Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Nine.

In the Porch.

When the front door of the Orgreaves interposed itself that night between Edwin and a little group of gas-lit faces, he turned away towards the warm gloom of the garden in a state of happy excitement. He had left fairly early, despite protests, because he wished to give his father no excuse for a spectacular display of wrath; Edwin’s desire for a tranquil existence was growing steadily. But now that he was in the open air, he did not want to go home. He wanted to be in full possession of himself, at leisure and in freedom, and to examine the treasure of his sensations. “It’s been rather quiet,” the Orgreaves had said. “We generally have people dropping in.” Quiet! It was the least quiet evening he had ever spent.

He was intoxicated; not with wine, though he had drunk wine. A group of well-intentioned philanthropists, organised into a powerful society for combating the fearful evils of alcoholism, had seized Edwin at the age of twelve and made him bind himself with solemn childish signature and ceremonies never to taste alcohol save by doctor’s orders. He thought of this pledge in the garden of the Orgreaves. “Damned rot!” he murmured, and dismissed the pledge from his mind as utterly unimportant, if not indeed fatuous. No remorse! The whole philosophy of asceticism inspired him, at that moment, with impatient scorn. It was the hope of pleasure that intoxicated him, the vision which he had had of the possibilities of being really interested in life. He saw new avenues toward joy, and the sight thereof made him tingle, less with the desire to be immediately at them than with the present ecstasy of contemplating them. He was conscious of actual physical tremors and agreeable smartings in his head; electric disturbances. But he did not reason; he felt. He was passive, not active. He would not even, just then, attempt to make new plans. He was in a beatitude, his mouth unaware that it was smiling.

Two.

Behind him was the lighted house; in front the gloom of the lawn ending in shrubberies and gates, with a street-lamp beyond. And there was silence, save for the vast furnace-breathings, coming over undulating miles, which the people of the Five Towns, hearing them always, never hear. A great deal of diffused light filtered through the cloudy sky. The warm wandering airs were humid on the cheek. He must return home. He could not stand dreaming all the night in the garden of the Orgreaves. To his right uprose the great rectangular mass of his father’s new house, entirely free of scaffolding, having all the aspect of a house inhabited. It looked enormous. He was proud of it. In such an abode, and so close to the Orgreaves, what could he not do?

Why go to gaze on it again? There was no common sense in doing so. And yet he felt: “I must have another glance at it before I go home.” From his attitude towards it, he might have been the creator of that house. That house was like one of his more successful drawings. When he had done a drawing that he esteemed, he was always looking at it. He would look at it before running down to breakfast; and after breakfast, instead of going straight to the shop, he would rush upstairs to have still another look at it. The act of inspection gave him pleasure. So with the house. Strange, superficially; but the simple explanation was that for some things he had the eyes of love . . . Yes, in his dancing and happy brain the impulse to revisit the house was not to be conquered.

The few battered yards of hedge between his father’s land and that of Mr Orgreave seemed more passable in the night. He crunched along the gravel, stepped carefully with noiseless foot on the flower-bed, and then pushed himself right through the frail bushes, forgetting the respect due to his suit. The beginning of summer had dried the sticky clay of the new garden; paths had already been traced on it, and trenches cut for the draining of the lawn that was to be. Edwin in the night saw the new garden finished, mellow, blooming with such blossoms as were sold in Saint Luke’s Market; he had scarcely ever seen flowers growing in the mass. He saw himself reclining in the garden with a rare and beautiful book in his hand, while the sound of Beethoven’s music came to him through the open window of the drawing-room. In so far as he saw Maggie at all, he saw her somehow mysteriously elegant and vivacious He did not see his father. His fancy had little relation to reality. But this did not mar his pleasure . . . Then he saw himself talking over the hedge, wittily, to amiable and witty persons in the garden of the Orgreaves.

Three.

He had not his key to the new house, but he knew a way of getting into it through the cellar. No reason in doing so; nevertheless he must get into it, must localise his dream in it! He crouched down under the blank east wall, and, feet foremost, disappeared slowly, as though the house were swallowing him. He stood on the stillage of the cellar, and struck a match. Immense and weird, the cellar; and the doorless doorway, leading to the cellar steps, seemed to lead to affrighting matters. He was in the earth, in it, with the smells of damp mortar and of bricks and of the earth itself about him, and above him rose the house, a room over him, and a room over that and another over that, and then the chimney-cowl up in the sky. He jumped from the stillage, and went quickly to the doorway and saw the cellar steps. His heart was beating. He trembled, he was afraid, exquisitely afraid, acutely conscious of himself amid the fundamental mysteries of the universe. He reached the top of the steps as the match expired. After a moment he could distinguish the forms of things in the hall, even the main features of the pattern of the tiles. The small panes in the glazed front door, whose varied tints repeated those of the drawing-room window in daytime, now showed a uniform dull grey, lifeless. The cellar was formidable below, and the stairs curved upwards into the formidable. But he climbed them. The house seemed full of inexplicable noises. When he stopped to listen he could hear scores of different infinitesimal sounds. His spine thrilled, as if a hand delicate and terrible had run down it in a caress. All the unknown of the night and of the universe was pressing upon him, but it was he alone who had created the night and the universe. He reached his room, the room in which he meant to inaugurate the new life and the endeavour towards perfection. Already, after his manner, he had precisely settled where the bed was to be, and where the table, and all the other objects of his world. There he would sit and read rare and beautiful books in the original French! And there he would sit to draw! And to the right of the hearth over bookshelves would be such and such a picture, and to the left of the hearth over bookshelves such and such another picture . . . Only, now, he could not dream in the room as he had meant to dream; because beyond the open door was the empty landing and the well of the stairs and all the terror of the house. The terror came and mingled with the delicious sensations that had seized him in the solitude of the garden of the Orgreaves. No! Never had he been so intensely alive as then!

He went cautiously to the window and looked forth. Instantly the terror of the house was annihilated. It fell away, was gone. He was not alone in his fancy-created universe. The reassuring illusion of reality came back like a clap of thunder. He could see a girl insinuating herself through the gap in the hedge which he had made ten minutes earlier.

Four.

“What the deuce is she after?” he muttered. He wondered whether, if she happened to glance upwards, she would be able to see him. He stood away a little from the window, but as in the safer position he could no longer distinguish her he came again close to the glass. After all, there could be no risk of her seeing him. And if she did see him — the fright would be hers, not his.

Having passed through the hedge, she stopped, bent down, leaning backward and to one side, and lifted the hem of her skirt to examine it; possibly it was torn; then she dropped it. By that black, tight skirt and by something in her walk he knew she was Hilda; he could not decipher her features. She moved towards the new house, very slowly, as if she had emerged for an aimless nocturnal stroll. Strange and disquieting creature! He peered as far as he could leftwards, to see the west wall of Lane End House. In a window of the upper floor a light burned. The family had doubtless gone to bed, or were going . . . And she had wandered forth solitary and was trespassing in his garden. “Cheek!” If ever he got an opportunity he should mysteriously tease her on the subject of illegal night excursions! Yes, he should be very witty and ironic. “Nothing but cheek!” He was confirmed in his hostility to her. She had no charm, and yet the entire Orgreave family was apparently infatuated about her. Her interruption on behalf of Victor Hugo seemed to be savage. Girls ought not to use that ruthless tone. And her eyes were hard, even cruel. She was less feminine than masculine. Her hair was not like a girl’s hair.

She still came on, until the projecting roof of the bay-window beneath him hid her from sight. He would have opened his window and leaned out to glimpse her, could he have done so without noise. Where was she? In the garden porch? She did not reappear. She might be capable of getting into the house! She might even then actually be getting into the house! She was queer, incalculable. Supposing that she was in the habit of surreptitiously visiting the house, and had found a key to fit one of the doors, or supposing that she could push up a window — she would doubtless mount the stairs and trap him! Absurd, these speculations; as absurd as a nightmare! But they influenced his conduct. He felt himself forced to provide against the wildest hazards. Abruptly he departed from the bedroom and descended the stairs, stamping, clumping, with all possible noise; in addition he whistled. This was to warn her to fly. He stopped in the hall until she had had time to fly, and then he lit a match as a signal which surely no carelessness could miss. He could have gone direct by the front door into the street, so leaving her to her odd self; but, instead, he drew back the slip-catch of the garden door and opened it, self-consciously humming a tune.

She was within the porch. She turned deliberately to look at him. He could feel his heart-beats. His cheeks burned, and yet he was chilled.

“Who’s there?” he asked. But he did not succeed to his own satisfaction in acting alarmed surprise.

“Me!” said Hilda, challengingly, rudely.

“Oh!” he murmured, at a loss. “Did you want me? Did any one want me?”

“Yes,” she said. “I just wanted to ask you something,” she paused. He could not see her scowling, but it seemed to him that she must be. He remembered that she had rather thick eyebrows, and that when she brought them nearer together by a frown, they made almost one continuous line, the effect of which was not attractive.

“Did you know I was in here?”

“Yes. That’s my bedroom window over there — I’ve left the gas up — and I saw you get through the hedge. So I came down. They’d all gone off to bed except Tom, and I told him I was just going a walk in the garden for a bit. They never worry me, you know. They let me alone. I knew you’d got into the house, by the light.”

“But I only struck a match a second ago,” he protested.

“Excuse me,” she said coldly; “I saw a light quite five minutes ago.”

“Oh yes!” he apologised. “I remember. When I came up the cellar steps.”

“I dare say you think it’s very queer of me,” she continued.

“Not at all,” he said quickly.

“Yes you do,” she bitterly insisted. “But I want to know. Did you mean it when you said — you know, at supper — that there’s no virtue in believing?”

“Did I say there was no virtue in believing?” he stammeringly demanded.

“Of course you did!” she remonstrated. “Do you mean to say you can say a thing like that and then forget about it? If it’s true, it’s one of the most wonderful things that were ever said. And that’s why I wanted to know if you meant it or whether you were only saying it because it sounded clever. That’s what they’re always doing in that house, you know, being clever!” Her tone was invariably harsh.

“Yes,” he said simply, “I meant it. Why?”

“You did?” Her voice seemed to search for insincerity. “Well, thank you. That’s all. It may mean a new life to me. I’m always trying to believe; always! Aren’t you?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled. “How do you mean?”

“Well — you know!” she said, as if impatiently smashing his pretence of not understanding her. “But perhaps you do believe?”

He thought he detected scorn for a facile believer. “No,” he said, “I don’t.”

“And it doesn’t worry you? Honestly? Don’t be clever! I hate that!”

“No,” he said.

“Don’t you ever think about it?”

“No. Not often.”

“Charlie does.”

“Has he told you?” (“So she talks to the Sunday too!” he reflected.)

“Yes; but of course I quite see why it doesn’t worry you — if you honestly think there’s no virtue in believing.”

“Well,” said Edwin. “Is there?” The more he looked at it through her eyes, the more wonderful profundities he discovered in that remark of his, which at the time of uttering it had appeared to him a simple platitude. It went exceedingly deep in many directions.

“I hope you are right,” she replied. Her voice shook.

Five.

There was silence. To ease the strain of his self-consciousness Edwin stepped down from the stone floor of the porch to the garden. He felt rain. And he noticed that the sky was very much darker.

“By Jove!” he said. “It’s beginning to rain, I do believe.”

“I thought it would,” she answered.

A squall of wind suddenly surged rustling through the high trees in the garden of the Orgreaves, and the next instant threw a handful of wild raindrops on his cheek.

“You’d better stand against the other wall,” he suggested. “You’ll catch it there, if it keeps on.”

She obeyed. He returned to the porch, but remained in the exposed portion of it.

“Better come here,” she said, indicating somehow her side.

“Oh! I’m all right.”

“You needn’t be afraid of me,” she snapped.

He grinned awkwardly, but said nothing, for he could not express his secret resentment. He considered the girl to be of exceedingly unpleasant manners.

“Would you mind telling me the time?” she asked.

He took out his watch, but peer as he might, he could not discern the position of the hands.

“Half a second,” he said, and struck a match. The match was blown out before he could look at the dial, but by its momentary flash he saw Hilda, pressed against the wall. Her lips were tight, her eyes blazing, her hands clenched. She frowned; she was pale, and especially pale by contrast with the black of her plain austere dress.

“If you’ll come into the house,” he said, “I can get a light there.” The door was ajar.

“No thanks,” she declined. “It doesn’t really matter what time it is, does it? Good night!”

He divined that she was offering her hand. He clasped it blindly in the dark. He could not refuse to shake hands. Her hand gave his a feverish and lingering squeeze, which was like a contradicting message in the dark night; as though she were sending through her hand a secret denial of her spoken accents and her frown. He forgot to answer her ‘good night.’ A trap rattled furiously up the road. (Yes; only six yards off, on the other side of the boundary wall, was the public road! And he standing hidden there in the porch with this girl whom he had seen for the first time that evening!) It was the mail-cart, rushing to Knype.

She did not move. She had said ‘good night’ and shaken hands; and yet she remained. They stood speechless.

Then without warning, after perhaps a minute that seemed like ten minutes, she walked away, slowly, into the rain. And as she did so, Edwin could just see her straightening her spine and throwing back her shoulders with a proud gesture.

“I say, Miss Lessways!” he called in a low voice. But he had no notion of what he wanted to say. Only her departure had unlocked his throat.

She made no sign. Again he grinned awkwardly, a little ashamed of her and a little ashamed of himself, because neither had behaved as woman or man of the world.

After a short interval he followed in her steps as far as the gap in the hedge, which he did not find easily. There was no sign of her. The gas burned serenely in her bedroom, and the window was open. Then he saw the window close up a little, and an arm in front of the drawn blind. The rain had apparently ceased.

Six.

“Well, that’s an eye-opener, that is!” he murmured, and thereby expressed the situation. “Of all the damned impudence!” He somewhat overstated his feelings, because he was posing a little to himself: an accident that sooner or later happens to every man! “And she’ll go back and make out to Master Tom that she’s just had a stroll in the garden! Garden, indeed! And yet they’re all so fearfully stuck on her.”

He nodded his head several times reflectively, as if saying, “Well, well! What next?” And he murmured aloud: “So that’s how they carry on, is it!” He meant, of course, women . . . He was very genuinely astounded.

But the chief of all his acute sensations in that moment was pride: sheer pride. He thought, what ninety-nine men out of a hundred would have thought in such circumstances: “She’s taken a fancy to me!” Useless to call him a conceited coxcomb, from disgust that he did not conform to a sentimentally idealistic standard! He thought: “She’s taken a fancy to me!” And he was not a conceited coxcomb. He exulted in the thought. Nothing had ever before so startled and uplifted him. It constituted the supreme experience of his career as a human being. The delightful and stimulating experience of his evening in the house of the Orgreaves sank into unimportance by the side of it. The new avenues towards joy which had been revealed to him appeared now to be quite unexciting paths; he took them for granted. And he forgot the high and serious mood of complex emotion in which he had entered the new house. Music and the exotic flavours of a foreign language seemed a little thing, in comparison with the feverish hand-clasp of the girl whom he so peculiarly disliked. The lifeless hand which he had taken in the drawing-room of the Orgreaves could not be the same hand as that which had closed intimately on his under the porch. She must have two right hands!

And, even more base than his coxcombry, he despised her because it was he, Edwin, to whom she had taken a fancy. He had not sufficient self-confidence to justify her fancy in his own eyes. His argument actually was that no girl worth having could have taken a fancy to him at sight. Thus he condemned her for her faith in him. As for his historic remark about belief — well, there might or might not be something in that; perhaps there was something in it. One instant he admired it, and the next he judged it glib and superficial. Moreover, he had conceivably absorbed it from a book. But even if it were an original epigrammatic pearl — was that an adequate reason for her following him to an empty house at dead of night? Of course, an overwhelming passion might justify such behaviour! He could recall cases in literature . . . Yes, he had got so far as to envisage the possibility of overwhelming passion . . . Then all these speculations disconcertingly vanished, and Hilda presented herself to his mind as a girl intensely religious, who would shrink from no unconventionality in the pursuit of truth. He did not much care for this theory of Hilda, nor did it convince him.

“Imagine marrying a girl like that!” he said to himself disdainfully. And he made a catalogue of her defects of person and of character. She was severe, satiric, merciless. “And I suppose — if I were to put my finger up!” Thus ran on his despicable ideas. “Janet Orgreave, now!” Janet had every quality that he could desire, that he could even think of. Janet was balm.

“You needn’t be afraid,” that unpleasant girl had said. And he had only been able to grin in reply!

Still, pride! Intense masculine pride!

There was one thing he had liked about her: that straightening of the spine and setting back of the shoulders as she left him. She had in her some tinge of the heroic.

He quitted the garden, and as soon as he was in the street he remembered that he had not pulled-to the garden door of the house. “Dash the confounded thing!” he exploded, returning. But he was not really annoyed. He would not have been really annoyed even if he had had to return from half-way down Trafalgar Road. Everything was a trifle save that a girl had run after him under such romantic circumstances. The circumstances were not strictly romantic, but they so seemed to him.

Going home, he did not meet a soul; only in the middle distance of one of the lower side streets he espied a policeman. Trafalgar Road was a solitude of bright and forlorn gas lamps and dark, excluding facades.

Suddenly he came to the corner of Wedgwood Street. He had started from Bleakridge; he had arrived at home: the interval between these two events was a perfect blank, save for the policeman. He could not recall having walked all the way down the road. And as he put the key into the door he was not in the least disturbed by the thought that his father might not have gone to bed. He went upstairs with a certain swaggering clatter, as who should say to all sleepers and bullies: “You be damned! I don’t care for any of you! Something’s happened to me.”

And he mused: “If anybody had told me this afternoon that before midnight I should —”

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