Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Eight.

The Family Supper.

“Now father, let’s have a bottle of wine, eh?” Charlie vociferously suggested.

Mr Orgreave hesitated: “You’d better ask your mother.”

“Really, Charlie —” Mrs Orgreave began.

“Oh yes!” Charlie cut her short. “Right you are, Martha!”

The servant, who had stood waiting for a definite command during this brief conflict of wills, glanced interrogatively at Mrs Orgreave and, perceiving no clear prohibition in her face, departed with a smile to get the wine. She was a servant of sound prestige, and had the inexpressible privilege of smiling on duty. In her time she had fought lively battles of repartee with all the children from Charlie downwards. Janet humoured Martha, and Martha humoured Mrs Orgreave.

The whole family (save absent Marian) was now gathered in the dining-room, another apartment on whose physiognomy were written in cipher the annals of the vivacious tribe. Here the curtains were drawn, and all the interest of the room centred on the large white gleaming table, about which the members stood or sat under the downward radiance of a chandelier. Beyond the circle illuminated by the shaded chandelier could be discerned dim forms of furniture and of pictures, with a glint of high light here and there burning on the corner of some gold frame. Mr and Mrs Orgreave sat at either end of the table. Alicia stood by her father, with one arm half round his neck. Tom sat near his mother. Janet and Hilda sat together, flanked by Jimmie and Johnnie, who stood, having pushed chairs away. Charlie and Edwin stood opposite. The table seemed to Edwin to be heaped with food: cold and yet rich remains of bird and beast; a large fruit pie, opened; another intact; some puddings; cheese; sandwiches; raw fruit; at Janet’s elbow were cups and saucers and a pot of coffee; a large glass jug of lemonade shone near by; plates, glasses, and cutlery were strewn about irregularly. The effect upon Edwin was one of immense and careless prodigality; it intoxicated him; it made him feel that a grand profuseness was the finest thing in life. In his own home the supper consisted of cheese, bread, and water, save on Sundays, when cold sausages were generally added, to make a feast. But the idea of the price of living as the Orgreaves lived seriously startled the prudence in him. Imagine that expense always persisting, day after day, night after night! There were certainly at least four in the family who bought clothes at Shillitoe’s, and everybody looked elaborately costly, except Hilda Lessways, who did not flatter the eye. But equally, they all seemed quite unconscious of their costliness.

“Now, Charlie darling, you must look after Mr Edwin,” said Mrs Orgreave.

“She never calls us darling,” said Johnnie, affecting disgust.

“She will, as soon as you’ve left home,” said Janet, ironically soothing.

“I do, I often do!” Mrs Orgreave asserted. “Much oftener than you deserve.”

“Sit down, Teddy,” Charlie enjoined.

“Oh! I’m all right, thanks,” said Edwin.

“Sit down!” Charlie insisted, using force.

“Do you talk to your poor patients in that tone?” Alicia inquired, from the shelter of her father.

“Here I come down specially to see them,” Charlie mused aloud, as he twisted the corkscrew into the cork of the bottle, unceremoniously handed to him by Martha, “and not only they don’t offer to pay my fares, but they grudge me a drop of claret! Plupp!” He grimaced as the cork came out. “And my last night, too! Hilda, this is better than coffee, as Saint Paul remarked on a famous occasion. Pass your glass.”

“Charlie!” his mother protested. “I’ll thank you to leave Saint Paul out.”

“Charlie! Your mother will be boxing your ears if you don’t mind,” his father warned him.

“I’ll not have it!” said his mother, shaking her head in a fashion that she imagined to be harsh and forbidding.

Two.

Towards the close of the meal, Mr Orgreave said —

“Well, Edwin, what does your father say about Bradlaugh?”

“He doesn’t say much,” Edwin replied.

“Let me see, does he call himself a Liberal?”

“He calls himself a Liberal,” said Edwin, shifting on his chair. “Yes, he calls himself a Liberal. But I’m afraid he’s a regular old Tory.”

Edwin blushed, laughing, as half the family gave way to more or less violent mirth.

“Father’s a regular old Tory too,” Charlie grinned.

“Oh! I’m sorry,” said Edwin.

“Yes, father’s a regular old Tory,” agreed Mr Orgreave. “Don’t apologise! Don’t apologise! I’m used to these attacks. I’ve been nearly kicked out of my own house once. But some one has to keep the flag flying.”

It was plain that Mr Orgreave enjoyed the unloosing of the hurricane which he had brought about. Mrs Orgreave used to say that he employed that particular tone from a naughty love of mischief. In a moment all the boys were upon him, except Jimmie, who, out of sheer intellectual snobbery, as the rest averred, supported his father. Atheistical Bradlaugh had been exciting the British public to disputation for a long time, and the Bradlaugh question happened then to be acute. In that very week the Northampton member had been committed to custody for outraging Parliament, and released. And it was known that Gladstone meant immediately to bring in a resolution for permitting members to affirm, instead of taking oath by appealing to a God. Than this complication of theology and politics nothing could have been better devised to impassion an electorate which had but two genuine interests — theology and politics. The rumour of the feverish affair had spread to the most isolated communities. People talked theology, and people talked politics, who had till then only felt silently on these subjects. In loquacious families Bradlaugh caused dissension and division, more real perhaps than apparent, for not all Bradlaugh’s supporters had the courage to avow themselves such. It was not easy, at any rate it was not easy in the Five Towns, for a timid man in reply to the question, “Are you in favour of a professed Freethinker sitting in the House of Commons?” to reply, “Yes, I am.” There was something shameless in that word ‘professed.’ If the Freethinker had been ashamed of his freethinking, if he had sought to conceal it in phrases — the implication was that the case might not have been so bad. This was what astonished Edwin: the candour with which Bradlaugh’s position was upheld in the dining-room of the Orgreaves. It was as if he were witnessing deeds of wilful perilous daring.

But the conversation was not confined to Bradlaugh, for Bradlaugh was not a perfect test for separating Liberals and Tories. Nobody in the room, for example, was quite convinced that Mr Orgreave was anti-Bradlaugh. To satisfy their instincts for father-baiting, the boys had to include other topics, such as Ireland and the proposal for Home Rule. As for Mr Orgreave, he could and did always infuriate them by refusing to answer seriously. The fact was that this was his device for maintaining his prestige among the turbulent mob. Dignified and brilliantly clever as Osmond Orgreave had the reputation of being in the town, he was somehow outshone in cleverness at home, and he never put the bar of his dignity between himself and his children. Thus he could only keep the upper hand by allowing hints to escape from him of the secret amusement roused in him by the comicality of the spectacle of his filial enemies. He had one great phrase, which he would drawl out at them with the accents of a man who is trying politely to hide his contempt: “You’ll learn better as you get older.”

Three.

Edwin, who said little, thought the relationship between father and sons utterly delightful. He had not conceived that parents and children ever were or could be on such terms.

“Now what do you say, Edwin?” Mr Orgreave asked. “Are you a — Charlie, pass me that bottle.”

Charlie was helping himself to another glass of wine. The father, the two elder sons, and Edwin alone had drunk of the wine. Edwin had never tasted wine in his life, and the effect of half a glass on him was very agreeable and strange.

“Oh, dad! I just want a —” Charlie objected, holding the bottle in the air above his glass.

“Charlie,” said his mother, “do you hear your father?”

“Pass me that bottle,” Mr Orgreave repeated.

Charlie obeyed, proclaiming himself a martyr. Mr Orgreave filled his own glass, emptying the bottle, and began to sip.

“This will do me more good than you, young man,” he said. Then turning again to Edwin: “Are you a Bradlaugh man?”

And Edwin, uplifted, said: “All I say is — you can’t help what you believe. You can’t make yourself believe anything. And I don’t see why you should, either. There’s no virtue in believing.”

“Hooray,” cried the sedate Tom.

“No virtue in believing! Eh, Mr Edwin! Mr Edwin!”

This sad expostulation came from Mrs Orgreave.

“Don’t you see what I mean?” he persisted vivaciously, reddening. But he could not express himself further.

“Hooray!” repeated Tom.

Mrs Orgreave shook her head, with grieved good-nature.

“You mustn’t take mother too seriously,” said Janet, smiling. “She only puts on that expression to keep worse things from being said. She’s only pretending to be upset. Nothing could upset her, really. She’s past being upset — she’s been through so much — haven’t you, you poor dear?”

In looking at Janet, Edwin caught the eyes of Hilda blazing on him fixedly. Her head seemed to tremble, and he glanced away. She had added nothing to the discussion. And indeed Janet herself had taken no part in the politics, content merely to advise the combatants upon their demeanour.

“So you’re against me too, Edwin!” Mr Orgreave sighed with mock melancholy. “Well, this is no place for me.” He rose, lifted Alicia and put her into his arm-chair, and then went towards the door.

“You aren’t going to work, are you, Osmond?” his wife asked, turning her head.

“I am,” said he.

He disappeared amid a wailing chorus of “Oh, dad!”

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