Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter One.

After a Funeral.

Four and a half years later, on a Tuesday night in April 1886, Edwin was reading in an easy-chair in his bedroom. He made a very image of solitary comfort. The easy-chair had been taken from the dining-room, silently, without permission, and Darius had apparently not noticed its removal. A deep chair designed by some one learned in the poses natural to the mortal body, it was firm where it ought to be firm, and where it ought to yield, there it yielded. By its own angles it threw the head slightly back, and the knees slightly up. Edwin’s slippered feet rested on a hassock, and in front of the hassock was a red-glowing gas-stove. That stove, like the easy-chair, had been acquired by Edwin at his father’s expense without his father’s cognisance. It consumed gas whose price swelled the quarterly bill three times a year, and Darius observed nothing. He had not even entered his son’s bedroom for several years. Each month seemed to limit further his interest in surrounding phenomena, and to centralise more completely all his faculties in his business. Over Edwin’s head the gas jet flamed through one of Darius’s special private burners, lighting the page of a little book, one of Cassell’s “National Library,” a new series of sixpenny reprints which had considerably excited the book-selling and the book-reading worlds, but which Darius had apparently quite ignored, though confronted in his house and in his shop by multitudinous examples of it. Sometimes Edwin would almost be persuaded to think that he might safely indulge any caprice whatever under his father’s nose, and then the old man would notice some unusual trifle, of no conceivable importance, and go into a passion about it, and Maggie would say quietly, “I told you what would be happening one of these days,” which would annoy Edwin. His annoyance was caused less by Maggie’s ‘I told you so,’ than by her lack of logic. If his father had ever overtaken him in some large and desperate caprice, such as the purchase of the gas-stove on the paternal account, he would have submitted in meekness to Maggie’s triumphant reminder; but his father never did. It was always upon some perfectly innocent nothing, which the timidest son might have permitted himself, that the wrath of Darius overwhelmingly burst.

Maggie and Edwin understood each other on the whole very well. Only in minor points did their sympathy fail. And as Edwin would be exasperated because Maggie’s attitude towards argument was that of a woman, so would Maggie resent a certain mulishness in him characteristic of the unfathomable stupid sex. Once a week, for example, when his room was ‘done out,’ there was invariably a skirmish between them, because Edwin really did hate anybody to ‘meddle among his things.’ The derangement of even a brush on the dressing-table would rankle in his mind. Also he was very ‘crotchety about his meals,’ and on the subject of fresh air. Unless he was sitting in a perceptible draught, he thought he was being poisoned by nitrogen: but when he could see the curtain or blind trembling in the wind he was hygienically at ease. His existence was a series of catarrhal colds, which, however, as he would learnedly explain to Maggie, could not be connected, in the brain of a reasonable person, with currents of fresh air. Maggie mutely disdained his science. This, too, fretted him. Occasionally she would somewhat tartly assert that he was a regular old maid. The accusation made no impression on him at all. But when, more than ordinarily exacerbated, she sang out that he was ‘exactly like his father,’ he felt wounded.

Two.

The appearance of his bedroom, and the fact that he enjoyed being in it alone, gave some ground for Maggie’s first accusation. A screen hid the bed, and this screen was half covered with written papers of memoranda; roughly, it divided the room into dormitory and study. The whole chamber was occupied by Edwin’s personal goods, great and small, ranged in the most careful order; it was full; in the occupation of a young man who was not precociously an old maid, it would have been littered. It was a complex and yet practical apparatus for daily use, completely organised for the production of comfort. Edwin would move about in it with the loving and assured gestures of a creator; and always he was improving its perfection. His bedroom was his passion.

Often, during the wilderness of the day, he would think of his bedroom as of a refuge, to which in the evening he should hasten. Ascending the stairs after the meal, his heart would run on in advance of his legs, and be within the room before his hand had opened the door. And then he would close the door, as upon the whole tedious world, and turn up the gas, and light the stove with an explosive plop, and settle himself. And in the first few minutes of reading he would with distinct, conscious pleasure, allow his attention to circle the room, dwelling upon piled and serried volumes, and delighting in orderliness and in convenience. And he would reflect: “This is my life. This is what I shall always live for. This is the best. And why not?” It seemed to him when he was alone in his bedroom and in the night, that he had respectably well solved the problem offered to him by destiny. He insisted to himself sharply that he was not made for marriage, that he had always known marriage to be impossible for him, that what had happened was bound to have happened. For a few weeks he had lived in a fool’s paradise: that was all . . . Fantastic scheme, mad self-deception! In such wise he thought of his love-affair. His profound satisfaction was that none except his father knew of it, and even his father did not know how far it had gone. He felt that if the town had been aware of his jilting, he could not have borne the humiliation. To himself he had been horribly humiliated; but he had recovered in his own esteem.

It was only by very slow processes, by insensible degrees, that he had arrived at the stage of being able to say to his mirror, “I’ve got over that!” And who could judge better than he? He could trace no mark of the episode in his face. Save for the detail of a moustache, it seemed to him that he had looked on precisely the same unchangeable face for a dozen years. Strange, that suffering had left no sign! Strange, that, in the months just after Hilda’s marriage, no acquaintance had taken him on one side and said, “What is the tragedy I can read on your features?”

And indeed the truth was that no one suspected. The vision of his face would remain with people long after he had passed them in the street, or spoken to them in the shop. The charm of his sadness persisted in their memory. But they would easily explain it to themselves by saying that his face had a naturally melancholy cast — a sort of accident that had happened to him in the beginning! He had a considerable reputation, of which he was imperfectly aware, for secretiveness, timidity, gentleness, and intellectual superiority. Sundry young women thought of him wistfully when smiling upon quite other young men, and would even kiss him while kissing them, according to the notorious perversity of love.

Three.

He was reading Swift’s “Tale of a Tub” eagerly, tasting with a palate consciously fastidious and yet catholic, the fine savour of a masterpiece. By his secret enthusiasm, which would escape from him at rare intervals in a word to a friend, he was continuing the reputation of the “Tale of a Tub” from one century towards the next. A classic remains a classic only because a few hundred Edwins up and down England enjoy it so heartily that their pleasure becomes religious. Edwin, according to his programme, had no right to be amusing himself with Swift at that hour. The portly Hallam, whom he found tedious, ought to have been in his hands. But Swift had caught him and would not let him go. Herein was one of the consequences of the pocketableness of Cassell’s new series. Edwin had been obliged to agree with Tom Orgreave (now a married man) that the books were not volumes for a collector; but they were so cheap, and they came from the press so often — once a week, and they could be carried so comfortably over the heart, that he could not resist most of them. His professed idea was that by their aid he could read smaller works in odd moments, at any time, thus surpassing his programme. He had not foreseen that Swift would make a breach in his programme, which was already in a bad way.

But he went on reading tranquilly, despite the damage to it; for in the immediate future shone the hope of the new life, when programmes would never be neglected. In less than a month he would be thirty years of age. At twenty, it had seemed a great age, an age of absolute maturity. Now, he felt as young and as boyish as ever, especially before his father, and he perceived that his vague early notion about the finality of such an age as thirty had been infantile. Nevertheless, the entry into another decade presented itself to him as solemn, and he meant to signalise it by new and mightier resolutions to execute vaster programmes. He was intermittently engaged, during these weeks, in the delicious, the enchanting business of constructing the ideal programme and scheming the spare hours to ensure its achievement. He lived in a dream and illusion of ultimate perfection.

Several times, despite the spell of Swift, he glanced at his watch. The hand went from nine to ten minutes past ten. And then he thought he heard the sound for which he had been listening. He jumped up, abandoned the book with its marker, opened the window wide, and lifting the blind by its rod, put his head out. Yes, he could hear the yelling afar off, over the hill, softened by distance into something gentle and attractive.

“‘Signal!’ ‘Signal!’ Special edition! ‘Signal!’” And then words incomprehensible.

It came nearer in the night.

He drew down the window, and left the room. The mere distant sound of the newsboys’ voices had roused him to a pleasing excitement. He fumbled in his pockets. He had neither a halfpenny nor a penny — it was just like him — and those newsboys with their valuable tidings would not care to halt and weigh out change with a balance.

“Got a halfpenny? Quick!” he cried, running into the kitchen, where Maggie and Mrs Nixon were engaged in some calm and endless domestic occupation amid linen that hung down whitely.

“What for?” Maggie mechanically asked, feeling the while under her apron.

“Paper,” he said.

“At this time of night? You’ll never get one at this time of night!” she said, in her simplicity.

“Come on!”

He stamped his foot with impatience. It was absolutely astonishing, the ignorance in which Maggie lived, and lived efficiently and in content. Edwin filled the house with newspapers, and she never looked at them, never had the idea of looking at them, unless occasionally at the ‘Signal’ for an account of a wedding or a bazaar. In which case she would glance at the world for an instant with mild naivete, shocked by the horrible things that were apparently going on there, and in five minutes would forget all about it again. Here the whole of England, Ireland, and Scotland was at its front doors that night waiting for newsboys, and to her the night was like any other night! Yet she read many books.

“Here’s a penny,” she said. “Don’t forget to give it me back.”

He ran out bareheaded. At the corner of the street somebody else was expectant. He could distinguish all the words now —

“‘Signal!’ Special edition! Mester Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. Full report. Gladstone’s speech. Special!”

The dark running figures approached, stopping at frequent gates, and their hoarse voices split the night. The next moment they had gone by, in a flying column, and Edwin and the other man found themselves with fluttering paper in their hands, they knew not how! It was the most unceremonious snatch-and-thrust transaction that could be imagined. Bleakridge was silent again, and its gates closed, and the shouts were descending violently into Bursley.

“Where’s father?” Maggie called out when she heard Edwin in the hall.

“Hasn’t he come in yet?” Edwin replied negligently, as he mounted the stairs with his desire.

In his room he settled himself once more under the gas, and opened the flimsy newspaper with joy. Yes, there it was — columns, columns, in small type! An hour or two previously Gladstone had been speaking in Parliament, and by magic the whole of his speech, with all the little convolutions of his intricate sentences, had got into Edwin’s bedroom. Edwin began to read, as it were voluptuously. Not that he had a peculiar interest in Irish politics! What he had was a passion for great news, for news long expected. He could thrill responsively to a fine event. I say that his pleasure had the voluptuousness of an artistic sensation.

Moreover, the attraction of politics in general was increasing for him. Politics occupied his mind, often obsessing it. And this was so in spite of the fact that he had done almost nothing in the last election, and that the pillars of the Liberal Club were beginning to suspect him of being a weakling who might follow his father into the wilderness between two frontiers.

As he read the speech, slowly disengaging its significance from the thicket of words, it seemed incredible. A parliament in Dublin! The Irish taxing themselves according to their own caprices! The Irish controlling the Royal Irish Constabulary! The Irish members withdrawn from Westminster! A separate nation! Surely Gladstone could not mean it! The project had the same air of unreality as that of his marriage with Hilda. It did not convince. It was too good to be true. It could not materialise itself. And yet, as his glance, flitting from left to right and right to left, eagerly, reached the bottom of one column and jumped with a crinkling of paper to the top of the next, and then to the next after that, the sense of unreality did depart. He agreed with the principles of the Bill, and with all its details. Whatever Gladstone had proposed would have received his sympathy. He was persuaded in advance; he concurred in advance. All he lacked was faith. And those sentences, helped by his image of the aged legislator dominating the House, and by the wondrous legend of the orator’s divine power — those long stretching, majestic, misty sentences gave him faith. Henceforward he was an ardent Home Ruler. Reason might or might not have entered into the affair had the circumstances of it been other; but in fact reason did not. Faith alone sufficed. For ever afterwards argument about Home Rule was merely tedious to him, and he had difficulty in crediting that opponents of it were neither stupid nor insincere. Home Rule was part of his religion, beyond and above argument.

He wondered what they were saying at the Liberal Club, and smiled disdainfully at the thought of the unseemly language that would animate the luxurious heaviness of the Conservative Club, where prominent publicans gathered after eleven o’clock to uphold the State and arrange a few bets with sporting clients. He admitted, as the supreme importance of the night leaped out at him from the printed page, that, if only for form’s sake, he ought to have been at the Liberal Club that evening. He had been requested to go, but had refused, because on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, he always spent the evening in study or in the semblance of study. He would not break that rule even in honour of the culmination of the dazzling career of his political idol. Perhaps another proof of the justice of Maggie’s assertion that he was a regular old maid!

He knew what his father would say. His father would be furious. His father in his uncontrolled fury would destroy Gladstone. And such was his father’s empire over him that he was almost ready on Gladstone’s behalf to adopt an apologetic and slightly shamed attitude to his father concerning this madness of Home Rule — to admit by his self-conscious blushes that it was madness. He well knew that at breakfast the next morning, in spite of any effort to the contrary, he would have a guilty air when his father began to storm. The conception of a separate parliament in Dublin, and of separate taxation, could not stand before his father’s anger . . .

Beneath his window, in the garden, he suddenly heard a faint sound as of somebody in distress.

“What the deuce —!” he exclaimed. “If that isn’t the old man I’m —” Startled, he looked at his watch. It was after midnight.

Four.

As he opened the garden door, he saw, in the porch where had passed his first secret interview with Hilda, the figure of his father as it were awkwardly rising from the step. The gas had not been turned out in the hall, and it gave a feeble but sufficient illumination to the porch and the nearest parts of the garden. Darius stood silent and apparently irresolute, with a mournful and even despairing face. He wore his best black suit, and a new silk hat and new black gloves, and in one hand he carried a copy of “The Signal” that was very crumpled. He ignored Edwin.

“Hello, father!” said Edwin persuasively. “Anything wrong?”

The heavy figure moved itself into the house without a word, and Edwin shut and bolted the door.

“Funeral go off all right?” Edwin inquired with as much nonchalance as he could. (The thought crossed his mind: “I suppose he hasn’t been having a drop too much, for once in a way? Why did he come round into the garden?”)

Darius loosed a really terrible sigh. “Yes,” he answered, expressing with a single word the most profound melancholy.

Four days previously Edwin and Maggie had seen their father considerably agitated by an item of gossip, casually received, to which it seemed to them he attached an excessive importance. Namely, that old Shushions, having been found straying and destitute by the authorities appointed to deal with such matters, had been taken to the workhouse and was dying there. Darius had heard the news as though it had been a message brought on horseback in a melodrama. “The Bastille!” he exclaimed, in a whisper, and had left the house on the instant. Edwin, while the name of Shushions reminded him of moments when he had most intensely lived, was disposed to regard the case of Mr Shushions philosophically. Of course it was a pity that Mr Shushions should be in the workhouse; but after all, from what Edwin remembered and could surmise, the workhouse would be very much the same as any other house to that senile mentality. Thus Edwin had sagely argued, and Maggie had agreed with him. But to them the workhouse was absolutely nothing but a name. They were no more afraid of the workhouse than of the Russian secret police; and of their father’s early history they knew naught.

Mr Shushions had died in the workhouse, and Darius had taken his body out of the workhouse, and had organised for it a funeral which was to be rendered impressive by a procession of Turnhill Sunday school teachers. Edwin’s activity in connexion with the funeral had been limited to the funeral cards, in the preparation of which his father had shown an irritability more than usually offensive. And now the funeral was over. Darius had devoted to it the whole of Home Rule Tuesday, and had returned to his house at a singular hour and in a singular condition.

And Edwin, loathing sentimentality and full of the wisdom of nearly thirty years, sedately pitied his father for looking ridiculous and grotesque. He knew for a fact that his father did not see Mr Shushions from one year’s end to the next: hence they could not have been intimate friends, or even friends: hence his father’s emotion was throughout exaggerated and sentimental. His acquaintance with history and with biography told him that tyrants often carried sentimentality to the absurd, and he was rather pleased with himself for being able thus to correlate the general past and the particular present. What he did not suspect was the existence of circumstances which made the death of Mr Shushions in the workhouse the most distressing tragedy that could by any possibility have happened to Darius Clayhanger.

“Shall I put the gas out, or will you?” he asked, with kindly secret superiority, unaware, with all his omniscience, that the being in front of him was not a successful steam-printer and tyrannical father, but a tiny ragged boy who could still taste the Bastille skilly and still see his mother weeping round the knees of a powerful god named Shushions.

“I— I don’t know,” said Darius, with another sigh.

The next instant he sat down heavily on the stairs and began openly to blubber. His hat fell off and rolled about undecidedly.

“By Jove!” said Edwin to himself, “I shall have to treat this man like a blooming child!” He was rather startled, and interested. He picked up the hat.

“Better not sit there,” he advised. “Come into the dining-room a bit.”

“What?” Darius asked feebly.

“Is he deaf?” Edwin thought, and half shouted: “Better not sit there. It’s chilly. Come into the dining-room a bit. Come on.”

Darius held out a hand, with a gesture inexpressibly sad; and Edwin, almost before he realised what he was doing, took it and assisted his father to his feet and helped him to the twilit dining-room, where Darius fell into a chair. Some bread and cheese had been laid for him on a napkin, and there was a gleam of red in the grate. Edwin turned up the gas, and Darius blinked. His coarse cheeks were all wet.

“Better have your overcoat off, hadn’t you?”

Darius shook his head.

“Well, will you eat something?”

Darius shook his head again; then hid his face and violently sobbed.

Edwin was not equal to this situation. It alarmed him, and yet he did not see why it should alarm him. He left the room very quietly, went upstairs, and knocked at Maggie’s door. He had to knock several times.

“Who’s there?”

“I say, Mag!”

“What is it?”

“Open the door,” he said.

“You can come in.”

He opened the door, and within the darkness of the room he could vaguely distinguish a white bed.

“Father’s come. He’s in a funny state.”

“How?”

“Well, he’s crying all over the place, and he won’t eat, or do anything!”

“All right,” said Maggie — and a figure sat up in the bed. “Perhaps I’d better come down.”

She descended immediately in an ulster and loose slippers. Edwin waited for her in the hall.

“Now, father,” she said brusquely, entering the dining-room, “what’s amiss?”

Darius gazed at her stupidly. “Nothing,” he muttered.

“You’re very late, I think. When did you have your last meal?”

He shook his head.

“Shall I make you some nice hot tea?”

He nodded.

“Very well,” she said comfortingly.

Soon with her hair hanging about her face and hiding it, she was bending over the gleam of fire, and insinuating a small saucepan into the middle of it, and encouraging the gleam with a pair of bellows. Meanwhile Edwin uneasily ranged the room, and Darius sat motionless.

“Seen Gladstone’s speech, I suppose?” Edwin said, daring a fearful topic in the extraordinary circumstances.

Darius paid no heed. Edwin and Maggie exchanged a glance. Maggie made the tea direct into a large cup, which she had previously warmed by putting it upside down on the saucepan lid. When it was infused and sweetened, she tasted it, as for a baby, and blew on it, and gave the cup to her father, who, by degrees, emptied it, though not exclusively into his mouth.

“Will you eat something now?” she suggested.

He would not.

“Very well, then, Edwin will help you upstairs.”

From her manner Darius might have been a helpless and half-daft invalid for years.

The ascent to bed was processional; Maggie hovered behind. But at the dining-room door Darius, giving no explanation, insisted on turning back: apparently he tried to speak but could not. He had forgotten his “Signal.” Snatching at it, he held it like a treasure. All three of them went into the father’s bedroom. Maggie turned up the gas. Darius sat on the bed, looking dully at the carpet.

“Better see him into bed,” Maggie murmured quickly to Edwin, and Edwin nodded — the nod of capability — as who should say, “Leave all that to me!” But in fact he was exceedingly diffident about seeing his father into bed.

Maggie departed.

“Now then,” Edwin began the business. “Let’s get that overcoat off, eh?” To his surprise Darius was most pliant. When the great clumsy figure, with its wet cheeks, stood in trousers, shirt, and socks, Edwin said, “You’re all right now, aren’t you?” And the figure nodded.

“Well, good-night.”

Edwin came out on to the landing, shut the door, and walked about a little in his own room. Then he went back to his father’s room. Maggie’s door was closed. Darius was already in bed, but the gas was blazing at full.

“You’ve forgotten the gas,” he said lightly and pleasantly, and turned it down to a blue point.

“I say, lad,” the old man stopped him, as he was finally leaving.

“Yes?”

“What about that Home Rule?”

The voice was weak, infantile. Edwin hesitated. The “Signal” made a patch of white on the ottoman.

“Oh!” he answered soothingly, and yet with condescension, “it’s much about what everybody expected. Better leave that till tomorrow.”

He shut the door. The landing received light through the open door of his bedroom and from the hall below. He went downstairs, bolted the front door, and extinguished the hall gas. Then he came softly up, and listened at his father’s door. Not a sound! He entered his own room and began to undress, and then, half clothed, crept back to his father’s door. Now he could hear a heavy, irregular snoring.

“Devilish odd, all this!” he reflected, as he got into bed. Assuredly he had disconcerting thoughts, not all unpleasant. His excitement had even an agreeable, zestful quality.

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