Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Twelve.

End of the Night.

For the second time that night Edwin was left alone for a long period in the little breakfast-room. Charlie’s phrase, ‘You’re another of her beliefs,’ shone like a lamp in his memory, beneficent. And though he was still jealous of Charlie, with whom Hilda’s relations were obviously very intimate; although he said to himself, ‘She never made any appeal to me, she would scarcely have my help at any price;’ nevertheless he felt most singularly uplifted and, without any reason, hopeful. So much so that the fate of the child became with him a matter of secondary importance. He excused this apparent callousness by making sure in his own mind that the child was in no real danger. On the other hand he blamed himself for ever having fancied that Hilda was indifferent to George. She, indifferent to her own son! What a wretched, stupid slander! He ought to have known better than that. He ought to have known that a Hilda would bring to maternity the mightiest passions. All that Charlie had said confirmed him in his idolisation of her. ‘One minute of the grand style.’ That was it. Charlie had judged her very well — damn him! And the one minute was priceless, beyond all estimation.

The fire sank, with little sounds of decay; and he stared at it, prevented as if by a spell from stooping to make it up, prevented even from looking at his watch. At length he shivered slightly, and the movement broke the trance. He wandered to the door, which Charlie had left ajar, and listened. No sign of life! He listened intently, but his ear could catch nothing whatever. What were those two doing upstairs with the boy? Cautiously he stepped out into the passage, and went to the foot of the stairs, where a gas jet was burning. He was reminded of the nights preceding his father’s death.

Another gas jet showed along the corridor at the head of the stairs. He put his foot on the first step; it creaked with a noise comparable to the report of a pistol in the dead silence. But there was no responsive sound to show that anyone had been alarmed by this explosion. Impelled by nervous curiosity, and growing careless, he climbed the reverberating, complaining stairs, and, entering the corridor, stood exactly in front of the closed door of the sick-room, and listened again, and heard naught. His heart was obstreperously beating. Part of the household slept; the other part watched; and he was between the two, like a thief, like a spy. Should he knock, discreetly, and ask if he could be of help? The strange romance of his existence, and of all existence, flowed around him in mysterious currents, obsessing him.

Suddenly the door opened, and Charlie, barely avoiding a collision, started back in alarm. Then Charlie recovered his self-possession and carefully shut the door.

“I was just wondering whether I could be any use,” Edwin stammered in a whisper.

Charlie whispered: “It’s all right, but I must run round to Stirling’s, and get a drug I want.”

“Is he worse?”

“Yes. That is — yes. You never know with a child. They’re up and down and all over the place inside of an hour.”

“Can I go?” Edwin suggested.

“No. I can explain to him quicker than you.”

“You’ll never find your way in this fog.”

“Bosh, man! D’you think I don’t know the town as well as you? Besides, it’s lifted considerably.”

By a common impulse they tiptoed to the window at the end of the corridor. Across the lawn could be dimly discerned a gleam through the trees.

“I’ll come with you,” said Edwin.

“You’d much better stay here — in case.”

“Shall I go into the bedroom?”

“Certainly.”

Charlie turned to descend the stairs.

“I say,” Edwin called after him in a loud whisper, “when you get to the gate — you know the house — you go up the side entry. The night bell’s rather high up on the left hand.”

“All right! All right!” Charlie replied impatiently. “Just come and shut the front door after me. I don’t want to bang it.”

Two.

When Edwin crept into the bedroom he was so perturbed by continually growing excitement that he saw nothing clearly except the central group of objects: that is to say, a narrow bed, whose burden was screened from him by its foot, a table, an empty chair, the gas-globe luminous against a dark-green blind, and Hilda in black, alert and erect beneath the down-flowing light. The rest of the chamber seemed to stretch obscurely away into no confines. Not for several seconds did he even notice the fire. This confusing excitement was not caused by anything external such as the real or supposed peril of the child; it had its source within.

As soon as Hilda identified him her expression changed from the intent frowning stare of inquiry to a smile. Edwin had never before seen her smile in that way. The smile was weak, resigned, almost piteous; and it was extraordinarily sweet. He closed the door quietly, and moved in silence towards the bed. She nodded an affectionate welcome. He returned her greeting eagerly, and all his constraint was loosed away, and he felt at ease, and happy. Her face was very pale indeed against the glittering blackness of her eyes, and her sombre disordered hair and untidy dress; but it did not show fatigue nor extreme anxiety; it was a face of calm meekness. The sleeves of her dress were reversed, showing the forearms, which gave her an appearance of deshabille, homely, intimate, confiding. “So it was common property at one time,” Edwin thought, recalling a phrase of Charlie’s in the breakfast-room. Strange: he wanted her in all her disarray, with all her woes, anxieties, solicitudes; he wanted her, piteous, meek, beaten by destiny, weakly smiling; he wanted her because she stood so, after the immense, masterful effort of the day, watching in acquiescence by that bed!

“Has he gone?” she asked, in a voice ordinarily loud, but, for her, unusually tender.

“Yes,” said Edwin. “He’s gone. He told me I’d better come in here. So I came.”

She nodded again. “Have that chair.”

Without arguing, he took the chair. She remained standing.

The condition of George startled him. Evidently the boy was in a heavy stupor. His body was so feverish that it seemed to give off a perceptible heat. There was no need to touch the skin in order to know that it burned: one divined this. The hair was damp. About the pale lips an irregular rash had formed, purplish, patchy, and the rash seemed to be the mark and sign of some strange dreadful disease that nobody had ever named: a plague. Worse than all this was the profound, comprehensive discomfort of the whole organism, showing itself in the unnatural pose of the limbs, and in multitudinous faint instinctive ways of the inert but complaining body. And the child was so slight beneath the blanket, so young, so helpless, spiritually so alone. How could even Hilda communicate her sympathy to that spirit, withdrawn and inaccessible? During the illness of his father Edwin had thought that he was looking upon the extreme tragic limit of pathos, but this present spectacle tightened more painfully the heart. It was more shameful: a more excruciating accusation against the order of the universe. To think of George in his pride, strong, capricious, and dominant, while gazing at this victim of malady . . . the contrast was intolerable!

George was very ill. And yet Hilda, despite the violence of her nature, could stand there calm, sweet, and controlled. What power! Edwin was humbled. “This is the sort of thing that women of her sort can do,” he said to himself. “Why, Maggie and I are simply nothing to her!” Maggie and he could be self-possessed in a crisis; they could stand a strain; but the strain would show itself either in a tense harshness, or in some unnatural lightness, or even flippancy. Hilda was the very image of soft caressing sweetness. He felt that he must emulate her.

“Surely his temperature’s gone up?” he said quietly.

“Yes,” Hilda replied, fingering absently the clinical thermometer that with a lot of other gear lay on the table. “It’s nearly 105. It can’t last like this. It won’t. I’ve been through it with him before, but not quite so bad.”

“I didn’t think anyone could have influenza twice, so soon,” Edwin murmured.

“Neither did I,” said she. “Still, he must have been sickening for it before he came down here.” There was a pause. She wiped the boy’s forehead. “This change has come on quite suddenly,” she said, in a different voice. “Two hours ago — less than two hours ago — there was scarcely a sign of that rash.”

“What is it?”

“Charlie says it’s nothing particular.”

“What’s Charlie gone for?”

“I don’t know.” She shook her head; then smiled. “Isn’t it a good thing I brought him?”

Indubitably it was. Her caprice, characterised as preposterous by males, had been justified. Thus chance often justifies women, setting at naught the high priests of reason.

Three.

Looking at the unconscious and yet tormented child, Edwin was aware of a melting protective pity for him, of an immense desire to watch over his rearing with all insight, sympathy, and help, so that in George’s case none of the mistakes and cruelties and misapprehensions should occur which had occurred in his own. This feeling was intense to the point of being painful.

“I don’t know whether you know or not,” he said, “but we’re great pals, the infant and I.”

Hilda smiled, and in the very instant of seeing the smile its effect upon him was such that he humiliated himself before her in secret for ever having wildly suspected that she was jealous of the attachment. “Do you think I don’t know all about that?” she murmured. “He wouldn’t be here now if it hadn’t been for that.” After a silence she added: “You’re the only person that he ever has really cared for, and I can tell you he likes you better than he likes me.”

“How do you know that?”

“I know by the way he talks and looks.”

“If he takes after his mother, that’s no sign,” Edwin retorted, without considering what he said.

“What do you mean —‘if he takes after his mother’?” She seemed puzzled.

“Could anyone tell your real preferences from the way you talked and looked?” His audacious rashness astounded him. Nevertheless he stared her in the eyes, and her glance fell.

“No one but you could have said a thing like that,” she observed mildly, yieldingly.

And what he had said suddenly acquired a mysterious and wise significance and became oracular. She alone had the power of inspiring him to be profound. He had noticed that before, years ago, and first at their first meeting. Or was it that she saw in him an oracle, and caused him to see with her?

Slowly her face coloured, and she walked away to the fireplace, and cautiously tended it. Constraint had seized him again, and his heart was loud.

“Edwin,” she summoned him, from the fireplace.

He rose, shaking with emotion, and crossed the undiscovered spaces of the room to where she was. He had the illusion that they were by themselves not in the room but in the universe. She was leaning with one hand on the mantelpiece.

“I must tell you something,” she said, “that nobody at all knows except George’s father, and probably nobody ever will know. His sister knew, but she’s dead.”

“Yes!” he muttered, in an exquisite rush of happiness. After all, it was not with Charlie, nor even with Janet, that she was most intimate; it was with himself!

“George’s father was put in prison for bigamy. George is illegitimate.” She spoke with her characteristic extreme clearness of enunciation, in a voice that showed no emotion.

“You don’t mean it!” He gasped foolishly.

She nodded. “I’m not a married woman. I once thought I was, but I wasn’t. That’s all.”

“But —”

“But what?”

“You — you said six or seven years, didn’t you? Surely they don’t give that long for bigamy?”

“Oh!” she replied mildly. “That was for something else. When he came out of prison the first time they arrested him again instantly — so I was told. It was in Scotland.”

“I see.”

There was a rattle as of hailstones on the window. They both started.

“That must be Charlie!” she exclaimed, suddenly loosing her excitement under this pretext. “He doesn’t want to ring and wake the house.”

Edwin ran out of the room, sliding and slipping down the deserted stairs that waited patiently through the night for human feet.

“Forgot to take a key,” said Charlie, appearing, breathless, just as the door opened. “I meant to take the big key, and then I forgot.” He had a little round box in his hand. He mounted the stairs two and three at a time.

Edwin slowly closed the door. He could not bring himself to follow Charlie and, after a moment’s vacillation, he went back into the breakfast-room.

Four.

Amazing, incalculable woman, wrapped within fold after fold of mystery! He understood better now, but even now there were things that he did not understand; and the greatest enigma of all remained unsolved, the original enigma of her treachery to himself . . . And she had chosen just that moment, just that crisis, to reveal to him that sinister secret which by some unguessed means she had been able to hide from her acquaintance. Naturally, if she wished to succeed with a boarding-house in Brighton she would be compelled to conceal somehow the fact that she was the victim of a bigamist and her child without a lawful name! The merest prudence would urge her to concealment so long as concealment was possible; yes, even from Janet! Her other friends deemed her a widow; Janet thought her the wife of a convict; he alone knew that she was neither wife nor widow. Through what scathing experience she must have passed! An unfamiliar and disconcerting mood gradually took complete possession of him. At first he did not correctly analyse it. It was sheer, exuberant, instinctive, unreasoning, careless joy.

Then, after a long period of beatific solitude in the breakfast-room, he heard stealthy noises in the hall, and his fancy jumped to the idea of burglary. Excited, unreflecting, he hurried into the hall. Johnnie Orgreave, who had let himself in with a latchkey, was shutting and bolting the front door. Johnnie’s surprise was the greater. He started violently on seeing Edwin, and then at once assumed the sang-froid of a hero of romance. When Edwin informed him that Hilda had come, and Charlie with her, and that those two were watching by the boy, the rest of the household being in bed, Johnnie permitted himself a few verbal symptoms of astonishment.

“How is Georgie?” he asked with an effort, as if ashamed.

“He isn’t much better,” said Edwin evasively.

Johnnie made a deprecatory sound with his tongue against his lips, and frowned, determined to take his proper share in the general anxiety.

With careful, dignified movements, he removed his silk hat and his heavy ulster, revealing evening-dress, and a coloured scarf that overhung a crumpled shirt-front.

“Where’ve you been?” Edwin asked.

“Tennis dance. Didn’t you know?”

“No,” said Edwin.

“Really!” Johnnie murmured, with a falsely ingenuous air. After a pause he said: “They’ve left you all alone, then?”

“I was in the breakfast-room,” said Edwin, when he had given further information.

They walked into the breakfast-room together. Charlie’s cigarette-case lay on the tray.

“Those your cigarettes?” Johnnie inquired.

“No. They’re Charlie’s.”

“Oh! Master Charlie’s, are they? I wonder if they’re any good.” He took one fastidiously. Between two enormous outblowings of smoke he said: “Well, I’m dashed! So Charlie’s come with her! I hope the kid’ll soon be better . . . I should have been back long ago, only I took Mrs Chris Hamson home.”

“Who’s Mrs Chris Hamson?”

“Don’t you know her? She’s a ripping woman.”

He stood there in all the splendour of thirty years, with more than Charlie’s naivete, politely trying to enter into the life of the household, but failing to do so because of his preoccupation with the rippingness of Mrs Chris Hamson. The sight of him gave pleasure to Edwin. It did not occur to him to charge the young man with being callous.

When the cigarette was burnt, Johnnie said —

“Well, I think I shall leave seeing Charlie till breakfast.”

And he went to bed. On reaching the first-floor corridor he wished that he had gone to bed half a minute sooner; for in the corridor he encountered Janet, who had risen and was returning to her post; and Janet’s face, though she meant it not, was an accusation. Four o’clock had struck.

Five.

It was nearly half-past seven before Edwin left the house. In the meantime he had seen Charlie briefly twice, and Janet once, but he had not revisited the sick-room nor seen Hilda again. The boy’s condition was scarcely altered; if there was any change, it was for the better.

Dawn had broken. The fog was gone, but a faint mist hung in the trees over the damp lawn. The air was piercingly chill. Yawning and glancing idly about him, he perceived a curious object on the dividing wall. It was the candlestick which he had left there on the previous night. The candle was entirely consumed. “I may as well get over the wall,” he said to himself, and he scrambled up it with adventurous cheerfulness, and took the candlestick with him; it was covered with drops of moisture. He deposited it in the kitchen, where the servant was cleaning the range. On the oak chest in the hall lay the “Manchester Guardian,” freshly arrived. He opened it with another heavy yawn. At the head of one column he read, “Death of the Duke of Clarence,” and at the head of another, “Death of Cardinal Manning.” The double news shocked him strangely. He thought of what those days had been to others beside himself. And he thought: “Supposing after all the kid doesn’t come through?”

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