Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Five.

The Slave’s Fear.

Edwin closed the door of his bedroom with a sense of relief and of pleasure far greater than he would have admitted; or indeed could honestly have admitted, for it surpassed his consciousness. The feeling recurred that he was separated from the previous evening by a tremendous expanse of time. He had been flung out of his daily habits. He had forgotten to worry over the execution of his private programmes. He had forgotten even that the solemn thirtieth birthday was close upon him. It seemed to him as if his own egoism was lying about in scattered pieces, which he must collect in the calm of this cloister, and reconstruct. He wanted to resume possession of himself, very slowly, without violent effort. He wound up his watch; the hour was not yet half-past ten. The whole exquisite night was his.

He had brought with him from the shop, almost mechanically, a copy of “Harper’s Magazine,” not the copy which regularly once a month he kept from a customer during the space of twenty-four hours for his own uses, but a second copy which had been sent down by the wholesale agents in mistake, and which he could return when he chose. He had already seen the number, but he could not miss the chance of carefully going through it at leisure. Despite his genuine aspirations, despite his taste which was growing more and more fastidious, he found it exceedingly difficult to proceed with his regular plan of reading while there was an illustrated magazine unexplored. Besides, the name of “Harper’s” was august. To read “Harper’s” was to acquire merit; even the pictures in “Harper’s” were too subtle for the uncultivated.

He turned over the pages, and they all appeared to promise new and strange joys. Such preliminary moments were the most ecstatic in his life, as in the lives of many readers. He had not lost sight of the situation created by his father’s illness, but he could only see it very dimly through the semi-transparent pages.

Two.

The latch clicked and the door opened slightly. He jumped, supposing that his father had crept upstairs. And the first thought of the slave in him was that his father had never seen the gas-stove and would now infallibly notice it. But Maggie’s face showed. She came in very quietly — she too had caught the conspiratorial manner.

“I thought you wouldn’t be ready for bed just yet,” she said, in mild excuse of her entry. “I didn’t knock, for fear he might be wandering about and hear.”

“Oh!” muttered Edwin. “What’s up?” Instinctively he resented the invasion, and was alarmed for the privacy of his sacred room, although he knew that Maggie, and Mrs Nixon also, had it at their mercy every day. Nobody ever came into that room while he was in it.

Maggie approached the hearth.

“I think I ought to have a stove too,” she said pleasantly.

“Well, why don’t you?” he replied. “I can get it for you any time.” If Clara had envied his stove, she would have envied it with scoffing rancour, and he would have used sarcasm in response.

“Oh no!” said Maggie quickly. “I don’t really want one.”

“What’s up?” he repeated. He could see she was hesitating.

“Do you know what Clara and auntie are saying?”

“No! What now? I should have thought they’d both said enough to last them for a few days at any rate.”

“Did Albert say anything to you?”

“What about?”

“Well — both Clara and auntie said I must tell you. Albert says he ought to make his will — they all think so.”

Edwin’s lips curled.

“How do they know he hasn’t made it?”

“Has he made it?”

“How do I know? You don’t suppose he ever talks to me about his affairs, do you? Not much!”

“Well — they meant he ought to be asked.”

“Well, let ’em ask him, then. I shan’t.”

“Of course what they say is — you’re the —”

“What do I care for that?” he interrupted her. “So that’s what you were yarning so long about in your room!”

“I can tell you,” said Maggie, “they’re both of them very serious about it. So’s Albert, it seems.”

“They disgust me,” he said briefly. “Here the thing isn’t a day old, and they begin worrying about his will! They go slobbering all over him downstairs, and upstairs it’s nothing but his will they think about . . . You can’t rush at a man and talk to him about his will like that. At least, I can’t — it’s altogether too thick! I expect some people could. But I can’t. Damn it, you must have some sense of decency!”

Maggie remained calm and benevolent. After a pause she said —

“You see — their point is that later on he mayn’t be able to make a will.”

“Look here,” he questioned amicably, meeting her eyes, “what do you think? What do you think yourself?”

“Oh!” she said, “I should never dream of bothering about it. I’m only telling you what —”

“Of course you wouldn’t!” he exclaimed. “No decent person would. Later on, perhaps, if one could put in a word casually! But not now! . . . If he doesn’t make a will he doesn’t make one — that’s all.”

Maggie leaned against the mantelpiece.

“Mind your skirt doesn’t catch fire,” he warned her, in a murmur.

“I told them what you’d say,” she answered his outburst, perfectly unmoved. “I knew what you’d say. But what they say is — it’s all very well for you. You’re the son, and it seems that if there isn’t a will, if it’s left too late —”

This aspect of the case had absolutely not presented itself to Edwin.

“If they think,” he muttered, with cold acrimony —“if they think I’m the sort of person to take the slightest advantage of being the son — well, they must think it — that’s all! Besides, they can always talk to him themselves — if they’re so desperately anxious.”

“You have charge of everything.”

“Have I! . . . And I should like to know what it’s got to do with auntie!”

Maggie lifted her head. “Oh, auntie and Clara, you know — you can’t separate them . . . Well, I’ve told you.”

She moved to leave.

“I say,” he stopped her, with a confidential appeal. “Don’t you agree with me?”

“Yes,” she replied simply. “I think it ought to be left for a bit. Perhaps he’s made it, after all. Let’s hope so. I’m sure it will save a lot of trouble if he has.”

“Naturally it ought to be left for a bit! Why — just look at him! . . . He might be on his blooming dying bed, to hear the way some people talk! Let ’em mention it to me, and I’ll tell ’em a thing or two!”

Maggie raised her eyebrows. She scarcely recognised Edwin.

“I suppose he’ll be all right, downstairs?”

“Right? Of course he’ll be all right!” Then he added, in a tone less pugnacious — for, after all, it was not Maggie who had outraged his delicacy, “Don’t latch the door. Pull it to. I’ll listen out.”

She went silently away.

Three.

Searching with his body for the most comfortable deeps of the easy-chair, he set himself to savour “Harper’s.” This monthly reassurance that nearly all was well with the world, and that what was wrong was not seriously wrong, waited on his knees to be accepted and to do its office. Unlike the magazines of his youth, its aim was to soothe and flatter, not to disconcert and impeach. He looked at the refined illustrations of South American capitals and of picturesque corners in Provence, and at the smooth or the rugged portraits of great statesmen and great bridges; all just as true to reality as the brilliant letterpress; and he tried to slip into the rectified and softened world offered by the magazine. He did not criticise the presentment. He did nothing so subtle as to ask himself whether if he encountered the reality he would recognise it from the presentment. He wanted the illusions of “Harper’s.” He desired the comfort, the distraction, and the pleasant ideal longings which they aroused. But they were a medicine which he discovered he was not in a condition to absorb, a medicine therefore useless. There was no effective medicine for his trouble.

His trouble was that he objected to being disturbed. At first he had been pleasantly excited, but now he shrank away at the call to freedom, to action, to responsibility. All the slave in him protested against the knocking off of irons, and the imperative kick into the open air. He saw suddenly that in the calm of regular habit and of subjection, he had arrived at something that closely resembled happiness. He wished not to lose it, knowing that it was already gone. Actually, for his own sake, and quite apart from his father, he would have been ready, were it possible, to cancel the previous twenty-four hours. Everything was ominous, and he wandering about, lost, amid menaces . . . Why, even his cherished programmes of reading were smashed . . . Hallam! . . . True, to-night was not a night appointed for reading, but tomorrow night was. And would he be able to read tomorrow night? No, a hundred new complications would have arisen to harass him and to dispossess him of his tranquillity!

Destiny was demanding from him a huge effort, unexpected and formidable, and the whole of his being weakly complained, asking to be exempted, but asking without any hope of success; for all his faculties and his desires knew that his conscience was ultimately their master.

Talk to his father about making a will, eh! Besides being disgusting, it was laughable. Those people did not know his father as he did. He foresaw that, even in conducting the routine of business, he would have difficulties with his father over the simplest details. In particular there was one indispensable preliminary to the old man’s complete repose, and his first duty on the morrow would be to endeavour to arrange this preliminary with his father; but he scarcely hoped to succeed.

On the portion of the mantelpiece reserved for books in actual use lay the “Tale of a Tub,” last night so enchanting. And now he had positively forgotten it. He yawned, and prepared for bed. If he could not read “Harper’s,” perhaps he could read Swift.

Four.

He lay in bed. The gas was out, the stove was out, and according to his custom he was reading himself to sleep by the light of a candle in a sconce attached to the bed’s head. His eyes ran along line after line and down page after page, and transmitted nothing coherent to his brain.

Then there were steps on the stair. His father was at last coming to bed. He was a little relieved, though he had been quite prepared to go to sleep and leave his father below. Why not? The steps died at the top of the stair, but an irregular creaking continued. After a pause the door was pushed open; and after another pause the figure of his father came into view, breathing loudly.

“Edwin, are you asleep?” Darius asked anxiously. Edwin wondered what could be the matter, but he answered with lightness, “Nearly.”

“I’ve not put th’ light out down yon! Happen you’d better put it out.” There was in his father’s voice a note of dependence upon him, of appeal to him.

“Funny!” he thought, and said aloud, “All right.”

He jumped up. His father thudded off deliberately to his own room, apparently relieved of a fearful oppression, but still fixed in sadness.

On the previous night Edwin had extinguished the hall-gas and come last to bed; and again to-night. But to-night with what a different sentiment of genuine, permanent responsibility! The appealing feebleness of his father’s attitude seemed to give him strength. Surely a man so weak and fallen from tyranny could not cause much trouble! Edwin now had some hope that the unavoidable preliminary to the invalid’s retirement might be achieved without too much difficulty. He braced himself.

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