Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Ten.

Mrs. Hamps as a Young Man.

On the Saturday afternoon of the week following the Jubilee, Edwin and Mrs Hamps were sunning themselves in the garden, when Janet’s face and shoulders appeared suddenly at the other side of the wall. At the sight of Mrs Hamps she seemed startled and intimidated, and she bowed somewhat more ceremoniously than usual.

“Good afternoon!”

Then Mrs Hamps returned the bow with superb extravagance, like an Oriental monarch who is determined to outvie magnificently the gifts of another. Mrs Hamps became conscious of the whole of her body and of every article of her summer apparel, and nothing of it all was allowed to escape from contributing to the completeness of the bow. She bridled. She tossed proudly as it were against the bit. And the rich ruins of her handsomeness adopted new and softer lines in the overpowering sickly blandishment of a smile. Thus she always greeted any merely formal acquaintance whom she considered to be above herself in status — provided, of course, that the acquaintance had done nothing to offend her.

“Good afternoon, Miss Orgreave!”

Reluctantly she permitted her features to relax from the full effort of the smile; but they might not abandon it entirely.

“I thought Maggie was there,” said Janet.

“She was, a minute ago,” Edwin answered. “She’s just gone in to father. She’ll be out directly. Do you want her?”

“I only wanted to tell her something,” said Janet, and then paused.

She was obviously very excited. She had the little quick movements of a girl. In her cream-tinted frock she looked like a mere girl. And she was beautiful in her maturity; a challenge to the world of males. As she stood there, rising from behind the wall, flushed, quivering, abandoned to an emotion and yet unconsciously dignified by that peculiar stateliness that never left her — as she stood there it seemed as if she really was offering a challenge.

“I’ll fetch Mag, if you like,” said Edwin.

“Well,” said Janet, lifting her chin proudly, “it isn’t a secret. Alicia’s engaged.” And pride was in every detail of her bearing.

“Well, I never!” Edwin exclaimed.

Mrs Hamps’s features resumed the full smile.

“Can you imagine it? I can’t! It seems only last week that she left school!”

And indeed it seemed only last week that Alicia was nothing but legs, gawkiness, blushes, and screwed-up shoulders. And now she was a destined bride. She had caught and enchanted a youth by her mysterious attractiveness. She had been caught and enchanted by the mysterious attractiveness of the male. She had known the dreadful anxiety that precedes the triumph, and the ecstasy of surrender. She had kissed as Janet had never kissed, and gazed as Janet had never gazed. She knew infinitely more than Janet. She had always been a child to Janet, but now Janet was the child. No wonder that Janet was excited.

“Might one ask who is the fortunate young gentleman?” Mrs Hamps dulcetly inquired.

“It’s Harry Hesketh, from Oldcastle . . . You’ve met him here,” she added, glancing at Edwin.

Mrs Hamps nodded, satisfied, and the approving nod indicated that she was aware of all the excellences of the Hesketh family.

“The tennis man!” Edwin murmured.

“Yes, of course! You aren’t surprised, are you?”

The fact was that Edwin had not given a thought to the possible relations between Alicia and any particular young man. But Janet’s thrilled air so patently assumed his interest that he felt obliged to make a certain pretence.

“I’m not what you’d call staggered,” he said roguishly. “I’m keeping my nerve.” And he gave her an intimate smile.

“Father-in-law and son-in-law have just been talking it over,” said Janet archly, “in the breakfast-room! Alicia thoughtfully went out for a walk. I’m dying for her to come back.” Janet laughed from simple joyous expectation. “When Harry came out of the breakfast-room he just put his arms round me and kissed me. Yes! That was how I was told about it. He’s a dear! Don’t you think so? I mean really! I felt I must come and tell some one.”

Edwin had never seen her so moved. Her emotion was touching, it was beautiful. She need not have said that she had come because she must. The fact was in her rapt eyes. She was under a spell.

“Well, I must go!” she said, with a curious brusqueness. Perhaps she had a dim perception that she was behaving in a manner unusual with her. “You’ll tell your sister.”

Her departing bow to Mrs Hamps had the formality of courts, and was equalled by Mrs Hamps’s bow. Just as Mrs Hamps, having recreated her elaborate smile, was allowing it finally to expire, she had to bring it into existence once more, and very suddenly, for Janet returned to the wall.

“You won’t forget tennis after tea,” said Janet shortly.

Edwin said that he should not.

Two.

“Well, well!” Mrs Hamps commented, and sat down in the wicker-chair of Darius.

“I wonder she doesn’t get married herself,” said Edwin idly, having nothing in particular to remark.

“You’re a nice one to say such a thing!” Mrs Hamps exclaimed.

“Why?”

“Well, you really are!” She raised the structure of her bonnet and curls, and shook it slowly at him. And her gaze had an extraordinary quality of fleshly naughtiness that half pleased and half annoyed him.

“Why?” he repeated.

“Well,” she said again, “you aren’t a ninny, and you aren’t a simpleton. At least I hope not. You must know as well as anybody the name of the young gentleman that she’s waiting for.”

In spite of himself, Edwin blushed: he blushed more and more. Then he scowled.

“What nonsense!” he muttered viciously. He was entirely sincere. The notion that Janet was waiting for him had never once crossed his mind. It seemed to him fantastic, one of those silly ideas that a woman such as Auntie Hamps would be likely to have, or more accurately would be likely to pretend to have. Still, it did just happen that on this occasion his auntie’s expression was more convincing than usual. She seemed more human than usual, to have abandoned, at any rate partially, the baffling garment of effusive insincerity in which she hid her soul. The Eve in her seemed to show herself, and, looking forth from her eyes, to admit that the youthful dalliance of the sexes was alone interesting in this life of strict piety. The revelation was uncanny.

“You needn’t talk like that,” she retorted calmly, “unless you want to go down in my good opinion. You don’t mean to tell me honestly that you don’t know what’s been the talk of the town for years and years!”

“It’s ridiculous,” said Edwin. “Why — what do you know of her — you don’t know the Orgreaves at all!”

“I know that, anyway,” said Auntie Hamps.

“Oh! Stuff!” He grew impatient.

And yet, in his extreme astonishment, he was flattered and delighted.

“Of course,” said Auntie Hamps, “you’re so difficult to talk to —”

“Difficult to talk to! — Me?”

“Otherwise your auntie might have given you a hint long ago. I believe you are a simpleton after all! I cannot understand what’s come over the young men in these days. Letting a girl like that wait and wait!” She implied, with a faint scornful smile, that if she were a young man she would be capable of playing the devil with the maidenhood of the town. Edwin was rather hurt. And though he felt that he ought not to be ashamed, yet he was ashamed. He divined that she was asking him how he had the face to stand there before her, at his age, with his youth unspilled. After all, she was an astounding woman. He remained silent.

“Why — look how splendid it would be!” she murmured. “The very thing! Everybody would be delighted!”

He still remained silent.

“But you can’t keep on philandering for ever!” she said sharply. “She’ll never see thirty again! . . . Why does she ask you to go and play at tennis? Can you tell me that? . . . perhaps I’m saying too much, but this I will say —”

She stopped.

Darius and Maggie appeared at the garden door. Maggie offered her hand to aid her father, but he repulsed it. Calmly she left him, and came up the garden, out of the deep shadow into the sunshine. She had learnt the news of the engagement, and had fully expressed her feelings about it before Darius arrived at his destination and Mrs Hamps vacated the wicker-chair.

“I’ll get some chairs,” said Edwin gruffly. He could look nobody in the eyes. As he turned away he heard Mrs Hamps say —

“Great news, father! Alicia Orgreave is engaged!”

The old man made no reply. His mere physical present deprived the betrothal of all its charm. The news fell utterly flat and lay unregarded and insignificant.

Edwin did not get the chairs. He sent the servant out with them.

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