Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Three.

The New House.

A house stood on a hill. And that hill was Bleakridge, the summit of the little billow of land between Bursley and Hanbridge. Trafalgar Road passed over the crest of the billow. Bleakridge was certainly not more than a hundred feet higher than Bursley; yet people were now talking a lot about the advantages of living ‘up’ at Bleakridge, ‘above’ the smoke, and ‘out’ of the town, though it was not more than five minutes from the Duck Bank. To hear them talking, one might have fancied that Bleakridge was away in the mountains somewhere. The new steam-cars would pull you up there in three minutes or so, every quarter of an hour. It was really the new steam-cars that were to be the making of Bleakridge as a residential suburb. It had also been predicted that even Hanbridge men would come to live at Bleakridge now. Land was changing owners at Bleakridge, and rising in price. Complete streets of lobbied cottages grew at angles from the main road with the rapidity of that plant which pushes out strangling branches more quickly than a man can run. And these lobbied cottages were at once occupied. Cottage-property in the centre of the town depreciated.

The land fronting the main road was destined not for cottages, but for residences, semi-detached or detached. Osmond Orgreave had a good deal of this land under his control. He did not own it, he hawked it. Like all provincial, and most London, architects, he was a land-broker in addition to being an architect. Before obtaining a commission to build a house, he frequently had to create the commission himself by selling a convenient plot, and then persuading the purchaser that if he wished to retain the respect of the community he must put on the plot a house worthy of the plot. The Orgreave family all had expensive tastes, and it was Osmond Orgreave’s task to find most of the money needed for the satisfaction of those tastes. He always did find it, because the necessity was upon him, but he did not always find it easily. Janet would say sometimes, “We mustn’t be so hard on father this month; really, lately we’ve never seen him with his cheque-book out of his hand.” Undoubtedly the clothes on Janet’s back were partly responsible for the celerity with which building land at Bleakridge was ‘developed,’ just after the installation of steam-cars in Trafalgar Road.

Two.

Mr Orgreave sold a corner plot to Darius. He had had his eye on Darius for a long time before he actually shot him down; but difficulties connected with the paring of estimates for printing had somewhat estranged them. Orgreave had had to smooth out these difficulties, offer to provide a portion of the purchase money on mortgage from another client, produce a plan for a new house that surpassed all records of cheapness, produce a plan for the transforming of Darius’s present residence into business premises, talk poetically about the future of printing in the Five Towns, and lastly, demonstrate by digits that Darius would actually save money by becoming a property-owner — he had had to do all this, and more, before Darius would buy.

The two were regular cronies for about a couple of months — that is to say, between the payment of the preliminary deposit and the signing of the contract for building the house. But, the contract signed, their relations were once more troubled. Orgreave had nothing to fear, then, and besides, he was using his diplomacy elsewhere. The house went up to an accompaniment of scenes in which only the proprietor was irate. Osmond Orgreave could not be ruffled; he could not be deprived of his air of having done a favour to Darius Clayhanger; his social and moral superiority, his real aloofness, remained absolutely unimpaired. The clear image of him as a fine gentleman was never dulled nor distorted even in the mind of Darius. Nevertheless Darius ‘hated the sight’ of the house ere the house was roofed in. But this did not diminish his pride in the house. He wished he had never ‘set eyes on’ Osmond Orgreave. Yes! But the little boy from the Bastille was immensely content at the consequences of having set eyes on Osmond Orgreave. The little boy from the Bastille was achieving the supreme peak of greatness — he was about to live away from business. Soon he would be ‘going down to business’ of a morning. Soon he would be receiving two separate demand-notes for rates. Soon he would be on a plane with the vainest earthenware manufacturer of them all. Ages ago he had got as far as a house with a lobby to it. Now, it would be a matter of two establishments. Beneath all his discontents, moodiness, temper, and biliousness, lay this profound satisfaction of the little boy from the Bastille.

Moreover, in any case, he would have been obliged to do something heroic, if only to find the room more and more imperiously demanded by his printing business.

Three.

On the Saturday afternoon of Janet Orgreave’s visit to the shop, Edwin went up to Bleakridge to inspect the house, and in particular the coloured ‘lights’ in the upper squares of the drawing-room and dining-room windows. He had a key to the unpainted front door, and having climbed over various obstacles and ascended an inclined bending plank, he entered and stood in the square hall of the deserted, damp, and inchoate structure.

The house was his father’s only in name. In emotional fact it was Edwin’s house, because he alone was capable of possessing it by enjoying it. To Darius, to Bursley in general, it was just a nice house, of red brick with terra-cotta facings and red tiles, in the second-Victorian Style, the style that had broken away from Georgian austerity and first-Victorian stucco and smugness, and wandered off vaguely into nothing in particular. To the plebeian in Darius it was of course grandiose, and vast; to Edwin also, in a less degree. But to Edwin it was not a house, it was a work of art, it was an epic poem, it was an emanation of the soul. He did not realise this. He did not realise how the house had informed his daily existence. All that he knew about himself in relation to the house was that he could not keep away from it. He went and had a look at it, nearly every morning before breakfast, when the workmen were fresh and lyrical.

When the news came down to the younger generation that Darius had bought land and meant to build on the land, Edwin had been profoundly moved between apprehension and hope; his condition had been one of simple but intense expectant excitement. He wondered what his own status would be in the great enterprise of house-building. All depended on Mr Orgreave. Would Mr Orgreave, of whom he had seen scarcely anything in seven years, remember that he was intelligently interested in architecture? Or would Mr Orgreave walk right over him and talk exclusively to his father? He had feared, he had had a suspicion, that Mr Orgreave was an inconstant man.

Mr Orgreave had remembered in the handsomest way. When the plans were being discussed, Mr Orgreave with one word, a tone, a glance, had raised Edwin to the consultative level of his father. He had let Darius see that Edwin was in his opinion worthy to take part in discussions, and quite privately he had let Edwin see that Darius must not be treated too seriously. Darius, who really had no interest in ten thousand exquisitely absorbing details, had sometimes even said, with impatience, “Oh! Settle it how you like, with Edwin.”

Edwin’s own suggestions never seemed very brilliant, and Mr Orgreave was always able to prove to him that they were inadvisable; but they were never silly, like most of his father’s. And he acquired leading ideas that transformed his whole attitude towards architecture. For example, he had always looked on a house as a front-wall diversified by doors and windows, with rooms behind it. But when Mr Orgreave produced his first notions for the new house Edwin was surprised to find that he had not even sketched the front. He had said, “We shall be able to see what the elevation looks like when we’ve decided the plan a bit.” And Edwin saw in a flash that the front of a house was merely the expression of the inside of it, merely a result, almost accidental. And he was astounded and disgusted that he, with his professed love of architecture and his intermittent study of it, had not perceived this obvious truth for himself. He never again looked at a house in the old irrational way.

Then, when examining the preliminary sketch-plan, he had put his finger on a square space and asked what room that was. “That isn’t a room; that’s the hall,” said Mr Orgreave. “But it’s square!” Edwin exclaimed. He thought that in houses (houses to be lived in) the hall or lobby must necessarily be long and narrow. Now suddenly he saw no reason why a hall should not be square. Mr Orgreave had made no further remark about halls at the time, but another day, without any preface, he reopened the subject to Edwin, in a tone good-naturedly informing, and when he had done Edwin could see that the shape of the hall depended on the shape of the house, and that halls had only been crushed and pulled into something long and narrow because the disposition of houses absolutely demanded this ugly negation of the very idea of a hall. Again, he had to begin to think afresh, to see afresh. He conceived a real admiration for Osmond Orgreave; not more for his original and yet common-sense manner of regarding things, than for his aristocratic deportment, his equality to every situation, and his extraordinary skill in keeping his dignity and his distance during encounters with Darius. (At the same time, when Darius would grumble savagely that Osmond Orgreave ‘was too clever by half,’ Edwin could not deny that.) Edwin’s sisters got a good deal of Mr Orgreave, through Edwin; he could never keep Mr Orgreave very long to himself. He gave away a great deal of Mr Orgreave’s wisdom without mentioning the origin of the gift. Thus occasionally Clara would say cuttingly, “I know where you’ve picked that up. You’ve picked that up from Mr Orgreave.” The young man Benbow to whom the infant Clara had been so queerly engaged, also received from Edwin considerable quantities of Mr Orgreave. But the fellow was only a decent, dull, pushing, successful ass, and quite unable to assimilate Mr Orgreave; Edwin could never comprehend how Clara, so extremely difficult to please, so carping and captious, could mate herself to a fellow like Benbow. She had done so, however; they were recently married. Edwin was glad that that was over; for it had disturbed him in his attentions to the house.

Four.

When the house began to ‘go up,’ Edwin lived in an ecstasy of contemplation. I say with deliberateness an ‘ecstasy.’ He had seen houses go up before; he knew that houses were constructed brick by brick, beam by beam, lath by lath, tile by tile; he knew that they did not build themselves. And yet, in the vagueness of his mind, he had never imaginatively realised that a house was made with hands, and hands that could err. With its exact perpendiculars and horizontals, its geometric regularities, and its Chinese preciseness of fitting, a house had always seemed to him — again in the vagueness of his mind — as something superhuman. The commonest cornice, the most ordinary pillar of a staircase-balustrade — could that have been accomplished in its awful perfection of line and contour by a human being? How easy to believe that it was ‘not made with hands’!

But now he saw. He had to see. He saw a hole in the ground, with water at the bottom, and the next moment that hole was a cellar; not an amateur cellar, a hole that would do at a pinch for a cellar, but a professional cellar. He appreciated the brains necessary to put a brick on another brick, with just the right quantity of mortar in between. He thought the house would never get itself done — one brick at a time — and each brick cost a farthing — slow, careful; yes, and even finicking. But soon the bricklayers had to stand on plank-platforms in order to reach the raw top of the wall that was ever rising above them. The measurements, the rulings, the plumbings, the checkings! He was humbled and he was enlightened. He understood that a miracle is only the result of miraculous patience, miraculous nicety, miraculous honesty, miraculous perseverance. He understood that there was no golden and magic secret of building. It was just putting one brick on another and against another — but to a hair’s breadth. It was just like anything else. For instance, printing! He saw even printing in a new light.

And when the first beams were bridged across two walls . . .

The funny thing was that the men’s fingers were thicky and clumsy. Never could such fingers pick up a pin! And still they would manoeuvre a hundredweight of timber to a pin’s point.

Five.

He stood at the drawing-room bay-window (of which each large pane had been marked with the mystic sign of a white circle by triumphant glaziers), and looked across the enclosed fragment of clayey field that ultimately would be the garden. The house was at the corner of Trafalgar Road and a side-street that had lobbied cottages down its slope. The garden was oblong, with its length parallel to Trafalgar Road, and separated from the pavement only by a high wall. The upper end of the garden was blocked by the first of three new houses which Osmond Orgreave was building in a terrace. These houses had their main fronts on the street; they were quite as commodious as the Clayhangers’, but much inferior in garden-space; their bits of flower-plots lay behind them. And away behind their flower-plots, with double entrance-gates in another side street, stretched the grounds of Osmond Orgreave, his house in the sheltered middle thereof. He had got, cheaply, one of the older residential properties of the district, Georgian, of a recognisable style, relic of the days when manufacturers formed a class entirely apart from their operatives; even as far back as 1880 any operative might with luck become an employer. The south-east corner of the Clayhanger garden touched the north-west corner of the domains of Orgreave; for a few feet the two gardens were actually contiguous, with naught but an old untidy thorn hedge between them; this hedge was to be replaced by a wall that would match the topmost of the lobbied cottages which bounded the view of the Clayhangers to the east.

From the bay-window Edwin could see over the hedge, and also through it, on to the croquet lawn of the Orgreaves. Croquet was then in its first avatar; nothing was more dashing than croquet. With rag-balls and home-made mallets the Clayhanger children had imitated croquet in their yard in the seventies. The Orgreaves played real croquet; one of them had shone in a tournament at Buxton. Edwin noticed a figure on the gravel between the lawn and the hedge. He knew it to be Janet, by the crimson frock. But he had no notion that Janet had stationed herself in that quarter with intent to waylay him. He could not have credited her with such a purpose. Nor could his modesty have believed that he was important enough to employ the talent of the Orgreaves for agreeable chicane. The fact was that Janet had been espying him for a quarter of an hour. When at length she waved her hand to him, it did not occur to him to suppose that she was waving her hand to him; he merely wondered what peculiar thing she was doing. Then he blushed as she waved again, and he knew first from the blood in his face that Janet was making a signal, and that it was to himself that the signal was directed: his body had told his mind; this was very odd.

Of course he was obliged to go out; and he went, muttering to himself.

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