Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Seven.

The Wall.

One morning — towards the end of November — Edwin, attended by Maggie, was rearranging books in the drawing-room after breakfast, when there came a startling loud tap at the large central pane of the window. Both of them jumped.

“Who’s throwing?” Edwin exclaimed.

“I expect it’s that boy,” said Maggie, almost angrily.

“Not Georgie?”

“Yes. I wish you’d go and stop him. You’ve no idea what a tiresome little thing he is. And so rough too!”

This attitude of Maggie towards the mysterious nephew was a surprise for Edwin. She had never grumbled about him before. In fact they had seen little of him. For a fortnight he had not been abroad, and the rumour ran that he was unwell, that he was ‘not so strong as he ought to be.’ And now Maggie suddenly charged him with a whole series of misdoings! But it was Maggie’s way to keep unpleasant things from Edwin for a time, in order to save her important brother from being worried, and then in a moment of tension to fling them full in his face, like a wet clout.

“What’s he been up to?” Edwin inquired for details.

“Oh! I don’t know,” answered Maggie vaguely. At the same instant came another startling blow on the window. “There!” Maggie cried, in triumph, as if saying: “That’s what he’s been up to!” After all, the windows were Maggie’s own windows.

Edwin left on the sofa a whole pile of books that he was sorting, and went out into the garden. On the top of the wall separating him from the Orgreaves a row of damaged earthenware objects — jugs and jars chiefly — at once caught his eye. He witnessed the smashing of one of them, and then he ran to the wall, and taking a spring, rested on it with his arms, his toes pushed into crevices. Young George, with hand outstretched to throw, in the garden of the Orgreaves, seemed rather diverted by this apparition.

“Hello!” said Edwin. “What are you up to?”

“I’m practising breaking crocks,” said the child. That he had acquired the local word gave Edwin pleasure.

“Yes, but do you know you’re practising breaking my windows too? When you aim too high you simply can’t miss one of my windows.”

George’s face was troubled, as he examined the facts, which had hitherto escaped his attention, that there was a whole world of consequences on the other side of the wall, and that a missile which did not prove its existence against either the wall or a crock had not necessarily ceased to exist. Edwin watched the face with a new joy, as though looking at some wonder of nature under a microscope. It seemed to him that he now saw vividly why children were interesting.

“I can’t see any windows from here,” said George, in defence.

“If you climb up here you’ll see them all right.”

“Yes, but I can’t climb up. I’ve tried to, a lot of times. Even when I stood on my toes on this stump I could only just reach to put the crocks on the top.”

“What did you want to get on the wall for?”

“I wanted to see that swing of yours.”

“Well,” said Edwin, laughing, “if you could remember the swing why couldn’t you remember the windows?”

George shook his head at Edwin’s stupidity, and looked at the ground. “A swing isn’t windows,” he said. Then he glanced up with a diffident smile: “I’ve often been wanting to come and see you.”

Edwin was tremendously flattered. If he had made a conquest, the child by this frank admission had made a greater.

“Then why didn’t you come?”

“I couldn’t, by myself. Besides, my back hasn’t been well. Did they tell you?”

George was so naturally serious that Edwin decided to be serious too.

“I did hear something about it,” he replied, with the grave confidential tone that he would have used to a man of his own age. This treatment was evidently appreciated by George, and always afterwards Edwin conversed with him as with an equal, forbearing from facetiousness.

Damp though it was, Edwin twisted himself round and sat on the wall next to the crocks, and bent over the boy beneath, who gazed with upturned face.

“Why didn’t you ask Auntie Janet to bring you?”

“I don’t generally ask for things that I really want,” said the boy, with a peculiar glance.

“I see,” said Edwin, with an air of comprehension. He did not, however, comprehend. He only felt that the boy was wonderful. Imagine the boy saying that! He bent lower. “Come on up,” he said. “I’ll give you a hand. Stick your feet into that nick there.”

Two.

In an instant George was standing on the wall, light as fluff. Edwin held him by the legs, and his hand was on Edwin’s cap. The feel of the boy was delightful; he was so lithe and so yielding, and yet firm; and his glance was so trustful and admiring. “Rough!” thought Edwin, remembering Maggie’s adjective. “He isn’t a bit rough! Unruly? Well, I dare say he can be unruly if he cares to be. It all depends how you handle him.” Thus Edwin reflected in the pride of conquest, holding close to the boy, and savouring intimately his charm. Even the boy’s slightness attracted him. Difficult to believe that he was nine years old! His body was indeed backward. So too, it appeared, was his education. And yet was there not the wisdom of centuries in, “I don’t generally ask for things that I really want?”

Suddenly the boy wriggled, and gave a sound of joy that was almost a yell. “Look!” he cried.

The covered top of the steam-car could just be seen gliding along above the high wall that separated Edwin’s garden from the street.

“Yes,” Edwin agreed. “Funny, isn’t it?” But he considered that such glee at such a trifle was really more characteristic of six or seven than of nine years. George’s face was transformed by ecstasy.

“It’s when things move like that — horizontal!” George explained, pronouncing the word carefully.

Edwin felt that there was no end to the surpassing strangeness of this boy. One moment he was aged six, and the next he was talking about horizontality.

“Why? What do you mean?”

“I don’t know!” George sighed. “But somehow —” Then, with fresh vivacity: “I tell you — when Auntie Janet comes to wake me up in the morning the cat comes in too, with its tail up in the air — you know!” Edwin nodded. “Well, when I’m lying in bed I can’t see the cat, but I can see the top of its tail sailing along the edge of the bed. But if I sit up I can see all the cat, and that spoils it, so I don’t sit up at first.”

The child was eager for Edwin to understand his pleasure in horizontal motion that had no apparent cause, like the tip of a cat’s tail on the horizon of a bed, or the roof of a tram-car on the horizon of the wall. And Edwin was eager to understand, and almost persuaded himself that he did understand; but he could not be sure. A marvellous child — disconcerting! He had a feeling of inferiority to the child, because the child had seen beauty where he had not dreamed of seeing it.

“Want a swing,” he suggested, “before I have to go off to business?”

Three.

When it occurred to him that he had had as much violent physical exercise as was good for his years, and that he had left his books in disarray, and that his business demanded him, Edwin apologetically announced that he must depart, and the child admitted that Aunt Janet was probably waiting to give him his lessons.

“Are you going back the way you came? You’d better. It’s always best,” said Edwin.

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

He lifted and pushed the writhing form on to the wall, dislodging a jar, which crashed dully on the ground.

“Auntie Janet told me I could have them to do what I liked with. So I break them,” said George, “when they don’t break themselves!”

“I bet she never told you to put them on this wall,” said Edwin.

“No, she didn’t. But it was the best place for aiming. And she told me it didn’t matter how many crocks I broke, because they make crocks here. Do they, really?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s clay here,” said Edwin glibly.

“Where?”

“Oh! Round about.”

“White, like that?” exclaimed George eagerly, handling a teapot without a spout. He looked at Edwin: “Will you take me to see it? I should like to see white ground.”

“Well,” said Edwin, more cautiously, “the clay they get about here isn’t exactly white.”

“Then do they make it white?”

“As a matter of fact the white clay comes from a long way off — Cornwall, for instance.”

“Then why do they make the things here?” George persisted; with the annoying obstinacy of his years. He had turned the teapot upside down. “This was made here. It’s got ‘Bursley’ on it. Auntie Janet showed me.”

Edwin was caught. He saw himself punished for that intellectual sloth which leads adults to fob children off with any kind of a slipshod, dishonestly simplified explanation of phenomena whose adequate explanation presents difficulty. He remembered how nearly twenty years earlier he had puzzled over the same question and for a long time had not found the answer.

“I’ll tell you how it is,” he said, determined to be conscientious. “It’s like this —” He had to pause. Queer, how hard it was to state the thing coherently! “It’s like this. In the old days they used to make crocks anyhow, very rough, out of any old clay. And crocks were first made here because the people found common yellow clay, and the coal to burn it with, lying close together in the ground. You see how handy it was for them.”

“Then the old crocks were yellow?”

“More or less. Then people got more particular, you see, and when white clay was found somewhere else they had it brought here, because everybody was used to making crocks here, and they had all the works and the tools they wanted, and the coal too. Very important, the coal! Much easier to bring the clay to the people and the works, than cart off all the people — and their families, don’t forget — and so on, to the clay, and build fresh works into the bargain . . . That’s why. Now are you sure you see?”

George ignored the question. “I suppose they used up all the yellow clay there was here, long ago?”

“Not much!” said Edwin. “And they never will! You don’t know what a sagger is, I reckon?”

“What is a sagger?”

“Well, I can’t stop to tell you all that now. But I will some time. They make saggers out of the yellow clay.”

“Will you show me the yellow clay?”

“Yes, and some saggers too.”

“When?”

“I don’t know. As soon as I can.”

“Will you tomorrow?”

To-morrow happened to be Thursday. It was not Edwin’s free afternoon, but it was an afternoon to which a sort of licence attached. He yielded to the ruthless egotism of the child.

“All right!” he said.

“You won’t forget?”

“You can rely on me. Ask your auntie if you may go, and if she says you may, be ready for me to pull you up over the wall here, about three o’clock.”

“Auntie will have to let me go,” said George, in a savage tone, as Edwin helped him to slip down into the garden of the Orgreaves. Edwin went off to business with a singular consciousness of virtue, and with pride in his successful manner of taming wayward children, and with a very strong new interest in the immediate future.

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