Why the Clock Stopped by Arnold Bennett
Mr Morfe and Mary Morfe, his sister, were sitting on either side of their drawing-room fire, on a Friday evening in November, when they heard a ring at the front door. They both started, and showed symptoms of nervous disturbance. They both said aloud that no doubt it was a parcel or something of the kind that had rung at the front door. And they both bent their eyes again on the respective books which they were reading. Then they heard voices in the lobby--the servant's voice and another voice--and a movement of steps over the encaustic tiles towards the door of the drawing-room. And Miss Morfe ejaculated:
As though she was unwilling to believe that somebody on the other side of that drawing-room door contemplated committing a social outrage, she nevertheless began to fear the possibility.
In the ordinary course it is not considered outrageous to enter a drawing-room--even at nine o'clock at night--with the permission and encouragement of the servant in charge of portals. But the case of the Morfes was peculiar. Mr Morfe was a bachelor aged forty-two, and looked older. Mary Morfe was a spinster aged thirty-eight, and looked thirty-seven. Brother and sister had kept house together for twenty years. They were passionately and profoundly attached to each other--and did not know it. They grumbled at each other freely, and practised no more conversation, when they were alone, than the necessities of existence demanded (even at meals they generally read), but still their mutual affection was tremendous. Moreover, they were very firmly fixed in their habits. Now one of these habits was never to entertain company on Friday night. Friday night was their night of solemn privacy. The explanation of this habit offers a proof of the sentimental relations between them.
Mr Morfe was an accountant. Indeed, he was the accountant in Bursley, and perhaps he knew more secrets of the ledgers of the principal earthenware manufacturers than some of the manufacturers did themselves. But he did not live for accountancy. At five o'clock every evening he was capable of absolutely forgetting it. He lived for music. He was organist of Saint Luke's Church (with an industrious understudy--for he did not always rise for breakfast on Sundays) and, more important, he was conductor of the Bursley Orpheus Glee and Madrigal Club. And herein lay the origin of those Friday nights. A glee and madrigal club naturally comprises women as well as men; and the women are apt to be youngish, prettyish, and somewhat fond of music. Further, the conductorship of a choir involves many and various social encounters. Now Mary Morfe was jealous. Though Richard Morfe ruled his choir with whips, though his satiric tongue was a scorpion to the choir, though he never looked twice at any woman, though she was always saying that she wished he would marry, Mary Morfe was jealous. It was Mary Morfe who had created the institution of the Friday night, and she had created it in order to prove, symbolically and spectacularly, to herself, to him, and to the world, that he and she lived for each other alone. All their friends, every member of the choir, in fact the whole of the respectable part of barsley, knew quite well that in the Morfes' house Friday was sacredly Friday.
And yet a caller!
"It's a woman," murmured Mary. Until her ear had assured her of this fact she had seemed to be more disturbed than startled by the stir in the lobby.
And it was a woman. It was Miss Eva Harracles, one of the principal contraltos in the glee and madrigal club. She entered richly blushing, and excusably a little nervous and awkward. She was a tall, agreeable creature of fewer than thirty years, dark, almost handsome, with fine lips and eyes, and an effective large hat and a good muff. In every physical way a marked contrast to the thin, prim, desiccated brother and sister.
Richard Morfe flushed faintly. Mary Morfe grew more pallid.
"I really must apologize for coming in like this," said Eva, as she shook hands cordially with Mary Morfe. She knew Mary very well indeed. For Mary was the "librarian" of the glee and madrigal club; Mary never missed a rehearsal, though she cared no more for music than she cared for the National Debt. She was a perfect librarian, and very good at unofficially prodding indolent members into a more regular attendance too.
"Not at all!" said Mary. "We were only reading; you aren't disturbing us in the least." Which, though polite, was a lie.
And Eva Harracles sat down between them. And brother and sister abandoned their literature.
"I can't stop," said she, glancing at the clock immediately in front of her eyes. "I must catch the last car for Silverhays."
"You've got twenty minutes yet," said Mr Morfe.
"Because," said Eva, "I don't want that walk from Turnhill to Silverhays on a dark night like this."
"No, I should think not, indeed!" said Mary Morfe.
"You've got a full twenty minutes," Mr Morfe repeated. The clock showed three minutes past nine.
The electric cars to and from the town of Turnhill were rumbling past the very door of the Morfes every five minutes, and would continue to do so till midnight. But Silverhays is a mining village a couple of miles beyond Turnhill, and the service between Turnhill and Silverhays ceases before ten o'clock. Eva's father was a colliery manager who lived on the outskirts of Silverhays.
"I've got a piece of news," said Eva.
"Yes?" said Mary Morfe
Mr Morfe was taciturn. He stooped to nourish the fire.
"About Mr Loggerheads," said Eva, and stared straight at Mary Morfe.
"About Mr Loggerheads!" Mary Morfe echoed, and stared back at Eva. And the atmosphere seemed to have been thrown into a strange pulsation.
Here perhaps I ought to explain that it was not the peculiarity of Mr Loggerheads' name that produced the odd effect. Loggerheads is a local term for a harmless plant called the knapweed (centaurea nigra), and it is also the appellation of a place and of quite excellent people, and no one regards it as even the least bit odd.
"I'm told," said Eva, "that he's going into the Hanbridge Choir!"
Mr Loggerheads was the principal tenor of the Bursley Glee and Madrigal Club. And he was reckoned one of the finest "after-dinner tenors" in the Five Towns. The Hanbridge Choir was a rival organization, a vast and powerful affair that fascinated and swallowed promising singers from all the choirs of the vicinity. The Hanbridge Choir had sung at Windsor, and since that event there had been no holding it. All other choirs hated it with a homicidal hatred.
"I'm told," Eva proceeded, "that the Birmingham and Sheffield Bank will promote him to the cashiership of the Hanbridge Branch on the understanding that he joins the Hanbridge Choir. Shows what influence they have! And it shows how badly the Hanbridge Choir wants him."
(Mr Loggerheads was cashier of the Bursley branch of the Birmingham and Sheffield Bank.)
"Who told you?" asked Mary Morfe, curtly.
Richard Morfe said nothing. The machinations of the manager of the Hanbridge Choir always depressed and disgusted him into silence.
"Oh!" said Eva Harracles. "It's all about." (By which she meant that it was in the air.) "Everyone's talking of it."
"And do they say Mr Loggerheads has accepted?" Mary demanded.
"Yes," said Eva.
"Well," said Mary, "it's not true!... A mistake!" she added.
"How do you know it isn't true?" Mr Morfe inquired doubtfully.
"Since you're so curious," said Mary, defiantly, "Mr Loggerheads told me himself."
"The other day."
"You never said anything to me," protested Mr Morfe.
"It didn't occur to me," Mary replied.
"Well, I'm very glad!" remarked Eva Harracles. "But I thought I ought to let you know at once what was being said."
Mary Morfe's expression conveyed the fact that in her opinion Eva Harracles' evening call was a vain thing, too lightly undertaken, and conceivably lacking in the nicest discretion. Whereupon Mr Morfe was evidently struck by the advisability of completely changing the subject. And he did change it. He began to talk about certain difficulties in the choral parts of Havergal Brian's Vision of Cleopatra, a work which he meant the Bursley Glee and Madrigal Club to perform though it should perish in the attempt. Growing excited, in his dry way, concerning the merits of this composition, he rose from his easy chair and went to search for it. Before doing so he looked at the clock, which indicated twenty minutes past nine.
"Am I all right for time?" asked Eva.
"Yes, you're all right," said he. "If you go when that clock strikes half-past, and take the next car down, you'll make the connection easily at Turnhill. I'll put you into the car."
"Oh, thanks!" said Eva.
Mr Morfe kept his modern choral music beneath a broad seat under the bow window. The music was concealed by a low curtain that ran on a rod--the ingenious device of Mary. He stooped down to find the Vision of Cleopatra, and at first he could not find it. Mary walked towards that end of the drawing-room with a vague notion of helping him, and then Eva did the same, and then Mary walked back, and then Mr Morfe happily put his hand on the Vision of Cleopatra.
He opened the score for Eva's inspection, and began to hum passages and to point out others, and Eva also began to hum, and they hummed in concert, at intervals exclaiming against the wantonness with which Havergal Brian had invented difficulties. Eva glanced at the clock.
"You're all right," Mr Morfe assured her somewhat impatiently. And he, too, glanced at the clock: "You've still nearly ten minutes."
And proceeded with his critical and explanatory comments on the Vision of Cleopatra.
He was capable of becoming almost delirious about music. Mary Morfe had seated herself in silence.
At last Eva and Mr Morfe approached the fire and the mantelpiece again. Mr Morfe shut up the score, dismissed his delirium, and looked at the clock, quite prepared to see it pointing to twenty-nine and a half minutes past nine. Instead, the clock pointed to only twenty-two minutes past nine.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed. He went nearer.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed again rather more loudly. "I do believe that clock's stopped!"
It had. The pendulum hung perpendicular, motionless, dead.
He was astounded. For the clock had never been known to stop. It was a presentation clock, of the highest guaranteed quality, offered to him as a small token of regard and esteem by the members of the Bursley Orpheus Glee and Madrigal Club to celebrate the twelfth anniversary of his felicitous connection with the said society. It had stood on his mantelpiece for four years and had earned an absolutely first-class reputation for itself. He wound it up on the last day of every month, for it was a thirty-odd day clock, specially made by a famous local expert; and he had not known it to vary more than ten minutes a month at the most. And lo! it had stopped in the very middle of the month.
"Did you wind it up last time?" asked Mary.
"Of course," he snapped. He had taken out his watch and was gazing at it. He turned to Eva. "It's twenty to ten," he said. "You've missed your connection at Turnhill--that's a certainty. I'm very sorry."
Obviously there was only one course open to a gallant man whose clock was to blame: namely, to accompany Eva Harracles to Turnhill by car, to accompany her on foot to Silverhays, then to walk back to Turnhill and come home again by car. A young woman could not be expected to perform that bleak and perhaps dangerous journey from Turnhill to Silverhays alone after ten o'clock at night in November. Such was the clear course. But he dared scarcely suggest it. He dared scarcely suggest it because of his sister. He was afraid of Mary. The names of Richard Morfe and Eva Harracles had already been coupled in the mouth of gossip. And naturally Eva Harracles herself could not suggest that Richard should sally out and leave his sister alone on this night specially devoted to sisterliness and brotherliness. And of course, Eva thought, Mary will never, never suggest it.
But Eva was wrong there.
To the amazement of both Richard and Eva, Mary calmly said:
"Well, Dick, the least you can do now is to see Miss Harracles home. You'll easily be able to catch the last car back from Turnhill if you start at once. I daresay I shall go to bed."
And in three minutes Richard Morfe and Eva Harracles were being sped into the night by Mary Morfe.
The Morfes' house was at the corner of Trafalgar Road and Beech Street. The cars stopped at that corner in their wild course towards the town and towards Turnhill. A car was just coming. But instead of waiting for it Richard Morfe and Eva Harracles deliberately turned their backs on Trafalgar Road, and hurried side by side down Beech Street. Beech Street is a short street, and ends in a nondescript unlighted waste patch of ground. They arrived in the gloom of this patch, safe from all human inquisitiveness, and then Richard Morfe warmly kissed Eva Harracles in the mathematical centre of those lips of hers. And Eva Harracles showed no resentment of any kind, nor even shame. Yet she had been very carefully brought up. The sight would have interested Bursley immensely; it would have appealed strongly to Bursley's strong sense of the piquant.... That dry old stick Dick Morfe kissing one of his contraltos in the dark at the bottom end of Beech Street.
"Then you hadn't told her!" murmured Eva Harracles.
"No!" said Richard, with a slight hesitation. "I was just going to begin to tell her when you called."
Another woman might have pouted to learn that her lover had exhibited even a little cowardice in informing his family that he was engaged to be married. But Eva did not pout. She comprehended the situation, and the psychology of the relations between brothers and sisters. (She herself possessed both brothers and sisters.) All the courting had been singularly secret and odd.
"I shall tell her to-morrow morning at breakfast," said Richard, firmly. "Unless, after all, she isn't gone to bed when I get back."
By a common impulse they now returned towards Trafalgar Road.
"I say," said Richard, "what made you call?"
"I was passing," said the beloved. "And somehow I couldn't help it. Of course, I knew it wasn't true about Mr Loggerheads. But I had to think of something."
Richard was in ecstasy; had never been in such ecstasy.
"I say," he said again. "I suppose you didn't put your finger against the pendulum of that clock?"
"Oh, no!" she replied with emphasis.
"Well, I'm jolly glad it did stop, anyway," said Richard. "What a lark, eh?"
She agreed that the lark was ideal. They walked down the road till a car should overtake them.
"Do you think she suspects anything?" Eva asked.
"I'll swear she doesn't," said Richard, positively. "It'll be a bit of a startler for the old girl."
"No doubt you've heard," said Eva, haltingly, "that Mr Loggerheads has cast eyes on Mary."
"And do you think there's anything in that?" Richard questioned sharply.
"Well," she said, "I really don't know." Meaning that she decidedly thought that Mary had been encouraging advances from Mr Loggerheads.
"Well," said Richard, superiorly, "you may just take it from me that there's nothing in it at all.... Ha!" He laughed shortly. He knew Mary.
Then they got on a car, and tried to behave as though their being together was a mere accident, as though they had not become engaged to one another within the previous twenty-four hours.
Immediately after the departure of Richard Morfe and Eva Harracles, his betrothed, from the front door of the former, Mr Simon Loggerheads arrived at the same front door, and rang thereat, and was a little surprised, and also a little unnerved, when the door opened instantly, as if by magic. Mr Simon Loggerheads said to himself, as he saw the door move on its hinges, that Miss Morfe must have discovered a treasure of a servant who, when she had nothing else to do, spent her time on the inner door-mat waiting to admit possible visitors--even on Friday night. Nevertheless, Mr Simon Loggerheads regretted that prompt opening, as one regrets the prompt opening of the door of a dentist.
And it was no servant who stood in front of him, under the flickering beam of the lobby-lamp. It was Mary Morfe herself. The simple explanation was that she had just sped her brother and Eva Harracles, and had remained in the lobby for the purpose of ascertaining by means of her finger whether the servant had, as usual, forgotten to dust the tops of the picture-frames.
"Oh!" said Mr Loggerheads, when he saw Mary Morfe. For the cashier of the Bursley branch of the Birmingham and Sheffield Bank it was not a very able speech, but it was all he could accomplish.
And Miss Mary Morfe said:
She was thirty-eight, and he was quite that (for the Bank mentioned does not elevate its men to the august situation of cashier under less than twenty years' service), and yet they neither of them had enough worldliness to behave in a reasonable manner. Then Miss Morfe, to whom it did at last occur that something must be done, produced an invitation:
"Do come in!" And she added, "Richard has just gone out."
"Oh!" commented Mr Simon Loggerheads again. (After all, it must be admitted that tenors as a class have never been noted for their conversational powers.) But he was obviously more at ease, and he went in, and Mary Morfe shut the door. At this very instant her brother and Eva were in secret converse at the back end of Beech Street.
"Do take your coat off!" Mary suggested to Simon. Simultaneously the servant appeared at the kitchen extremity of the lobby, and Mary thrust her out of sight again with the cold words: "It's all right, Susan."
Mr Loggerheads took his coat off, and Mary Morfe watched him as he did so.
He made a pretty figure. He was something of a dandy. The lapels of the overcoat would have showed that, not to mention the correctly severe necktie. All his clothes, in fact, had "cut and style," even to his boots. In the Five Towns many a young man is a dandy down to the edge of his trousers, but not down to the ground. Mr Loggerheads looked a young man. The tranquillity of his career and the quietude of his tastes had preserved his youthfulness. And, further, he had the air of a successful, solid, much-respected individual. To be a cashier, though worthy, is not to be a nabob, but a bachelor can save a lot out of over twenty years of regular salary. And Mr Loggerheads had saved quite a lot. And he had had opportunities of advantageously investing his savings. Then everybody knew him, and he knew everybody. He handed out gold at least once a week to nearly half the town, and you cannot help venerating a man who makes a practice of handing out gold to you. And he had thrilled thousands with the wistful beauty of his voice in "The Sands of Dee." In a word, Simon Loggerheads was a personage, if not talkative.
They went into the drawing-room. Mary Morfe closed the door gently. Simon Loggerheads strolled vaguely and self-consciously up to the fireplace, murmuring:
"So he's gone out?"
"Yes," said Mary Morfe, in confirmation of her first statement.
"I'm sorry!" said Simon Loggerheads. A statement which was absolutely contrary to the truth. Simon Loggerheads was deeply relieved and glad that Richard Morfe was out.
The pair, aged slightly under and slightly over forty, seemed to hover for a fraction of a second uncertainly near each other, and then, somehow, mysteriously, Simon Loggerheads had kissed Mary Morfe. She blushed. He blushed. The kiss was repeated. Mary gazed up at him. Mary could scarcely believe that he was hers. She could scarcely believe that on the previous evening he had proposed marriage to her--rather suddenly, so it seemed to her, but delightfully. She could comprehend his conduct no better than her own. They two, staid, settled-down, both of them "old maids," falling in love and behaving like lunatics! Mary, a year ago, would have been ready to prophesy that if ever Simon Loggerheads--at his age!--did marry, he would assuredly marry something young, something ingenuous, something cream-and-rose, and probably something with rich parents. For twenty years Simon Loggerheads had been marked down for capture by the marriageable spinsters and widows, and the mothers with daughters, of Bursley. And he had evaded capture, despite the special temptations to which an after-dinner tenor is necessarily subject. And now Mary Morfe had caught him--caught him, moreover, without having had the slightest intention of catching him. She was one of the most spinsterish spinsters in the Five Towns; and she had often said things about men and marriage of which the recollection now, as an affianced woman, was very disturbing to her. However, she did not care. She did not understand how Simon Loggerheads had had the wit to perceive that she would be an ideal wife. And she did not care. She did not understand how, as a result of Simon Loggerheads falling in love with her, she had fallen in love with him. And she did not care. She did not care a fig for anything. She was in love with him, and he with her, and she was idiotically joyous, and so was he. And that was all.
On reflection, I have to admit that she did in fact care for one thing. That one thing was the look on her brother's face when he should learn that she, the faithful sardonic sister, having incomprehensibly become indispensable and all in all to a bank cashier, meant to desert him. She was afraid of that look. She trembled at the fore-vision of it.
Still, Richard had to be informed, and the world had to be informed, for the silken dalliance between Mary and Simon had been conducted with a discretion and a secrecy more than characteristic of their age and dispositions. It had been arranged between the lovers that Simon should call on that Friday evening, when he would be sure to catch Richard in his easy chair, and should, in presence of Mary, bluntly communicate to Richard the blunt fact.
"What's he gone out for? Anything special?" asked Simon.
Mary explained the circumstances.
"The truth is," she finished, "that girl is just throwing herself at Dick's head. There's no doubt of it. I never saw such work!"
"Well," said Simon Loggerheads, "of course, you know, there's been a certain amount of talk about them. Some folks say that your brother--er--began--"
"And do you believe that?" demanded Mary.
"I don't know," said Simon. By which he meant diplomatically to convey that he had had a narrow escape of believing it, at any rate.
"Well," said Mary, with conviction, "you may take it from me that it isn't so. I know Dick. Eva Harracles may throw herself at his head till there's no breath left in her body, and it'll make no difference to Dick. Do you see Dick a married man? I don't. I only wish he would take it into his head to get married. It would make me much easier in my mind. But all the same I do think it's downright wicked that a girl should fling herself at him, right at him. Fancy her calling to-night! It's the sort of thing that oughtn't to be encouraged."
"But I understood you to say that you yourself had told him to see her home," Simon Loggerheads put in. "Isn't that encouraging her, as it were?"
"Ah!" said Mary, with a smile. "I only suggested it to him because it came over me all of a sudden how nice it would be to have you here all alone! He can't be back much before twelve."
To such a remark there is but one response. A sofa is, after all, made for two people, and the chance of the servant calling on them was small.
"And so the clock stopped!" observed Simon Loggerheads.
"Yes," said Mary. "If it hadn't been for the sheer accident of that clock stopping, we shouldn't be sitting here on this sofa now, and Dick would be in that chair, and you would just be beginning to tell him that we are engaged." She sighed. "Poor Dick! What on earth will he do?"
"Strange how things happen!" Simon reflected in a low voice. "But I'm really surprised at that clock stopping like that. It's a clock that you ought to be able to depend on, that clock is."
He got up to inspect the timepiece. He knew all about the clock, because he had been chairman of the presentation committee which had gone to Manchester to buy it.
"Why!" he murmured, after he had toyed a little with the pendulum, "it goes all right. Its tick is as right as rain."
"How odd!" responded Mary.
Simon Loggerheads set the clock by his own impeccable watch, and then sat down again. And he drew something from his waistcoat pocket and slid it on to Mary's finger.
Mary regarded her finger in silent ecstasy, and then breathed "How lovely!"--not meaning her finger.
"Shall I stay till he comes back?" asked Simon.
"If I were you I shouldn't do that," said Mary. "But you can safely stay till eleven-thirty. Then I shall go to bed. He'll be tired and short [curt] when he gets back. I'll tell him myself to-morrow morning at breakfast. And you might come to-morrow afternoon early, for tea."
Simon did stay till half-past eleven. He left precisely when the clock, now convalescent, struck the half-hour. At the door Mary said to him:
"I won't have any secrets from you, Simon. It was I who stopped that clock. I stopped it while they were bending down looking for music. I wanted to be as sure as I could of a good excuse for me suggesting that he ought to take her home. I just wanted to get him out of the house."
"But why?" asked Simon.
"I must leave that to you to guess," said Mary, with a hint of tartness, but smiling.
Loggerheads and Richard Morfe met in Trafalgar Road.
And each passed on, without having stopped.
You can picture for yourself the breakfast of the brother and sister.