Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Eleven.

An Hour.

Janet called out —“Play — no, I think perhaps you’ll do better if you stand a little farther back. Now — play!”

She brought down her lifted right arm, and smacked the ball into the net.

“Double fault!” she cried, lamenting, when she had done this twice. “Oh dear! Now you go over to the other side of the court.”

Edwin would not have kept the rendezvous could he have found an excuse satisfactory to himself for staying away. He was a beginner at tennis, and a very awkward one, having little aptitude for games, and being now inelastic in the muscles. He possessed no flannels, though for weeks he had been meaning to get at least a pair of white pants. He was wearing Jimmie Orgreave’s india-rubber pumps, which admirably fitted him. Moreover, he was aware that he looked better in his jacket than in his shirt-sleeves. But these reasons against the rendezvous were naught. The only genuine reason was that he had felt timid about meeting Janet. Could he meet her without revealing by his mere guilty glance that his aunt had half convinced him that he had only to ask nicely in order to receive? Could he meet her without giving her the impression that he was a conceited ass? He had met her. She was waiting for him in the garden, and by dint of starting the conversation in loud tones from a distance, and fumbling a few moments with the tennis balls before approaching her, he had come through the encounter without too much foolishness.

And now he was glad that he had not been so silly as to stay away. She was alone; Mrs Orgreave was lying down, and all the others were out. Alicia and her Harry were off together somewhere. She was alone in the garden, and she was beautiful, and the shaded garden was beautiful, and the fading afternoon. The soft short grass was delicate to his feet, and round the oval of the lawn were glimpses of flowers, and behind her clear-tinted frock was the yellow house laced over with green. A column of thick smoke rose from a manufactory close behind the house, but the trees mitigated it. He played perfunctorily, uninterested in the game, dreaming.

She was a wondrous girl! She was the perfect girl! Nobody had ever been able to find any fault with her. He liked her exceedingly. Had it been necessary, he would have sacrificed his just interests in the altercation with her father in order to avoid a coolness in which she might have been involved. She was immensely distinguished and superior. And she was over thirty and had never been engaged, despite the number and variety of her acquaintances, despite her challenging readiness to flirt, and her occasional coquetries. Ten years ago he had almost regarded her as a madonna on a throne, so high did she seem to be above him. His ideas had changed, but there could be no doubt that in an alliance between an Orgreave and a Clayhanger, it would be the Clayhanger who stood to gain the greater advantage. There she was! If she was not waiting for him, she was waiting — for some one! Why not for him as well as for another?

He said to himself —

“Why shouldn’t I be happy? That other thing is all over!”

It was, in fact, years since the name of Hilda had ever been mentioned between them. Why should he not be happy? There was nothing to prevent her from being happy. His father’s illness could not endure for ever. One day soon he would be free in theory as well as in practice. With no tie and no duty (Maggie was negligible) he would have both money and position. What might his life not be with a woman like Janet, brilliant, beautiful, elegant, and faithful? He pictured that life, and even the vision of it dazzled him. Janet his! Janet always there, presiding over a home which was his home, wearing hats that he had paid for, appealing constantly to his judgement, and meaning him when she said, ‘My husband.’ He saw her in the close and tender intimacy of marriage, acquiescent, exquisite, yielding, calmly accustomed to him, modest, but with a different modesty! It was a vision surpassing visions. And there she was on the other side of the net!

With her he could be his finest self. He would not have to hide his finest self from ridicule, as often now, among his own family.

She was a fine woman! He watched the free movement of her waist, and the curvings and flyings of her short tennis skirt. And there was something strangely feminine about the neck of her blouse, now that he examined it.

“Your game!” she cried. “That’s four double faults I’ve served. I can’t play! I really don’t think I can. There’s something the matter with me! Or else it’s the net that’s too high. Those boys will keep screwing it up!”

She had a pouting, capricious air, and it delighted him. Never had he seen her so enchantingly girlish as, by a curious hazard, he saw her now. Why should he not he happy? Why should he not wake up out of his nightmare and begin to live? In a momentary flash he seemed to see his past in a true perspective, as it really was, as some well-balanced person not himself would have seen it. Mere morbidity to say, as he had been saying privately for years, that marriage was not for him! Marriage emphatically was for him, if only because he had fine ideals of it. Most people who married were too stupid to get the value of their adventure. Celibacy was grotesque, cowardly, and pitiful — no matter how intellectual the celibate — and it was no use pretending the contrary.

A masculine gesture, an advance, a bracing of the male in him . . . probably nothing else was needed.

“Well,” he said boldly, “if you don’t want to play, let’s sit down and rest.” And then he gave a nervous little laugh.

Two.

They sat down on the bench that was shaded by the old elderberry tree. Visually, the situation had all the characteristics of an idyllic courtship.

“I suppose it’s Alicia’s engagement,” she said, smiling reflectively, “that’s put me off my game. They do upset you, those things do, and you don’t know why . . . It isn’t as if Alicia was the first — I mean of us girls. There was Marian; but then, of course, that was so long ago, and I was only a chit.”

“Yes,” he murmured vaguely; and though she seemed to be waiting for him to say more, he merely repeated, “Yes.”

Such was his sole contribution to this topic, so suitable to the situation, so promising, so easy of treatment. They were so friendly that he was under no social obligation to talk for the sake of talking.

That was it: they were too friendly. She sat within a foot of him, reclining against the sloping back of the bench, and idly dangling one white-shod foot; her long hands lay on her knees. She was there in all her perfection. But by some sinister magic, as she had approached him and their paths had met at the bench, his vision had faded. Now, she was no longer a woman and he a man. Now, the curvings of her drapery from the elegant waistband were no longer a provocation. She was immediately beneath his eye, and he recognised her again for what she was — Janet! Precisely Janet — no less and no more! But her beauty, her charm, her faculty for affection — surely . . . No! His instinct was deaf to all ‘buts.’ His instinct did not argue; it cooled. Fancy had created a vision in an instant out of an idea, and in an instant the vision had died. He remembered Hilda with painful intensity. He remembered the feel of her frock under his hand in the cubicle, and the odour of her flesh that was like fruit. His cursed constancy! . . . Could he not get Hilda out of his bones? Did she sleep in his bones like a malady that awakes whenever it is disrespectfully treated?

He grew melancholy. Accustomed to savour the sadness of existence, he soon accepted the new mood without resentment.

He resigned himself to the destruction of his dream. He was like a captive whose cell has been opened in mistake, and who is too gentle to rave when he sees it shut again. Only in secret he poured an indifferent, careless scorn upon Auntie Hamps.

They played a whole interminable set, and then Edwin went home, possibly marvelling at the variety of experience that a single hour may contain.

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