Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Ten.

George and the Vicar.

On the Tuesday evening Edwin came home from business at six o’clock, and found that he was to eat alone. The servant anxiously explained that Miss Clayhanger had gone across to the Orgreaves’ to assist Miss Orgreave. It was evident that before going Miss Clayhanger had inspired the servant with a full sense of the importance of Mr Clayhanger’s solitary meal, and of the terrible responsibility lying upon the person in charge of it. The girl was thrillingly alive; she would have liked some friend or other of the house to be always seriously ill, so that Miss Clayhanger might often leave her to the voluptuous savouring of this responsibility whose formidableness surpassed words. Edwin, as he went upstairs and as he came down again, was conscious of her excited presence somewhere near him, half-visible in the warm gas-lit house, spying upon him in order to divine the precise moment for the final service of the meal.

And in the dining-room the table was laid differently, so that he might be well situated, with regard to the light, for reading. And by the side of his plate were the newspaper, the magazines, and the book, among which Maggie had well guessed that he would make his choice for perusal. He was momentarily touched. He warmed his hands at the splendid fire, and then he warmed his back, watching the servant as with little flouncings and perkings she served, and he was touched by the placid and perfect efficiency of Maggie as a housekeeper. Maggie gave him something that no money could buy.

The servant departed and shut the door.

When he sat down he minutely changed the situation of nearly everything on the table, so that his magazine might be lodged at exactly the right distance and angle, and so that each necessary object might be quite handy. He was in luxury, and he yielded himself to it absolutely. The sense that unusual events were happening, that the course of social existence was disturbed while his comfort was not disturbed, that danger hung cloudy on the horizon — this sense somehow intensified the appreciation of the hour, and positively contributed to his pleasure. Moreover, he was agreeably excited by a dismaying anticipation affecting himself alone.

Two.

The door opened again, and Auntie Hamps was shown in by the servant. Before he could move the old lady had with overwhelming sweet supplications insisted that he should not move — no, not even to shake hands! He rose only to shake hands, and then fell back into his comfort. Auntie Hamps fixed a chair for herself opposite him, and drummed her black-gloved hands on the white table-cloth. She was steadily becoming stouter, and those chubby little hands seemed impossibly small against the vast mountain of fur which was crowned by her smirking crimson face and the supreme peak of her bonnet.

“They keep very friendly — those two,” she remarked, with a strangely significant air, when he told her where Maggie was. She had shown no surprise at finding him alone, for the reason that she had already learnt everything from the servant in the hall.

“Janet and Maggie? They’re friendly enough when they can be of use to each other.”

“How kind Miss Janet was when your father was ill! I’m sure Maggie feels she must do all she can to return her kindness,” Mrs Hamps murmured, with emotion. “I shall always be grateful for her helpfulness! She’s a grand girl, a grand girl!”

“Yes,” said Edwin awkwardly.

“She’s still waiting for you,” said Mrs Hamps, not archly, but sadly.

Edwin restively poohed. At the first instant of her arrival he had been rather glad to see her, for unusual events create a desire to discuss them; but if she meant to proceed in that strain unuttered curses would soon begin to accumulate for her in his heart.

“I expect the kid must be pretty bad,” he said.

“Yes,” sighed Mrs Hamps. “And probably poor Mrs Orgreave is more in the way than anything else. And Mr Orgreave only just out of bed, as you may say! . . . That young lady must have her hands full! My word! What a blessing it is she has made such friends with Maggie!”

Mrs Hamps had the peculiar gift, which developed into ever-increasing perfection as her hair grew whiter, of being able to express ideas by means of words which had no relation to them at all. Within three minutes, by three different remarks whose occult message no stranger could have understood but which forced itself with unpleasant clearness upon Edwin, Mrs Hamps had conveyed, “Janet Orgreave only cultivates Maggie because Maggie is the sister of Edwin Clayhanger.”

“You’re all very devoted to that child,” she said, meaning, “There is something mysterious in that quarter which sooner or later is bound to come out.” And the meaning was so clear that Edwin was intimidated. What did she guess? Did she know anything? To-night Auntie Hamps was displaying her gift at its highest.

“I don’t know that Maggie’s so desperately keen on the infant!” he said.

“She’s not like you about him, that’s sure!” Mrs Hamps admitted. And she went on, in a tone that was only superficially casual, “I wonder the mother doesn’t come down to him!”

Not ‘his’ mother —‘the’ mother. Odd, the effect of that trifle! Mrs Hamps was a great artist in phrasing.

“Oh!” said Edwin. “It’s not serious enough for that.”

“Well, I’m not so sure,” Auntie Hamps gravely replied. “The Vicar is dead.”

The emphasis which she put on these words was tremendous.

“Is he,” Edwin stammered. “But what’s that got to do with it?”

He tried to be condescending towards her absurdly superstitious assumption that the death of the Vicar of Saint Peter’s could increase the seriousness of George’s case. And he feebly succeeded in being condescending. Nevertheless he could not meet his auntie’s gaze without self-consciousness. For her emphasis had been double, and he knew it. It had implied, secondly, that the death of the Vicar was an event specially affecting Edwin’s household. The rough sketch of a romance between the Vicar and Maggie had never been completed into a picture, but on the other hand it had never been destroyed. The Vicar and Maggie had been supposed to be still interested in each other, despite the Vicar’s priestliness, which latterly had perhaps grown more marked, just as his church had grown more ritualistic. It was a strange affair, thin, elusive; but an affair it was. The Vicar and Maggie had seldom met of recent years, they had never — so far as anyone knew — met alone; and yet, upon the news of the Vicar’s death, the first thought of nearly everybody was for Maggie Clayhanger.

Mrs Hamps’s eyes, swimming in the satisfaction of several simultaneous woes, said plainly, “What about poor Maggie?”

“When did you hear?” Edwin asked. “It isn’t in this afternoon’s paper.”

“I’ve only just heard. He died at four o’clock.”

She had come up immediately with the news as fresh as orchard fruit.

“And the Duke of Clarence is no better,” she said, in a luxurious sighing gloom. “And I’m afraid it’s all over with Cardinal Manning.” She made a peculiar noise in her throat, not quite a sigh; rather a brave protest against the general fatality of things, stiffened by a determination to be strong though melancholy in misfortune.

Three.

Maggie suddenly entered, hatted, with a jacket over her arm.

“Hello, auntie, you here!” They had already met that morning.

“I just called,” said Mrs Hamps guiltily. Edwin felt as though Maggie had surprised them both in some criminal act. They knew that Mr Heve was dead. She did not know. She had to be told. He wished violently that Auntie Hamps had been elsewhere.

“Everything all right?” Maggie asked Edwin, surveying the table. “I gave particular orders about the eggs.”

“As right as rain,” said Edwin, putting into his voice a note of true appreciation. He saw that her sense of duty towards him had brought her back to the house. She had taken every precaution to ensure his well-being, but she could not be content without seeing for herself that the servant had not betrayed the trust.

“How are things — across?” he inquired.

“Well,” said Maggie, frowning, “that’s one reason why I came back sooner than I meant. The doctor’s just been. His temperature is getting higher and higher. I wish you’d go over as soon as you’ve finished. If you ask me, I think they ought to telegraph to his mother. But Janet doesn’t seem to think so. Of course it’s enough when Mrs Orgreave begins worrying about telegraphing for Janet to say there’s no need to telegraph. She’s rather trying, Mrs Orgreave is, I must admit. All that I’ve been doing is to keep her out of the bedroom. Janet has everything on her shoulders. Mr Orgreave is just about as fidgety as Mrs And of course the servants have their own work to do. Naturally Johnnie isn’t in!” Her tone grew sarcastic and bitter.

“What does Stirling say about telegraphing?” Edwin demanded. He had intended to say ‘telegraphing for Mrs Cannon,’ but he could not utter the last words; he could not compel his vocal organs to utter them. He became aware of the beating of his heart. For twenty-four hours he had been contemplating the possibility of a summons to Hilda. Now the possibility had developed into a probability. Nay, a certainty! Maggie was the very last person to be alarmist.

Maggie replied: “He says it might be as well to wait till tomorrow. But then you know he is like that — a bit.”

“So they say,” Auntie Hamps agreed.

“Have you seen the kid?” Edwin asked.

“About two minutes,” said Maggie. “It’s pitiable to watch him.”

“Why? Is he in pain?”

“Not what you’d call pain. No! But he’s so upset. Worried about himself. He’s got a terrific fever on him. I’m certain he’s delirious sometimes. Poor little thing!”

Tears gleamed in her eyes. The plight of the boy had weakened her prejudices against him. Assuredly he was not ‘rough’ now.

Astounded and frightened by those shimmering tears, Edwin exclaimed, “You don’t mean to say there’s actual danger?”

“Well —” Maggie hesitated, and stopped.

There was silence for a moment. Edwin felt that the situation was now further intensified.

“I expect you’ve heard about the poor Vicar,” Mrs Hamps funereally insinuated. Edwin mutely damned her.

Maggie looked up sharply. “No! . . . He’s not —”

Mrs Hamps nodded twice.

The tears vanished from Maggie’s eyes, forced backwards by all the secret pride that was in her. It was obvious that not the news of the Vicar had originally caused those tears; but nevertheless there should be no shadow of misunderstanding. The death of the Vicar must be associated with no more serious sign of distress in Maggie than in others. She must be above suspicion. For one acute moment, as he read her thoughts and as the profound sacrificial tragedy of her entire existence loomed less indistinctly than usual before him, Edwin ceased to think about himself and Hilda.

She made a quick hysterical movement.

“I wish you’d go across, Edwin,” she said harshly.

“I’ll go now,” he answered, with softness. And he was glad to go.

Four.

It was Osmond Orgreave who opened to him the front door of Lane End House. Maggie had told the old gentleman that she should send Edwin over, and he was wandering vaguely about in nervous expectation. In an instant they were discussing George’s case, and the advisability of telegraphing to Hilda. Mrs Orgreave immediately joined them in the hall. Both father and mother clearly stood in awe of the gentle but powerful Janet. And somehow the child was considered as her private affair, into which others might not thrust themselves save on sufferance. Perceiving that Edwin was slightly inclined to the course of telegraphing, they drew him towards them as a reinforcement, but while Mrs Orgreave frankly displayed her dependence on him, Mr Orgreave affected to be strong, independent, and judicial.

“I wish you’d go and speak to her,” Mrs Orgreave entreated.

“Upstairs?”

“It won’t do any harm, anyhow,” said Osmond, finely indifferent.

They went up the stairs in a procession. Edwin did not wish to tell them about the Vicar. He could see no sense in telling them about the Vicar. And yet, before they reached the top of the stairs, he heard himself saying in a concerned whisper —

“You know about the Vicar of Saint Peter’s?”

“No.”

“Died at four o’clock.”

“Oh dear me! Dear me!” murmured Mrs Orgreave, agonised.

Most evidently George’s case was aggravated by the Vicar’s death — and not only in the eyes of Mrs Orgreave and her falsely stoic husband, but in Edwin’s eyes too! Useless for him to argue with himself about idiotic superstitiousness! The death of the Vicar had undoubtedly influenced his attitude towards George.

They halted on the landing, outside a door that was ajar. Near them burned a gas jet, and beneath the bracket was a large framed photograph of the bridal party at Alicia’s wedding. Farther along the landing were other similar records of the weddings of Marion, Tom, and Jimmie.

Mr Orgreave pushed the door half open.

“Janet,” said Mr Orgreave conspiratorially.

“Well?” from within the bedroom.

“Here’s Edwin.”

Janet appeared in the doorway, pale. She was wearing an apron with a bib.

“I— I thought I’d just look in and inquire,” Edwin said awkwardly, fiddling with his hat and a pocket of his overcoat. “What’s he like now?”

Janet gave details. The sick-room lay hidden behind the face of the door, mysterious and sacred.

“Mr Edwin thinks you ought to telegraph,” said Mrs Orgreave timidly.

“Do you?” demanded Janet. Her eyes seemed to pierce him. Why did she gaze at him with such particularity, as though he possessed a special interest in Hilda?

“Well —” he muttered. “You might just wire how things are, and leave it to her to come as she thinks fit.”

“Just so,” said Mr Orgreave quickly, as if Edwin had expressed his own thought.

“But the telegram couldn’t be delivered to-night,” Janet objected. “It’s nearly half-past seven now.”

It was true. Yet Edwin was more than ever conscious of a keen desire to telegraph at once.

“But it would be delivered first thing in the morning,” he said. “So that she’d have more time to make arrangements if she wanted to.”

“Well, if you think like that,” Janet acquiesced.

The visage of Mrs Orgreave lightened.

“I’ll run down and telegraph myself, if you like,” said Edwin. “Of course you’ve written to her. She knows —”

“Oh yes!”

Five.

In a minute he was walking rapidly, with his ungainly, slouching stride, down Trafalgar Road, his overcoat flying loose. Another crisis was approaching, he thought. As he came to Duck Square, he met a newspaper boy shouting shrilly and wearing the contents bill of a special edition of the “Signal” as an apron: “Duke of Clarence. More serious bulletin.” The scourge and fear of influenza was upon the town, upon the community, tangible, oppressive, tragic.

In the evening calm of the shabby, gloomy post-office, holding a stubby pencil that was chained by a cable to the wall, he stood over a blank telegraph-form, hesitating how to word the message. Behind the counter an instrument was ticking unheeded, and far within could be discerned the vague bodies of men dealing with parcels. He wrote, “Cannon, 59 Preston Street, Brighton. George’s temperature 104.” Then he paused, and added, “Edwin.” It was sentimental. He ought to have signed Janet’s name. And, if he was determined to make the telegram personal, he might at least have put his surname. He knew it was sentimental, and he loathed sentimentality. But that evening he wanted to be sentimental.

He crossed to the counter, and pushed the form under the wire-netting.

A sleepy girl accepted it, and glanced mechanically at the clock, and then wrote the hour 7:42.

“It won’t be delivered to-night,” she said, looking up, as she counted the words.

“No, I know,” said Edwin.

“Sixpence, please.”

As he paid the sixpence he felt as though he had accomplished some great, critical, agitating deed. And his heart asserted itself again, thunderously beating.

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