Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Four.

The Victim of Sympathy.

On the same evening, Edwin, Albert Benbow, and Darius were smoking Albert’s cigarettes in the dining-room. Edwin sat at the end of a disordered supper-table, Albert was standing, hat in hand, near the sideboard, and Darius leaned against the mantelpiece. Nobody could have supposed from his appearance that a doctor had responsibly prophesied this man’s death within two years. Except for a shade of sadness upon his face, he looked the same as he had looked for a decade. Though regarded by his children as an old man, he was not old, being in fact still under sixty. His grey hair was sparse; his spectacles were set upon his nose with the negligence characteristic of age; but the down-pointing moustache, which, abetted by his irregular teeth, gave him that curious facial resemblance to a seal, showed great force, and the whole of his stiff and sturdy frame showed force. His voice, if not his mouth, had largely recovered from the weakness of the morning. Moreover, the fashion in which he smoked a cigarette had somehow the effect of rejuvenating him. It was Albert who had induced him to smoke cigarettes occasionally. He was not an habitual smoker, consuming perhaps half an ounce a week of pipe-tobacco: and assuredly he would never of his own accord have tried a cigarette. For Darius cigarettes were aristocratic and finicking; they were an affectation. He smoked a cigarette with the self-consciousness which usually marks the consumption of champagne in certain strata of society. His gestures, as he examined from time to time the end of the cigarette, or audibly blew forth spreading clouds, seemed to signify that in his opinion he was going the pace, cutting a dash, and seeing life. This naivete had its charm.

The three men, left alone by their women, were discussing politics, which then meant nothing but the subject of Home Rule. Darius agreed almost eagerly with everything that Albert Benbow said. Albert was a calm and utterly sound Conservative. He was one of those politicians whose conviction of rightness is so strong that they cannot help condescending towards an opponent. Albert would say persuasively to Liberal acquaintances: “Now just think a moment!” apparently sure that the only explanation of their misguided views was that they never had thought for a moment. Or he would say: “Surely all patriotic Liberals —” But one day when Edwin had said to him with a peculiar accent: “Surely all patriotic Conservatives —” he had been politely offended for the rest of the evening, and Edwin and he had not mentioned politics to each other for a long time. Albert had had much influence over his father-in-law. And now Albert said, after Darius had concurred and concurred —

“You’re one of the right sort, after all, old gentleman.”

Throughout the evening he had spoken to Darius in an unusually loud voice, as though it was necessary to shout to a man who had only two years to live.

“All I say is,” said Darius, “country before party!”

“Why, of course!” Albert smiled, confident and superior. “Haven’t I been telling you for years you’re one of us?”

Edwin, too, smiled, as superiorly as he could, but unhappily not with sufficient superiority to wither Albert’s smile. He said nothing, partly from timid discretion, but partly because he was preoccupied with the thought of the malignant and subtle power working secretly in his father’s brain. How could the doctor tell? What was the process of softening? Did his father know, in that sick brain of his, that he was condemned; or did he hope to recover? Now, as he leaned against the mantelpiece, protruding his body in an easy posture, he might have been any ordinary man, and not a victim; he might have been a man of business relaxing after a long day of hard and successful cerebral activity.

It seemed strange to Edwin that Albert could talk as he did to one whom destiny had set apart, to one whose being was the theatre of a drama so mysterious and tragic. Yet it was the proper thing for Albert to do, and Albert did it perfectly, better than anybody, except possibly Maggie.

“Those women take a deuce of a time putting their bonnets on!” Albert exclaimed.

Two.

The women came downstairs at last. At last, to Edwin’s intense relief, every one was going. Albert went into the hall to meet the women. Edwin rose and followed him. And Darius came as far as the door of the dining-room. Less than twenty-four hours had passed since Edwin had begun even to suspect any sort of disaster to his father. But the previous night seemed an age away. The day had been interminable, and the evening exasperating in the highest degree. What an evening! Why had Albert and Clara and Auntie Hamps all of them come up just at supper-time? At first they would not be persuaded! No! They had just called — sheer accident! — nothing abnormal! And yet the whole of the demeanour of Auntie Hamps and Clara was abnormal. Maggie herself, catching the infection, had transformed the meal into a kind of abnormal horrible feast by serving cold beef and pickles — flesh-meat being unknown to the suppers of the Clayhangers save occasionally on Sundays.

Edwin could not comprehend why the visitors had come. That is to say, he understood the reason quite well, but hated to admit it. They had come from a mere gluttony of curiosity. They knew all that could be known — but still they must come and gaze and indulge their lamentable hearts, and repeat the same things again and again, ten million times! Auntie Hamps, indeed, probably knew more than Edwin did, for she had thought fit to summon Dr Heve that very afternoon for an ailment of her own, and Clara, with an infant or so, had by a remarkable coincidence called at Mrs Hamps’s house just after the doctor left. “Odious,” thought Edwin.

These two had openly treated Darius as a martyr, speaking to him in soft and pitiful voices, urging him to eat, urging him to drink, caressing him, soothing him, humouring him; pretending to be brave and cheerful and optimistic, but with a pretence so poor, so wilfully poor, that it became an insult. When they said fulsomely, “You’ll be perfectly all right soon if only you’ll take care and do as the doctor says,” Edwin could have risen and killed them both with hearty pleasure. They might just as well have said, “You’re practically in your grave.” And assuredly they were not without influence on Maggie’s deportment. The curious thing was that it was impossible to decide whether Darius loathed, or whether he liked, to be so treated. His face was an enigma. However, he was less gloomy.

Then also the evening had necessarily been full of secret conferences. What would you? Each had to relate privately the things that he or she knew or had heard or had imagined. And there were questions of urgency to be discussed. For example the question of the specialist. They were all positively agreed, Edwin found, that a specialist was unnecessary. Darius was condemned beyond hope or argument. There he sat, eating and talking, in the large, fine house that he had created out of naught, looking not at all like a corpse; but he was condemned. The doctor had convinced them. Besides, did not everybody know what softening of the brain was? “Of course, if he thinks he would prefer to have a specialist, if he has the slightest wish —” This from Auntie Hamps. There was the question, further, of domestic service. Mrs Nixon’s niece had committed the folly of marriage, and for many months Maggie and the old servant had been ‘managing;’ but with a crotchety invalid always in the house, more help would be indispensable. And still further — should Darius be taken away for a period to the sea, or Buxton, or somewhere? Maggie said that nothing would make him go, and Clara agreed with her. All these matters, and others, had to be kept away from the central figure; they were all full of passionate interest, and they had to be debated, in tones hushed but excited, in the hall, in the kitchen, upstairs, or anywhere except in the dining-room. The excuses invented by the conspiring women for quitting and entering the dining-room, their fatuous air of innocent simplicity, disgusted Edwin. And he became curter and curter, as he noticed the new deference which even Clara practised towards him.

Three.

The adieux were distressing. Clara, with her pale sharp face and troubled eyes, clasped Darius round the neck, and almost hung on it. And Edwin thought: “Why doesn’t she tell him straight out he’s done for?” Then she retired and sought her husband’s arm with the conscious pride of a wife fruitful up to the limits set by nature. And then Auntie Hamps shook hands with the victim. These two of course did not kiss. Auntie Hamps bore herself bravely. “Now do do as the doctor advises!” she said, patting Darius on the shoulder. “And do be guided by these dear children!”

Edwin caught Maggie’s eye, and held it grimly.

“And you, my pet,” said Auntie Hamps, turning to Clara, who with Albert was now at the door. “You must be getting back to your babies! It’s a wonder how you manage to get away! But you’re a wonderful arranger! . . . Only don’t overdo it. Don’t overdo it!”

Clara gave a fatigued smile, as of one whom circumstances often forced to overdo it.

They departed, Albert whistling to the night. Edwin observed again, in their final glances, the queer, new, ingratiating deference for himself. He bolted the door savagely.

Darius was still standing at the entrance to the dining-room. And as he looked at him Edwin thought of Big James’s vow never to lift his voice in song again. Strange! It was the idea of the secret strangeness of life that was uppermost in his mind: not grief, not expectancy. In the afternoon he had been talking again to Big James, who, it appeared, had known intimately a case of softening of the brain. He did not identify the case — it was characteristic of him to name no names — but clearly he was familiar with the course of the disease.

He had begun revelations which disconcerted Edwin, and had then stopped. And now as Edwin furtively examined his father, he asked himself: “Will that happen to him, and that, and those still worse things that Big James did not reveal?” Incredible! There he was, smoking a cigarette, and the clock striking ten in its daily, matter-of-fact way.

Darius let fall the cigarette, which Edwin picked up from the mat, and offered to him.

“Throw it away,” said Darius, with a deep sigh.

“Going to bed?” Edwin asked.

Darius shook his head, and Edwin debated what he should do. A moment later, Maggie came from the kitchen and asked —

“Going to bed, father?”

Again Darius shook his head. He then went slowly into the drawing-room and lit the gas there.

“What shall you do? Leave him?” Maggie whispered to Edwin in the dining-room, as she helped Mrs Nixon to clear the table.

“I don’t know,” said Edwin. “I shall see.”

In ten minutes both Maggie and Mrs Nixon had gone to bed. Edwin hesitated in the dining-room. Then he extinguished the gas there, and went into the drawing-room. Darius, not having lowered the blinds, was gazing out of the black window.

“You needn’t wait down here for me,” said he, a little sharply. And his tone was so sane, controlled, firm, and ordinary that Edwin could do nothing but submit to it.

“I’m not going to,” he answered quietly.

Impossible to treat a man of such demeanour like a child.

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