Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Seven.

Laid Aside.

The safe, since the abandonment of the business premises by the family, had stood in a corner of a small nondescript room, sometimes vaguely called the safe-room, between the shop and what had once been the kitchen. It was a considerable safe, and it had the room practically to itself. As Edwin unlocked it, and the prodigious door swung with silent smoothness to his pull, he was aware of a very romantic feeling of exploration. He had seen the inside of the safe before; he had even opened the safe, and taken something from it, under his father’s orders. But he had never had leisure, nor licence, to inspect its interior. From his boyhood had survived the notion that it must contain many marvels. In spite of himself his attitude was one of awe.

The first thing that met his eye was his father’s large, black-bound private cash-book, which constituted the most sacred and mysterious document in the accountancy of the business. Edwin handled, and kept, all the books save that. At the beginning of the previous week he and Stifford had achieved the task of sending out the quarterly accounts, and of one sort or another there were some seven hundred quarterly accounts. Edwin was familiar with every detail of the printer’s work-book, the daybook, the combined book colloquially called ‘invoice and ledger,’ the ‘bought’ ledger, and the shop cash-book. But he could form no sure idea of the total dimensions and results of the business, because his father always kept the ultimate castings to himself, and never displayed his private cash-book under any circumstances. By ingenuity and perseverance Edwin might have triumphed over Darius’s mania for secrecy; but he did not care to do so; perhaps pride even more than honour caused him to refrain.

Now he held the book, and saw that only a portion of it was in the nature of a cash-book; the rest comprised summaries and general statements. The statement for the year 1885, so far as he could hastily decipher its meaning, showed a profit of 821 pounds. He was not surprised, and yet the sight of the figures in his father’s heavy, scratchy hand was curiously impressive.

His father could keep nothing from him now. The interior of the safe was like a city that had capitulated; no law ran in it but his law, and he was absolute; he could commit infamies in the city and none might criticise. He turned over piles of dusty cheque-counterfoils, and old pass-books and other old books of account. He saw a linen bag crammed with four-shilling pieces (whenever Darius obtained a double florin he put it aside), and one or two old watches of no value. Also the title-deeds of the house at Bleakridge, their latest parchment still white with pounce; the mortgage, then, had been repaid, a fact which Darius had managed on principle to conceal from his son. Then he came to the four drawers, and in some of these he discovered a number of miscellaneous share-certificates with their big seals. He knew that his father had investments — it was impossible to inhabit the shop-cubicle with his father and not know that — but he had no conception of their extent or their value. Always he had regarded all those matters as foreign to himself, refusing to allow curiosity in regard to them to awake. Now he was differently minded, owing to the mere physical weight in his pocket of a bunch of keys! In a hasty examination he gathered that the stock was chiefly in railways and shipping, and that it amounted to large sums — anyhow quite a number of thousands. He was frankly astonished. How had his father’s clumsy, slow intellect been able to cope with the dangerous intricacies of the Stock Exchange? It seemed incredible; and yet he had known quite well that his father was an investor!

“Of course he isn’t keen on giving it all up!” Edwin exclaimed aloud suddenly. “I wonder he even forked out the keys as easily as he did!”

The view of the safe enabled him to perform a feat which very few children ever achieve; he put himself in his father’s place. And it was with benevolence, not with exasperation, that he puzzled his head to invent some device for defeating the old man’s obstinacy about cheque-signing.

One drawer was evidently not in regular use. Often, in a series of drawers, one of them falls into the idle habit of being overlooked, slipping gradually by custom into desuetude, though other drawers may overflow. This drawer held merely a few scraps of sample paper, and a map, all dusty. He drew forth the map. It was coloured, and in shaky Roman characters underneath it ran the legend, “The County of Staffordshire.” He seemed to recognise the map. On the back he read, in his father’s handwriting: “Drawn and coloured without help by my son Edwin, aged nine.”

He had utterly forgotten it. He could in no detail recall the circumstances in which he had produced the wonderful map. A childish, rude effort! . . . Still, rather remarkable that at the age of nine (perhaps even before he had begun to attend the Oldcastle Middle School) he should have chosen to do a county map instead of a map of that country beloved by all juvenile map-drawers, Ireland! He must have copied it from the map in Lewis’s Gazetteer of England and Wales . . . Twenty-one years ago, nearly! He might, from the peculiar effect on him, have just discovered the mummy of the boy that once had been Edwin . . . And his father had kept the map for over twenty years. The old cock must have been deuced proud of it once! Not that he ever said so — Edwin was sure of that!

“Now you needn’t get sentimental!” he told himself. Like Maggie he had a fearful, an almost morbid, horror of sentimentality. But he could not arrest the softening of his heart, as he smiled at the naivete of the map and at his father’s parental simplicity.

As he was closing the safe, Stifford, agitated, hurried into the room.

“Please, sir, Mr Clayhanger’s in the Square. I thought I’d better tell you.”

“What? Father?”

“Yes, sir. He’s standing opposite the chapel and he keeps looking this way. I thought you’d like —”

Edwin turned the key, and ran forth, stumbling, as he entered the shop, against the step-ladder which, with the paper-boy at the summit of it, overtopped the doorway. He wondered why he should run, and why Stifford’s face was so obviously apprehensive.

Two.

Darius Clayhanger was standing at the north-east corner of the little Square, half-way up Duck Bank, at the edge of the pavement. And his gaze, hesitant and feeble, seemed to be upon the shop. He merely stood there, moveless, and yet the sight of him was most strangely disconcerting. Edwin, who kept within the shelter of the doorway, comprehended now the look on Stifford’s face. His father had the air of ranging round about the shop in a reconnaissance, like an Indian or a wild animal, or like a domestic animal violently expelled. Edwin almost expected him to creep round by the Town Hall into Saint Luke’s Square, and then to reappear stealthily at the other end of Wedgwood Street, and from a western ambush stare again at his own premises.

A man coming down Duck Bank paused an instant near Darius, and with a smile spoke to him, holding out his hand. Darius gave a slight nod. The man, snubbed and confused, walked on, the smile still on his face, but meaningless now, and foolish.

At length Darius walked up the hill, his arms stiff and out-pointing, as of old. Edwin got his hat and ran after him. Instead of turning to the left along the market-place, Darius kept on farther up the hill, past the Shambles, towards the old playground and the vague cinder-wastes where the town ended in a few ancient cottages. It was at the playground that Edwin, going slowly and cautiously, overtook him.

“Hello, father!” he began nervously. “Where are you off to?”

Darius did not seem to be at all startled to see him at his side. Nevertheless he behaved in a queer fashion. Without saying a word he suddenly turned at right-angles and apparently aimed himself towards the market-place, by the back of the Town Hall. When he had walked a few paces, he stopped and looked round at Edwin, who could not decide what ought to be done.

“If ye want to know,” said Darius, with overwhelming sadness and embittered disgust, “I’m going to th’ Bank to sign that authority about cheques.”

“Oh!” Edwin responded. “Good! I’ll go with you if you like.”

“Happen it’ll be as well,” said Darius, resigning himself.

They walked together in silence.

The old man was beaten. The old man had surrendered, unconditionally. Edwin’s heart lightened as he perceived more and more clearly what this surprising victory meant. It meant that always in the future he would have the upper hand. He knew now, and Darius knew, that his father had no strength to fight, and that any semblance of fighting could be treated as bluster. Probably nobody realised as profoundly as Darius himself, his real and yet mysterious inability to assert his will against the will of another. The force of his individuality was gone. He, who had meant to govern tyrannically to his final hour, to die with a powerful and grim gesture of command, had to accept the ignominy of submission. Edwin had not even insisted, had used no kind of threat. He had merely announced his will, and when the first fury had waned Darius had found his son’s will working like a chemical agent in his defenceless mind, and had yielded. It was astounding. And always it would be thus, until the time when Edwin would say ‘Do this’ and Darius would do it, and ‘Do that’ and Darius would do it, meekly, unreasoningly, anxiously.

Edwin’s relief was so great that it might have been mistaken for positive ecstatic happiness. His mind ranged exultingly over the future of the business. In a few years, if he chose, he could sell the business and spend the whole treasure of his time upon programmes. The entire world would be his, and he could gather the fruits of every art. He would utterly belong to himself. It was a formidable thought. The atmosphere of the marketplace contained too much oxygen to be quite grateful to his lungs . . . In the meantime there were things he would do. He would raise Stifford’s wages. Long ago they ought to have been raised. And he would see that Stifford had for his dinner a full hour; which in practice Stifford had never had. And he would completely give up the sale and delivery of newspapers and weeklies, and would train the paper-boy to the shop, and put Stifford in his own place and perhaps get another clerk. It struck him hopefully that Stifford might go forth for orders. Assuredly he himself had not one quality of a commercial traveller. And, most inviting prospect of all, he would stock new books. He cared not whether new books were unremunerative. It should be known throughout the Five Towns that at Clayhanger’s in Bursley a selection of new books could always be seen. And if people would not buy them people must leave them. But he would have them. And so his thoughts flew.

Three.

And at the same time he was extremely sad, only less sad than his father. When he allowed his thoughts to rest for an instant on his father he was so moved that he could almost have burst into a sob — just one terrific sob. And he would say in his mind, “What a damned shame! What a damned shame!” Meaning that destiny had behaved ignobly to his father, after all. Destiny had no right to deal with a man so faithlessly. Destiny should do either one thing or the other. It seemed to him that he was leading his father by a string to his humiliation. And he was ashamed: ashamed of his own dominance and of his father’s craven submissiveness. Twice they were stopped by hearty and curious burgesses, and at each encounter Edwin, far more than Darius, was anxious to pretend that the harsh hand of Darius still firmly held the sceptre.

When they entered the shining mahogany interior of the richest Bank in the Five Towns, hushed save for a discreet shovelling of coins, Edwin waited for his father to speak, and Darius said not a word, but stood glumly quiescent, like a victim in a halter. The little wiry dancing cashier looked; every clerk in the place looked; from behind the third counter, in the far recesses of the Bank, clerks looked over their ledgers; and they all looked in the same annoying way, as at a victim in a halter; in their glance was all the pitiful gloating baseness of human nature, mingled with a little of its compassion.

Everybody of course knew that ‘something had happened’ to the successful steam-printer.

“Can we see Mr Lovatt?” Edwin demanded curtly. He was abashed and he was resentful.

The cashier jumped on all his springs into a sudden activity of deference.

Presently the manager emerged from the glazed door of his room, pulling his long whiskers.

“Oh, Mr Lovatt,” Edwin began nervously. “Father’s just come along —”

They were swallowed up into the manager’s parlour. It might have been a court of justice, or a dentist’s surgery, or the cabinet of an insurance doctor, or the room at Fontainebleau where Napoleon signed his abdication — anything but the thing it was. Happily Mr Lovatt had a manner which never varied; he had only one manner for all men and all occasions. So that Edwin was not distressed either by the deficiencies of amateur acting or by the exhibition of another’s self-conscious awkwardness. Nevertheless when his father took the pen to write he was obliged to look studiously at the window and inaudibly hum an air. Had he not done so, that threatening sob might have burst its way out of him.

Four.

“I’m going this road,” said Darius, when they were safely out of the Bank, pointing towards the Sytch.

“What for?”

“I’m going this road,” he repeated, gloomily obstinate.

“All right,” said Edwin cheerfully. “I’ll trot round with you.”

He did not know whether he could safely leave his father. The old man’s eyes resented his assiduity and accepted it.

They passed the Old Sytch Pottery, the smoke of whose kilns now no longer darkened the sky. The senior partner of the firm which leased it had died, and his sons had immediately taken advantage of his absence to build a new and efficient works down by the canal-side at Shawport — a marvel of everything save architectural dignity. Times changed. Edwin remarked on the desolation of the place and received no reply. Then the idea occurred to him that his father was bound for the Liberal Club. It was so. They both entered. In the large room two young men were amusing themselves at the billiard-table which formed the chief attraction of the naked interior, and on the ledges of the table were two glasses. The steward in an apron watched them.

“Aye!” grumbled Darius, eyeing the group. “That’s Rad, that is! That’s Rad! Not twelve o’clock yet!”

If Edwin with his father had surprised two young men drinking and playing billiards before noon in the Conservative Club, he would have been grimly pleased. He would have taken it for a further proof of the hollowness of the opposition to the great Home Rule Bill; but the spectacle of a couple of wastrels in the Liberal Club annoyed and shamed him. His vague notion was that at such a moment of high crisis the two wastrels ought to have had the decency to refrain from wasting.

“Well, Mr Clayhanger,” said the steward, in his absurd boniface way, “you’re quite a stranger.”

“I want my name taken off this Club,” said Darius shortly. “Ye understand me! And I reckon I’m not the only one, these days.”

The steward did in fact understand. He protested in a low, amiable voice, while the billiard-players affected not to hear; but he perfectly understood. The epidemic of resignations had already set in, and there had been talk of a Liberal–Unionist Club. The steward saw that the grand folly of a senile statesman was threatening his own future prospects. He smiled. But at Edwin, as they were leaving, he smiled in a quite peculiar way, and that smile clearly meant: “Your father goes dotty, and the first thing he does is to change his politics.” This was the steward’s justifiable revenge.

“You aren’t leaving us?” the steward questioned Edwin in a half-whisper.

Edwin shook his head. But he could have killed the steward for that nauseating suggestive smile. The outer door swung to, cutting off the delicate click of billiard balls.

At the top of Duck Bank, Darius silently and without warning mounted the steps of the Conservative Club. Doubtless he knew how to lay his hand instantly on a proposer and seconder. Edwin did not follow him.

Five.

That evening, conscious of responsibility and of virtue, Edwin walked up Trafalgar Road with a less gawky and more dignified mien than ever he had managed to assume before. He had not only dismissed programmes of culture, he had forgotten them. After twelve hours as head of a business, they had temporarily ceased to interest him. And when he passed, or was overtaken by, other men of affairs, he thought to himself naively in the dark, “I am the equal of these men.” And the image of Florence Simcox, the clog-dancer, floated through his mind.

He found Darius alone in the drawing-room, in front of an uncustomary fire, garden-clay still on his boots, and “The Christian News” under his spectacles. The Sunday before the funeral of Mr Shushions had been so unusual and so distressing that Darius had fallen into arrear with his perusals. True, he had never been known to read “The Christian News” on any day but Sunday, but now every day was Sunday.

Edwin nodded to him and approached the fire, rubbing his hands.

“What’s this as I hear?” Darius began, with melancholy softness.

“Eh?”

“About Albert wanting to borrow a thousand pounds?” Darius gazed at him over his spectacles.

“Albert wanting to borrow a thousand pounds!” Edwin repeated, astounded.

“Aye! Have they said naught to you?”

“No,” said Edwin. “What is it?”

“Clara and your aunt have both been at me since tea. Some tale as Albert can amalgamate into partnership with Hope and Carters if he can put down a thousand. Then Albert’s said naught to ye?”

“No, he hasn’t!” Edwin exclaimed, emphasising each word with a peculiar fierceness. It was as if he had said, “I should like to catch him saying anything to me about it!”

He was extremely indignant. It seemed to him monstrous that those two women should thus try to snatch an advantage from his father’s weakness, pitifully mean and base. He could not understand how people could bring themselves to do such things, nor how, having done them, they could ever look their fellows in the face again. Had they no shame? They would not let a day pass; but they must settle on the old man instantly, like flies on a carcass! He could imagine the plottings, the hushed chatterings; the acting-for-the-best demeanour of that cursed woman Auntie Hamps (yes, he now cursed her), and the candid greed of his sister.

“You wouldn’t do it, would ye?” Darius asked, in a tone that expected a negative answer; but also with a rather plaintive appeal, as though he were depending on Edwin for moral support against the formidable forces of attack.

“I should not,” said Edwin stoutly, touched by the strange wistful note and by the glance. “Unless of course you really want to.”

He did not care in the least whether the money would or would not be really useful and reasonably safe. He did not care whose enmity he was risking. His sense of fair play was outraged, and he would salve it at any cost. He knew that had his father not been struck down and defenceless, these despicable people would never have dared to demand money from him. That was the only point that mattered.

The relief of Darius at Edwin’s attitude in the affair was painful. Hoping for sympathy from Edwin, he yet had feared in him another enemy. Now he was reassured, and he could hide his feelings no better than a child.

“Seemingly they can’t wait till my will’s opened!” he murmured, with a scarcely successful affectation of grimness.

“Made a will, have you?” Edwin remarked, with an elaborate casualness to imply that he had never till then given a thought to his father’s will, but that, having thought of the question, he was perhaps a very little surprised that his father had indeed made a will.

Darius nodded, quite benevolently. He seemed to have forgotten his deep grievance against Edwin in the matter of cheque-signing.

“Duncalf’s got it,” he murmured after a moment. Duncalf was the town clerk and a solicitor.

So the will was made! And he had submissively signed away all control over all monetary transactions. What more could he do, except expire with the minimum of fuss? Truly Darius, in the local phrase, was now ‘laid aside’! And of all the symptoms of his decay the most striking and the most tragic, to Edwin, was that he showed no curiosity whatever about business. Not one single word of inquiry had he uttered.

“You’ll want shaving,” said Edwin, in a friendly way.

Darius passed a hand over his face. He had ceased years ago to shave himself, and had a subscription at Dick Jones’s in Aboukir Street, close by the shop.

“Aye!”

“Shall I send the barber up, or shall you let it grow?”

“What do you think?”

“Oh!” Edwin drawled, characteristically hesitating. Then he remembered that he was the responsible head of the family of Clayhanger. “I think you might let it grow,” he decided.

And when he had issued the verdict, it seemed to him like a sentence of sequestration and death on his father . . . ‘Let it grow! What does it matter?’ Such was the innuendo.

“You used to grow a full beard once, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Darius.

That made the situation less cruel.

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