After this the vote of thanks to the President scarcely escaped being an anticlimax. And several men left, including Albert Benbow, who had once or twice glanced at his watch. "She won't let you be out after half-past ten, eh, Benbow?" said jocularly a neighbour. And Albert, laughing at the joke, nevertheless looked awkward. And the neighbour perceived that he had been perhaps a trifle clumsy. Edwin, since the mysterious influence in the background was his own sister, had to share Albert's confusion. He too would have departed. But Osmond Orgreave absolutely declined to let him go, and to prevent him from going used the force which good wine gives.
The company divided itself into intimate groups, leaving empty white spaces at the disordered tables. The attendants now served whisky, and more liqueurs and coffee. Those guests who knew no qualm lighted fresh cigars; a few produced beloved pipes; the others were content with cigarettes. Some one ordered a window to be opened, and then, when the fresh night air began to disturb the curtains and scatter the fumes of the banquet, some one else crept aside and furtively closed it again.
Edwin found himself with Jos Curtenty and Osmond Orgreave and a few others. He felt gay and enheartened; he felt that there was a great deal of pleasure to be had on earth with very little trouble. Politics had been broached, and he made a mild joke about the Tory candidate. And amid the silence that followed it he mistily perceived that the remainder of the group, instead of becoming more jolly, had grown grave. For them the political situation was serious. They did not trouble to argue against the Labour candidate. All their reasoning was based on the assumption, which nobody denied or questioned, that at any cost the Labour candidate must be defeated. The success of the Labour candidate was regarded as a calamity. It would jeopardise the entire social order. It would deliver into the destroying hands of an ignorant, capricious, and unscrupulous rabble all that was best in English life. It would even mean misery for the rabble itself. The tones grew more solemn. And Edwin, astonished, saw that beneath the egotism of their success, beneath their unconscious arrogance due to the habit of authority, there was a profound and genuine patriotism and sense of duty. And he was abashed. Nevertheless, he had definitely taken sides, and out of mere self-respect he had gently to remind them of the fact. Silence would have been cowardly.
"Then what about 'trusting to the people'?" he murmured, smiling.
"If trusting to the people means being under the thumb of the British working man, my boy," said Osmond Orgreave, "you can scratch me out, for one."
Edwin had never heard him speak so colloquially.
"I've always found 'em pretty decent," said Edwin, but lamely.
Jos Curtenty fixed him with a grim eye.
"How many hands do you employ, Mr Clayhanger?"
"Fourteen," said Edwin.
"Do you?" exclaimed another voice, evidently surprised and impressed.
Jos Curtenty pulled at his cigar. "I wish I could make as much money as you make out of fourteen hands!" said he. "Well, I've got two hundred of 'em at my place. And I know 'em! I've known 'em for forty years and more. There's not ten of 'em as I'd trust to do an honest day's work, of their own accord... And after the row in '80, when they'd agreed to arbitration—fifteen thousand of 'em—did they accept the award, or didn't they? Tell me that, if it isn't troubling ye too much."
Only in the last phase did the irrepressible humorous card in him assert itself.
Edwin mumbled inarticulately. His mind was less occupied by politics than by the fact that in the view of all these men he had already finally and definitely taken the place of his father. But for the inquiries made at intervals during the evening, he might have supposed that Darius, lying in helpless obscurity up there at Bleak ridge, had been erased from the memory of the town.
A crony who had not hitherto spoken began to give sarcastic and apparently damning details of the early record of the Labour candidate. Among other delinquencies the fellow had condoned the inexcusable rejection of the arbitrators' award long ago. And then some one said:
"Hello! Here's Benbow back again!"
Albert, in overcoat and cap, beckoned to Edwin, who sprang up, pricked into an exaggerated activity by his impatient conscience.
"It's nothing particular," said Albert at the door. "But the missus has been round to your father's to-night, and it seems the nurse has knocked up. She thought I'd perhaps better come along and tell you, in case you hadn't gone."
"Knocked up, has she?" said Edwin. "Well, it's not to be wondered at. Nurse or no nurse, she's got no more notion of looking after herself than anybody else has. I was just going. It's only a little after eleven."
The last thing he heard on quitting the precincts of the banqueting chamber was the violent sound of the mallet. Its wielder seemed to have developed a slight affection for the senseless block of wood.
VOLUME THREE, CHAPTER SIXTEEN.
AFTER THE BANQUET.
"Yes, yes," said Edwin, impatiently, in reply to some anxious remark of Maggie's, "I shall be all right with him. Don't you worry till morning."
They stood at the door of the sick-room, Edwin in an attitude almost suggesting that he was pushing her out.
He had hurried home from the festival, and found the doctor just leaving and the house in a commotion. Dr Heve said mildly that he was glad Edwin had come, and he hinted that some general calming influence was needed. Nurse Shaw had developed one of the sudden abscesses in the ear which troubled her from time to time. This radiant and apparently strong creature suffered from an affection of the ear. Once her left ear had kept her in bed for six weeks, and she had arisen with the drum pierced. Since which episode there had always been the danger, when the evil recurred, of the region of the brain being contaminated through the tiny orifice in the drum. Hence, even if the acute pain which she endured had not forced her to abandon other people's maladies for the care of her own, the sense of her real peril would have done so. This masterful, tireless woman, whom no sadness nor abomination of her habitual environment could depress or daunt, lived under a menace, and was sometimes laid low, like a child. She rested now in Maggie's room, with a poultice for a pillow. A few hours previously no one in the house had guessed that she had any weakness whatever. Her collapse gave to Maggie an excellent opportunity, such as Maggie loved, to prove that she was equal to a situation. Maggie would not permit Mrs Hamps to be sent for. Nor would she permit Mrs Nixon to remain up. She was excited and very fatigued, and she meant to manage the night with the sole aid of Jane. It was even part of her plan that Edwin should go to bed as usual—poor Edwin, with all the anxieties of business upon his head! But she had not allowed for Edwin's conscience, nor foreseen what the doctor would say to him privately. Edwin had learnt from the doctor—a fact which the women had not revealed to him—that his father during the day had shown symptoms of 'Cheyne-Stokes breathing,' the final and the worst phenomenon of his disease; a phenomenon, too, interestingly rare. The doctor had done all that could be done by injections, and there was absolutely nothing else for anybody to do except watch.
"I shall come in in the night," Maggie whispered.
Behind them the patient vaguely stirred and groaned in his recess.
"You'll do no such thing," said Edwin shortly. "Get all the sleep you can."
"But Nurse has to have a fresh poultice every two hours," Maggie protested.
"Now, look here!" Edwin was cross. "Do show a little sense. Get— all—the—sleep—you—can. We shall be having you ill next, and then there'll be a nice kettle of fish. I won't have you coming in here. I shall be perfectly all right. Now!" He gave a gesture that she should go at once.
"You won't be fit for the shop to-morrow."
"Damn the shop!"
"Well, you know where everything is." She was resigned. "If you want to make some tea—"
"All right, all right!" He forced himself to smile.
She departed, and he shut the door.
"Confounded nuisance women are!" he thought, half indulgently, as he turned towards the bed. But it was his conscience that was a confounded nuisance. He ought never to have allowed himself to be persuaded to go to the banquet. When his conscience annoyed him, it was usually Maggie who felt the repercussion.
Darius was extremely ill. Every part of his physical organism was deranged and wearied out. His features combined the expression of intense fatigue with the sinister liveliness of an acute tragic apprehension. His failing faculties were kept horribly alert by the fear of what was going to happen to him next. So much that was appalling had already happened to him! He wanted repose; he wanted surcease; he wanted nothingness. He was too tired to move, but he was also too tired to lie still. And thus he writhed faintly on the bed; his body seemed to have that vague appearance of general movement which a multitude of insects will give to a piece of decaying matter. His skin was sick, and his hair, and his pale lips. The bed could not be kept tidy for five minutes.
"He's bad, no mistake!" thought Edwin, as he met his father's anxious and intimidated gaze. He had never seen anyone so ill. He knew now what disease could do.
"Where's Nurse?" the old man murmured, with excessive feebleness, his voice captiously rising to a shrill complaint.
"She's not well. She's lying down. I'm going to sit with you to-night. Have a drink?" As Edwin said these words in his ordinary voice, it seemed to him that in comparison with his father he was a god of miraculous proud strength and domination.
"Her's a Tartar!" Darius muttered. "But her's just! Her will have her own way!" He often spoke thus of the nurse, giving people to understand that during the long nights, when he was left utterly helpless to the harsh mercy of the nurse, he had to accept many humiliations. He seemed to fear and love her as a dog its master. Edwin, using his imagination to realise the absoluteness of the power which the nurse had over Darius during ten hours in every twenty-four, was almost frightened by it. "By Jove!" he thought, "I wouldn't be in his place with any woman on earth!" The old man's lips closed clumsily round the funnel of the invalid's cup that Edwin offered. Then he sank back, and shut his eyes, and appeared calmer.
Edwin smoothed the clothes, stared at him a long time, and finally sat down in the arm-chair by the fire. He wound up his watch. It was not yet midnight. He took off his boots and put on the slippers which now Darius had not worn for over a week and would not wear again. He yawned heavily. The yawn surprised him. He perceived that his head was throbbing and his mouth dry, and that the meats and liquors of the banquet, having ceased to stimulate, were incommoding him. His mind and body were in reaction. He reflected cynically upon the facile self-satisfactions of those successful men in whose company he had been. The whole dinner grew unreal. Nothing was real except imprisonment on a bed night and day, day and night for weeks. Every one could have change and rest save his father. For his father there was no relief, not a moment's. He was always there, in the same recess, prone, in subjection, helpless, hopeless, and suffering. Politics! What were they?
He closed his eyes, because it occurred to him that to do so would be agreeable. And he was awakened from a doze by a formidable stir on the bed. Darius's breathing was quick and shallow, and growing more so. He lifted his head from the pillow in order to breathe, and leaned on one elbow. Edwin sprang up and went to him.
"Clara! Clara! Don't leave me!" the old man cried in tones of agonised apprehension.
"It's all right; I'm here," said Edwin reassuringly. And he took the sick man's hot, crackling hand and held it.
Gradually the breathing went slower and deeper, and at length Darius sighed very deeply as at a danger past, and relaxed his limbs, and Edwin let go his hand. But he had not been at ease more than a few seconds when the trouble recommenced, and he was fighting again, and with appreciably more difficulty, to get air down into his lungs. It entered in quantities smaller and smaller, until it seemed scarcely to reach his throat before it was expelled again. The respirations were as rapid as the ticking of a watch. Despite his feebleness Darius wrenched his limbs into contortions, and gripped fiercely Edwin's hands.
"Clara! Clara!" he cried once more.
"It's all right. You're all right. There's nothing to be afraid of," said Edwin, soothing him.
And that paroxysm also passed, and the old man moaned in the melancholy satisfaction of deep breaths. But the mysterious disturbing force would not leave him in peace. In another moment yet a fresh struggle was commencing. And each was worse than the last. And it was always Clara to whom he turned for succour. Not Maggie, who had spent nearly forty years in his service, and never spoke ill-naturedly of him; but Clara, who was officious rather than helpful, who wept for him in his presence, and said harsh things behind his back, and who had never forgiven him since the refusal of the loan to Albert.
After he had passed through a dozen crises of respiration Edwin said to himself that the next one could not be worse. But it was worse. Darius breathed like a blown dog that has fallen. He snatched furiously at breath like a tiger snatching at meat. He accomplished exertions that would have exhausted an athlete, and when he had saved his life in the very instant of its loss, calling on Clara as on God, he would look at Edwin for confirmation of his hope that he had escaped again. The paroxysms continued, still growing more critical. Edwin was aghast at his own helplessness. He could do absolutely naught. It was even useless to hold the hand or to speak sympathy and reassurance. Darius at the keenest moment of battle was too occupied with his enemy to hear or feel the presence of a fellow-creature. He was solitary with his unseen enemy, and if the room had been full of ministering angels he would still have been alone and unsuccoured. He might have been sealed up in a cell with his enemy who, incredibly cruel, withheld from him his breath; and Edwin outside the cell trying foolishly to get in. He asked for little; he would have been content with very little; but it was refused him until despair had reached the highest agony.
"He's dying, I do believe," thought Edwin, and the wonder of this nocturnal adventure sent tremors down his spine. He faced the probability that at the next bout his father would be worsted. Should he fetch Maggie and then go for the doctor? Heve had told him that it would be 'pretty bad,' and that nothing on earth could be done. No! He would not fetch Maggie, and he would not go for the doctor. What use? He would see the thing through. In the solemnity of the night he was glad that an experience tremendous and supreme had been vouchsafed to him. He knew now what the will to live was. He saw life naked, stripped of everything unessential. He saw life and death together. What caused his lip to curl when the thought of the Felons' dinner flashed through his mind was the damned complacency of the Felons. Did any of them ever surmise that they had never come within ten miles of life itself, that they were attaching importance to the most futile trifles? Let them see a human animal in a crisis of Cheyne-Stokes breathing, and they would know something about reality! ... So this was Cheyne-Stokes breathing, that rare and awful affliction! What was it? What caused it? What controlled its frequency? No answer! Not only could he do naught, he knew naught! He was equally useless and ignorant before the affrighting mystery.
Darius no longer sat up and twisted himself in the agony of the struggles. He lay flat, resigned but still obstinate, fighting with the only muscles that could fight now, those of his chest and throat. The enemy had got him down, but he would not surrender. Time after time he won a brief armistice in the ruthless altercation, and breathed deep and long, and sighed as if he would doze, and then his enemy was at him again, and Darius, aroused afresh to the same terror, summoned Clara in the extremity of his anguish.
Edwin moved away, and surveyed the bed from afar. The old man was perfectly oblivious of him. He looked at his watch, and timed the crises. They recurred fairly regularly about every hundred seconds. Thirty-six times an hour Darius, growing feebler, fought unaided and without hope of aid an enemy growing stronger, and would not yield. He was dragged to his death thirty-six times every hour, and thirty-six times managed to scramble back from the edge of the chasm. Occasionally his voice, demanding that Clara should not desert him, made a shriek which seemed loud enough to wake the street. Edwin listened for any noise in the house, but heard nothing.
A curious instinct drove him out of the room for a space on to the landing. He shut the door on the human animal in its lonely struggle. The gas was burning on the landing and also in the hall, for this was not a night on which to extinguish lights. The clock below ticked quietly, and then struck three. He had passed more than three hours with his father. The time had gone quickly. He crept to Maggie's door. No sound! Utter silence! He crept upstairs to the second storey. No sound there! Coming down again to the first floor he noticed that the door of his own bedroom was open. He crept in there, and started violently to see a dim form on the bed. It was Maggie, dressed, but fast asleep under a rug. He left her. The whole world was asleep, and he was awake with his father.
"What an awful shame!" he thought savagely. "Why couldn't we have let him grow his mushrooms if he wanted to? What harm would it have done us? Supposing it had been a nuisance, supposing he had tried to kiss Jane, supposing he had hurt himself, what then? Why couldn't we let him do what he wanted?"
And he passionately resented his own harshness and that of Maggie as he might have resented the cruelty of some national injustice.
He listened. Nothing but the ticking of the clock disturbed the calm of the night. Could his father have expired in one of those frantic bouts with his enemy? Brusquely, with false valiance, he re-entered the chamber, and saw again the white square of the blind and the expanse of carpet and the tables littered with nursing apparatus, and saw the bed and his father on it, panting in a new and unsurpassable despair, but still unbeaten, under the thin gas-flame. The crisis eased as he went in. He picked up the arm-chair and carried it to the bedside and sat down facing his father, and once more took his father's intolerably pathetic hand.
"All right!" he murmured, and never before had he spoken with such tenderness. "All right! I'm here. I'm not leaving you."
The victim grew quieter.
"Is it Edwin?" he whispered, scarcely articulate, out of a bottomless depth of weakness.
"Yes," said Edwin cheerfully; "you're a bit better now, aren't you?"
"Aye!" sighed Darius in hope.
And almost immediately the rumour of struggle recommenced, and in a minute the crisis was at its fiercest.
Edwin became hardened to the spectacle. He reasoned with himself about suffering. After all, what was its importance? Up to a point it could be borne, and when it could not be borne it ceased to be suffering. The characteristic grimness of those latitudes showed itself in him. There was nothing to be done. They who were destined to suffer had to suffer, must suffer; and no more could be said. The fight must come to an end sooner or later. Fortitude alone could meet the situation. Nevertheless, the night seemed eternal, and at intervals fortitude lacked.
"By Jove!" he would mutter aloud, under the old man's constant appeals to Clara, "I shan't be sorry when this is over."
Then he would interest himself in the periodicity of the attacks, timing them by his watch with care. Then he would smooth the bed. Once he looked at the fire. It was out. He had forgotten it. He immediately began to feel chilly, and then he put on his father's patched dressing-gown and went to the window, and, drawing aside the blind, glanced forth. All was black and utterly silent. He thought with disdain of Maggie and the others unconscious in sleep. He returned to the chair.
He was startled, at a side glance, by something peculiar in the appearance of the window. It was the first messenger of the dawn. Yes, a faint greyness, very slowly working in secret against the power of the gaslight: timid, delicate, but brightening by imperceptible degrees into strength.
"Some of them will be getting up soon, now," he said to himself. The hour was between four and half-past. He looked forward to release. Maggie was sure to come and release him shortly. And even as he held the sick man's arm, comforting him, he yawned.
But no one came. Five o'clock, half-past five! The first car rumbled down. And still the victim, unbroken, went through his agony every two minutes or oftener, with the most frightful regularity.
He extinguished the gas, and lo! there was enough daylight to see clearly. He pulled up the blind. The night had gone. He had been through the night. The entire surface of his head was tingling. Now he would look at the martyrdom of the victim as at a natural curiosity, having no capacity left for feeling. And now his sympathy would gush forth anew, and he would cover with attentions his father, who, fiercely preoccupied with the business of obtaining breath, gave no heed to them. And now he would stand impressed, staggered, by the magnificence of the struggle.
The suspense from six to seven was the longest. When would somebody come? Had the entire household taken laudanum? He would go and rouse Maggie. No, he would not. He was too proud.
At a quarter-past seven the knob of the door clicked softly. He could scarcely believe his ears. Maggie entered. Darius was easier between two crises.
"Well," said she tranquilly, "how is he?" She was tying her apron.
"Pretty bad," Edwin answered, with affected nonchalance.
"Nurse is a bit better. I've given her three fresh poultices since midnight. You'd better go now, hadn't you?"
"All right. I've let the fire out."
"I'll tell Jane to light it. She's just making some tea for you."
He went. He did not need twice telling. As he went, carelessly throwing off the dressing-gown and picking up his boots, Darius began to pant afresh, to nerve himself instinctively afresh for another struggle. Edwin, strong and healthy, having done nothing but watch, was completely exhausted. But Darius, weakened by disease, having fought a couple of hundred terrific and excruciating encounters, each a supreme battle, in the course of a single night, was still drawing upon the apparently inexhaustible reserves of his volition.
"I couldn't have stood that much longer," said Edwin, out on the landing.
VOLUME THREE, CHAPTER SEVENTEEN.
THE CHAIN BROKEN.
Shortly after eight o'clock Edwin was walking down Trafalgar Road on his way to the shop. He had bathed, and drunk some tea, and under the stimulation he felt the factitious vivacity of excessive fatigue. Rain had fallen quietly and perseveringly during the night, and though the weather was now fine the streets were thick with black mire. Paintresses with their neat gloves and their dinner-baskets and their thin shoes were trudging to work, and young clerks and shop-assistants and the upper classes of labour generally. Everybody was in a hurry. The humbler mass had gone long ago. Miners had been in the earth for hours. Later, and more leisurely, the magnates would pass by.
There were carriages about. An elegant wagonette, streaming with red favours, dashed down the road behind two horses. Its cargo was a handful of clay-soiled artisans, gleeful in the naive pride of their situation, wearing red and shouting red, and hurrahing for the Conservative candidate.
"Asses!" murmured Edwin, with acrid and savage disdain. "Do you think he'd drive you anywhere to-morrow?" He walked on a little, and broke forth again, all to himself: "Of course he's doing it solely in your interest, isn't he? Why doesn't he pick some of these paintresses out of the mud and give them a drive?"
He cultivated an unreasoning anger against the men who had so impressed him at the banquet. He did not try to find answers to their arguments. He accused them stoutly of wilful blindness, of cowardice, of bullying, of Pharisaism, and of other sins. He had no wish to hear their defence. He condemned them, and as it were ordered them to be taken away and executed. He had a profound conviction that argument was futile, and that nothing would serve but a pitched battle, in which each fighting man should go to the poll and put a cross against a name in grim silence. Argue with these gross self-satisfied fellows about the turpitude of the artisans! Why, there was scarcely one of them whose grandfather had not been an artisan! Curse their patriotism! Then he would begin bits of argument to himself, and stop them, too impatient to continue... The shilling cigars of those feasters disgusted him... In such wise his mind ran. And he was not much kinder to the artisan. If scorn could have annihilated, there would have been no proletariat left in the division... Men? Sheep rather! Letting themselves be driven up and down like that, and believing all the yarns that were spun to them! Gaping idiots, they would swallow any mortal thing! There was simply naught that they were not stupid enough to swallow with a glass of beer. It would serve them right if—However, that could not happen. Idiocy had limits. At least he presumed it had.
Early as it was, the number of carriages was already considerable. But he did not see one with the blue of the Labour candidate. Blue rosettes there were, but the red rosettes bore them down easily. Even dogs had been adorned with red rosettes, and nice clean infants! And on all the hoardings were enormous red posters exhorting the shrewd common-sense potter not to be misled by paid agitators, but to plump for his true friend, for the man who was anxious to devote his entire career and goods to the welfare of the potter and the integrity of the Empire.
"If you can give me three days off, sir," said Big James, in the majestic humility of his apron, "I shall take it kindly."
Edwin had gone into the composing room with the copy for a demy poster, consisting of four red words to inform the public that the true friend of the public was 'romping in.' A hundred posters were required within an hour. He had nearly refused the order, in his feverish fatigue and his disgust, but some remnant of sagacity had asserted itself in him and saved him from this fatuity.
"Why?" he asked roughly. "What's up now, James?"
"My old comrade Abraham Harracles is dead, sir, at Glasgow, and I'm wishful for to attend the interment, far as it is. He was living with his daughter, and she's written to me. If you could make it convenient to spare me—"
"Of course, of course!" Edwin interrupted him hastily. In his present mood, it revolted him that a man of between fifty and sixty should be humbly asking as a favour to be allowed to fulfil a pious duty.
"I'm very much obliged to you, sir," said Big James simply, quite unaware that captious Edwin found his gratitude excessive and servile. "I'm the last now, sir, of the old glee-party," he added.
Big James nodded, and said quietly, "And how's the old gentleman, sir?"
Edwin shook his head.
"I'm sorry, sir," said Big James.
"I've been up with him all night," Edwin told him.
"I wonder if you'd mind dropping me a line to Glasgow, sir, if anything happens. I can give you the address. If it isn't—"
"Certainly, if you like." He tried to be nonchalant "When are you going?"
"I did think of getting to Crewe before noon, sir. As soon as I've seen to this—" He cocked his eye at the copy for the poster.
"Oh, you needn't bother about that," said Edwin carelessly. "Go now if you want to."
"I've got time, sir. Mr Curtenty's coming for me at nine o'clock to drive me to th' polling-booth."
This was the first time that Edwin had ever heard Big James talk of his private politics. The fact was that Big James was no more anxious than Jos Curtenty and Osmond Orgreave to put himself under the iron heel of his fellow working-man.
"And what's your colour, James?" His smile was half a sneer.
"If you'll pardon me saying so, sir, I'm for Her Most Gracious," Big James answered with grave dignity.
Three journeymen, pretending to be busy, were listening with all ears from the other side of a case.
"Oh!" exclaimed Edwin, dashed. "Well, that's all right!"
He walked straight out, put on his hat, and went to the Bleakridge polling-station and voted Labour defiantly, as though with a personal grievance against the polling-clerk. He had a vote, not as lessee of the business premises, but as his father's lodger. He despised Labour; he did not care what happened to Labour. In voting for Labour, he seemed to have the same satisfaction as if from pique he had voted against it because its stupidity had incensed him.
Then, instead of returning him to the shop, his legs took him home and upstairs, and he lay down in his own room.
He was awakened by the presence of some one at his bedside, and the whole of his body protested against the disturbance.
"I couldn't make you hear with knocking," said Dr Heve, "so I came into the room."
"Hello, doctor, is that you?" Edwin sat up, dazed, and with a sensation of large waves passing in slow succession through his head. "I must have dropped asleep."
"I hear you had a pretty bad night with him," the doctor remarked.
"Yes. It's a mystery to me how he could keep it up."
"I was afraid you would. Well, he's quieter now. In fact, he's unconscious."
"Unconscious, is he?"
"You'll have no more trouble with the old gentleman," said the doctor. He was looking at the window, as though at some object of great interest to be seen thence. His tone was gentle and unaffected. For the twentieth time Edwin privately admitted that in spite of the weak, vacuous smile which seemed to delight everybody except himself, there was a sympathetic quality in this bland doctor. In common moments he was common, but in the rare moment when a man with such a smile ought to be at his worst, a certain soft dignity would curiously distinguish his bearing.
"Um!" Edwin muttered, also looking at the window. And then, after a pause, he asked: "Will it last long?"
"I don't know," said the doctor. "The fact is, this is the first case of Cheyne-Stokes breathing I've ever had. It may last for days."
"How's the nurse?" Edwin demanded.
They talked about the nurse, and then Dr Heve said that, his brother the Vicar and he having met in the street, they had come in together, as the Vicar was anxious to have news of his old acquaintance's condition. It appeared that the Vicar was talking to Maggie and Janet in the drawing-room.
"Well," said Edwin, "I shan't come down. Tell him I'm only presentable enough for doctors."
With a faint smile and a nod, the doctor departed. As soon as he had gone, Edwin jumped off the bed and looked at his watch, which showed two o'clock. No doubt dinner was over. No doubt Maggie had decided that it would be best to leave him alone to sleep. But that day neither he nor anybody in the household had the sense of time, the continuous consciousness of what the hour was. The whole systematised convention of existence was deranged, and all values transmuted. Edwin was aware of no feeling whatever except an intensity of curiosity to see again in tranquillity the being with whom he had passed the night. Pushing his hand through his hair, he hurried into the sick-room. It was all tidy and fresh, as though nothing had ever happened in it. Mrs Nixon, shrivelled and deaf, sat in the arm-chair, watching. No responsibility now attached to the vigil, and so it could be left to the aged and almost useless domestic. She gave a gesture which might have meant anything—despair, authority, pride, grief.
Edwin stood by the bedside and gazed. Darius lay on his back, with eyes half-open, motionless, unseeing, unhearing, and he breathed faintly, with the soft regularity of an infant. The struggle was finished, and he had emerged from it with the right to breathe. His hair had been brushed, and his beard combed. It was uncanny, this tidiness, this calm, this passivity. The memory of the night grew fantastic and remote. Surely the old man must spring up frantically in a moment, to beat off his enemy! Surely his agonised cry for Clara must be ringing through the room! But nothing of him stirred. Air came and went through those parted and relaxed lips with the perfect efficiency of a healthy natural function. And yet he was not asleep. His obstinate and tremendous spirit was now withdrawn somewhere, into some fastness more recondite than sleep; not far off; not detached, not dethroned; but undiscoverably hidden, and beyond any summons. Edwin gazed and gazed, until his heart could hold no more of the emotion which this mysteriously impressive spectacle, at once majestic and poignant, distilled into it. Then he silently left the old woman sitting dully by the spirit concealed in its ruined home.
In the evening he was resting on the sofa in the drawing-room. Auntie Hamps was near him, at work on some embroidery. In order that her dear Edwin might doze a little if he could, she refrained from speech; from time to time she stopped her needle and looked reflectively at the morsel of fire, or at the gas. She had been in the house since before tea. Clara also had passed most of the day there, with a few intervals at her own home; but now Clara was gone, and Janet too had gone. Darius was tiring them all out, in his mild and senseless repose. He remained absolutely still, and the enigma which he so indifferently offered to them might apparently continue for ever; at any rate the doctor's statement that he might keep as he was for days and days, beyond help, hung over the entire household, discouraging and oppressive. The energy of even Auntie Hamps was baffled. Only Alicia, who had come in, as she said, to take Janet's place, insisted on being occupied. This was one of the nights dedicated by family arrangement to her betrothed, but Alicia had found pleasure in sacrificing herself, and him, to her very busy sense of duty.
Suddenly the drawing-room door was pushed open, without a sound, and Alicia, in all the bursting charm of her youthfulness and the delicious naivete of her self-importance, stood in the doorway. She made no gesture; she just looked at Edwin with a peculiar ominous and excited glance, and Edwin rose quickly and left the room. Auntie Hamps had noticed nothing.
"Maggie wants you upstairs," said Alicia to Edwin.
He made no answer. He did not ask where Maggie was. They went upstairs together. But at the door of the sick-room Alicia hung back, intimidated, and Edwin entered and shut the door on that beautiful image of proud, throbbing life.
Maggie, standing by the bed under the gas which blazed at full, turned to him as he approached.
"Just come and look at him," she said quietly.
Darius lay in exactly the same position; except that his mouth was open a little wider, he presented exactly the same appearance as in the afternoon. His weary features, pitiful and yet grim, had exactly the same expression. But there was no sign of breathing. Edwin bent and listened.
"Oh! He's dead!" he murmured.
Maggie nodded, her eyes glittering as though set with diamonds. "I think so," she said.
"When was it?"
"Scarcely a minute ago. I was sitting there, by the fire, and I thought I noticed something—"
"What did you notice?"
"I don't know... I must go and tell nurse."
She went, wiping her eyes.
Edwin, now alone, looked again at the residue of his father. The spirit, after hiding within so long, had departed and left no trace. It had done with that form and was away. The vast and forlorn adventure of the little boy from the Bastille was over. Edwin did not know that the little boy from the Bastille was dead. He only knew that his father was dead. It seemed intolerably tragic that the enfeebled wreck should have had to bear so much, and yet intolerably tragic also that death should have relieved him. But Edwin's distress was shot through and enlightened by his solemn satisfaction at the fact that destiny had allotted to him, Edwin, an experience of such profound and overwhelming grandeur. His father was, and lo! he was not. That was all, but it was ineffable.
Maggie returned to the room, followed by Nurse Shaw, whose head was enveloped in various bandages. Edwin began to anticipate all the tedious formalities, as to which he would have to inform himself, of registration and interment...
Ten o'clock. The news was abroad in the house. Alicia had gone to spread it. Maggie had startled everybody by deciding to go down and tell Clara herself, though Albert was bound to call. The nurse had laid out the corpse. Auntie Hamps and Edwin were again in the drawing-room together; the ageing lady was making up her mind to go. Edwin, in search of an occupation, prepared to write letters to one or two distant relatives of his mother. Then he remembered his promise to Big James, and decided to write that letter first.
"What a mercy he passed away peacefully!" Auntie Hamps exclaimed, not for the first time.
Edwin, at a rickety fancy desk, began to write: "Dear James, my father passed peacefully away at—" Then, with an abrupt movement, he tore the sheet in two and threw it in the fire, and began again: "Dear James, my father died quietly at eight o'clock to-night."
Soon afterwards, when Mrs Hamps had departed with her genuine but too spectacular grief, Edwin heard an immense commotion coming down the road from Hanbridge: cheers, shouts, squeals, penny whistles, and trumpets. He opened the gate.
"Who's in?" he asked a stout, shabby man, who was gesticulating in glee with a little Tory flag on the edge of the crowd.
"Who do you think, mister?" replied the man drunkenly.
"Four hundred and thirty-nine."
The integrity of the empire was assured, and the paid agitator had received a proper rebuff.
"Miserable idiots!" Edwin murmured, with the most extraordinary violence of scorn, as he re-entered the house, and the blare of triumph receded. He was very much surprised. He had firmly expected his own side to win, though he was reconciled to a considerable reduction of the old majority. His lips curled.
It was in his resentment, in the hard setting of his teeth as he confirmed himself in the rightness of his own opinions, that he first began to realise an individual freedom. "I don't care if we're beaten forty times," his thoughts ran. "I'll be a more out-and-out Radical than ever! I don't care, and I don't care!" And he felt sturdily that he was free. The chain was at last broken that had bound together those two beings so dissimilar, antagonistic, and ill-matched—Edwin Clayhanger and his father.
VOLUME FOUR, CHAPTER ONE.
BOOK FOUR—HIS START IN LIFE.
THE BIRTHDAY VISIT.
It was Auntie Hamps's birthday.
"She must be quite fifty-nine," said Maggie.
"Oh, stuff!" Edwin contradicted her curtly. "She can't be anything like as much as that."
Having by this positive and sharp statement disposed of the question of Mrs Hamps's age, he bent again with eagerness to his newspaper. The "Manchester Examiner" no longer existing as a Radical organ, he read the "Manchester Guardian," of which that morning's issue contained a long and vivid obituary of Charles Stewart Parnell.
Brother and sister were at breakfast. Edwin had changed the character of this meal. He went fasting to business at eight o'clock, opened correspondence, and gave orders to the wonderful Stifford, a person now of real importance in the firm, and at nine o'clock flew by car back to the house to eat bacon and eggs and marmalade leisurely, like a gentleman. It was known that between nine and ten he could not be seen at the shop.
"Well," Maggie continued, with her mild persistence, "Aunt Spenser told me—"
"Who's Aunt Spenser, in God's name?"
"You know—mother's and auntie's cousin—the fat old thing!"
"Oh! Her!" He recalled one of the unfamiliar figures that had bent over his father's coffin.
"She told me auntie was either fifty-five or fifty-six, at father's funeral. And that's nearly three and a half years ago. So she must be—"
"Two and a half, you mean." Edwin interrupted with a sort of savageness.
"No, I don't. It's nearly three years since Mrs Nixon died."
Edwin was startled to realise the passage of time. But he said nothing. Partly he wanted to read in peace, and partly he did not want to admit his mistake. Bit by bit he was assuming the historic privileges of the English master of the house. He had the illusion that if only he could maintain a silence sufficiently august his error of fact and of manner would cease to be an error.
"Yes; she must be fifty-nine," Maggie resumed placidly.
"I don't care if she's a hundred and fifty-nine!" snapped Edwin. "Any more coffee? Hot, that is."
Without moving his gaze from the paper, he pushed his cup a little way across the table.
Maggie took it, her chin slightly lifting, and her cheeks showing a touch of red.
"I hope you didn't forget to order the inkstand, after all," she said stiffly. "It's not been sent up yet, and I want to take it down to auntie's myself this morning. You know what a lot she thinks of such things!"
It had been arranged that Auntie Hamps should receive that year a cut-glass double inkstand from her nephew and niece. The shop occasionally dealt in such articles. Edwin had not willingly assented to the choice. He considered that a cut-glass double inkstand was a vicious concession to Mrs Hamps's very vulgar taste in knick-knacks, and, moreover, he always now discouraged retail trade at the shop. But still, he had assented, out of indolence.
"Well, it won't come till to-morrow," he said.
"But, Edwin, how's that?"
"How's that? Well, if you want to know, I didn't order it till yesterday. I can't think of everything."
"It's very annoying!" said Maggie sincerely.
Edwin put on the martyr's crown. "Some people seem to think I've nothing else to do down at my shop but order birthday presents," he remarked with disagreeable sarcasm.
"I think you might be a little more polite," said Maggie.
"Yes; I do!" Maggie insisted stoutly. "Sometimes you get positively unbearable. Everybody notices it."
"You never mind!"
Maggie tossed her head, and Edwin knew that when she tossed her head—a gesture rare with her—she was tossing the tears back from her eyes. He was more than startled, he was intimidated, by that feminine movement of the head. She was hurt. It was absurd of her to be so susceptible, but he had undoubtedly hurt her. He had been clumsy enough to hurt her. She was nearing forty, and he also was close behind her on the road to forty; she was a perfectly decent sort, and he reckoned that he, too, was a perfectly decent sort, and yet they lacked the skill not to bicker. They no longer had the somewhat noisy altercations of old days concerning real or fancied interferences with the order and privacy of Edwin's sacred chamber, but their general demeanour to one another had dully soured. It was as if they tolerated one another, from motives of self-interest. Why should this be so? They were, at bottom, affectionate and mutually respectful. In a crisis they could and would rely on one another utterly. Why should their demeanour be so false an index to their real feelings? He supposed it was just the fault of loose habit. He did not blame her. From mere pride he blamed himself. He knew himself to be cleverer, more perceptive, wilier, than she; and he ought to have been able to muster the diplomatic skill necessary for smooth and felicitous intercourse. Any friction, whether due to her stupidity or not, was a proof of his incompetence in the art of life...
"Everybody notices it!" The phrase pricked him. An exaggeration, of course! Still, a phrase that would not be dismissed by a superior curl of the lips. Maggie was not Clara, and she did not invent allegations. His fault! Yes, his fault! Beyond doubt he was occasionally gruff, he was churlish, he was porcupinish. He did not mean to be so—indeed he most honestly meant not to be so—but he was. He must change. He must turn over a new leaf. He wished it had been his own birthday, or, better still, the New Year, instead of his auntie's birthday, so that he might have turned over a new leaf at once with due solemnity. He actually remembered a pious saw uttered over twenty years earlier by that wretch in a white tie who had damnably devised the Saturday afternoon Bible-class, a saw which he furiously scorned—"Every day begins a New Year." Well, every day did begin a New Year! So did every minute. Why not begin a New Year then, in that minute? He had only to say in a cajoling, good-natured tone, "All right, all right! Keep your hair on, my child. I grovel!" He had only to say some such words, and the excellent, simple, unresentful Maggie would at once be appeased. It would be a demonstration of his moral strength to say them.
But he could not say them.
Nevertheless he did seriously determine to turn over a new leaf at the very next occasion. His eyes were now following the obituary of Parnell mechanically, without transmitting any message that his preoccupied brain would seize. He had been astonished to find that Parnell was only forty-five. He thought: "Why, at my age Parnell was famous—a great man and a power!" And there was he, Edwin, eating bacon and eggs opposite his sister in the humdrum dining-room at Bleakridge. But after all, what was the matter with the dining-room? It was not the dining-room that his father had left. He had altered and improved it to suit his own taste. He was free to do so, and he had done so. He was free in every way. The division of his father's estate according to the will had proved unjust to himself; but he had not cared in the least. He had let Albert do as Albert and Clara pleased. In the settlement Maggie had taken the house (at a figure too high), and he paid her an adequate rent for it, while she in turn paid him for her board and lodging. They were all in clover, thanks to the terrible lifelong obstinacy of the little boy from the Bastille. And Edwin had had the business unburdened. It was not growing, but it brought in more than twice as much as he spent. Soon he would be as rich as either of the girls, and that without undue servitude. He bought books surpassing those books of Tom Orgreave which had once seemed so hopelessly beyond his reach. He went to the theatre. He went to concerts. He took holidays. He had been to London, and more than once. He had a few good friends. He was his own master. Nobody dreamed of saying him nay, and no bad habits held him in subjection. Everywhere he was treated with quite notable respect. Even when, partly from negligence, and partly to hide recurring pimples, he had allowed his beard to grow, Clara herself had not dared to titter. And although he suffered from certain disorders of the blood due to lack of exercise and to his condition, his health could not be called bad. The frequency of his colds had somewhat diminished. His career, which to others probably seemed dull and monotonous, presented itself to him as almost miraculously romantic in its development.
And withal he could uneasily ask himself, "Am I happy?" Maggie did not guess that, as he bent unseeing over his precious "Manchester Guardian," he was thinking: "I must hold an inquisition upon my whole way of existence. I must see where I stand. If ever I am to be alive, I ought to be alive now. And I'm not at all sure whether I am." Maggie never put such questions to herself. She went on in placidness from hour to hour, ruffled occasionally.
An unusual occurrence gave him the opportunity to turn over a new leaf immediately. The sounds of the front-door bell and of voices in the hall were followed by the proud entrance of Auntie Hamps herself into the dining-room.
"Now don't disturb yourselves, please," Mrs Hamps entreated. She often began with this phrase.
Maggie sprang up and kissed her, somewhat effusively for Maggie, and said in a quiet, restrained tone—
"Many happy returns of the day, auntie."
Then Edwin rose, scraping his arm-chair backwards along the floor, and shook hands with her, and said with a guilty grin—
"A long life and a merry one, auntie!"
"Eh!" she exclaimed, falling back with a sigh of satisfaction into a chair by the table. "I'm sure everybody's very kind. Will you believe me, those darling children of Clara's were round at my house before eight o'clock this morning!"
"Is Amy's cough better?" Maggie interjected, as she and Edwin sat down.
"Bless ye!" cried Auntie Hamps, "I was in such a fluster I forgot to ask the little toddler. But I didn't hear her cough. I do hope it is. October's a bad time for coughs to begin. I ought to have asked. But I'm getting an old woman."
"We were just arguing whether you were thirty-eight or thirty-nine, auntie," said Edwin.
"What a tease he is—with his beard!" she archly retorted. "Well, your old aunt is sixty this day."
"Sixty!" the nephew and niece repeated together in astonishment.
Auntie Hamps nodded.
"You're the finest sixty I ever saw!" said Edwin, with unaffected admiration.
And she was fine. The pride in her eye as she made the avowal—probably the first frank avowal of her age that had passed those lips for thirty years—was richly justified. With her clear, rosy complexion, her white regular teeth, her straight spine, her plump figure, her brilliant gaze, her rapid gestures, and that authentic hair of hers falling in Victorian curls, she offered to the world a figure that no one could regard without a physical pleasure and stimulation. And she was so shiningly correct in her black silk and black velvet, and in the massive jet at her throat, and in the slenderness of her shoe! It was useless to recall her duplicities, her mendacities, her hypocrisies, her meannesses. At any rate she could be generous at moments, and the splendour of her vitality sometimes, as now, hid all her faults. She would confess to aches and pains like other folk, bouts of rheumatism for example—but the high courage of her body would not deign to ratify such miserable statements; it haughtily repelled the touch of time; it kept at least the appearance of victory. If you did not like Auntie Hamps willingly, in her hours of bodily triumph, you had to like her unwillingly. Both Edwin and Maggie had innumerable grievances against her, but she held their allegiance, and even their warm instinctive affection, on the morning of her sixtieth birthday. She had been a lone widow ever since Edwin could remember, and yet she had continued to bloom. Nothing could desiccate nor wither her. Even her sins did not find her out. God and she remained always on the best terms, and she thrived on insincerity.
"There's a little parcel for you, auntie," said Edwin, with a particular effort to make his voice soft and agreeable. "But it's in Manchester. It won't be here till to-morrow. My fault entirely! You know how awful I am for putting off things."
"We quite expected it would be here to-day," said the loyal Maggie, when most sisters—and Clara assuredly—would have said in an eager, sarcastic tone: "Yes, it's just like Edwin, and yet I reminded him I don't know how many times!" (Edwin felt with satisfaction that the new leaf was already turned. He was glad that he had said 'My fault entirely.' He now said to himself: "Maggie's all right, and so am I. I must keep this up. Perfect nonsense, people hinting that she and I can't get on together!")
"Please, please!" Auntie Hamps entreated. "Don't talk about parcels!" And yet they knew that if they had not talked about a parcel the ageing lady would have been seriously wounded. "All I want is your love. You children are all I have now. And if you knew how proud I am of you all, seeing you all so nice and good, and respected in the town, and Clara's little darlings beginning to run about, and such strong little things. If only your poor mother—!"
Impossible not to be impressed by those accents! Edwin and Maggie might writhe under Auntie Hamps's phraseology; they might remember the most horrible examples of her cant. In vain! They were impressed. They had to say to themselves: "There's something very decent about her, after all."
Auntie Hamps looked from one to the other, and at the quiet opulence of the breakfast-table, and the spacious solidities of the room. Admiration and respect were in that eye, always too masculine to weep under emotion. Undoubtedly she was proud of her nephew and nieces. And had she not the right to be? The bearded Edwin, one of the chief tradesmen in the town, and so fond of books, such a reader, and so quiet in his habits! And the two girls, with nice independent fortunes: Clara so fruitful and so winning, and Maggie so dependable, so kind! Auntie Hamps had scarce anything else to wish for. Her ideals were fulfilled. Undoubtedly since the death of Darius her attitude towards his children had acquired even a certain humility.
"Shall you be in to-morrow morning, auntie?" Maggie asked, in the constrained silence that followed Mrs Hamps's protestations.
"Yes, I shall," said Mrs Hamps, with assurance. "I shall be mending curtains."
"Well, then, I shall call. About eleven." Maggie turned to Edwin benevolently. "It won't be too soon if I pop in at the shop a little before eleven?"
"No," said Edwin with equal benevolence. "It's not often Sutton's delivery is after ten. That'll be all right. I'll have it unpacked."
He lit a cigarette.
"Have one?" he suggested to Mrs Hamps, holding out the case.
"I shall give you a rap over the knuckles in a minute," smiled Mrs Hamps, who was now leaning an elbow on the table in easy intimacy. And she went on in a peculiar tone, low, mysterious, and yet full of vivacity: "I can't quite make out who that little nephew is that Janet Orgreave is taking about."
"Little nephew that Janet's taking about!" murmured Maggie, in surprise; and to Edwin, "Do you know?"
Edwin shook his head. "When?" he asked.
"Well, this morning," said Mrs Hamps. "I met them as I was coming up. She was on one side of the road, and the child was on the other—just opposite Howson's. My belief is she'd lost all control over the little jockey. Oh! A regular little jockey! You could see that at once. 'Now, George, come along,' she called to him. And then he shouted, 'I want you to come on this side, auntie.' Of course I couldn't stop to see it out. She was so busy with him she only just moved to me."
"George? George?" Maggie consulted her memory. "How old was he, about?"
"Seven or eight, I should say."
"Well, it couldn't be one of Tom's children. Nor Alicia's."
"No," said Auntie Hamps. "And I always understood that the eldest daughter's—what's her name?"
"Marian's were all girls."
"I believe they are. Aren't they, Edwin?"
"How can I tell?" said Edwin. It was a marvel to him how his auntie collected her information. Neither she nor Clara had ever been in the slightest degree familiar with the Orgreaves, and Maggie, so far as he knew, was not a gossiper. He thought he perceived, however, the explanation of Mrs Hamps's visit. She had encountered in the street a phenomenon which would not harmonise with facts of her own knowledge, and the discrepancy had disturbed her to such an extent that she had been obliged to call in search of relief. There was that, and there was also her natural inclination to show herself off on her triumphant sixtieth birthday.
"Charles Orgreave isn't married, is he?" she inquired.
"No," said Maggie.
Silence fell upon this enigma of Janet's entirely unaccountable nephew.
"Charlie may be married," said Edwin humorously, at length. "You never know! It's a funny world! I suppose you've seen," he looked particularly at his auntie, "that your friend Parnell's dead?"
She affected to be outraged.
"I've seen that Parnell is dead," she rebuked him, with solemn quietness. "I saw it on a poster as I came up. I don't want to be uncharitable, but it was the best thing he could do. I do hope we've heard the last of all this Home Rule now!"
Like many people Mrs Hamps was apparently convinced that the explanation of Parnell's scandalous fall and of his early death was to be found in the inherent viciousness of the Home Rule cause, and also that the circumstances of his end were a proof that Home Rule was cursed of God. She reasoned with equal power forwards and backwards. And she was so earnest and so dignified that Edwin was sneaped into silence. Once more he could not keep from his face a look that seemed to apologise for his opinions. And all the heroic and passionate grandeur of Parnell's furious career shrivelled up to mere sordidness before the inability of one narrow-minded and ignorant but vigorous woman to appreciate its quality. Not only did Edwin feel apologetic for himself, but also for Parnell. He wished he had not tried to be funny about Parnell; he wished he had not mentioned him. The brightness of the birthday was for an instant clouded.
"I don't know what's coming over things!" Auntie Hamps murmured sadly, staring out of the window at the street gay with October sun shine. "What with that! And what with those terrible baccarat scandals. And now there's this free education, that we ratepayers have to pay for. They'll be giving the children of the working classes free meals next!" she added, with remarkably intelligent anticipation.
"Oh well! Never mind!" Edwin soothed her.
She gazed at him in loving reproach. And he felt guilty because he only went to chapel about once in two months, and even then from sheer moral cowardice.
"Can you give me those measurements, Maggie?" Mrs Hamps asked suddenly. "I'm on my way to Brunt's."
The women left the room together. Edwin walked idly to the window. After all, he had been perhaps wrong concerning the motive of her visit. The next moment he caught sight of Janet and the unaccountable nephew, breasting the hill from Bursley, hand in hand.
VOLUME FOUR, CHAPTER TWO.
Edwin was a fairly conspicuous object at the dining-room window. As Janet and the child drew level with the corner her eye accidentally caught Edwin's. He nodded, smiling, and took the cigarette out of his mouth and waved it. They were old friends. He was surprised to notice that Janet blushed and became self-conscious. She returned his smile awkwardly, and then, giving a gesture to signify her intention, she came in at the gate. Which action surprised Edwin still more. With all her little freedoms of manner, Janet was essentially a woman stately and correct, and time had emphasised these qualities in her. It was not in the least like her to pay informal, capricious calls at a quarter to ten in the morning.
He went to the front door and opened it. She was persuading the child up the tiled steps. The breeze dashed gaily into the house.
"Good morning. You're out early."
"Good morning. Yes. We've just been down to the post-office to send off a telegram, haven't we, George?"
She entered the hall, the boy following, and shook hands, meeting Edwin's gaze fairly. Her esteem for him, her confidence in him, shone in her troubled, candid eyes. She held herself proudly, mastering her curious constraint. "Now just see that!" she said, pointing to a fleck of black mud on the virgin elegance of her pale brown costume. Edwin thought anew, as he had often thought, that she was a distinguished and delightful piece of goods. He never ceased to be flattered by her regard. But with harsh masculine impartiality he would not minimise to himself the increasing cleft under her chin, nor the deterioration of her once brilliant complexion.
"Well, young man!" Edwin greeted the boy with that insolent familiarity which adults permit themselves to children who are perfect strangers.
"I thought I'd just run in and introduce my latest nephew to you," said Janet quickly, adding, "and then that would be over."
"Oh!" Edwin murmured. "Come into the drawing-room, will you? Maggie's upstairs."
They passed into the drawing-room, where a servant in striped print was languidly caressing the glass of a bookcase with a duster. "You can leave this a bit," Edwin said curtly to the girl, who obsequiously acquiesced and fled, forgetting a brush on a chair.
"Sit down, will you?" Edwin urged awkwardly. "And which particular nephew is this? I may tell you he's already raised a great deal of curiosity in the town."
Janet most unusually blushed again.
"Has he?" she replied. "Well, he isn't my nephew at all really, but we pretend he is, don't we, George? It's cosier. This is Master George Cannon."
"Cannon? You don't mean—"
"You remember Mrs Cannon, don't you? Hilda Lessways? Now, Georgie, come and shake hands with Mr Clayhanger."
But George would not.
"Indeed!" Edwin exclaimed, very feebly. He knew not whether his voice was natural or unnatural. He felt as if he had received a heavy blow with a sandbag over the heart: not a symbolic, but a real physical blow. He might, standing innocent in the street, have been staggeringly assailed by a complete stranger of mild and harmless appearance, who had then passed tranquilly on. Dizzy astonishment held him, to the exclusion of any other sentiment. He might have gasped, foolish and tottering: "Why—what's the meaning of this? What's happened?" He looked at the child uncomprehendingly, idiotically. Little by little— it seemed an age, and was in fact a few seconds—he resumed his faculties, and remembered that in order to keep a conventional self-respect he must behave in such a manner as to cause Janet to believe that her revelation of the child's identity had in no way disturbed him. To act a friendly indifference seemed to him, then, to be the most important duty in life. And he knew not why.
"I thought," he said in a low voice, and then he began again, "I thought you hadn't been seeing anything of her, of Mrs Cannon, for a long time now."
The child was climbing on a chair at the window that gave on the garden, absorbed in exploration and discovery, quite ignoring the adults. Either Janet had forgotten him, or she had no hope of controlling him and was trusting to chance that the young wild stag would do nothing too dreadful.
"Well," she admitted, "we haven't." Her constraint recurred. Very evidently she had to be careful about what she said. There were reasons why even to Edwin she would not be frank. "I only brought him down from London yesterday."
Edwin trembled as he put the question—
"Is she here too—Mrs Cannon?"
Somehow he could only refer to Mrs Cannon as "her" and "she."
"Oh no!" said Janet, in a tone to indicate that there was no possibility of Mrs Cannon being in Bursley.
He was relieved. Yes, he was glad. He felt that he could not have endured the sensation of her nearness, of her actually being in the next house. Her presence at the Orgreaves' would have made the neighbourhood, the whole town, dangerous. It would have subjected him to the risk of meeting her suddenly at any corner. Nay, he would have been forced to go in cold blood to encounter her. And he knew that he could not have borne to look at her. The constraint of such an interview would have been torture too acute. Strange, that though he was absolutely innocent, though he had done nought but suffer, he should feel like a criminal, should have the criminal's shifting downcast glance!
"Auntie!" cried the boy. "Can't I go into this garden? There's a swing there."
"Oh no!" said Janet. "This isn't our garden. We must go home. We only just called in. And big boys who won't shake hands—"
"Yes, yes!" Edwin dreamily stopped her. "Let him go into the garden for a minute if he wants to. You can't run off like that! Come along, my lord."
He saw an opportunity of speaking to her out of the child's hearing. Janet consented, perhaps divining his wish. The child turned and stared deliberately at Edwin, and then plunged forward, too eager to await guidance, towards the conquest of the garden.
Standing silent and awkward in the garden porch, they watched him violently agitating the swing, a contrivance erected by a good-natured Uncle Edwin for the diversion of Clara's offspring.
"How old is he?" Edwin demanded, for the sake of saying something.
"About nine," said Janet.
"He doesn't look it."
"No, but he talks it—sometimes."
George did not in fact look his age. He was slight and small, and he seemed to have no bones—nothing but articulations that functioned with equal ease in all possible directions. His skin was pale and unhealthy. His eyes had an expression of fatigue, or he might have been ophthalmic. He spoke loudly, his gestures were brusque, and his life was apparently made up of a series of intense, absolute absorptions. The general effect of his personality upon Edwin was not quite agreeable, and Edwin's conclusion was that George, in addition to being spoiled, was a profound and rather irritating egoist by nature.
"By the way," he murmured, "what's Mr Cannon?"
"Oh!" said Janet, hesitating, with emotion, "she's a widow."
He felt sick. Janet might have been a doctor who had informed him that he was suffering from an unexpected disease, and that an operation severe and perilous lay in front of him. The impartial observer in him asked somewhat disdainfully why he should allow himself to be deranged in this physical manner, and he could only reply feebly and very meekly that he did not know. He felt sick.
Suddenly he said to himself making a discovery—
"Of course she won't come to Bursley. She'd be ashamed to meet me."
"How long?" he demanded of Janet.
"It was last year, I think," said Janet, with emotion increased, her voice heavy with the load of its sympathy. When he first knew Janet an extraordinary quick generous concern for others had been one of her chief characteristics. But of late years, though her deep universal kindness had not changed, she seemed to have hardened somewhat on the surface. Now he found again the earlier Janet.
"You never told me."
"The truth is, we didn't know," Janet said, and without giving Edwin time to put another question, she continued: "The poor thing's had a great deal of trouble, a very great deal. George's health, now! The sea air doesn't suit him. And Hilda couldn't possibly leave Brighton."
"Oh! She's still at Brighton?"
"Let me see—she used to be at—what was it?—Preston Street?"
Janet glanced at him with interest: "What a memory you've got! Why, it's ten years since she was here!"
"Nearly!" said Edwin. "It just happened to stick in my mind. You remember she came down to the shop to ask me about trains and things the day she left."
"Did she?" Janet exclaimed, raising her eyebrows.
Edwin had been suspecting that possibly Hilda had given some hint to Janet as to the nature of her relations with him. He now ceased to suspect that. He grew easier. He gathered up the reins again, though in a rather limp hand.
"Why is she so bound to stay in Brighton?" he inquired with affected boldness.
"She's got a boarding-house."
"I see. Well, it's a good thing she has a private income of her own."
"That's just the point," said Janet sadly. "We very much doubt if she has any private income any longer."
Edwin waited for further details, but Janet seemed to speak unwilling. She would follow him, but she would not lead.
Behind them he could hear the stir of Mrs Hamps's departure. She and Maggie were coming down the stairs. Guessing not the dramatic arrival of Janet Orgreave and the mysterious nephew, Mrs Hamps, having peeped into the empty dining-room, said: "I suppose the dear boy has gone," and forthwith went herself. Edwin smiled cruelly at the thought of what her joy would have been actually to inspect the mysterious nephew at close quarters, and to learn the strange suspicious truth that he was not a nephew after all.
"Auntie!" yelled the boy across the garden.
"Come along, we must go now," Janet retorted.
"No! I want you to swing me. Make me swing very high."
"Let him swing a bit," said Edwin. "I'll go and swing him." And calling loud to the boy: "I'll come and swing you."
"He's dreadfully spoiled," Janet protested. "You'll make him worse."
"I don't care," said Edwin carelessly.
He seemed to understand, better than he had ever done with Clara's litter, how and why parents came to spoil their children. It was not because they feared a struggle of wills; but because of the unreasoning instinctive pleasure to be derived from the conferring of pleasure, especially when the pleasure thus conferred might involve doubtful consequences. He had not cared for the boy, did not care for him. In theory he had the bachelor's factitious horror of a spoiled child. Nevertheless he would now support the boy against Janet. His instinct said: "He wants something. I can give it him. Let him have it. Never mind consequences. He shall have it."
He crossed the damp grass, and felt the breeze and the sun. The sky was a moving medley of Chinese white and Prussian blue, that harmonised admirably with the Indian red architecture which framed it on all sides. The high trees in the garden of the Orgreaves were turning to rich yellows and browns, and dead leaves slanted slowly down from their summits a few reaching even the Clayhanger garden, speckling its evergreen with ochre. On the other side of the west wall traps and carts rattled and rumbled and creaked along Trafalgar Road.
The child had stopped swinging, and greeted him with a most heavenly persuasive grateful smile. A different child! A sudden angel, with delicate distinguished gestures! ... A wondrous screwing-up of the eyes in the sun! Weak eyes, perhaps! The thick eyebrows recalled Hilda's. Possibly he had Hilda's look! Or was that fancy? Edwin was sure that he would never have guessed George's parentage.
"Now!" he warned. "Hold tight." And, going behind the boy, he strongly clasped his slim little waist in its blue sailor-cloth, and sent the whole affair—swing-seat and boy and all—flying to the skies. And the boy shrieked in the violence of his ecstasy, and his cap fell on the grass. Edwin worked hard without relaxing.
"Go on! Go on!" The boy shriekingly commanded.
And amid these violent efforts and brusque delicious physical contacts, Edwin was calmly penetrated and saturated by the mystic effluence that is disengaged from young children. He had seen his father dead, and had thought: "Here is the most majestic and impressive enigma that the earth can show!" But the child George—aged nine and seeming more like seven—offered an enigma surpassing in solemnity that of death. This was Hilda's. This was hers, who had left him a virgin. With a singular thrilled impassivity he imagined, not bitterly, the history of Hilda. She who was his by word and by kiss, had given her mortal frame to the unknown Cannon—yielded it. She had conceived. At some moment when he, Edwin, was alive and suffering, she had conceived. She had ceased to be a virgin. Quickly, with an astounding quickness—for was not George nine years old?—she had passed from virginity to motherhood. And he imagined all that too; all of it; clearly. And here, swinging and shrieking, exerting the powerful and unique charm of infancy, was the miraculous sequel! Another individuality; a new being; definitely formed, with character and volition of its own; unlike any other individuality in the universe! Something fresh! Something unimaginably created! A phenomenon absolutely original of the pride and the tragedy of life! George!
Yesterday she was a virgin, and to-day there was this! And this might have been his, ought to have been his! Yes, he thrilled secretly amid all those pushings and joltings! The mystery obsessed him. He had no rancour against Hilda. He was incapable of rancour, except a kind of wilful, fostered rancour in trifles. Thus he never forgave the inventor of Saturday afternoon Bible-classes. But rancour against Hilda! No! Her act had been above rancour, like an act of Heaven! And she existed yet. On a spot of the earth's surface entitled Brighton, which he could locate upon a map, she existed: a widow, in difficulty, keeping a boarding-house. She ate, slept, struggled; she brushed her hair. He could see her brushing her hair. And she was thirty-four—was it? The wonder of the world amazed and shook him. And it appeared to him that his career was more romantic than ever.
George with dangerous abruptness wriggled his legs downwards and slipped off the seat of the swing, not waiting for Edwin to stop it. He rolled on the grass and jumped up in haste. He had had enough.
"Well, want any more?" Edwin asked, breathing hard.
The child made a shy, negative sigh, twisting his tousled head down into his right shoulder. After all he was not really impudent, brazen. He could show a delicious timidity. Edwin decided that he was an enchanting child. He wanted to talk to him, but he could not think of anything natural and reasonable to say by way of opening.
"You haven't told me your name, you know," he began at length. "How do I know what your name is? George, yes—but George what? George is nothing by itself, I know ten million Georges."
The child smiled.
"George Edwin Cannon," he replied shyly.
"Now, George!" came Janet's voice, more firmly than before. After all, she meant in the end to be obeyed. She was learning her business as aunt to this new and difficult nephew; but learn it she would, and thoroughly!
"Come on!" Edwin counselled the boy.
They went together to the house. Maggie had found Janet, and the two were conversing. Soon afterwards aunt and nephew departed.
"How very odd!" murmured Maggie, with an unusual intonation, in the hall, as Edwin was putting on his hat to return to the shop. But whether she was speaking to herself or to him, he knew not.
"What?" he asked gruffly.
"Well," she said, "isn't it?"
She was more like Auntie Hamps, more like Clara, than herself in that moment. He resented the suspicious implications of her tone. He was about to give her one of his rude, curt rejoinders, but happily he remembered in time that scarce half an hour earlier he had turned over a new leaf; so he kept silence. He walked down to the shop in a deep dream.
VOLUME FOUR, CHAPTER THREE.
It was when Edwin fairly reached the platform at Victoria Station and saw the grandiose express waiting its own moment to start, that the strange irrational quality of his journey first fully impressed him and frightened him—so much that he was almost ready to walk out of the station again. To come gradually into London from the North, to pass from the Manchester train half-full of Midlanders through Bloomsbury into the preoccupied, struggling, and untidy Strand—this gave no shock, typified nothing definite. But, having spent a night in London, deliberately to leave it for the South, where he had never been, of which he was entirely ignorant,—that was like an explicit self-committal, like turning the back on the last recognisable landmark in an ill-considered voyage of pure adventure.
The very character of Victoria Station and of this express was different from that of any other station and express in his experience. It was unstrenuous, soft; it had none of the busy harshness of the Midlands; it spoke of pleasure, relaxation, of spending free from all worry and humiliation of getting. Everybody who came towards this train came with an assured air of wealth and of dominion. Everybody was well dressed; many if not most of the women were in furs; some had expensive and delicate dogs; some had pale, elegant footmen, being too august even to speak to porters. All the luggage was luxurious; handbags could be seen that were worth fifteen or twenty pounds apiece. There was no question of first, second, or third class; there was no class at all on this train. Edwin had the apologetic air of the provincial who is determined to be as good as anybody else. When he sat down in the vast interior of one of those gilded vehicles he could not dismiss from his face the consciousness that he was an intruder, that he did not belong to that world. He was ashamed of his hand-baggage, and his gesture in tipping the porter lacked carelessness. Of course he pretended a frowning, absorbed interest in a newspaper—but the very newspaper was strange; he guessed not that unless he glanced first at the penultimate column of page one thereof he convicted himself of not knowing his way about.
He could not think consecutively, not even of his adventure. His brain was in a maze of anarchy. But at frequent intervals recurred the query: "What the devil am I up to?" And he would uneasily smile to himself. When the train rolled with all its majesty out of the station and across the Thames, he said to himself, fearful, "Well, I've done it now!"
On the Thursday he had told Maggie, with affected casualness, that on the Friday he might have to go to London, about a new machine. Sheer invention! Fortunately Maggie had been well drilled by her father in the manner proper to women in accepting announcements connected with 'business.' And Edwin was just as laconic and mysterious as Darius had been about 'business.' It was a word that ended arguments, or prevented them. On the Friday he had said that he should go in the afternoon. On being asked whether he should return on the Saturday, he had replied that he did not know, but that he would telegraph. Whereupon Maggie had said that if he stayed away for the week-end she should probably have all the children up for dinner and tea. At the shop, "Stifford," he had said, "I suppose you don't happen to know a good hotel in Brighton? I might run down there for the week-end if I don't come back to-morrow. But you needn't say anything." "No, sir," Stifford had discreetly concurred in this suggestion. "They say there's really only one hotel in Brighton, sir—the Royal Sussex. But I've never been there." Edwin had replied: "Not the Metropole, then?" "Oh no, sir!" Stifford had become a great and wonderful man, and Edwin's constant fear was that he might lose this indispensable prop to his business. For Stifford, having done a little irregular commercial travelling in Staffordshire and the neighbouring counties, had been seised of the romance of travelling; he frequented the society of real commercial travellers, and was gradually becoming a marvellous encyclopaedia of information about hotels, routes, and topography.
Edwin having been to the Bank himself, instead of sending Stifford, had departed with the minimum of ostentation. He had in fact crept away. Since the visit of Janet and the child he had not seen either of them again, nor had he mentioned the child to anybody at all.
When, in an astounding short space of time, he stood in the King's Road at Brighton, it seemed to him that he was in a dream; that he was not really at Brighton, that town which for so many years had been to him naught but a romantic name. Had his adventurousness, his foolhardiness, indeed carried him so far? As for Brighton, it corresponded with no dream. It was vaster than any imagining of it. Edwin had only seen the pleasure cities of the poor and of the middling, such as Blackpool and Llandudno. He had not conceived what wealth would do when it organised itself for the purposes of distraction. The train had prepared him to a certain extent, but not sufficiently. He suddenly saw Brighton in its autumnal pride, Brighton beginning one of its fine week-ends, and he had to admit that the number of rich and idle people in the world surpassed his provincial notions. For miles westwards and miles eastwards, against a formidable background of high, yellow and brown architecture, persons the luxuriousness of any one of whom would have drawn remarks in Bursley, walked or drove or rode in thronging multitudes. Edwin could comprehend lolling by the sea in August, but in late October it seemed unnatural, fantastic. The air was full of the trot of glossy horses and the rattle of hits and the roll of swift wheels, and the fall of elegant soles on endless clean pavements; it was full of the consciousness of being correct and successful. Many of the faces were monstrously ugly, most were dissatisfied and querulous; but they were triumphant. Even the pale beings in enlarged perambulators, pulled solemnly to and fro by their aged fellow-beings, were triumphant. The scared, the maimed, yes, and the able-bodied blind trusting to the arms of friends, were triumphant. And the enormous policemen, respectfully bland, confident in the system which had chosen them and fattened them, gave as it were to the scene an official benediction.
The bricks and stucco which fronted the sea on the long embanked promenade never sank lower than a four-storey boarding-house, and were continually rising to the height of some gilt-lettered hotel, and at intervals rose sheer into the skies—six, eight, ten storeys—where a hotel, admittedly the grandest on any shore of ocean sent terra-cotta chimneys to lose themselves amid the pearly clouds. Nearly every building was a lodgement waiting for the rich, and nearly every great bow-window, out of tens of thousands of bow-windows bulging forward in an effort to miss no least glimpse of the full prospect, exhibited the apparatus and the menials of gourmandise. And the eye, following the interminable irregular horizontal lines of architecture, was foiled in the far distances, and, still farther off, after a break of indistinguishable brown, it would catch again the receding run of roofs, simplified by atmosphere into featureless rectangles of grey against sapphire or rose. There were two piers that strode and sprawled into the sea, and these also were laden with correctness and with domination. And, between the two, men were walking miraculously on the sea to build a third, that should stride farther and deeper than the others.
Amid the crowd, stamping and tapping his way monotonously along with the assured obstinacy of a mendicant experienced and hardened, came a shabby man bearing on his breast a large label with these words: "Blind through boy throwing mortar. Discharged from four hospitals. Incurable." Edwin's heart seemed to be constricted. He thought of the ragged snarling touts who had fawned to him at the station, and of the creatures locked in the cellars whence came beautiful odours of confectionery and soup through the pavement gratings, and of the slatternly women who kept thrusting flowers under his nose, and the half-clad infants who skimmed before the wind yelling the names of newspapers. All was not triumph! Where triumph was, there also must be the conquered.
She was there, she too! Somewhere, close to him. He recalled the exact tone of Janet's voice as she had said: "The poor thing's had a great deal of trouble." A widow, trying to run a boarding-house and not succeeding! Why, there were hundreds upon hundreds of boarding—houses, all large, all imposing, all busy at the end of October! Where was hers hidden away, her pathetic little boarding-house? Preston Street! He knew not where Preston Street was, and he had purposely refrained from inquiring. But he might encounter it at any moment. He was afraid to look too closely at the street-signs as he passed them; afraid!
"What am I doing here?" he asked himself curiously, and sometimes pettishly. "What's my object? Where's the sense of it? I'm nothing but a damned fool. I've got no plan. I don't know what I'm going to do." It was true. He had no plan, and he did not know what he was going to do. What he did most intimately know was that the idea of her nearness made him tremble.
"I'd much better go back at once," he said.
He walked miles, until he came to immense and silent squares of huge palatial houses, and wide transversal avenues running far up into the land and into the dusk. In these vast avenues and across these vast squares infrequent carriages sped like mechanical toys guided by mannikins. The sound of the sea waxed. And then he saw the twinkle of lights, and then fire ran slowly along the promenade: until the whole map of it was drawn out in flame; and he perceived that though he had walked a very long way, the high rampart of houses continued still interminably beyond him. He turned. He was tired. His face caught the full strength of the rising wind. Foam gleamed on the rising tide. In the profound violet sky to the east stars shone and were wiped out, in fields; but to the west, silver tarried. He had not seen Preston Street, and it was too dark now to decipher the signs. He was glad. He went on and on, with rapidly increasing fatigue, disgust, impatience. The thronging multitudes had almost disappeared; but many illuminated vehicles were flitting to and fro, and the shops were brilliant. He was so exhausted by the pavements that he could scarcely walk. And Brighton became for him the most sorrowful city on earth.
"What am I doing here?" he asked himself savagely. However, by dint of sticking doggedly to it he did in the end reach the hotel.
After dinner, and wine, both of which, by their surprising and indeed unique excellence, fostered the prestige of Stifford as an authority upon hotels, Edwin was conscious of new strength and cheerfulness. He left the crowded and rose-lit dining-room early, because he was not at ease amid its ceremoniousness of attire and of service, and went into the turkey-carpeted hall, whose porter suddenly sprang into propitiatory life on seeing him. He produced a cigarette, and with passionate haste the porter produced a match, and by his method of holding the flame to the cigarette, deferential and yet firm, proved that his young existence had not been wasted in idleness. When the cigarette was alight, the porter surveyed his work with a pleased smile.
"Another rare storm blowing up, sir," said the porter.
"Yes," said Edwin. "It's been giving the window of my room a fine shake."
The porter glanced at the clock. "High tide in half an hour, sir."
"I think I'll go out and have a look at it," said Edwin.