Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Five.

Clothes.

He heard voices below. And his soul seemed to shrink back, as if into the recesses of the shell from which it had been peeping. His soul was tremendous, in solitude; but even the rumour of society intimidated it. His father and another were walking about the ground floor; the rough voice of his father echoed upwards in all its crudity. He listened for the other voice; it was his Auntie Clara’s. Darius too had taken his Saturday afternoon for a leisurely visit to the house, and somehow he must have encountered Mrs Hamps, and brought her with him to view.

Without giving himself time to dissipate his courage in reflection, he walked to the landing, and called down the stairs, “Hello, Auntie!”

Why should his tone have been self-conscious, forced? He was engaged in no crime. He had told his father where he was going, and his father had not contradicted his remark that even if both of them happened to be out together, the shop would take no harm under the sole care of Stifford for an hour in the quiet of Saturday afternoon.

Mrs Hamps replied, in her coaxing, sweet manner.

“What did ye leave th’ front door open for?” his father demanded curtly, and every room in the house heard the question.

“Was it open?” he said lamely.

“Was it open! All Trafalgar Road could have walked in and made themselves at home.”

Edwin stood leaning with his arms on the rail of the landing. Presently the visitors appeared at the foot of the stairs, and Darius climbed carefully, having first shaken the balustrade to make sure that it was genuine, stout, and well-founded. Mrs Hamps followed, the fripperies of her elegant bonnet trembling, and her black gown rustling. Edwin smiled at her, and she returned his smile with usurious interest. There was now a mist of grey in her fine hair.

“Oh, Edwin!” she began, breathing relief on the top stair. “What a beautiful house! Beautiful! Quite perfect! The latest of everything! Do you know what I’ve been thinking while your dear father has been showing me all this. So that’s the bathroom! Bless us! Hot! Cold! Waste! That cupboard under the lavatory is very handy, but what a snare for a careless servant! Maggie will have to look at it every day, or it’ll be used for anything and everything. You tell her what her auntie says . . . I was thinking — if but your mother could have seen it all!”

Father and son said nothing. Auntie Hamps sighed. She was the only person who ever referred to the late Mrs Clayhanger.

The procession moved on from room to room, Darius fingering and grunting, Mrs Hamps discovering in each detail the fine flower of utter perfection, and Edwin strolling loosely in the wake of her curls, her mantle, and her abundant black petticoats. He could detect the odour of her kid gloves; it was a peculiar odour that never escaped him, and it reminded him inevitably of his mother’s funeral.

He was glad that they had not arrived during the visit of Janet Orgreave.

In due course Edwin’s bedroom was reached, and here Auntie Clara’s ecstasy was redoubled.

“I’m sure you’re very grateful to your father, aren’t you, Edwin?” she majestically assumed, when she had admired passionately the window, the door, the pattern of the hearth-tiles, and the spaciousness.

Edwin could not speak. Inquiries of this nature from Mrs Hamps paralysed the tongues of the children. They left nothing to be said. A sheepish grin, preceded by an inward mute curse, was all that Edwin could accomplish. How in heaven’s name could the woman talk in that strain? His attitude towards his auntie was assuredly hardening with years.

“What’s all this?” questioned his father suddenly, pointing to upright boards that had been fastened to the walls on either side of the mantelpiece, to a height of about three feet.

Then Edwin perceived the clumsiness of his tactics in remaining upstairs. He ought to have gone downstairs to meet his father and auntie, and left them to go up alone. His father was in an inquisitive mood.

“It’s for shelves,” he said.

“Shelves?”

“For my books. It’s Mr Orgreave’s idea. He says it’ll cost less.”

“Cost less! Mr Orgreave’s got too many ideas — that’s what’s the matter with him. He’ll idea me into the bankruptcy court if he keeps on.”

Edwin would have liked to protest against the savagery of the tone, to inquire firmly why, since shelves were necessary for books and he had books, there need be such a display of ill-temper about a few feet of deal plank. The words were ready, the sentences framed in his mind. But he was silent. The door was locked on these words, but it was not Edwin who had turned the key; it was some force within him, over which he had no control.

Two.

“Now, now, father!” intervened Mrs Hamps. “You know you’ve said over and over again how glad you are he’s so fond of books, and never goes out. There isn’t a better boy in Bursley. That I will say, and to his face.” She smiled like an angel at both of them.

“You say! You say!” Darius remarked curtly, trying to control himself. A few years ago he would never have used such violent demeanour in her presence.

“And how much easier these shelves will be to keep clean than a bookcase! No polishing. Just a rub, and a wipe with a damp cloth now and then. And no dirt underneath. They will do away with four corners, anyhow. That’s what I think of — eh, poor Maggie! Keeping all this clean. There’ll be work for two women night and day, early and late, and even then — But it’s a great blessing to have water on every floor, that it is! And people aren’t so particular nowadays as they used to be, I fancy. I fancy that more and more.” Mrs Hamps sighed, cheerfully bearing up.

Without a pause she stepped quickly across to Edwin. He wondered what she was at. She merely straightened down the collar of his coat, which, unknown to him, had treacherously allowed itself to remain turned up behind. It had probably been thus misbehaving itself since before dinner, when he had washed.

“Now, I do like my nephew to be tidy,” said Mrs Hamps affectionately. “I’m very jealous for my nephew.” She caressed the shoulders of the coat, and Edwin had to stand still and submit. “Let me see, it’s your birthday next month, isn’t it?”

“Yes, auntie.”

“Well, I know he hasn’t got a lot of money. And I know his father hasn’t any money to spare just now — what with all these expenses — the house —”

“Ye may well say it, sister!” Darius growled.

“I saw you the day before yesterday. My nephew didn’t see me, but his auntie saw him. Oh, never mind where. And I said to myself; ‘I should like my only nephew to have a suit a little better than that when he goes up and down on his father’s business. What a change it would be if his old auntie gave him a new suit for a birthday present this year!’”

“Oh, auntie.”

She spoke in a lower voice. “You come and see me tomorrow, and I shall have a little piece of paper in an envelope waiting for you. And you must choose something really good. You’ve got excellent taste, we all know that. And this will be a new start for you. A new year, and a new start, and we shall see how neat and spruce you’ll keep yourself in future, eh?”

Three.

It was insufferable. But it was fine. Who could deny that Auntie Clara was not an extraordinary, an original, and a generous woman? What a masterly reproof to both father and son! Perhaps not delicately administered. Yet Auntie Clara had lavished all the delicacy of her nature on the administering!

To Edwin, it seemed like an act of God in his favour. It seemed to set a divine seal on his resolutions. It was the most astonishing and apposite piece of luck that had ever happened to him. When he had lamely thanked the benefactor, he slipped away as soon as he could. Already he could feel the crinkling of the five-pound note in his hand. Five pounds! He had never had a suit that cost more than fifty shillings. He slipped away. A great resolve was upon him. Shillitoe closed at four o’clock on Saturday afternoons. There was just time. He hurried down Trafalgar Road in a dream. And when he had climbed Duck Bank he turned to the left, and without stopping he burst into Shillitoe’s. Not from eagerness to enter Shillitoe’s, but because if he had hesitated he might never have entered at all: he might have slunk away to the old undistinguished tailor in Saint Luke’s Square. Shillitoe was the stylish tailor. Shillitoe made no display of goods, scorning such paltry devices. Shillitoe had wire blinds across the lower part of his window, and on the blinds, in gold, “Gentlemen’s tailor and outfitter. Breeches-maker.” Above the blind could be seen a few green cardboard boxes. Shillitoe made breeches for men who hunted. Shillitoe’s lowest price for a suit was notoriously four guineas. Shillitoe’s was the resort of the fashionable youth of the town and district. It was a terrific adventure for Edwin to enter Shillitoe’s. His nervousness was painful. He seemed to have a vague idea that Shillitoe might sneer at him. However, he went in. The shop was empty. He closed the door, as he might have closed the door of a dentist’s. He said to himself; “Well, I’m here!” He wondered what his father would say on hearing that he had been to Shillitoe’s. And what would Clara have said, had she been at home? Then Shillitoe in person came forward from the cutting-out room and Shillitoe’s tone and demeanour reassured him.

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