Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Four.

The Two Gardens.

In the full beauty of the afternoon they stood together, only the scraggy hedge between them, he on grass-tufted clay, and she on orderly gravel.

“Well,” said Janet, earnestly looking at him, “how do you like the effect of that window, now it’s done?”

“Very nice!” he laughed nervously. “Very nice indeed!”

“Father said it was,” she remarked. “I do hope Mr Clayhanger will like it too!” And her voice really was charged with sympathetic hope. It was as if she would be saddened and cast down if Darius did not approve the window. It was as if she fervently wished that Darius should not be disappointed with the window. The unskilled spectator might have assumed that anxiety for the success of the window would endanger her sleep at nights. She was perfectly sincere. Her power of emotional sympathy was all-embracing and inexhaustible. If she heard that an acquaintance of one of her acquaintances had lost a relative or broken a limb, she would express genuine deep concern, with a tremor of her honest and kindly voice. And if she heard the next moment that an acquaintance of one of her acquaintances had come into five thousand pounds or affianced himself to a sister-spirit, her eyes would sparkle with heartfelt joy and her hands clasp each other in sheer delight.

“Oh!” said Edwin, touched. “It’ll be all right for the dad. No fear!”

“I haven’t seen it yet,” she proceeded. “In fact I haven’t been in your house for such a long time. But I do think it’s going to be very nice. All father’s houses are so nice, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” said Edwin, with that sideways shake of the head that in the vocabulary of his gesture signified, not dissent, but emphatic assent. “You ought to come and have a look at it.” He could not say less.

“Do you think I could scramble through here?” she indicated the sparse hedge.

“I— I—”

“I know what I’ll do. I’ll get the steps.” She walked off sedately, and came back with a small pair of steps, which she opened out on the narrow flower-bed under the hedge. Then she picked up her skirt and delicately ascended the rocking ladder till her feet were on a level with the top of the hedge. She smiled charmingly, savouring the harmless escapade, and gazing at Edwin. She put out her free hand, Edwin took it, and she jumped. The steps fell backwards, but she was safe.

“What a good thing mother didn’t see me!” she laughed. Her grave, sympathetic, almost handsome face was now alive everywhere with a sort of challenging merriment. She was only pretending that it was a good thing her mother had not seen her: a delicious make-believe. Why, she was as motherly as her mother! In an instant her feet were choosing their way and carrying her with grace and stateliness across the mire of the unformed garden. She was the woman of the world, and Edwin the raw boy. The harmony and dignity of her movements charmed and intimidated Edwin. Compare her to Maggie . . . That she was hatless added piquancy.

Two.

They went into the echoing bare house, crunching gravel and dry clay on the dirty, new floors. They were alone together in the house. And all the time Edwin was thinking: “I’ve never been through anything like this before. Never been through anything like this!” And he recalled for a second the figure of Florence Simcox, the clog-dancer.

And below these images and reflections in his mind was the thought: “I haven’t known what life is! I’ve been asleep. This is life!”

The upper squares of the drawing-room window were filled with small leaded diamond-shaped panes of many colours. It was the latest fashion in domestic glazing. The effect was at once rich and gorgeous. She liked it.

“It will be beautiful on this side in the late afternoon,” she murmured. “What a nice room!”

Their eyes met, and she transmitted to him her joy in his joy at the admirableness of the house.

He nodded. “By Jove!” he thought. “She’s a splendid girl. There can’t be many girls knocking about as fine as she is!”

“And when the garden’s full of flowers!” she breathed in rapture. She was thinking, “Strange, nice boy! He’s so romantic. All he wants is bringing out.”

They wandered to and fro. They went upstairs. They saw the bathroom. They stood on the landing, and the unseen spaces of the house were busy with their echoes. They then entered the room that was to be Edwin’s.

“Mine!” he said self-consciously.

“And I see you’re having shelves fixed on both sides of the mantelpiece! You’re very fond of books, aren’t you?” she appealed to him.

“Yes,” he said judicially.

“Aren’t they wonderful things?” Her glowing eyes seemed to be expressing gratitude to Shakespeare and all his successors in the dynasty of literature.

“That shelving is between your father and me,” said Edwin. “The dad doesn’t know. It’ll go in with the house-fittings. I don’t expect the dad will ever notice it.”

“Really!” She laughed, eager to join the innocent conspiracy. “Father invented an excellent dodge for shelving in the hall at our house,” she added. “I’m sure he’d like you to come and see it. The dear thing’s most absurdly proud of it.”

“I should like to,” Edwin answered diffidently.

“Would you come in some evening and see us? Mother would be delighted. We all should.”

“Very kind of you.” In his diffidence he was now standing on one leg.

“Could you come to-night? . . . Or tomorrow night?”

“I’m afraid I couldn’t come to-night, or tomorrow night,” he answered with firmness. A statement entirely untrue! He had no engagement; he never did have an engagement. But he was frightened, and his spirit sprang away from the idea, like a fawn at a sudden noise in the brake, and stood still.

He did not suspect that the unconscious gruffness of his tone had repulsed her. She blamed herself for a too brusque advance.

“Well, I hope some other time,” she said, mild and benignant.

“Thanks! I’d like to,” he replied more boldly, reassured now that he had heard again the same noise but indefinitely farther off.

She departed, but by the front door, and hatless and dignified up Trafalgar Road in the delicate sunshine to the next turning. She was less vivacious.

He hoped he had not offended her, because he wanted very much — not to go in cold blood to the famed mansion of the Orgreaves — but by some magic to find himself within it one night, at his ease, sharing in brilliant conversation. “Oh no!” he said to himself. “She’s not offended. A fine girl like that isn’t offended for nothing at all!” He had been invited to visit the Orgreaves! He wondered what his father would say, or think. The unexpressed basic idea of the Clayhangers was that the Clayhangers were as good as other folks, be they who they might. Still, the Orgreaves were the Orgreaves . . . In sheer absence of mind he remounted the muddy stairs.

Three.

He regarded the shabbiness of his clothes; he had been preoccupied by their defects for about a quarter of an hour; now he examined them in detail, and said to himself disgusted, that really it was ridiculous for a man about to occupy a house like that to be wearing garments like those. Could he call on the Orgreaves in garments like those? His Sunday suit was not, he felt, in fact much better. It was newer, less tumbled, but scarcely better. His suits did not cost enough. Finance was at the root of the crying scandal of his career as a dandy. The financial question must be reopened and settled anew. He should attack his father. His father was extremely dependent on him now, and must be brought to see reason. (His father who had never seen reason!) But the attack must not be made with the weapon of clothes, for on that subject Darius was utterly unapproachable. Whenever Darius found himself in a conversation about clothes, he gave forth the antique and well-tried witticism that as for him he didn’t mind what he wore, because if he was at home everybody knew him and it didn’t matter, and if he was away from home nobody knew him and it didn’t matter. And he always repeated the saying with gusto, as if it was brand-new and none could possibly have heard it before.

No, Edwin decided that he would have to found his attack on the principle of abstract justice; he would never be able to persuade his father that he lacked any detail truly needful to his happiness. To go into details would be to invite defeat.

Of course it would be a bad season in which to raise the financial question. His father would talk savagely in reply about the enormous expenses of house-building, house-furnishing, and removing — and architects’ and lawyers’ fees; he would be sure to mention the rapacity of architects and lawyers. Nevertheless Edwin felt that at just this season, and no other, must the attack be offered.

Because the inauguration of the new house was to be for Edwin, in a very deep and spiritual sense, the beginning of the new life! He had settled that. The new house inspired him. It was not paradise. But it was a temple.

You of the younger generation cannot understand that — without imagination. I say that the hot-water system of the new house, simple and primitive as it was, affected and inspired Edwin like a poem. There was a cistern-room, actually a room devoted to nothing but cisterns, and the main cistern was so big that the builders had had to install it before the roof was put on, for it would never have gone through a door. This cistern, by means of a ball-tap, filled itself from the main nearly as quickly as it was emptied. Out of it grew pipes, creeping in secret downwards between inner walls of the house, penetrating everywhere. One went down to a boiler behind the kitchen-range and filled it, and as the fire that was roasting the joint heated the boiler, the water mounted again magically to the cistern-room and filled another cistern, spherical and sealed, and thence descended, on a third journeying, to the bath and to the lavatory basin in the bathroom. All this was marvellous to Edwin; it was romantic. What! A room solely for baths! And a huge painted zinc bath! Edwin had never seen such a thing. And a vast porcelain basin, with tiles all round it, in which you could splash! An endless supply of water on the first floor!

At the shop-house, every drop of water on the first floor had to be carried upstairs in jugs and buckets; and every drop of it had to be carried down again. No hot water could be obtained until it had been boiled in a vessel on the fire. Hot water had the value of champagne. To take a warm hip-bath was an immense enterprise of heating, fetching, decanting, and general derangement of the entire house; and at best the bath was not hot; it always lost its virtue on the stairs and landing. And to splash — one of the most voluptuous pleasures in life — was forbidden by the code. Mrs Nixon would actually weep at a splashing. Splashing was immoral. It was as wicked as amorous dalliance in a monastery. In the shop-house godliness was child’s play compared to cleanliness.

And the shop-house was so dark! Edwin had never noticed how dark it was until the new house approached completion. The new house was radiant with light. It had always, for Edwin, the somewhat blinding brilliance which filled the sitting-room of the shop-house only when Duck Bank happened to be covered with fresh snow. And there was a dining-room, solely for eating, and a drawing-room. Both these names seemed ‘grand’ to Edwin, who had never sat in any but a sitting-room. Edwin had never dined; he had merely had dinner. And, having dined, to walk ceremoniously into another room! (Odd! After all, his father was a man of tremendous initiative.) Would he and Maggie be able to do the thing naturally? Then there was the square hall — positively a room! That alone impelled him to a new life. When he thought of it all, the reception-rooms, the scientific kitchen, the vast scullery, the four large bedrooms, the bathroom, the three attics, the cistern-room murmurous with water, and the water tirelessly, inexhaustibly coursing up and down behind walls — he thrilled to fine impulses.

He took courage. He braced himself. The seriousness which he had felt on the day of leaving school revisited him. He looked back across the seven years of his life in the world, and condemned them unsparingly. He blamed no one but Edwin. He had forgiven his father for having thwarted his supreme ambition; long ago he had forgiven his father; though, curiously, he had never quite forgiven Mrs Hamps for her share in the catastrophe. He honestly thought he had recovered from the catastrophe undisfigured, even unmarked. He knew not that he would never be the same man again, and that his lightest gesture and his lightest glance were touched with the wistfulness of resignation. He had frankly accepted the fate of a printer. And in business he was convinced, despite his father’s capricious complaints, that he had acquitted himself well. In all the details of the business he considered himself superior to his father. And Big James would invariably act on his secret instructions given afterwards to counteract some misguided hasty order of the old man’s.

It was the emptiness of the record of his private life that he condemned. What had he done for himself? Nothing large! Nothing heroic and imposing! He had meant to pursue certain definite courses of study, to become the possessor of certain definite groups of books, to continue his drawing and painting, to practise this, that and the other, to map out all his spare time, to make rules and to keep them — all to the great end of self-perfecting. He had said: “What does it matter whether I am an architect or a printer, so long as I improve myself to the best of my powers?” He hated young men who talked about improving themselves. He spurned the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society (which had succeeded the Debating Society — defunct through over-indulgence in early rising). Nevertheless in his heart he was far more enamoured of the idea of improvement than the worst prig of them all. He could never for long escape from the dominance of the idea. He might violently push it away, arguing that it could lead to nothing and was futile and tedious; back it would come! It had always worried him.

And yet he had accomplished nothing. His systems of reading never worked for more than a month at a time. And for several months at a time he simply squandered his spare hours, the hours that were his very own, in a sort of coma of crass stupidity, in which he seemed to be thinking of nothing whatever. He had not made any friends whom he could esteem. He had not won any sort of notice. He was remarkable for nothing. He was not happy. He was not content. He had the consciousness of being a spendthrift of time and of years . . . A fair quantity of miscellaneous reading — that was all he had done. He was not a student. He knew nothing about anything. He had stood still.

Thus he upbraided himself. And against this futility was his courage now braced by the inspiration of the new house, and tightened to a smarting tension by the brief interview with Janet Orgreave. He was going to do several feats at once: tackle his father, develop into a right expert on some subject, pursue his painting, and — for the moment this had the chief importance —‘come out of his shell.’ He meant to be social, to impress himself on others, to move about, to form connections, to be Edwin Clayhanger, an individuality in the town — to live. Why had he refused Janet’s invitation? Mere silliness. The old self nauseated the new. But the next instant he sought excuses for the old self . . . Wait a bit! There was time yet.

He was happy in the stress of one immense and complex resolve.

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