Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Seven.

Lane End House.

Here was another of those impressive square halls, on the other side of the suddenly opened door of Lane End House. But Edwin was now getting accustomed to square halls. Nevertheless he quaked as he stood on the threshold. An absurd young man! He wondered whether he would ever experience the sensation of feeling authentically grown-up. Behind him in the summer twilight lay the large oval lawn, and the gates which once had doubtless marked the end of Manor Lane — now Oak Street. And actually he had an impulse to rush back upon his steps, and bring on himself eternal shame. The servant, however, primly held him with her eyes alone, and he submitted to her sway.

“Mr Charles in?” he inquired glumly, affecting nonchalance.

The servant bowed her head with a certain condescending deference, as who should say: “Do not let us pretend that they are not expecting you.”

A door to the right opened. Janet was revealed, and, behind her, Charlie. Both were laughing. There was a sound of a piano. As soon as Charlie caught sight of Edwin he exclaimed to Janet —

“Where’s my bob?”

“Charlie!” she protested, checking her laughter.

“Why! What have I said?” Charlie inquired, with mock innocence, perceiving that he had been indiscreet, and trying to remedy his rash mistake. “Surely I can say ‘bob’!”

Edwin understood nothing of this brief passage. Janet, ignoring Charlie and dismissing the servant with an imperceptible sign, advanced to the visitor. She was dressed in white, and Edwin considered her to be extraordinarily graceful, dignified, sweet, and welcoming. There was a peculiar charm in the way in which her skirts half-reluctantly followed her along the carpet, causing beautiful curves of drapery from the waist. And her smile was so warm and so sincere! For the moment she really felt that Edwin’s presence in the house satisfied the keenest of her desires, and of course her face generously expressed what she felt.

“Well, Miss Orgreave,” Edwin grinned. “Here I am, you see!”

“And we’re delighted,” said Janet simply, taking his hand. She might have amiably teased him about the protracted difficulties of getting him. She might have hinted an agreeable petulance against the fact that the brother had succeeded where the sister had failed. Her sisterly manner to Charlie a little earlier had perhaps shown flashes of such thoughts in her mind. But no. In the presence of Edwin, Janet’s extreme good-nature forgot everything save that he was there, a stranger to be received and cherished.

“Here! Give us that tile,” said Charlie.

“Beautiful evening,” Edwin observed.

“Oh! Isn’t it!” breathed Janet, in ecstasy, and gazed from the front door into the western sky. “We were out on the lawn, but mother said it was damp. It wasn’t,” she laughed. “But if you think it’s damp, it is damp, isn’t it? Will you come and see mother? Charlie, you can leave the front door open.”

Edwin said to himself that she had all the attractiveness of a girl and of a woman. She preceded him towards the door to the right. Charlie hovered behind, on springs. Edwin, nervously pulling out his handkerchief and putting it back, had a confused vision of the hall full of little pictures, plates, stools, rugs, and old sword-sheaths. There seemed to him to be far more knick-knacks in that hall than in the whole of his father’s house; Mr Orgreave’s ingeniously contrived bookshelves were simply overlaid and smothered in knick-knacks. Janet pushed at the door, and the sound of the piano suddenly increased in volume.

Two.

There was no cessation of the music as the three entered. As it were beneath the music, Mrs Orgreave, a stout and faded calm lady, greeted him kindly: “Mr Edwin!” She was shorter than Janet, but Edwin could see Janet in her movements and in her full lips. “Well, Edwin!” said Osmond Orgreave with lazy and distinguished good-nature, shaking hands. Jimmie and Johnnie, now aged nineteen and eighteen respectively, were in the room; Johnnie was reading; their blushing awkwardness in salutation and comic efforts to be curtly benevolent in the manner of clubmen somewhat eased the tension in Edwin. They addressed him as ‘Clayhanger.’ The eldest and the youngest child of the family sat at the piano in the act of performing a duet. Tom, pale, slight, near-sighted and wearing spectacles, had reached the age of thirty-two, and was junior partner in a firm of solicitors at Hanbridge; Bursley seldom saw him. Alicia had the delightful gawkiness of twelve years. One only of the seven children was missing. Marian, aged thirty, and married in London, with two little babies; Marian was adored by all her brothers and sisters, and most by Janet, who, during visits of the married sister, fell back with worshipping joy into her original situation of second daughter.

Edwin, Charles, and Janet sat down on a sofa. It was not until after a moment that Edwin noticed an ugly young woman who sat behind the players and turned over the pages of music for them. “Surely that can’t be his wonderful Hilda!” Edwin thought. In the excitement of arrival he had forgotten the advertised Hilda. Was that she? The girl could be no other. Edwin made the reflection that all men make: “Well, it’s astonishing what other fellows like!” And, having put down Charlie several points in his esteem, he forgot Hilda.

Evidently loud and sustained conversation was not expected nor desired while the music lasted. And Edwin was glad of this. It enabled him to get his breath and his bearings in what was to him really a tremendous ordeal. And in fact he was much more agitated than even he imagined. The room itself abashed him.

Everybody, including Mr Orgreave, had said that the Clayhanger drawing-room with its bay-window was a fine apartment. But the Orgreave drawing-room had a bay-window and another large window; it was twice as big as the Clayhangers’ and of an interesting irregular shape. Although there were in it two unoccupied expanses of carpet, it nevertheless contained what seemed to Edwin immense quantities of furniture of all sorts. Easy-chairs were common, and everywhere. Several bookcases rose to the low ceiling; dozens and dozens of pictures hid the walls; each corner had its little society of objects; cushions and candlesticks abounded; the piano was a grand, and Edwin was astounded to see another piano, a small upright, in the farther distance; there were even two fireplaces, with two mirrors, two clocks, two sets of ornaments, and two embroidered screens. The general effect was of extraordinary lavish profusion — of wilful, splendid, careless extravagance.

Yet the arm of the sofa on which Edwin leaned was threadbare in two different places. The room was faded and worn, like its mistress. Like its mistress it seemed to exhale a silent and calm authority, based on historic tradition.

And the room was historic; it had been the theatre of history. For twenty-five years — ever since Tom was seven — it had witnessed the adventurous domestic career of the Orgreaves, so quiet superficially, so exciting in reality. It was the drawing-room of a man who had consistently used immense powers of industry for the satisfaction of his prodigal instincts; it was the drawing-room of a woman whose placidity no danger could disturb, and who cared for nothing if only her husband was amused. Spend and gain! And, for a change, gain and spend! That was the method. Work till sheer exhaustion beat you. Plan, scheme, devise! Satisfy your curiosity and your other instincts! Experiment! Accept risks! Buy first, order first, pledge yourself first; and then split your head in order to pay and to redeem! When chance aids you to accumulate, let the pile grow, out of mere perversity, and then scatter it royally! Play heartily! Play with the same intentness as you work! Live to the uttermost instant and to the last flicker of energy! Such was the spirit of Osmond Orgreave, and the spirit which reigned in the house generally, if not in every room of the house.

Three.

For each child had its room — except Jimmie and Johnnie, who shared one. And each room was the fortress of an egoism, the theatre of a separate drama, mysterious, and sacred from the others. Jimmie could not remember having been in Janet’s room — it was forbidden by Alicia, who was jealous of her sole right of entree — and nobody would have dreamed of violating the chamber of Jimmie and Johnnie to discover the origin of peculiar noises that puzzled the household at seven o’clock in the morning. As for Tom’s castle — it was a legend to the younger children; it was supposed to be wondrous.

All the children had always cost money, and a great deal of money, until Marian had left the family in deep gloom for her absence, and Tom, with a final wrench of a vast sum from the willing but wincing father, had settled into a remunerative profession. Tom was now keeping himself and repaying the weakened parent. The rest cost more and more every year as their minds and bodies budded and flowered. It was endless, it was staggering, it would not bear thinking about. The long and varied chronicle of it was somehow written on the drawing-room as well as on the faces of the father and mother — on the drawing-room which had the same dignified, childlike, indefatigable, invincible, jolly expression as its owners. Threadbare in places? And why not? The very identical Turkey carpet at which Edwin gazed in his self-consciousness — on that carpet Janet the queenly and mature had sprawled as an infant while her mother, a fresh previous Janet of less than thirty, had cooed and said incomprehensible foolishness to her. Tom was patriarchal because he had vague memories of an earlier drawing-room, misted in far antiquity. Threadbare? By heaven, its mere survival was magnificent! I say that it was a miraculous drawing-room. Its chairs were humanised. Its little cottage piano that nobody ever opened now unless Tom had gone mad on something for two pianos, because it was so impossibly tinny — the cottage piano could humanly recall the touch of a perfect baby when Marian the wife sat down to it. Marian was one of your silly sentimental nice things; on account of its associations, she really preferred the cottage piano to the grand. The two carpets were both resigned, grim old humanities, used to dirty heels, and not caring, or pretending not to care. What did the curtains know of history? Naught. They were always new; they could not last. But even the newest curtains would at once submit to the influence of the room, and take on something of its physiognomy, and help to express its comfortableness. You could not hang a week in front of one of those windows without being subtly informed by the tradition of adventurous happiness that presided over the room. It was that: a drawing-room in which a man and a woman, and boys and girls, had been on the whole happy, if often apprehensive.

Four.

The music began to engage Edwin’s attention. It was music of a kind quite novel to him. Most of it had no meaning for him, but at intervals some fragment detached itself from the mass, and stood out beautiful. It was as if he were gazing at a stage in gloom, but lighted momentarily by fleeting rays that revealed a lovely detail and were bafflingly cut off. Occasionally he thought he noticed a recurrence of the same fragment. Murmurs came from behind the piano. He looked cautiously. Alicia was making faces of alarm and annoyance. She whispered: “Oh dear! . . . It’s no use! . . . We’re all wrong, I’m sure!” Tom kept his eyes on the page in front of him, doggedly playing. Then Edwin was conscious of dissonances. And then the music stopped.

“Now, Alicia,” her father protested mildly, “you mustn’t be nervous.”

“Nervous!” exclaimed Alicia. “Tom’s just as nervous as I am! So he needn’t talk.” She was as red as a cock’s crest.

Tom was not talking. He pointed several times violently to a place on Alicia’s half of the open book — she was playing the bass part. “There! There!” The music recommenced.

“She’s always nervous like that,” Janet whispered kindly, “when any one’s here. But she doesn’t like to be told.”

“She plays splendidly,” Edwin responded. “Do you play?”

Janet shook her head.

“Yes, she does,” Charlie whispered.

“Keep on, darling. You’re at the end now.” Edwin heard a low, stern voice. That must be the voice of Hilda. A second later, he looked across, and surprised her glance, which was intensely fixed on himself. She dropped her eyes quickly; he also.

Then he felt by the nature of the chords that the piece was closing. The music ceased. Mr Orgreave clapped his hands. “Bravo! Bravo!”

“Why,” cried Charlie to the performers, “you weren’t within ten bars of each other!” And Edwin wondered how Charlie could tell that. As for him, he did not know enough of music to be able to turn over the pages for others. He felt himself to be an ignoramus among a company of brilliant experts.

“Well,” said Mr Orgreave, “I suppose we may talk a bit now. It’s more than our place is worth to breathe aloud while these Rubinsteins are doing Beethoven!” He looked at Edwin, who grinned.

“Oh! My word!” smiled Mrs Orgreave, supporting her hand.

“Beethoven, is it?” Edwin muttered. He was acquainted only with the name, and had never heard it pronounced as Mr Orgreave pronounced it.

“One symphony a night!” Mr Orgreave said, with irony. “And we’re only at the second, it seems. Seven more to come; What do you think of that, Edwin?”

“Very fine!”

“Let’s have the ‘Lost Chord,’ Janet,” Mr Orgreave suggested.

There was a protesting chorus of “Oh, dad!”

“Very well! Very well!” the father murmured, acting humility. “I’m snubbed!”

Tom had now strolled across the room, smiling to himself, and looking at the carpet, in an effort to behave as one who had done nothing in particular.

“How d’ye do, Clayhanger?” He greeted Edwin, and grasped his hand in a feverish clutch. “You must excuse us. We aren’t used to audiences. That’s the worst of being rotten amateurs.”

Edwin rose. “Oh!” he deprecated. He had never spoken to Tom Orgreave before, but Tom seemed ready to treat him at once as an established acquaintance.

Then Alicia had to come forward and shake hands. She could not get a word out.

“Now, baby!” Charlie teased her.

She tossed her mane, and found refuge by her mother’s side. Mrs Orgreave caressed the mane into order.

“This is Miss Lessways. Hilda — Mr Edwin Clayhanger.” Janet drew the dark girl towards her as the latter hovered uncertainly in the middle of the room, her face forced into the look of elaborate negligence conventionally assumed by every self-respecting person who waits to be introduced. She took Edwin’s hand limply, and failed to meet his glance. Her features did not soften. Edwin was confirmed in the impression of her obdurate ugliness. He just noticed her olive skin and black eyes and hair. She was absolutely different in type from any of the Clayhangers. The next instant she and Charlie were talking together.

Edwin felt the surprised relief of one who has plunged into the sea and discovers himself fairly buoyant on the threatening waves.

“Janet,” asked Mrs Orgreave, “will supper be ready?”

In the obscurer corners of the room grey shadows gathered furtively, waiting their time.

Five.

“Seen my latest, Charlie?” asked Tom, in his thin voice.

“No, what is it?” Charlie replied. The younger brother was flattered by this proof of esteem from the elder, but he did his best by casualness of tone to prevent the fact from transpiring.

All the youths were now standing in a group in the middle of the drawing-room. Their faces showed pale and more distinct than their bodies in the darkening twilight. Mrs Orgreave, her husband, and the girls had gone into the dining-room.

Tom Orgreave, with the gestures of a precisian, drew a bunch of keys from his pocket, and unlocked a rosewood bookcase that stood between the two windows. Jimmie winked to Johnnie, and included Edwin in the fellowship of the wink, which meant that Tom was more comic than Tom thought, with his locked bookcases and his simple vanities of a collector. Tom collected books. As Edwin gazed at the bookcase he perceived that it was filled mainly with rich bindings. And suddenly all his own book-buying seemed to him petty and pitiful. He saw books in a new aspect. He had need of no instruction, of no explanation. The amorous care with which Tom drew a volume from the bookcase was enough in itself to enlighten Edwin completely. He saw that a book might be more than reading matter, might be a bibelot, a curious jewel, to satisfy the lust of the eye and of the hand. He instantly condemned his own few books as being naught; he was ashamed of them. Each book in that bookcase was a separate treasure.

“See this, my boy?” said Tom, handing to Charlie a calf-bound volume, with a crest on the sides. “Six volumes. Picked them up at Stafford — Assizes, you know. It’s the Wilbraham crest. I never knew they’d been selling their library.”

Charlie accepted the book with respect. Its edges were gilt, and the paper thin and soft. Edwin looked over his shoulder, and saw the title-page of Victor Hugo’s “Notre–Dame de Paris,” in French. The volume had a most romantic, foreign, even exotic air. Edwin desired it fervently, or something that might rank equal with it.

“How much did they stick you for this lot?” asked Charlie.

Tom held up one finger.

“Quid?” Charlie wanted to be sure. Tom nodded.

“Cheap as dirt, of course!” said Tom. “Binding’s worth more than that. Look at the other volumes. Look at them!”

“Pity it’s only a second edition,” said Charlie.

“Well, damn it, man! One can’t have everything.”

Charlie passed the volume to Edwin, who fingered it with the strangest delight. Was it possible that this exquisitely delicate and uncustomary treasure, which seemed to exhale all the charm of France and the savour of her history, had been found at Stafford? He had been to Stafford himself. He had read “Notre–Dame” himself, but in English, out of a common book like any common book — not out of a bibelot.

“You’ve read it, of course, Clayhanger?” Tom said.

“Oh!” Edwin answered humbly. “Only in a translation.” Yet there was a certain falseness in his humility, for he was proud of having read the work. What sort of a duffer would he have appeared had he been obliged to reply ‘No’?

“You ought to read French in French,” said Tom, kindly authoritative.

“Can’t,” said Edwin.

“Bosh!” Charlie cried. “You were always spiffing in French. You could simply knock spots off me.”

“And do you read French in French, the Sunday?” Edwin asked.

“Well,” said Charlie, “I must say it was Thomas put me up to it. You simply begin to read, that’s all. What you don’t understand, you miss. But you soon understand. You can always look at a dictionary if you feel like it. I usually don’t.”

“I’m sure you could read French easily in a month,” said Tom. “They always gave a good grounding at Oldcastle. There’s simply nothing in it.”

“Really!” Edwin murmured, relinquishing the book. “I must have a shot, I never thought of it.” And he never thought of reading French for pleasure. He had construed Xavier de Maistre’s “Voyage autour de ma Chambre” for marks, assuredly not for pleasure. “Are there any books in this style to be got on that bookstall in Hanbridge Market?” he inquired of Tom.

“Sometimes,” said Tom, wiping his spectacles. “Oh yes!”

It was astounding to Edwin how blind he had been to the romance of existence in the Five Towns.

“It’s all very well,” observed Charlie reflectively, fingering one or two of the other volumes —“it’s all very well, and Victor Hugo is Victor Hugo; but you can say what you like — there’s a lot of this that’ll bear skipping, your worships.”

“Not a line!” said a passionate, vibrating voice.

The voice so startled and thrilled Edwin that he almost jumped, as he looked round. To Edwin it was dramatic; it was even dangerous and threatening. He had never heard a quiet voice so charged with intense emotion. Hilda Lessways had come back to the room, and she stood near the door, her face gleaming in the dusk. She stood like an Amazonian defender of the aged poet. Edwin asked himself, “Can any one be so excited as that about a book?” The eyes, lips, and nostrils were a revelation to him. He could feel his heart beating. But the girl strongly repelled him. Nobody else appeared to be conscious that anything singular had occurred. Jimmie and Johnnie sidled out of the room.

“Oh! Indeed!” Charlie directed his candid and yet faintly ironic smile upon Hilda Lessways. “Don’t you think that some of it’s dullish, Teddy?”

Edwin blushed. “Well, ye-es,” he answered, honestly judicial.

“Mrs Orgreave wants to know when you’re coming to supper,” said Hilda, and left.

Tom was relocking the bookcase.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/clayhanger/book2.7.html

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