Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Two.

Janet’s Nephew.

Edwin was a fairly conspicuous object at the dining-room window. As Janet and the child drew level with the corner her eye accidentally caught Edwin’s. He nodded, smiling, and took the cigarette out of his mouth and waved it. They were old friends. He was surprised to notice that Janet blushed and became self-conscious. She returned his smile awkwardly, and then, giving a gesture to signify her intention, she came in at the gate. Which action surprised Edwin still more. With all her little freedoms of manner, Janet was essentially a woman stately and correct, and time had emphasised these qualities in her. It was not in the least like her to pay informal, capricious calls at a quarter to ten in the morning.

He went to the front door and opened it. She was persuading the child up the tiled steps. The breeze dashed gaily into the house.

“Good morning. You’re out early.”

“Good morning. Yes. We’ve just been down to the post-office to send off a telegram, haven’t we, George?”

She entered the hall, the boy following, and shook hands, meeting Edwin’s gaze fairly. Her esteem for him, her confidence in him, shone in her troubled, candid eyes. She held herself proudly, mastering her curious constraint. “Now just see that!” she said, pointing to a fleck of black mud on the virgin elegance of her pale brown costume. Edwin thought anew, as he had often thought, that she was a distinguished and delightful piece of goods. He never ceased to be flattered by her regard. But with harsh masculine impartiality he would not minimise to himself the increasing cleft under her chin, nor the deterioration of her once brilliant complexion.

“Well, young man!” Edwin greeted the boy with that insolent familiarity which adults permit themselves to children who are perfect strangers.

“I thought I’d just run in and introduce my latest nephew to you,” said Janet quickly, adding, “and then that would be over.”

“Oh!” Edwin murmured. “Come into the drawing-room, will you? Maggie’s upstairs.”

They passed into the drawing-room, where a servant in striped print was languidly caressing the glass of a bookcase with a duster. “You can leave this a bit,” Edwin said curtly to the girl, who obsequiously acquiesced and fled, forgetting a brush on a chair.

“Sit down, will you?” Edwin urged awkwardly. “And which particular nephew is this? I may tell you he’s already raised a great deal of curiosity in the town.”

Janet most unusually blushed again.

“Has he?” she replied. “Well, he isn’t my nephew at all really, but we pretend he is, don’t we, George? It’s cosier. This is Master George Cannon.”

“Cannon? You don’t mean —”

“You remember Mrs Cannon, don’t you? Hilda Lessways? Now, Georgie, come and shake hands with Mr Clayhanger.”

But George would not.

Two.

“Indeed!” Edwin exclaimed, very feebly. He knew not whether his voice was natural or unnatural. He felt as if he had received a heavy blow with a sandbag over the heart: not a symbolic, but a real physical blow. He might, standing innocent in the street, have been staggeringly assailed by a complete stranger of mild and harmless appearance, who had then passed tranquilly on. Dizzy astonishment held him, to the exclusion of any other sentiment. He might have gasped, foolish and tottering: “Why — what’s the meaning of this? What’s happened?” He looked at the child uncomprehendingly, idiotically. Little by little — it seemed an age, and was in fact a few seconds — he resumed his faculties, and remembered that in order to keep a conventional self-respect he must behave in such a manner as to cause Janet to believe that her revelation of the child’s identity had in no way disturbed him. To act a friendly indifference seemed to him, then, to be the most important duty in life. And he knew not why.

“I thought,” he said in a low voice, and then he began again, “I thought you hadn’t been seeing anything of her, of Mrs Cannon, for a long time now.”

The child was climbing on a chair at the window that gave on the garden, absorbed in exploration and discovery, quite ignoring the adults. Either Janet had forgotten him, or she had no hope of controlling him and was trusting to chance that the young wild stag would do nothing too dreadful.

“Well,” she admitted, “we haven’t.” Her constraint recurred. Very evidently she had to be careful about what she said. There were reasons why even to Edwin she would not be frank. “I only brought him down from London yesterday.”

Edwin trembled as he put the question —

“Is she here too — Mrs Cannon?”

Somehow he could only refer to Mrs Cannon as “her” and “she.”

“Oh no!” said Janet, in a tone to indicate that there was no possibility of Mrs Cannon being in Bursley.

He was relieved. Yes, he was glad. He felt that he could not have endured the sensation of her nearness, of her actually being in the next house. Her presence at the Orgreaves’ would have made the neighbourhood, the whole town, dangerous. It would have subjected him to the risk of meeting her suddenly at any corner. Nay, he would have been forced to go in cold blood to encounter her. And he knew that he could not have borne to look at her. The constraint of such an interview would have been torture too acute. Strange, that though he was absolutely innocent, though he had done nought but suffer, he should feel like a criminal, should have the criminal’s shifting downcast glance!

Three.

“Auntie!” cried the boy. “Can’t I go into this garden? There’s a swing there.”

“Oh no!” said Janet. “This isn’t our garden. We must go home. We only just called in. And big boys who won’t shake hands —”

“Yes, yes!” Edwin dreamily stopped her. “Let him go into the garden for a minute if he wants to. You can’t run off like that! Come along, my lord.”

He saw an opportunity of speaking to her out of the child’s hearing. Janet consented, perhaps divining his wish. The child turned and stared deliberately at Edwin, and then plunged forward, too eager to await guidance, towards the conquest of the garden.

Standing silent and awkward in the garden porch, they watched him violently agitating the swing, a contrivance erected by a good-natured Uncle Edwin for the diversion of Clara’s offspring.

“How old is he?” Edwin demanded, for the sake of saying something.

“About nine,” said Janet.

“He doesn’t look it.”

“No, but he talks it — sometimes.”

George did not in fact look his age. He was slight and small, and he seemed to have no bones — nothing but articulations that functioned with equal ease in all possible directions. His skin was pale and unhealthy. His eyes had an expression of fatigue, or he might have been ophthalmic. He spoke loudly, his gestures were brusque, and his life was apparently made up of a series of intense, absolute absorptions. The general effect of his personality upon Edwin was not quite agreeable, and Edwin’s conclusion was that George, in addition to being spoiled, was a profound and rather irritating egoist by nature.

“By the way,” he murmured, “what’s Mr Cannon?”

“Oh!” said Janet, hesitating, with emotion, “she’s a widow.”

He felt sick. Janet might have been a doctor who had informed him that he was suffering from an unexpected disease, and that an operation severe and perilous lay in front of him. The impartial observer in him asked somewhat disdainfully why he should allow himself to be deranged in this physical manner, and he could only reply feebly and very meekly that he did not know. He felt sick.

Suddenly he said to himself making a discovery —

“Of course she won’t come to Bursley. She’d be ashamed to meet me.”

“How long?” he demanded of Janet.

“It was last year, I think,” said Janet, with emotion increased, her voice heavy with the load of its sympathy. When he first knew Janet an extraordinary quick generous concern for others had been one of her chief characteristics. But of late years, though her deep universal kindness had not changed, she seemed to have hardened somewhat on the surface. Now he found again the earlier Janet.

“You never told me.”

“The truth is, we didn’t know,” Janet said, and without giving Edwin time to put another question, she continued: “The poor thing’s had a great deal of trouble, a very great deal. George’s health, now! The sea air doesn’t suit him. And Hilda couldn’t possibly leave Brighton.”

“Oh! She’s still at Brighton?”

“Yes.”

“Let me see — she used to be at — what was it? — Preston Street?”

Janet glanced at him with interest: “What a memory you’ve got! Why, it’s ten years since she was here!”

“Nearly!” said Edwin. “It just happened to stick in my mind. You remember she came down to the shop to ask me about trains and things the day she left.”

“Did she?” Janet exclaimed, raising her eyebrows.

Edwin had been suspecting that possibly Hilda had given some hint to Janet as to the nature of her relations with him. He now ceased to suspect that. He grew easier. He gathered up the reins again, though in a rather limp hand.

“Why is she so bound to stay in Brighton?” he inquired with affected boldness.

“She’s got a boarding-house.”

“I see. Well, it’s a good thing she has a private income of her own.”

“That’s just the point,” said Janet sadly. “We very much doubt if she has any private income any longer.”

Edwin waited for further details, but Janet seemed to speak unwilling. She would follow him, but she would not lead.

Four.

Behind them he could hear the stir of Mrs Hamps’s departure. She and Maggie were coming down the stairs. Guessing not the dramatic arrival of Janet Orgreave and the mysterious nephew, Mrs Hamps, having peeped into the empty dining-room, said: “I suppose the dear boy has gone,” and forthwith went herself. Edwin smiled cruelly at the thought of what her joy would have been actually to inspect the mysterious nephew at close quarters, and to learn the strange suspicious truth that he was not a nephew after all.

“Auntie!” yelled the boy across the garden.

“Come along, we must go now,” Janet retorted.

“No! I want you to swing me. Make me swing very high.”

“George!”

“Let him swing a bit,” said Edwin. “I’ll go and swing him.” And calling loud to the boy: “I’ll come and swing you.”

“He’s dreadfully spoiled,” Janet protested. “You’ll make him worse.”

“I don’t care,” said Edwin carelessly.

He seemed to understand, better than he had ever done with Clara’s litter, how and why parents came to spoil their children. It was not because they feared a struggle of wills; but because of the unreasoning instinctive pleasure to be derived from the conferring of pleasure, especially when the pleasure thus conferred might involve doubtful consequences. He had not cared for the boy, did not care for him. In theory he had the bachelor’s factitious horror of a spoiled child. Nevertheless he would now support the boy against Janet. His instinct said: “He wants something. I can give it him. Let him have it. Never mind consequences. He shall have it.”

He crossed the damp grass, and felt the breeze and the sun. The sky was a moving medley of Chinese white and Prussian blue, that harmonised admirably with the Indian red architecture which framed it on all sides. The high trees in the garden of the Orgreaves were turning to rich yellows and browns, and dead leaves slanted slowly down from their summits a few reaching even the Clayhanger garden, speckling its evergreen with ochre. On the other side of the west wall traps and carts rattled and rumbled and creaked along Trafalgar Road.

The child had stopped swinging, and greeted him with a most heavenly persuasive grateful smile. A different child! A sudden angel, with delicate distinguished gestures! . . . A wondrous screwing-up of the eyes in the sun! Weak eyes, perhaps! The thick eyebrows recalled Hilda’s. Possibly he had Hilda’s look! Or was that fancy? Edwin was sure that he would never have guessed George’s parentage.

“Now!” he warned. “Hold tight.” And, going behind the boy, he strongly clasped his slim little waist in its blue sailor-cloth, and sent the whole affair — swing-seat and boy and all — flying to the skies. And the boy shrieked in the violence of his ecstasy, and his cap fell on the grass. Edwin worked hard without relaxing.

“Go on! Go on!” The boy shriekingly commanded.

And amid these violent efforts and brusque delicious physical contacts, Edwin was calmly penetrated and saturated by the mystic effluence that is disengaged from young children. He had seen his father dead, and had thought: “Here is the most majestic and impressive enigma that the earth can show!” But the child George — aged nine and seeming more like seven — offered an enigma surpassing in solemnity that of death. This was Hilda’s. This was hers, who had left him a virgin. With a singular thrilled impassivity he imagined, not bitterly, the history of Hilda. She who was his by word and by kiss, had given her mortal frame to the unknown Cannon — yielded it. She had conceived. At some moment when he, Edwin, was alive and suffering, she had conceived. She had ceased to be a virgin. Quickly, with an astounding quickness — for was not George nine years old? — she had passed from virginity to motherhood. And he imagined all that too; all of it; clearly. And here, swinging and shrieking, exerting the powerful and unique charm of infancy, was the miraculous sequel! Another individuality; a new being; definitely formed, with character and volition of its own; unlike any other individuality in the universe! Something fresh! Something unimaginably created! A phenomenon absolutely original of the pride and the tragedy of life! George!

Yesterday she was a virgin, and today there was this! And this might have been his, ought to have been his! Yes, he thrilled secretly amid all those pushings and joltings! The mystery obsessed him. He had no rancour against Hilda. He was incapable of rancour, except a kind of wilful, fostered rancour in trifles. Thus he never forgave the inventor of Saturday afternoon Bible-classes. But rancour against Hilda! No! Her act had been above rancour, like an act of Heaven! And she existed yet. On a spot of the earth’s surface entitled Brighton, which he could locate upon a map, she existed: a widow, in difficulty, keeping a boarding-house. She ate, slept, struggled; she brushed her hair. He could see her brushing her hair. And she was thirty-four — was it? The wonder of the world amazed and shook him. And it appeared to him that his career was more romantic than ever.

George with dangerous abruptness wriggled his legs downwards and slipped off the seat of the swing, not waiting for Edwin to stop it. He rolled on the grass and jumped up in haste. He had had enough.

“Well, want any more?” Edwin asked, breathing hard.

The child made a shy, negative sigh, twisting his tousled head down into his right shoulder. After all he was not really impudent, brazen. He could show a delicious timidity. Edwin decided that he was an enchanting child. He wanted to talk to him, but he could not think of anything natural and reasonable to say by way of opening.

“You haven’t told me your name, you know,” he began at length. “How do I know what your name is? George, yes — but George what? George is nothing by itself, I know ten million Georges.”

The child smiled.

“George Edwin Cannon,” he replied shyly.

Five.

“Now, George!” came Janet’s voice, more firmly than before. After all, she meant in the end to be obeyed. She was learning her business as aunt to this new and difficult nephew; but learn it she would, and thoroughly!

“Come on!” Edwin counselled the boy.

They went together to the house. Maggie had found Janet, and the two were conversing. Soon afterwards aunt and nephew departed.

“How very odd!” murmured Maggie, with an unusual intonation, in the hall, as Edwin was putting on his hat to return to the shop. But whether she was speaking to herself or to him, he knew not.

“What?” he asked gruffly.

“Well,” she said, “isn’t it?”

She was more like Auntie Hamps, more like Clara, than herself in that moment. He resented the suspicious implications of her tone. He was about to give her one of his rude, curt rejoinders, but happily he remembered in time that scarce half an hour earlier he had turned over a new leaf; so he kept silence. He walked down to the shop in a deep dream.

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