Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Nine.

The Ox.

Edwin walked idly down Trafalgar Road in the hot morning sunshine of Jubilee Day. He had left his father tearfully sentimentalising about the Queen. ‘She’s a good ’un!’ Then a sob. ‘Never was one like her!’ Another sob. ‘No, and never will be again!’ Then a gush of tears on the newspaper, which the old man laboriously scanned for details of the official programme in London. He had not for months read the newspaper with such a determined effort to understand; indeed, since the beginning of his illness, no subject, except mushroom-culture, had interested him so much as the Jubilee. Each time he looked at the sky from his shady seat in the garden he had thanked God that it was a fine day, as he might have thanked Him for deliverance from a grave personal disaster.

Except for a few poor flags, there was no sign of gaiety in Trafalgar Road. The street, the town, and the hearts of those who remained in it, were wrapped in that desolating sadness which envelops the provinces when a supreme spectacular national rejoicing is centralised in London. All those who possessed the freedom, the energy, and the money had gone to London to witness a sight that, as every one said to every one, would be unique, and would remain unique for ever — and yet perhaps less to witness it than to be able to recount to their grandchildren that they had witnessed it. Many more were visiting nearer holiday resorts for a day or two days. Those who remained, the poor, the spiritless, the afflicted, and the captive, felt with mournful keenness the shame of their utter provinciality, envying the crowds in London with a bitter envy, and picturing London as the paradise of fashion and splendour.

It was from sheer aimless disgust that Edwin went down Trafalgar Road; he might as easily have gone up. Having arrived in the town, a wilderness of shut shops, he gazed a moment at his own, and then entered it by the side door. He had naught else to do. Had he chosen he could have spent the whole day in reading, or he might have taken again to his long-neglected water-colours. But it was not in him to put himself to the trouble of seeking contentment. He preferred to wallow in utter desolation, thinking of all the unpleasant things that had ever happened to him, and occasionally conjecturing what he would have been doing at a given moment had he accompanied the jolly, the distinguished, and the enterprising Osmond Orgreave to London.

He passed into the shop, sufficiently illuminated by the white rays that struck through the diamond holes in the shutters. The morning’s letters — a sparse company — lay forlorn on the floor. He picked them up and pitched them down in the cubicle. Then he went into the cubicle, and with the negligent gesture of long habit unlocked a part of the desk, the part which had once been his father’s privacy, and of which he had demanded the key more than a year ago. It was all now under his absolute dominion. He could do exactly as he pleased with a commercial apparatus that brought in some eight hundred pounds a year net. He was the unquestioned regent, and yet he told himself that he was no happier than when a slave.

He drew forth his books of account, and began to piece figures together on backs of envelopes, using a shorthand of accounts such as a principal will use when he is impatient and not particular to a few pounds. A little wasp of curiosity was teasing Edwin, and to quicken it a comparison was necessary between the result of the first six months of that year and the first six months of the previous year. True, June had not quite expired, but most of the quarterly accounts were ready, and he could form a trustworthy estimate. Was he, with his scorn of his father, his brains, his orderliness, doing better or worse than his father in the business? At the election of 1886, there had been considerably fewer orders than was customary at elections; he had done nothing whatever for the Tories, but that was a point that affected neither period of six months. Sundry customers had assuredly been lost; on the other hand, Stifford’s travelling had seemed to be very satisfactory. Nor could it be argued that money had been dropped on the new-book business, because he had not yet inaugurated the new-book business, preferring to wait; he was afraid that his father might after all astoundingly walk in one day, and see new books on the counter, and rage. He had stopped the supplying of newspapers, and would deign to nothing lower than a sixpenny magazine; but the profit on newspapers was negligible.

The totals ought surely to compare in a manner favourable to himself, for he had been extremely and unremittingly conscientious. Nevertheless he was afraid. He was afraid because he knew, vaguely and still deeply, that he could neither buy nor sell as well as his father. It was not a question of brains; it was a question of individuality. A sense of honour, of fairness, a temperamental generosity, a hatred of meanness, often prevented him from pushing a bargain to the limit. He could not bring himself to haggle desperately. And even when price was not the main difficulty, he could not talk to a customer, or to a person whose customer he was, with the same rough, gruff, cajoling, bullying skill as his father. He could not, by taking thought, do what his father had done naturally, by the mere blind exercise of instinct. His father, with all his clumsiness, and his unscientific methods, had a certain quality, unseizable, Unanalysable, and Edwin had not that quality.

He caught himself, in the rapid calculating, giving himself the benefit of every doubt; somehow he could not help it, childish as it was. And even so, he could see, or he could feel, that the comparison was not going to be favourable to the regent. It grew plainer that the volume of business had barely been maintained, and it was glaringly evident that the expenses, especially wages, had sensibly increased. He abandoned the figures not quite finished, partly from weary disgust, and partly because Big James most astonishingly walked into the shop, from the back. He was really quite glad to encounter Big James, a fellow-creature.

Two.

“Seeing the door open, sir,” said Big James cheerfully, through the narrow doorway of the cubicle, “I stepped in to see as it was no one unlawful.”

“Did I leave the side door open?” Edwin murmured. It was surprising even to himself, how forgetful he was at times, he with his mania for orderliness!

Big James was in his best clothes, and seemed, with his indestructible blandness, to be perfectly happy.

“I was just strolling up to have a look at the ox,” he added.

“Oh!” said Edwin. “Are they cooking it?”

“They should be, sir. But my fear is it may turn, in this weather.”

“I’ll come out with you,” said Edwin, enlivened.

He locked the desk, and hurriedly straightened a few things, and then they went out together, by Wedgwood Street and the Cock Yard up to the market-place. No breeze moved, and the heat was tremendous. And there at the foot of the Town Hall tower, and in its scanty shadow, a dead ox, slung by its legs from an iron construction, was frizzling over a great primitive fire. The vast flanks of the animal, all rich yellows and browns, streamed with grease, some of which fell noisily on the almost invisible flames, while the rest was ingeniously caught in a system of runnels. The spectacle was obscene, nauseating to the eye, the nose, and the ear, and it powerfully recalled to Edwin the legends of the Spanish Inquisition. He speculated whether he would ever be able to touch beef again. Above the tortured and insulted corpse the air quivered in large waves. Mr Doy, the leading butcher of Bursley, and now chief executioner, regarded with anxiety the operation which had been entrusted to him, and occasionally gave instructions to a myrmidon. Round about stood a few privileged persons, whom pride helped to bear the double heat; and farther off on the pavements, a thin scattered crowd. The sublime spectacle of an ox roasted whole had not sufficed to keep the townsmen in the town. Even the sages who had conceived and commanded this peculiar solemnity for celebrating the Jubilee of a Queen and Empress had not stayed in the borough to see it enacted, though some of them were to return in time to watch the devouring of the animal by the aged poor at a ceremonial feast in the evening.

“It’s a grand sight!” said Big James, with simple enthusiasm. “A grand sight! Real old English! And I wish her well!” He meant the Queen and Empress. Then suddenly, in a different tone, sniffing the air, “I doubt it’s turned! I’ll step across and ask Mr Doy.”

He stepped across, and came back with the news that the greater portion of the ox, despite every precaution, had in fact very annoyingly ‘turned,’ and that the remainder of the carcass was in serious danger.

“What’ll the old people say?” he demanded sadly. “But it’s a grand sight, turned or not!”

Edwin stared and stared, in a sort of sinister fascination. He thought that he might stare for ever. At length, after ages of ennui, he loosed himself from the spell with an effort and glanced at Big James.

“And what are you going to do with yourself today, James?”

Big James smiled. “I’m going to take my walks abroad, sir. It’s seldom as I get about in the town nowadays.”

“Well, I must be off!”

“I’d like you to give my respects to the old gentleman, sir.”

Edwin nodded and departed, very slowly and idly, towards Trafalgar Road and Bleakridge. He pulled his straw hat over his forehead to avoid the sun, and then he pushed it backwards to his neck to avoid the sun. The odour of the shrivelling ox remained with him; it was in his nostrils for several days. His heart grew blacker with intense gloom; and the contentment of Big James at the prospect of just strolling about the damnable dead town for the rest of the day surpassed his comprehension. He abandoned himself to misery voluptuously. The afternoon and evening stretched before him, an arid and appalling Sahara. The Benbows, and their babes, and Auntie Hamps were coming for dinner and tea, to cheer up grandfather. He pictured the repasts with savage gloating detestation — burnt ox, and more burnt ox, and the false odious brightness of a family determined to be mutually helpful and inspiring. Since his refusal to abet the project of a loan to Albert, Clara had been secretly hostile under her superficial sisterliness, and Auntie Hamps had often assured him, in a manner extraordinarily exasperating, that she was convinced he had acted conscientiously for the best. Strange thought, that after eight hours of these people and of his father, he would be still alive!

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