Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Six.

Janet Loses Her Bet.

Accident — that is to say, a chance somewhat more fortuitous than the common hazards which we group together and call existence — pushed Edwin into the next stage of his career. As, on one afternoon in late June, he was turning the corner of Trafalgar Road to enter the shop, he surprisingly encountered Charlie Orgreave, whom he had not seen for several years. And when he saw this figure, at once fashionably and carelessly dressed, his first thought was one of deep satisfaction that he was wearing his new Shillitoe suit of clothes. He had scarcely worn the suit at all, but that afternoon his father had sent him over to Hanbridge about a large order from Bostocks, the recently established drapers there whose extravagant advertising had shocked and pained the commerce of the Five Towns. Darius had told him to ‘titivate himself,’ a most startling injunction from Darius, and thus the new costly suit had been, as it were, officially blessed and henceforth could not be condemned.

“How do, Teddy?” Charlie greeted him. “I’ve just been in to see you at your shop.”

Edwin paused.

“Hello! The Sunday!” he said quietly. And he kept thinking, as his eyes noted details of Charlie’s raiment, “It’s a bit of luck I’ve got these clothes on.” And he was in fact rather sorry that Charlie probably paid no real attention to clothes. The new suit had caused Edwin to look at everybody’s clothes, had caused him to walk differently, and to put his shoulders back, and to change the style of his collars; had made a different man of Edwin.

“Come in, will you?” Edwin suggested.

They went into the shop together. Stifford smiled at them both, as if to felicitate them on the chance which had brought them together.

“Come in here,” said Edwin, indicating the small office.

“The lion’s den, eh?” observed the Sunday.

He, as much as Edwin, was a little tongue-tied and nervous.

“Sit down, will you?” said Edwin, shutting the door. “No, take the arm-chair. I’ll absquatulate on the desk. I’d no idea you were down. When did you come?”

“Last night, last train. Just a freak, you know.”

Two.

They were within a foot of each other in the ebonised cubicle. Edwin’s legs were swinging a few inches away from the arm-chair. His hat was at the back of his head, and Charlie’s hat was at the back of Charlie’s head. This was their sole point of resemblance. As Edwin surreptitiously examined the youth who had once been his intimate friend, he experienced the half-sneering awe of the provincial for the provincial who has become a Londoner. Charlie was changed; even his accent was changed. He and Edwin belonged to utterly different worlds now. They seldom saw the same scenes or thought the same things. But of course they were obliged by loyalty to the past to pretend that nothing was changed.

“You’ve not altered much,” said Edwin.

And indeed, when Charlie smiled, he was almost precisely the old Sunday, despite his metropolitan mannerisms. And there was nothing whatever in his figure or deportment to show that he had lived for several years in France and could chatter in a language whose verbs had four conjugations. After all, he was less formidable than Edwin might have anticipated.

“You have, anyhow,” said Charlie.

Edwin grinned self-consciously.

“I suppose you’ve got this place practically in your own hands now,” said Charlie. “I wish I was on my own, I can tell you that.”

An instinctive gesture from Edwin made Charlie lower his voice in the middle of a sentence. The cubicle had the appearance, but not the reality, of being private.

“Don’t you make any mistake,” Edwin murmured. He, who depended on his aunt’s generosity for clothes, the practical ruler of the place! Still he was glad that Charlie supposed that he ruled, even though the supposition might be mere small-talk. “You’re in that hospital, aren’t you?”

“Bart’s.”

“Bart’s, is it? Yes, I remember. I expect you aren’t thinking of settling down here?”

Charlie was about to reply in accents of disdain: “Not me!” But his natural politeness stayed his tongue. “I hardly think so,” he said. “Too much competition here. So there is everywhere, for the matter of that.” The disillusions of the young doctor were already upon Charlie. And yet people may be found who will assert that in those days there was no competition, that competition has been invented during the past ten years.

“You needn’t worry about competition,” said Edwin.

“Why not?”

“Why not, man! Nothing could ever stop you from getting patients — with that smile! You’ll simply walk straight into anything you want.”

“You think so?” Charlie affected an ironic incredulity, but he was pleased. He had met the same theory in London.

“Well, you didn’t suppose degrees and things had anything to do with it, did you?” said Edwin, smiling a little superiorly. He felt, with pleasure, that he was still older than the Sunday; and it pleased him also to be able thus to utilise ideas which he had formed from observation but which by diffidence and lack of opportunity he had never expressed. “All a patient wants is to be smiled at in the right way,” he continued, growing bolder. “Just look at ’em!”

“Look at who?”

“The doctors here.” He dropped his voice further. “Do you know why the dad’s gone to Heve?”

“Gone to Heve, has he? Left old Who-is-it?”

“Yes. I don’t say Heve isn’t clever, but it’s his look that does the trick for him.”

“You seem to go about noticing things. Any charge?”

Edwin blushed and laughed. Their nervousness was dissipated. Each was reassured of the old basis of ‘decency’ in the other.

Three.

“Look here,” said Charlie. “I can’t stop now.”

“Hold on a bit.”

“I only called to tell you that you’ve simply got to come up to-night.”

“Come up where?”

“To our place. You’ve simply got to.”

The secret fact was that Edwin had once more been under discussion in the house of the Orgreaves. And Osmond Orgreave had lent Janet a shilling so that she might bet Charlie a shilling that he would not succeed in bringing Edwin to the house. The understanding was that if Janet won, her father was to take sixpence of the gain. Janet herself had failed to lure Edwin into the house. He was so easy to approach and so difficult to catch. Janet was slightly piqued.

As for Edwin, he was postponing the execution of all his good resolutions until he should be installed in the new house. He could not achieve highly difficult tasks under conditions of expectancy and derangement. The whole Clayhanger premises were in a suppressed state of being packed up. In a week the removal would occur. Until the removal was over and the new order was established Edwin felt that he could still conscientiously allow his timidity to govern him, and so he had remained in his shell. The sole herald of the new order was the new suit.

“Oh! I can’t come — not to-night.”

“Why not?”

“We’re so busy.”

“Bosh to that!”

“Some other night.”

“No. I’m going back tomorrow. Must. Now look here, old man, come on. I shall be very disappointed if you don’t.”

Edwin wondered why he could not accept and be done with it, instead of persisting in a sequence of insincere and even lying hesitations. But he could not.

“That’s all right,” said Charlie, as if clinching the affair. Then he lowered his voice to a scarce audible confidential whisper. “Fine girl staying up there just now!” His eyes sparkled.

“Oh! At your place?” Edwin adopted the same cautious tone. Stifford, outside, strained his ears — in vain. The magic word ‘girl’ had in an instant thrown the shop into agitation. The shop was no longer provincial; it became a part of the universal.

“Yes. Haven’t you seen her about?”

“No. Who is she?”

“Oh! Friend of Janet’s. Hilda Lessways, her name is. I don’t know much of her myself.”

“Bit of all right, is she?” Edwin tried in a whisper to be a man of vast experience and settled views. He tried to whisper as though he whispered about women every day of his life. He thought that these Londoners were terrific on the subject of women, and he did his best to reach their level. He succeeded so well that Charlie, who, as a man, knew more of London than of the provinces, thought that after all London was nothing in comparison to the seeming-quiet provinces. Charlie leaned back in his chair, drew down the corners of his mouth, nodded his head knowingly, and then quite spoiled the desired effect of doggishness by his delightfully candid smile. Neither of them had the least intention of disrespect towards the fine girl who was on their lips.

Four.

Edwin said to himself: “Is it possible that he has come down specially to see this Hilda?” He thought enviously of Charlie as a free bird of the air.

“What’s she like?” Edwin inquired.

“You come up and see,” Charlie retorted.

“Not to-night,” said the fawn, in spite of Edwin.

“You come to-night, or I perish in the attempt,” said Charlie, in his natural voice. This phrase from their school-days made them both laugh again. They were now apparently as intimate as ever they had been.

“All right,” said Edwin. “I’ll come.”

“Sure?”

“Yes.”

“Come for a sort of supper at eight.”

“Oh!” Edwin drew back. “Supper? I didn’t — Suppose I come after supper for a bit?”

“Suppose you don’t!” Charlie snorted, sticking his chin out. “I’m off now. Must.”

They stood a moment together at the door of the shop, in the declining warmth of the summer afternoon, mutually satisfied.

“So-long!”

“So-long!”

The Sunday elegantly departed. Edwin had given his word, and he felt as he might have felt had surgeons just tied him to the operating-table. Nevertheless he was not ill-pleased with his own demeanour in front of Charlie. And he liked Charlie as much as ever. He should rely on Charlie as a support during this adventure into the worldly regions peopled by fine girls. He pictured this Hilda as being more romantic and strange than Janet Orgreave; he pictured her as mysteriously superior. And he was afraid of his own image of her.

At tea in the dismantled sitting-room, though he was going out to supper, he ate quite as much tea as usual, from sheer poltroonery. He said as casually as he could —

“By the way, Charlie Orgreave called this afternoon.”

“Did he?” said Maggie.

“He’s off back to London tomorrow. He would have me slip up there to-night to see him.”

“And shall you?”

“I think so,” said Edwin, with an appearance of indecision. “I may as well.”

It was the first time that there had ever been question of him visiting a private house, except his aunt’s, at night. To him the moment marked an epoch, the inception of freedom; but the phlegmatic Maggie showed no sign of excitement —(“Clara would have gone into a fit!” he reflected)— and his father only asked a casual question about Charlie.

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