Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Eight.

The Friendship.

The next afternoon George’s invincible energy took both himself and the great bearded man, Edwin, to a certain spot on the hollow confines of the town towards Turnhill, where there were several pits of marl and clay. They stared in silence at a vast ochre’s-coloured glistening cavity in the ground, on the high edges of which grew tufts of grass amid shards and broken bottles. In the bottom of the pit were laid planks, and along the planks men with pieces of string tied tight round their legs beneath the knees drew large barrows full or empty, sometimes insecurely over pools of yellow water into which the plank sagged under their weight, and sometimes over little hillocks and through little defiles formed in the basin of the mine. They seemed to have no aim. The whole cavity had a sticky look which at first amused George, but on the whole he was not interested, and Edwin gathered that the clay-pit in some mysterious way fell short of expectations. A mineral line of railway which, near by, ambled at random like a pioneer over rough country, was much more successful than the pit in winning his approval.

“Can we go and see the saggers now?” he suggested.

Edwin might have taken him to the manufactory in which Albert Benbow was a partner, but he preferred not to display to the father of Clara’s offspring his avuncular patronage of George Cannon, and he chose the works of a customer down at Shawport for whom he was printing a somewhat ambitious catalogue. He would call at the works and talk about the catalogue, and then incidentally mention that his young friend desired to see saggers.

“I suppose God put that clay there so that people could practise on it first, before they tried the white clay,” George observed, as the pair descended Oldcastle Street.

Decidedly he had moments of talking like an infant, like a baby of three. Edwin recalled that Hilda used to torture herself about questions of belief when she was not three but twenty-three. The scene in the garden porch seemed to have happened after all not very long ago. Yet a new generation, unconceived on that exciting and unforgettable night, had since been born and had passed through infancy and was now trotting and arguing and dogmatising by his side. It was strange, but it was certainly a fact, that George regarded him as a being immeasurably old. He still felt a boy.

How ought he to talk to the child concerning God? He was about to make a conventional response, when he stopped himself. “Confound it! Why should I?” he thought.

“If I were you I shouldn’t worry about God,” he said, aloud, in a casual and perhaps slightly ironic tone.

“Oh, I don’t!” George answered positively. “But now and then He comes into your head, doesn’t He? I was only just thinking.” The boy ceased, being attracted by the marvellous spectacle of a man perilously balanced on a crate-float driving a long-tailed pony full tilt down the steep slope of Oldcastle Street: it was equal to a circus.

Two.

The visit to the works was a particularly brilliant success. By good fortune an oven was just being ‘drawn,’ and the child had sight of the finest, the most barbaric picture that the manufacture of earthenware, from end to end picturesque, offers to the imaginative observer. Within the dark and sinister bowels of the kiln, illuminated by pale rays that came down through the upper orifice from the smoke-soiled sky, half-naked figures moved like ghosts, strenuous and damned, among the saggers of ware. At rapid intervals they emerged, their hairy torsos glistening with sweat, carrying the fired ware, which was still too hot for any but inured fingers to touch: an endless procession of plates and saucers and cups and mugs and jugs and basins, thousands and thousands! George stared in an enchanted silence of awe. And presently one of the Hercules’s picked him up, and held him for a moment within the portal of the torrid kiln, and he gazed at the high curved walls, like the walls of a gigantic tomb, and at the yellow saggers that held the ware. Now he knew what a sagger was.

“I’m glad you took me,” he said afterwards, clearly impressed by the authority of Edwin, who could stroll out and see such terrific goings-on whenever he chose. During all the walk home he did not speak.

On the Saturday, nominally in charge of his Auntie Janet, he called upon his chum with some water-colour drawings that he had done; they showed naked devils carrying cups and plates amid bright salmon-tinted flames: designs horrible, and horribly crude, interesting only because a child had done them. But somehow Edwin was obscurely impressed by them, and also he was touched by the coincidence that George painted in water-colours, and he, too, had once painted in water-colours. He was moreover expected to judge the drawings as an expert. On Monday he brought up the most complicated box of water-colours that his shop contained, and presented it to George, who, astounded, dazed, bore it away to his bedroom without a single word. Their friendship was sealed and published; it became a fact recognised by the two families.

Three.

About a week later, after a visit of a couple of days to Manchester, Edwin went out into the garden as usual when breakfast was finished, and discovered George standing on the wall. The boy had learned how to climb the wall from his own side of it without help.

“I say!” George cried, in a loud, rough, angry voice, as soon as he saw Edwin at the garden door. “I’ve got to go off in a minute, you know.”

“Go off? Where?”

“Home. Didn’t they tell you in your house? Auntie Janet and I came to your house yesterday, after I’d waited on the wall for you I don’t know how long, and you never came. We came to tell you, but you weren’t in. So we asked Miss Clayhanger to tell you. Didn’t Miss Clayhanger tell you?”

“No,” said Edwin. “She must have forgot.” It occurred to him that even the simple and placid Maggie had her personal prejudices, and that one of them might be against this child. For some reason she did not like the child. She positively could not have forgotten the child’s visit with Janet. She had merely not troubled to tell him: a touch of that malice which, though it be as rare as radium, nevertheless exists even in the most benignant natures. Edwin and George exchanged a silent, puzzled glance.

“Well, that’s a nice thing!” said the boy. It was.

“When are you going home?”

“I’m going now! Mr Orgreave has to go to London today, and mamma wrote to Auntie Janet yesterday to say that I must go with him, if he’d let me, and she would meet me at London. She wants me back. So Auntie Janet is taking me to Knype to meet Mr Orgreave there — he’s gone to his office first. And the gardener has taken my luggage in the barrow up to Bleakridge Station. Auntie’s putting her hat on. Can’t you see I’ve got my other clothes on?”

“Yes,” said Edwin, “I noticed that.”

“And my other hat?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve promised auntie I’ll come and put my overcoat on as soon as she calls me. I say — you wouldn’t believe how jammed my trunk is with that paint box and everything! Auntie Janet had to sit on it like anything! I say — shall you be coming to Brighton soon?”

Edwin shook his head.

“I never go to Brighton.”

“But when I asked you once if you’d been, you said you had.”

“So I have, but that was an accident.”

“Was it long since?”

“Well,” said Edwin, “you ought to know. It was when I brought that parcel for you.”

“Oh! Of course!”

Edwin was saying to himself: “She’s sent for him on purpose. She’s heard that we’re great friends, and she’s sent for him! She means to stop it! That’s what it is!” He had no rational basis for this assumption. It was instinctive. And yet why should she desire to interfere with the course of the friendship? How could it react unpleasantly on her? There obviously did not exist between mother and son one of those passionate attachments which misfortune and sorrow sometimes engender. She had been able to let him go. And as for George, he seldom mentioned his mother. He seldom mentioned anybody who was not actually present, or necessary to the fulfilment of the idea that happened to be reigning in his heart. He lived a life of absorption, hypnotised by the idea of the moment. These ideas succeeded each other like a dynasty of kings, like a series of dynasties, marked by frequent dynastic quarrels, by depositions and sudden deaths; but George’s loyalty was the same to all of them; it was absolute.

“Well, anyhow,” said he, “I shall come back here. Mother will have to let me.”

And he jumped down from the wall into Edwin’s garden, carelessly, his hands in his pockets, with a familiar ease of gesture that implied practice. He had in fact often done it before. But just this time — perhaps he was troubled by the unaccustomed clothes — having lighted on his feet, he failed to maintain his balance and staggered back against the wall.

“Now, clumsy!” Edwin commented.

The boy turned pale, and bit his lip, and then Edwin could see the tears in his eyes. One of his peculiarities was that he had no shame whatever about crying. He could not, or he would not, suffer stoically. Now he put his hands to his back, and writhed.

“Hurt yourself?” Edwin asked.

George nodded. He was very white, and startled. At first he could not command himself sufficiently to be able to articulate. Then he spluttered, “My back!” He subsided gradually into a sitting posture.

Edwin ran to him, and picked him up. But he screamed until he was set down. At the open drawing-room window, Maggie was arranging curtains. Edwin reluctantly left George for an instant and hurried to the window, “I say, Maggie, bring a chair or something out, will you? This dashed kid’s fallen and hurt himself.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Maggie calmly. “What surprises me is that you should ever have given him permission to scramble over the wall and trample all about the flower-beds the way he does!”

However, she moved at once to obey.

He returned to George. Then Janet’s voice was heard from the other garden, calling him: “George! Georgie! Nearly time to go!”

Edwin put his head over the wall.

“He’s fallen and hurt his back,” he answered to Janet, without any prelude.

“His back!” she repeated in a frightened tone.

Everybody was afraid of that mysterious back. And George himself was most afraid of it.

“I’ll get over the wall,” said Janet.

Edwin quitted the wall. Maggie was coming out of the house with a large cane easy-chair and a large cushion. But George was now standing up, though still crying. His beautiful best sailor hat lay on the winter ground.

“Now,” said Maggie to him, “you mustn’t be a baby!”

He glared at her resentfully. She would have dropped down dead on the spot if his wet and angry glance could have killed her. She was a powerful woman. She seized him carefully and set him in the chair, and supported the famous spine with the cushion.

“I don’t think he’s much hurt,” she decided. “He couldn’t make that noise if he was, and see how his colour’s coming back!”

In another case Edwin would have agreed with her, for the tendency of both was to minimise an ill and to exaggerate the philosophical attitude in the first moments of any occurrence that looked serious. But now he honestly thought that her judgement was being influenced by her prejudice, and he felt savage against her. The worst was that it was all his fault. Maggie was odiously right. He ought never to have encouraged the child to be acrobatic on the wall. It was he who had even put the idea of the wall as a means of access into the child’s head.

“Does it hurt?” he inquired, bending down, his hands on his knees.

“Yes,” said George, ceasing to cry.

“Much?” asked Maggie, dusting the sailor hat and sticking it on his head.

“No, not much,” George unwillingly admitted. Maggie could not at any rate say that he did not speak the truth.

Janet, having obtained steps, stood on the wall in her elaborate street-array.

“Who’s going to help me down?” she demanded anxiously. She was not so young and sprightly as once she had been. Edwin obeyed the call.

Then the three of them stood round the victim’s chair, and the victim, like a god, permitted himself to be contemplated. And Janet had to hear Edwin’s account of the accident, and also Maggie’s account of it, as seen from the window.

“I don’t know what to do!” said Janet.

“It is annoying, isn’t it?” said Maggie. “And just as you were going to the station too!”

“I— I think I’m all right,” George announced.

Janet passed a hand down his back, as though expecting to be able to judge the condition of his spine through the thickness of all his clothes.

“Are you?” she questioned doubtfully.

“It’s nothing,” said Maggie, with firmness.

“He’d be all right in the train,” said Janet. “It’s the walking to the station that I’m afraid of . . . You never know.”

“I can carry him,” said Edwin quickly.

“Of course you can’t!” Maggie contradicted. “And even if you could you’d jog him far worse than if he walked himself.”

“There’s no time to get a cab, now,” said Janet, looking at her watch. “If we aren’t at Knype, father will wonder what on earth’s happened, and I don’t know what his mother would say!”

“Where’s that old pram?” Edwin demanded suddenly of Maggie.

“What? Clara’s? It’s in the outhouse.”

“I can run him up to the station in two jiffs in that.”

“Oh yes! Do!” said George. “You must. And then lift me into the carriage!”

The notion was accepted.

“I hope it’s the best thing to do,” said Janet, apprehensive and doubtful, as she hurried off to the other house in order to get the boy’s overcoat and meet Edwin and the perambulator at the gates.

“I’m certain it is,” said Maggie calmly. “There’s nothing really the matter with that child.”

“Well, it’s very good of Edwin, I’m sure,” said Janet.

Edwin had already rushed for the perambulator, an ancient vehicle which was sometimes used in the garden for infant Benbows.

In a few moments Trafalgar Road had the spectacle of the bearded and eminent master-printer, Edwin Clayhanger, steaming up its muddy pavement behind a perambulator with a grown boy therein. And dozens of persons who had not till then distinguished the boy from other boys, inquired about his identity, and gossip was aroused. Maggie was displeased.

In obedience to the command Edwin lifted George into the train; and the feel of his little slippery body, and the feel of Edwin’s mighty arms, seemed to make them more intimate than ever. Except for dirty tear-marks on his cheeks, George’s appearance was absolutely normal.

Edwin expected to receive a letter from him, but none came, and this negligence wounded Edwin.

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