Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Eight.

A Change of Mind.

One evening, a year later, in earliest summer of 1887, Edwin and Mr Osmond Orgreave were walking home together from Hanbridge. When they reached the corner of the street leading to Lane End House, Osmond Orgreave said, stopping —

“Now you’ll come with us?” And he looked Edwin hard in the eyes, and there was a most flattering appeal in his voice. It was some time since their eyes had met frankly, for Edwin had recently been having experience of Mr Orgreave’s methods in financial controversy, and it had not been agreeable.

After an instant Edwin said heartily —

“Yes, I think I’ll come. Of course I should like to. But I’ll let you know.”

“Tonight?”

“Yes, to-night.”

“I shall tell my wife you’re coming.”

Mr Orgreave waved a hand, and passed with a certain decorative gaiety down the street. His hair was now silvern, but it still curled in the old places, and his gestures had apparently not aged at all.

Mr and Mrs Orgreave were going to London for the Jubilee celebrations. So far as their family was concerned, they were going alone, because Osmond had insisted humorously that he wanted a rest from his children. But he had urgently invited Edwin to accompany them. At first Edwin had instinctively replied that it was impossible. He could not leave home. He had never been to London; a journey to London presented itself to him as an immense enterprise, almost as a piece of culpable self-indulgence. And then, under the stimulus of Osmond’s energetic and adventurous temperament, he had said to himself, “Why not? Why shouldn’t I?”

The arguments favoured his going. It was absurd and scandalous that he had never been to London: he ought for his self-respect to depart thither at once. The legend of the Jubilee, spectacular, processional, historic, touched his imagination. Whenever he thought of it, his fancy saw pennons and corselets and chargers winding through stupendous streets, and, somewhere in the midst, the majesty of England in the frail body of a little old lady, who had had many children and one supreme misfortune. Moreover, he could incidentally see Charlie. Moreover, he had been suffering from a series of his customary colds, and from overwork, and Heve had told him that he ‘would do with a change.’ Moreover, he had a project for buying paper in London: he had received, from London, overtures which seemed promising. He had never been able to buy paper quite as cheaply as Darius had bought paper, for the mere reason that he could not haggle over sixteenths of a penny with efficient ruthlessness; he simply could not do it, being somehow ashamed to do it. In Manchester, where Darius had bought paper for thirty years, they were imperceptibly too brutal for Edwin in the harsh realities of a bargain; they had no sense of shame. He thought that in letters from London he detected a softer spirit.

And above all he desired, by accepting Mr Orgreave’s invitation, to show to the architect that the differences between them were really expunged from his mind. Among many confusions in his father’s flourishing but disorderly affairs, Edwin had been startled to find the Orgreave transactions. There were accounts and contra-accounts, and quantities of strangely contradictory documents. Never had a real settlement occurred between Darius and Osmond. And Osmond did not seem to want one. Edwin, however, with his old-maid’s passion for putting and keeping everything in its place, insisted on one. Mr Orgreave had to meet him on his strongest point, his love of order. The process of settlement had been painful to Edwin; it had seriously marred some of his illusions. Nearly the last of the entanglements in his father’s business, the Orgreave matter was straightened and closed now; and the projected escapade to London would bury it deep, might even restore agreeable illusions. And Edwin was incapable of nursing malice.

The best argument of all was that he had a right to go to London. He had earned London, by honest and severe work, and by bearing firmly the huge weight of his responsibility. So far he had offered himself no reward whatever, not even an increase of salary, not even a week of freedom or the satisfaction of a single caprice.

“I shall go, and charge it to the business,” he said to himself. He became excited about going.

Two.

As he approached his house, he saw the elder Heve, vicar of Saint Peter’s, coming away from it, a natty clerical figure in a straw hat of peculiar shape. Recently this man had called once or twice; not professionally, for Darius was neither a churchman nor a parishioner, but as a brother of Dr Heve’s, as a friendly human being, and Darius had been flattered. The Vicar would talk about Jesus with quiet half-humorous enthusiasm. For him at any rate Christianity was grand fun. He seemed never to be solemn over his religion, like the Wesleyans. He never, with a shamed, defiant air, said, “I am not ashamed of Christ,” like the Wesleyans. He might have known Christ slightly at Cambridge. But his relations with Christ did not make him conceited, nor condescending. And if he was concerned about the welfare of people who knew not Christ, he hid his concern in the politest manner. Edwin, after being momentarily impressed by him, was now convinced of his perfect mediocrity; the Vicar’s views on literature had damned him eternally in the esteem of Edwin, who was still naive enough to be unable to comprehend how a man who had been to Cambridge could speak enthusiastically of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Moreover, Edwin despised him for his obvious pride in being a bachelor. The Vicar would not say that a priest should be celibate, but he would, with delicacy, imply as much. Then also, for Edwin’s taste, the parson was somewhat too childishly interested in the culture of cellar-mushrooms, which was his hobby. He would recount the tedious details of all his experiments to Darius, who, flattered by these attentions from the Established Church, took immense delight in the Vicar and in the sample mushrooms offered to him from time to time.

Maggie stood in the porch, which commanded the descent into Bursley; she was watching the Vicar as he receded. When Edwin appeared at the gate, she gave a little jump, and he fancied that she also blushed.

“Look here!” he exclaimed to himself, in a flash of suspicion. “Surely she’s not thinking of the Vicar! Surely Maggie isn’t after all!” He did not conceive it possible that the Vicar, who had been to Cambridge and had notions about celibacy, was thinking of Maggie. “Women are queer,” he said to himself. (For him, this generalisation from facts was quite original.) Fancy her staring after the Vicar! She must have been doing it quite unconsciously! He had supposed that her attitude towards the Vicar was precisely his own. He took it for granted that the Vicar’s attitude was the same to both of them, based on a polite and kindly but firm recognition that there could be no genuine sympathy between him and them.

“The Vicar’s just been,” said Maggie.

“Has he? . . . Cheered the old man up at all?”

“Not much.” Maggie shook her head gloomily.

Edwin’s conscience seemed to be getting ready to hint that he ought not to go to London.

“I say, Mag,” he said quietly, as he inserted his stick in the umbrella-stand. She stopped on her way upstairs, and then approached him.

“Mr Orgreave wants me to go to London with him and Mrs Orgreave.” He explained the whole project to her.

She said at once, eagerly and benevolently —

“Of course you ought to go. It’ll do you all the good in the world. I shall be all right here. Clara and Albert will come for Jubilee Day, anyhow. But haven’t you driven it late? . . . The day after tomorrow, isn’t it? Mr Heve was only saying just now that the hotels were all crammed.”

“Well, you know what Orgreave is! I expect he’ll look after all that.”

“You go!” Maggie enjoined him.

“Won’t upset him?” Edwin nodded vaguely to wherever Darius might be.

“Can’t be helped if it does,” she replied calmly.

“Well then, I’m dashed if I don’t go! What about my collars?”

Three.

Those three — Darius, Maggie, and Edwin — sat down to tea in silence. The window was open, and the weather very warm and gay. During the previous twelve months they had sat down to hundreds of such meals. Save for a few brief periods of cheerfulness, Darius had steadily grown more taciturn, heavy and melancholy. In the winter he had of course abandoned his attempts to divert himself by gardening — attempts at the best half-hearted and feeble — and he had not resumed them in the spring. Less than half a year previously he had often walked across the fields to Hillport and back, or up the gradual slopes to the height of Toft End — he never went townwards, had not once visited the Conservative Club. But now he could not even be persuaded to leave the garden. An old wicker arm-chair had been placed at the end of the garden, and he would set out for that arm-chair as upon a journey, and, having reached it, would sink into it with a huge sigh, and repose before bracing himself to the effort of return.

And now it seemed marvellous that he had ever had the legs to get to Hillport and to Toft End. He existed in a stupor of dull reflection, from pride pretending to read and not reading, or pretending to listen and not listening, and occasionally making a remark which was inapposite but which had to be humoured. And as the weeks passed his children’s manner of humouring him became increasingly perfunctory, and their movements in putting right the negligence of his attire increasingly brusque. Vainly they tried to remember in time that he was a victim and not a criminal; they would remember after the careless remark and after the curt gesture, when it was too late. His malady obsessed them: it was in the air of the house, omnipresent; it weighed upon them, corroding the nerve and exasperating the spirit. Now and then, when Darius had vented a burst of irrational anger, they would say to each other with casual bitterness that really he was too annoying. Once, when his demeanour towards the new servant had strongly suggested that he thought her name was Bathsheba, Mrs Nixon herself had ‘flown out’ at him, and there had been a scene which the doctor had soothed by discreet professional explanations. Maggie’s difficulty was that he was always there, always on the spot. To be free of him she must leave the house; and Maggie was not fond of leaving the house.

Edwin meant to inform him briefly of his intention to go to London, but such was the power of habit that he hesitated; he could not bring himself to announce directly this audacious and unprecedented act of freedom, though he knew that his father was as helpless as a child in his hands. Instead, he began to talk about the renewal of the lease of the premises in Duck Square, as to which it would be necessary to give notice to the landlord at the end of the month.

“I’ve been thinking I’ll have it made out in my own name,” he said. “It’ll save you signing, and so on.” This in itself was a proposal sufficiently startling, and he would not have been surprised at a violent instinctive protest from Darius; but Darius seemed not to heed.

Then both Edwin and Maggie noticed that he was trying to hold a sausage firm on his plate with his knife, and to cut it with his fork.

“No, no, father!” said Maggie gently. “Not like that!”

He looked up, puzzled, and then bent himself again to the plate. The whole of his faculties seemed to be absorbed in a great effort to resolve the complicated problem of the plate, the sausage, the knife and the fork.

“You’ve got your knife in the wrong hand,” said Edwin impatiently, as to a wilful child.

Darius stared at the knife and at the fork, and he then sighed, and his sigh meant, “This business is beyond me!” Then he endeavoured to substitute the knife for the fork, but he could not.

“See,” said Edwin, leaning over. “Like this!” He took the knife, but Darius would not loose it. “No, leave go!” he ordered. “Leave go! How can I show you if you don’t leave go?”

Darius dropped both knife and fork with a clatter. Edwin put the knife into his right hand, and the fork into his left; but in a moment they were wrong again. At first Edwin could not believe that his father was not indulging deliberately in naughtiness.

“Shall I cut it up for you, father?” Maggie asked, in a mild, persuasive tone.

Darius pushed the plate towards her.

When she had cut up the sausage, she said —

“There you are! I’ll keep the knife. Then you can’t get mixed up.”

And Darius ate the sausage with the fork alone. His intelligence had failed to master the original problem presented to it. He ate steadily for a few moments, and then the tears began to roll down his cheek, and he ate no more.

This incident, so simple, so unexpected, and so dramatic, caused the most acute distress. And its effect was disconcerting in the highest degree. It reminded everybody that what Darius suffered from was softening of the brain. For long he had been a prisoner in the house and garden. For long he had been almost mute. And now, just after a visit which usually acted upon him as a tonic, he had begun to lose the skill to feed himself. Little by little he was demonstrating, by his slow declension from it, the wonder of the standard of efficiency maintained by the normal human being.

Edwin and Maggie avoided one another, even in their glances. Each affected the philosophical, seeking to diminish the significance of the episode. But neither succeeded. Of the two years allotted to Darius, one had gone. What would the second be?

Four.

In his bedroom, after tea, Edwin fought against the gloomy influence, but uselessly. The inherent and appalling sadness of existence enveloped and chilled him. He gazed at the rows of his books. He had done no regular reading of late. Why read? He gazed at the screen in front of his bed, covered with neat memoranda. How futile! Why go to London? He would only have to come back from London! And then he said resistingly, “I will go to London.” But as he said it aloud, he knew well that he would not go. His conscience would not allow him to depart. He could not leave Maggie alone with his father. He yielded to his conscience unkindly, reluctantly, with no warm gust of unselfishness; he yielded because he could not outrage his abstract sense of justice.

From the window he perceived Maggie and Janet Orgreave talking together over the low separating wall. And he remembered a word of Janet’s to the effect that she and Maggie were becoming quite friendly and that Maggie was splendid. Suddenly he went downstairs into the garden. They were talking in attitudes of intimacy; and both were grave and mature, and both had a little cleft under the chin. Their pale frocks harmonised in the evening light. As he approached, Maggie burst into a girlish laugh. “Not really?” she murmured, with the vivacity of a young girl. He knew not what they were discussing, nor did he care. What interested him, what startled him, was the youthful gesture and tone of Maggie. It pleased and touched him to discover another Maggie in the Maggie of the household. Those two women had put on for a moment the charming, chattering silliness of schoolgirls. He joined them. On the lawn of the Orgreaves, Alicia was battling fiercely at tennis with an elegant young man whose name he did not know. Croquet was deposed; tennis reigned.

Even Alicia’s occasional shrill cry had a mournful quality in the languishing beauty of the evening.

“I wish you’d tell your father I shan’t be able to go tomorrow,” Edwin said to Janet.

“But he’s told all of us you are going!” Janet exclaimed.

“Shan’t you go?” Maggie questioned, low.

“No,” he murmured. Glancing at Janet, he added, “It won’t do for me to go.”

“What a pity!” Janet breathed.

Maggie did not say, “Oh! But you ought to! There’s no reason whatever why you shouldn’t!” By her silence she contradicted the philosophic nonchalance of her demeanour during the latter part of the meal.

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