He wondered what they were saying at the Liberal Club, and smiled disdainfully at the thought of the unseemly language that would animate the luxurious heaviness of the Conservative Club, where prominent publicans gathered after eleven o'clock to uphold the State and arrange a few bets with sporting clients. He admitted, as the supreme importance of the night leaped out at him from the printed page, that, if only for form's sake, he ought to have been at the Liberal Club that evening. He had been requested to go, but had refused, because on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, he always spent the evening in study or in the semblance of study. He would not break that rule even in honour of the culmination of the dazzling career of his political idol. Perhaps another proof of the justice of Maggie's assertion that he was a regular old maid!
He knew what his father would say. His father would be furious. His father in his uncontrolled fury would destroy Gladstone. And such was his father's empire over him that he was almost ready on Gladstone's behalf to adopt an apologetic and slightly shamed attitude to his father concerning this madness of Home Rule—to admit by his self-conscious blushes that it was madness. He well knew that at breakfast the next morning, in spite of any effort to the contrary, he would have a guilty air when his father began to storm. The conception of a separate parliament in Dublin, and of separate taxation, could not stand before his father's anger...
Beneath his window, in the garden, he suddenly heard a faint sound as of somebody in distress.
"What the deuce—!" he exclaimed. "If that isn't the old man I'm—" Startled, he looked at his watch. It was after midnight.
As he opened the garden door, he saw, in the porch where had passed his first secret interview with Hilda, the figure of his father as it were awkwardly rising from the step. The gas had not been turned out in the hall, and it gave a feeble but sufficient illumination to the porch and the nearest parts of the garden. Darius stood silent and apparently irresolute, with a mournful and even despairing face. He wore his best black suit, and a new silk hat and new black gloves, and in one hand he carried a copy of "The Signal" that was very crumpled. He ignored Edwin.
"Hello, father!" said Edwin persuasively. "Anything wrong?"
The heavy figure moved itself into the house without a word, and Edwin shut and bolted the door.
"Funeral go off all right?" Edwin inquired with as much nonchalance as he could. (The thought crossed his mind: "I suppose he hasn't been having a drop too much, for once in a way? Why did he come round into the garden?")
Darius loosed a really terrible sigh. "Yes," he answered, expressing with a single word the most profound melancholy.
Four days previously Edwin and Maggie had seen their father considerably agitated by an item of gossip, casually received, to which it seemed to them he attached an excessive importance. Namely, that old Shushions, having been found straying and destitute by the authorities appointed to deal with such matters, had been taken to the workhouse and was dying there. Darius had heard the news as though it had been a message brought on horseback in a melodrama. "The Bastille!" he exclaimed, in a whisper, and had left the house on the instant. Edwin, while the name of Shushions reminded him of moments when he had most intensely lived, was disposed to regard the case of Mr Shushions philosophically. Of course it was a pity that Mr Shushions should be in the workhouse; but after all, from what Edwin remembered and could surmise, the workhouse would be very much the same as any other house to that senile mentality. Thus Edwin had sagely argued, and Maggie had agreed with him. But to them the workhouse was absolutely nothing but a name. They were no more afraid of the workhouse than of the Russian secret police; and of their father's early history they knew naught.
Mr Shushions had died in the workhouse, and Darius had taken his body out of the workhouse, and had organised for it a funeral which was to be rendered impressive by a procession of Turnhill Sunday school teachers. Edwin's activity in connexion with the funeral had been limited to the funeral cards, in the preparation of which his father had shown an irritability more than usually offensive. And now the funeral was over. Darius had devoted to it the whole of Home Rule Tuesday, and had returned to his house at a singular hour and in a singular condition.
And Edwin, loathing sentimentality and full of the wisdom of nearly thirty years, sedately pitied his father for looking ridiculous and grotesque. He knew for a fact that his father did not see Mr Shushions from one year's end to the next: hence they could not have been intimate friends, or even friends: hence his father's emotion was throughout exaggerated and sentimental. His acquaintance with history and with biography told him that tyrants often carried sentimentality to the absurd, and he was rather pleased with himself for being able thus to correlate the general past and the particular present. What he did not suspect was the existence of circumstances which made the death of Mr Shushions in the workhouse the most distressing tragedy that could by any possibility have happened to Darius Clayhanger.
"Shall I put the gas out, or will you?" he asked, with kindly secret superiority, unaware, with all his omniscience, that the being in front of him was not a successful steam-printer and tyrannical father, but a tiny ragged boy who could still taste the Bastille skilly and still see his mother weeping round the knees of a powerful god named Shushions.
"I—I don't know," said Darius, with another sigh.
The next instant he sat down heavily on the stairs and began openly to blubber. His hat fell off and rolled about undecidedly.
"By Jove!" said Edwin to himself, "I shall have to treat this man like a blooming child!" He was rather startled, and interested. He picked up the hat.
"Better not sit there," he advised. "Come into the dining-room a bit."
"What?" Darius asked feebly.
"Is he deaf?" Edwin thought, and half shouted: "Better not sit there. It's chilly. Come into the dining-room a bit. Come on."
Darius held out a hand, with a gesture inexpressibly sad; and Edwin, almost before he realised what he was doing, took it and assisted his father to his feet and helped him to the twilit dining-room, where Darius fell into a chair. Some bread and cheese had been laid for him on a napkin, and there was a gleam of red in the grate. Edwin turned up the gas, and Darius blinked. His coarse cheeks were all wet.
"Better have your overcoat off, hadn't you?"
Darius shook his head.
"Well, will you eat something?"
Darius shook his head again; then hid his face and violently sobbed.
Edwin was not equal to this situation. It alarmed him, and yet he did not see why it should alarm him. He left the room very quietly, went upstairs, and knocked at Maggie's door. He had to knock several times.
"I say, Mag!"
"What is it?"
"Open the door," he said.
"You can come in."
He opened the door, and within the darkness of the room he could vaguely distinguish a white bed.
"Father's come. He's in a funny state."
"Well, he's crying all over the place, and he won't eat, or do anything!"
"All right," said Maggie—and a figure sat up in the bed. "Perhaps I'd better come down."
She descended immediately in an ulster and loose slippers. Edwin waited for her in the hall.
"Now, father," she said brusquely, entering the dining-room, "what's amiss?"
Darius gazed at her stupidly. "Nothing," he muttered.
"You're very late, I think. When did you have your last meal?"
He shook his head.
"Shall I make you some nice hot tea?"
"Very well," she said comfortingly.
Soon with her hair hanging about her face and hiding it, she was bending over the gleam of fire, and insinuating a small saucepan into the middle of it, and encouraging the gleam with a pair of bellows. Meanwhile Edwin uneasily ranged the room, and Darius sat motionless.
"Seen Gladstone's speech, I suppose?" Edwin said, daring a fearful topic in the extraordinary circumstances.
Darius paid no heed. Edwin and Maggie exchanged a glance. Maggie made the tea direct into a large cup, which she had previously warmed by putting it upside down on the saucepan lid. When it was infused and sweetened, she tasted it, as for a baby, and blew on it, and gave the cup to her father, who, by degrees, emptied it, though not exclusively into his mouth.
"Will you eat something now?" she suggested.
He would not.
"Very well, then, Edwin will help you upstairs."
From her manner Darius might have been a helpless and half-daft invalid for years.
The ascent to bed was processional; Maggie hovered behind. But at the dining-room door Darius, giving no explanation, insisted on turning back: apparently he tried to speak but could not. He had forgotten his "Signal." Snatching at it, he held it like a treasure. All three of them went into the father's bedroom. Maggie turned up the gas. Darius sat on the bed, looking dully at the carpet.
"Better see him into bed," Maggie murmured quickly to Edwin, and Edwin nodded—the nod of capability—as who should say, "Leave all that to me!" But in fact he was exceedingly diffident about seeing his father into bed.
"Now then," Edwin began the business. "Let's get that overcoat off, eh?" To his surprise Darius was most pliant. When the great clumsy figure, with its wet cheeks, stood in trousers, shirt, and socks, Edwin said, "You're all right now, aren't you?" And the figure nodded.
Edwin came out on to the landing, shut the door, and walked about a little in his own room. Then he went back to his father's room. Maggie's door was closed. Darius was already in bed, but the gas was blazing at full.
"You've forgotten the gas," he said lightly and pleasantly, and turned it down to a blue point.
"I say, lad," the old man stopped him, as he was finally leaving.
"What about that Home Rule?"
The voice was weak, infantile. Edwin hesitated. The "Signal" made a patch of white on the ottoman.
"Oh!" he answered soothingly, and yet with condescension, "it's much about what everybody expected. Better leave that till to-morrow."
He shut the door. The landing received light through the open door of his bedroom and from the hall below. He went downstairs, bolted the front door, and extinguished the hall gas. Then he came softly up, and listened at his father's door. Not a sound! He entered his own room and began to undress, and then, half clothed, crept back to his father's door. Now he could hear a heavy, irregular snoring.
"Devilish odd, all this!" he reflected, as he got into bed. Assuredly he had disconcerting thoughts, not all unpleasant. His excitement had even an agreeable, zestful quality.
VOLUME THREE, CHAPTER TWO.
The next morning Edwin overslept himself. He seldom rose easily from his bed, and his first passage down Trafalgar Road to business was notoriously hurried; the whole thoroughfare was acquainted with its special character. Often his father arrived at the shop before him, but Edwin's conscience would say that of course if Darius went down early for his own passion and pleasure, that was Darius's affair. Edwin's official time for beginning work was half-past eight. And at half-past eight, on this morning, he was barely out of the bath. His lateness, however, did not disturb him; there was an excuse for it. He hoped that his father would be in bed, and decided that he must go and see, and, if the old man was still sufficiently pliant, advise him to stay where he was until he had had some food.
But, looking out of the window over a half-buttoned collar, he saw his father dressed and in the garden. Darius had resumed the suit of broadcloth, for some strange reason, and was dragging his feet with painful, heavy slowness along the gravel at the south end of the garden. He carried in his left hand the "Signal," crumpled. A cloth cap, surmounting the ceremonious suit, gave to his head a ridiculous appearance. He was gazing at the earth with an expression of absorbed and acute melancholy. When he reached the end of the path, he looked round, at a loss, then turned, as if on an inefficient pivot, and set himself in motion again. Edwin was troubled by this singular episode. And yet his reason argued with his instinct to the effect that he ought not to be troubled. Evidently the sturdy Darius was not ill. Nothing serious could be the matter. He had been harrowed and fatigued by the funeral; no more. In another day, doubtless, he would be again the harsh employer astoundingly concentrated in affairs and impervious to the emotional appeal of aught else. Nevertheless he made a strange sight, parading his excessive sadness there in the garden.
A knock at Edwin's door! He was startled. "Hold on!" he cried, went to the door, and cautiously opened it. Maggie was on the mat.
"Here's Auntie Clara!" she said in a whisper, perturbed. "She's come about father. Shall you be long?"
"About father? What about father?"
"It seems she saw him last night. He called there. And she was anxious."
"Oh! I see!" Edwin affected to be relieved. Maggie nodded, also affecting, somewhat eagerly, to be relieved. But neither of them was relieved. Auntie Clara calling at half-past eight! Auntie Clara neglecting that which she never neglected—the unalterable and divinely appointed rites for the daily cleansing and ordering of her abode!
"I shall be down in ten secs," said he. "Father's in the garden," he added, almost kindly. "Seems all right."
"Yes," said Maggie, with cheerfulness, and went. He closed the door.
Mrs Hamps was in the drawing-room. She had gone into the drawing-room because it was more secret, better suited to conversation of an exquisite privacy than the dining-room—a public resort at that hour. Edwin perceived at once that she was savouring intensely the strangeness of the occasion, inflating its import and its importance to the largest possible.
"Good morning, dear," she greeted him in a low and significant tone. "I felt I must come up at once. I couldn't fancy any breakfast till I'd been up, so I put on my bonnet and mantle and just came. It's no use fighting against what you feel you must do."
"Hasn't Maggie told you? Your father called to see me last night just after I'd gone upstairs. In fact I'd begun to get ready for bed. I heard the knocking and I came down and lit the gas in the lobby. 'Who's there?' I said. There wasn't any answer, but I made sure I heard some one crying. And when I opened the door, there was your father. 'Oh!' he said. 'Happen you've gone to bed, Clara?' 'No,' I said. 'Come in, do!' But he wouldn't. And he looked so queer. I never saw him look like that before. He's such a strong self-controlled man. I knew he'd been to poor Mr Shushions's funeral. 'I suppose you've been to the funeral, Darius,' I said. And as soon as I said that he burst out crying, and half tumbled down the steps, and off he went! I couldn't go after him, as I was. I didn't know what to do. If anything happened to your father, I don't know what I should do."
"What time was that?" Edwin asked, wondering what on earth she meant—"if anything happened to your father!"
"Half-past ten or hardly. What time did he come home? Very, very late, wasn't it?"
"A little after twelve," he said carelessly. He was sorry that he had inquired as to the hour of the visit to his aunt. Obviously she was ready to build vast and terrible conjectures upon the mysterious interval between half-past ten and midnight.
"You've cut yourself, my dear," she said, indicating with her gloved hand Edwin's chin. "And I'm not surprised. How upsetting it is for you! Of course Maggie's the eldest, and we think a great deal of her, but you're the son—the only son!"
"I know," he said, meaning that he knew he had cut himself, and he pressed his handkerchief to his chin. Within, he was blasphemously fuming. The sentimental accent with which she had finally murmured 'the only son' irritated him extremely, What in the name of God was she driving at? The fact was that, enjoying a domestic crisis with positive sensuality, she was trying to manufacture one! That was it! He knew her. There were times when he could share all Maggie's hatred of Mrs Hamps, and this was one of those times. The infernal woman, with her shaking plumes and her odour of black kid, was enjoying herself! In the thousandth part of a second he invented horrible and grotesque punishments for her, as that all the clothes should suddenly fall off that prim, widowed, odious modesty. Yet, amid the multitude of his sensations—the smarting of his chin, the tingling of all his body after the bath, the fresh vivacity of the morning, the increased consciousness of his own ego, due to insufficient sleep, the queerness of being in the drawing-room at such an hour in conspiratorial talk, the vague disquiet caused at midnight, and now intensified despite his angry efforts to avoid the contagion of Mrs Hamps's mood, and above all the thought of his father gloomily wandering in the garden—amid these confusing sensations, it was precisely an idea communicated to him by his annoying aunt, an obvious idea, an idea not worth uttering, that emerged clear and dramatic: he was the only son.
"There's no need to worry," he said as firmly as he could "The funeral got on his nerves, that's all. He certainly did seem a bit knocked about last night, and I shouldn't have been surprised if he'd stayed in bed to-day. But you see he's up and about." Both of them glanced at the window, which gave on the garden.
"Yes," murmured Mrs Hamps, unconvinced. "But what about his crying? Maggie tells me he was—"
"Oh!" Edwin interrupted her almost roughly. "That's nothing. I've known him cry before."
"Have you?" She seemed taken aback.
"Yes. Years ago. That's nothing fresh."
"It's true he's very sensitive," Mrs Hamps reflected. "That's what we don't realise, maybe, sometimes. Of course if you think he's all right—"
She approached the window, and, leaning over the tripod which held a flower-pot enveloped in pink paper, she drew the white curtain aside, and gazed forth in silence. Darius was still pacing up and down the short path at the extremity of the garden; his eyes were still on the ground, and his features expressive of mournful despair, and at the end of the path he still turned his body round with slow and tedious hesitations. Edwin also could see him through the window. They both watched him; it was as if they were spying on him.
Maggie entered, and said, in an unusual flutter—
"Here's Clara and Albert!"
Clara and her husband came immediately into the drawing-room. The wife, dressed with a certain haste and carelessness, was carrying in her arms her third child, yet unweaned, and she expected a fourth in the early autumn. Clara had matured, she had grown stronger; and despite the asperity of her pretty, pale face there was a charm in the free gestures and the large body of the young and prolific mother. Albert Benbow wore the rough, clay-dusted attire of the small earthenware manufacturer who is away from the works for half an hour. Both of them were electrically charged with importance.
Amid the general self-consciousness Maggie took the baby, and Clara and Mrs Hamps kissed each other tenderly, as though saying, "Affliction is upon us." It was impossible, in the circumstances, to proceed to minute inquiry about the health of the children, but Mrs Hamps expressed all her solicitude in a look, a tone, a lingering of lip on lip. The years were drawing together Mrs Hamps and her namesake. Edwin was often astonished at the increasing resemblance of Clara to her aunt, with whom, thanks to the unconscious intermediacy of babies, she was even indeed quite intimate. The two would discuss with indefatigable gusto all the most minute physical details of motherhood and infancy: and Auntie Clara's presents were worthy of her reputation.
As soon as the kiss was accomplished—no other greeting of any kind occurred—Clara turned sharply to Edwin—
"What's this about father?"
"Oh! He's had a bit of a shock. He's pretty much all right to-day."
"Because Albert's just heard—" She looked at Albert.
Edwin was thunderstruck. Was the tale of his father's indisposition spread all over the Five Towns? He had thought that the arrival of Clara and her husband must be due to Auntie Hamps having called at their house on her way up to Bleakridge. But now he could see, even from his auntie's affrighted demeanour alone, that the Benbows' visit was an independent affair.
"Are you sure he's all right?" Albert questioned, in his superiorly sagacious manner, which mingled honest bullying with a little good-nature.
"Because Albert just heard—" Clara put in again.
The company then heard what Albert had just heard. At his works before breakfast an old hollow-ware-presser, who lived at Turnhill, had casually mentioned that his father-in-law, Mr Clayhanger, had been cutting a very peculiar figure on the previous evening at Turnhill. The hollow-ware-presser had seen nothing personally; he had only been told. He could not or would not particularise. Apparently he possessed in a high degree the local talent for rousing an apprehension by the offer of food, and then under ingenious pretexts refusing the food. At any rate, Albert had been startled, and had communicated his alarm to Clara. Clara had meant to come up a little later in the morning, but she wanted Albert to come with her, and Albert, being exceedingly busy, had only the breakfast half-hour of liberty. Hence they had set out instantly, although the baby required sustenance; Albert having suggested that Clara could feed the baby just as well at her father's as at home.
Before the Benbow story was quite finished it became entangled with the story of Mrs Hamps, and then with Edwin's story. They were all speaking at once, except Maggie, who was trying to soothe the baby.
Holding forth her arms, Clara, without ceasing to talk rapidly and anxiously to Mrs Hamps, without even regarding what she did, took the infant from her sister, held it with one hand, and with the other loosed her tight bodice, and boldly exposed to the greedy mouth the magnificent source of life. As the infant gurgled itself into silence, she glanced with a fleeting ecstatic smile at Maggie, who smiled back. It was strange how Maggie, now midway between thirty and forty, a tall, large-boned, plump, mature woman, efficient, kindly, and full of common sense—it was strange how she always failed to assert herself. She listened now, not seeking notice and assuredly not receiving it.
Edwin felt again the implication, first rendered by his aunt, and now emphasised by Clara and Albert, that the responsibility of the situation was upon him, and that everybody would look to him to discharge it. He was expected to act, somehow, on his own initiative, and to do something.
"But what is there to do?" he exclaimed, in answer to a question.
"Well, hadn't he better see a doctor?" Clara asked, as if saying ironically, "Hasn't it occurred to you even yet that a doctor ought to be fetched?"
Edwin protested with a movement of impatience—
"What on earth for? He's walking about all right."
They had all been surreptitiously watching Darius from behind the curtains.
"Doesn't seem to be much the matter with him now! That I must say!" agreed Albert, turning from the window.
Edwin perceived that his brother-in-law was ready to execute one of those changes of front which lent variety to his positiveness, and he addressed himself particularly to Albert, with the persuasive tone and gesture of a man to another man in a company of women—
"Of course there doesn't! No doubt he was upset last night. But he's getting over it. You don't think there's anything in it, do you, Maggie?"
"I don't," said Maggie calmly.
These two words had a great effect.
"Of course if we're going to listen to every tale that's flying about a potbank," said Edwin.
"You're right there, Teddy!" the brother-in-law heartily concurred. "But Clary thought we'd better—"
"Certainly," said Edwin pacifically, admitting the entire propriety of the visit.
"Why's he wearing his best clothes?" Clara demanded suddenly. And Mrs Hamps showed a sympathetic appreciation of the importance of the question.
"Ask me another!" said Edwin. "But you can't send for a doctor because a man's wearing his best clothes."
Maggie smiled, scarce perceptibly. Albert gave a guffaw. Clara was slightly irritated.
"Poor little dear!" murmured Mrs Hamps, caressing the baby. "Well, I must be going," she sighed.
"We shall see how he goes on," said Edwin, in his role of responsible person.
"Perhaps it will be as well if you say nothing about us calling," whispered Mrs Hamps. "We'll just go quietly away. You can give a hint to Mrs Nixon. Much better he shouldn't know."
"Oh! much better!" said Clara.
Edwin could not deny this. Yet he hated the chicane. He hated to observe on the face of the young woman and of the old their instinctive impulses towards chicane, and their pleasure in it. The whole double visit was subtly offensive to him. Why should they gather like this at the first hint that his father was not well? A natural affectionate anxiety... Yes, of course, that motive could not be denied. Nevertheless, he did not like the tones and the gestures and the whisperings and oblique glances of their gathering.
In the middle of a final miscellaneous conversation, Albert said—
"We'll better be off."
"Wait a moment," said Clara, with a nod to indicate the still busy infant.
Then the door opened, very slowly and cautiously, and as they all observed the movement of the door, they all fell into silence. Darius himself appeared. Unobserved, he had left the garden and come into the house. He stood in the doorway, motionless, astounded, acutely apprehensive, and with an expression of the most poignant sadness on his harsh, coarse, pimpled face. He still wore the ridiculous cap and held the newspaper. The broadcloth suit was soiled. His eye wandered among his family, and it said, terrorised, and yet feebly defiant, "What are they plotting against me? Why are they all here like this?"
Mrs Hamps spoke first—
"Well, father, we just popped in to see how you were after all that dreadful business yesterday. Of course I quite understand you didn't want to come in last night. You weren't equal to it." The guilty crude sweetness of her cajoling voice grated excruciatingly on both Edwin and Maggie. It would not have deceived even a monarch.
Darius screwed himself round, and silently went forth again.
"Where are you going, father?" asked Clara.
He stopped, but his features did not relax.
"To the shop," he muttered. His accents were of the most dreadful melancholy.
Everybody was profoundly alarmed by his mere tone and look. This was not the old Darius. Edwin felt intensely the futility and the hollowness of all those reassurances which he had just been offering.
"You haven't had your breakfast, father," said Maggie quietly.
"Please, father! Please don't go like that. You aren't fit," Clara entreated, and rushed towards him, the baby in her arms, and with one hand took his sleeve. Mrs Hamps followed, adding persuasions. Albert said bluffly, "Now, dad! Now, dad!"
Edwin and Maggie were silent in the background.
Darius gazed at Clara's face, and then his glance fell, and fixed itself on her breast and on the head of the powerfully sucking infant, and then it rose to the plumes of Mrs Hamps. His expression of tragic sorrow did not alter in the slightest degree under the rain of sugared remonstrances and cajoleries that the two women directed upon him. And then, without any warning, he burst into terrible tears, and, staggering, leaned against the wall. He was half carried to the sofa, and sat there, ineffably humiliated. One after another looked reproachfully at Edwin, who had made light of his father's condition. And Edwin was abashed and frightened.
"You or I had better fetch th' doctor," Albert muttered.
VOLUME THREE, CHAPTER THREE.
"He mustn't go near business," said Mr Alfred Heve, the doctor, coming to Edwin, who was waiting in the drawing-room, after a long examination of Darius.
Mr Heve was not wearing that gentle and refined smile which was so important a factor in the treatment of his patients and their families, and which he seemed to have caught from his elder brother, the vicar of Saint Peter's. He was a youngish man, only a few years older than Edwin himself, and Edwin's respect for his ability had limits. There were two other doctors in the town whom Edwin would have preferred, but Mr Heve was his father's choice, notable in the successful soothing of querulous stomachs, and it was inevitably Mr Heve who had been summoned. He had arrived with an apprehensive, anxious air. There had been a most distinct nervousness in his voice when, in replying to Edwin's question, he had said, "Perhaps I'd better see him quite alone." Edwin had somehow got it into his head that he would be present at the interview. In shutting the dining-room door upon Edwin, Mr Heve had nodded timidly in a curious way, highly self-conscious. And that dining-room door had remained shut for half an hour. And now Mr Heve had emerged with the same embarrassment.
"Whether he wants to or not?" Edwin suggested, with a faint smile.
"On no account whatever!" said the doctor, not answering the smile, which died.
They were standing together near the door. Edwin had his fingers on the handle. He wondered how he would prevent his father from going to business, if his father should decide to go.
"But I don't think he'll be very keen on business," the doctor added.
Mr Heve slowly shook his head. One of Mr Heve's qualities that slightly annoyed Edwin was his extraordinary discretion. But then Edwin had always regarded the discreetness of doctors as exaggerated. Why could not Heve tell him at once fully and candidly what was in his mind? He had surely the right to be told! ... Curious! And yet far more curious than Mr Heve's unwillingness to tell, was Edwin's unwillingness to ask. He could not bring himself to demand bluntly of Heve: "Well, what's the matter with him?"
"I suppose it's shock," Edwin adventured.
Mr Heve lifted his chin. "Shock may have had a little to do with it," he answered doubtfully.
"And how long must he be kept off business?"
"I'm afraid there's not much chance of him doing any more business," said Mr Heve.
"Really!" Edwin murmured. "Are you sure?"
Edwin did not feel the full impact of this prophecy at the moment. Indeed, it appeared to him that he had known since the previous midnight of his father's sudden doom; it appeared to him that the first glimpse of his father after the funeral had informed him of it positively. What impressed him at the moment was the unusual dignity which characterised Mr Heve's embarrassment. He was beginning to respect Mr Heve.
"I wouldn't care to give him more than two years," said Mr Heve, gazing at the carpet, and then lifting his eyes to Edwin's.
Edwin flushed. And this time his 'Really!' was startled.
"Of course you may care to get other advice," the doctor went on. "I shall be delighted to meet a specialist. But I tell you at once my opinion." This with a gesture of candour.
"Oh!" said Edwin. "If you're sure—"
Strange that the doctor would not give a name to the disease! Most strange that Edwin even now could not demand the name.
"I suppose he's in his right mind?" said Edwin.
"Yes," said the doctor. "He's in his right mind." But he gave the reply in a tone so peculiar that the affirmative was almost as disconcerting as a negative would have been.
"Just rest he wants?" said Edwin.
"Just rest. And looking after. I'll send up some medicine. He'll like it." Mr Heve glanced absently at his watch. "I must be going."
"Well—" Edwin opened the door.
Then with a sudden movement Mr Heve put out his hand.
"You'll come in again soon?"
In the hall they saw Maggie about to enter the dining-room with a steaming basin.
"I'm going to give him this," she said simply in a low voice. "It's so long to dinner-time."
"By all means," said Mr Heve, with his little formal bow.
"You've finished seeing him then, doctor?"
"I'll be back soon," said Edwin to Maggie, taking his hat from the rack. "Tell father if he asks I've run down to the shop."
She nodded and disappeared.
"I'll walk down a bit of the way with you," said Mr Heve.
His trap, which was waiting at the corner, followed them down the road. Edwin could not begin to talk. And Mr Heve kept silence. Behind him, Edwin could hear the jingling of metal on Mr Heve's sprightly horse. After a couple of hundred yards the doctor stopped at a house-door.
"Well—" He shook hands again, and at last smiled with sad sweetness.
"He'll be a bit difficult to manage, you know," said Edwin.
"I don't think so," said the doctor.
"I'll let you know about the specialist. But if you're sure—"
The doctor waved a deprecating hand. It might have been the hand of his brother, the Vicar.
Edwin proceeded towards the town, absorbed in a vision of his father seated in the dining-room, inexpressibly melancholy, and Maggie with her white apron bending over him to offer some nice soup. It was a desolating vision—and yet he wondered why it should be! Whenever he reasoned he was always inimical to his father. His reason asked harshly why he should be desolated, as he undoubtedly was. The prospect of freedom, of release from a horrible and humiliating servitude—this prospect ought to have dazzled and uplifted him, in the safe, inviolable privacy of his own heart. But it did not... What a chump the doctor was, to be so uncommunicative! And he himself! ... By the way, he had not told Maggie. It was like her to manifest no immediate curiosity, to be content to wait... He supposed he must call at his aunt's, and even at Clara's. But what should he say when they asked him why he had not asked the doctor for a name?
Suddenly an approaching man whose face was vaguely familiar but with whom he had no acquaintance whatever, swerved across the footpath and stopped him.
"What's amiss with th' old gentleman?" It was astounding how news flew in the town!
"He's not very well. Doctor's ordered him a rest."
"Not in bed, is he?"
"Oh no!" Edwin lightly scorned the suggestion.
"Well, I do hope it's nothing serious. Good morning."
Edwin was detained a long time in the shop by a sub-manager from Bostocks in Hanbridge who was waiting, and who had come about an estimate for a rather considerable order. This man desired a decrease of the estimate and an increased speed in execution. He was curt. He was one business firm offering an ultimatum to another business firm. He asked Edwin whether Edwin could decide at once. Edwin said 'Certainly,' using a tone that he had never used before. He decided. The man departed, and Edwin saw him spring on to the Hanbridge car as it swept down the hill. The man would not have been interested in the news that Darius Clayhanger had been to business for the last time. Edwin was glad of the incident because it had preserved him from embarrassed conversation with Stifford. Two hours earlier he had called for a few moments at the shop, and even then, ere Edwin had spoken, Stifford's face showed that he knew something sinister had occurred. With a few words of instruction to Stifford, he now went through towards the workshops to speak with Big James about the Bostock order.
All the workmen and apprentices were self-conscious. And Edwin could not speak naturally to Big James. When he had come to an agreement with Big James as to the execution of the order, the latter said—
"Would you step below a minute, Mr Edwin?"
Edwin shuffled. But Big James's majestic politeness gave to his expressed wish the force of a command. Edwin preceded Big James down the rough wooden stair to the ground floor, which was still pillared with supporting beams. Big James, with deliberate, careful movements, drew the trap-door horizontal as he descended.
"Might I ask, sir, if Master's in a bad way?" he inquired, with solemn and delicate calm. But he would have inquired about the weather in the same fashion.
"I'm afraid he is," said Edwin, glancing nervously about at the litter, and the cobwebs, and the naked wood, and the naked earth. The vibration of a treadle-machine above them put the place in a throb.
Astounding! Everybody knew or guessed everything! How?
Big James wagged his head and his grandiose beard, now more grey than black, and he fingered his apron.
"I believe in herbs myself," said Big James. "But this here softening of the brain—well—"
That was it! Softening of the brain! What the doctor had not told him he had learned from Big James. How it happened that Big James was in a position to tell him he could not comprehend. But he was ready now to believe that the whole town had acquired by magic the information which fate or original stupidity had kept from him alone... Softening of the brain!
"Perhaps I'm making too bold, sir," Big James went on. "Perhaps it's not so bad as that. But I did hear—"
Edwin nodded confirmingly.
"You needn't talk about it," he murmured, indicating the first floor by an upward movement of the head.
"That I shall not, sir," Big James smoothly replied, and proceeded in the same bland tone: "And what's more, never will I raise my voice in song again! James Yarlett has sung his last song."
There was silence. Edwin, accustomed though he was to the mildness of Big James's deportment, did not on the instant grasp that the man was seriously announcing a solemn resolve made under deep emotion. But as he understood, tears came into Edwin's eyes, and he thrilled at the swift and dramatic revelation of the compositor's feeling for his employer. Its impressiveness was overwhelming and it was humbling. Why this excess of devotion?
"I don't say but what he had his faults like other folk," said Big James. "And far be it from me to say that you, Mr Edwin, will not be a better master than your esteemed father. But for over twenty years I've worked for him, and now he's gone, never will I lift my voice in song again!"
Edwin could not reply.
"I know what it is," said Big James, after a pause.
"What what is?"
"This ce-re-bral softening. You'll have trouble, Mr Edwin."
"The doctor says not."
"You'll have trouble, if you'll excuse me saying so. But it's a good thing he's got you. It's a good thing for Miss Maggie as she isn't alone with him. It's a providence, Mr Edwin, as you're not a married man."
"I very nearly was married once!" Edwin cried, with a sudden uncontrollable outburst of feeling which staggered while it satisfied him. Why should he make such a confidence to Big James? Between his pleasure in the relief, and his extreme astonishment at the confession, he felt as it were lost and desperate, as if he did not care what might occur.
"Were you now!" Big James commented, with an ever intensified blandness. "Well, sir, I thank you."
VOLUME THREE, CHAPTER FOUR.
THE VICTIM OF SYMPATHY.
On the same evening, Edwin, Albert Benbow, and Darius were smoking Albert's cigarettes in the dining-room. Edwin sat at the end of a disordered supper-table, Albert was standing, hat in hand, near the sideboard, and Darius leaned against the mantelpiece. Nobody could have supposed from his appearance that a doctor had responsibly prophesied this man's death within two years. Except for a shade of sadness upon his face, he looked the same as he had looked for a decade. Though regarded by his children as an old man, he was not old, being in fact still under sixty. His grey hair was sparse; his spectacles were set upon his nose with the negligence characteristic of age; but the down-pointing moustache, which, abetted by his irregular teeth, gave him that curious facial resemblance to a seal, showed great force, and the whole of his stiff and sturdy frame showed force. His voice, if not his mouth, had largely recovered from the weakness of the morning. Moreover, the fashion in which he smoked a cigarette had somehow the effect of rejuvenating him. It was Albert who had induced him to smoke cigarettes occasionally. He was not an habitual smoker, consuming perhaps half an ounce a week of pipe-tobacco: and assuredly he would never of his own accord have tried a cigarette. For Darius cigarettes were aristocratic and finicking; they were an affectation. He smoked a cigarette with the self-consciousness which usually marks the consumption of champagne in certain strata of society. His gestures, as he examined from time to time the end of the cigarette, or audibly blew forth spreading clouds, seemed to signify that in his opinion he was going the pace, cutting a dash, and seeing life. This naivete had its charm.
The three men, left alone by their women, were discussing politics, which then meant nothing but the subject of Home Rule. Darius agreed almost eagerly with everything that Albert Benbow said. Albert was a calm and utterly sound Conservative. He was one of those politicians whose conviction of rightness is so strong that they cannot help condescending towards an opponent. Albert would say persuasively to Liberal acquaintances: "Now just think a moment!" apparently sure that the only explanation of their misguided views was that they never had thought for a moment. Or he would say: "Surely all patriotic Liberals—" But one day when Edwin had said to him with a peculiar accent: "Surely all patriotic Conservatives—" he had been politely offended for the rest of the evening, and Edwin and he had not mentioned politics to each other for a long time. Albert had had much influence over his father-in-law. And now Albert said, after Darius had concurred and concurred—
"You're one of the right sort, after all, old gentleman."
Throughout the evening he had spoken to Darius in an unusually loud voice, as though it was necessary to shout to a man who had only two years to live.
"All I say is," said Darius, "country before party!"
"Why, of course!" Albert smiled, confident and superior. "Haven't I been telling you for years you're one of us?"
Edwin, too, smiled, as superiorly as he could, but unhappily not with sufficient superiority to wither Albert's smile. He said nothing, partly from timid discretion, but partly because he was preoccupied with the thought of the malignant and subtle power working secretly in his father's brain. How could the doctor tell? What was the process of softening? Did his father know, in that sick brain of his, that he was condemned; or did he hope to recover? Now, as he leaned against the mantelpiece, protruding his body in an easy posture, he might have been any ordinary man, and not a victim; he might have been a man of business relaxing after a long day of hard and successful cerebral activity.
It seemed strange to Edwin that Albert could talk as he did to one whom destiny had set apart, to one whose being was the theatre of a drama so mysterious and tragic. Yet it was the proper thing for Albert to do, and Albert did it perfectly, better than anybody, except possibly Maggie.
"Those women take a deuce of a time putting their bonnets on!" Albert exclaimed.
The women came downstairs at last. At last, to Edwin's intense relief, every one was going. Albert went into the hall to meet the women. Edwin rose and followed him. And Darius came as far as the door of the dining-room. Less than twenty-four hours had passed since Edwin had begun even to suspect any sort of disaster to his father. But the previous night seemed an age away. The day had been interminable, and the evening exasperating in the highest degree. What an evening! Why had Albert and Clara and Auntie Hamps all of them come up just at supper-time? At first they would not be persuaded! No! They had just called—sheer accident!—nothing abnormal! And yet the whole of the demeanour of Auntie Hamps and Clara was abnormal. Maggie herself, catching the infection, had transformed the meal into a kind of abnormal horrible feast by serving cold beef and pickles—flesh-meat being unknown to the suppers of the Clayhangers save occasionally on Sundays.
Edwin could not comprehend why the visitors had come. That is to say, he understood the reason quite well, but hated to admit it. They had come from a mere gluttony of curiosity. They knew all that could be known—but still they must come and gaze and indulge their lamentable hearts, and repeat the same things again and again, ten million times! Auntie Hamps, indeed, probably knew more than Edwin did, for she had thought fit to summon Dr Heve that very afternoon for an ailment of her own, and Clara, with an infant or so, had by a remarkable coincidence called at Mrs Hamps's house just after the doctor left. "Odious," thought Edwin.
These two had openly treated Darius as a martyr, speaking to him in soft and pitiful voices, urging him to eat, urging him to drink, caressing him, soothing him, humouring him; pretending to be brave and cheerful and optimistic, but with a pretence so poor, so wilfully poor, that it became an insult. When they said fulsomely, "You'll be perfectly all right soon if only you'll take care and do as the doctor says," Edwin could have risen and killed them both with hearty pleasure. They might just as well have said, "You're practically in your grave." And assuredly they were not without influence on Maggie's deportment. The curious thing was that it was impossible to decide whether Darius loathed, or whether he liked, to be so treated. His face was an enigma. However, he was less gloomy.
Then also the evening had necessarily been full of secret conferences. What would you? Each had to relate privately the things that he or she knew or had heard or had imagined. And there were questions of urgency to be discussed. For example the question of the specialist. They were all positively agreed, Edwin found, that a specialist was unnecessary. Darius was condemned beyond hope or argument. There he sat, eating and talking, in the large, fine house that he had created out of naught, looking not at all like a corpse; but he was condemned. The doctor had convinced them. Besides, did not everybody know what softening of the brain was? "Of course, if he thinks he would prefer to have a specialist, if he has the slightest wish—" This from Auntie Hamps. There was the question, further, of domestic service. Mrs Nixon's niece had committed the folly of marriage, and for many months Maggie and the old servant had been 'managing;' but with a crotchety invalid always in the house, more help would be indispensable. And still further—should Darius be taken away for a period to the sea, or Buxton, or somewhere? Maggie said that nothing would make him go, and Clara agreed with her. All these matters, and others, had to be kept away from the central figure; they were all full of passionate interest, and they had to be debated, in tones hushed but excited, in the hall, in the kitchen, upstairs, or anywhere except in the dining-room. The excuses invented by the conspiring women for quitting and entering the dining-room, their fatuous air of innocent simplicity, disgusted Edwin. And he became curter and curter, as he noticed the new deference which even Clara practised towards him.
The adieux were distressing. Clara, with her pale sharp face and troubled eyes, clasped Darius round the neck, and almost hung on it. And Edwin thought: "Why doesn't she tell him straight out he's done for?" Then she retired and sought her husband's arm with the conscious pride of a wife fruitful up to the limits set by nature. And then Auntie Hamps shook hands with the victim. These two of course did not kiss. Auntie Hamps bore herself bravely. "Now do do as the doctor advises!" she said, patting Darius on the shoulder. "And do be guided by these dear children!"
Edwin caught Maggie's eye, and held it grimly.
"And you, my pet," said Auntie Hamps, turning to Clara, who with Albert was now at the door. "You must be getting back to your babies! It's a wonder how you manage to get away! But you're a wonderful arranger! ... Only don't overdo it. Don't overdo it!"
Clara gave a fatigued smile, as of one whom circumstances often forced to overdo it.
They departed, Albert whistling to the night. Edwin observed again, in their final glances, the queer, new, ingratiating deference for himself. He bolted the door savagely.
Darius was still standing at the entrance to the dining-room. And as he looked at him Edwin thought of Big James's vow never to lift his voice in song again. Strange! It was the idea of the secret strangeness of life that was uppermost in his mind: not grief, not expectancy. In the afternoon he had been talking again to Big James, who, it appeared, had known intimately a case of softening of the brain. He did not identify the case—it was characteristic of him to name no names—but clearly he was familiar with the course of the disease.
He had begun revelations which disconcerted Edwin, and had then stopped. And now as Edwin furtively examined his father, he asked himself: "Will that happen to him, and that, and those still worse things that Big James did not reveal?" Incredible! There he was, smoking a cigarette, and the clock striking ten in its daily, matter-of-fact way.
Darius let fall the cigarette, which Edwin picked up from the mat, and offered to him.
"Throw it away," said Darius, with a deep sigh.
"Going to bed?" Edwin asked.
Darius shook his head, and Edwin debated what he should do. A moment later, Maggie came from the kitchen and asked—
"Going to bed, father?"
Again Darius shook his head. He then went slowly into the drawing-room and lit the gas there.
"What shall you do? Leave him?" Maggie whispered to Edwin in the dining-room, as she helped Mrs Nixon to clear the table.
"I don't know," said Edwin. "I shall see."
In ten minutes both Maggie and Mrs Nixon had gone to bed. Edwin hesitated in the dining-room. Then he extinguished the gas there, and went into the drawing-room. Darius, not having lowered the blinds, was gazing out of the black window.
"You needn't wait down here for me," said he, a little sharply. And his tone was so sane, controlled, firm, and ordinary that Edwin could do nothing but submit to it.
"I'm not going to," he answered quietly.
Impossible to treat a man of such demeanour like a child.
VOLUME THREE, CHAPTER FIVE.
THE SLAVE'S FEAR.
Edwin closed the door of his bedroom with a sense of relief and of pleasure far greater than he would have admitted; or indeed could honestly have admitted, for it surpassed his consciousness. The feeling recurred that he was separated from the previous evening by a tremendous expanse of time. He had been flung out of his daily habits. He had forgotten to worry over the execution of his private programmes. He had forgotten even that the solemn thirtieth birthday was close upon him. It seemed to him as if his own egoism was lying about in scattered pieces, which he must collect in the calm of this cloister, and reconstruct. He wanted to resume possession of himself, very slowly, without violent effort. He wound up his watch; the hour was not yet half-past ten. The whole exquisite night was his.
He had brought with him from the shop, almost mechanically, a copy of "Harper's Magazine," not the copy which regularly once a month he kept from a customer during the space of twenty-four hours for his own uses, but a second copy which had been sent down by the wholesale agents in mistake, and which he could return when he chose. He had already seen the number, but he could not miss the chance of carefully going through it at leisure. Despite his genuine aspirations, despite his taste which was growing more and more fastidious, he found it exceedingly difficult to proceed with his regular plan of reading while there was an illustrated magazine unexplored. Besides, the name of "Harper's" was august. To read "Harper's" was to acquire merit; even the pictures in "Harper's" were too subtle for the uncultivated.
He turned over the pages, and they all appeared to promise new and strange joys. Such preliminary moments were the most ecstatic in his life, as in the lives of many readers. He had not lost sight of the situation created by his father's illness, but he could only see it very dimly through the semi-transparent pages.
The latch clicked and the door opened slightly. He jumped, supposing that his father had crept upstairs. And the first thought of the slave in him was that his father had never seen the gas-stove and would now infallibly notice it. But Maggie's face showed. She came in very quietly—she too had caught the conspiratorial manner.
"I thought you wouldn't be ready for bed just yet," she said, in mild excuse of her entry. "I didn't knock, for fear he might be wandering about and hear."
"Oh!" muttered Edwin. "What's up?" Instinctively he resented the invasion, and was alarmed for the privacy of his sacred room, although he knew that Maggie, and Mrs Nixon also, had it at their mercy every day. Nobody ever came into that room while he was in it.
Maggie approached the hearth.
"I think I ought to have a stove too," she said pleasantly.
"Well, why don't you?" he replied. "I can get it for you any time." If Clara had envied his stove, she would have envied it with scoffing rancour, and he would have used sarcasm in response.
"Oh no!" said Maggie quickly. "I don't really want one."
"What's up?" he repeated. He could see she was hesitating.
"Do you know what Clara and auntie are saying?"
"No! What now? I should have thought they'd both said enough to last them for a few days at any rate."
"Did Albert say anything to you?"
"Well—both Clara and auntie said I must tell you. Albert says he ought to make his will—they all think so."
Edwin's lips curled.
"How do they know he hasn't made it?"
"Has he made it?"
"How do I know? You don't suppose he ever talks to me about his affairs, do you? Not much!"
"Well—they meant he ought to be asked."
"Well, let 'em ask him, then. I shan't."
"Of course what they say is—you're the—"
"What do I care for that?" he interrupted her. "So that's what you were yarning so long about in your room!"
"I can tell you," said Maggie, "they're both of them very serious about it. So's Albert, it seems."
"They disgust me," he said briefly. "Here the thing isn't a day old, and they begin worrying about his will! They go slobbering all over him downstairs, and upstairs it's nothing but his will they think about... You can't rush at a man and talk to him about his will like that. At least, I can't—it's altogether too thick! I expect some people could. But I can't. Damn it, you must have some sense of decency!"
Maggie remained calm and benevolent. After a pause she said—
"You see—their point is that later on he mayn't be able to make a will."
"Look here," he questioned amicably, meeting her eyes, "what do you think? What do you think yourself?"
"Oh!" she said, "I should never dream of bothering about it. I'm only telling you what—"
"Of course you wouldn't!" he exclaimed. "No decent person would. Later on, perhaps, if one could put in a word casually! But not now! ... If he doesn't make a will he doesn't make one—that's all."
Maggie leaned against the mantelpiece.
"Mind your skirt doesn't catch fire," he warned her, in a murmur.
"I told them what you'd say," she answered his outburst, perfectly unmoved. "I knew what you'd say. But what they say is—it's all very well for you. You're the son, and it seems that if there isn't a will, if it's left too late—"
This aspect of the case had absolutely not presented itself to Edwin.
"If they think," he muttered, with cold acrimony—"if they think I'm the sort of person to take the slightest advantage of being the son—well, they must think it—that's all! Besides, they can always talk to him themselves—if they're so desperately anxious."
"You have charge of everything."
"Have I! ... And I should like to know what it's got to do with auntie!"
Maggie lifted her head. "Oh, auntie and Clara, you know—you can't separate them... Well, I've told you."
She moved to leave.
"I say," he stopped her, with a confidential appeal. "Don't you agree with me?"
"Yes," she replied simply. "I think it ought to be left for a bit. Perhaps he's made it, after all. Let's hope so. I'm sure it will save a lot of trouble if he has."
"Naturally it ought to be left for a bit! Why—just look at him! ... He might be on his blooming dying bed, to hear the way some people talk! Let 'em mention it to me, and I'll tell 'em a thing or two!"
Maggie raised her eyebrows. She scarcely recognised Edwin.
"I suppose he'll be all right, downstairs?"
"Right? Of course he'll be all right!" Then he added, in a tone less pugnacious—for, after all, it was not Maggie who had outraged his delicacy, "Don't latch the door. Pull it to. I'll listen out."
She went silently away.
Searching with his body for the most comfortable deeps of the easy-chair, he set himself to savour "Harper's." This monthly reassurance that nearly all was well with the world, and that what was wrong was not seriously wrong, waited on his knees to be accepted and to do its office. Unlike the magazines of his youth, its aim was to soothe and flatter, not to disconcert and impeach. He looked at the refined illustrations of South American capitals and of picturesque corners in Provence, and at the smooth or the rugged portraits of great statesmen and great bridges; all just as true to reality as the brilliant letterpress; and he tried to slip into the rectified and softened world offered by the magazine. He did not criticise the presentment. He did nothing so subtle as to ask himself whether if he encountered the reality he would recognise it from the presentment. He wanted the illusions of "Harper's." He desired the comfort, the distraction, and the pleasant ideal longings which they aroused. But they were a medicine which he discovered he was not in a condition to absorb, a medicine therefore useless. There was no effective medicine for his trouble.
His trouble was that he objected to being disturbed. At first he had been pleasantly excited, but now he shrank away at the call to freedom, to action, to responsibility. All the slave in him protested against the knocking off of irons, and the imperative kick into the open air. He saw suddenly that in the calm of regular habit and of subjection, he had arrived at something that closely resembled happiness. He wished not to lose it, knowing that it was already gone. Actually, for his own sake, and quite apart from his father, he would have been ready, were it possible, to cancel the previous twenty-four hours. Everything was ominous, and he wandering about, lost, amid menaces... Why, even his cherished programmes of reading were smashed... Hallam! ... True, to-night was not a night appointed for reading, but to-morrow night was. And would he be able to read to-morrow night? No, a hundred new complications would have arisen to harass him and to dispossess him of his tranquillity!
Destiny was demanding from him a huge effort, unexpected and formidable, and the whole of his being weakly complained, asking to be exempted, but asking without any hope of success; for all his faculties and his desires knew that his conscience was ultimately their master.
Talk to his father about making a will, eh! Besides being disgusting, it was laughable. Those people did not know his father as he did. He foresaw that, even in conducting the routine of business, he would have difficulties with his father over the simplest details. In particular there was one indispensable preliminary to the old man's complete repose, and his first duty on the morrow would be to endeavour to arrange this preliminary with his father; but he scarcely hoped to succeed.
On the portion of the mantelpiece reserved for books in actual use lay the "Tale of a Tub," last night so enchanting. And now he had positively forgotten it. He yawned, and prepared for bed. If he could not read "Harper's," perhaps he could read Swift.
He lay in bed. The gas was out, the stove was out, and according to his custom he was reading himself to sleep by the light of a candle in a sconce attached to the bed's head. His eyes ran along line after line and down page after page, and transmitted nothing coherent to his brain.
Then there were steps on the stair. His father was at last coming to bed. He was a little relieved, though he had been quite prepared to go to sleep and leave his father below. Why not? The steps died at the top of the stair, but an irregular creaking continued. After a pause the door was pushed open; and after another pause the figure of his father came into view, breathing loudly.
"Edwin, are you asleep?" Darius asked anxiously. Edwin wondered what could be the matter, but he answered with lightness, "Nearly."
"I've not put th' light out down yon! Happen you'd better put it out." There was in his father's voice a note of dependence upon him, of appeal to him.
"Funny!" he thought, and said aloud, "All right."
He jumped up. His father thudded off deliberately to his own room, apparently relieved of a fearful oppression, but still fixed in sadness.
On the previous night Edwin had extinguished the hall-gas and come last to bed; and again to-night. But to-night with what a different sentiment of genuine, permanent responsibility! The appealing feebleness of his father's attitude seemed to give him strength. Surely a man so weak and fallen from tyranny could not cause much trouble! Edwin now had some hope that the unavoidable preliminary to the invalid's retirement might be achieved without too much difficulty. He braced himself.
VOLUME THREE, CHAPTER SIX.
KEYS AND CHEQUES.
Coming up Trafalgar Road at twenty minutes past nine in the bright, astringent morning, Edwin carried by a string a little round parcel which for him contained the inspiring symbol of his new life. By mere accident he had wakened and had risen early, arriving at the shop before half-past seven. He had deliberately lifted on to his shoulders the whole burden of the shop and the printing business, and as soon as he felt its weight securely lodged he became extraordinarily animated and vigorous; even gay. He had worked with a most agreeable sense of energy until nearly nine o'clock; and then, having first called at the ironmonger's, had stepped into the bank at the top of Saint Luke's Square a moment after its doors opened, and had five minutes' exciting conversation with the manager. After which, with righteous hunger in his belly and the symbol in his hand, he had come home to breakfast. The symbol was such as could be obtained at any ironmonger's: an alarm clock. Mrs Nixon had grown less reliable than formerly as an alarm clock; machinery was now supplanting her.
Dr Heve came out of the house, and Dr Heve too seemed gay with fine resolutions. The two met on the doorstep, each full of a justifiable self-satisfaction. The doctor explained that he had come thus early because Mr Clayhanger was one of those cases upon which he could look in casually at any time. In the sunshine they talked under the porch of early rising, as men who understood the value of that art. Edwin could see that Dr Heve's life was a series of little habits which would never allow themselves to be interfered with by any large interest, and he despised the man's womanish smile. Nevertheless his new respect for him did not weaken; he decided that he was a very decent fellow in his way, and he was more impressed than he would admit by the amount of work that the doctor had for years been doing in the morning before his intellectual superiors had sat up in bed. And he imagined that it might be even more agreeable to read in the fresh stillness of the morning than in the solitary night.
Then they returned to the case of Darius. The doctor was more communicative, and they were both cheerfully matter-of-fact concerning it. There it was, to be made the best of! And that Darius could never handle business again, and that in about two years his doom would be accomplished—these were basic facts, axiomatic. The doctor had seen his patient in the garden, and he suggested that if Darius could be persuaded to interest himself in gardening... They discussed his medicine, his meals, his digestion, and the great, impossible dream of 'taking him away,' 'out of it all.' And every now and then Dr Heve dropped some little hint as to the management of Darius.
The ticking parcel drew the discreet attention of the doctor. The machine was one guaranteed to go in any position, and was much more difficult to stop than to start.
"It's only an alarm," said Edwin, not without self-consciousness.
The doctor went, tripping neatly and optimistically, off towards his own breakfast. He got up earlier than his horse.
Darius was still in the garden when Edwin went to him. He had put on his daily suit, and was leisurely digging in an uncultivated patch of ground. He stuck the spade into the earth perpendicularly and deep, and when he tried to prise it up and it would not yield because of a concealed half-brick, he put his tongue between his teeth and then bit his lower lip, controlling himself, determined to get the better of the spade and the brick by persuasively humouring them. He took no notice whatever of Edwin.
"I see you aren't losing any time," said Edwin, who felt as though he were engaging in small-talk with a stranger.
"Are you?" Darius replied, without turning his head.
"I've just come up for a bit of breakfast. Everything's all right," he said. He would have liked to add: "I was in the shop before seven-thirty," but he was too proud.
After a pause, he ventured, essaying the casual—
"I say, father, I shall want the keys of the desk, and all that."
"Keys o' th' desk!" Darius muttered, leaning on the spade, as though demanding in stupefaction, "What on earth can you want the keys for?"
"Well—" Edwin stammered.
But the proposition was too obvious to be denied. Darius left the spade to stand up by itself, and stared.
"Got 'em in your pocket?" Edwin inquired.
Slowly Darius drew forth a heavy, glittering bunch of keys, one of the chief insignia of his dominion, and began to fumble at it.
"You needn't take any of them off. I expect I know which is which," said Edwin, holding out his hand.
Darius hesitated, and then yielded up the bunch.
"Thanks," said Edwin lightly.
But the old man's reluctance to perform this simple and absolutely necessary act of surrender, the old man's air of having done something tremendous—these signs frightened Edwin and shook his courage for the demand compared to which the demand for the keys was naught. Still, the affair had to be carried through.
"And I say," he proceeded, jingling the keys, "about signing and endorsing cheques. They tell me at the Bank that if you sign a general authority to me to do it for you, that will be enough."
He could not avoid looking guilty. He almost felt guilty, almost felt as if he were plotting against his father's welfare. And as he spoke his words seemed unreal and his suggestion fantastic. At the Bank the plan had been simple, easy, and perfectly natural. But there could be no doubt, that as he had walked up Trafalgar Road, receding from the Bank and approaching his father, the plan had gradually lost those attractive qualities. And now in the garden it was merely monstrous.
Silent, Darius resumed the spade.
"Well," said Edwin desperately. "What about it?"
"Do you think"—Darius glowered upon him with heavy, desolating scorn—"do you think as I'm going to let you sign my cheques for me? You're taking too much on yourself, my lad."
"I tell ye you're taking too much on yourself!" he began to shout menacingly. "Get about your business and don't act the fool! You needn't think you're going to be God A'mighty because you've got up a bit earlier for once in a way and been down to th' shop before breakfast."
In all his demeanour there was not the least indication of weakness. He might never have sat down on the stairs and cried! He might never have submitted feebly and perhaps gladly to the caresses of Clara and the soothings of Auntie Hamps! Impossible to convince him that he was cut off from the world! Impossible even to believe it! Was this the man that Edwin and the Bank manager and the doctor and all the others had been disposing of as though he were an automaton accurately responsive to external suggestion?
"Look here," Edwin knew that he ought to say. "Let it be clearly understood once for all—I'm the boss now! I have the authority in my pocket and you must sign it, and quick too! I shall do my best for you, but I don't mean to be bullied while I'm doing it!"
But he could not say it. Nor could his heart emotionally feel it.
He turned away sheepishly, and then he faced his father again, with a distressed, apologetic smile.
"Well then," he asked, "who is going to sign cheques?"
"I am," said Darius.
"But you know what the doctor said! You know what you promised him!"
"What did the doctor say?"
"He said you weren't to do anything at all. And you said you wouldn't. What's more, you said you didn't want to."
"I reckon I can sign cheques," he said. "And I reckon I can endorse cheques... So it's got to that! I can't sign my own name now. I shall show some of you whether I can't sign my own name!"
"You know it isn't simply signing them. You know if I bring cheques up for you to sign you'll begin worrying about them at once, and—and there'll be no end to it. You'd much better—"
"Shut up!" It was like a clap of thunder.
Edwin hesitated an instant and then went towards the house. He could hear his father muttering "Whipper-snapper!"
"And I'll tell you another thing," Darius bawled across the garden— assuredly his voice would reach the street. "It was like your impudence to go to the Bank like that without asking me first! 'They tell you at the Bank!' 'They tell you at the Bank!' Anything else they told you at the Bank?" Then a snort.
Edwin was humiliated and baffled. He knew not what he could do. The situation became impossible immediately it was faced. He felt also very resentful, and resentment was capturing him, when suddenly an idea seemed to pull him by the sleeve: "All this is part of his disease. It's part of his disease that he can't see the point of a thing." And the idea was insistent, and under its insistence Edwin's resentment changed to melancholy. He said to himself that he must think of his father as a child. He blamed himself, in a sort of pleasurable luxury of remorse, for all the anger which during all his life he had felt against his father. His father's unreasonableness had not been a fault, but a misfortune. His father had been not a tyrant, but a victim. His brain must always have been wrong! And now he was doomed, and the worst part of his doom was that he was unaware of it. And in the thought of Darius ignorantly blustering within the walled garden, in the spring sunshine, condemned, cut off, helpless at the last, pitiable at the last, there was something inexpressibly poignant. And the sunshine seemed a shame; and Edwin's youth and mental vigour seemed a shame.
Nevertheless Edwin knew not what to do.
"Master Edwin," said Mrs Nixon, who was rubbing the balustrade of the stairs, "you munna' cross him like that." She jerked her head in the direction of the garden. The garden door stood open.
If he had not felt solemn and superior, he could have snapped off that head of hers.
"Is my breakfast ready?" he asked. He hung up his hat, and absently took the little parcel which he had left on the marble ledge of the umbrella-stand.
VOLUME THREE, CHAPTER SEVEN.
The safe, since the abandonment of the business premises by the family, had stood in a corner of a small nondescript room, sometimes vaguely called the safe-room, between the shop and what had once been the kitchen. It was a considerable safe, and it had the room practically to itself. As Edwin unlocked it, and the prodigious door swung with silent smoothness to his pull, he was aware of a very romantic feeling of exploration. He had seen the inside of the safe before; he had even opened the safe, and taken something from it, under his father's orders. But he had never had leisure, nor licence, to inspect its interior. From his boyhood had survived the notion that it must contain many marvels. In spite of himself his attitude was one of awe.
The first thing that met his eye was his father's large, black-bound private cash-book, which constituted the most sacred and mysterious document in the accountancy of the business. Edwin handled, and kept, all the books save that. At the beginning of the previous week he and Stifford had achieved the task of sending out the quarterly accounts, and of one sort or another there were some seven hundred quarterly accounts. Edwin was familiar with every detail of the printer's work-book, the daybook, the combined book colloquially called 'invoice and ledger,' the 'bought' ledger, and the shop cash-book. But he could form no sure idea of the total dimensions and results of the business, because his father always kept the ultimate castings to himself, and never displayed his private cash-book under any circumstances. By ingenuity and perseverance Edwin might have triumphed over Darius's mania for secrecy; but he did not care to do so; perhaps pride even more than honour caused him to refrain.
Now he held the book, and saw that only a portion of it was in the nature of a cash-book; the rest comprised summaries and general statements. The statement for the year 1885, so far as he could hastily decipher its meaning, showed a profit of 821 pounds. He was not surprised, and yet the sight of the figures in his father's heavy, scratchy hand was curiously impressive.
His father could keep nothing from him now. The interior of the safe was like a city that had capitulated; no law ran in it but his law, and he was absolute; he could commit infamies in the city and none might criticise. He turned over piles of dusty cheque-counterfoils, and old pass-books and other old books of account. He saw a linen bag crammed with four-shilling pieces (whenever Darius obtained a double florin he put it aside), and one or two old watches of no value. Also the title-deeds of the house at Bleakridge, their latest parchment still white with pounce; the mortgage, then, had been repaid, a fact which Darius had managed on principle to conceal from his son. Then he came to the four drawers, and in some of these he discovered a number of miscellaneous share-certificates with their big seals. He knew that his father had investments—it was impossible to inhabit the shop-cubicle with his father and not know that—but he had no conception of their extent or their value. Always he had regarded all those matters as foreign to himself, refusing to allow curiosity in regard to them to awake. Now he was differently minded, owing to the mere physical weight in his pocket of a bunch of keys! In a hasty examination he gathered that the stock was chiefly in railways and shipping, and that it amounted to large sums—anyhow quite a number of thousands. He was frankly astonished. How had his father's clumsy, slow intellect been able to cope with the dangerous intricacies of the Stock Exchange? It seemed incredible; and yet he had known quite well that his father was an investor!
"Of course he isn't keen on giving it all up!" Edwin exclaimed aloud suddenly. "I wonder he even forked out the keys as easily as he did!"
The view of the safe enabled him to perform a feat which very few children ever achieve; he put himself in his father's place. And it was with benevolence, not with exasperation, that he puzzled his head to invent some device for defeating the old man's obstinacy about cheque-signing.
One drawer was evidently not in regular use. Often, in a series of drawers, one of them falls into the idle habit of being overlooked, slipping gradually by custom into desuetude, though other drawers may overflow. This drawer held merely a few scraps of sample paper, and a map, all dusty. He drew forth the map. It was coloured, and in shaky Roman characters underneath it ran the legend, "The County of Staffordshire." He seemed to recognise the map. On the back he read, in his father's handwriting: "Drawn and coloured without help by my son Edwin, aged nine."
He had utterly forgotten it. He could in no detail recall the circumstances in which he had produced the wonderful map. A childish, rude effort! ... Still, rather remarkable that at the age of nine (perhaps even before he had begun to attend the Oldcastle Middle School) he should have chosen to do a county map instead of a map of that country beloved by all juvenile map-drawers, Ireland! He must have copied it from the map in Lewis's Gazetteer of England and Wales... Twenty-one years ago, nearly! He might, from the peculiar effect on him, have just discovered the mummy of the boy that once had been Edwin... And his father had kept the map for over twenty years. The old cock must have been deuced proud of it once! Not that he ever said so—Edwin was sure of that!
"Now you needn't get sentimental!" he told himself. Like Maggie he had a fearful, an almost morbid, horror of sentimentality. But he could not arrest the softening of his heart, as he smiled at the naivete of the map and at his father's parental simplicity.
As he was closing the safe, Stifford, agitated, hurried into the room.
"Please, sir, Mr Clayhanger's in the Square. I thought I'd better tell you."
"Yes, sir. He's standing opposite the chapel and he keeps looking this way. I thought you'd like—"
Edwin turned the key, and ran forth, stumbling, as he entered the shop, against the step-ladder which, with the paper-boy at the summit of it, overtopped the doorway. He wondered why he should run, and why Stifford's face was so obviously apprehensive.
Darius Clayhanger was standing at the north-east corner of the little Square, half-way up Duck Bank, at the edge of the pavement. And his gaze, hesitant and feeble, seemed to be upon the shop. He merely stood there, moveless, and yet the sight of him was most strangely disconcerting. Edwin, who kept within the shelter of the doorway, comprehended now the look on Stifford's face. His father had the air of ranging round about the shop in a reconnaissance, like an Indian or a wild animal, or like a domestic animal violently expelled. Edwin almost expected him to creep round by the Town Hall into Saint Luke's Square, and then to reappear stealthily at the other end of Wedgwood Street, and from a western ambush stare again at his own premises.
A man coming down Duck Bank paused an instant near Darius, and with a smile spoke to him, holding out his hand. Darius gave a slight nod. The man, snubbed and confused, walked on, the smile still on his face, but meaningless now, and foolish.
At length Darius walked up the hill, his arms stiff and out-pointing, as of old. Edwin got his hat and ran after him. Instead of turning to the left along the market-place, Darius kept on farther up the hill, past the Shambles, towards the old playground and the vague cinder-wastes where the town ended in a few ancient cottages. It was at the playground that Edwin, going slowly and cautiously, overtook him.
"Hello, father!" he began nervously. "Where are you off to?"
Darius did not seem to be at all startled to see him at his side. Nevertheless he behaved in a queer fashion. Without saying a word he suddenly turned at right-angles and apparently aimed himself towards the market-place, by the back of the Town Hall. When he had walked a few paces, he stopped and looked round at Edwin, who could not decide what ought to be done.
"If ye want to know," said Darius, with overwhelming sadness and embittered disgust, "I'm going to th' Bank to sign that authority about cheques."
"Oh!" Edwin responded. "Good! I'll go with you if you like."
"Happen it'll be as well," said Darius, resigning himself.
They walked together in silence.
The old man was beaten. The old man had surrendered, unconditionally. Edwin's heart lightened as he perceived more and more clearly what this surprising victory meant. It meant that always in the future he would have the upper hand. He knew now, and Darius knew, that his father had no strength to fight, and that any semblance of fighting could be treated as bluster. Probably nobody realised as profoundly as Darius himself, his real and yet mysterious inability to assert his will against the will of another. The force of his individuality was gone. He, who had meant to govern tyrannically to his final hour, to die with a powerful and grim gesture of command, had to accept the ignominy of submission. Edwin had not even insisted, had used no kind of threat. He had merely announced his will, and when the first fury had waned Darius had found his son's will working like a chemical agent in his defenceless mind, and had yielded. It was astounding. And always it would be thus, until the time when Edwin would say 'Do this' and Darius would do it, and 'Do that' and Darius would do it, meekly, unreasoningly, anxiously.
Edwin's relief was so great that it might have been mistaken for positive ecstatic happiness. His mind ranged exultingly over the future of the business. In a few years, if he chose, he could sell the business and spend the whole treasure of his time upon programmes. The entire world would be his, and he could gather the fruits of every art. He would utterly belong to himself. It was a formidable thought. The atmosphere of the marketplace contained too much oxygen to be quite grateful to his lungs... In the meantime there were things he would do. He would raise Stifford's wages. Long ago they ought to have been raised. And he would see that Stifford had for his dinner a full hour; which in practice Stifford had never had. And he would completely give up the sale and delivery of newspapers and weeklies, and would train the paper-boy to the shop, and put Stifford in his own place and perhaps get another clerk. It struck him hopefully that Stifford might go forth for orders. Assuredly he himself had not one quality of a commercial traveller. And, most inviting prospect of all, he would stock new books. He cared not whether new books were unremunerative. It should be known throughout the Five Towns that at Clayhanger's in Bursley a selection of new books could always be seen. And if people would not buy them people must leave them. But he would have them. And so his thoughts flew.
And at the same time he was extremely sad, only less sad than his father. When he allowed his thoughts to rest for an instant on his father he was so moved that he could almost have burst into a sob—just one terrific sob. And he would say in his mind, "What a damned shame! What a damned shame!" Meaning that destiny had behaved ignobly to his father, after all. Destiny had no right to deal with a man so faithlessly. Destiny should do either one thing or the other. It seemed to him that he was leading his father by a string to his humiliation. And he was ashamed: ashamed of his own dominance and of his father's craven submissiveness. Twice they were stopped by hearty and curious burgesses, and at each encounter Edwin, far more than Darius, was anxious to pretend that the harsh hand of Darius still firmly held the sceptre.
When they entered the shining mahogany interior of the richest Bank in the Five Towns, hushed save for a discreet shovelling of coins, Edwin waited for his father to speak, and Darius said not a word, but stood glumly quiescent, like a victim in a halter. The little wiry dancing cashier looked; every clerk in the place looked; from behind the third counter, in the far recesses of the Bank, clerks looked over their ledgers; and they all looked in the same annoying way, as at a victim in a halter; in their glance was all the pitiful gloating baseness of human nature, mingled with a little of its compassion.
Everybody of course knew that 'something had happened' to the successful steam-printer.
"Can we see Mr Lovatt?" Edwin demanded curtly. He was abashed and he was resentful.
The cashier jumped on all his springs into a sudden activity of deference.
Presently the manager emerged from the glazed door of his room, pulling his long whiskers.
"Oh, Mr Lovatt," Edwin began nervously. "Father's just come along—"
They were swallowed up into the manager's parlour. It might have been a court of justice, or a dentist's surgery, or the cabinet of an insurance doctor, or the room at Fontainebleau where Napoleon signed his abdication—anything but the thing it was. Happily Mr Lovatt had a manner which never varied; he had only one manner for all men and all occasions. So that Edwin was not distressed either by the deficiencies of amateur acting or by the exhibition of another's self-conscious awkwardness. Nevertheless when his father took the pen to write he was obliged to look studiously at the window and inaudibly hum an air. Had he not done so, that threatening sob might have burst its way out of him.
"I'm going this road," said Darius, when they were safely out of the Bank, pointing towards the Sytch.
"I'm going this road," he repeated, gloomily obstinate.
"All right," said Edwin cheerfully. "I'll trot round with you."
He did not know whether he could safely leave his father. The old man's eyes resented his assiduity and accepted it.
They passed the Old Sytch Pottery, the smoke of whose kilns now no longer darkened the sky. The senior partner of the firm which leased it had died, and his sons had immediately taken advantage of his absence to build a new and efficient works down by the canal-side at Shawport—a marvel of everything save architectural dignity. Times changed. Edwin remarked on the desolation of the place and received no reply. Then the idea occurred to him that his father was bound for the Liberal Club. It was so. They both entered. In the large room two young men were amusing themselves at the billiard-table which formed the chief attraction of the naked interior, and on the ledges of the table were two glasses. The steward in an apron watched them.
"Aye!" grumbled Darius, eyeing the group. "That's Rad, that is! That's Rad! Not twelve o'clock yet!"
If Edwin with his father had surprised two young men drinking and playing billiards before noon in the Conservative Club, he would have been grimly pleased. He would have taken it for a further proof of the hollowness of the opposition to the great Home Rule Bill; but the spectacle of a couple of wastrels in the Liberal Club annoyed and shamed him. His vague notion was that at such a moment of high crisis the two wastrels ought to have had the decency to refrain from wasting.
"Well, Mr Clayhanger," said the steward, in his absurd boniface way, "you're quite a stranger."
"I want my name taken off this Club," said Darius shortly. "Ye understand me! And I reckon I'm not the only one, these days."
The steward did in fact understand. He protested in a low, amiable voice, while the billiard-players affected not to hear; but he perfectly understood. The epidemic of resignations had already set in, and there had been talk of a Liberal-Unionist Club. The steward saw that the grand folly of a senile statesman was threatening his own future prospects. He smiled. But at Edwin, as they were leaving, he smiled in a quite peculiar way, and that smile clearly meant: "Your father goes dotty, and the first thing he does is to change his politics." This was the steward's justifiable revenge.
"You aren't leaving us?" the steward questioned Edwin in a half-whisper.
Edwin shook his head. But he could have killed the steward for that nauseating suggestive smile. The outer door swung to, cutting off the delicate click of billiard balls.
At the top of Duck Bank, Darius silently and without warning mounted the steps of the Conservative Club. Doubtless he knew how to lay his hand instantly on a proposer and seconder. Edwin did not follow him.
That evening, conscious of responsibility and of virtue, Edwin walked up Trafalgar Road with a less gawky and more dignified mien than ever he had managed to assume before. He had not only dismissed programmes of culture, he had forgotten them. After twelve hours as head of a business, they had temporarily ceased to interest him. And when he passed, or was overtaken by, other men of affairs, he thought to himself naively in the dark, "I am the equal of these men." And the image of Florence Simcox, the clog-dancer, floated through his mind.
He found Darius alone in the drawing-room, in front of an uncustomary fire, garden-clay still on his boots, and "The Christian News" under his spectacles. The Sunday before the funeral of Mr Shushions had been so unusual and so distressing that Darius had fallen into arrear with his perusals. True, he had never been known to read "The Christian News" on any day but Sunday, but now every day was Sunday.