Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Twelve.

Revenge.

Edwin reentered his home with a feeling of dismayed resignation. There was then no escape, and never could be any escape, from the existence to which he was accustomed; even after his father’s death, his existence would still be essentially the same — incomplete and sterile. He accepted the destiny, but he was daunted by it.

He quietly shut the front door, which had been ajar, and as he did so he heard voices in the drawing-room.

“I tell ye I’m going to grow mushrooms,” Darius was saying. “Can’t I grow mushrooms in my own cellar?” Then a snort.

“I don’t think it’ll be a good thing,” was Maggie’s calm reply.

“Ye’ve said that afore. Why won’t it be a good thing? And what’s it got to do with you?” The voice of Darius, ordinarily weak and languid, was rising and becoming strong.

“Well, you’d be falling up and down the cellar steps. You know how dark they are. Supposing you hurt yourself?”

“Ye’d only be too glad if I killed mysen!” said Darius, with a touch of his ancient grimness.

There was a pause.

“And it seems they want a lot of attention, mushrooms do,” Maggie went on with unperturbed placidity. “You’d never be able to do it.”

“Jane could help me,” said Darius, in the tone of one who is rather pleased with an ingenious suggestion.

“Oh no, she couldn’t!” Maggie exclaimed, with a peculiar humorous dryness which she employed only on the rarest occasions. Jane was the desired Bathsheba.

“And I say she could!” the old man shouted with surprising vigour. “Her does nothing! What does Mrs Nixon do? What do you do? Three great strapping women in the house and doing nought! I say she shall!” The voice dropped and snarled. “Who’s master here? Is it me, or is it the cat? D’ye think as I can’t turn ye all out of it neck and crop, if I’ve a mind? You and Edwin, and the lot of ye! And to-night too! Give me some money now, and quicker than that! I’ve got nought but sovereigns and notes. I’ll go down and get the spawn myself — ay! and order the earth too! I’ll make it my business to show my childer — But I mun have some change for my car fares.” He breathed heavily.

“I’m sure Edwin won’t like it,” Maggie murmured.

“Edwin! Hast told Edwin?” Darius also murmured, but it was a murmur of rage.

“No, I haven’t. Edwin’s got quite enough on his hands as it is, without any other worries.”

There was the noise of a sudden movement, and of a chair falling.

“Bugger you all!” Darius burst out with a fury whose restraint showed that he had unsuspected reserves of strength. And then he began to swear. Edwin, like many timid men, often used forbidden words with much ferocity in private. Once he had had a long philosophic argument with Tom Orgreave on the subject of profanity. They had discussed all aspects of it, from its religious origin to its psychological results, and Edwin’s theory had been that it was only improper by a purely superstitious convention, and that no man of sense could possibly be offended, in himself, by the mere sound of words that had been deprived of meaning. He might be offended on behalf of an unreasoning fellow-listener, such as a woman, but not personally. Edwin now discovered that his theory did not hold. He was offended. He was almost horrified. He had never in his life till that moment heard Darius swear. He heard him now. He considered himself to be a fairly first-class authority on swearing; he thought that he was familiar with all the sacred words and with all the combinations of them. He was mistaken. His father’s profanity was a brilliant and appalling revelation. It comprised words which were strange to him, and strange perversions that renewed the vigour of decrepit words. For Edwin, it was a whole series of fresh formulae, brutal and shameless beyond his experience, full of images and similes of the most startling candour, and drawing its inspiration always from the sickening bases of life. Darius had remembered with ease the vocabulary to which he was hourly accustomed when he began life as a man of seven. For more than fifty years he had carried within himself these vestiges of a barbarism which his children had never even conceived, and now he threw them out in all their crudity at his daughter. And when she did not blench, he began to accuse her as men were used to accuse their daughters in the bright days of the Sailor King. He invented enormities which she had committed, and there would have been no obscene infamy of which Maggie was not guilty, if Edwin — more by instinct than by volition — had not pushed open the door and entered the drawing-room.

Two.

He was angry, and the sight of the flushed meekness of his sister, as she leaned quietly with her back against an easy-chair, made him angrier.

“Enough of this!” he said gruffly and peremptorily.

Darius, with scarcely a break, continued.

“I say enough of this!” Edwin cried, with increased harshness.

The old man paused, half intimidated. With his pimpled face and glaring eyes, his gleaming gold teeth, his frowziness of a difficult invalid, his grimaces and gestures which were the result of a lifetime devoted to gain, he made a loathsome object. Edwin hated him, and there was a bitter contempt in his hatred.

“I’m going to have that spawn, and I’m going to have some change! Give me some money!” Darius positively hissed.

Edwin grew nearly capable of homicide. All the wrongs that he had suffered leaped up and yelled.

“You’ll have no money!” he said, with brutal roughness. “And you’ll grow no mushrooms! And let that be understood once for all! You’ve got to behave in this house.”

Darius flickered up.

“Do you hear?” Edwin stamped on the conflagration.

It was extinguished. Darius, cowed, slowly and clumsily directed himself towards the door. Once Edwin had looked forward to a moment when he might have his father at his mercy, when he might revenge himself for the insults and the bullying that had been his. Once he had clenched his fist and his teeth, and had said, “When you’re old, and I’ve got you, and you can’t help yourself!” That moment had come, and it had even enabled and forced him to refuse money to his father — refuse money to his father! As he looked at the poor figure fumbling towards the door, he knew the humiliating paltriness of revenge. As his anger fell, his shame grew.

Maggie lifted her eyebrows when Darius banged the door.

“He can’t help it,” she said.

“Of course he can’t help it,” said Edwin, defending himself, less to Maggie than to himself. “But there must be a limit. He’s got to be kept in order, you know, even if he is an invalid.” His heart was perceptibly beating.

“Yes, of course.”

“And evidently there’s only one way of doing it. How long’s he been on this mushroom tack?”

“Oh, not long.”

“Well, you ought to have told me,” said Edwin, with the air of a master of the house who is displeased. Maggie accepted the reproof.

“He’d break his neck in the cellar before he knew where he was,” Edwin resumed.

“Yes, he would,” said Maggie, and left the room.

Upon her placid features there was not the slightest trace of the onslaught of profanity. The faint flush had paled away.

Three.

The next morning, Sunday, Edwin came downstairs late, to the sound of singing. In his soft carpet-slippers he stopped at the foot of the stairs and tapped the weather-glass, after the manner of his father; and listened. It was a duet for female voices that was being sung, composed by Balfe to the words of the good Longfellow’s “Excelsior.” A pretty thing, charming in its thin sentimentality; one of the few pieces that Darius in former days really understood and liked. Maggie and Clara had not sung it for years. For years they had not sung it at all.

Edwin went to the doorway of the drawing-room and stood there. Clara, in Sunday bonnet, was seated at the ancient piano; it had always been she who had played the accompaniments. Maggie, nursing one of the babies, sat on another chair, and leaned towards the page in order to make out the words. She had half-forgotten the words, and Clara was no longer at ease in the piano part, and their voices were shaky and unruly, and the piano itself was exceedingly bad. A very indifferent performance of indifferent music! And yet it touched Edwin. He could not deny that by its beauty and by the sentiment of old times it touched him. He moved a little forward in the doorway. Clara glanced at him, and winked. Now he could see his father. Darius was standing at some distance behind his daughters and his grandchild, and staring at them. And the tears rained down from his red eyes, and then his emotion overcame him and he blubbered, just as the duet finished.

“Now, father,” Clara protested cheerfully, “this won’t do. You know you asked for it. Give me the infant, Maggie.”

Edwin walked away.

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