Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Thirteen.

The Journey Upstairs.

Late on another Saturday afternoon in the following March, when Darius had been ill nearly two years, he and Edwin and Albert were sitting round the remains of high tea together in the dining-room. Clara had not been able to accompany her husband on what was now the customary Saturday visit, owing to the illness of her fourth child. Mrs Hamps was fighting chronic rheumatism at home. And Maggie had left the table to cosset Mrs Nixon, who of late received more help than she gave.

Darius sat in dull silence. The younger men were talking about the Bursley Society for the Prosecution of Felons, of which Albert had just been made a member. Whatever it might have been in the past, the Society for the Prosecution of Felons was now a dining-club and little else. Its annual dinner, admitted to be the chief oratorical event of the year, was regarded as strictly exclusive, because no member, except the president, had the right to bring a guest to it. Only ‘Felons,’ as they humorously named themselves, and the reporters of the “Signal,” might listen to the eloquence of Felons. Albert Benbow, who for years had been hearing about the brilliant funniness of the American Consul at these dinners, was so flattered by his Felonry that he would have been ready to put the letters S P F after his name.

“Oh, you’ll have to join!” said he to Edwin, kindly urgent, like a man who, recently married, goes about telling all bachelors that they positively must marry at once. “You ought to get it fixed up before the next feed.”

Edwin shook his head. Though he, too, dreamed of the Felons’ Dinner as a repast really worth eating, though he wanted to be a Felon, and considered that he ought to be a Felon, and wondered why he was not already a Felon, he repeatedly assured Albert that Felonry was not for him.

“You’re a Felon, aren’t you, dad?” Albert shouted at Darius.

“Oh yes, father’s a Felon,” said Edwin. “Has been ever since I can remember.”

“Did ye ever speak there?” asked Albert, with an air of good-humoured condescension.

Darius’s elbow slipped violently off the tablecloth, and a knife fell to the floor and a plate after it. Darius went pale.

“All right! All right! Don’t be alarmed, dad!” Albert reassured him, picking up the things. “I was asking ye, did ye ever speak there — make a speech?”

“Yes,” said Darius heavily.

“Did you now!” Albert murmured, staring at Darius. And it was exactly as if he had said, “Well, it’s extraordinary that a foolish physical and mental wreck such as you are now, should ever have had wit and courage enough to rise and address the glorious Felons!”

Darius glanced up at the gas, with a gesture that was among Edwin’s earliest recollections, and then he fixed his eyes dully on the fire, with head bent and muscles lax.

“Have a cigarette — that’ll cheer ye up,” said Albert.

Darius made a negative sign.

“He’s very tired, seemingly,” Albert remarked to Edwin, as if Darius had not been present.

“Yes,” Edwin muttered, examining his father. Darius appeared ten years older than his age. His thin hair was white, though the straggling beard that had been allowed to grow was only grey. His face was sunken and pale, but even more striking was the extreme pallor of the hands with their long clean fingernails, those hands that had been red and rough, tools of all work. His clothes hung somewhat loosely on him, and a shawl round his shoulders was awry. The comatose melancholy in his eyes was acutely painful to see — so much so that Edwin could not bear to look long at them. “Father,” Edwin asked him suddenly, “wouldn’t you like to go to bed?”

And to his surprise Darius said, “Yes.”

“Well, come on then.”

Darius did not move.

“Come on,” Edwin urged. “I’m sure you’re overtired, and you’ll be better in bed.”

He took his father by the arm, but there was no responsive movement. Often Edwin noticed this capricious, obstinate attitude; his father would express a wish to do a certain thing, and then would make no effort to do it. “Come!” said Edwin more firmly, pulling at the lifeless arm. Albert sprang up, and said that he would assist. One on either side, they got Darius to his feet, and slowly walked him out of the room. He was very exasperating. His weight and his inertia were terrible. The spectacle suggested that either Darius was pretending to be a carcass, or Edwin and Albert were pretending that a carcass was alive. On the stairs there was not room for the three abreast. One had to push, another to pull: Darius seemed wilfully to fall backwards if pressure were released. Edwin restrained his exasperation; but though he said nothing, his sharp half-vicious pull on that arm seemed to say, “Confound you! Come up — will you!” The last two steps of the stair had a peculiar effect on Darius. He appeared to shy at them, and then finally to jib. It was no longer a reasonable creature that they were getting upstairs, but an incalculable and mysterious beast. They lifted him on to the landing, and he stood on the landing as if in his sleep. Both Edwin and Albert were breathless. This was the man who since the beginning of his illness had often walked to Hillport and back! It was incredible that he had ever walked to Hillport and back. He passed more easily along the landing. And then he was in his bedroom.

“Father going to bed?” Maggie called out from below.

“Yes,” said Albert. “We’ve just been getting him upstairs.”

“Oh! That’s right,” Maggie said cheerfully. “I thought he was looking very tired to-night.”

“He gave us a doing,” said the breathless Albert in a low voice at the door of the bedroom, smiling, and glancing at his cigarette to see if it was still alight.

“He does it on purpose, you know,” Edwin whispered casually. “I’ll just get him to bed, and then I’ll be down.”

Albert went, with a ‘good night’ to Darius that received no answer.

Two.

In the bedroom, Darius had sunk on to the cushioned ottoman. Edwin shut the door.

“Now then!” said Edwin encouragingly, yet commandingly. “I can tell you one thing — you aren’t losing weight.” He had recovered from his annoyance, but he was not disposed to submit to any trifling. For many months now he had helped Darius to dress, when he came up from the shop for breakfast, and to undress in the evening. It was not that his father lacked the strength, but he would somehow lose himself in the maze of his garments, and apparently he could never remember the proper order of doffing or donning them. Sometimes he would ask, “Am I dressing or undressing?” And he would be capable of so involving himself in a shirt, if Edwin were not there to direct, that much patience was needed for his extrication. His misapprehensions and mistakes frequently reached the grotesque. As habit threw them more and more intimately together, the trusting dependence of Darius on Edwin increased. At morning and evening the expression of that intensely mournful visage seemed to be saying as its gaze met Edwin’s, “Here is the one clear-sighted, powerful being who can guide me through this complex and frightful problem of my clothes.” A suit, for Darius, had become as intricate as a quadratic equation. And, in Edwin, compassion and irritation fought an interminable guerilla. Now one obtained the advantage, now the other. His nerves demanded relief from the friction, but he could offer them no holiday, not one single day’s holiday. Twice every day he had to manoeuvre and persuade that ponderous, irrational body in his father’s bedroom. Maggie helped the body to feed itself at table. But Maggie apparently had no nerves.

“I shall never go down them stairs again,” said Darius, as if in fatigued disgust, on the ottoman.

“Oh, nonsense!” Edwin exclaimed.

Darius shook his head solemnly, and looked at vacancy.

“Well, we’ll talk about that tomorrow,” said Edwin, and with the skill of regular practice drew out the ends of the bow of his father’s necktie. He had gradually evolved a complete code of rules covering the entire process of the toilette, and he insisted on their observance. Every article had its order in the ceremony and its place in the room. Never had the room been so tidy, nor the rites so expeditious, as in the final months of Darius’s malady.

Three.

The cumbrous body lay in bed. The bed was in an architecturally contrived recess, sheltered from both the large window and the door. Over its head was the gas-bracket and the bell-knob. At one side was a night-table, and at the other a chair. In front of the night-table were Darius’s slippers. On the chair were certain clothes. From a hook near the night-table, and almost over the slippers, hung his dressing-gown. Seen from the bed, the dressing-table, at the window, appeared to be a long way off, and the wardrobe was a long way off in another direction. The gas was turned low. It threw a pale illumination on the bed, and gleamed on a curve of mahogany here and there in the distances.

Edwin looked at his father, to be sure that all was in order, that nothing had been forgotten. The body seemed monstrous and shapeless beneath the thickly piled clothes; and from the edge of the eider-down, making a valley in the pillow, the bearded face projected, in a manner grotesque and ridiculous. A clock struck seven in another part of the house.

“What time’s that?” Darius murmured.

“Seven,” said Edwin, standing close to him.

Darius raised himself slowly and clumsily on one elbow.

“Here! But look here!” Edwin protested. “I’ve just fixed you up —”

The old man ignored him, and one of those unnaturally white hands stretched forth to the night-table, which was on the side of the bed opposite to Edwin. Darius’s gold watch and chain lay on the night-table.

“I’ve wound it up! I’ve wound it up!” said Edwin, a little crossly. “What are you worrying at?”

But Darius, silent, continued to manoeuvre his flannelled arm so as to possess the watch. At length he seized the chain, and, shifting his weight to the other elbow, held out the watch and chain to Edwin, with a most piteous expression. Edwin could see in the twilight that his father was ready to weep.

“I want ye —” the old man began, and then burst into violent sobs; and the watch dangled dangerously.

“Come now!” Edwin tried to soothe him, forcing himself to be kindly. “What is it? I tell you I’ve wound it up all right. And it’s correct time to a tick.” He consulted his own silver watch.

With a tremendous effort, Darius mastered his sobs, and began once more, “I want ye —”

He tried several times, but his emotion overcame him each time before he could force the message out. It was always too quick for him. Silent, he could control it, but he could not simultaneously control it and speak.

“Never mind,” said Edwin. “We’ll see about that tomorrow.” And he wondered what bizarre project affecting the watch had entered his father’s mind. Perhaps he wanted it set a quarter of an hour fast.

Darius dropped the watch on the eider-down, and sighed in despair, and fell back on the pillow and shut his eyes. Edwin restored the watch to the night-table.

Later, he crept into the dim room. Darius was snoring under the twilight of the gas. Like an unhappy child, he had found refuge in sleep from the enormous, infantile problems of his existence. And it was so pathetic, so distressing, that Edwin, as he gazed at that beard and those gold teeth, could have sobbed too.

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