Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Seventeen.

The Chain Broken.

Shortly after eight o’clock Edwin was walking down Trafalgar Road on his way to the shop. He had bathed, and drunk some tea, and under the stimulation he felt the factitious vivacity of excessive fatigue. Rain had fallen quietly and perseveringly during the night, and though the weather was now fine the streets were thick with black mire. Paintresses with their neat gloves and their dinner-baskets and their thin shoes were trudging to work, and young clerks and shop-assistants and the upper classes of labour generally. Everybody was in a hurry. The humbler mass had gone long ago. Miners had been in the earth for hours. Later, and more leisurely, the magnates would pass by.

There were carriages about. An elegant wagonette, streaming with red favours, dashed down the road behind two horses. Its cargo was a handful of clay-soiled artisans, gleeful in the naive pride of their situation, wearing red and shouting red, and hurrahing for the Conservative candidate.

“Asses!” murmured Edwin, with acrid and savage disdain. “Do you think he’d drive you anywhere tomorrow?” He walked on a little, and broke forth again, all to himself: “Of course he’s doing it solely in your interest, isn’t he? Why doesn’t he pick some of these paintresses out of the mud and give them a drive?”

He cultivated an unreasoning anger against the men who had so impressed him at the banquet. He did not try to find answers to their arguments. He accused them stoutly of wilful blindness, of cowardice, of bullying, of Pharisaism, and of other sins. He had no wish to hear their defence. He condemned them, and as it were ordered them to be taken away and executed. He had a profound conviction that argument was futile, and that nothing would serve but a pitched battle, in which each fighting man should go to the poll and put a cross against a name in grim silence. Argue with these gross self-satisfied fellows about the turpitude of the artisans! Why, there was scarcely one of them whose grandfather had not been an artisan! Curse their patriotism! Then he would begin bits of argument to himself, and stop them, too impatient to continue . . . The shilling cigars of those feasters disgusted him . . . In such wise his mind ran. And he was not much kinder to the artisan. If scorn could have annihilated, there would have been no proletariat left in the division . . . Men? Sheep rather! Letting themselves be driven up and down like that, and believing all the yarns that were spun to them! Gaping idiots, they would swallow any mortal thing! There was simply naught that they were not stupid enough to swallow with a glass of beer. It would serve them right if — However, that could not happen. Idiocy had limits. At least he presumed it had.

Early as it was, the number of carriages was already considerable. But he did not see one with the blue of the Labour candidate. Blue rosettes there were, but the red rosettes bore them down easily. Even dogs had been adorned with red rosettes, and nice clean infants! And on all the hoardings were enormous red posters exhorting the shrewd common-sense potter not to be misled by paid agitators, but to plump for his true friend, for the man who was anxious to devote his entire career and goods to the welfare of the potter and the integrity of the Empire.

Two.

“If you can give me three days off, sir,” said Big James, in the majestic humility of his apron, “I shall take it kindly.”

Edwin had gone into the composing room with the copy for a demy poster, consisting of four red words to inform the public that the true friend of the public was ‘romping in.’ A hundred posters were required within an hour. He had nearly refused the order, in his feverish fatigue and his disgust, but some remnant of sagacity had asserted itself in him and saved him from this fatuity.

“Why?” he asked roughly. “What’s up now, James?”

“My old comrade Abraham Harracles is dead, sir, at Glasgow, and I’m wishful for to attend the interment, far as it is. He was living with his daughter, and she’s written to me. If you could make it convenient to spare me —”

“Of course, of course!” Edwin interrupted him hastily. In his present mood, it revolted him that a man of between fifty and sixty should be humbly asking as a favour to be allowed to fulfil a pious duty.

“I’m very much obliged to you, sir,” said Big James simply, quite unaware that captious Edwin found his gratitude excessive and servile. “I’m the last now, sir, of the old glee-party,” he added.

“Really!”

Big James nodded, and said quietly, “And how’s the old gentleman, sir?”

Edwin shook his head.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Big James.

“I’ve been up with him all night,” Edwin told him.

“I wonder if you’d mind dropping me a line to Glasgow, sir, if anything happens. I can give you the address. If it isn’t —”

“Certainly, if you like.” He tried to be nonchalant “When are you going?”

“I did think of getting to Crewe before noon, sir. As soon as I’ve seen to this —” He cocked his eye at the copy for the poster.

“Oh, you needn’t bother about that,” said Edwin carelessly. “Go now if you want to.”

“I’ve got time, sir. Mr Curtenty’s coming for me at nine o’clock to drive me to th’ polling-booth.”

This was the first time that Edwin had ever heard Big James talk of his private politics. The fact was that Big James was no more anxious than Jos Curtenty and Osmond Orgreave to put himself under the iron heel of his fellow working-man.

“And what’s your colour, James?” His smile was half a sneer.

“If you’ll pardon me saying so, sir, I’m for Her Most Gracious,” Big James answered with grave dignity.

Three journeymen, pretending to be busy, were listening with all ears from the other side of a case.

“Oh!” exclaimed Edwin, dashed. “Well, that’s all right!”

He walked straight out, put on his hat, and went to the Bleakridge polling-station and voted Labour defiantly, as though with a personal grievance against the polling-clerk. He had a vote, not as lessee of the business premises, but as his father’s lodger. He despised Labour; he did not care what happened to Labour. In voting for Labour, he seemed to have the same satisfaction as if from pique he had voted against it because its stupidity had incensed him.

Then, instead of returning him to the shop, his legs took him home and upstairs, and he lay down in his own room.

Three.

He was awakened by the presence of some one at his bedside, and the whole of his body protested against the disturbance.

“I couldn’t make you hear with knocking,” said Dr Heve, “so I came into the room.”

“Hello, doctor, is that you?” Edwin sat up, dazed, and with a sensation of large waves passing in slow succession through his head. “I must have dropped asleep.”

“I hear you had a pretty bad night with him,” the doctor remarked.

“Yes. It’s a mystery to me how he could keep it up.”

“I was afraid you would. Well, he’s quieter now. In fact, he’s unconscious.”

“Unconscious, is he?”

“You’ll have no more trouble with the old gentleman,” said the doctor. He was looking at the window, as though at some object of great interest to be seen thence. His tone was gentle and unaffected. For the twentieth time Edwin privately admitted that in spite of the weak, vacuous smile which seemed to delight everybody except himself, there was a sympathetic quality in this bland doctor. In common moments he was common, but in the rare moment when a man with such a smile ought to be at his worst, a certain soft dignity would curiously distinguish his bearing.

“Um!” Edwin muttered, also looking at the window. And then, after a pause, he asked: “Will it last long?”

“I don’t know,” said the doctor. “The fact is, this is the first case of Cheyne–Stokes breathing I’ve ever had. It may last for days.”

“How’s the nurse?” Edwin demanded.

They talked about the nurse, and then Dr Heve said that, his brother the Vicar and he having met in the street, they had come in together, as the Vicar was anxious to have news of his old acquaintance’s condition. It appeared that the Vicar was talking to Maggie and Janet in the drawing-room.

“Well,” said Edwin, “I shan’t come down. Tell him I’m only presentable enough for doctors.”

With a faint smile and a nod, the doctor departed. As soon as he had gone, Edwin jumped off the bed and looked at his watch, which showed two o’clock. No doubt dinner was over. No doubt Maggie had decided that it would be best to leave him alone to sleep. But that day neither he nor anybody in the household had the sense of time, the continuous consciousness of what the hour was. The whole systematised convention of existence was deranged, and all values transmuted. Edwin was aware of no feeling whatever except an intensity of curiosity to see again in tranquillity the being with whom he had passed the night. Pushing his hand through his hair, he hurried into the sick-room. It was all tidy and fresh, as though nothing had ever happened in it. Mrs Nixon, shrivelled and deaf, sat in the arm-chair, watching. No responsibility now attached to the vigil, and so it could be left to the aged and almost useless domestic. She gave a gesture which might have meant anything — despair, authority, pride, grief.

Edwin stood by the bedside and gazed. Darius lay on his back, with eyes half-open, motionless, unseeing, unhearing, and he breathed faintly, with the soft regularity of an infant. The struggle was finished, and he had emerged from it with the right to breathe. His hair had been brushed, and his beard combed. It was uncanny, this tidiness, this calm, this passivity. The memory of the night grew fantastic and remote. Surely the old man must spring up frantically in a moment, to beat off his enemy! Surely his agonised cry for Clara must be ringing through the room! But nothing of him stirred. Air came and went through those parted and relaxed lips with the perfect efficiency of a healthy natural function. And yet he was not asleep. His obstinate and tremendous spirit was now withdrawn somewhere, into some fastness more recondite than sleep; not far off; not detached, not dethroned; but undiscoverably hidden, and beyond any summons. Edwin gazed and gazed, until his heart could hold no more of the emotion which this mysteriously impressive spectacle, at once majestic and poignant, distilled into it. Then he silently left the old woman sitting dully by the spirit concealed in its ruined home.

Four.

In the evening he was resting on the sofa in the drawing-room. Auntie Hamps was near him, at work on some embroidery. In order that her dear Edwin might doze a little if he could, she refrained from speech; from time to time she stopped her needle and looked reflectively at the morsel of fire, or at the gas. She had been in the house since before tea. Clara also had passed most of the day there, with a few intervals at her own home; but now Clara was gone, and Janet too had gone. Darius was tiring them all out, in his mild and senseless repose. He remained absolutely still, and the enigma which he so indifferently offered to them might apparently continue for ever; at any rate the doctor’s statement that he might keep as he was for days and days, beyond help, hung over the entire household, discouraging and oppressive. The energy of even Auntie Hamps was baffled. Only Alicia, who had come in, as she said, to take Janet’s place, insisted on being occupied. This was one of the nights dedicated by family arrangement to her betrothed, but Alicia had found pleasure in sacrificing herself, and him, to her very busy sense of duty.

Suddenly the drawing-room door was pushed open, without a sound, and Alicia, in all the bursting charm of her youthfulness and the delicious naivete of her self-importance, stood in the doorway. She made no gesture; she just looked at Edwin with a peculiar ominous and excited glance, and Edwin rose quickly and left the room. Auntie Hamps had noticed nothing.

“Maggie wants you upstairs,” said Alicia to Edwin.

He made no answer. He did not ask where Maggie was. They went upstairs together. But at the door of the sick-room Alicia hung back, intimidated, and Edwin entered and shut the door on that beautiful image of proud, throbbing life.

Maggie, standing by the bed under the gas which blazed at full, turned to him as he approached.

“Just come and look at him,” she said quietly.

Darius lay in exactly the same position; except that his mouth was open a little wider, he presented exactly the same appearance as in the afternoon. His weary features, pitiful and yet grim, had exactly the same expression. But there was no sign of breathing. Edwin bent and listened.

“Oh! He’s dead!” he murmured.

Maggie nodded, her eyes glittering as though set with diamonds. “I think so,” she said.

“When was it?”

“Scarcely a minute ago. I was sitting there, by the fire, and I thought I noticed something —”

“What did you notice?”

“I don’t know . . . I must go and tell nurse.”

She went, wiping her eyes.

Edwin, now alone, looked again at the residue of his father. The spirit, after hiding within so long, had departed and left no trace. It had done with that form and was away. The vast and forlorn adventure of the little boy from the Bastille was over. Edwin did not know that the little boy from the Bastille was dead. He only knew that his father was dead. It seemed intolerably tragic that the enfeebled wreck should have had to bear so much, and yet intolerably tragic also that death should have relieved him. But Edwin’s distress was shot through and enlightened by his solemn satisfaction at the fact that destiny had allotted to him, Edwin, an experience of such profound and overwhelming grandeur. His father was, and lo! he was not. That was all, but it was ineffable.

Maggie returned to the room, followed by Nurse Shaw, whose head was enveloped in various bandages. Edwin began to anticipate all the tedious formalities, as to which he would have to inform himself, of registration and interment . . .

Five.

Ten o’clock. The news was abroad in the house. Alicia had gone to spread it. Maggie had startled everybody by deciding to go down and tell Clara herself, though Albert was bound to call. The nurse had laid out the corpse. Auntie Hamps and Edwin were again in the drawing-room together; the ageing lady was making up her mind to go. Edwin, in search of an occupation, prepared to write letters to one or two distant relatives of his mother. Then he remembered his promise to Big James, and decided to write that letter first.

“What a mercy he passed away peacefully!” Auntie Hamps exclaimed, not for the first time.

Edwin, at a rickety fancy desk, began to write: “Dear James, my father passed peacefully away at —” Then, with an abrupt movement, he tore the sheet in two and threw it in the fire, and began again: “Dear James, my father died quietly at eight o’clock to-night.”

Soon afterwards, when Mrs Hamps had departed with her genuine but too spectacular grief, Edwin heard an immense commotion coming down the road from Hanbridge: cheers, shouts, squeals, penny whistles, and trumpets. He opened the gate.

“Who’s in?” he asked a stout, shabby man, who was gesticulating in glee with a little Tory flag on the edge of the crowd.

“Who do you think, mister?” replied the man drunkenly.

“What majority?”

“Four hundred and thirty-nine.”

The integrity of the empire was assured, and the paid agitator had received a proper rebuff.

“Miserable idiots!” Edwin murmured, with the most extraordinary violence of scorn, as he reentered the house, and the blare of triumph receded. He was very much surprised. He had firmly expected his own side to win, though he was reconciled to a considerable reduction of the old majority. His lips curled.

It was in his resentment, in the hard setting of his teeth as he confirmed himself in the rightness of his own opinions, that he first began to realise an individual freedom. “I don’t care if we’re beaten forty times,” his thoughts ran. “I’ll be a more out-and-out Radical than ever! I don’t care, and I don’t care!” And he felt sturdily that he was free. The chain was at last broken that had bound together those two beings so dissimilar, antagonistic, and ill-matched — Edwin Clayhanger and his father.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/clayhanger/book3.17.html

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