Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Fourteen.

The Watch.

When Edwin the next morning, rather earlier than usual on Sundays, came forth from his bedroom to go into the bathroom, he was startled by a voice from his father’s bedroom calling him. It was Maggie’s. She had heard him open his door, and she joined him on the landing.

“I was waiting for you to be getting up,” she said in a quiet tone. “I don’t think father’s so well, and I was wondering whether I hadn’t better send Jane down for the doctor. It’s not certain he’ll call today if he isn’t specially fetched.”

“Why?” said Edwin. “What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing,” Maggie answered. “Nothing particular, but you didn’t hear him ringing in the night?”

“Ringing? No! What time?”

“About one o’clock. Jane heard the bell, and she woke me. So I got up to him. He said he couldn’t do with being alone.”

“What did you do?”

“I made him something hot and stayed with him.”

“What? All night?”

“Yes,” said Maggie.

“But why didn’t you call me?”

“What was the good?”

“You ought to have called me,” he said with curt displeasure, not really against Maggie, but against himself for having heard naught of all these happenings. Maggie had no appearance of having passed the night by her father’s bedside.

“Oh,” she said lightly, “I dozed a bit now and then. And as soon as the girl was up I got her to come and sit with him while I spruced myself.”

“I’ll have a look at him,” said Edwin, in another tone.

“Yes, I wish you would.” Now, as often, he was struck by Maggie’s singular deference to him, her submission to his judgement. In the past her attitude had been different; she had exercised the moral rights of an elder sister; but latterly she had mysteriously transformed herself into a younger sister.

He went towards his father, drawing his dressing-gown more closely round him. The chamber had an aspect of freshness and tidiness that made it almost gay — until he looked at the object in the smoothed and rectified bed. He nodded to his father, who merely gazed at him. There was no definite, definable change in the old man’s face, but his bearing, even as he lay, was appreciably more melancholy and impotent. The mere sight of a man so broken and so sad was humiliating to the humanity which Edwin shared with him.

“Well, father,” he nodded familiarly. “Don’t feel like getting up, eh?” And, remembering that he was the head of the house, the source of authority and of strength, he tried to be cheerful, casual, and invigorating, and was disgusted by the futile inefficiency of the attempt. He had not, like Auntie Hamps, devoted a lifetime to the study of the trick.

Darius feebly moved his hopeless head to signify a negative.

And Edwin thought, with a lancinating pain, of what the old man had mumbled on the previous evening: “I shall never go down them stairs again.” Perhaps the old man never would go down those stairs again! He had paid no serious attention to the remark at the moment, but now it presented itself to him as a solemn and prophetic utterance, of such as are remembered with awe for years and continue to jut up clear in the mind when all minor souvenirs of the time have crumbled away. And he would have given much of his pride to be able to go back and help the old man upstairs once more, and do it with a more loving patience.

“I’ve sent Jane,” said Maggie, returning to the bedroom. “You’d better go and finish dressing.”

On coming out of the bathroom he discovered Albert on the landing, waiting.

“The missis would have me come up and see how he was,” said Albert. “So I’ve run in between school and chapel. When I told her what a doing he gave us, getting him upstairs, she was quite in a way, and she would have me come up. The kid’s better.” He was exceedingly and quite genuinely fraternal, not having his wife’s faculty for nourishing a feud.

Two.

The spectacular developments were rapid. In the afternoon Auntie Hamps, Clara, Maggie, and Edwin were grouped around the bed of Darius. A fire burned in the grate; flowers were on the dressing-table. An extra table had been placed at the foot of the bed. The room was a sick-room.

Dr Heve had called, and had said that the patient’s desire not to be left alone was a symptom of gravity. He suggested a nurse, and when Maggie, startled, said that perhaps they could manage without a nurse, he inquired how. And as he talked he seemed to be more persuaded that a nurse was necessary, if only for night duty, and in the end he went himself to the new Telephone Exchange and ordered a nurse from the Pirehill Infirmary Nursing Home. And the dramatic thing was that within two hours and a half the nurse had arrived. And in ten minutes after that it had been arranged that she should have Maggie’s bedroom and that she should take night duty, and in order that she might be fresh for the night she had gone straight off to bed.

Then Clara had arrived, in spite of the illness of her baby, and Auntie Hamps had forced herself up Trafalgar Road, in spite of her rheumatism. And a lengthy confabulation between the women had occurred in the dining-room, not about the invalid, but about what ‘she’ had said, and about the etiquette of treating ‘her,’ and about what ‘she’ looked like and shaped like; ‘her’ and ‘she’ being the professional nurse. With a professional nurse in it, each woman sincerely felt that the house was no longer itself, that it had become the house of the enemy.

Darius lay supine before them, physically and spiritually abased, accepting, like a victim who is too weak even to be ashamed, the cooings and strokings and prayers and optimistic mendacities of Auntie Hamps, and the tearful tendernesses of Clara.

“I’ve made my will,” he whimpered.

“Yes, yes,” said Auntie Hamps. “Of course you have!”

“Did I tell you I’d made my will?” he feebly insisted.

“Yes, father,” said Clara. “Don’t worry about your will.”

“I’ve left th’ business to Edwin, and all th’ rest’s divided between you two wenches.” He was weeping gently.

“Don’t worry about that, father,” Clara repeated. “Why are you thinking so much about your will?” She tried to speak in a tone that was easy and matter-of-fact. But she could not. This was the first authentic information that any of them had had as to the dispositions of the will, and it was exciting.

Then Darius began to try to sit up, and there were protests against such an act. Though he sat up to take his food, the tone of these apprehensive remonstrances implied that to sit up at any other time was to endanger his life. Darius, however, with a weak scowl, continued to lift himself, whereupon Maggie aided him, and Auntie Hamps like lightning put a shawl round his shoulders. He sighed, and stretched out his hand to the night-table for his gold watch and chain, which he dangled towards Edwin.

“I want ye —” He stopped, controlling the muscles of his face.

“He wants you to wind it up,” said Clara, struck by her own insight.

“No, he doesn’t,” said Edwin. “He knows it’s wound up.”

“I want ye —” Darius recommenced. But he was defeated again by his insidious foe. He wept loudly and without restraint for a few moments, and then suddenly ceased, and endeavoured to speak, and wept anew, agitating the watch in the direction of Edwin.

“Take it, Edwin,” said Mrs Hamps. “Perhaps he wants it put away,” she added, as Edwin obeyed.

Darius shook his head furiously. “I want him —” Sobs choked him.

“I know what he wants,” said Auntie Hamps. “He wants to give dear Edwin the watch, because Edwin’s been so kind to him, helping him to dress every day, and looking after him just like a professional nurse — don’t you, dear?”

Edwin secretly cursed her in the most horrible fashion. But she was right.

“Ye-hes,” Darius confirmed her, on a sob.

“He wants to show his gratitude,” said Auntie Hamps.

“Ye-hes,” Darius repeated, and wiped his eyes.

Edwin stood foolishly holding the watch with its massive Albert chain. He was very genuinely astonished, and he was profoundly moved. His father’s emotion concerning him must have been gathering force for months and months, increasing a little and a little every day in those daily, intimate contacts, until at length gratitude had become, as it were, a spirit that possessed him, a monstrous demon whose wild eagerness to escape defeated itself. And Edwin had never guessed, for Darius had mastered the spirit till the moment when the spirit mastered him. It was out now, and Darius, delivered, breathed more freely. Edwin was proud, but his humiliation was greater than his pride. He suffered humiliation for his father. He would have preferred that Darius should never have felt gratitude, or, at any rate, that he should never have shown it. He would have preferred that Darius should have accepted his help nonchalantly, grimly, thanklessly, as a right. And if through disease, the old man could not cease to be a tyrant with dignity, could not become human without this appalling ceremonial abasement — better that he should have exercised harshness and oppression to the very end! There was probably no phenomenon of human nature that offended Edwin’s instincts more than an open conversion.

Maggie turned nervously away and busied herself with the grate.

“You must put it on,” said Auntie Hamps sweetly. “Mustn’t he, father?”

Darius nodded.

The outrage was complete. Edwin removed his own watch and dropped it into the pocket of his trousers, substituting for it the gold one.

“There, father!” exclaimed Auntie Hamps proudly, surveying the curve of the Albert on her nephew’s waistcoat.

“Ay!” Darius murmured, and sank back on the pillow with a sigh of relief.

“Thanks, father,” Edwin muttered, reddening. “But there was no occasion.”

“Now you see what it is to be a good son!” Auntie Hamps observed.

Darius murmured indistinctly.

“What is it?” she asked, bending down.

“I must have his,” said Darius. “I must have a watch here.”

“He wants your old one in exchange,” Clara explained eagerly.

Edwin smiled, discovering a certain alleviation in this shrewd demand of his father’s, and he drew out the silver Geneva.

Three.

Shortly afterwards the nurse surprised them all by coming into the room. She carried a writing-case. Edwin introduced her to Auntie Hamps and Clara. Clara blushed and became mute. Auntie Hamps adopted a tone of excessive deference, of which the refrain was “Nurse will know best.” Nurse seemed disinclined to be professional. Explaining that as she was not able to sleep she thought she might as well get up, she took a seat near the fire and addressed herself to Maggie. She was a tall and radiant woman of about thirty. Her aristocratic southern accent proved that she did not belong to the Five Towns, and to Maggie, in excuse for certain questions as to the district, she said that she had only been at Pirehill a few weeks. Her demeanour was extraordinarily cheerful. Auntie Hamps remarked aside to Clara what a good thing it was that Nurse was so cheerful; but in reality she considered such cheerfulness exaggerated in a sick-room, and not quite nice. The nurse asked about the posts, and said she had a letter to write and would write it there if she could have pen and ink. Auntie Hamps, telling her eagerly about the posts, thought that these professional nurses certainly did make themselves at home in a house. The nurse’s accent intimidated all of them.

“Well, nurse, I suppose we mustn’t tire our patient,” said Auntie Hamps at last, after Edwin had brought ink and paper.

Edwin, conscious of the glory of a gold watch and chain, and conscious also of freedom from future personal service on his father, preceded Auntie Hamps and Clara to the landing, and Nurse herself sped them from the room, in her quality of mistress of the room. And when she and Maggie and Darius were alone together she went to the bedside and spoke softly to her patient. She was so neat and bright and white and striped, and so perfect in every detail, that she might have been a model taken straight from a shop-window. Her figure illuminated the dusk. An incredible luxury for the little boy from the Bastille! But she was one of the many wonderful things he had earned.

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