Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Three.

The Name.

“He mustn’t go near business,” said Mr Alfred Heve, the doctor, coming to Edwin, who was waiting in the drawing-room, after a long examination of Darius.

Mr Heve was not wearing that gentle and refined smile which was so important a factor in the treatment of his patients and their families, and which he seemed to have caught from his elder brother, the vicar of Saint Peter’s. He was a youngish man, only a few years older than Edwin himself, and Edwin’s respect for his ability had limits. There were two other doctors in the town whom Edwin would have preferred, but Mr Heve was his father’s choice, notable in the successful soothing of querulous stomachs, and it was inevitably Mr Heve who had been summoned. He had arrived with an apprehensive, anxious air. There had been a most distinct nervousness in his voice when, in replying to Edwin’s question, he had said, “Perhaps I’d better see him quite alone.” Edwin had somehow got it into his head that he would be present at the interview. In shutting the dining-room door upon Edwin, Mr Heve had nodded timidly in a curious way, highly self-conscious. And that dining-room door had remained shut for half an hour. And now Mr Heve had emerged with the same embarrassment.

“Whether he wants to or not?” Edwin suggested, with a faint smile.

“On no account whatever!” said the doctor, not answering the smile, which died.

They were standing together near the door. Edwin had his fingers on the handle. He wondered how he would prevent his father from going to business, if his father should decide to go.

“But I don’t think he’ll be very keen on business,” the doctor added.

“You don’t?”

Mr Heve slowly shook his head. One of Mr Heve’s qualities that slightly annoyed Edwin was his extraordinary discretion. But then Edwin had always regarded the discreetness of doctors as exaggerated. Why could not Heve tell him at once fully and candidly what was in his mind? He had surely the right to be told! . . . Curious! And yet far more curious than Mr Heve’s unwillingness to tell, was Edwin’s unwillingness to ask. He could not bring himself to demand bluntly of Heve: “Well, what’s the matter with him?”

“I suppose it’s shock,” Edwin adventured.

Mr Heve lifted his chin. “Shock may have had a little to do with it,” he answered doubtfully.

“And how long must he be kept off business?”

“I’m afraid there’s not much chance of him doing any more business,” said Mr Heve.

“Really!” Edwin murmured. “Are you sure?”

“Quite.”

Edwin did not feel the full impact of this prophecy at the moment. Indeed, it appeared to him that he had known since the previous midnight of his father’s sudden doom; it appeared to him that the first glimpse of his father after the funeral had informed him of it positively. What impressed him at the moment was the unusual dignity which characterised Mr Heve’s embarrassment. He was beginning to respect Mr Heve.

“I wouldn’t care to give him more than two years,” said Mr Heve, gazing at the carpet, and then lifting his eyes to Edwin’s.

Edwin flushed. And this time his ‘Really!’ was startled.

“Of course you may care to get other advice,” the doctor went on. “I shall be delighted to meet a specialist. But I tell you at once my opinion.” This with a gesture of candour.

“Oh!” said Edwin. “If you’re sure —”

Strange that the doctor would not give a name to the disease! Most strange that Edwin even now could not demand the name.

“I suppose he’s in his right mind?” said Edwin.

“Yes,” said the doctor. “He’s in his right mind.” But he gave the reply in a tone so peculiar that the affirmative was almost as disconcerting as a negative would have been.

“Just rest he wants?” said Edwin.

“Just rest. And looking after. I’ll send up some medicine. He’ll like it.” Mr Heve glanced absently at his watch. “I must be going.”

“Well —” Edwin opened the door.

Then with a sudden movement Mr Heve put out his hand.

“You’ll come in again soon?”

“Oh yes.”

In the hall they saw Maggie about to enter the dining-room with a steaming basin.

“I’m going to give him this,” she said simply in a low voice. “It’s so long to dinner-time.”

“By all means,” said Mr Heve, with his little formal bow.

“You’ve finished seeing him then, doctor?”

He nodded.

“I’ll be back soon,” said Edwin to Maggie, taking his hat from the rack. “Tell father if he asks I’ve run down to the shop.”

She nodded and disappeared.

“I’ll walk down a bit of the way with you,” said Mr Heve.

His trap, which was waiting at the corner, followed them down the road. Edwin could not begin to talk. And Mr Heve kept silence. Behind him, Edwin could hear the jingling of metal on Mr Heve’s sprightly horse. After a couple of hundred yards the doctor stopped at a house-door.

“Well —” He shook hands again, and at last smiled with sad sweetness.

“He’ll be a bit difficult to manage, you know,” said Edwin.

“I don’t think so,” said the doctor.

“I’ll let you know about the specialist. But if you’re sure —”

The doctor waved a deprecating hand. It might have been the hand of his brother, the Vicar.

Two.

Edwin proceeded towards the town, absorbed in a vision of his father seated in the dining-room, inexpressibly melancholy, and Maggie with her white apron bending over him to offer some nice soup. It was a desolating vision — and yet he wondered why it should be! Whenever he reasoned he was always inimical to his father. His reason asked harshly why he should be desolated, as he undoubtedly was. The prospect of freedom, of release from a horrible and humiliating servitude — this prospect ought to have dazzled and uplifted him, in the safe, inviolable privacy of his own heart. But it did not . . . What a chump the doctor was, to be so uncommunicative! And he himself! . . . By the way, he had not told Maggie. It was like her to manifest no immediate curiosity, to be content to wait . . . He supposed he must call at his aunt’s, and even at Clara’s. But what should he say when they asked him why he had not asked the doctor for a name?

Suddenly an approaching man whose face was vaguely familiar but with whom he had no acquaintance whatever, swerved across the footpath and stopped him.

“What’s amiss with th’ old gentleman?” It was astounding how news flew in the town!

“He’s not very well. Doctor’s ordered him a rest.”

“Not in bed, is he?”

“Oh no!” Edwin lightly scorned the suggestion.

“Well, I do hope it’s nothing serious. Good morning.”

Three.

Edwin was detained a long time in the shop by a sub-manager from Bostocks in Hanbridge who was waiting, and who had come about an estimate for a rather considerable order. This man desired a decrease of the estimate and an increased speed in execution. He was curt. He was one business firm offering an ultimatum to another business firm. He asked Edwin whether Edwin could decide at once. Edwin said ‘Certainly,’ using a tone that he had never used before. He decided. The man departed, and Edwin saw him spring on to the Hanbridge car as it swept down the hill. The man would not have been interested in the news that Darius Clayhanger had been to business for the last time. Edwin was glad of the incident because it had preserved him from embarrassed conversation with Stifford. Two hours earlier he had called for a few moments at the shop, and even then, ere Edwin had spoken, Stifford’s face showed that he knew something sinister had occurred. With a few words of instruction to Stifford, he now went through towards the workshops to speak with Big James about the Bostock order.

All the workmen and apprentices were self-conscious. And Edwin could not speak naturally to Big James. When he had come to an agreement with Big James as to the execution of the order, the latter said —

“Would you step below a minute, Mr Edwin?”

Edwin shuffled. But Big James’s majestic politeness gave to his expressed wish the force of a command. Edwin preceded Big James down the rough wooden stair to the ground floor, which was still pillared with supporting beams. Big James, with deliberate, careful movements, drew the trap-door horizontal as he descended.

“Might I ask, sir, if Master’s in a bad way?” he inquired, with solemn and delicate calm. But he would have inquired about the weather in the same fashion.

“I’m afraid he is,” said Edwin, glancing nervously about at the litter, and the cobwebs, and the naked wood, and the naked earth. The vibration of a treadle-machine above them put the place in a throb.

Astounding! Everybody knew or guessed everything! How?

Big James wagged his head and his grandiose beard, now more grey than black, and he fingered his apron.

“I believe in herbs myself,” said Big James. “But this here softening of the brain — well —”

That was it! Softening of the brain! What the doctor had not told him he had learned from Big James. How it happened that Big James was in a position to tell him he could not comprehend. But he was ready now to believe that the whole town had acquired by magic the information which fate or original stupidity had kept from him alone . . . Softening of the brain!

“Perhaps I’m making too bold, sir,” Big James went on. “Perhaps it’s not so bad as that. But I did hear —”

Edwin nodded confirmingly.

“You needn’t talk about it,” he murmured, indicating the first floor by an upward movement of the head.

“That I shall not, sir,” Big James smoothly replied, and proceeded in the same bland tone: “And what’s more, never will I raise my voice in song again! James Yarlett has sung his last song.”

There was silence. Edwin, accustomed though he was to the mildness of Big James’s deportment, did not on the instant grasp that the man was seriously announcing a solemn resolve made under deep emotion. But as he understood, tears came into Edwin’s eyes, and he thrilled at the swift and dramatic revelation of the compositor’s feeling for his employer. Its impressiveness was overwhelming and it was humbling. Why this excess of devotion?

“I don’t say but what he had his faults like other folk,” said Big James. “And far be it from me to say that you, Mr Edwin, will not be a better master than your esteemed father. But for over twenty years I’ve worked for him, and now he’s gone, never will I lift my voice in song again!”

Edwin could not reply.

“I know what it is,” said Big James, after a pause.

“What what is?”

“This ce-rebral softening. You’ll have trouble, Mr Edwin.”

“The doctor says not.”

“You’ll have trouble, if you’ll excuse me saying so. But it’s a good thing he’s got you. It’s a good thing for Miss Maggie as she isn’t alone with him. It’s a providence, Mr Edwin, as you’re not a married man.”

“I very nearly was married once!” Edwin cried, with a sudden uncontrollable outburst of feeling which staggered while it satisfied him. Why should he make such a confidence to Big James? Between his pleasure in the relief, and his extreme astonishment at the confession, he felt as it were lost and desperate, as if he did not care what might occur.

“Were you now!” Big James commented, with an ever intensified blandness. “Well, sir, I thank you.”

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