Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Sixteen.

After the Banquet.

“Yes, yes,” said Edwin, impatiently, in reply to some anxious remark of Maggie’s, “I shall be all right with him. Don’t you worry till morning.”

They stood at the door of the sick-room, Edwin in an attitude almost suggesting that he was pushing her out.

He had hurried home from the festival, and found the doctor just leaving and the house in a commotion. Dr Heve said mildly that he was glad Edwin had come, and he hinted that some general calming influence was needed. Nurse Shaw had developed one of the sudden abscesses in the ear which troubled her from time to time. This radiant and apparently strong creature suffered from an affection of the ear. Once her left ear had kept her in bed for six weeks, and she had arisen with the drum pierced. Since which episode there had always been the danger, when the evil recurred, of the region of the brain being contaminated through the tiny orifice in the drum. Hence, even if the acute pain which she endured had not forced her to abandon other people’s maladies for the care of her own, the sense of her real peril would have done so. This masterful, tireless woman, whom no sadness nor abomination of her habitual environment could depress or daunt, lived under a menace, and was sometimes laid low, like a child. She rested now in Maggie’s room, with a poultice for a pillow. A few hours previously no one in the house had guessed that she had any weakness whatever. Her collapse gave to Maggie an excellent opportunity, such as Maggie loved, to prove that she was equal to a situation. Maggie would not permit Mrs Hamps to be sent for. Nor would she permit Mrs Nixon to remain up. She was excited and very fatigued, and she meant to manage the night with the sole aid of Jane. It was even part of her plan that Edwin should go to bed as usual — poor Edwin, with all the anxieties of business upon his head! But she had not allowed for Edwin’s conscience, nor foreseen what the doctor would say to him privately. Edwin had learnt from the doctor — a fact which the women had not revealed to him — that his father during the day had shown symptoms of ‘Cheyne–Stokes breathing,’ the final and the worst phenomenon of his disease; a phenomenon, too, interestingly rare. The doctor had done all that could be done by injections, and there was absolutely nothing else for anybody to do except watch.

“I shall come in in the night,” Maggie whispered.

Behind them the patient vaguely stirred and groaned in his recess.

“You’ll do no such thing,” said Edwin shortly. “Get all the sleep you can.”

“But Nurse has to have a fresh poultice every two hours,” Maggie protested.

“Now, look here!” Edwin was cross. “Do show a little sense. Get — all — the — sleep — you — can. We shall be having you ill next, and then there’ll be a nice kettle of fish. I won’t have you coming in here. I shall be perfectly all right. Now!” He gave a gesture that she should go at once.

“You won’t be fit for the shop tomorrow.”

“Damn the shop!”

“Well, you know where everything is.” She was resigned. “If you want to make some tea —”

“All right, all right!” He forced himself to smile.

She departed, and he shut the door.

“Confounded nuisance women are!” he thought, half indulgently, as he turned towards the bed. But it was his conscience that was a confounded nuisance. He ought never to have allowed himself to be persuaded to go to the banquet. When his conscience annoyed him, it was usually Maggie who felt the repercussion.

Two.

Darius was extremely ill. Every part of his physical organism was deranged and wearied out. His features combined the expression of intense fatigue with the sinister liveliness of an acute tragic apprehension. His failing faculties were kept horribly alert by the fear of what was going to happen to him next. So much that was appalling had already happened to him! He wanted repose; he wanted surcease; he wanted nothingness. He was too tired to move, but he was also too tired to lie still. And thus he writhed faintly on the bed; his body seemed to have that vague appearance of general movement which a multitude of insects will give to a piece of decaying matter. His skin was sick, and his hair, and his pale lips. The bed could not be kept tidy for five minutes.

“He’s bad, no mistake!” thought Edwin, as he met his father’s anxious and intimidated gaze. He had never seen anyone so ill. He knew now what disease could do.

“Where’s Nurse?” the old man murmured, with excessive feebleness, his voice captiously rising to a shrill complaint.

“She’s not well. She’s lying down. I’m going to sit with you to-night. Have a drink?” As Edwin said these words in his ordinary voice, it seemed to him that in comparison with his father he was a god of miraculous proud strength and domination.

Darius nodded.

“Her’s a Tartar!” Darius muttered. “But her’s just! Her will have her own way!” He often spoke thus of the nurse, giving people to understand that during the long nights, when he was left utterly helpless to the harsh mercy of the nurse, he had to accept many humiliations. He seemed to fear and love her as a dog its master. Edwin, using his imagination to realise the absoluteness of the power which the nurse had over Darius during ten hours in every twenty-four, was almost frightened by it. “By Jove!” he thought, “I wouldn’t be in his place with any woman on earth!” The old man’s lips closed clumsily round the funnel of the invalid’s cup that Edwin offered. Then he sank back, and shut his eyes, and appeared calmer.

Edwin smoothed the clothes, stared at him a long time, and finally sat down in the arm-chair by the fire. He wound up his watch. It was not yet midnight. He took off his boots and put on the slippers which now Darius had not worn for over a week and would not wear again. He yawned heavily. The yawn surprised him. He perceived that his head was throbbing and his mouth dry, and that the meats and liquors of the banquet, having ceased to stimulate, were incommoding him. His mind and body were in reaction. He reflected cynically upon the facile self-satisfactions of those successful men in whose company he had been. The whole dinner grew unreal. Nothing was real except imprisonment on a bed night and day, day and night for weeks. Every one could have change and rest save his father. For his father there was no relief, not a moment’s. He was always there, in the same recess, prone, in subjection, helpless, hopeless, and suffering. Politics! What were they?

Three.

He closed his eyes, because it occurred to him that to do so would be agreeable. And he was awakened from a doze by a formidable stir on the bed. Darius’s breathing was quick and shallow, and growing more so. He lifted his head from the pillow in order to breathe, and leaned on one elbow. Edwin sprang up and went to him.

“Clara! Clara! Don’t leave me!” the old man cried in tones of agonised apprehension.

“It’s all right; I’m here,” said Edwin reassuringly. And he took the sick man’s hot, crackling hand and held it.

Gradually the breathing went slower and deeper, and at length Darius sighed very deeply as at a danger past, and relaxed his limbs, and Edwin let go his hand. But he had not been at ease more than a few seconds when the trouble recommenced, and he was fighting again, and with appreciably more difficulty, to get air down into his lungs. It entered in quantities smaller and smaller, until it seemed scarcely to reach his throat before it was expelled again. The respirations were as rapid as the ticking of a watch. Despite his feebleness Darius wrenched his limbs into contortions, and gripped fiercely Edwin’s hands.

“Clara! Clara!” he cried once more.

“It’s all right. You’re all right. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Edwin, soothing him.

And that paroxysm also passed, and the old man moaned in the melancholy satisfaction of deep breaths. But the mysterious disturbing force would not leave him in peace. In another moment yet a fresh struggle was commencing. And each was worse than the last. And it was always Clara to whom he turned for succour. Not Maggie, who had spent nearly forty years in his service, and never spoke ill-naturedly of him; but Clara, who was officious rather than helpful, who wept for him in his presence, and said harsh things behind his back, and who had never forgiven him since the refusal of the loan to Albert.

After he had passed through a dozen crises of respiration Edwin said to himself that the next one could not be worse. But it was worse. Darius breathed like a blown dog that has fallen. He snatched furiously at breath like a tiger snatching at meat. He accomplished exertions that would have exhausted an athlete, and when he had saved his life in the very instant of its loss, calling on Clara as on God, he would look at Edwin for confirmation of his hope that he had escaped again. The paroxysms continued, still growing more critical. Edwin was aghast at his own helplessness. He could do absolutely naught. It was even useless to hold the hand or to speak sympathy and reassurance. Darius at the keenest moment of battle was too occupied with his enemy to hear or feel the presence of a fellow-creature. He was solitary with his unseen enemy, and if the room had been full of ministering angels he would still have been alone and unsuccoured. He might have been sealed up in a cell with his enemy who, incredibly cruel, withheld from him his breath; and Edwin outside the cell trying foolishly to get in. He asked for little; he would have been content with very little; but it was refused him until despair had reached the highest agony.

Four.

“He’s dying, I do believe,” thought Edwin, and the wonder of this nocturnal adventure sent tremors down his spine. He faced the probability that at the next bout his father would be worsted. Should he fetch Maggie and then go for the doctor? Heve had told him that it would be ‘pretty bad,’ and that nothing on earth could be done. No! He would not fetch Maggie, and he would not go for the doctor. What use? He would see the thing through. In the solemnity of the night he was glad that an experience tremendous and supreme had been vouchsafed to him. He knew now what the will to live was. He saw life naked, stripped of everything unessential. He saw life and death together. What caused his lip to curl when the thought of the Felons’ dinner flashed through his mind was the damned complacency of the Felons. Did any of them ever surmise that they had never come within ten miles of life itself, that they were attaching importance to the most futile trifles? Let them see a human animal in a crisis of Cheyne–Stokes breathing, and they would know something about reality! . . . So this was Cheyne–Stokes breathing, that rare and awful affliction! What was it? What caused it? What controlled its frequency? No answer! Not only could he do naught, he knew naught! He was equally useless and ignorant before the affrighting mystery.

Darius no longer sat up and twisted himself in the agony of the struggles. He lay flat, resigned but still obstinate, fighting with the only muscles that could fight now, those of his chest and throat. The enemy had got him down, but he would not surrender. Time after time he won a brief armistice in the ruthless altercation, and breathed deep and long, and sighed as if he would doze, and then his enemy was at him again, and Darius, aroused afresh to the same terror, summoned Clara in the extremity of his anguish.

Edwin moved away, and surveyed the bed from afar. The old man was perfectly oblivious of him. He looked at his watch, and timed the crises. They recurred fairly regularly about every hundred seconds. Thirty-six times an hour Darius, growing feebler, fought unaided and without hope of aid an enemy growing stronger, and would not yield. He was dragged to his death thirty-six times every hour, and thirty-six times managed to scramble back from the edge of the chasm. Occasionally his voice, demanding that Clara should not desert him, made a shriek which seemed loud enough to wake the street. Edwin listened for any noise in the house, but heard nothing.

Five.

A curious instinct drove him out of the room for a space on to the landing. He shut the door on the human animal in its lonely struggle. The gas was burning on the landing and also in the hall, for this was not a night on which to extinguish lights. The clock below ticked quietly, and then struck three. He had passed more than three hours with his father. The time had gone quickly. He crept to Maggie’s door. No sound! Utter silence! He crept upstairs to the second storey. No sound there! Coming down again to the first floor he noticed that the door of his own bedroom was open. He crept in there, and started violently to see a dim form on the bed. It was Maggie, dressed, but fast asleep under a rug. He left her. The whole world was asleep, and he was awake with his father.

“What an awful shame!” he thought savagely. “Why couldn’t we have let him grow his mushrooms if he wanted to? What harm would it have done us? Supposing it had been a nuisance, supposing he had tried to kiss Jane, supposing he had hurt himself, what then? Why couldn’t we let him do what he wanted?”

And he passionately resented his own harshness and that of Maggie as he might have resented the cruelty of some national injustice.

He listened. Nothing but the ticking of the clock disturbed the calm of the night. Could his father have expired in one of those frantic bouts with his enemy? Brusquely, with false valiance, he reentered the chamber, and saw again the white square of the blind and the expanse of carpet and the tables littered with nursing apparatus, and saw the bed and his father on it, panting in a new and unsurpassable despair, but still unbeaten, under the thin gas-flame. The crisis eased as he went in. He picked up the arm-chair and carried it to the bedside and sat down facing his father, and once more took his father’s intolerably pathetic hand.

“All right!” he murmured, and never before had he spoken with such tenderness. “All right! I’m here. I’m not leaving you.”

The victim grew quieter.

“Is it Edwin?” he whispered, scarcely articulate, out of a bottomless depth of weakness.

“Yes,” said Edwin cheerfully; “you’re a bit better now, aren’t you?”

“Aye!” sighed Darius in hope.

And almost immediately the rumour of struggle recommenced, and in a minute the crisis was at its fiercest.

Edwin became hardened to the spectacle. He reasoned with himself about suffering. After all, what was its importance? Up to a point it could be borne, and when it could not be borne it ceased to be suffering. The characteristic grimness of those latitudes showed itself in him. There was nothing to be done. They who were destined to suffer had to suffer, must suffer; and no more could be said. The fight must come to an end sooner or later. Fortitude alone could meet the situation. Nevertheless, the night seemed eternal, and at intervals fortitude lacked.

“By Jove!” he would mutter aloud, under the old man’s constant appeals to Clara, “I shan’t be sorry when this is over.”

Then he would interest himself in the periodicity of the attacks, timing them by his watch with care. Then he would smooth the bed. Once he looked at the fire. It was out. He had forgotten it. He immediately began to feel chilly, and then he put on his father’s patched dressing-gown and went to the window, and, drawing aside the blind, glanced forth. All was black and utterly silent. He thought with disdain of Maggie and the others unconscious in sleep. He returned to the chair.

Six.

He was startled, at a side glance, by something peculiar in the appearance of the window. It was the first messenger of the dawn. Yes, a faint greyness, very slowly working in secret against the power of the gaslight: timid, delicate, but brightening by imperceptible degrees into strength.

“Some of them will be getting up soon, now,” he said to himself. The hour was between four and half-past. He looked forward to release. Maggie was sure to come and release him shortly. And even as he held the sick man’s arm, comforting him, he yawned.

But no one came. Five o’clock, half-past five! The first car rumbled down. And still the victim, unbroken, went through his agony every two minutes or oftener, with the most frightful regularity.

He extinguished the gas, and lo! there was enough daylight to see clearly. He pulled up the blind. The night had gone. He had been through the night. The entire surface of his head was tingling. Now he would look at the martyrdom of the victim as at a natural curiosity, having no capacity left for feeling. And now his sympathy would gush forth anew, and he would cover with attentions his father, who, fiercely preoccupied with the business of obtaining breath, gave no heed to them. And now he would stand impressed, staggered, by the magnificence of the struggle.

The suspense from six to seven was the longest. When would somebody come? Had the entire household taken laudanum? He would go and rouse Maggie. No, he would not. He was too proud.

At a quarter-past seven the knob of the door clicked softly. He could scarcely believe his ears. Maggie entered. Darius was easier between two crises.

“Well,” said she tranquilly, “how is he?” She was tying her apron.

“Pretty bad,” Edwin answered, with affected nonchalance.

“Nurse is a bit better. I’ve given her three fresh poultices since midnight. You’d better go now, hadn’t you?”

“All right. I’ve let the fire out.”

“I’ll tell Jane to light it. She’s just making some tea for you.”

He went. He did not need twice telling. As he went, carelessly throwing off the dressing-gown and picking up his boots, Darius began to pant afresh, to nerve himself instinctively afresh for another struggle. Edwin, strong and healthy, having done nothing but watch, was completely exhausted. But Darius, weakened by disease, having fought a couple of hundred terrific and excruciating encounters, each a supreme battle, in the course of a single night, was still drawing upon the apparently inexhaustible reserves of his volition.

“I couldn’t have stood that much longer,” said Edwin, out on the landing.

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