Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Eleven.

Beginning of the Night.

The next day was full of strange suspense; it was coloured throughout with that quality of strangeness which puts a new light on all quotidian occupations and exposes their fundamental unimportance. Edwin arose to the fact that a thick grey fog was wrapping the town. When he returned home to breakfast at nine the fog was certainly more opaque than it had been an hour earlier. The steam-cars passed like phantoms, with a continuous clanging of bells. He breakfasted under gas — and alone. Maggie was invisible, or only to be seen momentarily, flying across the domestic horizon. She gave out that she was very busy in the attics, cleaning those shockingly neglected rooms. “Please, sir,” said the servant, “Miss Clayhanger says she’s been across to Mr Orgreave’s, and Master George is about the same.” Maggie would not come and tell him herself. On the previous evening he had not seen her after the reception of the news about the Vicar. She had gone upstairs when he came back from the post office. Beyond doubt, she was too disturbed, emotionally, to be able to face him with her customary tranquillity. She was getting over the shock with brush and duster up in the attics. He was glad that she had not attempted to be as usual. The ordeal of attempting to be as usual would have tried him perhaps as severely as her.

He went forth again into the fog in a high state of agitation, constricted with sympathetic distress on Maggie’s account, apprehensive for the boy, and painfully expectant of the end of the day. The whole day slipped away so, hour after monotonous hour, while people talked about influenza and about distinguished patients, and doctors hurried from house to house, and the fog itself seemed to be the visible mantle of the disease. And the end of the day brought nothing to Edwin save an acuter expectancy. George varied; on the whole he was worse; not much worse, but worse. Dr Stirling saw him twice. No message arrived from Hilda, nor did she come in person. Maggie watched George for five hours in the late afternoon and evening, while Janet rested.

At eight o’clock, when there was no further hope of a telegram from Hilda, everybody pretended to concur in the view that Hilda, knowing her boy better than anybody else, and having already seen him through an attack of influenza, had not been unduly alarmed by the telegraphic news of his temperature, and was content to write. She might probably be arranging to come on the morrow. After all, George’s temperature had reached 104 in the previous attack. Then there was the fog. The fog would account for anything.

Nevertheless, nobody was really satisfied by these explanations of Hilda’s silence and absence. In every heart lay the secret and sinister thought of the queerness and the incalculableness of Hilda.

Edwin called several times on the Orgreaves. He finally left their house about ten o’clock, with some difficulty tracing his way home from gas lamp to gas lamp through the fog. Mr Orgreave himself had escorted him with a lantern round the wilderness of the lawn to the gates. “We shall have a letter in the morning,” Mr Orgreave had said. “Bound to!” Edwin had replied. And they had both superiorly puffed away into the fog the absurd misgivings of women.

Knowing that he was in no condition to sleep, Edwin mended the drawing-room fire, and settled down on the sofa to read. But he could no more read than sleep. He seemed to lie on the sofa for hours while his thoughts jigged with fatiguing monotony in his head. He was extraordinarily wakeful and alive, every sense painfully sharpened. At last he decided to go to bed. In his bedroom he gazed idly out at the blank density of the fog. And then his heart leapt as his eye distinguished a moving glimmer below in the garden of the Orgreaves. He threw up the window in a tumult of anticipation. The air was absolutely still. Then he heard a voice say, “Good night.” It was undoubtedly Dr Stirling’s voice. The Scotch accent was unmistakable. Was the boy worse? Not necessarily, for the doctor had said that he might look in again ‘last thing,’ if chance favoured. And the Scotch significance of ‘last thing’ was notoriously comprehensive; it might include regions beyond midnight. Then Edwin heard another voice: “Thanks ever so much!” At first it puzzled him. He knew it, and yet! Could it be the Sunday’s voice? Assuredly it was not the voice of Mr Orgreave, nor of any one living in the house. It reminded him of the Sunday’s voice.

He went out of his bedroom, striking a match, and going downstairs lit the gas in the hall, which he had just extinguished. Then he put on a cap, found a candlestick in the kitchen, unbolted the garden door as quietly as he could, and passed into the garden. The flame of the candle stood upright in the fog. He blundered along to the dividing wall, placed the candle on the top of it, and managed to climb over. Leaving the candle on the wall to guide his return, he approached the house, which showed gleams at several windows, and rang the bell. And in fact it was Charlie Orgreave himself who opened the door. And a lantern, stuck carelessly on the edge of a chair, was still burning in the hall.

Two.

In a moment he had learnt the chief facts. Hilda had gone up to London, dragged Charlie out of Ealing, and brought him down with her to watch over her child. Once more she had done something which nobody could have foreseen. The train — not the London express, but the loop — was late. The pair had arrived about half-past ten, and a little later Dr Stirling had fulfilled his promise to look in if he could. The two doctors had conferred across the child’s bed, and had found themselves substantially in agreement. Moreover, the child was if anything somewhat better. The Scotsman had gone. Charles and Hilda had eaten. Hilda meant to sit up, and had insisted that Janet should go to bed; it appeared that Janet had rested but not slept in the afternoon.

Charlie took Edwin into the small breakfast-room, where Osmond Orgreave was waiting, and the three men continued to discuss the situation. They were all of them too excited to sit down, though Osmond and — in a less degree — Charlie affected the tranquillity of high philosophers. At first Edwin knew scarcely what he did. His speech and gestures were not the result of conscious volition. He seemed suddenly to have two individualities, and the new one, which was the more intimate one, watched the other as in a dim-lighted dream . . . She was there in a room above! She had come in response to the telegram signed ‘Edwin!’ Last night she was far away. Tonight she was in the very house with him. Miracle! He asked himself: “Why should I get myself into this state simply because she is here? It would have been mighty strange if she had not come. I must take myself in hand better than this. I mustn’t behave like a blooming girl.” He frowned and coughed.

“Well,” said Osmond Orgreave to his son, thrusting out his coat-tails with his hands towards the fire, and swaying slightly to and fro on his heels and toes, “so you’ve had your consultation, you eminent specialists! What’s the result?”

He looked at his elegant son with an air half-quizzical and half-deferential.

“I’ve told you he’s evidently a little better, dad,” Charlie answered casually. His London deportment was more marked than ever. The bracingly correct atmosphere of Ealing had given him a rather obvious sense of importance. He had developed into a man with a stake in the country, and he twisted his moustache like such a man, and took out a cigarette like such a man.

“Yes, I know,” said Osmond, with controlled impatience. “But what sort of influenza is it? I’m hoping to learn something now you’ve come. Stirling will talk about anything except influenza.”

“What sort of influenza is it? What do you mean?” And Charlie’s twinkling glance said condescendingly: “What’s the old cock got hold of now? This is just like him.”

“But is there any real danger?” Edwin murmured.

“Well,” said Osmond, bringing up his regiments, “as I understand it, there are three types of influenza — the respiratory, the gastro-intestinal, and the nervous. Which one is it?”

Charlie laughed, and prodded his father with a forefinger in a soft region near the shoulder, disturbing his balance. “You’ve been reading the ‘BMJ,’” he said, “and so you needn’t pretend you haven’t!”

Osmond paused an instant to consider the meaning of these initials.

“What if I have?” he demanded, raising his eyebrows, “I say there are three types —”

“Thirty; you might be nearer the mark with thirty,” Charlie interrupted him. “The fact is that this division into types is all very well in theory,” he proceeded, with easy disdain. “But in practice it won’t work out. Now for instance, what this kid has won’t square with any of your three types. It’s purely febrile, that’s what it is. Rare, decidedly rare, but less rare in children than in adults — at any rate in my experience — in my experience. If his temperature wasn’t so high, I should say the thing might last for days — weeks even. I’ve known it. The first question I put was — has he been in a stupor? He had. It may recur. That, and headache, and the absence of localised nervous symptoms —” He stopped, leaving the sentence in the air, grandiose and formidable, but of no purport.

Charlie shrugged his shoulders, allowing the beholder to choose his own interpretation of the gesture.

“You’re a devilish wonderful fellow,” said Osmond grimly to his son. And Charlie winked grimly at Edwin, who grimly smiled.

“You and your ‘British Medical Journal’!” Charlie exclaimed, with an irony from which filial affection was not absent, and again prodded his father in the same spot.

“Of course I know I’m an old man,” said Osmond, condescendingly rejecting Charlie’s condescension. He thought he did not mean what he said; nevertheless, it was the expression of the one idea which latterly beyond all other ideas had possessed him.

Three.

Janet came into the room, and was surprised to see Edwin. She was in a state of extreme fatigue — pale, with burning eyes, and hair that has lost the gracefulness of its curves.

“So you know?” she said.

Edwin nodded.

“It seems I’ve got to go to bed,” she went on. “Father, you must go to bed too. Mother’s gone. It’s frightfully late. Come along now!”

She was insistent. She had been worried during the greater part of the day by her restless parents, and she was determined not to leave either of them at large.

“Charlie, you might run upstairs and see that everything’s all right before I go. I shall get up again at four.”

“I’ll be off,” said Edwin.

“Here! Hold on a bit,” Charlie objected. “Wait till I come down. Let’s have a yarn. You don’t want to go to bed yet.”

Edwin agreed to the suggestion, and was left alone in the breakfast-room. What struck him was that the new situation created by Hilda’s strange caprice had instantly been accepted by everybody, and had indeed already begun to seem quite natural. He esteemed highly the demeanour of all the Orgreaves. Neither he himself nor Maggie could have surpassed them in their determination not to exaggerate the crisis, in their determination to bear themselves simply and easily, and to speak with lightness, even with occasional humour. There were few qualities that he admired more than this.

And what was her demeanour, up there in the bedroom?

Suddenly the strangeness of Hilda’s caprice presented itself to him as even more strange. She had merely gone to Ealing and captured Charlie. Charlie was understood to have a considerable practice. At her whim all his patients had been abandoned. What an idea, to bring him down like this! What tremendous faith in him she must have! And Edwin remembered distinctly that the first person who had ever spoken to him of Hilda was Charlie! And in what terms of admiration! Was there a long and secret understanding between these two? They must assuredly be far more intimate than he had ever suspected. Edwin hated to think that Hilda would depend more upon Charlie than upon himself in a grave difficulty. The notion caused him acute discomfort. He was resentful against Charlie as against a thief who had robbed him of his own, but who could not be apprehended and put to shame.

The acute discomfort was jealousy; but this word did not occur to him.

Four.

“I say,” Edwin began, in a new intimate tone, when after what seemed a very long interval Charlie Orgreave returned to the breakfast-room with the information that for the present all had been done that could be done.

“What’s up?” said Charlie, responding quite eagerly to the appeal for intimacy in Edwin’s voice. He had brought in a tray with whisky and its apparatus, and he set this handily on a stool in front of the fire, and poked the fire, and generally made the usual ritualistic preparations for a comfortable talkative night.

“Rather delicate, wasn’t it, you coming down and taking Stirling’s case off him?”

Edwin smiled idly as he lolled far back in an old easy chair. His two individualities had now merged again into one.

“My boy,” Charlie answered, pausing impressively with his curly head held forward, before dropping into an arm-chair by the stool, “you may take it from me that ‘delicate’ is not the word!”

Edwin nodded sympathetically, perceiving with satisfaction that beneath his Metropolitan mannerism, and his amusing pomposities, and his perfectly dandiacal clothes, Charlie still remained the Sunday, possibly more naive than ever. This naivete of Charlie’s was particularly pleasing to him, for the reason that it gave him a feeling of superiority to the more brilliant being and persuaded him that the difference between London and the provinces was inessential and negligible. Charlie’s hair still curled like a boy’s, and he had not outgrown the naivete of boyhood. Against these facts the fact that Charlie was a partner in a fashionable and dashing practice at Ealing simply did not weigh. The deference which in thought Edwin had been slowly acquiring for this Charlie, as to whom impressive news reached Bursley from time to time, melted almost completely away. In fundamentals he was convinced that Charlie was an infant compared to himself.

“Have a drop?”

“Well, it’s not often I do, but I will to-night. Steady on with the whisky, old chap.”

Each took a charged glass and sipped. Edwin, by raising his arm, could just lodge his glass on the mantelpiece. Charlie then opened his large gun-metal cigarette case, and one match lighted two cigarettes.

“Yes, my boy,” Charlie resumed, as he meditatively blew out the match and threw it on the fire, “you may well say ‘delicate.’ The truth is that if I hadn’t seen at once that Stirling was a very decent sort of chap, and very friendly here, I might have funked it. Yes, I might. He came in just after we’d arrived. So I saw him alone — here. I made a clean breast of it, and put myself in his hands. Of course he appreciated the situation at once; and considering he’d never seen her, it was rather clever of him . . . I suppose people rather like that Scotch accent of his, down here?”

“They say he makes over a thousand a year already,” Edwin replied. He was thinking. “Is she likely to be coming downstairs? No.”

“The deuce he does!” Charlie murmured, with ingenuous animation, foolishly betraying by an instant’s lack of self-control the fact that Ealing was not Utopia. Envy was in his voice as he continued: “It’s astonishing how some chaps can come along and walk straight into anything they want — whatever it happens to be!”

“What do you think of him as a doctor?” Edwin questioned.

“Seems all right,” said Charlie, with a fine brief effort to be patronising.

“He’s got a great reputation down here,” Edwin said quietly.

“Yes, yes. I should say he’s quite all right.”

Five.

“How came it that Mrs Cannon came and rummaged you out?” Edwin knew that he would blush, and so he reached up for his whisky, and drank, adding: “The old man still clings to his old brand of Scotch.”

“My dear fellow, I know no more than you. I was perfectly staggered — I can tell you that. I hadn’t seen her since before she was married. Only heard of her again just lately through Janet. I suppose it was Janet who told her I was at Ealing. It’s an absolute fact that just at the first blush I didn’t even recognise her.”

“Didn’t you?” Edwin wondered how this could be.

“I did not. She came into our surgery, as if she’d come out of the next room and I’d seen her only yesterday, and she just asked me to come away with her at once to Bursley. I thought she was off her nut, but she wasn’t. She showed me your telegram.”

“The dickens she did!” Edwin was really startled.

“Yes. I told her there was nothing absolutely fatal in a temperature of 104. It happened in thousands of cases. Then she explained to me exactly how he’d been ill before, seemingly in the same way, and I could judge from what she said that he wasn’t a boy who would stand a high temperature for very long.”

“By the way, what’s his temperature to-night?” Edwin interrupted.

“102 point 7,” said Charlie.

“Yes,” he resumed, “she did convince me it might be serious. But what then? I told her I couldn’t possibly leave. She asked me why not. She kept on asking me why not. I said, What about my patients here? She asked if any of them were dying. I said no, but I couldn’t leave them all to my partner. I don’t think she realised, before that, that I was in partnership. She stuck to it worse than ever then. I asked her why she wanted just me. I said all we doctors were much about the same, and so on. But it was no use. The fact is, you know, Hilda always had a great notion of me as a doctor. Can’t imagine why! Kept it to herself of course, jolly close, as she did most things, but I’d noticed it now and then. You know — one of those tremendous beliefs she has. You’re another of her beliefs, if you want to know.”

“How do you know? Give us another cigarette.” Edwin was exceedingly uneasy, and yet joyous. One of his fears was that the Sunday might inquire how it was that he signed telegrams to Hilda with only his Christian name. The Sunday, however, made no such inquiry.

“How do I know!” Charlie exclaimed. “I could tell in a second by the way she showed me your telegram. Oh! And besides, that’s an old story, my young friend. You needn’t flatter yourself it wasn’t common property at one time.”

“Oh! Rot!” Edwin muttered. “Well, go on!”

“Well, then I explained that there was such a thing as medical etiquette . . . Ah! you should have heard Hilda on medical etiquette. You should just have heard her on that lay — medical etiquette versus the dying child. I simply had to chuck that. I said to her, ‘But suppose you hadn’t caught me at home? I might have been out for the day — a hundred things.’ It was sheer accident she had caught me. At last she said: ‘Look here, Charlie, will you come, or won’t you?’”

Six.

“Well, and what did you say?”

“I should tell you she went down on her knees. What should you have said, eh, my boy? What could I say? They’ve got you when they put it that way. Especially a woman like she is! I tell you she was simply terrific. I tell you I wouldn’t go through it again — not for something.”

Edwin responsively shook.

“I just threw up the sponge and came. I told Huskisson a thundering lie, to save my face, and away I came, and I’ve been with her ever since. Dashed if I haven’t!”

“Who’s Huskisson?”

“My partner. If anybody had told me beforehand that I should do such a thing I should have laughed. Of course, if you look at it calmly, it’s preposterous. Preposterous — there’s no other word — from my point of view. But when they begin to put it the way she put it — well, you’ve got to decide quick whether you’ll be sensible and a brute, or whether you’ll sacrifice yourself and be a damned fool . . . What good am I here? No more good than anybody else. Supposing there is danger? Well, there may be. But I’ve left twenty or thirty influenza cases at Ealing. Every influenza case is dangerous, if it comes to that.”

“Exactly,” breathed Edwin.

“I wouldn’t have done it for any other woman,” Charlie recommenced. “Not much!”

“Then why did you do it for her?”

Charlie shrugged his shoulders. “There’s something about her . . . I don’t know —” He lifted his nostrils fastidiously and gazed at the fire. “There’s not many women knocking about like her . . . She gets hold of you. She’s nothing at all for about six months at a stretch, and then she has one minute of the grand style . . . That’s the sort of woman she is. Understand? But I expect you don’t know her as we do.”

“Oh yes, I understand,” said Edwin. “She must be tremendously fond of the kid.”

“You bet she is! Absolute passion. What sort is he?”

“Oh! He’s all right. But I’ve never seen them together, and I never thought she was so particularly keen on him.”

“Don’t you make any mistake,” said Charlie loftily. “I believe women often are like that about an only child when they’ve had a rough time. And by the look of her she must have had a pretty rough time. I’ve never made out why she married that swine, and I don’t think anyone else has either.”

“Did you know him?” Edwin asked, with sudden eagerness.

“Not a bit. But I’ve sort of understood he was a regular outsider. Do you know how long she’s been a widow?”

“No,” said Edwin. “I’ve barely seen her.”

At these words he became so constrained, and so suspicious of the look on his own face, that he rose abruptly and began to walk about the room.

“What’s the matter?” demanded Charlie. “Got pins and needles?”

“Only fidgets,” said Edwin.

“I hope this isn’t one of your preliminaries for clearing out and leaving me alone,” Charlie complained. “Here — where’s that glass of yours? Have another cigarette.”

There was a sound that seemed to resemble a tap on the door.

“What’s that noise?” said Edwin, startled. The whole of his epidermis tingled, and he stood still. They both listened.

The sound was repeated. Yes, it was a tap on the door; but in the night, and in the repose of the house, it had the character of some unearthly summons.

Edwin was near the door. He hesitated for an instant afraid, and then with an effort brusquely opened the door and looked forth beyond the shelter of the room. A woman’s figure was disappearing down the passage in the direction of the stairs. It was she.

“Did you —” he began. But Hilda had gone. Agitated, he said to Charlie, his hand still on the knob: “It’s Mrs Cannon. She just knocked and ran off. I expect she wants you.”

Charlie jumped up and scurried out of the room exactly like a boy, despite his tall, mature figure of a man of thirty-five.

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