Things sometimes fall out in a surprising way, and the removal of the Clayhanger household from the corner of Duck Square to the heights of Bleakridge was diversified by a circumstance which Edwin, the person whom alone it concerned, had not in the least anticipated.
It was the Monday morning after the Centenary. Foster’s largest furniture-van, painted all over with fine pictures of the van itself travelling by road, rail, and sea, stood loaded in front of the shop. One van had already departed, and this second one, in its crammed interior, on its crowded roof, on a swinging platform beneath its floor, and on a posterior ledge supported by rusty chains, contained all that was left of the furniture and domestic goods which Darius Clayhanger had collected in half a century of ownership. The moral effect of Foster’s activity was always salutary, in that Foster would prove to any man how small a space the acquisitions of a lifetime could be made to occupy when the object was not to display but to pack them. Foster could put all your pride on to four wheels, and Foster’s driver would crack a whip and be off with the lot of it as though it were no more than a load of coal.
The pavement and the road were littered with straw, and the straw straggled into the shop, and heaped itself at the open side door. One large brass saucepan lay lorn near the doorstep, a proof that Foster was human. For everything except that saucepan a place had been found. That saucepan had witnessed sundry ineffectual efforts to lodge it, and had also suffered frequent forgetfulness. A tin candlestick had taken refuge within it, and was trusting for safety to the might of the obstinate vessel. In the sequel, the candlestick was pitched by Edwin on to the roof of the van, and Darius Clayhanger, coming fussily out of the shop, threw a question at Edwin and then picked up the saucepan and went off to Bleakridge with it, thus making sure that it would not be forgotten, and demonstrating to the town that he, Darius, was at last ‘flitting’ into his grand new house. Even weighted by the saucepan, in which Mrs Nixon had boiled hundredweights of jam, he still managed to keep his arms slanted outwards and motionless, retaining his appearance of a rigid body that swam smoothly along on mechanical legs. Darius, though putting control upon himself, was in a state of high complex emotion, partly due to apprehensiveness about the violent changing of the habits of a quarter of a century, and partly due to nervous pride.
Maggie and Mrs Nixon had gone to the new house half an hour earlier, to devise encampments therein for the night; for the Clayhangers would definitely sleep no more at the corner of Duck Square; the rooms in which they had eaten and slept and lain awake, and learnt what life and what death was, were to be transformed into workshops and stores for an increasing business. The premises were not abandoned empty. The shop had to function as usual on that formidable day, and the printing had to proceed. This had complicated the affair of the removal; but it had helped everybody to pretend, in an adult and sedate manner, that nothing in the least unusual was afoot.
Edwin loitered on the pavement, with his brain all tingling, and excitedly incapable of any consecutive thought whatever. It was his duty to wait. Two of Foster’s men were across in the vaults of the Dragon; the rest were at Bleakridge with the first and smaller van. Only one of Foster’s horses was in the dropped double-shafts, and even he had his nose towards the van, and in a nosebag; two others were to come down soon from Bleakridge to assist.
A tall, thin, grey-bearded man crossed Trafalgar Road from Aboukir Street. He was very tall and very thin, and the peculiarity of his walk was that the knees were never quite straightened, so that his height was really greater even than it seemed. His dark suit and his boots and hat were extraordinarily neat. You could be sure at once that he was a person of immutable habits. He stopped when, out of the corner of his eye, whose gaze was always precisely parallel to the direction of his feet, he glimpsed Edwin. Deflecting his course, he went close to Edwin, and, addressing the vacant air immediately over Edwin’s pate, he said in a mysterious, confidential whisper —“when are you coming in for that money?”
He spoke as though he was anxious to avoid, by a perfect air of nonchalance, arousing the suspicions of some concealed emissary of the Russian secret police.
Edwin started. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Is it ready?”
“Are you going to your office now?”
Edwin hesitated. “It won’t take a minute, I suppose. I’ll slip along in two jiffs. I’ll be there almost as soon as you are.”
“Bring a receipt stamp,” said the man, and resumed his way.
He was the secretary of the Bursley and Turnhill Permanent 50 pounds Benefit Building Society, one of the most solid institutions of the district. And he had been its secretary for decades. No stories of the defalcation of other secretaries of societies, no rumours as to the perils of the system of the more famous Starr–Bowkett Building Societies, ever bred a doubt in Bursley or Turnhill of the eternal soundness of the Bursley and Turnhill Permanent 50 pounds Benefit Building Society. You could acquire a share in it by an entrance fee of one shilling, and then you paid eighteen-pence per week for ten years, making something less than 40 pounds, and then, after an inactive period of three months, the Society gave you 50 pounds, and you began therewith to build a house, if you wanted a house, and, if you were prudent, you instantly took out another share. You could have as many shares as you chose. Though the Society was chiefly nourished by respectable artisans with stiff chins, nobody in the district would have considered membership to be beneath him. The Society was an admirable device for strengthening an impulse towards thrift, because, once you had put yourself into its machinery, it would stand no nonsense. Prosperous tradesmen would push their children into it, and even themselves. This was what had happened to Edwin in the dark past, before he had left school. Edwin had regarded the trick with indifference at first, because, except the opening half crown, his father had paid the subscriptions for him until he left school and became a wage-earner. Thereafter he had regarded it as simple parental madness.
His whole life seemed to be nothing but a vista of Friday evenings on which he went to the Society’s office, between seven and nine, to ‘pay the Club.’ The social origin of any family in Bursley might have been decided by the detail whether it referred to the Society as the ‘Building Society’ or as ‘the Club.’ Artisans called it the Club, because it did resemble an old-fashioned benefit club. Edwin had invariably heard it called ‘Club’ at home, and he called it ‘Club,’ and he did not know why.
On ten thousand Friday evenings, as it seemed to him, he had gone into the gas-lit office with the wire-blinds, in the Cock Yard. And the procedure never varied. Behind a large table sat two gentlemen, the secretary and a subordinate, who was, however, older than the secretary. They had enormous ledgers in front of them, and at the lower corners of the immense pages was a transverse crease, like a mountain range on the left and like a valley on the right, caused by secretarial thumbs in turning over. On the table were also large metal inkstands and wooden money-coffers. The two officials both wore spectacles, and they both looked above their spectacles when they talked to members across the table. They spoke in low tones; they smiled with the most scrupulous politeness; they never wasted words. They counted money with prim and efficient gestures, ringing gold with the mien of judges inaccessible to human emotions. They wrote in the ledgers, and on the membership-cards, in a hand astoundingly regular and discreetly flourished; the pages of the ledgers had the mystic charm of ancient manuscripts, and the finality of decrees of fate. Apparently the scribes never made mistakes, but sometimes they would whisper in colloquy, and one, without leaning his body, would run a finger across the ledger of the other; their fingers knew intimately the geography of the ledgers, and moved as though they could have found a desired name, date, or number, in the dark. The whole ceremony was impressive. It really did impress Edwin, as he would wait his turn among the three or four proud and respectable members that the going and coming seemed always to leave in the room. The modest blue-yellow gas, the vast table and ledgers, and the two sober heads behind; the polite murmurings, the rustle of leaves, the chink of money, the smooth sound of elegant pens: all this made something not merely impressive, but beautiful; something that had a true if narrow dignity; something that ministered to an ideal if a low one.
But Edwin had regarded the operation as a complete loss of the money whose payment it involved. Ten years! It was an eternity! And even then his father would have some preposterous suggestion for rendering useless the unimaginable fifty pounds! Meanwhile the weekly deduction of eighteenpence from his miserable income was an exasperating strain. And then one night the secretary had told him that he was entering on his last month. If he had possessed any genuine interest in money, he would have known for himself; but he did not. And then the payments had ceased. He had said nothing to his father.
And now the share had matured, and there was the unimaginable sum waiting for him! He got his hat and a stamp, and hurried to the Cock Yard. The secretary, in his private room now, gave him five notes as though the notes had been naught but tissue paper, and he accepted them in the same inhuman manner. The secretary asked him if he meant to take out another share, and from sheer moral cowardice he said that he did mean to do so; and he did so, on the spot. And in less than ten minutes he was back at the shop. Nothing had happened there. The other horses had not come down from Bleakridge, and the men had not come out of the Dragon. But he had fifty pounds in his pocket, and it was lawfully his. A quarter of an hour earlier he positively could not have conceived the miracle.
Two days later, on the Wednesday evening, Edwin was in his new bedroom, overlooking his father’s garden, with a glimpse of the garden of Lane End House. His chamber, for him, was palatial, and it was at once the symbol and the scene of his new life. A stranger entering would have beheld a fair-sized room, a narrow bed, two chairs, an old-fashioned table, a new wardrobe, an old dressing-table, a curious carpet and hearthrug, low bookshelves on either side of the fireplace, and a few prints and drawings, not all of them framed, on the distempered walls. A stranger might have said in its praise that it was light and airy. But a stranger could not have had the divine vision that Edwin had. Edwin looked at it and saw clearly, and with the surest conviction, that it was wonderful. He stood on the hearthrug, with his back to the hearth, bending his body concavely and then convexly with the idle easy sinuousness of youth, and he saw that it was wonderful. As an organic whole it was wonderful. Its defects were qualities. For instance, it had no convenience for washing; but with a bathroom a few yards off, who would encumber his study (it was a study) with washing apparatus? He had actually presented his old ramshackle washstand to the attic which was to be occupied by Mrs Nixon’s niece, a girl engaged to aid her aunt in the terrible work of keeping clean a vast mansion.
And the bedroom could show one or two details that in a bedroom were luxurious. Chief of these were the carpet, the hearthrug, and the table. Edwin owed them to a marvellous piece of good fortune. He had feared, and even Maggie had feared, that their father would impair the practical value and the charm of the new house by parsimony in the matter of furniture. The furniture in the domestic portion of the old dwelling was quite inadequate for the new one, and scarcely fit for it either. Happily Darius had heard of a houseful of furniture for sale at Oldcastle by private treaty, and in a wild, adventurous hour he had purchased it, exceedingly cheap. Edwin had been amazed at his luck (he accepted the windfall as his own private luck) when he first saw the bought furniture in the new house, before the removal. Out of it he had selected the table, the carpet, and the rug for his bedroom, and none had demurred. He noticed that his father listened to him, in affairs of the new house, as to an individuality whose views demanded some trifle of respect. Beyond question his father was proving himself to possess a mind equal to the grand situation. What with the second servant and the furniture, Edwin felt that he would not have to blush for the house, no matter who might enter it to spy it out. As for his own room, he would not object to the Sunday seeing it. Indeed he would rather like the Sunday to see it, on his next visit. Already it was in nearly complete order, for he had shown a singular, callous disregard for the progress of the rest of the house: against which surprising display of selfishness both Maggie and Mrs Nixon had glumly protested. The truth was that he was entirely obsessed by his room; it had disabled his conscience.
When he had oscillated on his heels and toes for a few moments with his gaze on the table, he faced about, and stared in a sort of vacant beatitude at the bookshelves to the left hand; those to the right hand were as yet empty. Twilight was deepening.
He heard his father’s heavy and clumsy footstep on the landing. The old man seemed to wander uncertainly a little, and then he pushed open Edwin’s door with a brusque movement and entered the room. The two exchanged a look. They seldom addressed each other, save for an immediate practical purpose, and they did not address each other now. But Darius ejaculated “Um!” as he glanced around. They had no intimacy. Darius never showed any interest in his son as an independent human being with a developing personality, though he might have felt such an interest; and Edwin was never conscious of a desire to share any of his ideas or ideals with his father, whom he was content to accept as a creature of inscrutable motives. Now, he resented his father’s incursion. He considered his room as his castle, whereof his rightful exclusive dominion ran as far as the door-mat; and to placate his pride Darius should have indicated by some gesture or word that he admitted being a visitor on sufferance. It was nothing to Edwin that Darius owned the room and nearly everything in it. He was generally nervous in his father’s presence, and his submissiveness only hid a spiritual independence that was not less fierce for being restrained. He thought Darius a gross fleshly organism, as he indeed was, and he privately objected to many paternal mannerisms, of eating, drinking, breathing, eructation, speech, deportment, and garb. Further, he had noted, and felt, the increasing moroseness of his father’s demeanour. He could remember a period when Darius had moods of grim gaiety, displaying rough humour; these moods had long ceased to occur.
“So this is how ye’ve fixed yerself up!” Darius observed.
“Yes,” Edwin smiled, not moving from the hearthrug, and not ceasing to oscillate on heels and toes.
“Well, I’ll say this. Ye’ve got a goodish notion of looking after yerself. When ye can spare a few minutes to do a bit downstairs —” This sentence was sarcastic and required no finishing.
“I was just coming,” said Edwin. And to himself, “What on earth does he want here, making his noises?”
With youthful lack of imagination and of sympathy, he quite failed to perceive the patent fact that his father had been drawn into the room by the very same instinct which had caused Edwin to stand on the hearthrug in an idle bliss of contemplation. It did not cross his mind that his father too was during those days going through wondrous mental experiences, that his father too had begun a new life, that his father too was intensely proud of the house and found pleasure in merely looking at it, and looking at it again, and at every corner of it.
A glint of gold attracted the eye of Darius to the second shelf of the left-hand bookcase, and he went towards it with the arrogance of an autocrat whose authority recognises no limit. Fourteen fine calf-backed volumes stood on that shelf in a row; twelve of them were uniform, the other two odd. These books were taller and more distinguished than any of their neighbours. Their sole possible rivals were half a dozen garishly bound Middle School prizes, machine-tooled, and to be mistaken for treasures only at a distance of several yards.
Edwin trembled, and loathed himself for trembling. He walked to the window.
“What be these?” Darius inquired.
“Oh! Some books I’ve been picking up.”
That same morning Edwin had been to the Saint Luke’s Covered Market to buy some apples for Maggie, who had not yet perfected the organisation necessary to a house-mistress who does not live within half a minute of a large central source of supplies. And, to his astonishment, he had observed that one of the interior shops was occupied by a second-hand bookseller with an address at Hanbridge. He had never noticed the shop before, or, if he had noticed it, he had despised it. But the chat with Tom Orgreave had awakened in him the alertness of a hunter. The shop was not formally open — Wednesday’s market being only half a market. The shopkeeper, however, was busy within. Edwin loitered. Behind the piles of negligible sermons, pietisms, keepsakes, schoolbooks, and ‘Aristotles’ (tied up in red twine, these last), he could descry, in the farther gloom, actual folios and quartos. It was like seeing the gleam of nuggets on the familiar slopes of Mow Cop, which is the Five Towns’ mountain. The proprietor, an extraordinarily grimy man, invited him to examine. He could not refuse. He found Byron’s “Childe Harold” in one volume and “Don Juan” in another, both royal octavo editions, slightly stained, but bound in full calf. He bought them. He knew that to keep his resolutions he must read a lot of poetry. Then he saw Voltaire’s prose tales in four volumes, in French — an enchanting Didot edition, with ink as black as Hades and paper as white as snow; also bound in full calf. He bought them. And then the proprietor showed him, in eight similar volumes, Voltaire’s “Dictionnaire Philosophique.” He did not want it; but it matched the tales and it was impressive to the eye. And so he bought the other eight volumes. The total cost was seventeen shillings. He was intoxicated and he was frightened. What a nucleus for a collection of real books, of treasures! Those volumes would do no shame even to Tom Orgreave’s bookcase. And they had been lying in the Covered Market, of all places in the universe . . . Blind! How blind he had been to the possibilities of existence! Laden with a bag of apples in one hand and a heavy parcel of books in the other, he had had to go up to dinner in the car. It was no matter; he possessed riches. The car stopped specially for him at the portals of the new house. He had introduced the books into the new house surreptitiously, because he was in fear, despite his acute joy. He had pushed the parcel under the bed. After tea, he had passed half an hour in gazing at the volumes, as at precious contraband. Then he had ranged them on the shelf, and had gazed at them for perhaps another quarter of an hour. And now his father, with the infallible nose of fathers for that which is no concern of theirs, had lighted upon them and was peering into them, and fingering them with his careless, brutal hands — hands that could not differentiate between a ready reckoner and a treasure. As the light failed, he brought one of them and then another to the window.
“Um!” he muttered. “Voltaire!”
And: “How much did they ask ye for these?”
“Fifteen shillings,” said Edwin, in a low voice.
“Here! Take it!” said his father, relinquishing a volume to him. He spoke in a queer, hard voice; and instantly left the room. Edwin followed him shortly, and assisted Maggie to hang pictures in that wilderness, the drawing-room. Supper was eaten in silence; and Maggie looked askance from her father to her brother, both of whom had a strained demeanour.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05