Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Fifteen.

The Banquet.

It was with a conscience uneasy that Edwin shut the front door one night a month later, and issued out into Trafalgar Road. Since the arrival of Nurse Shaw, Darius had not risen from his bed, and the household had come to accept him as bed-ridden and the nurse as a permanency. The sick-room was the centre of the house, and Maggie and Edwin and the servants lived, as it were, in a camp round about it, their days uncomfortably passing in suspense, in expectation of developments which tarried. “How is he this morning?” “Much the same.” “How is he this evening?” “Much the same.” These phrases had grown familiar and tedious. But for three days Darius had been noticeably worse, and the demeanour of Nurse Shaw had altered, and she had taken less sleep and less exercise. Osmond Orgreave had even called in person to inquire after the invalid, doubtless moved by Janet to accomplish this formality, for he could not have been without news. Janet was constantly in the house, helping Maggie; and Alicia also sometimes. Since her engagement, Alicia had been striving to prove that she appreciated the gravity of existence.

Still, despite the change in the patient’s condition, everybody had insisted that Edwin should go to the annual dinner of the Society for the Prosecution of Felons, to which he had been duly elected with flattering dispatch. Why should he not go? Why should he not enjoy himself? What could he do if he stayed at home? Would not the change be good for him? At most the absence would be for a few hours, and if he could absent himself during ten hours for business, surely for healthful distraction he might absent himself during five hours! Maggie grew elder-sisterly at the last moment of decision, and told him he must go, and that if he didn’t she should be angry. When he asked her ‘What about her health? What about her needing a change?’ she said curtly that that had nothing to do with it.

He went. The persuaders were helped by his own desire. And in spite of his conscience, when he was fairly in the street he drew a sigh of relief, and deliberately turned his heart towards gaiety. It seemed inexpressibly pathetic that his father was lying behind those just-lighted blinds above, and would never again breathe the open air, never again glide along those pavements with his arms fixed and slightly outwards. But Edwin was determined to listen to reason and not to be morbid.

The streets were lively with the red and the blue colours of politics. The Liberal member for the Parliamentary borough of Hanbridge, which included Bursley, had died very suddenly, and the seat was being disputed by the previously defeated Conservative candidate and a new Labour candidate officially adopted by the Liberal party. The Tories had sworn not to be beaten again in the defence of the integrity of the Empire. And though they had the difficult and delicate task of persuading a large industrial constituency that an industrial representative would not further industrial interests, and that they alone were actuated by unselfish love for the people, yet they had made enormous progress in a very brief period, and publicans were jubilant and bars sloppy.

The aspect of the affair that did not quite please the Society for the Prosecution of Felons was that the polling had been fixed for the day after its annual dinner instead of the day before. Powerful efforts had been made ‘in the proper quarter’ to get the date conveniently arranged, but without success; after all, the seat of authority was Hanbridge and not Bursley. Hanbridge, sadly failing to appreciate the importance of Bursley’s Felonry, had suggested that the feast might be moved a couple of days. The Felonry refused. If its dinner clashed with the supreme night of the campaign, so much the worse for the campaign! Moreover, the excitement of the campaign would at any rate give zest to the dinner.

Ere he reached Duck Bank, the vivacity of the town, loosed after the day’s labour to an evening’s orgy of oratory and horseplay and beer, had communicated itself to Edwin. He was most distinctly aware of pleasure in the sight of the Tory candidate driving past, at a pace to overtake steam-cars, in a coach-and-four, with amateur postilions and an orchestra of horns. The spectacle, and the speed of it, somehow thrilled him, and for an instant made him want to vote Tory. A procession of illuminated carts, bearing white potters apparently engaged in the handicraft which the Labour candidate had practised in humbler days, also pleased him, but pleased him less. As he passed up Duck Bank the Labour candidate himself was raising loud enthusiastic cheers from a railway lorry in Duck Square, and Edwin’s spirits went even higher, and he elbowed through the laughing, joking throng with fraternal good-humour, feeling that an election was in itself a grand thing, apart from its result, and apart from the profit which it brought to steam-printers.

In the porch of the Town Hall, a man turned from an eagerly-smiling group of hungry Felons and, straightening his face, asked with quiet concern, “How’s your father?” Edwin shook his head. “Pretty bad,” he answered. “Is he?” murmured the other sadly. And Edwin suddenly saw his father again behind the blind, irrevocably prone.

Two.

But by the time the speeches were in progress he was uplifted high once more into the joy of life. He had been welcomed by acquaintances and by strangers with a deferential warmth that positively startled him. He realised, as never before, that the town esteemed him as a successful man. His place was not many removes from the chair. Osmond Orgreave was on his right, and Albert Benbow on his left. He had introduced an impressed Albert to his friend Mr Orgreave, recently made a Justice of the Peace.

And down the long littered tables stretched the authority and the wealth of the town-aldermen, councillors, members of the school board, guardians of the poor, magistrates, solid tradesmen, and solid manufacturers, together with higher officials of the borough and some members of the learned professions. Here was the oligarchy which, behind the appearances of democratic government, effectively managed, directed, and controlled the town. Here was the handful of people who settled between them whether rates should go up or down, and to whom it did not seriously matter whether rates went up or down, provided that the interests of the common people were not too sharply set in antagonism to their own interests. Here were the privileged, who did what they liked on the condition of not offending each other. Here the populace was honestly and cynically and openly regarded as a restless child, to be humoured and to be flattered, but also to be ruled firmly, to be kept in its place, to be ignored when advisable, and to be made to pay.

For the feast, the court-room had been transformed into a banqueting hall, and the magistrates’ bench, where habitual criminals were created and families ruined and order maintained, was hidden in flowers. Osmond Orgreave was dryly facetious about that bench. He exchanged comments with other magistrates, and they all agreed, with the same dry facetiousness, that most of the law was futile and some of it mischievous; and they all said, ‘But what can you do?’ and by their tone indicated that you could do nothing. According to Osmond Orgreave’s wit, the only real use of a magistrate was to sign the necessary papers for persons who had lost pawn-tickets. It appeared that such persons in distress came to Mr Orgreave every day for the august signature. “I had an old woman come to me this morning at my office,” he said. “I asked her how it was they were always losing their pawn-tickets. I told her I never lost mine.” Osmond Orgreave was encircled with laughter. Edwin laughed heartily. It was a good joke. And even mediocre jokes would convulse the room.

Jos Curtenty, the renowned card, a jolly old gentleman of sixty, was in the chair, and therefore jollity was assured in advance. Rising to inaugurate the oratorical section of the night, he took an enormous red flower from a bouquet behind him, and sticking it with a studiously absent air in his button-hole, said blandly, “Gentlemen, no politics, please!” The uproarious effect was one of his very best. He knew his audience. He could have taught Edwin a thing or two. For Edwin in his simplicity was astonished to find the audience almost all of one colour, frankly and joyously and optimistically Tory. There were not ten Liberals in the place, and there was not one who was vocal. The cream of the town, of its brains, its success, its respectability, was assembled together, and the Liberal party was practically unrepresented. It seemed as if there was no Liberal party. It seemed impossible that a Labour candidate could achieve anything but complete disaster at the polls. It seemed incredible that in the past a Liberal candidate had ever been returned. Edwin began, even in the privacy of his own heart, to be apologetic for his Liberalism. All these excellent fellows could not be wrong. The moral force of numbers intimidated him. He suspected that there was, after all, more to be said for Conservatism than he had hitherto allowed himself to suppose.

Three.

And the Felons were so good-humoured and kindly and so free-handed, and, with it all, so boyish! They burst into praise of one another on the slenderest excuse. They ordered more champagne as carelessly as though champagne were ginger-beer (Edwin was glad that by an excess of precaution he had brought two pounds in his pocket — the scale of expenditure was staggering); and they nonchalantly smoked cigars that would have made Edwin sick. They knew all about cigars and about drinks, and they implied by their demeanour, though they never said, that a first-class drink and a first-class smoke were the ‘good things’ of life, the ultimate rewards; the references to women were sly . . . Edwin was like a demure cat among a company of splendid curly dogs.

The toasts, every one of them, called forth enthusiasm. Even in the early part of the evening much good-nature had bubbled out when, at intervals, a slim young bachelor of fifty, armed with a violent mallet, had rapped authoritatively on the table and cried: “Mr President wishes to take wine with Mr Vice,” “Mr President wishes to take wine with the bachelors on the right,” “Mr President wishes to take wine with the married Felons on the left,” and so on till every sort and condition and geographical situation had been thus distinguished. But the toasts proper aroused displays of the most affectionate loving-kindness. Each reference to a Felon was greeted with warm cheers, and each reference touched the superlative of laudation. Every stroke of humour was noisily approved, and every exhibition of tender feeling effusively endorsed. And all the estates of the realm, and all the institutions of the realm and of the town, and all the services of war and peace, and all the official castes were handsomely and unreservedly praised, and their health and prosperity pledged with enthusiastic fervour. The organism of the Empire was pronounced to be essentially perfect. Nobody of importance, from the Queen’s Majesty to the ‘ministers of the Established Church and other denominations,’ was omitted from the certificate of supreme excellence and efficiency. And even when an alderman, proposing the toast of the ‘town and trade of Bursley,’ mentioned certain disturbing symptoms in the demeanour of the lower classes, he immediately added his earnest conviction that the ‘heart of the country beat true,’ and was comforted with grave applause.

Towards the end of the toast-list one of the humorous vocal quartets which were designed to relieve the seriousness of the programme, was interrupted by the formidable sound of the governed proletariat beyond the walls of the Town Hall. And Edwin’s memory, making him feel very old, leapt suddenly back into another generation of male glee-singers that did not disport humorously and that would not have permitted themselves to be interrupted by the shouting of populations; and he recalled ‘Loud Ocean’s Roar,’ and the figure of Florence Simcox flitted in front of him. The proletariat was cheering somebody. The cheers died down. And in another moment the Conservative candidate burst into the room, and was followed by two of his friends (the latter in evening-dress), whom he presented to the President. The ceremonious costume impressed the President himself, for at this period of ancient history Felons dined in frock-coats or cutaways; it proved that the wearers were so accustomed to wearing evening-dress of a night that they put it on by sheer habit and inadvertence even for electioneering. The candidate only desired to shake hands with a few supporters and to assure the President that nothing but hard necessity had kept him away from the dinner. Amid inspiriting bravos and hurrahs he fled, followed by his friends, and it became known that one of these was a baronet.

After this the vote of thanks to the President scarcely escaped being an anticlimax. And several men left, including Albert Benbow, who had once or twice glanced at his watch. “She won’t let you be out after half-past ten, eh, Benbow?” said jocularly a neighbour. And Albert, laughing at the joke, nevertheless looked awkward. And the neighbour perceived that he had been perhaps a trifle clumsy. Edwin, since the mysterious influence in the background was his own sister, had to share Albert’s confusion. He too would have departed. But Osmond Orgreave absolutely declined to let him go, and to prevent him from going used the force which good wine gives.

Four.

The company divided itself into intimate groups, leaving empty white spaces at the disordered tables. The attendants now served whisky, and more liqueurs and coffee. Those guests who knew no qualm lighted fresh cigars; a few produced beloved pipes; the others were content with cigarettes. Some one ordered a window to be opened, and then, when the fresh night air began to disturb the curtains and scatter the fumes of the banquet, some one else crept aside and furtively closed it again.

Edwin found himself with Jos Curtenty and Osmond Orgreave and a few others. He felt gay and enheartened; he felt that there was a great deal of pleasure to be had on earth with very little trouble. Politics had been broached, and he made a mild joke about the Tory candidate. And amid the silence that followed it he mistily perceived that the remainder of the group, instead of becoming more jolly, had grown grave. For them the political situation was serious. They did not trouble to argue against the Labour candidate. All their reasoning was based on the assumption, which nobody denied or questioned, that at any cost the Labour candidate must be defeated. The success of the Labour candidate was regarded as a calamity. It would jeopardise the entire social order. It would deliver into the destroying hands of an ignorant, capricious, and unscrupulous rabble all that was best in English life. It would even mean misery for the rabble itself. The tones grew more solemn. And Edwin, astonished, saw that beneath the egotism of their success, beneath their unconscious arrogance due to the habit of authority, there was a profound and genuine patriotism and sense of duty. And he was abashed. Nevertheless, he had definitely taken sides, and out of mere self-respect he had gently to remind them of the fact. Silence would have been cowardly.

“Then what about ‘trusting to the people’?” he murmured, smiling.

“If trusting to the people means being under the thumb of the British working man, my boy,” said Osmond Orgreave, “you can scratch me out, for one.”

Edwin had never heard him speak so colloquially.

“I’ve always found ’em pretty decent,” said Edwin, but lamely.

Jos Curtenty fixed him with a grim eye.

“How many hands do you employ, Mr Clayhanger?”

“Fourteen,” said Edwin.

“Do you?” exclaimed another voice, evidently surprised and impressed.

Jos Curtenty pulled at his cigar. “I wish I could make as much money as you make out of fourteen hands!” said he. “Well, I’ve got two hundred of ’em at my place. And I know ’em! I’ve known ’em for forty years and more. There’s not ten of ’em as I’d trust to do an honest day’s work, of their own accord . . . And after the row in ‘80, when they’d agreed to arbitration — fifteen thousand of ’em-did they accept the award, or didn’t they? Tell me that, if it isn’t troubling ye too much.”

Only in the last phase did the irrepressible humorous card in him assert itself.

Edwin mumbled inarticulately. His mind was less occupied by politics than by the fact that in the view of all these men he had already finally and definitely taken the place of his father. But for the inquiries made at intervals during the evening, he might have supposed that Darius, lying in helpless obscurity up there at Bleak ridge, had been erased from the memory of the town.

A crony who had not hitherto spoken began to give sarcastic and apparently damning details of the early record of the Labour candidate. Among other delinquencies the fellow had condoned the inexcusable rejection of the arbitrators’ award long ago. And then some one said:

“Hello! Here’s Benbow back again!”

Albert, in overcoat and cap, beckoned to Edwin, who sprang up, pricked into an exaggerated activity by his impatient conscience.

“It’s nothing particular,” said Albert at the door. “But the missus has been round to your father’s to-night, and it seems the nurse has knocked up. She thought I’d perhaps better come along and tell you, in case you hadn’t gone.”

“Knocked up, has she?” said Edwin. “Well, it’s not to be wondered at. Nurse or no nurse, she’s got no more notion of looking after herself than anybody else has. I was just going. It’s only a little after eleven.”

The last thing he heard on quitting the precincts of the banqueting chamber was the violent sound of the mallet. Its wielder seemed to have developed a slight affection for the senseless block of wood.

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