Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Thirteen.

Her Heart.

After having been to business and breakfasted as usual, Edwin returned to the shop at ten o’clock. He did not feel tired, but his manner was very curt, even with Stifford, and melancholy had taken the place of his joy. The whole town was gloomy, and seemed to savour its gloom luxuriously. But Edwin wondered why he should be melancholy. There was no reason for it. There was less reason for it than there had been for ten years. Yet he was; and, like the town, he found pleasure in his state. He had no real desire to change it. At noon he suddenly went off home, thus upsetting Stifford’s arrangements for the dinner-hour. “I shall lie down for a bit,” he said to Maggie. He slept till a little after one o’clock, and he could have slept longer, but dinner was ready. He said to himself, with an extraordinary sense of satisfaction, “I have had a sleep.” After dinner he lay down again, and slept till nearly three o’clock. It was with the most agreeable sensations that he awakened. His melancholy was passing; it had not entirely gone, but he could foresee the end of it as of an eclipse. He made the discovery that he had only been tired. Now he was somewhat reposed. And as he lay in repose he was aware of an intensified perception of himself as a physical organism. He thought calmly, “What a fine thing life is!”

“I was just going to bring you some tea up,” said Maggie, who met him on the stairs as he came down. “I heard you moving. Will you have some?”

He rubbed his eyes. His head seemed still to be distended with sleep, and this was a part of his well-being. “Aye!” he replied, with lazy satisfaction. “That’ll just put me right.”

“George is much better,” said Maggie.

“Good!” he said heartily.

Joy, wild and exulting, surged through him once more; and it was of such a turbulent nature that it would not suffer any examination of its origin. It possessed him by its might. As he drank the admirable tea he felt that he still needed a lot more sleep. There were two points of pressure at the top of his head. But he knew that he could sleep, and sleep well, whenever he chose; and that on the morrow his body would be perfectly restored.

He walked briskly back to the shop, intending to work, and he was a little perturbed to find that he could not work. His head refused. He sat in the cubicle vaguely staring. Then he was startled by a tremendous yawn, which seemed to have its inception in the very centre of his being, and which by the pang of its escape almost broke him in pieces. “I’ve never yawned like that before,” he thought, apprehensive. Another yawn of the same seismic kind succeeded immediately, and these frightful yawns continued one after another for several minutes, each leaving him weaker than the one before. “I’d better go home while I can,” he thought, intimidated by the suddenness and the mysteriousness of the attack. He went home. Maggie at once said that he would be better in bed, and to his own astonishment he agreed. He could not eat the meal that Maggie brought to his room.

“There’s something the matter with you,” said Maggie.

“No. I’m only tired.” He knew it was a lie.

“You’re simply burning,” she said, but she refrained from any argument, and left him.

He could not sleep. His anticipations in that respect were painfully falsified.

Later, Maggie came back.

“Here’s Dr Heve,” she said briefly, in the doorway. She was silhouetted against the light from the landing. The doctor, in mourning, stood behind her.

“Dr Heve? What the devil —” But he did not continue the protest.

Maggie advanced into the room and turned up the gas, and the glare wounded his eyes.

“Yes,” said Dr Heve, at the end of three minutes. “You’ve got it. Not badly, I hope. But you’ve got it all right.”

Humiliating! For the instinct of the Clayhangers was always to assume that by virtue of some special prudence, or immunity, or resisting power, peculiar to them alone, they would escape any popular affliction such as an epidemic. In the middle of the night, amid feverish tossings and crises of thirst, and horrible malaise, it was more than humiliating! Supposing he died? People did die of influenza. The strangest, the most monstrous things did happen. For the first time in his life he lay in the genuine fear of death. He had never been ill before. And now he was ill. He knew what it was to be ill. The stupid, blundering clumsiness of death aroused his angry resentment. No! It was impossible that he should die! People did not die of influenza.

The next day the doctor laughed. But Edwin said to himself: “He may have laughed only to cheer me up. They never tell their patients the truth.” And every cell of his body was vitiated, poisoned, inefficient, profoundly demoralised. Ordinary health seemed the most precious and the least attainable boon.

Two.

After wildernesses of time that were all but interminable, the attack was completely over. It had lasted a hundred hours, of which the first fifty had each been an age. It was a febrile attack similar to George’s, but less serious. Edwin had possibly caught the infection at Knype Railway Station: yet who could tell? Now he was in the drawing-room, shaved, clothed, but wearing slippers for a sign that he was only convalescent, and because the doctor had forbidden him the street. He sat in front of the fire, in the easy chair that had been his father’s favourite. On his left hand were an accumulation of newspapers and a book; on his right, some business letters and documents left by the assiduous Stifford after a visit of sympathy and of affairs. The declining sun shone with weak goodwill on the garden.

“Please, sir, there’s a lady,” said the servant, opening the door.

He was startled. His first thought naturally was, “It’s Hilda!” in spite of the extreme improbability of it being Hilda. Hilda had never set foot in his house. Nevertheless, supposing it was Hilda, Maggie would assuredly come into the drawing-room — she could not do otherwise — and the three-cornered interview would, he felt, be very trying. He knew that Maggie, for some reason inexplicable by argument, was out of sympathy with Hilda, as with Hilda’s son. She had given him regular news of George, who was now at about the same stage of convalescence as him sell, but she scarcely mentioned the mother, and he had not dared to inquire. These thoughts flashed through his brain in an instant.

“Who is it?” he asked gruffly.

“I— I don’t know, sir. Shall I ask?” replied the servant, blushing as she perceived that once again she had sinned. She had never before been in a house where aristocratic ceremony was carried to such excess as at Edwin’s. Her unconquerable instinct, upon opening the front door to a well-dressed stranger, was to rush off and publish the news that somebody mysterious and grand had come, leaving the noble visitor on the door-mat. She had been instructed in the ritual proper to these crises, but with little good result, for the crises took her unawares.

“Yes. Go and ask the name, and then tell my sister,” said Edwin shortly.

“Miss Clayhanger is gone out, sir.”

“Well, run along,” he told her impatiently.

He was standing anxiously near the door when she returned to the room.

“Please, sir, it’s a Mrs Cannon, and it’s you she wants.”

“Show her in,” he said, and to himself: “My God!”

In the ten seconds that elapsed before Hilda appeared he glanced at himself in the mantel mirror, fidgeted with his necktie, and walked to the window and back again to his chair. She had actually called to see him! . . . His agitation was extreme . . . But how like her it was to call thus boldly! . . . Maggie’s absence was providential.

Hilda entered, to give him a lesson in blandness. She wore a veil, and carried a muff — outworks of her self-protective, impassive demeanour. She was pale, and as calm as pale. She would not take the easy chair which he offered her. Useless to insist — she would not take it. He brushed away letters and documents from the small chair to his right, and she took that chair . . . Having taken it, she insisted that he should resume the easy chair.

“I called just to say good-bye,” she said. “I knew you couldn’t come out, and I’m going to-night.”

“But surely he isn’t fit to travel?” Edwin exclaimed.

“George? Not yet. I’m leaving him behind. You see I mustn’t stay away longer than’s necessary.”

She smiled, and lifted her veil as far as her nose. She had not smiled before.

“Charlie’s gone back?”

“Oh yes. Two days ago. He left a message for you.”

“Yes. Maggie gave it me. By the way, I’m sorry she’s not in.”

“I’ve just seen her,” said Hilda.

“Oh!”

“She came in to see Janet. They’re having a cup of tea in George’s bedroom. So I put my things on and walked round here at once.”

As Hilda made this surprising speech she gazed full at Edwin.

Three.

A blush slowly covered his face. They both sat silent. Only the fire crackled lustily. Edwin thought, as his agitation increased and entirely confused him, “No other woman was ever like this woman!” He wanted to rise masterfully, to accomplish some gesture splendid and decisive, but he was held in the hollow of the easy chair as though by paralysis. He looked at Hilda; he might have been looking at a stranger. He tried to read her face, and he could not read it. He could only see in it vague trouble. He was afraid of her. The idea even occurred to him that, could he be frank with himself, he would admit that he hated her. The moments were intensely painful; the suspense exasperating and excruciating. Ever since their last encounter he had anticipated this scene; his fancy had been almost continuously busy in fashioning this scene. And now the reality had swept down upon him with no warning, and he was overwhelmed.

She would not speak. She had withdrawn her gaze, but she would not speak. She would force him to speak.

“I say,” he began gruffly, in a resentful tone, careless as to what he was saying, “you might have told me earlier what you told me on Wednesday night. Why didn’t you tell me when I was at Brighton?”

“I wanted to,” she said meekly. “But I couldn’t. I really couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

“Instead of telling me a lie,” he went on. “I think you might have trusted me more than that.”

“A lie?” she muttered. “I told you the truth. I told you he was in prison.”

“You told me your husband was in prison,” he corrected her, in a voice meditative and judicial. He knew not in the least why he was talking in this strain.

She began to cry. At first he was not sure that she was crying. He glanced surreptitiously, and glanced away as if guilty. But at the next glance he was sure. Her eyes glistened behind the veil, and tear-drops appeared at its edge and vanished under her chin.

“You don’t know how much I wanted to tell you!” she wept.

She hid her half-veiled face in her hands. And then he was victimised by the blackest desolation. His one desire was that the scene should finish, somehow, anyhow.

“I never wrote to you because there was nothing to say. Nothing!” She sobbed, still covering her face.

“Never wrote to me — do you mean —”

She nodded violently twice. “Yes. Then!” He divined that suddenly she had begun to talk of ten years ago. “I knew you’d know it was because I couldn’t help it.” She spoke so indistinctly through her emotion and her tears, and her hands, that he could not distinguish the words.

“What do you say?”

“I say I couldn’t help doing what I did. I knew you’d know I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t write. It was best for me to be silent. What else was there for me to do except be silent? I knew you’d know I couldn’t help it. It was a —” Sobs interrupted her.

“Of course I knew that,” he said. He had to control himself very carefully, or he too would have lost command of his voice. Such was her power of suggestion over him that her faithlessness seemed now scarcely to need an excuse.

(Somewhere within himself he smiled as he reflected that he, in his father’s place, in his father’s very chair, was thus under the spell of a woman whose child was nameless. He smiled grimly at the thought of Auntie Hamps, of Clara, of the pietistic Albert! They were of a different race, a different generation! They belonged to a dead world!)

“I shall tell you,” Hilda recommenced mournfully, but in a clear and steady voice, at last releasing her face, which was shaken like that of a child in childlike grief. “You’ll never understand what I had to go through, and how I couldn’t help myself”— she was tragically plaintive —“but I shall tell you . . . You must understand!”

She raised her eyes. Already for some moments his hands had been desiring the pale wrists between her sleeve and her glove. They fascinated his hands, which, hesitatingly, went out towards them. As soon as she felt his touch, she dropped to her knees, and her chin almost rested on the arm of his chair. He bent over a face that was transfigured.

“My heart never kissed any other man but you!” she cried. “How often and often and often have I kissed you, and you never knew! . . . It was for a message that I sent George down here — a message to you! I named him after you . . . Do you think that if dreams could make him your child — he wouldn’t be yours?”

Her courage, and the expression of it, seemed to him to be sublime.

“You don’t know me!” she sighed, less convulsively.

“Don’t I!” he said, with lofty confidence.

After a whole decade his nostrils quivered again to the odour of her olive skin. Drowning amid the waves of her terrible devotion, he was recompensed in the hundredth part of a second for all that through her he had suffered or might hereafter suffer. The many problems and difficulties which marriage with her would raise seemed trivial in the light of her heart’s magnificent and furious loyalty. He thought of the younger Edwin whom she had kissed into rapture, as of a boy too inexperienced in sorrow to appreciate this Hilda. He braced himself to the exquisite burden of life.

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