Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Four.

In Preston Street.

He said, “I happened to be in Brighton, so I thought I’d just call, and — I thought I’d just call.”

She stared at him, frowning, in the dim diffused light of the street.

“I’ve been seeing your little boy,” he said. “I thought perhaps as I was here you’d like to know how he was getting on.”

“Why,” she exclaimed, with seeming bitterness, “you’ve grown a beard!”

“Yes,” he admitted foolishly, apologetically.

“We can’t stand here in this wind,” she said, angry with the wind, which was indeed blowing her hair about, and her skirts and her duster.

She did not in words invite him to enter, but she held the door more widely open and drew back for him to pass. He went in. She closed the door with a bang and rattle of large old-fashioned latches, locks, and chains, and the storm was excluded. They were in the dark of the hall. “Wait till I put my hand on the matches,” she said. Then she struck a match, which revealed a common oil-lamp, with a reservoir of yellow glass and a paper shade. She raised the chimney and lit the lamp, and regulated the wick.

Edwin kept silence. The terrible constraint which had half paralysed him when Janet first mentioned Hilda, seized him again. He stood near the woman who without a word of explanation or regret had jilted, outraged, and ruined him ten years before; this was their first meeting after their kisses in his father’s shop. And yet she was not on her knees, nor in tears, nor stammering an appeal for forgiveness. It was rather he who was apologetic, who sought excuses. He felt somehow like a criminal, or at least like one who commits an enormous indiscretion.

The harsh curves of her hair were the same. Her thick eyebrows were the same. Her blazing glance was the same. Her intensely clear intonation was the same. But she was a profoundly changed woman. Even in his extreme perturbation he could be sure of that. As, bending under the lamp-shade to arrange the wick, she exposed her features to the bright light, Edwin saw a face marred by anxiety and grief and time, the face of a mature woman, with no lingering pretension to girlishness. She was thirty-four, and she looked older than Maggie, and much older than Janet. She was embittered. Her black dress was shabby and untidy, her finger-nails irregular, discoloured, and damaged. The aspect of her pained Edwin acutely. It seemed to him a poignant shame that time and sorrow and misfortune could not pass over a young girl’s face and leave no mark. When he recalled what she had been, comparing the woman with the delicious wistful freshness of the girl that lived unaltered in his memory, he was obliged to clear his throat. The contrast was too pathetic to be dwelt on. Only with the woman before him did he fully appreciate the exquisite innocent simplicity of the girl. In the day of his passion Hilda had not seemed to him very young, very simple, very wistful. On the contrary she had seemed to have much of the knowledge and the temper of a woman.

Having at length subjugated the wick, she straightened her back, with a gesture that he knew, and for one instant she was a girl again.

Two.

“Will you come this way?” she said coldly, holding the lamp in front of her, and opening a door.

At the same moment another door opened at the far end of the hall; there was a heavy footstep; a great hand and arm showed, and then Edwin had a glimpse of a man’s head and shoulders emerging from an oblong flickering firelight.

Hilda paused. “All right,” she called to the man, who at once disappeared, shutting the door and leaving darkness where he had been. The large shadows cast by Hilda’s lamp now had the gaunt hall to themselves again.

“Don’t be alarmed,” she laughed harshly. “It’s only the broker’s man.”

Edwin was tongue-tied. If Hilda were joking, what answer could be made to such a pleasantry in such a situation? And if she were speaking the truth, if the bailiffs really were in possession . . .! His life seemed to him once again astoundingly romantic. He had loved this woman, conquered her. And now she was a mere acquaintance, and he was following her stiffly into the recesses of a strange and sinister abode peopled by mysterious men. Was this a Brighton boarding-house? It resembled nothing reputable in his experience. All was incomprehensible.

The room into which she led him was evidently the dining-room. Not spacious, perhaps not quite so large as his own dining-room, it was nearly filled by one long bare table. Eight or ten monotonous chairs were ranged round the grey walls. In the embrasure of the window was a wicker stand with a withered plant on its summit, and at the other end of the room a walnut sideboard in the most horrible taste. The mantelpiece was draped with dark knotted and rosetted cloth; within the fender stood a small paper screen. The walls were hung with ancient and with fairly modern engravings, some big, others little, some coloured, others in black-and-white, but all distressing in their fatuous ugliness. The ceiling seemed black. The whole room fulfilled pretty accurately the scornful scrupulous housewife’s notion of a lodging-house interior. It was suspect. And in Edwin there was a good deal of the housewife. He was appalled. Obviously the house was small — he had known that from the outside — and the entire enterprise insignificant. This establishment was not in the King’s Road, nor on the Marine Parade, nor at Hove; no doubt hundreds of such little places existed precariously in a vast town like Brighton. Widows, of course, were often in straits. And Janet had told him . . . Nevertheless he was appalled, and completely at a loss to reconcile Hilda with her environment. And then —“the broker’s man!”

At her bidding he sat down, in his overcoat, with his hat insecure on his knee, and observed, under the lamp, the dust on the surface of the long table. Hilda seated herself opposite, so that the lamp was between them, hiding him from her by its circle of light. He wondered what Maggie would have thought, and what Clara would have said, could they have seen him in that obscurity.

Three.

“So you’ve seen my boy?” she began, with no softening of tone.

“Yes, Janet Orgreave brought him in one morning — the other day. He didn’t seem to me to be so ill as all that.”

“Ill!” she exclaimed. “He certainly wasn’t ill when he left here. But he had been. And the doctor said that this air didn’t suit him — it never had suited him. It doesn’t suit some folks, you know — people can say what they like.”

“Anyhow, he’s a lively piece — no mistake about that!”

“When he’s well, he’s very well,” said George’s mother. “But he’s up and down in a minute. And on the whole he’s been on the poorly side.”

He noticed that, though there was no relapse from the correctness of her accent, she was using just such phrases as she might have used had she never quitted her native Turnhill. He looked round the lamp at her furtively, and seemed to see in her shadowed face a particular local quality of sincerity and downrightness that appealed strongly to his admiration. (Yet ten years earlier he had considered her markedly foreign to the Five Towns.) That this quality should have survived in her was a proof to him that she was a woman unique. Unique she had been, and unique she still remained. He did not know that he had long ago lost for ever the power of seeing her with a normal vision. He imagined in his simplicity, which disguised itself as chill critical impartiality, that he was adding her up with clear-sighted shrewdness . . . And then she was a mother! That meant a mysterious, a mystic perfecting! For him, it was as if among all women she alone had been a mother — so special was his view of the influence of motherhood upon her. He drew together all the beauty of an experience almost universal, transcendentalised it, and centred it on one being. And he was disturbed, baffled, agitated by the effect of the secret workings of his own unsuspected emotion. He was made sad, and sadder. He wanted to right wrongs, to efface from hearts the memory of grief, to create bliss; and he knew that this could never be done. He now saw Hilda exclusively as a victim, whose misfortunes were innumerable. Imagine this creature, with her passion for Victor Hugo, obliged by circumstances to polish a brass door-plate surreptitiously at night! Imagine her solitary in the awful house — with the broker’s man! Imagine her forced to separate herself from her child! Imagine the succession of disasters that had soured her and transformed seriousness into harshness and acridity! . . . And within that envelope, what a soul must be burning!

“And when he begins to grow — he’s scarcely begun to grow yet,” Hilda continued about her offspring, “then he will reed all his strength!”

“Yes, he will,” Edwin concurred heartily.

He wanted to ask her, “Why did you call him Edwin for his second name? Was it his father’s name, or your father’s, or did you insist on it yourself, because?” But he could not ask. He could ask nothing. He could not even ask why she had jilted him without a word. He knew naught, and evidently she was determined to give no information. She might at any rate have explained how she had come to meet Janet, and under what circumstances Janet had taken possession of the child. All was a mystery. Her face, when he avoided the lamp, shone in the midst of a huge dark cloud of impenetrable mystery. She was too proud to reveal anything whatever. The grand pride in her forbade her even to excuse her conduct to himself. A terrific woman!

Four.

Silence fell. His constraint was excruciating. She too was nervous, tapping the table and creaking her chair. He could not speak.

“Shall you be going back to Bursley soon?” she demanded. In her voice was desperation.

“Oh yes!” he said, thankfully eager to follow up any subject. “On Monday, I expect.”

“I wonder if you’d mind giving Janet a little parcel from me — some things of George’s? I meant to send it by post, but if you —”

“Of course! With pleasure!” He seemed to implore her.

“It’s quite small,” she said, rising and going to the sideboard, on which lay a little brown-paper parcel.

His eye followed her. She picked up the parcel, glanced at it, and offered it to him.

“I’ll take it across on Monday night,” he said fervently.

“Thanks.”

She remained standing; he got up.

“No message or anything?” he suggested.

“Oh!” she said coldly, “I write, you know.”

“Well —” He made the gesture of departing. There was no alternative.

“We’re having very rough weather, aren’t we?” she said, with careless conventionality, as she took the lamp.

In the hall, when she held out her hand, he wanted tremendously to squeeze it, to give her through his hand the message of sympathy which his tongue, intimidated by her manner, dared not give. But his hand also refused to obey him. The clasp was strictly ceremonious. As she was drawing the heavy latch of the door he forced himself to say, “I’m in Brighton sometimes, off and on. Now I know where you are, I must look you up.”

She made no answer. She merely said good night as he passed out into the street and the wind. The door banged.

Five.

Edwin took a long breath. He had seen her! Yes, but the interview had been worse than his worst expectations. He had surpassed himself in futility, in fatuous lack of enterprise. He had behaved liked a schoolboy. Now, as he plunged up the street with the wind, he could devise easily a dozen ways of animating and guiding and controlling the interview so that, even if sad, its sadness might have been agreeable. The interview had been hell, ineffable torture, a perfect crime of clumsiness. It had resulted in nothing. (Except, of course, that he had seen her — that fact was indisputable.) He blamed himself. He cursed himself with really extraordinary savageness.

“Why did I go near her?” he demanded. “Why couldn’t I keep away? I’ve simply made myself look a blasted fool! Creeping and crawling round her! . . . After all, she did throw me over! And now she asks me to take a parcel to her confounded kid! The whole thing’s ridiculous! And what’s going to happen to her in that hole? I don’t suppose she’s got the least notion of looking after herself. Impossible — the whole thing! If anybody had told me that I should — that she’d —” Half of which talk was simple bluster. The parcel was bobbing on its loop against his side.

When he reached the top of the street he discovered that he had been going up it instead of down it. “What am I thinking of?” he grumbled impatiently. However, he would not turn back. He adventured forward, climbing into latitudes whose geography was strange to him, and scarcely seeing a single fellow-wanderer beneath the gas-lamps. Presently, after a steep hill, he came to a churchyard, and then he redescended, and at last tumbled into a street alive with people who had emerged from a theatre, laughing, lighting cigarettes, linking arms. Their existence seemed shallow, purposeless, infantile, compared to his. He felt himself superior to them. What did they know about life? He would not change with any of them.

Recognising the label on an omnibus, he followed its direction, and arrived almost immediately in the vast square which contained his hotel, and which was illuminated by the brilliant facades of several hotels. The doors of the Royal Sussex were locked, because eleven o’clock had struck. He could not account for the period of nearly three hours which had passed since he left the hotel. The zealous porter, observing his shadow through the bars, had sprung to unfasten the door before he could ring.

Six.

Within the hotel reigned gaiety, wine, and the dance. Small tables had been placed in the hall, and at these sat bald-headed men, smoking cigars and sharing champagne with ladies of every age. A white carpet had been laid in the large smoking-room, and through the curtained archway that separated it from the hall, Edwin could see couples revolving in obedience to the music of a piano and a violin. One of the Royal Sussex’s Saturday Cinderellas was in progress. The self-satisfied gestures of men inspecting their cigars or lifting glasses, of simpering women glancing or the sly at their jewels, and of youths pulling straight their white waistcoats as they strolled about with the air of Don Juans, invigorated his contempt for the average existence. The tinkle of the music appeared exquisitely tedious in its superficiality. He could rot remain in the hall because of the incorrectness of his attire, and the staircase was blocked, to a timid man, by elegant couples apparently engaged in the act of flirtation. He turned, through a group of attendant waiters, into the passage leading to the small smoking-room which adjoined the discreetly situated bar. This smoking-room, like a club, warm and bright, was empty, but in passing he had caught sight of two mutually affectionate dandies drinking at the splendid mahogany of the bar. He lit a cigarette. Seated in the smoking-room he could hear their conversation; he was forced to hear it.

“I’m really a very quiet man, old chap, very quiet,” said one, with a wavering drawl, “but when they get at me — I was at the Club at one o’clock. I wasn’t drunk, but I had a top on.”

“You were just gay and cheerful,” the other flatteringly and soothingly suggested, in an exactly similar wavering drawl.

“Yes. I felt as if I wanted to go out somewhere and have another drink. So I went to Willis’s Rooms. I was in evening-dress. You know you have to get a domino for those things. Then, of course, you’re a mark at once. I also got a nose. A girl snatched it off me. I told her what I thought of her, and I got another nose. Then five fellows tried to snatch my domino off me. Then I did get angry. I landed out with my right at the nearest chap — right on his heart. Not his face. His heart. I lowered him. He asked me afterwards, ‘Was that your right?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and my left’s worse!’ I couldn’t use my left because they were holding it. You see? You see?”

“Yes,” said the other impatiently, and suddenly cantankerous. “I see that all right! Damned awful rot those Willis’s Rooms affairs are getting, if you ask me!”

“Asses!” Edwin exploded within himself. “Idiots!” He could not tolerate their crassness. He had a hot prejudice against them because they were not as near the core of life as he was himself. It appeared to him that most people died without having lived. Willis’s Rooms! Girls! Nose! Heart! . . . Asses!

He surged again out of the small room, desolating the bar with one scornful glance as he went by. He braved the staircase, leaving those scenes of drivelling festivity. In his bedroom, with the wind crashing against the window, he regarded meditatively the parcel. After all, if she had meant to have nothing to do with him, she would not have charged him with the parcel. The parcel was a solid fact. The more he thought about it, the more significant a fact it seemed to him. His ears sang with the vibrating intensity of his secret existence, but from the wild confusion of his heart he could disentangle no constant idea.

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