Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Twenty One.

The Marriage.

He was more proud and agitated than happy. The romance of the affair, and its secrecy, made him proud; the splendid qualities of Hilda made him proud. It was her mysteriousness that agitated him, and her absence rendered him unhappy in his triumph. During the whole of Friday he was thinking: “To-morrow is Saturday and I shall have her address and a letter from her.” He decided that there was no hope of a letter by the last post on Friday, but as the hour of the last post drew nigh he grew excited, and was quite appreciably disappointed when it brought nothing. The fear, which had always existed in little, then waxed into enormous dread, that Saturday’s post also would bring nothing. His manoeuvres in the early twilight of Saturday morning were complicated by the fact that it had not been arranged whether she should write to the shop or to the house. However, he prepared for either event by having his breakfast at seven o’clock, on the plea of special work in the shop. He had finished it at half-past seven, and was waiting for the postman, whose route he commanded from the dining-room window. The postman arrived. Edwin with false calm walked into the hall, saying to himself that if the letter was not in the box it would be at the shop. But the letter was in the box. He recognised her sprawling hand on the envelope through the wirework. He snatched the letter and slipped upstairs with it like a fox with a chicken. It had come, then! The letter safely in his hands he admitted more frankly that he had been very doubtful of its promptitude.

“59 Preston Street, Brighton, 1 a.m.

“Dearest — This is my address. I love you. Every bit of me is absolutely yours. Write me. — H.L.”

That was all. It was enough. Its tone enchanted him. Also it startled him. But it reminded him of her lips. He had begun a letter to her. He saw now that what he had written was too cold in the expression of his feelings. Hilda’s note suddenly and completely altered his views upon the composition of love-letters. “Every bit of me is absolutely yours.” How fine, how untrammelled, how like Hilda! What other girl could or would have written such a phrase? More than ever was he convinced that she was unique. The thrill divine quickened in him again, and he rose eagerly to her level of passion. The romance, the secrecy, the mystery, the fever! He walked down Trafalgar Road with the letter in his pocket, and once he pulled it out to read it in the street. His discretion objected to this act, but Edwin was not his own master. Stifford, hurrying in exactly at eight, was somewhat perturbed to find his employer’s son already installed in the cubicle, writing by the light of gas, as the shutters were not removed. Edwin had finished and stamped his first love-letter just as his father entered the cubicle. Owing to dyspeptic accidents Darius had not set foot in the cubicle since it had been sanctified by Hilda. Edwin, leaving it, glanced at the old man’s back and thought disdainfully: “Ah! You little know, you rhinoceros, that less than two days ago, she and I, on that very spot —”

As soon as his father had gone to pay the morning visit to the printing shops, he ran out to post the letter himself. He could not be contented until it was in the post. Now, when he saw men of about his own class and age in the street, he would speculate upon their experiences in the romance of women. And it did genuinely seem to him impossible that anybody else in a town like Bursley could have passed through an episode so exquisitely strange and beautiful as that through which he was passing. Yet his reason told him that he must be wrong there. His reason, however, left him tranquil in the assurance that no girl in Bursley had ever written to her affianced: “I love you. Every bit of me is absolutely yours.”

Hilda’s second letter did not arrive till the following Tuesday, by which time he had become distracted by fears and doubts. Yes, doubts! No rational being could have been more loyal than Edwin, but these little doubts would keep shooting up and withering away. He could not control them. The second letter was nearly as short as the first. It told him nothing save her love and that she was very worried by her friend’s situation, and that his letters were a joy. She had had a letter from him each day. In his reply to her second he gently implied, between two lines, that her letters lacked quantity and frequency. She answered: “I simply cannot write letters. It isn’t in me. Can’t you tell that from my handwriting? Not even to you! You must take me as I am.” She wrote each day for three days. Edwin was one of those who learn quickly, by the acceptance of facts. And he now learnt that profound lesson that an individual must be taken or left in entirety, and that you cannot change an object merely because you love it. Indeed he saw in her phrase, “You must take me as I am,” the accents of original and fundamental wisdom, springing from the very roots of life. And he submitted. At intervals he would say resentfully: “But surely she could find five minutes each day to drop me a line! What’s five minutes?” But he submitted. Submission was made easier when he coordinated with Hilda’s idiosyncrasy the fact that Maggie, his own unromantic sister, could never begin to write a letter with less than from twelve to twenty-four hours’ bracing of herself to the task. Maggie would be saying and saying: “I really must write that letter . . . Dear me! I haven’t written that letter yet.”

His whole life seemed to be lived in the post, and postmen were the angels of the creative spirit. His unhappiness increased with the deepening of the impression that the loved creature was treating him with cruelty. Time dragged. At length he had been engaged a fortnight. On Thursday a letter should have come. It came not. Nor on Friday nor Saturday. On Sunday it must come. But it did not come on Sunday. He determined to telegraph to her on the Monday morning. His loyalty, though valorous, needed aid against all those pricking battalions of ephemeral doubts. On the Sunday evening he suddenly had the idea of strengthening himself by a process that resembled boat-burning. He would speak to his father. His father’s mentality was the core of a difficulty that troubled him exceedingly, and he took it into his head to attack the difficulty at once, on the spot.

Two.

For years past Darius Clayhanger had not gone to chapel on Sunday evening. In the morning he still went fairly regularly, but in the evening he would now sit in the drawing-room, generally alone, to read. On weekdays he never used the drawing-room, where indeed there was seldom a fire. He had been accustomed to only one living-room, and save on Sunday, when he cared to bend the major part of his mind to the matter, he scorned to complicate existence by utilising all the resources of the house which he had built. His children might do so; but not he. He was proud enough to see to it that his house had a drawing-room, and too proud to employ the drawing-room except on the ceremonious day. After tea, at about a quarter to six, when chapel-goers were hurriedly pulling gloves on, he would begin to establish himself in a saddle-backed, ear-flapped easy-chair with “The Christian News” and an ivory paper-knife as long and nearly as deadly as a scimitar. “The Christian News” was a religious weekly of a new type. It belonged to a Mr James Bott, and it gave to God and to the mysteries of religious experience a bright and breezy actuality. Darius’s children had damned it for ever on its first issue, in which Clara had found, in a report of a very important charitable meeting, the following words: “Among those present were the Prince of Wales and Mr James Bott.” Such is the hasty and unjudicial nature of children that this single sentence finished the career of “The Christian News” with the younger generation. But Darius liked it, and continued to like it. He enjoyed it. He would spend an hour and a half in reading it. And further, he enjoyed cutting open the morsel. Once when Edwin, in hope of more laughter, had cut the pages on a Saturday afternoon, and his father had found himself unable to use the paper-knife on Sunday evening, there had been a formidable inquiry: “Who’s been meddling with my paper?” Darius saved the paper even from himself until Sunday evening; not till then would he touch it. This habit had flourished for several years. It appeared never to lose its charm. And Edwin did not cease to marvel at his father’s pleasure in a tedious monotony.

It was the hallowed rite of reading “The Christian News” that Edwin disturbed in his sudden and capricious resolve. Maggie and Mrs Nixon had gone to chapel, for Mrs Nixon, by reason of her years, bearing, mantle and reputation, could walk down Trafalgar Road by the side of her mistress on a Sunday night without offence to the delicate instincts of the town. The niece, engaged to be married at an age absurdly youthful, had been permitted by Mrs Nixon the joy of attending evensong at the Bleakridge Church on the arm of a male, but under promise to be back at a quarter to eight to set supper. The house was perfectly still when Edwin came all on fire out of his bedroom and slid down the stairs. The gas burnt economically low within its stained-glass cage in the hall. The drawing-room door was unlatched. He hesitated a moment on the mat, and he could hear the calm ticking of the clock in the kitchen and see the red glint of the kitchen fire against the wall. Then he entered, looking and feeling apologetic.

His father was all curtained in; his slippered feet on the fender of the blazing hearth, his head cushioned to a nicety, the long paper-knife across his knees. And the room was really hot and in a glow of light. Darius turned and, lowering his face, gazed at Edwin over the top of his new gold-rimmed spectacles.

“Not gone to chapel?” he frowned.

“No! . . . I say, father, I just wanted to speak to you.”

Darius made no reply, but shifted his glance from Edwin to the fire, and maintained his frown. He was displeased at the interruption. Edwin failed to shut the door at the first attempt, and then banged it in his nervousness. In spite of himself he felt like a criminal. Coming forward, he leaned his loose, slim frame against a corner of the old piano.

Three.

“Well?” Darius growled impatiently, even savagely. They saw each other, not once a week, but at nearly every hour of every day, and they were surfeited of the companionship.

“Supposing I wanted to get married?” This sentence shot out of Edwin’s mouth like a bolt. And as it flew, he blushed very red. In the privacy of his mind he was horribly swearing.

“So that’s it, is it?” Darius growled again. And he leaned forward and picked up the poker, not as a menace, but because he too was nervous. As an opposer of his son he had never had quite the same confidence in himself since Edwin’s historic fury at being suspected of theft, though apparently their relations had resumed the old basis of bullying and submission.

“Well —” Edwin hesitated. He thought, “After all, people do get married. It won’t be a crime.”

“Who’st been running after?” Darius demanded inimically. Instead of being softened by this rumour of love, by this hint that his son had been passing through wondrous secret hours, he instinctively and without any reason hardened himself and transformed the news into an offence. He felt no sympathy, and it did not occur to him to recall that he too had once thought of marrying. He was a man whom life had brutalised about half a century earlier.

“I was only thinking,” said Edwin clumsily — the fool had not sense enough even to sit down —“I was only thinking, suppose I did want to get married.”

“Who’st been running after?”

“Well, I can’t rightly say there’s anything — what you may call settled. In fact, nothing was to be said about it at all at present. But it’s Miss Lessways, father — Hilda Lessways, you know.”

“Her as came in the shop the other day?”

“Yes.”

“How long’s this been going on?”

Edwin thought of what Hilda had said. “Oh! Over a year.” He could not possibly have said “four days.” “Mind you this is strictly q.t! Nobody knows a word about it, nobody! But of course I thought I’d better tell you. You’ll say nothing.” He tried wistfully to appeal as one loyal man to another. But he failed. There was no ray of response on his father’s gloomy features, and he slipped back insensibly into the boy whose right to an individual existence had never been formally admitted.

Something base in him — something of that baseness which occasionally actuates the oppressed — made him add: “She’s got an income of her own. Her father left money.” He conceived that this would placate Darius.

“I know all about her father,” Darius sneered, with a short laugh. “And her father’s father! . . . Well, lad, ye’ll go your own road.” He appeared to have no further interest in the affair. Edwin was not surprised, for Darius was seemingly never interested in anything except his business; but he thought how strange, how nigh to the incredible, the old man’s demeanour was.

“But about money, I was thinking,” he said, uneasily shifting his pose.

“What about money?”

“Well,” said Edwin, endeavouring, and failing, to find courage to put a little sharpness into his tone, “I couldn’t marry on seventeen-and-six a week, could I?”

At the age of twenty-five, at the end of nine years’ experience in the management and the accountancy of a general printing and stationery business, Edwin was receiving seventeen shillings and sixpence for a sixty-five-hour week’s work, the explanation being that on his father’s death the whole enterprise would be his, and that all money saved was saved for him. Out of this sum he had to pay ten shillings a week to Maggie towards the cost of board and lodging, so that three half-crowns remained for his person and his soul. Thus he could expect no independence of any kind until his father’s death, and he had a direct and powerful interest in his father’s death. Moreover, all his future, and all unpaid reward of his labours in the past, hung hazardous on his father’s goodwill. If he quarrelled with him, he might lose everything. Edwin was one of a few odd-minded persons who did not regard this arrangement as perfectly just, proper, and in accordance with sound precedent. But he was helpless. His father would tell him, and did tell him, that he had fought no struggles, suffered no hardship, had no responsibility, and that he was simply coddled from head to foot in cotton-wool.

“I say you must go your own road,” said his father.

“But at this rate I should never be able to marry!”

“Do you reckon,” asked Darius, with mild cold scorn, “as you getting married will make your services worth one penny more to my business?” And he waited an answer with the august calm of one who is aware that he is unanswerable. But he might with equal propriety have tied his son’s hands behind him and then diverted himself by punching his head.

“I do all I can,” said Edwin meekly.

“And what about getting orders?” Darius questioned grimly. “Didn’t I offer you two and a half per cent on all new customers you got yourself? And how many have you got? Not one. I give you a chance to make extra money and you don’t take it. Ye’d sooner go running about after girls.”

This was a particular grievance of the father against the son: that the son brought no grist to the mill in the shape of new orders.

“But how can I get orders?” Edwin protested.

“How did I get ’em? How do I get ’em? Somebody has to get ’em.” The old man’s lips were pressed together, and he waved “The Christian News” slightly in his left hand.

Four.

In a few minutes both their voices had risen. Darius, savage, stooped to replace with the shovel a large burning coal that had dropped on the tiles and was sending up a column of brown smoke.

“I tell you what I shall do,” he said, controlling himself bitterly. “It’s against my judgement, but I shall put you up to a pound a week at the New Year, if all goes well, of course. And it’s good money, let me add.”

He was entirely serious, and almost sincere. He loathed paying money over to his son. He was convinced that in an ideal world sons would toil gratis for their fathers who lodged and fed them and gifted them with the reversion of excellent businesses.

“But what good’s a pound a week?” Edwin demanded, with the querulousness of one who is losing hope.

“What good’s a pound a week!” Darius repeated, hurt and genuinely hurt. “Let me tell you that in my time young men married on a pound a week, and glad to! A pound a week!” He finished with a sardonic exclamation.

“I couldn’t marry Miss Lessways on a pound a week,” Edwin murmured, in despair, his lower lip hanging. “I thought you might perhaps be offering me a partnership by this time!” Possibly in some mad hour a thought so wild had indeed flitted through his brain.

“Did you?” rejoined Darius. And in the fearful grimness of the man’s accents was concealed all his intense and egoistic sense of possessing in absolute ownership the business which the little boy out of the Bastille had practically created. Edwin did not and could not understand the fierce strength of his father’s emotion concerning the business. Already in tacitly agreeing to leave Edwin the business after his own death, Darius imagined himself to be superbly benevolent.

“And then there would be house-furnishing, and so on,” Edwin continued.

“What about that fifty pounds?” Darius curtly inquired.

Edwin was startled. Never since the historic scene had Darius made the slightest reference to the proceeds of the Building Society share.

“I haven’t spent all of it,” Edwin muttered.

Do what he would with his brain, the project of marriage and house-tenancy and a separate existence obstinately presented itself to him as fantastic and preposterous. Who was he to ask so much from destiny? He could not feel that he was a man. In his father’s presence he never could feel that he was a man. He remained a boy, with no rights, moral or material.

“And if as ye say she’s got money of her own —” Darius remarked, and was considerably astonished when the boy walked straight out of the room and closed the door.

It was his last grain of common sense that took Edwin in silence out of the room.

Miserable, despicable baseness! Did the old devil suppose that he would be capable of asking his wife to find the resources which he himself could not bring? He was to say to his wife: “I can only supply a pound a week, but as you’ve got money it won’t matter.” The mere notion outraged him so awfully that if he had stayed in the room there would have been an altercation and perhaps a permanent estrangement.

As he stood furious and impotent in the hall, he thought, with his imagination quickened by the memory of Mr Shushions: “When you’re old, and I’ve got you”— he clenched his fists and his teeth —“when I’ve got you and you can’t help yourself, by God it’ll be my turn!”

And he meant it.

Five.

He seized his overcoat and hat, and putting them on anyhow, strode out. The kitchen clock struck half-past seven as he left. Chapel-goers would soon be returning in a thin procession of twos and threes up Trafalgar Road. To avoid meeting acquaintances he turned down the side street, towards the old road which was a continuation of Aboukir Street. There he would be safe. Letting his overcoat fly open, he thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers. It was a cold night of mist. Humanity was separated from him by the semi-transparent blinds of the cottage windows, bright squares in the dark and enigmatic facades of the street. He was alone.

All along he had felt and known that this disgusting crisis would come to pass. He had hoped against it, but not with faith. And he had no remedy for it. What could he immediately and effectively do? He was convinced that his father would not yield. There were frequent occasions when his father was proof against reason, when his father seemed genuinely unable to admit the claim of justice, and this occasion was one of them. He could tell by certain peculiarities of tone and gesture. A pound a week! Assuming that he cut loose from his father, in a formal and confessed separation, he might not for a long time be in a position to earn more than a pound a week. A clerk was worth no more. And, except as responsible manager of a business, he could only go into the market as a clerk. In the Five Towns how many printing offices were there that might at some time or another be in need of a manager? Probably not one. They were all of modest importance, and directed personally by their proprietary heads. His father’s was one of the largest . . . No! His father had nurtured and trained, in him, a helpless slave.

And how could he discuss such a humiliating question with Hilda? Could he say to Hilda: “See here, my father won’t allow me more than a pound a week. What are we to do?” In what terms should he telegraph to her tomorrow?

He heard the rapid firm footsteps of a wayfarer overtaking him. He had no apprehension of being disturbed in his bitter rage. But a hand was slapped on his shoulder, and a jolly voice said —

“Now, Edwin, where’s this road leading you to on a Sunday night?”

It was Osmond Orgreave who, having been tramping for exercise in the high regions beyond the Loop railway line, was just going home.

“Oh! Nowhere particular,” said Edwin feebly.

“Working off Sunday dinner, eh?”

“Yes.” And Edwin added casually, to prove that there was nothing singular in his mood: “Nasty night!”

“You must come in a bit,” said Mr Orgreave.

“Oh no!” He shrank away.

“Now, now!” said Mr Orgreave masterfully. “You’ve got to come in, so you may as well give up first as last. Janet’s in. She’s like you and me, she’s a bad lot — hasn’t been to church.” He took Edwin by the arm, and they turned into Oak Street at the lower end.

Edwin continued to object, but Mr Orgreave, unable to scrutinise his face in the darkness, and not dreaming of an indiscretion, rode over his weak negatives, horse and foot, and drew him by force into the garden; and in the hall took his hat away from him and slid his overcoat from his shoulders. Mr Orgreave, having accomplished a lot of forbidden labour on that Sabbath, was playful in his hospitality.

“Prisoner! Take charge of him!” exclaimed Mr Orgreave shortly, as he pushed Edwin into the breakfast-room and shut the door from the outside. Janet was there, exquisitely welcoming, unconsciously pouring balm from her eyes. But he thought she looked graver than usual. Edwin had to enact the part of a man to whom nothing has happened. He had to behave as though his father was the kindest and most reasonable of fathers, as though Hilda wrote fully to him every day, as though he were not even engaged to Hilda. He must talk, and he scarcely knew what he was saying.

“Heard lately from Miss Lessways?” he asked lightly, or as lightly as he could. It was a splendid effort. Impossible to expect him to start upon the weather or the strike! He did the best he could.

Janet’s eyes became troubled. Speaking in a low voice she said, with a glance at the door —

“I suppose you’ve not heard. She’s married.”

He did not move.

Six.

“Married?”

“Yes. It is rather sudden, isn’t it?” Janet tried to smile, but she was exceedingly self-conscious. “To a Mr Cannon. She’s known him for a very long time, I think.”

“When?”

“Yesterday. I had a note this morning. It’s quite a secret yet. I haven’t told father and mother. But she asked me to tell you if I saw you.”

He thought her eyes were compassionate.

Mrs Orgreave came smiling into the room.

“Well, Mr Edwin, it seems we can only get you in here by main force.”

“Are you quite better, Mrs Orgreave?” he rose to greet her.

He had by some means or other to get out.

“I must just run in home a second,” he said, after a moment. “I’ll be back in three minutes.”

But he had no intention of coming back. He would have told any lie in order to be free.

In his bedroom, looking at himself in the glass, he could detect on his face no sign whatever of suffering or of agitation. It seemed just an ordinary mild, unmoved face.

And this, too, he had always felt and known would come to pass: that Hilda would not be his. All that romance was unreal; it was not true; it had never happened. Such a thing could not happen to such as he was . . . He could not reflect. When he tried to reflect, the top of his head seemed as though it would fly off . . . Cannon! She was with Cannon somewhere at that very instant . . . She had specially asked that he should be told. And indeed he had been told before even Mr and Mrs Orgreave . . . Cannon! She might at that very instant be in Cannon’s arms.

It could be said of Edwin that he fully lived that night. Fate had at any rate roused him from the coma which most men called existence.

Simple Maggie was upset because, from Edwin’s absence and her father’s demeanour at supper, she knew that her menfolk had had another terrible discussion. And since her father offered no remark as to it, she guessed that this one must be even more serious that the last.

There was one thing that Edwin could not fit into any of his theories of the disaster which had overtaken him, and that was his memory of Hilda’s divine gesture as she bent over Mr Shushions on the morning of the Centenary.

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