Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 10

Miss Gailey in Declension

i

Knowing whom she was to meet, Hilda came home to tea, on the next day but one, with a demeanour whose characteristics were heightened by nervousness. The weather was still colder, and she had tied the broad ribbons of her small bonnet rather closely under her chin, the double bow a little to the left. A knitted bodice over the dress and under the jacket made the latter tighter than usual, so that the fur edges of it curved away somewhat between the buttons, and all the upper part of the figure seemed to be too strictly confined, while the petticoats surged out freely beneath. A muff, brightly coloured to match the skirt and the bonnet and her cheeks, completed the costume. She went into the house through the garden and delicately stamped her feet on the lobby tiles, partly to warm them and shake off a few bits of snow, and partly to announce clearly her arrival. Then, just as she was, hands in muff, she entered the parlour. She was tingling with keen, rosy life, and with the sense of youthful power. She had the deep, unconscious conviction of the superiority of youth to age. And there were the two older women, waiting for her, as it were on the defensive, and as nervous as she!

“Good afternoon, Miss Gailey,” she said, with a kind and even very cordial smile, and heartily shook the flaccid, rheumatic hand that was primly held out to her. And yet in spite of herself, perhaps unknown to herself, there was in her tone and her smile and her vigorous clasp something which meant, “Poor old thing!” pityingly, indulgently, scornfully.

She had not spoken to Miss Gailey, and she had scarcely seen her, since the days of the dancing-class. A woman who is in process of losing everything but her pride can disappear from view as easily in a small town as in a great city; her acquaintances will say to each other, “I haven’t met So-and-so lately. I wonder . . . ” And curiosity will go no further. And in a short time her invisibility will cease to excite any remark, except, “She keeps herself to herself nowadays.” To Hilda Miss Gailey appeared no older; her brown hair had very little grey in it, and her skin was fairly smooth and well-preserved. But she seemed curiously smaller, and less significant, this woman who, with a certain pedagogic air, used to instruct girls in grace and boys in gallantry, this woman who was regarded by all her pupils as the authoritative source of correctness and ease in deportment. “Now, Master Charles,” Hilda could remember her saying, “will you ask me for the next polka all over again, and try not to look as if you were doing me a favour and were rather ashamed of yourself?” She had a tongue for the sneaping of too casual boys, and girls also.

And she spoke so correctly, as correctly as she performed the figures of a dance! Hilda, who also spoke without the local peculiarities, had been deprived of her Five Towns accent at Chetwynd’s School, where the purest Kensingtonian was inculcated; but Miss Gailey had lost hers in Kensington itself — so rumour said — many years before. And now, in her declension, she was still perfect of speech. But the authority and the importance were gone in substance: only the shadow of them remained. She had now, indeed, a manner half apologetic and half defiant, but timorously and weakly defiant. Her head was restless with little nervous movements; her watery eyes seemed to say: “Do not suppose that I am not as proud and independent as ever I was, because I am. Look at my silk dress, and my polished boots, and my smooth hair, and my hands! Can anyone find any trace of shabbiness in me?” But beneath all this desperate bravery was the wistful acknowledgment, continually-peeping out, that she had after all come down in the world, albeit with a special personal dignity that none save she could have kept.

ii

The two women were seated at a splendid fire. Hilda, whose nervousness was quickly vanishing, came between them to warm her hands that were shining with cold, despite muff and gloves. “Here, mother!” she said teasingly, putting the muff and gloves in her mother’s lap.

Sarah Gailey rose with slow stiffness from her chair.

“Now don’t let this child disturb you, Sarah!” Mrs. Lessways protested.

“Oh no, Caroline!” said Miss Gailey composedly. “I was only getting my apron.”

From a reticule on the table she drew forth a small black satin apron on which was embroidered in filoselle a spray of moss-roses. It was extremely elegant — much more so than Mrs. Lessways’— though not in quite the latest style of fashionable aprons; not being edible, it had probably been long preserved in a wardrobe, on the chance of just such an occasion as this. She adjusted the elastic round her thin waist, and sat down again. The apron was a sign that she had come definitely to spend the whole evening. It was a proof of the completeness of the reconciliation between the former friends.

As the conversation shifted from the immediate topic of the weather to the great general question of cures for chilblains, Hilda wondered what had passed between her mother and Miss Gailey, and whether her mother had overcome by mere breezy force or by guile: which details she never learnt, for Mrs. Lessways was very loyal to her former crony, and moreover she had necessarily to support the honour of the older generation against the younger. It seemed incredible to Hilda that this woman who sat with such dignity and such gentility by her mother’s fire was she who the day before yesterday had been starving in the pride-imposed prison of her own house. Could Miss Gailey have known that Hilda knew! . . . But Hilda knew that Miss Gailey knew that she knew — and that others guessed! Such, however, was the sublime force of convention that the universal pretence of ignorance securely triumphed.

Then Florrie — changed, grown, budded, practised in the technicalities of parlours, but timid because of “company”— came in to set the tea. And Miss Gailey inspected her with the calm and omniscient detachment of a deity, and said to Caroline when she was gone that Florrie seemed a promising little thing — with the ‘makings of a good servant’ in her. Afterwards the mistress recounted this judgment to Florrie, who was thereby apparently much impressed and encouraged in well-doing.

iii

“And so you’re thinking of going to London, Miss Gailey?” said Hilda, during tea. The meal was progressing satisfactorily, though Caroline could not persuade Sarah to eat enough.

Miss Gailey flushed slightly, with the characteristic nervous movement of the head. Evidently her sensitiveness was extreme.

“And what do you know about it, you inquisitive little puss?” Mrs. Lessways intervened hastily, though it was she who had informed Hilda of the vague project. Somehow, in presence of her old friend, Mrs. Lessways seemed to feel herself under an obligation to play the assertive and crushing mother.

“Has Mr. Cannon mentioned it?” said Miss Gailey politely. Miss Gailey, at any rate, recognized in the most scrupulous way that Hilda was an adult, and no longer a foal-legged pupil for dancing. “Well, he seems so set on it. He came round to see me about it yesterday morning, without any warning. And he was full of it! I told you how full he was of it, didn’t I, Caroline? You know how he is when anything takes him.”

“Do I know how he is?” murmured Caroline, arching her eyebrows. She spoke much more broadly than either of the others.

Miss Gailey continued to Hilda, with seriousness: “It’s a boarding-house that he’s got control of up there. Something about a bill of sale on the furniture, I think. But perhaps you know?”

“No, I don’t,” said Hilda.

“Oh!” said Miss Gailey, relieved. “Well, anyhow he’s bent on me taking charge of this boarding-house. He will have it it’s just the thing for me. But — but I don’t know!” She finished weakly.

“Everyone knows you’re a splendid housekeeper,” said Mrs. Lessways. “Always were.”

“I remember the refreshments at your annual dances,” said Hilda, politely enthusiastic.

“I always attended to those myself,” Miss Gailey judicially observed.

“I don’t know anything about refreshments at dances,” said Mrs. Lessways, “but I do know what your housekeeping is, Sarah!”

“Well, that’s what George says!” Sarah simpered. “He says he never had such meals and such attention as that year he lived with me.”

“I’m sure he’s been sorry many a time he ever left you!” exclaimed Caroline. “Many and many a time!”

“Oh, well. . . . Relatives, you know. . . . ” Sarah murmured vaguely. This was the only reference to the estrangement. She went on with more vivacity. “And then Mr. Cannon has always had ideas about boarding-houses and furnished rooms and so on. He always did say there was lots of money to be made out of them if only they were managed properly; only they never are. . . . He ought to know; he’s been a bachelor long enough, and he’s tried enough of them! He says he isn’t at all comfortable where he is,” she added, as it were aside to Caroline. “It’s some people who used to let lodgings to theatre people at Hanbridge.”

“Oh! Them!” cried Caroline.

The talk meandered into a maze of reminiscences, and Hilda had to realize her youthfulness and the very inferior range of her experience: Sarah and Caroline recalled to each other dozens of persons and events, opening up historical vistas in a manner that filled the young girl with envious respect, in spite of herself.

“Do you remember Hanbridge Theatre being built, Sarah?” questioned Caroline. “My grandfather — Hilda’s great-grandfather — tendered for it — not that he got the job — but he was very old.”

“Did he now? No, I don’t. But I dare say I was in London then.”

“I dare say that would be it.”

“Yes,” said Sarah, turning to Hilda once more, “that’s just what Mr. Cannon says. He says it isn’t as if I didn’t know what London is. . . . But it’s such a long time ago!” She glanced at Caroline as if for sympathy.

“Come, come, Sarah!” Caroline protested stoutly, and yet with a care for Sarah’s sensitiveness. “It isn’t so long ago as all that!”

“It seems so long,” said Sarah, reflective; and her mouth worked uneasily. Then, after a pause: “He’s so set on it!”

“Set on what? On your going to London?”

“Yes.”

“And why not?”

“Well, I don’t know whether I could —”

“Paw!” scoffed Caroline lightly and flatteringly. “You’re younger than I am, and I’m not going to have anyone making out that I’m getting old. Now do finish that bit of cake.”

“No, thank you, Caroline. I really couldn’t.”

“Not but what I should be sorry enough to lose you,” Caroline concluded. “There’s no friends like the old friends.”

“Ah! No!” Sarah thickly muttered, gazing with her watery eyes at a spot on the white diaper.

“Hilda, do turn down that there gas a bit,” said Mrs. Lessways sharply and self-consciously. “It’s fizzing.” And she changed the subject.

iv

With a nervous exaggeration of solicitude Hilda sprang to the gas-jet. Suddenly she was drenched in the most desolating sadness. She could not bear to look at Miss Gailey; and further, Miss Gailey seemed unreal to her, not an actual woman, but an abstract figure of sorrow that fancy had created. A few minutes previously Hilda had been taking pride in the tact and the enterprise of George Cannon, who possessed a mysterious gift of finding an opportunity for everybody who needed it. He had set Hilda on her feet; and he was doing the same for his half-sister, and with such skilful diplomacy that Miss Gailey was able to pretend to herself and to others that George Cannon, and not Sarah Gailey, was the obliged person. But now Hilda saw Sarah Gailey afraid to go to London, and George Cannon pushing her forward with all the ruthless strength of his enterprising spirit. And the sight was extraordinarily, incomprehensibly tragic. Sarah Gailey’s timorous glance seemed to be saying: “I am terrified to go. It isn’t beyond my strength — it’s beyond my spirit. But I shall have to go, and I shall have to seem glad to go. And nobody can save me!”

And Miss Gailey’s excellent silk dress, and her fine apron, and her primness and dignified manners, and her superb pretence of being undamaged struck Hilda as intolerably pathetic — so that she was obliged to look away lest she might weep at the sight of that pathos. Yes, it was a fact that she could not bear to look! Nor could she bear to let her imagination roam into Miss Gailey’s immediate past! She said to herself: “Only yesterday morning perhaps she didn’t know where her next meal was coming from. He must have managed somehow to give her some money. Only yesterday morning perhaps she didn’t know where her next meal — If I say that to myself once more I shall burst out crying!” She balanced her spoon on her teacup and let it fall.

“Now, Miss Fidgety!” her mother commented, with good humour. And then they all heard a knock at the front door.

“Will Florrie have heard it?” Mrs. Lessways asked nervously. What she meant was: “Who on earth can this be?” But such questions cannot be put in the presence of a newly reconciled old friend. It was necessary to behave as though knocks at the front door were a regular accompaniment of tea.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31