Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Three.

Adventure.

It was when Edwin fairly reached the platform at Victoria Station and saw the grandiose express waiting its own moment to start, that the strange irrational quality of his journey first fully impressed him and frightened him — so much that he was almost ready to walk out of the station again. To come gradually into London from the North, to pass from the Manchester train half-full of Midlanders through Bloomsbury into the preoccupied, struggling, and untidy Strand — this gave no shock, typified nothing definite. But, having spent a night in London, deliberately to leave it for the South, where he had never been, of which he was entirely ignorant — that was like an explicit self-committal, like turning the back on the last recognisable landmark in an ill-considered voyage of pure adventure.

The very character of Victoria Station and of this express was different from that of any other station and express in his experience. It was unstrenuous, soft; it had none of the busy harshness of the Midlands; it spoke of pleasure, relaxation, of spending free from all worry and humiliation of getting. Everybody who came towards this train came with an assured air of wealth and of dominion. Everybody was well dressed; many if not most of the women were in furs; some had expensive and delicate dogs; some had pale, elegant footmen, being too august even to speak to porters. All the luggage was luxurious; handbags could be seen that were worth fifteen or twenty pounds apiece. There was no question of first, second, or third class; there was no class at all on this train. Edwin had the apologetic air of the provincial who is determined to be as good as anybody else. When he sat down in the vast interior of one of those gilded vehicles he could not dismiss from his face the consciousness that he was an intruder, that he did not belong to that world. He was ashamed of his hand-baggage, and his gesture in tipping the porter lacked carelessness. Of course he pretended a frowning, absorbed interest in a newspaper — but the very newspaper was strange; he guessed not that unless he glanced first at the penultimate column of page one thereof he convicted himself of not knowing his way about.

He could not think consecutively, not even of his adventure. His brain was in a maze of anarchy. But at frequent intervals recurred the query: “What the devil am I up to?” And he would uneasily smile to himself. When the train rolled with all its majesty out of the station and across the Thames, he said to himself, fearful, “Well, I’ve done it now!”

Two.

On the Thursday he had told Maggie, with affected casualness, that on the Friday he might have to go to London, about a new machine. Sheer invention! Fortunately Maggie had been well drilled by her father in the manner proper to women in accepting announcements connected with ‘business.’ And Edwin was just as laconic and mysterious as Darius had been about ‘business.’ It was a word that ended arguments, or prevented them. On the Friday he had said that he should go in the afternoon. On being asked whether he should return on the Saturday, he had replied that he did not know, but that he would telegraph. Whereupon Maggie had said that if he stayed away for the week-end she should probably have all the children up for dinner and tea. At the shop, “Stifford,” he had said, “I suppose you don’t happen to know a good hotel in Brighton? I might run down there for the week-end if I don’t come back tomorrow. But you needn’t say anything.” “No, sir,” Stifford had discreetly concurred in this suggestion. “They say there’s really only one hotel in Brighton, sir — the Royal Sussex. But I’ve never been there.” Edwin had replied: “Not the Metropole, then?” “Oh no, sir!” Stifford had become a great and wonderful man, and Edwin’s constant fear was that he might lose this indispensable prop to his business. For Stifford, having done a little irregular commercial travelling in Staffordshire and the neighbouring counties, had been seised of the romance of travelling; he frequented the society of real commercial travellers, and was gradually becoming a marvellous encyclopaedia of information about hotels, routes, and topography.

Edwin having been to the Bank himself, instead of sending Stifford, had departed with the minimum of ostentation. He had in fact crept away. Since the visit of Janet and the child he had not seen either of them again, nor had he mentioned the child to anybody at all.

Three.

When, in an astounding short space of time, he stood in the King’s Road at Brighton, it seemed to him that he was in a dream; that he was not really at Brighton, that town which for so many years had been to him naught but a romantic name. Had his adventurousness, his foolhardiness, indeed carried him so far? As for Brighton, it corresponded with no dream. It was vaster than any imagining of it. Edwin had only seen the pleasure cities of the poor and of the middling, such as Blackpool and Llandudno. He had not conceived what wealth would do when it organised itself for the purposes of distraction. The train had prepared him to a certain extent, but not sufficiently. He suddenly saw Brighton in its autumnal pride, Brighton beginning one of its fine week-ends, and he had to admit that the number of rich and idle people in the world surpassed his provincial notions. For miles westwards and miles eastwards, against a formidable background of high, yellow and brown architecture, persons the luxuriousness of any one of whom would have drawn remarks in Bursley, walked or drove or rode in thronging multitudes. Edwin could comprehend lolling by the sea in August, but in late October it seemed unnatural, fantastic. The air was full of the trot of glossy horses and the rattle of hits and the roll of swift wheels, and the fall of elegant soles on endless clean pavements; it was full of the consciousness of being correct and successful. Many of the faces were monstrously ugly, most were dissatisfied and querulous; but they were triumphant. Even the pale beings in enlarged perambulators, pulled solemnly to and fro by their aged fellow-beings, were triumphant. The scared, the maimed, yes, and the able-bodied blind trusting to the arms of friends, were triumphant. And the enormous policemen, respectfully bland, confident in the system which had chosen them and fattened them, gave as it were to the scene an official benediction.

The bricks and stucco which fronted the sea on the long embanked promenade never sank lower than a four-storey boarding-house, and were continually rising to the height of some gilt-lettered hotel, and at intervals rose sheer into the skies — six, eight, ten storeys — where a hotel, admittedly the grandest on any shore of ocean sent terra-cotta chimneys to lose themselves amid the pearly clouds. Nearly every building was a lodgement waiting for the rich, and nearly every great bow-window, out of tens of thousands of bow-windows bulging forward in an effort to miss no least glimpse of the full prospect, exhibited the apparatus and the menials of gourmandise. And the eye, following the interminable irregular horizontal lines of architecture, was foiled in the far distances, and, still farther off, after a break of indistinguishable brown, it would catch again the receding run of roofs, simplified by atmosphere into featureless rectangles of grey against sapphire or rose. There were two piers that strode and sprawled into the sea, and these also were laden with correctness and with domination. And, between the two, men were walking miraculously on the sea to build a third, that should stride farther and deeper than the others.

Four.

Amid the crowd, stamping and tapping his way monotonously along with the assured obstinacy of a mendicant experienced and hardened, came a shabby man bearing on his breast a large label with these words: “Blind through boy throwing mortar. Discharged from four hospitals. Incurable.” Edwin’s heart seemed to be constricted. He thought of the ragged snarling touts who had fawned to him at the station, and of the creatures locked in the cellars whence came beautiful odours of confectionery and soup through the pavement gratings, and of the slatternly women who kept thrusting flowers under his nose, and the half-clad infants who skimmed before the wind yelling the names of newspapers. All was not triumph! Where triumph was, there also must be the conquered.

She was there, she too! Somewhere, close to him. He recalled the exact tone of Janet’s voice as she had said: “The poor thing’s had a great deal of trouble.” A widow, trying to run a boarding-house and not succeeding! Why, there were hundreds upon hundreds of boarding — houses, all large, all imposing, all busy at the end of October! Where was hers hidden away, her pathetic little boarding-house? Preston Street! He knew not where Preston Street was, and he had purposely refrained from inquiring. But he might encounter it at any moment. He was afraid to look too closely at the street-signs as he passed them; afraid!

“What am I doing here?” he asked himself curiously, and sometimes pettishly. “What’s my object? Where’s the sense of it? I’m nothing but a damned fool. I’ve got no plan. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” It was true. He had no plan, and he did not know what he was going to do. What he did most intimately know was that the idea of her nearness made him tremble.

“I’d much better go back at once,” he said.

He walked miles, until he came to immense and silent squares of huge palatial houses, and wide transversal avenues running far up into the land and into the dusk. In these vast avenues and across these vast squares infrequent carriages sped like mechanical toys guided by mannikins. The sound of the sea waxed. And then he saw the twinkle of lights, and then fire ran slowly along the promenade: until the whole map of it was drawn out in flame; and he perceived that though he had walked a very long way, the high rampart of houses continued still interminably beyond him. He turned. He was tired. His face caught the full strength of the rising wind. Foam gleamed on the rising tide. In the profound violet sky to the east stars shone and were wiped out, in fields; but to the west, silver tarried. He had not seen Preston Street, and it was too dark now to decipher the signs. He was glad. He went on and on, with rapidly increasing fatigue, disgust, impatience. The thronging multitudes had almost disappeared; but many illuminated vehicles were flitting to and fro, and the shops were brilliant. He was so exhausted by the pavements that he could scarcely walk. And Brighton became for him the most sorrowful city on earth.

“What am I doing here?” he asked himself savagely. However, by dint of sticking doggedly to it he did in the end reach the hotel.

Five.

After dinner, and wine, both of which, by their surprising and indeed unique excellence, fostered the prestige of Stifford as an authority upon hotels, Edwin was conscious of new strength and cheerfulness. He left the crowded and rose-lit dining-room early, because he was not at ease amid its ceremoniousness of attire and of service, and went into the turkey-carpeted hall, whose porter suddenly sprang into propitiatory life on seeing him. He produced a cigarette, and with passionate haste the porter produced a match, and by his method of holding the flame to the cigarette, deferential and yet firm, proved that his young existence had not been wasted in idleness. When the cigarette was alight, the porter surveyed his work with a pleased smile.

“Another rare storm blowing up, sir,” said the porter.

“Yes,” said Edwin. “It’s been giving the window of my room a fine shake.”

The porter glanced at the clock. “High tide in half an hour, sir.”

“I think I’ll go out and have a look at it,” said Edwin.

“Yes, sir.”

“By the way,” Edwin added, “I suppose you haven’t got a map of Brighton?”

“Certainly, sir,” said the porter, and with a rebirth of passion began to search among the pile of time-tables and other documents on a table behind him.

Edwin wished he had not asked for the map. He had not meant to ask for it. The words had said themselves. He gazed unseeing at the map for a few instants.

“What particular street did you want, sir?” the porter murmured.

In deciding how to answer, it seemed to Edwin that he was deciding the hazard of his life.

“Preston Street.”

“Oh! Preston Street!” the porter repeated in a relieved tone, as if assuring Edwin that there was nothing very esoteric about Preston Street. “It’s just beyond the Metropole. You know Regency Square. Well, it’s the next street after that. There’s a club at the corner.”

In the afternoon, then, Edwin must have walked across the end of Preston Street twice. This thought made him tremble as at the perception of a danger past but unperceived at the moment.

The porter gave his whole soul to the putting of Edwin’s overcoat on Edwin’s back; he offered the hat with an obeisance, and having ushered Edwin into the night so that the illustrious guest might view the storm, he turned with a sudden new mysterious supply of zeal to other guests who were now emerging from the dining-room.

Six.

The hotel fronted north on an old sheltered square where no storm raged, but simultaneously with Edwin’s first glimpse of the sea the wind struck him a tremendous blow, and continued to strike. He had the peculiar grim joy of the Midlander and Northerner in defying an element. All the lamps of the promenade were insecurely flickering. Grouped opposite a small jetty was a crowd of sightseers. The dim extremity of the jetty was wreathed in spray, and the waves ran along its side, making curved lines on the masonry like curved lines of a rope shaken from one end. The wet floor of the jetty shone like a mirror. Edwin approached the crowd, and, peeping over black shoulders, could see down into the hollow of the corner between the jetty and the sea-wall, where boys on the steps dared the spent waves, amid jeering laughter. The crowd had the air of being a family intimately united. Farther on was another similar crowd, near an irregular high fountain of spray that glittered in the dark. On the beach below, at vague distances were curious rows of apparently tiny people silhouetted like the edge of a black saw against an excessive whiteness. This whiteness was the sheet of foam that the sea made. It stretched everywhere, until the eye lost it seawards. Edwin descended to the beach, adding another tooth to the saw. The tide ran up absolutely white in wide chords of a circle, and then, to the raw noise of disturbed shingle, the chord vanished; and in a moment was recreated. This play went on endlessly, hypnotising the spectators who, beaten by the wind and deafened by sound, stared and stared, safe, at the mysterious and menacing world of spray and foam and darkness. Before, was the open malignant sea. Close behind, on their eminence, the hotels rose in vast cubes of yellow light, moveless, secure, strangely confident that nothing sinister could happen to them.

Edwin was aware of emotion. The feel of his overcoat-collar upturned against the chin was friendly to him amid that onset of the pathos of the human world. He climbed back to the promenade. Always at the bottom of his mind, the foundation of all the shifting structures in his mind, was the consciousness of his exact geographical relation to Preston Street. He walked westwards along the promenade. “Why am I doing this?” he asked himself again and again. “Why don’t I go home? I must be mad to be doing this.” Still his legs carried him on, past lamp-post after lamp-post of the wind-driven promenade, now almost deserted. And presently the high lighted windows of the grandest hotels were to be seen, cut like square holes in the sky; and then the pier, which had flung a string of lanterns over the waves into the storm; and opposite the pier a dark empty space and a rectangle of gas-lamps: Regency Square. He crossed over, and passed up the Square, and out of it by a tiny side street, at hazard, and lo! he was in Preston Street. He went hot and cold.

Seven.

Well, and what then? Preston Street was dark and lonely. The wind charged furiously through it, panting towards the downs. He was in Preston Street, but what could he do? She was behind the black walls of one of those houses. But what then? Could he knock at the door in the night and say: “I’ve come. I don’t know why?”

He said: “I shall walk up and down this street once, and then I shall go back to the hotel. That’s the only thing to do. I’ve gone off my head, that’s what’s the matter with me! I ought to have written to her. Why in the name of God didn’t I begin by writing to her? . . . Of course I might write to her from the hotel . . . send the letter by messenger, to-night . . . or early tomorrow. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.”

He set himself to make the perambulation of the street. Many of the numbers were painted on the fanlights over the doors and showed plain against illumination. Suddenly he saw the large figures ‘59.’ He was profoundly stirred. He had said that the matter with him was that he had gone off his head; but now, staring at that number on the opposite side of the street, he really did not know what was the matter with him. He might have been dying. The front of the house was dark save for the fanlight He crossed over and peered down into the area and at the black door. A brass plate: “Cannon’s Boarding–House,” he could read. He perspired. It seemed to him that he could see her within the house, mysteriously moving at her feminine tasks. Or did she lie in bed? He had come from Bursley to London, from London to Brighton, and now he had found her portal; it existed. The adventure seemed incredible in its result. Enough for the present! He could stand no more. He walked away, meaning not to return.

When he returned, five minutes later, the fanlight was dark. Had she, in the meantime, come into the hall of the house and extinguished the gas? Strange, that all lights should be out in a boarding establishment before ten o’clock! He stood hesitant quite near the house, holding himself against the wind. Then the door opened a little, as it were stealthily, and a hand and arm crept out and with a cloth polished the face of the brass plate. He thought, in his excited fancy, that it was her hand and arm. Within, he seemed to distinguish a dim figure. He did not move; could not. The door opened wider, and the figure stood revealed, a woman’s. Surely it was she! She gazed at him suspiciously, duster in hand.

“What are you standing there for?” she questioned inimically. “We’ve had enough of loiterers in this street. Please go away.”

She took him for a knave expectant of some chance to maraud. She was not fearful, however. It was she. It was her voice.

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