Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Six.

Keys and Cheques.

Coming up Trafalgar Road at twenty minutes past nine in the bright, astringent morning, Edwin carried by a string a little round parcel which for him contained the inspiring symbol of his new life. By mere accident he had wakened and had risen early, arriving at the shop before half-past seven. He had deliberately lifted on to his shoulders the whole burden of the shop and the printing business, and as soon as he felt its weight securely lodged he became extraordinarily animated and vigorous; even gay. He had worked with a most agreeable sense of energy until nearly nine o’clock; and then, having first called at the ironmonger’s, had stepped into the bank at the top of Saint Luke’s Square a moment after its doors opened, and had five minutes’ exciting conversation with the manager. After which, with righteous hunger in his belly and the symbol in his hand, he had come home to breakfast. The symbol was such as could be obtained at any ironmonger’s: an alarm clock. Mrs Nixon had grown less reliable than formerly as an alarm clock; machinery was now supplanting her.

Dr Heve came out of the house, and Dr Heve too seemed gay with fine resolutions. The two met on the doorstep, each full of a justifiable self-satisfaction. The doctor explained that he had come thus early because Mr Clayhanger was one of those cases upon which he could look in casually at any time. In the sunshine they talked under the porch of early rising, as men who understood the value of that art. Edwin could see that Dr Heve’s life was a series of little habits which would never allow themselves to be interfered with by any large interest, and he despised the man’s womanish smile. Nevertheless his new respect for him did not weaken; he decided that he was a very decent fellow in his way, and he was more impressed than he would admit by the amount of work that the doctor had for years been doing in the morning before his intellectual superiors had sat up in bed. And he imagined that it might be even more agreeable to read in the fresh stillness of the morning than in the solitary night.

Then they returned to the case of Darius. The doctor was more communicative, and they were both cheerfully matter-of-fact concerning it. There it was, to be made the best of! And that Darius could never handle business again, and that in about two years his doom would be accomplished — these were basic facts, axiomatic. The doctor had seen his patient in the garden, and he suggested that if Darius could be persuaded to interest himself in gardening . . . They discussed his medicine, his meals, his digestion, and the great, impossible dream of ‘taking him away,’ ‘out of it all.’ And every now and then Dr Heve dropped some little hint as to the management of Darius.

The ticking parcel drew the discreet attention of the doctor. The machine was one guaranteed to go in any position, and was much more difficult to stop than to start.

“It’s only an alarm,” said Edwin, not without self-consciousness.

The doctor went, tripping neatly and optimistically, off towards his own breakfast. He got up earlier than his horse.

Two.

Darius was still in the garden when Edwin went to him. He had put on his daily suit, and was leisurely digging in an uncultivated patch of ground. He stuck the spade into the earth perpendicularly and deep, and when he tried to prise it up and it would not yield because of a concealed half-brick, he put his tongue between his teeth and then bit his lower lip, controlling himself, determined to get the better of the spade and the brick by persuasively humouring them. He took no notice whatever of Edwin.

“I see you aren’t losing any time,” said Edwin, who felt as though he were engaging in small-talk with a stranger.

“Are you?” Darius replied, without turning his head.

“I’ve just come up for a bit of breakfast. Everything’s all right,” he said. He would have liked to add: “I was in the shop before seven-thirty,” but he was too proud.

After a pause, he ventured, essaying the casual —

“I say, father, I shall want the keys of the desk, and all that.”

“Keys o’ th’ desk!” Darius muttered, leaning on the spade, as though demanding in stupefaction, “What on earth can you want the keys for?”

“Well —” Edwin stammered.

But the proposition was too obvious to be denied. Darius left the spade to stand up by itself, and stared.

“Got ’em in your pocket?” Edwin inquired.

Slowly Darius drew forth a heavy, glittering bunch of keys, one of the chief insignia of his dominion, and began to fumble at it.

“You needn’t take any of them off. I expect I know which is which,” said Edwin, holding out his hand.

Darius hesitated, and then yielded up the bunch.

“Thanks,” said Edwin lightly.

But the old man’s reluctance to perform this simple and absolutely necessary act of surrender, the old man’s air of having done something tremendous — these signs frightened Edwin and shook his courage for the demand compared to which the demand for the keys was naught. Still, the affair had to be carried through.

“And I say,” he proceeded, jingling the keys, “about signing and endorsing cheques. They tell me at the Bank that if you sign a general authority to me to do it for you, that will be enough.”

He could not avoid looking guilty. He almost felt guilty, almost felt as if he were plotting against his father’s welfare. And as he spoke his words seemed unreal and his suggestion fantastic. At the Bank the plan had been simple, easy, and perfectly natural. But there could be no doubt, that as he had walked up Trafalgar Road, receding from the Bank and approaching his father, the plan had gradually lost those attractive qualities. And now in the garden it was merely monstrous.

Silent, Darius resumed the spade.

“Well,” said Edwin desperately. “What about it?”

“Do you think”— Darius glowered upon him with heavy, desolating scorn —“do you think as I’m going to let you sign my cheques for me? You’re taking too much on yourself, my lad.”

“But —”

“I tell ye you’re taking too much on yourself!” he began to shout menacingly. “Get about your business and don’t act the fool! You needn’t think you’re going to be God A’mighty because you’ve got up a bit earlier for once in a way and been down to th’ shop before breakfast.”

Three.

In all his demeanour there was not the least indication of weakness. He might never have sat down on the stairs and cried! He might never have submitted feebly and perhaps gladly to the caresses of Clara and the soothings of Auntie Hamps! Impossible to convince him that he was cut off from the world! Impossible even to believe it! Was this the man that Edwin and the Bank manager and the doctor and all the others had been disposing of as though he were an automaton accurately responsive to external suggestion?

“Look here,” Edwin knew that he ought to say. “Let it be clearly understood once for all — I’m the boss now! I have the authority in my pocket and you must sign it, and quick too! I shall do my best for you, but I don’t mean to be bullied while I’m doing it!”

But he could not say it. Nor could his heart emotionally feel it.

He turned away sheepishly, and then he faced his father again, with a distressed, apologetic smile.

“Well then,” he asked, “who is going to sign cheques?”

“I am,” said Darius.

“But you know what the doctor said! You know what you promised him!”

“What did the doctor say?”

“He said you weren’t to do anything at all. And you said you wouldn’t. What’s more, you said you didn’t want to.”

Darius sneered.

“I reckon I can sign cheques,” he said. “And I reckon I can endorse cheques . . . So it’s got to that! I can’t sign my own name now. I shall show some of you whether I can’t sign my own name!”

“You know it isn’t simply signing them. You know if I bring cheques up for you to sign you’ll begin worrying about them at once, and — and there’ll be no end to it. You’d much better —”

“Shut up!” It was like a clap of thunder.

Edwin hesitated an instant and then went towards the house. He could hear his father muttering “Whipper-snapper!”

“And I’ll tell you another thing,” Darius bawled across the garden — assuredly his voice would reach the street. “It was like your impudence to go to the Bank like that without asking me first! ‘They tell you at the Bank!’ ‘They tell you at the Bank!’ Anything else they told you at the Bank?” Then a snort.

Edwin was humiliated and baffled. He knew not what he could do. The situation became impossible immediately it was faced. He felt also very resentful, and resentment was capturing him, when suddenly an idea seemed to pull him by the sleeve: “All this is part of his disease. It’s part of his disease that he can’t see the point of a thing.” And the idea was insistent, and under its insistence Edwin’s resentment changed to melancholy. He said to himself that he must think of his father as a child. He blamed himself, in a sort of pleasurable luxury of remorse, for all the anger which during all his life he had felt against his father. His father’s unreasonableness had not been a fault, but a misfortune. His father had been not a tyrant, but a victim. His brain must always have been wrong! And now he was doomed, and the worst part of his doom was that he was unaware of it. And in the thought of Darius ignorantly blustering within the walled garden, in the spring sunshine, condemned, cut off, helpless at the last, pitiable at the last, there was something inexpressibly poignant. And the sunshine seemed a shame; and Edwin’s youth and mental vigour seemed a shame.

Nevertheless Edwin knew not what to do.

“Master Edwin,” said Mrs Nixon, who was rubbing the balustrade of the stairs, “you munna’ cross him like that.” She jerked her head in the direction of the garden. The garden door stood open.

If he had not felt solemn and superior, he could have snapped off that head of hers.

“Is my breakfast ready?” he asked. He hung up his hat, and absently took the little parcel which he had left on the marble ledge of the umbrella-stand.

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