Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Five.

The Bully.

The next morning he was up early, preternaturally awake. When he descended the waiters were waiting for him, and the zealous porter stood ready to offer him a Sunday paper, just as though in the night they had refreshed themselves magically, without going to bed. No sign nor relic of the Cinderella remained. He breakfasted in an absent mind, and then went idly into the lounge, a room with one immense circular window, giving on the Square. Rain was falling heavily. Already from the porter, and in the very mien of the waiters, he had learnt that the Brighton Sunday was ruined. He left the window. On a round table in the middle of the room were ranged, with religious regularity, all the most esoteric examples of periodical literature in our language, from “The Iron–Trades Review” to “The Animals’ Guardian.” With one careless movement he destroyed the balanced perfection of a labour into which some menial had put his soul, and then dropped into a gigantic easy-chair near the fire, whose thin flames were just rising through the interstices of great black lumps of coal.

The housekeeper, stiff with embroidered silk, swam majestically into the lounge, bowed with a certain frigid and deferential surprise to the early guest, and proceeded to an inquiry into dust. In a moment she called, sharp and low —

“Arthur!”

And a page ran eagerly in, to whom, in the difficult corners of upholstery and of sculptured wood, she pointed out his sins of omission, lashing him with a restrained voice that Edwin could scarcely hear. Passing her hand carelessly along the beading of a door panel and then examining her fingers, she departed. The page fetched a duster.

“I see why this hotel has such a name,” said Edwin to himself. And suddenly the image of Hilda in that dark and frowzy tenement in Preston Street, on that wet Sunday morning, filled his heart with a revolt capricious and violent. He sprang to his feet, unreflecting, wilful, and strode into the hall.

“Can I have a cab?” he asked the porter.

“Certainly, sir,” said the porter, as if saying, “You ask me too little. Why will you not ask for a white elephant so that I may prove my devotion?” And within five seconds the screech of a whistle sped through the air to the cab-stand at the corner.

Two.

“Why am I doing this?” he once more asked himself, when he heard the bell ring, in answer to his pull, within the house in Preston Street. The desire for a tranquil life had always been one of his strongest instincts, and of late years the instinct had been satisfied, and so strengthened. Now he seemed to be obstinately searching for tumult; and he did not know why. He trembled at the sound of movement behind the door. “In a moment,” he thought, “I shall be right in the thick of it!”

As he was expecting, she opened the door herself; but only a little, with the gesture habitual to women who live alone in apprehension, and she kept her hand on the latch.

“Good morning,” he said curtly. “Can I speak to you?”

His eye could not blaze like hers, but all his self-respect depended on his valour now, and with desperation he affronted her. She opened the door wider, and he stepped in, and at once began to wipe his boots on the mat with nervous particularity.

“Frightful morning!” he grinned.

“Yes,” she said. “Is that your cab outside?”

He admitted that it was.

“Perhaps if we go upstairs,” she suggested.

Thanking her, he followed her upwards into the gloom at the head of the narrow stairs, and then along a narrow passage. The house appeared quite as unfavourably by day as by night. It was shabby. All its tints had merged by use and by time into one tint, nondescript and unpleasant, in which yellow prospered. The drawing-room was larger than the dining-room by the poor width of the hall. It was a heaped, confused mass of chairs, sofas, small tables, draperies, embroideries, and valueless knick-knacks. There was no peace in it for the eye, neither on the walls nor on the floor. The gaze was driven from one ugliness to another without rest.

The fireplace was draped; the door was draped; the back of the piano was draped; and none of the dark suspicious stuffs showed a clear pattern. The faded chairs were hidden by faded antimacassars; the little futile tables concealed their rickets under vague needlework, on which were displayed in straw or tinsel frames pale portraits of dowdy people who had stood like sheep before fifteenth-rate photographers. The mantelpiece and the top of the piano were thickly strewn with fragments of coloured earthenware. At the windows hung heavy dark curtains from great rings that gleamed gilt near the ceiling; and lest the light which they admitted should be too powerful it was further screened by greyish white curtains within them. The carpet was covered in most places by small rugs or bits of other carpets, and in the deep shadows beneath sofas and chairs and behind the piano it seemed to slip altogether out of existence into black nothingness. The room lacked ventilation, but had the appearance of having been recently dusted.

Three.

Hilda closed the draped door with a mysterious, bitter, cynical smile.

“Sit down,” she said coldly.

“Last night,” Edwin began, without sitting down, “when you mentioned the broker’s man, were you joking, or did you mean it?”

She was taken aback.

“Did I say ‘broker’s man’?”

“Well,” said Edwin, “you’ve not forgotten, I suppose.”

She sat down, with some precision of pose, on the principal sofa.

“Yes,” she said at length. “As you’re so curious. The landlords are in possession.”

“The bailiffs still here?”

“Yes.”

“But what are you going to do?”

“I’m expecting them to take the furniture away tomorrow, or Tuesday at the latest,” she replied.

“And then what?”

“I don’t know.”

“But haven’t you got any money?”

She took a purse from her pocket, and opened it with a show of impartial curiosity. “Two-and-seven,” she said.

“Any servant in the house?”

“What do you think?” she replied. “Didn’t you see me cleaning the door-plate last night? I do like that to look nice at any rate!”

“I don’t see much use in that looking nice, when you’ve got the bailiffs in, and no servant and no money,” Edwin said roughly, and added, still more roughly: “What should you do if anyone came inquiring for rooms?” He tried to guess her real mood, but her features would betray nothing.

“I was expecting three old ladies — sisters — next week,” she said. “I’d been hoping I could hold out till they came. They’re horrid women, though they don’t know it; but they’ve stayed a couple of months in this house every winter for I don’t know how many years, and they’re firmly convinced it’s the best house in Brighton. They’re quite enough to keep it going by themselves when they’re here. But I shall have to write and tell them not to come this time.”

“Yes,” said Edwin. “But I keep asking you — what then?”

“And I keep saying I don’t know.”

“You must have some plans?”

“I haven’t.” She put her lips together, and dimpled her chin, and again cynically smiled. At any rate she had not resented his inquisition.

“I suppose you know you’re behaving like a perfect fool?” he suggested angrily. She did not wince.

“And what if I am? What’s that got to do with you?” she asked, as if pleasantly puzzled.

“You’ll starve. You can’t live for ever on two-and-seven.”

“Well?”

“And the boy? Is he going to starve?”

“Oh,” said Hilda, “Janet will look after him till something turns up. The fact is, that’s one reason why I allowed her to take him.”

“‘Something turns up,’ ‘something turns up!’” Edwin repeated deliberately, letting himself go. “You make me absolutely sick! It’s absolutely incredible how some people will let things slide! What in the name of God Almighty do you think will turn up?”

“I don’t know,” she said, with a certain weakness, still trying to be placidly bitter, and not now succeeding.

“Where is the bailiff-johnny?”

“He’s in the kitchen with one of his friends, drinking.”

Edwin with bravado flopped his hat down forcefully on a table, pushed a chair aside, and strode towards the door.

“Where are you going?” she asked in alarm, standing up.

“Where do you suppose I’m going? I’m going to find out from that chap how much will settle it. If you can’t show any common sense for yourself, other folks must show some for you — that’s all. The brokers in the house! I never heard of such work!”

And indeed, to a respected and successful tradesman, the entrance of the bailiffs into a house did really seem to be the very depth of disaster and shame for the people of that house. Edwin could not remember that he had ever before seen a bailiff. To him a bailiff was like a bug — something heard of, something known to exist, but something not likely to enter the field of vision of an honest and circumspect man.

He would deal with the bailiff. He would have a short way with the bailiff. Secure in the confidence of his bankers, he was ready to bully the innocent bailiff. He would not reflect, would not pause. He had heated himself. His steam was up, and he would not let the pressure be weakened by argumentative hesitations. His emotion was not disagreeable.

When he was in the passage he heard the sound of a sob. Prudently, he had not banged the door after him. He stopped, and listened. Was it a sob? Then he heard another sob. He went back to the drawing-room.

Four.

Yes! She stood in the middle of the room weeping. Save Clara, and possibly once or twice Maggie, he had never seen a woman cry — that is, in circumstances of intimacy; he had seen women crying in the street, and the spectacle usually pained him. On occasion he had very nearly made Maggie cry, and had felt exceedingly uncomfortable. But now, as he looked at the wet eyes and the shaken bosom of Hilda Cannon, he was aware of acute joy. Exquisite moment! Damn her! He could have taken her and beaten her in his sudden passion — a passion not of revenge, not of punishment! He could have made her scream with the pain that his love would inflict.

She tried to speak, and failed, in a storm of sobs. He had left the door open. Half blind with tears she dashed to the door and shut it, and then turned and fronted him, with her hands hovering near her face.

“I can’t let you do it!” she murmured imploringly, plaintively, and yet with that still obstinate bitterness in her broken voice.

“Then who is to do it?” he demanded, less bitterly than she had spoken, nevertheless not softly. “Who is to keep you if I don’t? Have you got any other friends who’ll stand by you?”

“I’ve got the Orgreaves,” she answered.

“And do you think it would be better for the Orgreaves to keep you, or for me?” As she made no response, he continued: “Anybody else besides the Orgreaves?”

“No,” she muttered sulkily. “I’m not the sort of woman that makes a lot of friends. I expect people don’t like me, as a rule.”

“You’re the sort of woman that behaves like a blooming infant!” he said. “Supposing I don’t help you? What then, I keep asking you? How shall you get money? You can only borrow it — and there’s nobody but Janet, and she’d have to ask her father for it. Of course, if you’d sooner borrow from Osmond Orgreave than from me —”

“I don’t want to borrow from any one,” she protested.

“Then you want to starve! And you want your boy to starve — or else to live on charity! Why don’t you look facts in the face? You’ll have to look them in the face sooner or later, and the sooner the better. You think you’re doing a fine thing by sitting tight and bearing it, and saying nothing, and keeping it all a secret, until you get pitched into the street! Let me tell you you aren’t.”

Five.

She dropped into a chair by the piano, and rested her elbows on the curved lid of the piano.

“You’re frightfully cruel!” she sobbed, hiding her face.

He fidgeted away to the larger of the two windows, which was bayed, so that the room could boast a view of the sea. On the floor he noticed an open book, pages downwards. He picked it up. It was the poems of Crashaw, an author he had never read but had always been intending to read. Outside, the driver of his cab was bunching up his head and shoulders together under a large umbrella, upon which the rain spattered. The flanks of the resigned horse glistened with rain.

“You needn’t talk about cruelty!” he remarked, staring hard at the signboard of an optician opposite. He could hear the faint clanging of church bells.

After a pause she said, as if apologetically —

“Keeping a boarding-house isn’t my line. But what could I do? My sister-in-law had it, and I was with her. And when she died . . . Besides, I dare say I can keep a boarding-house as well as plenty of other people. But — well, it’s no use going into that!”

Edwin abruptly sat down near her.

“Come, now,” he said less harshly, more persuasively. “How much do you owe?”

“Oh!” she cried, pouting, and shifting her feet. “It’s out of the question! They’ve distrained for seventy-five pounds.”

“I don’t care if they’ve distrained for seven hundred and seventy-five pounds!” She seemed just like a girl to him again now, in spite of her face and her figure. “If that was cleared off, you could carry on, couldn’t you? This is just the season. Could you get a servant in, in time for these three sisters?”

“I could get a charwoman, anyhow,” she said unwillingly.

“Well, do you owe anything else?”

“There’ll be the expenses.”

“Of the distraint?”

“Yes.”

“That’s nothing. I shall lend you a hundred pounds. It just happens that I’ve got fifty pounds on me in notes. That and a cheque’ll settle the bailiff person, and the rest of the hundred I’ll send you by post. It’ll be a bit of working capital.”

She rose and threaded between chairs and tables to the sofa, several feet from Edwin. With a vanquished and weary sigh, she threw herself on to the sofa.

“I never knew there was anybody like you in the world,” she breathed, flicking away some fluff from her breast. She seemed to be regarding him, not as a benefactor, but as a natural curiosity.

Six.

He looked at her like a conqueror. He had taught her a thing or two. He had been a man. He was proud of himself. He was proud of all sorts of details in his conduct. The fifty pounds in notes, for example, was not an accident. Since the death of his father, he had formed the habit of never leaving his base of supplies without a provision far in excess of what he was likely to need. He was extravagant in nothing, but the humiliations of his penurious youth and early manhood had implanted in him a morbid fear of being short of money. He had fantastically surmised circumstances in which he might need a considerable sum at Brighton. And lo! the sequel had transformed his morbidity into prudence.

“This time yesterday,” he reflected, in his triumph, “I hadn’t even seen her, and didn’t know where she was. Last night I was a fool. Half an hour ago she herself hadn’t a notion that I was going to get the upper hand of her . . . Why, it isn’t two days yet since I left home! . . . And look where I am now!”

With pity and with joy he watched her slowly wiping her eyes. Thirty-four, perhaps; yet a child — compared to him! But if she did not give a natural ingenuous smile of relief, it was because she could not. If she acted foolishly it was because of her tremendous haughtiness. However, he had lowered that. He had shown her her master. He felt that she had been profoundly wronged by destiny, and that gentleness must be lavished upon her.

In a casual tone he began to talk about the most rapid means of getting rid of the bailiff. He could not tolerate the incubus of the bailiff a moment longer than was absolutely unavoidable. At intervals a misgiving shot like a thin flying needle through the solid satisfaction of his sensations: “She is a strange and an incalculable woman — why am I doing this?” Shot, and was gone, almost before perceived!

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