows. The next morning, as it were in justification of these maturer people, his youth arose and fought with the malady in him, and, if it did not conquer, it was not defeated. On the previous night, after hours of hesitation, he had suddenly walked forth and gone down Oak Street, and pushed open the garden gates of the Orgreaves, and gazed at the facade of the house — not at her window, because that was at the side — and it was all dark. The Orgreaves had gone to bed: he had expected it. Even this perfectly futile reconnaissance had calmed him. While dressing in the bleak sunrise he had looked at the oval lawn of the Orgreaves’ garden, and had seen Johnnie idly kicking a football on it. Johnnie had probably spent the evening with her; and it was nothing to Johnnie! She was there, somewhere between him and Johnnie, within fifty yards of both of them, mysterious and withdrawn as ever, busy at something or other. And it was naught to Johnnie! By the thought of all this the woe in him was strengthened and embittered. Nevertheless his youth, aided by the astringent quality of the clear dawn, still struggled sturdily against it. And he ate six times more breakfast than his suffering and insupportable father.

At half-past one — it was Thursday, and the shop closed at two o’clock — he had put on courage like a garment, and decided that he would see her that afternoon or night, ‘or perish in the attempt.’ And as the remembered phrase of the Sunday passed through his mind, he inwardly smiled and thought of school; and felt old and sure.

Two.

At five minutes to two, as he stood behind the eternal counter in his eternal dream, he had the inexpressible and delectable shock of seeing her. He was shot by the vision of her as by a bullet. She came in, hurried and preoccupied, apparently full of purpose.

“Have you got a Bradshaw?” she inquired, after the briefest greeting, gazing at him across the counter through her veil, as though imploring him for Bradshaw.

“I’m afraid we haven’t one left,” he said. “You see it’s getting on for the end of the month. I could — No, I suppose you want it at once?”

“I want it now,” she replied. “I’m going to London by the six express, and what I want to know is whether I can get on to Brighton to-night. They actually haven’t a Bradshaw up there,” half in scorn and half in levity, “and they said you’d probably have one here. So I ran down.”

“They’d be certain to have one at the Tiger,” he murmured, reflecting.

“The Tiger!” Evidently she did not care for the idea of the Tiger. “What about the railway station?”

“Yes, or the railway station. I’ll go up there with you now if you like, and find out for you. I know the head porter. We’re just closing. Father’s at home. He’s not very well.”

She thanked him, relief in her voice.

In a minute he had put his hat and coat on and given instructions to Stifford, and he was climbing Duck Bank with Hilda at his side. He had forgiven her. Nay, he had forgotten her crime. The disaster, with all its despair, was sponged clean from his mind like writing off a slate, and as rapidly. It was effaced. He tried to collect his faculties and savour the new sensations. But he could not. Within him all was incoherent, wild, and distracting. Five minutes earlier, and he could not have conceived the bliss of walking with her to the station. Now he was walking with her to the station; and assuredly it was bliss, and yet he did not fully taste it. Though he would not have loosed her for a million pounds, her presence gave an even crueller edge to his anxiety and apprehension. London! Brighton! Would she be that night in Brighton? He felt helpless, and desperate. And beneath all this was the throbbing of a strange, bitter joy. She asked about his cold and about his father’s indisposition. She said nothing of her failure to appear on the previous day, and he knew not how to introduce it neatly: he was not in control of his intelligence.

They passed Snaggs’ Theatre, and from its green, wooden walls came the obscure sound of humanity in emotion. Before the mean and shabby portals stood a small crowd of ragged urchins. Posters printed by Darius Clayhanger made white squares on the front.

“It’s a meeting of the men,” said Edwin.

“They’re losing, aren’t they?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I expect they are.”

She asked what the building was, and he explained.

“They used to call it the Blood Tub,” he said.

She shivered. “The Blood Tub?”

“Yes. Melodrama and murder and gore — you know.”

“How horrible!” she exclaimed. “Why are people like that in the Five Towns?”

“It’s our form of poetry, I suppose,” he muttered, smiling at the pavement, which was surprisingly dry and clean in the feeble sunshine.

“I suppose it is!” she agreed heartily, after a pause.

“But you belong to the Five Towns, don’t you?” he asked.

“Oh yes! I used to.”

At the station the name of Bradshaw appeared to be quite unknown. But Hilda’s urgency impelled them upwards from the head porter to the ticket clerk, and from the ticket clerk to the stationmaster; and at length they discovered, in a stuffy stove-heated room with a fine view of a shawd-ruck and a pithead, that on Thursday evenings there was a train from Victoria to Brighton at eleven-thirty. Hilda seemed to sigh relief, and her demeanour changed. But Edwin’s uneasiness was only intensified. Brighton, which he had never seen, was in another hemisphere for him. It was mysterious, like her. It was part of her mystery. What could he do? His curse was that he had no initiative. Without her relentless force, he would never have penetrated even as far as the stuffy room where the unique Bradshaw lay. It was she who had taken him to the station, not he her. How could he hold her back from Brighton?

Three.

When they came again to the Blood Tub, she said —

“Couldn’t we just go and look in? I’ve got plenty of time, now I know exactly how I stand.”

She halted, and glanced across the road. He could only agree to the proposition. For himself, a peculiar sense of delicacy would have made it impossible for him to intrude his prosperity upon the deliberations of starving artisans on strike and stricken; and he wondered what the potters might think or say about the invasion by a woman. But he had to traverse the street with her and enter, and he had to do so with an air of masculine protectiveness. The urchins stood apart to let them in.

Snaggs’, dimly lit by a few glazed apertures in the roof, was nearly crammed by men who sat on the low benches and leaned standing against the sidewalls. In the small and tawdry proscenium, behind a worn picture of the Bay of Naples, were silhouetted the figures of the men’s leader and of several other officials. The leader was speaking in a quiet, mild voice, the other officials were seated on Windsor chairs. The smell of the place was nauseating, and yet the atmosphere was bitingly cold. The warm-wrapped visitors could see rows and rows of discoloured backs and elbows, and caps, and stringy kerchiefs. They could almost feel the contraction of thousands of muscles in an involuntary effort to squeeze out the chill from all these bodies; not a score of overcoats could be discerned in the whole theatre, and many of the jackets were thin and ragged; but the officials had overcoats. And the visitors could almost see, as it were in rays, the intense fixed glances darting from every part of the interior, and piercing the upright figure in the centre of the stage.

“Some method of compromise,” the leader was saying in his persuasive tones.

A young man sprang up furiously from the middle benches.

“To hell wi’ compromise!” he shouted in a tigerish passion. “Haven’t us had forty pound from Ameriky?”

“Order! Order!” some protested fiercely. But one voice cried: “Pitch the bastard awt, neck and crop!”

Hands clawed at the interrupter and dragged him with extreme violence to the level of the bench, where he muttered like a dying volcano. Angry growls shot up here and there, snappish, menacing, and bestial.

“It is quite true,” said the leader soothingly, “that our comrades at Trenton have collected forty pounds for us. But forty pounds would scarcely pay for a loaf of bread for one man in every ten on strike.”

There was more interruption. The dangerous growls continued in running explosions along the benches. The leader, ignoring them, turned to consult with his neighbour, and then faced his audience and called out more loudly —

“The business of the meeting is at an end.”

The entire multitude jumped up, and there was stretching of arms and stamping of feet. The men nearest to the door now perceived Edwin and Hilda, who moved backwards as before a flood. Edwin seized Hilda’s arm to hasten her.

“Lads,” bawled an old man’s voice from near the stage, “Let’s sing ‘Rock of Ages.’”

A frowning and hirsute fellow near the door, with the veins prominent on his red forehead, shouted hoarsely, “‘Rock of Ages’ be buggered!” and shifting his hands into his pockets he plunged for the street, head foremost and chin sticking out murderously. Edwin and Hilda escaped at speed and recrossed the road. The crowd came surging out of the narrow neck of the building and spread over the pavements like a sinister liquid. But from within the building came the lusty song of “Rock of Ages.”

“It’s terrible!” Hilda murmured, after a silence. “Just to see them is enough. I shall never forget what you said.”

“What was that?” he inquired. He knew what it was, but he wished to prolong the taste of her appreciation.

“That you’ve only got to see the poor things to know they’re in the right! Oh! I’ve lost my handkerchief, unless I’ve left it in your shop. It must have dropped out of my muff.”

Four.

The shop was closed. As with his latchkey he opened the private door and then stood on one side for her to precede him into the corridor that led to the back of the shop, he watched the stream of operatives scattering across Duck Bank and descending towards the Square. It was as if he and Hilda, being pursued, were escaping. And as Hilda, stopping an instant on the step, saw what he saw, her face took a troubled expression. They both went in and he shut the door.

“Turn to the left,” he said, wondering whether the big Columbia machine would be running, for her to see if she chose.

“Oh! This takes you to the shop, does it? How funny to be behind the counter!”

He thought she spoke self-consciously, in the way of small talk: which was contrary to her habit.

“Here’s my handkerchief!” she cried, with pleasure. It was on the counter, a little white wisp in the grey-sheeted gloom. Stifford must have found it on the floor and picked it up.

The idea flashed through Edwin’s head: “Did she leave her handkerchief on purpose, so that we should have to come back here?”

The only illumination of the shop was from three or four diamond-shaped holes in the upper part of as many shutters. No object was at first quite distinct. The corners were very dark. All merchandise not in drawers or on shelves was hidden in pale dust cloths. A chair wrong side up was on the fancy-counter, its back hanging over the front of the counter. Hilda had wandered behind the other counter, and Edwin was in the middle of the shop. Her face in the twilight had become more mysterious than ever. He was in a state of emotion, but he did not know to what category the emotion belonged. They were alone. Stifford had gone for the half-holiday. Darius, sickly, would certainly not come near. The printers were working as usual in their place, and the clanking whirr of a treadle-machine overhead agitated the ceiling. But nobody would enter the shop. His excitement increased, but did not define itself. There was a sudden roar in Duck Square, and then cries.

“What can that be?” Hilda asked, low.

“Some of the strikers,” he answered, and went through the doors to the letter-hole in the central shutter, lifted the flap, and looked through.

A struggle was in progress at the entrance to the Duck Inn. One man was apparently drunk; others were jeering on the skirts of the lean crowd.

“It’s some sort of a fight among them,” said Edwin loudly, so that she could hear in the shop. But at the same instant he felt the wind of the door swinging behind him, and Hilda was silently at his elbow.

“Let me look,” she said.

Assuredly her voice was trembling. He moved, as little as possible, and held the flap up for her. She bent and gazed. He could hear various noises in the Square, but she described nothing to him. After a long while she withdrew from the hole.

“A lot of them have gone into the public-house,” she said. “The others seem to be moving away. There’s a policeman. What a shame,” she burst out passionately, “that they have to drink to forget their trouble!” She made no remark upon the strangeness of starving workmen being able to pay for beer sufficient to intoxicate themselves. Nor did she comment, as a woman, on the misery of the wives and children at home in the slums and the cheap cottage-rows. She merely compassionated the men in that they were driven to brutishness. Her features showed painful pity masking disgust.

She stepped back into the shop.

“Do you know,” she began, in a new tone, “you’ve quite altered my notion of poetry — what you said as we were going up to the station.”

“Really!” He smiled nervously. He was very pleased. He would have been astounded by this speech from her, a professed devotee of poetry, if in those instants the capacity for astonishment had remained to him.

“Yes,” she said, and continued, frowning and picking at her muff: “But you do alter my notions, I don’t know how it is . . . So this is your little office!”

The door of the cubicle was open.

“Yes, go in and have a look at it.”

“Shall I?” She went in.

He followed her.

And no sooner was she in than she muttered, “I must hurry off now.” Yet a moment before she seemed to have infinite leisure.

“Shall you be at Brighton long?” he demanded, and scarcely recognised his own accents.

“Oh! I can’t tell! I’ve no idea. It depends.”

“How soon shall you be down our way again?”

She only shook her head.

“I say — you know —” he protested.

“Good-bye,” she said, quavering. “Thanks very much.” She held out her hand.

“But —” He took her hand.

His suffering was intolerable. It was torture of the most exquisite kind. Her hand pressed his. Something snapped in him. His left hand hovered shaking over her shoulder, and then touched her shoulder, and he could feel her left hand on his arm. The embrace was clumsy in its instinctive and unskilled violence, but its clumsiness was redeemed by all his sincerity and all hers. His eyes were within six inches of her eyes, full of delicious shame, anxiety, and surrender. They kissed . . . He had amorously kissed a woman. All his past life sank away, and he began a new life on the impetus of that supreme and final emotion. It was an emotion that in its freshness, agitating and divine, could never be renewed. He had felt the virgin answer of her lips on his. She had told him everything, she had yielded up her mystery, in a second of time. Her courage in responding to his caress ravished and amazed him. She was so unaffected, so simple, so heroic. And the cool, delicate purity of those lips! And the faint feminine odour of her flesh and even of her stuffs! Dreams and visions were surpassed. He said to himself, in the flood-tide of masculinity —

“My God! She’s mine.”

And it seemed incredible.

Five.

She was sitting in the office chair; he on the desk. She said in a trembling voice —

“I should never have come to the Five Towns again, if you hadn’t —”

“Why not?”

“I couldn’t have stood it. I couldn’t.” She spoke almost bitterly, with a peculiar smile on her twitching lips.

To him it seemed that she had resumed her mystery, that he had only really known her for one instant, that he was bound to a woman entrancing, noble, but impenetrable. And this, in spite of the fact that he was close to her, touching her, tingling to her in the confined, crepuscular intimacy of the cubicle. He could trace every movement of her breast as she breathed, and yet she escaped the inward searching of his gaze. But he was happy. He was happy enough to repel all anxieties and inquietudes about the future. He was steeped in the bliss of the miracle. This was but the fourth day, and they were vowed.

“It was only Monday,” he began.

“Monday!” she exclaimed. “I have thought of you for over a year.” She leaned towards him. “Didn’t you know? Of course you did! . . . You couldn’t bear me at first.”

He denied this, blushing, but she insisted.

“You don’t know how awful it was for me yesterday when you didn’t come!” he murmured.

“Was it?” she said, under her breath. “I had some very important letters to write.” She clasped his hand.

There it was again! She spoke just like a man of business, immersed in secret schemes.

“It’s awfully funny,” he said. “I scarcely know anything about you, and yet —”

“I’m Janet’s friend!” she answered. Perhaps it was the delicatest reproof of imagined distrust.

“And I don’t want to,” he went on. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four,” she answered sweetly, acknowledging his right to put such questions.

“I thought you were.”

“I suppose you know I’ve got no relatives,” she said, as if relenting from her attitude of reproof. “Fortunately, father left just enough money for me to live on.”

“Must you go to Brighton?”

She nodded.

“Where can I write to?”

“It will depend,” she said. “But I shall send you the address tomorrow. I shall write you before I go to bed whether it’s to-night or tomorrow morning.”

“I wonder what people will say!”

“Please tell no one, yet,” she pleaded. “Really, I should prefer not! Later on, it won’t seem so sudden; people are so silly.”

“But shan’t you tell Janet?”

She hesitated. “No! Let’s keep it to ourselves till I come back.”

“When shall you come back?”

“Oh! Very soon. I hope in a few days, now. But I must go to this friend at Brighton. She’s relying on me.”

It was enough for him, and indeed he liked the idea of a secret. “Yes, yes,” he agreed eagerly.

There was the sound of another uproar in Duck Square. It appeared to roll to and fro thunderously.

She shivered. The fire was dead out in the stove, and the chill of night crept in from the street.

“It’s nearly dark,” she said. “I must go! I have to pack . . . Oh dear, dear — those poor men! Somebody will be hurt!”

“I’ll walk up with you,” he whispered, holding her, in owner ship.

“No. It will be better not. Let me out.”

“Really?”

“Really!”

“But who’ll take you to Knype Station?”

“Janet will go with me.”

She rose reluctantly. In the darkness they were now only dim forms to each other. He struck a match, that blinded them and expired as they reached the passage . . .

When she had gone, he stood hatless at the open side door. Right at the top of Duck Bank, he could discern, under the big lamp there, a knot of gesticulating and shouting strikers, menacing two policemen; and farther off, in the direction of Moorthorne Road, other strikers were running. The yellow-lit blinds of the Duck Inn across the Square seemed to screen a house of impenetrable conspiracies and debaucheries. And all that grim, perilous background only gave to his emotions a further intensity, troubling them to still stranger ecstasy. He thought: “It has happened to me, too, now — this thing that is at the bottom of everybody’s mind! I’ve kissed her! I’ve got her! She’s marvellous, marvellous! I couldn’t have believed it. But is it true? Has it happened?” It passed his credence . . . “By Jove! I absolutely forgot about the ring! That’s a nice how d’ye do!” . . . He saw himself married. He thought of Clara’s grotesque antics with her tedious babe. And he thought of his father and of vexatious. But that night he was a man. She, Hilda, with her independence and her mystery, had inspired him with a full pride of manhood. And he discovered that one of the chief attributes of a man is an immense tenderness.

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