Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Two.

The Conclave.

The next morning Edwin overslept himself. He seldom rose easily from his bed, and his first passage down Trafalgar Road to business was notoriously hurried; the whole thoroughfare was acquainted with its special character. Often his father arrived at the shop before him, but Edwin’s conscience would say that of course if Darius went down early for his own passion and pleasure, that was Darius’s affair. Edwin’s official time for beginning work was half-past eight. And at half-past eight, on this morning, he was barely out of the bath. His lateness, however, did not disturb him; there was an excuse for it. He hoped that his father would be in bed, and decided that he must go and see, and, if the old man was still sufficiently pliant, advise him to stay where he was until he had had some food.

But, looking out of the window over a half-buttoned collar, he saw his father dressed and in the garden. Darius had resumed the suit of broadcloth, for some strange reason, and was dragging his feet with painful, heavy slowness along the gravel at the south end of the garden. He carried in his left hand the “Signal,” crumpled. A cloth cap, surmounting the ceremonious suit, gave to his head a ridiculous appearance. He was gazing at the earth with an expression of absorbed and acute melancholy. When he reached the end of the path, he looked round, at a loss, then turned, as if on an inefficient pivot, and set himself in motion again. Edwin was troubled by this singular episode. And yet his reason argued with his instinct to the effect that he ought not to be troubled. Evidently the sturdy Darius was not ill. Nothing serious could be the matter. He had been harrowed and fatigued by the funeral; no more. In another day, doubtless, he would be again the harsh employer astoundingly concentrated in affairs and impervious to the emotional appeal of aught else. Nevertheless he made a strange sight, parading his excessive sadness there in the garden.

A knock at Edwin’s door! He was startled. “Hold on!” he cried, went to the door, and cautiously opened it. Maggie was on the mat.

“Here’s Auntie Clara!” she said in a whisper, perturbed. “She’s come about father. Shall you be long?”

“About father? What about father?”

“It seems she saw him last night. He called there. And she was anxious.”

“Oh! I see!” Edwin affected to be relieved. Maggie nodded, also affecting, somewhat eagerly, to be relieved. But neither of them was relieved. Auntie Clara calling at half-past eight! Auntie Clara neglecting that which she never neglected — the unalterable and divinely appointed rites for the daily cleansing and ordering of her abode!

“I shall be down in ten secs,” said he. “Father’s in the garden,” he added, almost kindly. “Seems all right.”

“Yes,” said Maggie, with cheerfulness, and went. He closed the door.

Two.

Mrs Hamps was in the drawing-room. She had gone into the drawing-room because it was more secret, better suited to conversation of an exquisite privacy than the dining-room — a public resort at that hour. Edwin perceived at once that she was savouring intensely the strangeness of the occasion, inflating its import and its importance to the largest possible.

“Good morning, dear,” she greeted him in a low and significant tone. “I felt I must come up at once. I couldn’t fancy any breakfast till I’d been up, so I put on my bonnet and mantle and just came. It’s no use fighting against what you feel you must do.”

“But —”

“Hasn’t Maggie told you? Your father called to see me last night just after I’d gone upstairs. In fact I’d begun to get ready for bed. I heard the knocking and I came down and lit the gas in the lobby. ‘Who’s there?’ I said. There wasn’t any answer, but I made sure I heard some one crying. And when I opened the door, there was your father. ‘Oh!’ he said. ‘Happen you’ve gone to bed, Clara?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Come in, do!’ But he wouldn’t. And he looked so queer. I never saw him look like that before. He’s such a strong self-controlled man. I knew he’d been to poor Mr Shushions’s funeral. ‘I suppose you’ve been to the funeral, Darius,’ I said. And as soon as I said that he burst out crying, and half tumbled down the steps, and off he went! I couldn’t go after him, as I was. I didn’t know what to do. If anything happened to your father, I don’t know what I should do.”

“What time was that?” Edwin asked, wondering what on earth she meant —“if anything happened to your father!”

“Half-past ten or hardly. What time did he come home? Very, very late, wasn’t it?”

“A little after twelve,” he said carelessly. He was sorry that he had inquired as to the hour of the visit to his aunt. Obviously she was ready to build vast and terrible conjectures upon the mysterious interval between half-past ten and midnight.

“You’ve cut yourself, my dear,” she said, indicating with her gloved hand Edwin’s chin. “And I’m not surprised. How upsetting it is for you! Of course Maggie’s the eldest, and we think a great deal of her, but you’re the son — the only son!”

“I know,” he said, meaning that he knew he had cut himself, and he pressed his handkerchief to his chin. Within, he was blasphemously fuming. The sentimental accent with which she had finally murmured ‘the only son’ irritated him extremely, What in the name of God was she driving at? The fact was that, enjoying a domestic crisis with positive sensuality, she was trying to manufacture one! That was it! He knew her. There were times when he could share all Maggie’s hatred of Mrs Hamps, and this was one of those times. The infernal woman, with her shaking plumes and her odour of black kid, was enjoying herself! In the thousandth part of a second he invented horrible and grotesque punishments for her, as that all the clothes should suddenly fall off that prim, widowed, odious modesty. Yet, amid the multitude of his sensations — the smarting of his chin, the tingling of all his body after the bath, the fresh vivacity of the morning, the increased consciousness of his own ego, due to insufficient sleep, the queerness of being in the drawing-room at such an hour in conspiratorial talk, the vague disquiet caused at midnight, and now intensified despite his angry efforts to avoid the contagion of Mrs Hamps’s mood, and above all the thought of his father gloomily wandering in the garden — amid these confusing sensations, it was precisely an idea communicated to him by his annoying aunt, an obvious idea, an idea not worth uttering, that emerged clear and dramatic: he was the only son.

“There’s no need to worry,” he said as firmly as he could “The funeral got on his nerves, that’s all. He certainly did seem a bit knocked about last night, and I shouldn’t have been surprised if he’d stayed in bed today. But you see he’s up and about.” Both of them glanced at the window, which gave on the garden.

“Yes,” murmured Mrs Hamps, unconvinced. “But what about his crying? Maggie tells me he was —”

“Oh!” Edwin interrupted her almost roughly. “That’s nothing. I’ve known him cry before.”

“Have you?” She seemed taken aback.

“Yes. Years ago. That’s nothing fresh.”

“It’s true he’s very sensitive,” Mrs Hamps reflected. “That’s what we don’t realise, maybe, sometimes. Of course if you think he’s all right —”

She approached the window, and, leaning over the tripod which held a flower-pot enveloped in pink paper, she drew the white curtain aside, and gazed forth in silence. Darius was still pacing up and down the short path at the extremity of the garden; his eyes were still on the ground, and his features expressive of mournful despair, and at the end of the path he still turned his body round with slow and tedious hesitations. Edwin also could see him through the window. They both watched him; it was as if they were spying on him.

Maggie entered, and said, in an unusual flutter —

“Here’s Clara and Albert!”

Three.

Clara and her husband came immediately into the drawing-room. The wife, dressed with a certain haste and carelessness, was carrying in her arms her third child, yet unweaned, and she expected a fourth in the early autumn. Clara had matured, she had grown stronger; and despite the asperity of her pretty, pale face there was a charm in the free gestures and the large body of the young and prolific mother. Albert Benbow wore the rough, clay-dusted attire of the small earthenware manufacturer who is away from the works for half an hour. Both of them were electrically charged with importance.

Amid the general self-consciousness Maggie took the baby, and Clara and Mrs Hamps kissed each other tenderly, as though saying, “Affliction is upon us.” It was impossible, in the circumstances, to proceed to minute inquiry about the health of the children, but Mrs Hamps expressed all her solicitude in a look, a tone, a lingering of lip on lip. The years were drawing together Mrs Hamps and her namesake. Edwin was often astonished at the increasing resemblance of Clara to her aunt, with whom, thanks to the unconscious intermediacy of babies, she was even indeed quite intimate. The two would discuss with indefatigable gusto all the most minute physical details of motherhood and infancy: and Auntie Clara’s presents were worthy of her reputation.

As soon as the kiss was accomplished — no other greeting of any kind occurred — Clara turned sharply to Edwin —

“What’s this about father?”

“Oh! He’s had a bit of a shock. He’s pretty much all right today.”

“Because Albert’s just heard —” She looked at Albert.

Edwin was thunderstruck. Was the tale of his father’s indisposition spread all over the Five Towns? He had thought that the arrival of Clara and her husband must be due to Auntie Hamps having called at their house on her way up to Bleakridge. But now he could see, even from his auntie’s affrighted demeanour alone, that the Benbows’ visit was an independent affair.

“Are you sure he’s all right?” Albert questioned, in his superiorly sagacious manner, which mingled honest bullying with a little good-nature.

“Because Albert just heard —” Clara put in again.

The company then heard what Albert had just heard. At his works before breakfast an old hollow-ware-presser, who lived at Turnhill, had casually mentioned that his father-in-law, Mr Clayhanger, had been cutting a very peculiar figure on the previous evening at Turnhill. The hollow-ware-presser had seen nothing personally; he had only been told. He could not or would not particularise. Apparently he possessed in a high degree the local talent for rousing an apprehension by the offer of food, and then under ingenious pretexts refusing the food. At any rate, Albert had been startled, and had communicated his alarm to Clara. Clara had meant to come up a little later in the morning, but she wanted Albert to come with her, and Albert, being exceedingly busy, had only the breakfast half-hour of liberty. Hence they had set out instantly, although the baby required sustenance; Albert having suggested that Clara could feed the baby just as well at her father’s as at home.

Before the Benbow story was quite finished it became entangled with the story of Mrs Hamps, and then with Edwin’s story. They were all speaking at once, except Maggie, who was trying to soothe the baby.

Holding forth her arms, Clara, without ceasing to talk rapidly and anxiously to Mrs Hamps, without even regarding what she did, took the infant from her sister, held it with one hand, and with the other loosed her tight bodice, and boldly exposed to the greedy mouth the magnificent source of life. As the infant gurgled itself into silence, she glanced with a fleeting ecstatic smile at Maggie, who smiled back. It was strange how Maggie, now midway between thirty and forty, a tall, large-boned, plump, mature woman, efficient, kindly, and full of common sense — it was strange how she always failed to assert herself. She listened now, not seeking notice and assuredly not receiving it.

Edwin felt again the implication, first rendered by his aunt, and now emphasised by Clara and Albert, that the responsibility of the situation was upon him, and that everybody would look to him to discharge it. He was expected to act, somehow, on his own initiative, and to do something.

“But what is there to do?” he exclaimed, in answer to a question.

“Well, hadn’t he better see a doctor?” Clara asked, as if saying ironically, “Hasn’t it occurred to you even yet that a doctor ought to be fetched?”

Edwin protested with a movement of impatience —

“What on earth for? He’s walking about all right.”

They had all been surreptitiously watching Darius from behind the curtains.

“Doesn’t seem to be much the matter with him now! That I must say!” agreed Albert, turning from the window.

Edwin perceived that his brother-in-law was ready to execute one of those changes of front which lent variety to his positiveness, and he addressed himself particularly to Albert, with the persuasive tone and gesture of a man to another man in a company of women —

“Of course there doesn’t! No doubt he was upset last night. But he’s getting over it. You don’t think there’s anything in it, do you, Maggie?”

“I don’t,” said Maggie calmly.

These two words had a great effect.

“Of course if we’re going to listen to every tale that’s flying about a potbank,” said Edwin.

“You’re right there, Teddy!” the brother-in-law heartily concurred. “But Clary thought we’d better —”

“Certainly,” said Edwin pacifically, admitting the entire propriety of the visit.

“Why’s he wearing his best clothes?” Clara demanded suddenly. And Mrs Hamps showed a sympathetic appreciation of the importance of the question.

“Ask me another!” said Edwin. “But you can’t send for a doctor because a man’s wearing his best clothes.”

Maggie smiled, scarce perceptibly. Albert gave a guffaw. Clara was slightly irritated.

“Poor little dear!” murmured Mrs Hamps, caressing the baby. “Well, I must be going,” she sighed.

“We shall see how he goes on,” said Edwin, in his role of responsible person.

“Perhaps it will be as well if you say nothing about us calling,” whispered Mrs Hamps. “We’ll just go quietly away. You can give a hint to Mrs Nixon. Much better he shouldn’t know.”

“Oh! much better!” said Clara.

Edwin could not deny this. Yet he hated the chicane. He hated to observe on the face of the young woman and of the old their instinctive impulses towards chicane, and their pleasure in it. The whole double visit was subtly offensive to him. Why should they gather like this at the first hint that his father was not well? A natural affectionate anxiety . . . Yes, of course, that motive could not be denied. Nevertheless, he did not like the tones and the gestures and the whisperings and oblique glances of their gathering.

Four.

In the middle of a final miscellaneous conversation, Albert said —

“We’ll better be off.”

“Wait a moment,” said Clara, with a nod to indicate the still busy infant.

Then the door opened, very slowly and cautiously, and as they all observed the movement of the door, they all fell into silence. Darius himself appeared. Unobserved, he had left the garden and come into the house. He stood in the doorway, motionless, astounded, acutely apprehensive, and with an expression of the most poignant sadness on his harsh, coarse, pimpled face. He still wore the ridiculous cap and held the newspaper. The broadcloth suit was soiled. His eye wandered among his family, and it said, terrorised, and yet feebly defiant, “What are they plotting against me? Why are they all here like this?”

Mrs Hamps spoke first —

“Well, father, we just popped in to see how you were after all that dreadful business yesterday. Of course I quite understand you didn’t want to come in last night. You weren’t equal to it.” The guilty crude sweetness of her cajoling voice grated excruciatingly on both Edwin and Maggie. It would not have deceived even a monarch.

Darius screwed himself round, and silently went forth again.

“Where are you going, father?” asked Clara.

He stopped, but his features did not relax.

“To the shop,” he muttered. His accents were of the most dreadful melancholy.

Everybody was profoundly alarmed by his mere tone and look. This was not the old Darius. Edwin felt intensely the futility and the hollowness of all those reassurances which he had just been offering.

“You haven’t had your breakfast, father,” said Maggie quietly.

“Please, father! Please don’t go like that. You aren’t fit,” Clara entreated, and rushed towards him, the baby in her arms, and with one hand took his sleeve. Mrs Hamps followed, adding persuasions. Albert said bluffly, “Now, dad! Now, dad!”

Edwin and Maggie were silent in the background.

Darius gazed at Clara’s face, and then his glance fell, and fixed itself on her breast and on the head of the powerfully sucking infant, and then it rose to the plumes of Mrs Hamps. His expression of tragic sorrow did not alter in the slightest degree under the rain of sugared remonstrances and cajoleries that the two women directed upon him. And then, without any warning, he burst into terrible tears, and, staggering, leaned against the wall. He was half carried to the sofa, and sat there, ineffably humiliated. One after another looked reproachfully at Edwin, who had made light of his father’s condition. And Edwin was abashed and frightened.

“You or I had better fetch th’ doctor,” Albert muttered.

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