Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter Nine.

The Arrivals.

On a Saturday in the early days of the following year, 1892, Edwin by special request had gone in to take afternoon tea with the Orgreaves. Osmond Orgreave was just convalescent after an attack of influenza, and in the opinion of Janet wanted cheering up. The task of enlivening him had been laid upon Edwin. The guest, and Janet and her father and mother sat together in a group round the fire in the drawing-room.

The drawing-room alone had grown younger with years. Money had been spent on it rather freely. During the previous decade Osmond’s family, scattering, had become very much less costly to him, but his habits of industry had not changed, nor his faculty for collecting money. Hence the needs of the drawing-room, which had been pressing for quite twenty years, had at last been satisfied; indeed Osmond was saving, through mere lack of that energetic interest in things which is necessary to spending. Possibly even the drawing-room would have remained untouched — both Janet and her elder sister Marian sentimentally preferred it as it was — had not Mrs Orgreave been ‘positively ashamed’ of it when her married children, including Marian, came to see her. They were all married now, except Janet and Charlie and Johnnie; and Alicia at any rate had a finer drawing-room than her mother. So far as the parents were concerned Charlie might as well have been married, for he had acquired a partnership in a practice at Ealing and seldom visited home. Johnnie, too, might as well have been married. Since Jimmie’s wedding he had used the house strictly as a hotel, for sleeping and eating, and not always for sleeping. He could not be retained at home. His interests were mysterious, and lay outside it. Janet alone was faithful to the changed drawing-room, with its new carpets and wall-papers and upholstery.

“I’ve got more grandchildren than children now,” said Mrs Orgreave to Edwin, “and I never thought to have!”

“Have you really?” Edwin responded. “Let me see —”

“I’ve got nine.”

“Ten, mother,” Janet corrected. “She’s forgetting her own grandchildren now!”

“Bless me!” exclaimed Mrs Orgreave, taking off her eyeglasses and wiping them, “I’d missed Tom’s youngest.”

“You’d better not tell Emily that,” said Janet. (Emily was the mother of Tom’s children.) “Here, give me those eyeglasses, dear. You’ll never get them right with a linen handkerchief. Where’s your bit of chamois?”

Mrs Orgreave absently and in somewhat stiff silence handed over the pince-nez! She was now quite an old woman, small, shapeless, and delightfully easy-going, whose sense of humour had not developed with age. She could never see a joke which turned upon her relations with her grandchildren, and in fact the jocular members of the family had almost ceased to employ this subject of humour. She was undoubtedly rather foolish about her grandchildren —‘fond,’ as they say down there. The parents of the grandchildren did not object to this foolishness — that is, they only pretended to object. The task of preventing a pardonable weakness from degenerating into a tedious and mischievous mania fell solely upon Janet. Janet was ready to admit that the health of the grandchildren was a matter which could fairly be left to their fathers and mothers, and she stood passive when Mrs Orgreave’s grandmotherly indulgences seemed inimical to their health; but Mrs Orgreave was apt to endanger her own health in her devotion to the profession of grandmother — for example by sitting up to unchristian hours with a needle. Then there would be a struggle of wills, in which of course Mrs Orgreave, being the weaker, was defeated; though her belief survived that she and she alone, by watchfulness, advice, sagacity, and energy, kept her children’s children out of the grave. On all other questions the harmony between Janet and her mother was complete, and Mrs Orgreave undoubtedly considered that no mother had ever had a daughter who combined so many virtues and charms.

Two.

Mr Orgreave, forgetful of the company, was deciphering the “British Medical Journal” in the twilight of the afternoon. His doctor had lent him this esoteric periodical because there was an article therein on influenza, and Mr Orgreave was very much interested in influenza.

“You remember the influenza of ‘89, Edwin?” he asked suddenly, looking over the top of the paper.

“Do I?” said Edwin. “Yes, I fancy I do remember a sort of epidemic.”

“I should think so indeed!” Janet murmured.

“Well,” continued Mr Orgreave, “I’m like you. I thought it was an epidemic. But it seems it wasn’t. It was a pandemic. What’s a pandemic, now?”

“Give it up,” said Edwin.

“You might just look in the dictionary — Ogilvie there,” and while Edwin ferreted in the bookcase, Mr Orgreave proceeded, reading: “‘The pandemic of 1889 has been followed by epidemics, and by endemic prevalence in some areas!’ So you see how many demics there are! I suppose they’d call it an epidemic we’ve got in the town now.”

His voice had changed on the last sentence. He had meant to be a little facetious about the Greek words; but it was the slowly prepared and rather exasperating facetiousness of an ageing man, and he had dropped it listlessly, as though he himself had perceived this. Influenza had weakened and depressed him; he looked worn, and even outworn. But not influenza alone was responsible for his appearance. The incredible had happened: Osmond Orgreave was getting older. His bald head was not the worst sign of his declension, nor the thickened veins in his hands, nor the deliberation of his gestures, nor even the unsprightliness of his wit. The worst sign was that he was losing his terrific zest in life; his palate for the intense savour of it was dulled. In this last attack of influenza he had not fought against the onset of the disease. He had been wise; he had obeyed his doctor, and laid down his arms at once; and he showed no imprudent anxiety to resume them. Yes, a changed Osmond! He was still one of the most industrious professional men in Bursley; but he worked from habit, not from passion.

When Edwin had found ‘pandemic’ in Ogilvie, Mr Orgreave wanted to see the dictionary for himself, and then he wanted the Greek dictionary, which could not be discovered, and then he began to quote further from the “British Medical Journal.”

“‘It may be said that there are three well-marked types of the disease, attacking respectively the respiratory, the digestive, and the nervous system.’ Well, I should say I’d had ’em all three. ‘As a rule the attack —’”

Thus he went on. Janet made a moue at Edwin, who returned the signal. These youngsters were united in good-natured forbearing condescension towards Mr Orgreave. The excellent old fellow was prone to be tedious; they would accept his tediousness, but they would not disguise from each other their perception of it.

“I hear the Vicar of Saint Peter’s is very ill indeed,” said Mrs Orgreave, blandly interrupting her husband.

“What? Heve? With influenza?”

“Yes. I wouldn’t tell you before because I thought it might pull you down again.”

Mr Orgreave, in silence, stared at the immense fire.

“What about this tea, Janet?” he demanded.

Janet rang the bell.

“Oh! I’d have done that!” said Edwin, as soon as she had done it.

Three.

While Janet was pouring out the tea, Edwin restored Ogilvie to his place in the bookcase, feeling that he had had enough of Ogilvie.

“Not so many books here now as there used to be!” he said, vacuously amiable, as he shut the glass door which had once protected the treasures of Tom Orgreave.

For a man who had been specially summoned to the task of cheering up, it was not a felicitous remark. In the first place it recalled the days when the house, which was now a hushed retreat where settled and precise habits sheltered themselves from a changing world, had been an arena for the jolly, exciting combats of outspread individualities. And in the second place it recalled a slight difficulty between Tom and his father. Osmond Orgreave was a most reasonable father, but no father is perfect in reasonableness, and Osmond had quite inexcusably resented that Tom on his marriage should take away all Tom’s precious books. Osmond’s attitude had been that Tom might in decency have left, at any rate, some of the books. It was not that Osmond had a taste for book-collecting: it was merely that he did not care to see his house depleted and bookcases empty. But Tom had shown no compassion. He had removed not merely every scrap of a book belonging to himself, but also two bookcases which he happened to have paid for. The weight of public opinion was decidedly against Mr Orgreave, who had to yield and affect pleasantness. Nevertheless books had become a topic which was avoided between father and son.

“Ah!” muttered Mr Orgreave, satirical, in response to Edwin’s clumsiness.

“Suppose we have another gas lighted,” Janet suggested. The servant had already lighted several burners and drawn the blinds and curtains.

Edwin comprehended that he had been a blundering fool, and that Janet’s object was to create a diversion. He lit the extra burner above her head. She sat there rather straight and rather prim between her parents, sticking to them, smoothing creases for them, bearing their weight, living for them. She was the kindliest, the most dignified, the most capable creature; but she was now an old maid. You saw it even in the way she poured tea and dropped pieces of sugar into the cups. Her youth was gone; her complexion was nearly gone. And though in one aspect she seemed indispensable, in another the chief characteristic of her existence seemed to be a tragic futility. Whenever she came seriously into Edwin’s thoughts she saddened him. Useless for him to attempt to be gay and frivolous in that house!

Four.

With the inevitable passionate egotism of his humanity he almost at once withdrew his aroused pity from her to himself. Look at himself! Was he not also to be sympathised with? What was the object or the use of his being alive? He worked, saved, improved his mind, voted right, practised philosophy, and was generally benevolent; but to what end? Was not his existence miserable and his career a respectable fiasco? He too had lost zest. He had diligently studied both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus; he was enthusiastic, to others, about the merit of these two expert daily philosophers; but what had they done for him? Assuredly they had not enabled him to keep the one treasure of this world-zest. The year was scarcely a week old, and he was still young enough to have begun the year with resolutions and fresh hopes and aspirations, but already the New Year sensation had left him, and the year might have been dying in his heart.

And yet what could he have done that he had not done? With what could he reproach himself? Ought he to have continued to run after a married woman? Ought he to have set himself titanically against the conventions amid which he lived, and devoted himself either to secret intrigue or to the outraging of the susceptibilities which environed him? There was only one answer. He could not have acted otherwise than he had acted. His was not the temperament of a rebel, nor was he the slave of his desires. He could sympathise with rebels and with slaves, but he could not join them; he regarded himself as spiritually their superior.

And then the disaster of Hilda’s career! He felt, more than ever, that he had failed in sympathy with her overwhelming misfortune. In the secrecy of his heart a full imaginative sympathy had been lacking. He had not realised, as he seemed to realise then, in front of the fire in the drawing-room of the Orgreaves, what it must be to be the wife of a convict. Janet, sitting there as innocent as a doe, knew that Hilda was the wife of a convict. But did her parents know? And was she aware that he knew? He wondered, drinking his tea.

Five.

Then the servant — not the Martha who had been privileged to smile on duty if she felt so inclined — came with a tawny gold telegram on a silver plate, and hesitated a moment as to where she should bestow it.

“Give it to me, Selina,” said Janet.

Selina impassively obeyed, imitating as well as she could the deportment of an automaton; and went away.

“That’s my telegram,” said Mr Orgreave. “How is it addressed?”

“Orgreave, Bleakridge, Bursley.”

“Then it’s mine.”

“Oh no, it isn’t!” Janet archly protested. “If you have your business telegrams sent here you must take the consequences. I always open all telegrams that come here, don’t I, mother?”

Mrs Orgreave made no reply, but waited with candid and fretful impatience, thinking of her five absent children, and her ten grandchildren, for the telegram to be opened.

Janet opened it.

Her lips parted to speak, and remained so in silent astonishment. “Just read that!” she said to Edwin, passing the telegram to him; and she added to her father: “It was for me, after all.”

Edwin read, aloud: “Am sending George down today. Please meet 6:30 train at Knype. Love. Hilda.”

“Well, I never!” exclaimed Mrs Orgreave. “You don’t mean to tell me she’s letting that boy travel alone! What next?”

“Where’s the telegram sent from?” asked Mr Orgreave.

Edwin examined the official indications: “Victoria.”

“Then she’s brought him up to London, and she’s putting him in a train at Euston. That’s it.”

“Only there is no London train that gets to Knype at half-past six,” Edwin said. “It’s 7:12, or 7:14 — I forget.”

“Oh! That’s near enough for Hilda,” Janet smiled, looking at her watch.

“She doesn’t mean any other train?” Mrs Orgreave fearfully suggested.

“She can’t mean any other train. There is no other. Only probably she’s been looking at the wrong time-table,” Janet reassured her mother.

“Because if the poor little thing found no one to meet him at Knype —”

“Don’t worry, dear,” said Janet. “The poor little thing would soon be engaging somebody’s attention. Trust him!”

“But has she been writing to you lately?” Mrs Orgreave questioned.

“No.”

“Then why —”

“Don’t ask me!” said Janet. “No doubt I shall get a letter tomorrow, after George has come and told us everything! Poor dear, I’m glad she’s doing so much better now.”

“Is she?” Edwin murmured, surprised.

“Oh yes!” said Janet. “She’s got a regular bustling partner, and they’re that busy they scarcely know what to do. But they only keep one little servant.”

In the ordinary way Janet and Edwin never mentioned Hilda to one another. Each seemed to be held back by a kind of timid shame and by a cautious suspicion. Each seemed to be inquiring: “What does he know?” “What does she know?”

“If I thought it wasn’t too cold, I’d go with you to Knype,” said Mr Orgreave.

“Now, Osmond!” Mrs Orgreave sat up.

“Shall I go?” said Edwin.

“Well,” said Janet, with much kindliness, “I’m sure he’d be delighted to see you.”

Mrs Orgreave rang the bell.

“What do you want, mother?”

“There’ll be the bed —”

“Don’t you trouble with those things, dear,” said Janet, very calmly. “There’s heaps of time.”

But Janet was just as excited as her parents. In two minutes the excitement had spread through the whole house, like a piquant and agreeable odour. The place was alive again.

“I’ll just step across and ask Maggie to alter supper,” said Edwin, “and then I’ll call for you. I suppose we’ll go down by train.”

“I’m thankful he’s had influenza,” observed Mrs Orgreave, implying that thus there would be less chance of George catching the disease under her infected roof.

That George had been down with influenza before Christmas was the sole information about him that Edwin obtained. Nobody appeared to consider it worth while to discuss the possible reasons for his sudden arrival. Hilda’s caprices were accepted in that house like the visitations of heaven.

Six.

Edwin and Janet stood together on the windy and bleak down-platform of Knype Station, awaiting the express, which had been signalled. Edwin was undoubtedly very nervous and constrained, and it seemed to him that Janet’s demeanour lacked naturalness.

“It’s just occurred to me how she made that mistake about the time of the train,” said Edwin, chiefly because he found the silence intolerably irksome. “It stops at Lichfield, and in running her eye across the page she must have mixed up the Lichfield figures with the Knype figures — you know how awkward it is in a time-table. As a matter of fact, the train does stop at Lichfield about 6:30.”

“I see,” said Janet reflectively.

And Edwin was saying to himself —

“It’s a marvel to me how I can talk to her at all. What made me offer to come with her? How much does she know about me and Hilda? Hilda may have told her everything. If she’s told her about her husband why shouldn’t she have told her about me? And here we are both pretending that there’s never been anything at all between me and Hilda!”

Then the train appeared, obscure round the curve, and bore down formidable and dark upon them, growing at every instant in stature and in noise until it deafened and seemed to fill the station; and the platform was suddenly in an uproar.

And almost opposite Janet and Edwin, leaning forth high above them from the door of a third-class carriage, the head and the shoulders of George Cannon were displayed in the gaslight. He seemed to dominate the train and the platform. At the windows on either side of him were adult faces, excited by his excitement, of the people who had doubtless been friendly to him during the journey. He distinguished Janet and Edwin almost at once, and shouted, and then waved.

“Hello, young son of a gun!” Edwin greeted him, trying to turn the handle of the door. But the door was locked, and it was necessary to call a porter, who tarried.

“I made mamma let me come!” George cried victoriously. “I told you I should!” He was far too agitated to think of shaking hands, and seemed to be in a state of fever. All his gestures were those of a proud, hysterical conqueror, and like a conqueror he gazed down at Edwin and Janet, who stood beneath him with upturned faces. He had absolutely forgotten the existence of his acquaintances in the carriage. “Did you know I’ve had the influenza? My temperature was up to 104 once — but it didn’t stay long,” he added regretfully.

When the door was at length opened, he jumped headlong, and Edwin caught him. He shook hands with Edwin and allowed Janet to kiss him.

“How hot you are!” Janet murmured.

The people in the compartment passed down his luggage, and after one of them had shouted good-bye to him twice, he remembered them, as it were by an effort, and replied, “Good-bye, good-bye,” in a quick, impatient tone.

It was not until his anxious and assiduous foster-parents had bestowed him and his goods in the tranquillity of an empty compartment of the Loop Line train that they began to appreciate the morbid unusualness of his condition. His eyes glittered with extraordinary brilliance. He talked incessantly, not listening to their answers. And his skin was burning hot.

“Why, whatever’s the matter with you, my dear?” asked Janet, alarmed. “You’re like an oven!”

“I’m thirsty,” said George. “If I don’t have something to drink soon, I don’t know what I shall do.”

Janet looked at Edwin.

“There won’t be time to get something at the refreshment room?”

They both felt heavily responsible.

“I might —” Edwin said irresolutely.

But just then the guard whistled.

“Never mind!” Janet comforted the child. “In twenty minutes we shall be in the house . . . No! you must keep your overcoat buttoned.”

“How long have you been like that, George?” Edwin asked. “You weren’t like that when you started, surely?”

“No,” said George judicially. “It came on in the train.”

After this, he appeared to go to sleep.

“He’s certainly not well,” Janet whispered.

Edwin shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t you think he’s grown?” he observed.

“Oh yes!” said Janet. “It’s astonishing, isn’t it, how children shoot up in a few weeks!”

They might have been parents exchanging notes, instead of celibates playing at parenthood for a hobby.

“Mamma says I’ve grown an inch.” George opened his eyes. “She says it’s about time I had! I dare say I shall be very tall. Are we nearly there?” His high, curt, febrile tones were really somewhat alarming.

When the train threw them out into the sodden waste that surrounds Bleakridge Station, George could scarcely stand. At any rate he showed no wish to stand. His protectors took him strongly by either arm, and thus bore him to Lane End House, with irregular unwilling assistance from his own feet. A porter followed with the luggage. It was an extremely distressing passage. Each protector in secret was imagining for George some terrible fever, of swift onslaught and fatal effect. At length they entered the garden, thanking their gods.

“He’s not well,” said Janet to her mother, who was fussily awaiting them in the hall. Her voice showed apprehension, and she was not at all convincing when she added: “But it’s nothing serious. I shall put him straight to bed and let him eat there.”

Instantly George became the centre of the house. The women disappeared with him, and Edwin had to recount the whole history of the arrival to Osmond Orgreave in the drawing-room. This recital was interrupted by Mrs Orgreave.

“Mr Edwin, Janet thinks if we sent for the doctor, just to be sure. As Johnnie isn’t in, would you mind —”

“Stirling, I suppose?” said Edwin.

Stirling was the young Scottish doctor who had recently come into the town and taken it by storm.

When Edwin at last went home to a much-delayed meal, he was in a position to tell Maggie that young George Cannon had thought fit to catch influenza a second time in a couple of months. And Maggie, without a clear word, contrived to indicate that it was what she would have expected from a boy of George’s violent temperament.

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