Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Six.

The Rendezvous.

In the afternoon the weather cleared somewhat. Edwin, vaguely blissful, but with nothing to occupy him save reflection, sat in the lounge drinking tea at a Moorish table. An old Jew, who was likewise drinking tea at a Moorish table, had engaged him in conversation and was relating the history of a burglary in which he had lost from his flat in Bolton Street, Piccadilly, nineteen gold cigarette-cases and thirty-seven jewelled scarf-pins, tokens of esteem and regard offered to him by friends and colleagues at various crises of his life. The lounge was crowded, but not with tea-drinkers. Despite the horrid dismalness of the morning, hope had sent down from London trains full of people whose determination was to live and to see life in a grandiose manner. And all about the lounge of the Royal Sussex were groups of elegant youngish men and flaxen, uneasily stylish women, inviting the assistance of flattered waiters to decide what liqueurs they should have next. Edwin was humanly trying to publish in nonchalant gestures the scorn which he really felt for these nincompoops, but whose free expression was hindered by a layer of envy.

The hall-porter appeared, and his eye ranged like a condor’s over the field until it discovered Edwin, whom he approached with a mien of joy and handed to him a letter.

Edwin took the letter with an air of custom, as if he was anxious to convince the company that his stay at the Royal Sussex was frequently punctuated by the arrival of special missives.

“Who brought this?” he asked.

“An oldish man, sir,” said the porter, and bowed and departed.

The handwriting was hers. Probably the broker’s man had offered to bring the letter. In the short colloquy with him in the morning, Edwin had liked the slatternly, coarse fellow. The bailiff could not, unauthorised, accept cheques, but his tone in suggesting an immediate visit to his employers had shown that he had bowels, that he sympathised with the difficulties of careless tenants in a harsh world of landlords. It was Hilda who, furnished with notes and cheque, had gone, in Edwin’s cab, to placate the higher powers. She had preferred to go herself, and to go alone. Edwin had not insisted. He had so mastered her that he could afford to yield to her in trifles.

Two.

The letter said exactly this: “Everything is all right and settled. I had no trouble at all. But I should like to speak to you this afternoon. Will you meet me on the West Pier at six? — H.C.” No form of greeting! No thanks! The bare words necessary to convey a wish! On leaving her in the morning no arrangement had been made for a further interview. She had said nothing, and he had been too proud to ask — the terrible pride of the benefactor! It was only by chance that it had even occurred to him to say: “By the way, I am staying at the Royal Sussex.” She had shown no curiosity whatever about him, his doings, his movements. She had not put to him a single question. He had intended to call at Preston Street on the Monday morning. And now a letter from her! Her handwriting had scarcely changed. He was to meet her on the pier. At her own request he now had a rendezvous with her on the pier! Why not at her house? Perhaps she was afraid of his power over her in the house. (Curious, how she, and she almost alone, roused the masculine force in him!) Perhaps she wanted to thank him in surroundings which would compel both of them to be calm. That would be like her! Essentially modest, restrained! And did she not know how to be meek, she who was so headstrong and independent!

He looked at the clock. The hour was not yet five. Nevertheless he felt obliged to go out, to bestir himself. On the misty, crowded, darkening promenade he abandoned himself afresh to indulgence in the souvenance of the great critical scene of the morning. Yes, he had done marvels; and fate was astoundingly kind to him also. But there was one aspect of the affair that intrigued and puzzled him, and weakened his self-satisfaction. She had been defeated, yet he was baffled by her. She was a mystery within folds of mysteries. He was no nearer — he secretly felt — to the essential Her than he had been before the short struggle and his spectacular triumph. He wanted to reconstruct in his fancy all her emotional existence; he wanted to get at her — to possess her intimate mind — and lo! he could not even recall the expressions of her face from minute to minute during the battle. She hid herself from him. She eluded him . . . Strange creature! The polishing of the door-plate in the night! That volume of Crashaw — on the floor! Her cold, almost daemonic smile! Her sobs! Her sudden retreats! What was at the back of it all? He remembered her divine gesture over the fond Shushions. He remembered the ecstatic quality of her surrender in the shop. He remembered her first love-letter: “Every bit of me is absolutely yours.” And yet the ground seemed to be unsure beneath his feet, and he wondered whether he had ever in reality known her, ever grasped firmly the secret of her personality, even for an instant.

He said to himself that he would be seeing her face to face in an hour, and that then he would, by the ardour of his gaze, get behind those enigmatic features to the arcana they concealed.

Three.

Before six o’clock it was quite dark. He thought it a strange notion, to fix a rendezvous at such an hour, on a day in autumn, in the open air. But perhaps she was very busy, doing servant’s work in the preparation of her house for visitors. When he reached the pier gates at five minutes to six, they were closed, and the obscure vista of the pier as deserted as some northern pier in mid-winter. Naturally it was closed! There was a notice prominently displayed that the pier would close that evening at dusk. What did she mean? The truth was, he decided, that she lived in the clouds, ordering her existence by means of sudden and capricious decisions in which facts were neglected — and herein probably lay the explanation of her misfortunes. He was very philosophical: rather amused than disturbed, because her house was scarcely a stone’s-throw away: she could not escape him.

He glanced up and down the lighted promenade, and across the broad muddy road towards the opening of Preston Street. The crowds had disappeared; only scattered groups and couples, and now and then a solitary, passed quickly in the gloom. The hotels were brilliant, and carriages with their flitting lamps were continually stopping in front of them; but the blackness of the shop-fronts produced the sensation of melancholy proper to the day even in Brighton, and the renewed sound of church bells intensified this arid melancholy.

Suddenly he saw her, coming not across the road from Preston Street, but from the direction of Hove. He saw her before she saw him. Under the multiplicity of lamps her face was white and clear. He had a chance to read in it. But he could read nothing in it save her sadness, save that she had suffered. She seemed querulous, preoccupied, worried, and afflicted. She had the look of one who is never free from apprehension. Yet for him that look of hers had a quality unique, a quality that he had never found in another, but which he was completely unable to define. He wanted acutely to explain to himself what it was, and he could not.

“You are frightfully cruel,” she had said. And he admitted that he had been. Yes, he had bullied her, her who, he was convinced, had always been the victim. In spite of her vigorous individuality she was destined to be a victim. He was sure that she had never deserved anything but sympathy and respect and affection. He was sure that she was the very incarnation of honesty — possibly she was too honest for the actual world. Did not the Orgreaves worship her? And could he himself have been deceived in his estimate of her character?

She recognised him only when she was close upon him. A faint, transient, wistful smile lightened her brooding face, pale and stern.

Four.

“Oh! There you are!” she exclaimed, in her clear voice. “Did I say six, or five, in my note?”

“Six.”

“I was afraid I had done, when I came here at five and didn’t find you. I’m so sorry.”

“No!” he said. “I think I ought to be sorry. It’s you who’ve had the waiting to do. The pier’s closed now.”

“It was just closing at five,” she answered. “I ought to have known. But I didn’t. The fact is, I scarcely ever go out. I remembered once seeing the pier open at night, and I thought it was always open.” She shrugged her shoulders as if stopping a shiver.

“I hope you haven’t caught cold,” he said. “Suppose we walk along a bit.”

They walked westwards in silence. He felt as though he were by the side of a stranger, so far was he from having pierced the secret of that face.

As they approached one of the new glazed shelters, she said —

“Can’t we sit down a moment. I— I can’t talk standing up. I must sit down.”

They sat down, in an enclosed seat designed to hold four. And Edwin could feel the wind on his calves, which stretched beyond the screened side of the structure. Odd people passed dimly to and fro in front of them, glanced at them with nonchalant curiosity, and glanced away. On the previous evening he had observed couples in those shelters, and had wondered what could be the circumstances or the preferences which led them to accept such a situation. Certainly he could not have dreamed that within twenty-four hours he would be sitting in one of them with her, by her appointment, at her request. He thrilled with excitement — with delicious anxieties.

“Janet told you I was a widow,” Hilda began, gazing at the ferule of her umbrella, which gleamed on the ground.

“Yes.” Again she was surprising him.

“Well, we arranged she should tell every one that. But I think you ought to know that I’m not.”

“No?” he murmured weakly. And in one small unimportant region of his mind he reflected with astonishment upon the hesitating but convincing air with which Janet had lied to him. Janet!

“After what you’ve done”— she paused, and went on with unblurred clearness —“after what you’ve insisted on doing, I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding. I’m not a widow. My husband’s in prison. He’ll be in prison for another six or seven years. That’s all I wanted to tell you.”

“I’m very sorry,” he breathed. “I’d no idea you’d had this trouble.” What could he say? What could anybody have said?

“I ought to have told you at once,” she said. “I ought to have told you last night.” Another pause. “Then perhaps you wouldn’t have come again this morning.”

“Yes, I should!” he asserted eagerly. “If you’re in a hole, you’re in a hole. What difference could it possibly make whether you were a widow or not?”

“Oh!” she said. “The wife of a convict . . . you know!” He felt that she was evading the point.

She went on: “It’s a good thing my three old ladies don’t know, anyhow . . .! I’d no chance to tell you this morning. You were too much for me.”

“I don’t care whose wife you are!” he muttered, as though to himself, as though resenting something said by some one who had gone away and left him. “If you’re in a hole, you’re in a hole.”

She turned and looked at him. His eyes fell before hers.

“Well,” she said. “I’ve told you. I must go. I haven’t a moment. Good night.” She held out her hand. “You don’t want me to thank you a lot, do you?”

“That I don’t!” he exclaimed.

“Good night.”

“But —”

“I really must go.”

He rose and gave his hand. The next instant she was gone.

There was a deafening roar in his head. It was the complete destruction by earthquake of a city of dreams. A calamity which left nothing — even to be desired! A tremendous silence reigned after the event.

Five.

On the following evening, when from the windows of the London-to-Manchester express he saw in the gloom the high-leaping flames of the blast-furnaces that seem to guard eternally the southern frontier of the Five Towns, he felt that he had returned into daily reality out of an impossible world. Waiting for the loop-line train in the familiar tedium of Knype platform, staring at the bookstall, every item on which he knew by heart and despised, surrounded once more by local physiognomies, gestures, and accent, he thought to himself: “This is my lot. And if I get messing about, it only shows what a damned fool I am!” He called himself a damned fool because Hilda had proved to have a husband; because of that he condemned the whole expedition to Brighton as a piece of idiocy. His dejection was profound and bitter. At first, after Hilda had quitted him on the Sunday night, he had tried to be cheerful, had persuaded himself indeed that he was cheerful; but gradually his spirit had sunk, beaten and miserable. He had not called at Preston Street again. Pride forbade, and the terror of being misunderstood.

And when he sat at his own table, in his own dining-room, and watched the calm incurious Maggie dispensing to him his elaborate tea-supper with slightly more fuss and more devotion than usual, his thoughts, had they been somewhat less vague, might have been summed up thus: “The right sort of women don’t get landed as the wives of convicts. Can you imagine such a thing happening to Maggie, for instance? Or Janet?” (And yet Janet was in the secret! This disturbed the flow of his reflections.) Hilda was too mysterious. Now she had half disclosed yet another mystery. But what? “Why was her husband a convict? Under what circumstances? For what crime? Where? Since when?” He knew the answer to none of these questions. More deeply than ever was that woman embedded in enigmas.

“What’s this parcel on the sideboard?” Maggie inquired.

“Oh! I want you to send it in to Janet. It’s from her particular friend, Mrs Cannon — something for the kid, I believe. I ran across her in Brighton, and she asked me if I’d bring the parcel along.”

The innocence of his manner was perfectly acted. He wondered that he could do it so well. But really there was no danger. Nobody in Bursley, or in the world, had the least suspicion of his past relations with Hilda. The only conceivable danger would have been in hiding the fact that he had met her in Brighton.

“Of course,” said Maggie, mildly interested. “I was forgetting she lived at Brighton. Well?” and she put a few casual questions, to which Edwin casually replied.

“You look tired,” she said later.

He astonished her by admitting that he was. According to all precedent her statement ought to have drawn forth a quick contradiction.

The sad image of Hilda would not be dismissed. He had to carry it about with him everywhere, and it was heavy enough to fatigue a stronger than Edwin Clayhanger. The pathos of her situation overwhelmed him, argue as he might about the immunity of ‘the right sort of women’ from a certain sort of disaster. On the Tuesday he sent her a post-office order for twenty pounds. It rather more than made up the agreed sum of a hundred pounds. She returned it, saying she did not need it. “Little fool!” he said. He was not surprised. He was, however, very much surprised, a few weeks later, to receive from Hilda her own cheque for eighty pounds odd! More mystery! An absolutely incredible woman! Whence had she obtained that eighty pounds? Needless to say, she offered no explanation. He abandoned all conjecture. But he could not abandon the image. And first Auntie Hamps said, and then Clara, and then even Maggie admitted, that Edwin was sticking too close to business and needed a change, needed rousing. Auntie Hamps urged openly that a wife ought to be found for him. But in a few days the great talkers of the family, Auntie Hamps and Clara, had grown accustomed to Edwin’s state, and some new topic supervened.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/clayhanger/book4.6.html

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