Thus, when it was announced that father had been called out unexpectedly, leaving an order that they were not to wait for him, she said gaily that they had better be obedient and begin, though it would have been more agreeable to wait for father. And she said how beautiful the tea was, and how beautiful the toast, and how beautiful the strawberry-jam, and how beautiful the pikelets. She would herself pour some hot water into the slop basin, and put a pikelet on a plate thereon, covered, to keep warm for father. She would not hear a word about the toast being a little hard, and when Maggie in her curious quiet way 'stuck her out' that the toast was in fact hard, she said that that precise degree of hardness was the degree which she, for herself, preferred. Then she talked of jams, and mentioned gooseberry-jam, whereupon Clara privately put her tongue out, with the quickness of a snake, to signal to Maggie.
"Ours isn't good this year," said Maggie.
"I told auntie we weren't so set up with it, a fortnight ago," said Clara simply, like a little angel.
"Did you, dear?" Mrs Hamps exclaimed, with great surprise, almost with shocked surprise. "I'm sure it's beautiful. I was quite looking forward to tasting it; quite! I know what your gooseberry-jam is."
"Would you like to try it now?" Maggie suggested. "But we've warned you."
"Oh, I don't want to trouble you now. We're all so cosy here. Any time—"
"No trouble, auntie," said Clara, with her most captivating and innocent smile.
"Well, if you talk about 'warning' me, of course I must insist on having some," said Auntie Clara.
Clara jumped up, passed behind Mrs Hamps, making a contemptuous face at those curls as she did so, and ran gracefully down to the kitchen.
"Here," she said crossly to Mrs Nixon. "A pot of that gooseberry, please. A small one will do. She knows it's short of sugar, and so she's determined to try it, just out of spite; and nothing will stop her."
Clara returned smiling to the tea-table, and Maggie neatly unsealed the jam; and Auntie Clara, with a face beaming with pleasurable anticipation, helped herself circumspectly to a spoonful.
"Beautiful!" she murmured.
"Don't you think it's a bit tart?" Maggie asked.
"Oh no!" protestingly.
"Don't you?" asked Clara, with an air of delighted deferential astonishment.
"Oh no!" Mrs Hamps repeated. "It's beautiful!" She did not smack her lips over it, because she would have considered it unladylike to smack her lips, but by less offensive gestures she sought to convey her unbounded pleasure in the jam. "How much sugar did you put in?" she inquired after a while. "Half and half?"
"Yes," said Maggie.
"They do say gooseberries were a tiny bit sour this year, owing to the weather," said Mrs Hamps reflectively.
Clara kicked Edwin under the table, as it were viciously, but her delightful innocent smile, directed vaguely upon Mrs Hamps, did not relax. Such duplicity passed Edwin's comprehension; it seemed to him purposeless. Yet he could not quite deny that there might be a certain sting, a certain insinuation, in his auntie's last remark.
Then Mr Clayhanger entered, blowing forth a long breath as if trying to repulse the oppressive heat of the July afternoon. He came straight to the table, with a slightly preoccupied air, quickly, his arms motionless at his sides, and slanting a little outwards. Mr Clayhanger always walked like this, with motionless arms so that in spite of a rather clumsy and heavy step, the upper part of him appeared to glide along. He shook hands genially with Auntie Clara, greeting her almost as grandiosely as she greeted him, putting on for a moment the grand manner, not without dignity. Each admired the other. Each often said that the other was 'wonderful.' Each undoubtedly flattered the other, made a fuss of the other. Mr Clayhanger's admiration was the greater. The bitterest thing that Edwin had ever heard Maggie say was: "It's something to be thankful for that she's his deceased wife's sister!" And she had said the bitter thing with such quiet bitterness! Edwin had not instantly perceived the point of it.
Darius Clayhanger then sat down, with a thud, snatched at the cup of tea which Maggie had placed before him, and drank half of it with a considerable in-drawing noise. No one asked where or why he had been detained; it was not etiquette to do so. If father had been 'called away,' or had 'had to go away,' or was 'kept somewhere,' the details were out of deference allowed to remain in mystery, respected by curiosity ... 'Father-business.' ... All business was sacred. He himself had inculcated this attitude.
In a short silence the sound of the bell that the carman rang before the tram started for Hanbridge floated in through the open window.
"There's the tram!" observed Auntie Clara, apparently with warm and special interest in the phenomena of the tram. Then another little silence.
"Auntie," said Clara, writhing about youthfully on her chair.
"Can't ye sit still a bit?" the father asked, interrupting her roughly, but with good humour. "Ye'll be falling off th' chair in a minute."
Clara blushed swiftly, and stopped.
"Yes, love?" Auntie Clara encouraged her. It was as if Auntie Clara had said: "Your dear father is of course quite right, more than right, to insist on your sitting properly at table. However, do not take the correction too much to heart. I sympathise with all your difficulties."
"I was only going to ask you," Clara went on, in a weaker, stammering voice, "if you knew that Edwin's left school to-day." Her archness had deserted her.
"Mischievous little thing!" thought Edwin. "Why must she deliberately go and draw attention to that?" And he too blushed, feeling as if he owed an apology to the company for having left school.
"Oh yes!" said Auntie Clara with eager benevolence. "I've got something to say about that to my nephew."
Mr Clayhanger searched in a pocket of his alpaca, and drew forth an open envelope.
"Here's the lad's report, auntie," said he. "Happen ye'd like to look at it."
"I should indeed!" she replied fervently. "I'm sure it's a very good one."
She took the paper, and assumed her spectacles.
"Conduct—Excellent," she read, poring with enthusiasm over the document. And she read again: "Conduct—Excellent." Then she went down the list of subjects, declaiming the number of marks for each; and at the end she read: "Position in class next term: Third. Splendid, Eddy!" she exclaimed.
"I thought you were second," said Clara, in her sharp manner.
Edwin blushed again, and hesitated.
"Eh? What's that? What's that?" his father demanded. "I didn't notice that. Third?"
"Charlie Orgreave beat me in the examination," Edwin muttered.
"Well, that's a pretty how d'ye do!" said his father. "Going down one! Ye ought to ha' been first instead o' third. And would ha' been, happen, if ye'd pegged at it."
"Now I won't have that! I won't have it!" Auntie Clara protested, laughingly showing her fine teeth and gazing first at Darius, and then at Edwin, from under her spectacles, her head being thrown back and the curls hanging far behind. "No one shall say that Edwin doesn't work, not even his father, while his auntie's about! Because I know he does work! And besides, he hasn't gone down. It says, 'position next term'—not this term. You were still second to-day, weren't you, my boy?"
"I suppose so. Yes," Edwin answered, pulling himself together.
"Well! There you are!" Auntie Clara's voice rang triumphantly. She was opening her purse. "And there you are!" she repeated, popping half a sovereign down in front of him. "That's a little present from your auntie on your leaving school."
"Oh, auntie!" he cried feebly.
"Oh!" cried Clara, genuinely startled.
Mrs Hamps was sometimes thus astoundingly munificent. It was she who had given the schooner to Edwin. And her presents of elaborately enveloped and costly toilet soap on the birthdays of the children, and at Christmas, were massive. Yet Clara always maintained that she was the meanest old thing imaginable. And Maggie had once said that she knew that Auntie Clara made her servant eat dripping instead of butter. To give inferior food to a servant was to Maggie the unforgivable in parsimony.
"Well," Mr Clayhanger warningly inquired, "what do you say to your aunt?"
"Thank you, auntie," Edwin sheepishly responded, fingering the coin.
It was a princely sum. And she had stuck up for him famously in the matter of the report. Strange that his father should not have read the report with sufficient attention to remark the fall to third place! Anyway, that aspect of the affair was now safely over, and it seemed to him that he had not lost much prestige by it. He would still be able to argue with his father on terms not too unequal, he hoped.
As the tea drew to an end, and the plates of toast, bread and butter, and tea-cake grew emptier, and the slop-basin filled, and only Maggie's flowers remained fresh and immaculate amid the untidy debris of the meal; and as Edwin and Clara became gradually indifferent to jam, and then inimical to it; and as the sounds of the street took on the softer quality of summer evening, and the first filmy shades of twilight gathered imperceptibly in the corners of the room, and Mr Clayhanger performed the eructations which signified that he had had enough; so Mrs Hamps prepared herself for one of her classic outbursts of feeling.
"Well!" she said at last, putting her spoon to the left of her cup as a final indication that seriously she would drink no more. And she gave a great sigh. "School over! And the only son going out into the world! How time flies!" And she gave another great sigh, implying an immense melancholy due to this vision of the reality of things. Then she remembered her courage, and the device of leaning hard, and all her philosophy.
"But it's all for the best!" she broke forth in a new brave tone. "Everything is ordered for the best. We must never forget that! And I'm quite sure that Edwin will be a very great credit to us all, with help from above."
She proceeded powerfully in this strain. She brought in God, Christ, and even the Holy Spirit. She mentioned the dangers of the world, and the disguises of the devil, and the unspeakable advantages of a good home, and the special goodness of Mr Clayhanger and of Maggie, yes, and of her little Clara; and the pride which they all had in Edwin, and the unique opportunities which he had of doing good, by example, and also, soon, by precept, for others younger than himself would begin to look up to him; and again her personal pride in him, and her sure faith in him; and what a solemn hour it was...
Nothing could stop her. The girls loathed these exhibitions. Maggie always looked at the table during their progress, and she felt as though she had done something wrong and was ashamed of it. Clara not merely felt like a criminal—she felt like an unrepentant criminal; she blushed, she glanced nervously about the room, and all the time she repeated steadily in her heart a highly obscene word which she had heard at school. This unspoken word, hurled soundlessly but savagely at her aunt in that innocent heart, afforded much comfort to Clara in the affliction. Even Edwin, who was more lenient in all ways than his sisters, profoundly deplored these moralisings of his aunt. They filled him with a desire to run fast and far, to be alone at sea, or to be deep somewhere in the bosom of the earth. He could not understand this side of his auntie's individuality. But there was no delivery from Mrs Hamps. The only person who could possibly have delivered them seemed to enjoy the sinister thraldom. Mr Clayhanger listened with appreciative and admiring nods; he appeared to be quite sincere. And Edwin could not understand his father either. "How simple father must be!" he thought vaguely. Whereas Clara fatalistically dismissed her father's attitude as only one more of the preposterously unreasonable phenomena which she was constantly meeting in life; and she persevered grimly with her obscene word.
"Eh!" said Mrs Hamps enthusiastically, after a trifling pause. "It does me good when I think what a help you'll be to your father in the business, with that clever head of yours."
She gazed at him fondly.
Now this was Edwin's chance. He did not wish to be any help at all to his father in the business. He had other plans for himself He had never mentioned them before, because his father had never talked to him about his future career, apparently assuming that he would go into the business. He had been waiting for his father to begin. "Surely," he had said to himself "father's bound to speak to me sometime about what I'm going to do, and when he does I shall just tell him." But his father never had begun; and by timidity, negligence, and perhaps ill-luck, Edwin had thus arrived at his last day at school with the supreme question not merely unsolved but unattacked. Oh he blamed himself! Any ordinary boy (he thought) would have discussed such a question naturally long ago. After all it was not a crime it was no cause for shame, to wish not to be a printer. Yet he was ashamed! Absurd! He blamed himself. But he also blamed his father. Now, however, in responding to his auntie's remark, he could remedy all the past by simply and boldly stating that he did not want to follow his father. It would be unpleasant, of course, but the worst shock would be over in a moment, like the drawing of a tooth. He had merely to utter certain words. He must utter them. They were perfectly easy to say, and they were also of the greatest urgency. "I don't want to be a printer." He mumbled them over in his mind. "I don't want to be a printer." What could it matter to his father whether he was a printer or not? Seconds, minutes, seemed to pass. He knew that if he was so inconceivably craven as to remain silent, his self-respect would never recover from the blow. Then, in response to Mrs Hamps's prediction about his usefulness to his father in the business, he said, with a false-jaunty, unconvinced, unconvincing air—
"Well, that remains to be seen."
This was all he could accomplish. It seemed as if he had looked death itself in the face, and drawn away.
"Remains to be seen?" Auntie Clara repeated, with a hint of startled pain, due to this levity.
He was mute. No one suspected, as he sat there, so boyish, wistful, and uneasily squirming, that he was agonised to the very centre of his being. All the time, in his sweating soul, he kept trying to persuade himself: "I've given them a hint, anyhow! I've given them a hint, anyhow!"
"Them" included everybody at the table.
Mr Clayhanger, completely ignoring Edwin's reply to his aunt and her somewhat shocked repetition of it, turned suddenly towards his son and said, in a manner friendly but serious, a manner that assumed everything, a manner that begged the question, unconscious even that there was a question—
"I shall be out the better part o' to-morrow. I want ye to be sure to be in the shop all afternoon—I'll tell you what for downstairs." It was characteristic of him thus to make a mystery of business in front of the women.
Edwin felt the net closing about him. Then he thought of one of those 'posers' which often present themselves to youths of his age.
"But to-morrow's Saturday," he said, perhaps perkily. "What about the Bible class?"
Six months previously a young minister of the Wesleyan Circuit, to whom Heaven had denied both a sense of humour and a sense of honour, had committed the infamy of starting a Bible class for big boys on Saturday afternoons. This outrage had appalled and disgusted the boyhood of Wesleyanism in Bursley. Their afternoon for games, their only fair afternoon in the desert of the week, to be filched from them and used against them for such an odious purpose as a Bible class! Not only Sunday school on Sunday afternoon, but a Bible class on Saturday afternoon! It was incredible. It was unbearable. It was gross tyranny, and nothing else. Nevertheless the young minister had his way, by dint of meanly calling upon parents and invoking their help. The scurvy worm actually got together a class of twelve to fifteen boys, to the end of securing their eternal welfare. And they had to attend the class, though they swore they never would, and they had to sing hymns, and they had to kneel and listen to prayers, and they had to listen to the most intolerable tedium, and to take notes of it. All this, while the sun was shining, or the rain was raining, on fields and streets and open spaces and ponds!
Edwin had been trapped in the snare. His father, after only three words from the young minister, had yielded up his son like a burnt sacrifice— and with a casual nonchalance that utterly confounded Edwin. In vain Edwin had pointed out to his elders that a Saturday afternoon of confinement must be bad for his health. His attention had been directed to his eternal health. In vain he had pointed out that on wet Saturday afternoons he frequently worked at his home-lessons, which therefore might suffer under the regime of a Bible class. His attention had been directed to the peace which passeth understanding. So he had been beaten, and was secretly twitted by Clara as an abject victim. Hence it was with a keen and peculiar feeling of triumph, of hopelessly cornering the inscrutable generation which a few months ago had cornered him, that he demanded, perhaps perkily: "What about the Bible class?"
"There'll be no more Bible classing," said his father, with a mild but slightly sardonic smile, as who should say: "I'm ready to make all allowances for youth; but I must get you to understand, as gently as I can, that you can't keep on going to Bible classes for ever and ever."
Mrs Hamps said—
"It won't be as if you were at school. But I do hope you won't neglect to study your Bible. Eh, but I do hope you'll always find time for that, to your dying day!"
"Oh—but I say—" Edwin began, and stopped.
He was beaten by the mere effrontery of the replies. His father and his aunt (the latter of whom at any rate was a firm and confessed religionist, who had been responsible for converting Mr Clayhanger from Primitive Methodism to Wesleyan Methodism) did not trouble to defend their new position by argument. They made no effort to reconcile it with their position of a few months back, when the importance of heavenly welfare far exceeded the importance of any conceivable earthly welfare. The fact was that they had no argument. If God took precedence of knowledge and of health, he took precedence of a peddling shop! That was unanswerable.
Edwin was dashed. His faith in humanity was dashed. These elders were not sincere. And as Mrs Hamps continued to embroider the original theme of her exhortation about the Bible, Edwin looked at her stealthily, and the doubt crossed his mind whether that majestic and vital woman was ever sincere about anything, even to herself—whether the whole of her daily existence, from her getting-up to her down-lying, was not a grandiose pretence.
Not that he had the least desire to cling to the Bible class, even as an alternative to the shop! No! He was much relieved to be rid of the Bible class. What overset him was the crude illogicality of the new decree, and the shameless tacit admission of previous insincerity.
Two hours later, as he stood idly at the window of his bedroom, watching the gas lamps of Trafalgar Road wax brighter in the last glooms of twilight, he was still occupied with the sham and the unreason and the lack of scruple suddenly revealed in the life of the elder generation. Unconsciously imitating a trick of his father's when annoyed but calm, he nodded his head several times, and with his tongue against his teeth made the noise which in writing is represented by 'tut-tut.' Yet somehow he had always known that it would be so. At bottom, he was only pretending to himself to be shocked and outraged.
His plans were no further advanced; indeed they were put back, for this Saturday afternoon vigil in the shop would be in some sort a symbolic temporary defeat for him. Why had he not spoken out clearly? Why was he always like a baby in presence of his father? The future was all askew for him. He had forgotten his tremendous serious resolves. The touch of the half-sovereign in his pocket, however, was comforting in a universe of discomfort.
VOLUME ONE, CHAPTER EIGHT.
IN THE SHOP.
"Here, lad!" said his father to Edwin, as soon as he had scraped up the last crumbs of cheese from his plate at the end of dinner on the following day.
Edwin rose obediently and followed him out of the room. Having waited at the top of the stairs until his father had reached the foot, he leaned forward as far as he could with one hand on the rail and the other pressing against the wall, swooped down to the mat at the bottom, without touching a single step on the way, and made a rocket-like noise with his mouth, He had no other manner of descending the staircase, unless he happened to be in disgrace. His father went straight to the desk in the corner behind the account-book window, assumed his spectacles, and lifted the lid of the desk.
"Here!" he said, in a low voice. "Mr Enoch Peake is stepping in this afternoon to look at this here." He displayed the proof—an unusually elaborate wedding card, which announced the marriage of Mr Enoch Peake with Mrs Louisa Loggerheads. "Ye know him as I mean?"
"Yes," said Edwin, "The stout man. The Cocknage Gardens man."
"That's him. Well ye'll tell him I've been called away. Tell him who ye are. Not but what he'll know. Tell him I think it might be better"—Darius's thick finger ran along a line of print—"if we put—'widow of the late Simon Loggerheads Esquire,' instead of—'Esq.' See? Otherwise it's all right. Tell him I say as otherwise it's all right. And ask him if he'll have it printed in silver, and how many he wants, and show him this sample envelope. Now, d'ye understand?"
"Yes," said Edwin, in a tone to convey, not disrespectfully, that there was nothing to understand. Curious, how his father had the air of bracing all his intellect as if to a problem!
"Then ye'll take it to Big James, and he can start Chawner on it. Th' job's promised for Monday forenoon."
"Will Big James be working?" asked Edwin, for it was Saturday afternoon, when, though the shop remained open, the printing office was closed.
"They're all on overtime," said Mr Clayhanger; and then he added, in a voice still lower, and with a surreptitious glance at Miss Ingamells, the shop-woman, who was stolidly enfolding newspapers in wrappers at the opposite counter, "See to it yourself, now. He won't want to talk to her about a thing like that. Tell him I told you specially. Just let me see how well ye can do it."
"Right!" said Edwin; and to himself, superciliously: "It might be life and death."
"We ought to be doing a lot o' business wi' Enoch Peake, later on," Mr Clayhanger finished, in a whisper.
"I see," said Edwin, impressed, perceiving that he had perhaps been supercilious too soon.
Mr Clayhanger returned his spectacles to their case, and taking his hat from its customary hook behind him, over the job-files, consulted his watch and passed round the counter to go. Then he stopped.
"I'm going to Manchester," he murmured confidentially. "To see if I can pick up a machine as I've heard of."
Edwin was flattered. At the dinner-table Mr Clayhanger had only vouchsafed that he had a train to catch, and would probably not be in till late at night.
The next moment he glimpsed Darius through the window, his arms motionless by his sides and sticking slightly out; hurrying in the sunshine along Wedgwood Street in the direction of Shawport station.
So this was business! It was not the business he desired and meant to have; and he was uneasy at the extent to which he was already entangled in it; but it was rather amusing, and his father had really been very friendly. He felt a sense of importance.
Soon afterwards Clara ran into the shop to speak to Miss Ingamells. The two chatted and giggled together.
"Father's gone to Manchester," he found opportunity to say to Clara as she was leaving.
"Why aren't you doing those prizes he told you to do?" retorted Clara, and vanished, She wanted none of Edwin's superior airs.
During dinner Mr Clayhanger had instructed his son to go through the Sunday school prize stock and make an inventory of it.
This injunction from the child Clara, which Miss Ingamells had certainly overheard, prevented him, as an independent man, from beginning his work for at least ten minutes. He whistled, opened his father's desk and stared vacantly into it, examined the pen-nib case in detail, and tore off two leaves from the date calendar so that it should be ready for Monday. He had a great scorn for Miss Ingamells, who was a personable if somewhat heavy creature of twenty-eight, because she kept company with a young man. He had caught them arm-in-arm and practically hugging each other, one Sunday afternoon in the street. He could see naught but silliness in that kind of thing.
The entrance of a customer caused him to turn abruptly to the high shelves where the books were kept. He was glad that the customer was not Mr Enoch Peake, the expectation of whose arrival made him curiously nervous. He placed the step-ladder against the shelves, climbed up, and began to finger volumes and parcels of volumes. The dust was incredible. The disorder filled him with contempt. It was astounding that his father could tolerate such disorder; no doubt the whole shop was in the same condition. "Thirteen Archie's Old Desk," he read on a parcel, but when he opened the parcel he found seven "From Jest to Earnest." Hence he had to undo every parcel. However, the work was easy. He first wrote the inventory in pencil, then he copied it in ink; then he folded it, and wrote very carefully on the back, because his father had a mania for endorsing documents in the legal manner: "Inventory of Sunday school prize stock." And after an instant's hesitation he added his own initials. Then he began to tie up and restore the parcels and the single volumes. None of all this literature had any charm for him. He possessed five or six such books, all gilt and chromatic, which had been awarded to him at Sunday school, 'suitably inscribed,' for doing nothing in particular; and he regarded them without exception as frauds upon boyhood. However, Clara had always enjoyed reading them. But lying flat on one of the top shelves he discovered, nearly at the end of his task, an oblong tome which did interest him: "Cazenove's Architectural Views of European Capitals, with descriptive letterpress." It had an old-fashioned look, and was probably some relic of his father's predecessor in the establishment. Another example of the lack of order which prevailed!
He took the volume to the retreat of the desk, and there turned over its pages of coloured illustrations. At first his interest in them, and in the letterpress, was less instinctive than deliberate. He said to himself: "Now, if there is anything in me, I ought really to be interested in this, and I must be interested in it." And he was. He glanced carelessly at the clock, which was hung above the shelves of exercise-books and notebooks, exactly opposite the door. A quarter past four. The afternoon was quietly passing, and he had not found it too tedious. In the background of the task which (he considered) he had accomplished with extraordinary efficiency, his senses noted faintly the continual trickle of customers, all of whom were infallibly drawn to Miss Ingamells's counter by her mere watchful and receptive appearance. He had heard phrases and ends of phrases, such as: "No, we haven't anything smaller," "A camel-hair brush," "Gum but not glue," "Very sorry, sir. I'll speak firmly to the paper boy," and the sound of coins dragged along the counter, the sound of the testing of half a sovereign, the opening and shutting of the till-drawer; and occasionally Miss Ingamells exclaiming to herself upon the stupidity of customers after a customer had gone; and once Miss Ingamells crossing angrily to fix the door ajar which some heedless customer had closed: "Did they suppose that people didn't want air like other people?" And now it was a quarter past four. Undoubtedly he had a peculiar, and pleasant, feeling of importance. In another half-minute he glanced at the clock again, and it was a quarter to five.
What hypnotism attracted him towards the artists' materials cabinet which stood magnificent, complicated, and complete in the middle of the shop, like a monument? His father, after one infantile disastrous raid, had absolutely forbidden any visitation of that cabinet, with its glass case of assorted paints, crayons, brushes and pencils, and its innumerable long drawers full of paper and cards and wondrous perfectly equipped boxes, and T-squares and set-squares, with a hundred other contrivances. But of course the order had now ceased to have force. Edwin had left school; and, if he was not a man, he was certainly not a boy. He began to open the drawers, at first gingerly, then boldly; after all it was no business of Miss Ingamells's! And, to be just, Miss Ingamells made no sort of pretence that it was any business of hers. She proceeded with her own business. Edwin opened a rather large wooden water-colour box. It was marked five and sixpence. It seemed to comprise everything needed for the production of the most entrancing and majestic architectural views, and as Edwin took out its upper case and discovered still further marvellous devices and apparatus in its basement beneath, he dimly but passionately saw, in his heart, bright masterpieces that ought to be the fruit of that box. There was a key to it. He must have it. He would have given all that he possessed for it, if necessary.
"Miss Ingamells," he said: and, as she did not look up immediately, "I say, Miss Ingamells! How much does father take off in the shilling to auntie when she buys anything?"
"Don't ask me, Master Edwin," said Miss Ingamells; "I don't know, How should I know?"
"Well, then," he muttered, "I shall pay full price for it—that's all." He could not wait, and he wanted to be on the safe side.
Miss Ingamells gave him change for his half-sovereign in a strictly impartial manner, to indicate that she accepted no responsibility. And the squaring of Edwin's shoulders conveyed to Miss Ingamells that he advised her to keep carefully within her own sphere, and not to make impertinent inquiries about the origin of the half-sovereign, which he could see intrigued her acutely. He now owned the box; it was not a box of colours, but a box of enchantment. He had had colour-boxes before, but nothing to compare with this, nothing that could have seemed magical to anybody wiser than a very small boy. Then he bought some cartridge-paper; he considered that cartridge-paper would be good enough for preliminary experiments.
It was while he was paying for the cartridge-paper—he being, as was indeed proper, on the customers' side of the counter—that a heavy loutish boy in an apron entered the shop, blushing. Edwin turned away. This was Miss Ingamells's affair.
"If ye please, Mester Peake's sent me. He canna come in this afternoon—he's got a bit o' ratting on—and will Mester Clayhanger step across to th' Dragon to-night after eight, with that there peeper [paper] as he knows on?"
At the name of Peake, Edwin started. He had utterly forgotten the matter.
"Master Edwin," said Miss Ingamells drily. "You know all about that, don't you?" Clearly she resented that he knew all about that while she didn't.
"Oh! Yes," Edwin stammered. "What did you say?" It was his first piece of real business.
"If you please, Mester Peake sent me." The messenger blundered through his message again word for word.
"Very well. I'll attend to it," said Edwin, as nonchalantly as he could.
Nevertheless he was at a loss what to do, simple though the situation might have seemed to a person with an experience of business longer than Edwin's. Just as three hours previously his father had appeared to be bracing all his intellect to a problem that struck Edwin as entirely simple, so now Edwin seemed to be bracing all his intellect to another aspect of the same problem. Time, revenging his father! ... What! Go across to the Dragon and in cold blood demand Mr Enoch Peake, and then parley with Mr Enoch Peake as one man with another! He had never been inside the Dragon. He had been brought up in the belief that the Dragon was a place of sin. The Dragon was included in the generic term—'gin-palace,' and quite probably in the Siamese-twin term—'gaming-saloon.' Moreover, to discuss business with Mr Enoch Peake... Mr Enoch Peake was as mysterious to Edwin as, say, a Chinese mandarin! Still, business was business, and something would have to be done. He did not know what. Ought he to go to the Dragon? His father had not foreseen the possibility of this development. He instantly decided one fundamental: he would not consult Miss Ingamells; no, nor even Maggie! There remained only Big James. He went across to see Big James, who was calmly smoking a pipe on the little landing at the top of the steps leading to the printing office.
Big James showed no astonishment.
"You come along o' me to the Dragon to-night, young sir, at eight o'clock, or as soon after as makes no matter, and I'll see as you see Mr Enoch Peake. I shall be coming up Woodisun Bank at eight o'clock, or as soon after as makes no matter. You be waiting for me at the back gates there, and I'll see as you see Mr Enoch Peake."
"Are you going to the Dragon?"
"Am I going to the Dragon, young sir!" exclaimed Big James, in his majestic voice.
VOLUME ONE, CHAPTER NINE.
James Yarlett was worthy of his nickname. He stood six feet four and a half inches in height, and his girth was proportionate; he had enormous hands and feet, large features, and a magnificent long dark brown beard; owing to this beard his necktie was never seen. But the most magnificent thing about him was his bass voice, acknowledged to be the finest bass in the town, and one of the finest even in Hanbridge, where, in his earlier prime, James had lived as a 'news comp' on the "Staffordshire Signal." He was now a 'jobbing comp' in Bursley, because Bursley was his native town and because he preferred jobbing. He made the fourth and heaviest member of the celebrated Bursley Male Glee Party, the other three being Arthur Smallrice, an old man with a striking falsetto voice, Abraham Harracles, and Jos Rawnpike (pronounced Rampick). These men were accustomed to fame, and Big James was the king of them, though the mildest. They sang at dinners, free-and-easies, concerts, and Martinmas tea-meetings. They sang for the glory, and when there was no demand for their services, they sang to themselves, for the sake of singing. Each of them was a star in some church or chapel choir. And except Arthur Smallrice, they all shared a certain elasticity of religious opinion. Big James, for example, had varied in ten years from Wesleyan, through Old Church, to Roman Catholic up at Bleakridge. It all depended on niceties in the treatment accorded to him, and on the choice of anthems. Moreover, he liked a change.
He was what his superiors called 'a very superior man.' Owing to the more careful enunciation required in singing, he had lost a great deal of the Five Towns accent, and one cannot be a compositor for a quarter of a century without insensibly acquiring an education and a store of knowledge far excelling the ordinary. His manner was gentle, and perhaps somewhat pompous, as is common with very big men; but you could never be sure whether an extremely subdued humour did not underlie his pomposity. He was a bachelor, aged forty-five, and lived quietly with a married sister at the bottom of Woodisun Bank, near the National Schools. The wonder was that, with all his advantages, he had not more deeply impressed himself upon Bursley as an individuality, and not merely as a voice. But he seemed never to seek to do so. He was without ambition; and, though curiously careful sometimes about preserving his own dignity, and beyond question sensitive by temperament, he showed marked respect, and even humility, to the worldly-successful. Despite his bigness and simplicity there was something small about him which came out in odd trifling details. Thus it was characteristic of Big James to ask Edwin to be waiting for him at the back gates in Woodisun Bank when he might just as easily have met him at the side door by the closed shop in Wedgwood Street.
Edwin, who from mere pride had said nothing to his sisters about the impending visit to the Dragon, was a little surprised and dashed to see Big James in broadcloth and a high hat; for he had not dreamed of changing his own everyday suit, nor had it occurred to him that the Dragon was a temple of ceremoniousness. Big James looked enormous. The wide lapel of his shining frock-coat was buttoned high up under his beard and curved downwards for a distance of considerably more than a yard to his knees: it was a heroic frock-coat. The sleeves were wide, but narrowing at the wrists, and the white wristbands were very tight. The trousers fell in ample folds on the uppers of the gigantic boots. Big James had a way of sticking out his chest and throwing his head back which would have projected the tip of his beard ten inches forth from his body, had the beard been stiff; but the soft silkiness of the beard frustrated this spectacular phenomenon which would have been very interesting to witness.
The pair stepped across Trafalgar Road together, Edwin, though he tried to be sedate, nothing but a frisking morsel by the side of the vast monument. Compared with the architectural grandeur of Mr Varlett, his thin, supple, free-moving limbs had an almost pathetic appearance of ephemeral fragility.
Big James directed himself to the archway leading to the Dragon stables, and there he saw an ostler or oddman. Edwin, feeling the imminence of an ordeal, surreptitiously explored a pocket to be sure that the proof of the wedding-card was safely there.
The ostler raised his reddish eyebrows to Big James. Big James jerked his head to one side, indicating apparently the entire Dragon, and simultaneously conveying a query. The ostler paused immobile an instant and then shook his insignificant turnip-pate. Big James turned away. No word had been spoken; nevertheless, the men had exchanged a dialogue which might be thus put into words—
"I wasn't thinking to see ye so soon," from the ostler.
"Then nobody of any importance has yet gone into the assembly room?" from Big James.
"Nobody worth speaking of, and won't, for a while," from the other.
"Then I'll take a turn," from Big James.
The latter now looked down at Edwin, and addressed him in words—
"Seemingly we're too soon, Mr Edwin. What do you say to a turn round the town—playground way? I doubted we should be too soon."
Edwin showed alacrity. As a schoolboy it had been definitely forbidden to him to go out at night; and unless sent on a special and hurried errand, he had scarcely seen the physiognomy of the streets after eight o'clock. He had never seen the playground in the evening. And this evening the town did not seem like the same town; it had become a new and mysterious town of adventure. And yet Edwin was not fifty yards away from his own bedroom.
They ascended Duck Bank together, Edwin proud to be with a celebrity of the calibre of Big James, and Big James calmly satisfied to show himself thus formally with his master's son. It appeared almost incredible that those two immortals, so diverse, had issued from the womb practically alike; that a few brief years on the earth had given Big James such a tremendous physical advantage. Several hours' daily submission to the exact regularities of lines of type and to the unvarying demands of minutely adjusted machines in motion had stamped Big James's body and mind with the delicate and quasi-finicking preciseness which characterises all compositors and printers; and the continual monotonous performance of similar tasks that employed his faculties while never absorbing or straining them, had soothed and dulled the fever of life in him to a beneficent calm, a calm refined and beautified by the pleasurable exercise of song. Big James had seldom known a violent emotion. He had craved nothing, sought for nothing, and lost nothing.
Edwin, like Big James in progress from everlasting to everlasting, was all inchoate, unformed, undisciplined, and burning with capricious fires; all expectant, eager, reluctant, tingling, timid, innocently and wistfully audacious. By taking the boy's hand, Big James might have poetically symbolised their relation.
"Are you going to sing to-night at the Dragon, Mr Yarlett?" asked Edwin. He lengthened his step to Big James's, controlled his ardent body, and tried to remember that he was a man with a man.
"I am, young sir," said Big James. "There is a party of us."
"Is it the Male Glee Party?" Edwin pursued.
"Yes, Mr Edwin."
"Then Mr Smallrice will be there?"
"He will, Mr Edwin."
"Why can Mr Smallrice sing such high notes?"
Big James slowly shook his head, as Edwin looked up at him. "I tell you what it is, young sir. It's a gift, that's what it is, same as I can sing low."
"But Mr Smallrice is very old, isn't he?"
"There's a parrot in a cage over at the Duck, there, as is eighty-five years old, and that's proved by record kept, young sir."
"No!" protested Edwin's incredulity politely.
"By record kept," said Big James.
"Do you often sing at the Dragon, Mr Yarlett?"
"Time was," said Big James, "when some of us used to sing there every night, Sundays excepted, and concerts and whatnot excepted. Aye! For hours and hours every night. And still do sometimes."
"After your work?"
"After our work. Aye! And often till dawn in summer. One o'clock, two o'clock, half-past two o'clock, every night. But now they say that this new Licensing Act will close every public-house in this town at eleven o'clock, and a straight-up eleven at that!"
"But what do you do it for?"
"What do we do it for? We do it to pass the time and the glass, young sir. Not as I should like you to think as I ever drank, Mr Edwin. One quart of ale I take every night, and have ever done; no more, no less."
"But"—Edwin's rapid, breaking voice interrupted eagerly the deep majestic tones—"aren't you tired the next day? I should be!"
"Never," said Big James. "I get up from my bed as fresh as a daisy at six sharp. And I've known the nights when my bed ne'er saw me."
"You must be strong, Mr Yarlett, my word!" Edwin exclaimed. These revelations of the habits and prowess of Big James astounded him. He had never suspected that such things went on in the town.
"I suppose it's a free-and-easy at the Dragon, to-night, Mr Yarlett?"
"In a manner of speaking," said Big James.
"I wish I could stay for it."
"And why not?" Big James suggested, and looked down at Edwin with half-humorous incertitude.
Edwin shrugged his shoulders superiorly, indicating by instinct, in spite of himself, that possibly Big James was trespassing over the social line that divided them. And yet Big James's father would have condescended to Edwin's grandfather. Only, Edwin now belonged to the employing class, whilst Big James belonged to the employed. Already Edwin, whose father had been thrashed by workmen whom a compositor would hesitate to call skilled—already Edwin had the mien natural to a ruler, and Big James, with dignified deference, would submit unresentingly to his attitude. It was the subtlest thing. It was not that Edwin obscurely objected to the suggestion of his being present at the free-and-easy; it was that he objected (but nicely, and with good nature) to any assumption of Big James's right to influence him towards an act that his father would not approve. Instead of saying, "Why not?" Big James ought to have said: "Nobody but you can decide that, as your father's away." James ought to have been strictly impartial.
"Well," said Big James, when they arrived at the playground, which lay north of the covered Meat Market or Shambles, "it looks as if they hadn't been able to make a start yet at the Blood Tub." His tone was marked by a calm, grand disdain, as of one entertainer talking about another.
The Blood Tub, otherwise known as Snaggs's, was the centre of nocturnal pleasure in Bursley. It stood almost on the very spot where the jawbone of a whale had once lain, as a supreme natural curiosity. It represented the softened manners which had developed out of the old medievalism of the century. It had supplanted the bear-pit and the cock-pit. It corresponded somewhat with the ideals symbolised by the new Town Hall. In the tiny odorous beer-houses of all the undulating, twisting, reddish streets that surrounded the contiguous open spaces of Duck Bank, the playground, the market-place, and Saint Luke's Square, the folk no longer discussed eagerly what chance on Sunday morning the municipal bear would have against five dogs. They had progressed as far as a free library, boxing-gloves, rabbit-coursing, and the Blood Tub.
This last was a theatre with wooden sides and a canvas roof, and it would hold quite a crowd of people. In front of it was a platform, and an orchestra, lighted by oil flares that, as Big James and Edwin approached, were gaining strength in the twilight. Leaning against the platform was a blackboard on which was chalked the announcement of two plays: "The Forty Thieves" (author unstated) and Cruikshank's "The Bottle." The orchestra, after terrific concussions, fell silent, and then a troupe of players in costume, cramped on the narrow trestle boards, performed a sample scene from "The Forty Thieves," just to give the crowd in front an idea of the wonders of this powerful work. And four thieves passed and repassed behind the screen hiding the doors, and reappeared nine times as four fresh thieves until the tale of forty was complete. And then old Hammerad, the beloved clown who played the drum (and whose wife kept a barber's shop in Buck Row and shaved for a penny), left his drum and did two minutes' stiff clowning, and then the orchestra burst forth again, and the brazen voice of old Snaggs (in his moleskin waistcoat) easily rode the storm, adjuring the folk to walk up and walk up: which some of the folk did do. And lastly the band played "God Save the Queen," and the players, followed by old Snaggs, processionally entered the booth.
"I lay they come out again," said Big James, with grim blandness.
"Why?" asked Edwin. He was absolutely new to the scene.
"I lay they haven't got twenty couple inside," said Big James.
And in less than a minute the troupe did indeed emerge, and old Snaggs expostulated with a dilatory public, respectfully but firmly. It had been a queer year for Mr Snaggs. Rain had ruined the Wakes; rain had ruined everything; rain had nearly ruined him. July was obviously not a month in which a self-respecting theatre ought to be open, but Mr Snaggs had got to the point of catching at straws. He stated that in order to prove his absolute bona fides the troupe would now give a scene from that world-renowned and unique drama, "The Bottle," after which the performance really would commence, since he could not as a gentleman keep his kind patrons within waiting any longer. His habit, which emphasised itself as he grew older, was to treat the staring crowd in front of his booth like a family of nephews and nieces. The device was quite useless, for the public's stolidity was impregnable. It touched the heroic. No more granitic and crass stolidity could have been discovered in England. The crowd stood; it exercised no other function of existence. It just stood, and there it would stand until convinced that the gratis part of the spectacle was positively at an end.
With a ceremonious gesture signifying that he assumed the young sir's consent, Big James turned away. He had displayed to Edwin the poverty and the futility of the Blood Tub. Edwin would perhaps have liked to stay. The scenes enacted on the outer platform were certainly tinged with the ridiculous, but they were the first histrionics that he had ever witnessed; and he could not help thinking, hoping, in spite of his common sense, that within the booth all was different, miraculously transformed into the grand and the impressive. Left to himself, he would surely have preferred an evening at the Blood Tub to a business interview with Mr Enoch Peake at the Dragon. But naturally he had to scorn the Blood Tub with a scorn equal to the massive and silent scorn of Big James. And on the whole he considered that he was behaving as a man with another man rather well. He sought by depreciatory remarks to keep the conversation at its proper adult level.
Big James led him through the market-place, where a few vegetable, tripe, and gingerbread stalls—relics of the day's market—were still attracting customers in the twilight. These slatternly and picturesque groups, beneath their flickering yellow flares, were encamped at the gigantic foot of the Town Hall porch as at the foot of a precipice. The monstrous black walls of the Town Hall rose and were merged in gloom; and the spire of the Town Hall, on whose summit stood a gold angel holding a gold crown, rose right into the heavens and was there lost. It was marvellous that this town, by adding stone to stone, had upreared this monument which, in expressing the secret nobility of its ideals, dwarfed the town. On every side of it the beer-houses, full of a dulled, savage ecstasy of life, gleamed brighter than the shops. Big James led Edwin down through the mysteries of the Cock Yard and up along Bugg's Gutter, and so back to the Dragon.
VOLUME ONE, CHAPTER TEN.
FREE AND EASY.
When Edwin, shyly, followed Big James into the assembly room of the Dragon, it already held a fair sprinkling of men, and newcomers continued to drop in. They were soberly and respectably clothed, though a few had knotted handkerchiefs round their necks instead of collars and ties. The occasion was a jollity of the Bursley Mutual Burial Club. This Club, a singular example of that dogged private co-operative enterprise which so sharply distinguishes English corporate life from the corporate life of other European countries, had lustily survived from a period when men were far less sure of a decent burial than they were then, in the very prosperous early seventies. It had helped to maintain the barbaric fashion of ostentatiously expensive funerals, out of which undertakers and beer-sellers made vast sums; but it had also provided a basis of common endeavour and of fellowship. And its respectability was intense, and at the same time broad-minded. To be an established subscriber to the Burial Club was evidence of good character and of social spirit. The periodic jollities of this company of men whose professed aim was to bury each other, had a high reputation for excellence. Up till a year previously they had always been held at the Duck, in Duck Square, opposite; but Mr Enoch Peake, Chairman of the Club, had by persistent and relentless chicane, triumphing over immense influences, changed their venue to the Dragon, whose landlady, Mrs Louisa Loggerheads, he was then courting. (It must be stated that Mrs Louisa's name contained no slur of cantankerousness; it is merely the local word for a harmless plant, the knapweed.) He had now won Mrs Loggerheads, after being a widower thrice, and with her the second best 'house' in the town.
There were long benches down the room, with forms on either side of them. Big James, not without pomp, escorted a blushing Edwin to the end of one of these tables, near a small raised platform that occupied the extremity of the room. Over this platform was printed a legend: "As a bird is known by its note—"; and over the legend was a full-rigged ship in a glass case, and a pair of antlers. The walls of the room were dark brown, the ceiling grey with soot of various sorts, and the floor tiled red-and-black and sanded. Smoke rose in spirals from about a score of churchwarden pipes and as many cutties, which were charged from tin pouches, and lighted by spills of newspaper from the three double gas-jets that hung down over the benches. Two middle-aged women, one in black and the other checked, served beer, porter, and stout in mugs, and gin in glasses, passing in and out through a side door. The company talked little, and it had not yet begun seriously to drink; but, sprawled about in attitudes of restful abeyance, it was smoking religiously, and the flat noise of solemn expectorations punctuated the minutes. Edwin was easily the youngest person present—the average age appeared to be about fifty—but nobody's curiosity seemed to be much stirred by his odd arrival, and he ceased gradually to blush. When, however, one of the women paused before him in silent question, and he had to explain that he required no drink because he had only called for a moment about a matter of business, he blushed again vigorously.
Then Mr Enoch Peake appeared. He was a short, stout old man, with fat hands, a red, minutely wrinkled face, and very small eyes. Greeted with the respect due to the owner of Cocknage Gardens, a sporting resort where all the best foot-racing and rabbit-coursing took place, he accepted it in somnolent indifference, and immediately took off his coat and sat down in cotton shirt-sleeves. Then he pulled out a red handkerchief and his tobacco-box, and set them on the table. Big James motioned to Edwin.
"Evening, Mr Peake," said Big James, crossing the floor, "and here's a young gent wishful for two words with you."
Mr Peake stared vacantly.
"Young Mr Clayhanger," explained Big James.
"It's about this card," Edwin began, in a whisper, drawing the wedding-card sheepishly from his pocket. "Father had to go to Manchester," he added, when he had finished.
Mr Enoch Peake seized the card in both hands, and examined it; and Edwin could hear his heavy breathing.
Mrs Louisa Loggerheads, a comfortable, smiling administrative woman of fifty, showed herself at the service-door, and nodded with dignity to a few of the habitues.
"Missis is at door," said Big James to Mr Peake.
"Is her?" muttered Mr Peake, not interrupting his examination of the card.
One of the serving-women, having removed Mr Peake's coat, brought a new church warden, filled it, and carefully directed the tip towards his tight little mouth: the lips closed on it. Then she lighted a spill and applied it to the distant bowl, and the mouth puffed; and then the woman deposited the bowl cautiously on the bench. Lastly, she came with a small glass of sloe gin. Mr Peake did not move.
At length Mr Peake withdrew the pipe from his mouth, and after an interval said—
He continued to stare at the card, now held in one hand.
"And is it to be printed in silver?" Edwin asked.
Mr Peake took a few more puffs.
When he had stared further for a long time at the card, his hand moved slowly with it towards Edwin, and Edwin resumed possession of it.
Mrs Louisa Loggerheads had now vanished.
"Missis has gone," said Big James.
"Has her?" muttered Mr Peake.
Edwin rose to leave, though unwillingly; but Big James asked him in polite reproach whether he should not stay for the first song. He nodded, encouraged; and sat down. He did not know that the uppermost idea in Big James's mind for an hour past had been that Edwin would hear him sing.
Mr Peake lifted his glass, held it from him, approached his lips towards it, and emptied it at a draught. He then glanced round and said thickly—
"Gentlemen all, Mester Smallrice, Mester Harracles, Mester Rampick, and Mester Yarlett will now oblige with one o' th' ould favourites."
There was some applause, a few coats were removed, and Mr Peake fixed himself in a contemplative attitude.
Messrs. Arthur Smallrice, Abraham Harracles, Jos Rawnpike, and James Yarlett rose, stepped heavily on to the little platform, and stood in a line with their hands in their pockets. "As a bird is known by its note—" was hidden by the rampart of their shoulders. They had no music. They knew the music; they had sung it a thousand times. They knew precisely the effects which they wished to produce, and the means of production. They worked together like an inspired machine. Mr Arthur Smallrice gave a rapid glance into a corner, and from that corner a concertina spoke—one short note. Then began, with no hesitating shuffling preliminaries nor mute consultations, the singing of that classic quartet, justly celebrated from Hull to Wigan and from Northallerton to Lichfield, "Loud Ocean's Roar." The thing was performed with absolute assurance and perfection. Mr Arthur Smallrice did the yapping of the short waves on the foam-veiled rocks, and Big James in fullest grandeur did the long and mighty rolling of the deep. It was majestic, terrific, and overwhelming. Many bars before the close Edwin was thrilled, as by an exquisite and vast revelation. He tingled from head to foot. He had never heard any singing like it, or any singing in any way comparable to it. He had never guessed that song held such possibilities of emotion. The pure and fine essential qualities of the voices, the dizzying harmonies, the fugal calls and responses, the strange relief of the unisons, and above all the free, natural mien of the singers, proudly aware that they were producing something beautiful that could not be produced more beautifully, conscious of unchallenged supremacy,—all this enfevered him to an unprecedented and self-astonished enthusiasm.
He murmured under his breath, as "Loud Ocean's Roar" died away and the little voices of the street supervened: "By Gad! By Gad!"
The applause was generous. Edwin stamped and clapped with childlike violence and fury. Mr Peake slowly and regularly thumped one fist on the bench, puffing the while. Glasses and mugs could be seen, but not heard, dancing. Mr Arthur Smallrice, Mr Abraham Harracles, Mr Jos Rawnpike, and Mr James Yarlett, entirely inattentive to the acclamations, stepped heavily from the platform and sat down. When Edwin caught Big James's eye he clapped again, reanimating the general approval, and Big James gazed at him with bland satisfaction. Mr Enoch Peake was now, save for the rise and fall of his great chest, as immobile and brooding as an Indian god.
Edwin did not depart. He reflected that, even if his father should come home earlier than the last train and prove curious, it would be impossible for him to know the exact moment at which his son had been able to have speech with Mr Enoch Peake on the important matter of business. For aught his father could ever guess he might have been prevented from obtaining the attention of the chairman of the proceedings until, say, eleven o'clock. Also, he meant to present his conduct to his father in the light of an enterprising and fearless action showing a marked aptitude for affairs. Mr Enoch Peake, whom his father was anxious to flatter, had desired his father's company at the Dragon, and, to save the situation, Edwin had courageously gone instead: that was it.
Besides, he would have stayed in any case. His mind was elevated above the fear of consequences.
There was some concertina-playing, with a realistic imitation of church bells borne on the wind from a distance; and then the Bursley Prize Handbell Ringers (or Campanologists) produced a whole family of real bells from under a form, and the ostler and the two women arranged a special table, and the campanologists fixed their bells on it and themselves round it, and performed a selection of Scotch and Irish airs, without once deceiving themselves as to the precise note which a chosen bell would emit when duly shaken.
Singular as was this feat, it was far less so than a young man's performance of the ophicleide, a serpentine instrument that coiled round and about its player, and when breathed into persuasively gave forth prodigious brassy sounds that resembled the night-noises of beasts of prey. This item roused the Indian god from his umbilical contemplations, and as the young ophicleide player, somewhat breathless, passed down the room with his brazen creature in his arms, Mr Enoch Peake pulled him by the jacket-tail.
"Eh!" said Mr Enoch Peake. "Is that the ophicleide as thy father used to play at th' owd church?"
"Yes, Mr Peake," said the young man, with bright respect.
Mr Peake dropped his eyes again, and when the young man had gone, he murmured, to his stomach—
"I well knowed it were th' ophicleide as his father used to play at th' owd church!" And suddenly starting up, he continued hoarsely, "Gentlemen all, Mr James Yarlett will now kindly oblige with 'The Miller of the Dee.'" And one of the women relighted his pipe and served him with beer.
Big James's rendering of "The Miller of the Dee" had been renowned in the Five Towns since 1852. It was classical, hallowed. It was the only possible rendering of "The Miller of the Dee." If the greatest bass in the world had come incognito to Bursley and sung "The Miller of the Dee," people would have said, "Ah! But ye should hear Big James sing it!" It suited Big James. The sentiments of the song were his sentiments; he expressed them with natural simplicity; but at the same time they underwent a certain refinement at his hands; for even when he sang at his loudest Big James was refined, natty, and restrained. His instinctive gentlemanliness was invincible and all-pervading. And the real beauty and enormous power of his magnificent voice saved him by its mere distinction from the charge of being finicking. The simple sound of the voice gave pleasure. And the simple production of that sound was Big James's deepest joy. Amid all the expected loud applause the giant looked naively for Edwin's boyish mad enthusiasm, and felt it; and was thrilled, and very glad that he had brought Edwin. As for Edwin, Edwin was humbled that he should have been so blind to what Big James was. He had always regarded Big James as a dull, decent, somewhat peculiar fellow in a dirty apron, who was his father's foreman. He had actually talked once to Big James of the wonderful way in which Maggie and Clara sang, and Big James had been properly respectful. But the singing of Maggie and Clara was less than nothing, the crudest amateurism, compared to these public performances of Big James's. Even the accompanying concertina was far more cleverly handled than the Clayhanger piano had ever been handled. Yes, Edwin was humbled. And he had a great wish to be able to do something brilliantly himself—he knew not what. The intoxication of the desire for glory was upon him as he sat amid those shirt-sleeved men, near the brooding Indian god, under a crawling bluish canopy of smoke, gazing absently at the legend: "As a bird is known by its note—"
After an interval, during which Mr Enoch Peake was roused more than once, a man with a Lancashire accent recited a poem entitled "The Patent Hairbrushing Machine," the rotary hairbrush being at that time an exceedingly piquant novelty that had only been heard of in the barbers' shops of the Five Towns, though travellers to Manchester could boast that they had sat under it. As the principle of the new machine was easily grasped, and the sensations induced by it easily imagined, the recitation had a success which was indicated by slappings of thighs and great blowings-off of mirth. But Mr Enoch Peake preserved his tranquillity throughout it, and immediately it was over he announced with haste—
"Gentlemen all, Miss Florence Simcox—or shall us say Mrs Offlow, wife of the gentleman who has just obliged—the champion female clog-dancer of the Midlands, will now oblige."
These words put every man whom they surprised into a state of unusual animation; and they surprised most of the company. It may be doubted whether a female clog-dancer had ever footed it in Bursley. Several public-houses possessed local champions—of a street, of a village—but these were emphatically not women. Enoch Peake had arranged this daring item in the course of his afternoon's business at Cocknage Gardens, Mr Offlow being an expert in ratting terriers, and Mrs Offlow happening to be on a tour with her husband through the realms of her championship, a tour which mingled the varying advantages derivable from terriers, recitations, and clogs. The affair was therefore respectable beyond cavil.
Nevertheless when Florence shone suddenly at the service-door, the shortness of her red-and-black velvet skirts, and the undeniable complete visibility of her rounded calves produced an uneasy and agreeable impression that Enoch Peake, for a chairman of the Mutual Burial Club, had gone rather far, superbly far, and that his moral ascendancy over Louisa Loggerheads must indeed be truly astonishing. Louisa now stood gravely behind the dancer, in the shadow of the doorway, and the contrast between her and Florence was in every way striking enough to prove what a wonderful and mysterious man Enoch Peake was. Florence was accustomed to audiences. She was a pretty, doll-like woman, if inclined to amplitude; but the smile between those shaking golden ringlets had neither the modesty nor the false modesty nor the docility that Bursley was accustomed to think proper to the face of woman. It could have stared down any man in the place, except perhaps Mr Peake.
The gestures of Mr Offlow, and her gestures, as he arranged and prepared the surface of the little square dancing-board that was her throne, showed that he was the husband of Florence Simcox rather than she the wife of Offlow the reciter and dog-fancier. Further, it was his role to play the concertina to her: he had had to learn the concertina— possibly a secret humiliation for one whose judgement in terriers was not excelled in many public-houses.
She danced; and the service-doorway showed a vista of open-mouthed scullions. There was no sound in the room, save the concertina and the champion clogs. Every eye was fixed on those clogs; even the little eyes of Mr Peake quitted the button of his waistcoat and burned like diamond points on those clogs. Florence herself chiefly gazed on those clogs, but occasionally her nonchalant petulant gaze would wander up and down her bare arms and across her bosom. At intervals, with her ringed fingers she would lift the short skirt—a nothing, an imperceptibility, half an inch, with glance downcast; and the effect was profound, recondite, inexplicable. Her style was not that of a male dog-dancer, but it was indubitably clog-dancing, full of marvels to the connoisseur, and to the profane naught but a highly complicated series of wooden noises. Florence's face began to perspire. Then the concertina ceased playing, so that an undistracted attention might be given to the supremely difficult final figures of the dance.
And thus was rendered back to the people in the charming form of beauty that which the instinct of the artist had taken from the sordid ugliness of the people. The clog, the very emblem of the servitude and the squalor of brutalised populations, was changed, on the light feet of this favourite, into the medium of grace. Few of these men but at some time of their lives had worn the clog, had clattered in it through winter's slush, and through the freezing darkness before dawn, to the manufactory and the mill and the mine, whence after a day of labour under discipline more than military, they had clattered back to their little candle-lighted homes. One of the slatterns behind the doorway actually stood in clogs to watch the dancer. The clog meant everything that was harsh, foul, and desolating; it summoned images of misery and disgust. Yet on those feet that had never worn it seriously, it became the magic instrument of pleasure, waking dulled wits and forgotten aspirations, putting upon everybody an enchantment... And then, suddenly, the dancer threw up one foot as high as her head and brought two clogs down together like a double mallet on the board, and stood still. It was over.
Mrs Louisa Loggerheads turned nervously away, pushing her servants in front of her. And when the society of mutual buriers had recovered from the startling shameless insolence of that last high kick, it gave the rein to its panting excitement, and roared and stamped. Edwin was staggered. The blood swept into his face, a hot tide. He was ravished, but he was also staggered. He did not know what to think of Florence, the champion female clog-dancer. He felt that she was wondrous; he felt that he could have gazed at her all night; but he felt that she had put him under the necessity of reconsidering some of his fundamental opinions. For example, he was obliged to admit within himself a lessening of scorn for the attitude toward each other of Miss Ingamells and her young man. He saw those things in a new light. And he reflected, dazzled by the unforeseen chances of existence: "Yesterday I was at school—and to-day I see this!" He was so preoccupied by his own intimate sensations that the idea of applauding never occurred to him, until he perceived his conspicuousness in not applauding, whereupon he clapped self-consciously.
Miss Florence Simcox, somewhat breathless, tripped away, with simulated coyness and many curtseys. She had done her task, and as a woman she had to go: this was a gathering of members of the Mutual Burial Club, a masculine company, and not meet for females. The men pulled themselves together, remembering that their proudest quality was a stoic callousness that nothing could overthrow. They refilled pipes, ordered more beer, and resumed the mask of invulnerable solemnity.
"Aye!" muttered Mr Enoch Peake.
Edwin, with a great effort, rose and walked out. He would have liked to say good night to Big James; he did not deny that he ought to have done so; but he dared not complicate his exit. On the pavement outside, in the warm damp night, a few loitering listeners stood doggedly before an open window, hearkening, their hands deep in their pockets, motionless. And Edwin could hear Mr Enoch Peake: "Gentlemen all, Mester Arthur Smallrice, Mester Abraham Harracles, Mester Jos Rampick, and Mester James Yarlett—"
VOLUME ONE, CHAPTER ELEVEN.
SON AND FATHER.
Later that evening, Edwin sat at a small deal table in the embrasure of the dormer window of the empty attic next to his bedroom. During the interval between tea and the rendezvous with Big James he had formally planted his flag in that room. He had swept it out with a long-brush, while Clara stood at the door giggling at the spectacle and telling him that he had no right thus to annex territory in the absence of the overlord. He had mounted a pair of steps, and put a lot of lumber through a trap at the head of the stairs into the loft. And he had got a table, a lamp, and a chair. That was all that he needed for the moment. He had gone out to meet Big James with his head quite half-full of this vague attic-project, but the night sights of Bursley, and especially the music at the Dragon, and still more especially the dancing at the Dragon, had almost expelled the attic-project from his head. When he returned unobtrusively into the house and learnt from a disturbed Mrs Nixon, who was sewing in the kitchen, that he was understood to be in his new attic, and that his sisters had gone to bed, the enchantment of the attic had instantly resumed much of its power over him, and he had hurried upstairs fortified with a slice of bread and half a cold sausage. He had eaten the food absently in gulps while staring at the cover of "Cazenove's Architectural Views of European Capitals," abstracted from the shop without payment. Then he had pinned part of a sheet of cartridge-paper on an old drawing-board which he possessed, and had sat down. For his purpose the paper ought to have been soaked and stretched on the board with paste, but that would have meant a delay of seven or eight hours, and he was not willing to wait. Though he could not concentrate his mind to begin, his mind could not be reconciled to waiting. So he had decided to draw his picture in pencil outline, and then stretch the paper early on Sunday morning; it would dry during chapel. His new box of paints, a cracked T-square, and some india-rubber also lay on the table.
He had chosen "View of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame Paris, from the Pont des Arts." It pleased him by the coloration of the old houses in front of Notre-Dame, and the reflections in the water of the Seine, and the elusive blueness of the twin towers amid the pale grey clouds of a Parisian sky. A romantic scene! He wanted to copy it exactly, to recreate it from beginning to end, to feel the thrill of producing each wonderful effect himself. Yet he sat inactive. He sat and vaguely gazed at the slope of Trafalgar Road with its double row of yellow jewels, beautifully ascending in fire to the ridge of the horizon and there losing itself in the deep and solemn purple of the summer night; and he thought how ugly and commonplace all that was, and how different from all that were the noble capitals of Europe. Scarcely a sound came through the open window; song doubtless still gushed forth at the Dragon, and revellers would not for hours awake the street on their way to the exacerbating atmosphere of home.
He had no resolution to take up the pencil. Yet after the Male Glee Party had sung "Loud Ocean's Roar," he remembered that he had had a most clear and distinct impulse to begin drawing architecture at once, and to do something grand and fine, as grand and fine as the singing, something that would thrill people as the singing thrilled. If he had not rushed home instantly it was solely because he had been held back by the stronger desire to hear more music and by the hope of further novel and exciting sensations. But Florence the clog-dancer had easily diverted the seeming-powerful current of his mind. He wanted as much as ever to do wondrous things, and to do them soon, but it appeared to him that he must think out first the enigmatic subject of Florence, Never had he seen any female creature as he saw her, and ephemeral images of her were continually forming and dissolving before him. He could come to no conclusion at all about the subject of Florence. Only his boyish pride was gradually being beaten back by an oncoming idea that up to that very evening he had been a sort of rather silly kid with no eyes in his head.
It was in order to ignore for a time this unsettling and humiliating idea that, finally, he began to copy the outlines of the Parisian scene on his cartridge-paper. He was in no way a skilled draughtsman, but he had dabbled in pencils and colours, and he had lately picked up from a handbook the hint that in blocking out a drawing the first thing to do was to observe what points were vertically under what points, and what points horizontal with what points. He seemed to see the whole secret of draughtsmanship in this priceless counsel, which, indeed, with an elementary knowledge of geometry acquired at school, and the familiarity of his fingers with a pencil, constituted the whole of his technical equipment. All the rest was mere desire. Happily the architectural nature of the subject made it more amenable than, say, a rural landscape to the use of a T-square and common sense. And Edwin considered that he was doing rather well until, quitting measurements and rulings, he arrived at the stage of drawing the detail of the towers. Then at once the dream of perfect accomplishment began to fade at the edges, and the crust of faith to yield ominously. Each stroke was a falling-away from the ideal, a blow to hope.
And suddenly a yawn surprised him, and recalled him to the existence of his body. He thought: "I can't really be tired. It would be absurd to go to bed." For his theory had long been that the notions of parents about bedtime were indeed absurd, and that he would be just as thoroughly reposed after three hours sleep as after ten. And now that he was a man he meant to practise his theory so far as circumstances allowed. He looked at his watch. It was turned half-past eleven. A delicious wave of joy and of satisfaction animated him. He had never been up so late, within his recollection, save on a few occasions when even infants were allowed to be up late. He was alone, secreted, master of his time and his activity, his mind charged with novel impressions, and a congenial work in progress. Alone? ... It was as if he was spiritually alone in the vast solitude of the night. It was as if he could behold the unconscious forms of all humanity, sleeping. This feeling that only he had preserved consciousness and energy, that he was the sole active possessor of the mysterious night, affected him in the most exquisite manner. He had not been so nobly happy in his life. And at the same time he was proud, in a childlike way, of being up so late.
He heard the door being pushed open, and he gave a jump and turned his head. His father stood in the entrance to the attic.
"Hello, father!" he said weakly, ingratiatingly.
"What art doing at this time o' night, lad?" Darius Clayhanger demanded.
Strange to say, the autocrat was not angered by the remarkable sight in front of him. Edwin knew that his father would probably come home from Manchester on the mail train, which would stop to set down a passenger at Shawport by suitable arrangement. And he had expected that his father would go to bed, as usual on such evenings, after having eaten the supper left for him in the sitting-room. His father's bedroom was next door to the sitting-room. Save for Mrs Nixon in a distant nook, Edwin had the attic floor to himself. He ought to have been as safe from intrusion there as in the farthest capital of Europe. His father did not climb the attic stairs once in six months. So that he had regarded himself as secure. Still, he must have positively forgotten the very existence of his father; he must have been 'lost,' otherwise he could not but have heard the footsteps on the stairs.
"I was just drawing," said Edwin, with a little more confidence.
He looked at his father and saw an old man, a man who for him had always been old, generally harsh, often truculent, and seldom indulgent. He saw an ugly, undistinguished, and somewhat vulgar man (far less dignified, for instance, than Big James); a man who had his way by force and scarcely ever by argument; a man whose arguments for or against a given course were simply pitiable, if not despicable. He sometimes indeed thought that there must be a peculiar twist in his father's brain which prevented him from appreciating an adverse point in a debate; he had ceased to expect that his father would listen to reason. Latterly he was always surprised when, as to-night, he caught a glance of mild benevolence on that face; yet he would never fail to respond to such a mood eagerly, without resentment. It might be said that he regarded his father as he regarded the weather, fatalistically. No more than against the weather would he have dreamed of bearing malice against his father, even had such a plan not been unwise and dangerous. He was convinced that his father's interest in him was about the same as the sun's interest in him. His father was nearly always wrapped in business affairs, and seemed to come to the trifling affairs of Edwin with difficulty, as out of an absorbing engrossment.
Assuredly he would have been amazed to know that his father had been thinking of him all the afternoon and evening. But it was so. Darius Clayhanger had been nervous as to the manner in which the boy would acquit himself in the bit of business which had been confided to him. It was the boy's first bit of business. Straightforward as it was, the boy might muddle it, might omit a portion of it, might say the wrong thing, might forget. Darius hoped for the best, but he was afraid. He saw in his son an amiable irresponsible fool. He compared Edwin at sixteen with himself at the same age. Edwin had never had a care, never suffered a privation, never been forced to think for himself. (Darius might more justly have put it—never been allowed to think for himself.) Edwin had lived in cotton-wool, and knew less of the world than his father had known at half his years; much less. Darius was sure that Edwin had never even come near suspecting the miracles which his father had accomplished: this was true, and not merely was Edwin stupendously ignorant, and even pettily scornful, of realities, but he was ignorant of his own ignorance. Education! ... Darius snorted. To Darius it seemed that Edwin's education was like lying down in an orchard in lovely summer and having ripe fruit dropped into your mouth... A cocky infant! A girl! And yet there was something about Edwin that his father admired, even respected and envied ... an occasional gesture, an attitude in walking, an intonation, a smile. Edwin, his own son, had a personal distinction that he himself could never compass. Edwin talked more correctly than his father. He thought differently from his father. He had an original grace. In the essence of his being he was superior to both his father and his sisters. Sometimes when his father saw him walking along the street, or coming into a room, or uttering some simple phrase, or shrugging his shoulders, Darius was aware of a faint thrill. Pride? Perhaps; but he would never have admitted it. An agreeable perplexity rather—a state of being puzzled how he, so common, had begotten a creature so subtly aristocratic ... aristocratic was the word. And Edwin seemed so young, fragile, innocent, and defenceless!
Darius advanced into the attic.
"What about that matter of Enoch Peake's?" he asked, hoping and fearing, really anxious for his son. He defended himself against probable disappointment by preparing to lapse into savage paternal pessimism and disgust at the futility of an offspring nursed in luxury.
"Oh! It's all right," said Edwin eagerly. "Mr Peake sent word he couldn't come, and he wanted you to go across to the Dragon this evening. So I went instead." It sounded dashingly capable.
He finished the recital, and added that of course Big James had not been able to proceed with the job.
"And where's the proof?" demanded Darius. His relief expressed itself in a superficial surliness; but Edwin was not deceived. As his father gazed mechanically at the proof that Edwin produced hurriedly from his pocket, he added with a negligent air—
"There was a free-and-easy on at the Dragon, father."
"Was there?" muttered Darius.
Edwin saw that whatever danger had existed was now over.
"And I suppose," said Darius, with assumed grimness, "if I hadn't happened to ha' seen a light from th' bottom o' th' attic stairs I should never have known aught about all this here?" He indicated the cleansed attic, the table, the lamp, and the apparatus of art.
"Oh yes, you would, father!" Edwin reassured him.
Darius came nearer. They were close together, Edwin twisted on the cane-chair, and his father almost over him. The lamp smelt, and gave off a stuffy warmth; the open window, through which came a wandering air, was a black oblong; the triangular side walls of the dormer shut them intimately in; the house slept.