Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 11

Disillusion

i

The entrance of George Cannon into the parlour produced a tumult greatly stimulating the vitality and the self-consciousness of all three women. Sarah Gailey’s excitement was expressed in flushing, and in characteristic small futile movements of the head and hands, and in monosyllables that conveyed naught except a vague but keen apprehension. Mrs. Lessways was perturbed and somewhat apprehensive also; but she was flattered and pleased. Hilda was frankly suspicious during the first moments. She guessed that Mr. Cannon was aware of his sister’s visit, and that he had come to further his own purposes. He confirmed her idea by greeting his sister without apparent surprise; but as, in response to Mrs. Lessways’ insistence, he took off his great overcoat, with those large, powerful gestures which impress susceptible women and give pleasure even to the indifferent, he said casually to Sarah Gailey, “I didn’t expect to meet you here, Sally. I’ve come to have a private word with Mrs. Lessways about putting one of her Calder Street tenants on to the pavement.” Sarah laughed nervously and said that she would retire, and Mrs. Lessways said that Sarah would do no such thing, and that she was very welcome to hear all that Mr. Cannon might have to say concerning the Calder Street property.

In a minute Mr. Cannon was resplendently sitting down to the table with them, and rubbing his friendly hands, and admitting that he should not refuse a cup of tea if pressed. And Hilda received her mother’s sharp instructions to get a cup and saucer from the sideboard and a spoon from the drawer. She bore these to the table like a handmaid, but like a delicate and superior handmaid, and it pleased her to constitute herself a delicate and superior handmaid. Mr. Cannon sat next to her mother, and Hilda put down the tinkling cup and saucer on the white cloth between them; and as she did so Mr. Cannon turned and thanked her with a confidential smile, to which she responded. They were not now employer and employee, but exclusively in the social world; nevertheless, their business relations made an intimacy which it was piquant to feel in the home. Moreover, Sarah Gailey was opposite to them, and Hilda could not keep out of her dark eyes the intelligence: “If she is here, if you are all amicable together, it is due to me.” Delicious and somehow perilous secret! . . . Going back to her seat, she arranged more safely the vast overcoat which he had thrown carelessly down on her mother’s rocking-chair. It was inordinately heavy, and would have outweighed a dozen of her skimpy little jackets; she, who would have been lost in it like a cat in a rug, enjoyed the thought of the force of the creature capable of wearing it lightly for a garment. Withal the rough, soft surface of it was agreeable to the hand. Out of one of the immense pockets hung the end of a coloured silk muffler, filmy as anything that she herself wore.

Then they were all definitely seated, and Mr. Cannon accepted his tea from the hand of Mrs. Lessways. The whiteness of his linen, the new smartness of his suit, the elegance and gallantry of his gestures — these phenomena incited the women to a responsive emulation; they were something which it was a feminine duty to live up to. Archness reigned, especially between the hostess and the caller. Hilda answered to the mood. And Sarah Gailey, though she said little and never finished a sentence, did her best to answer to it by noddings and nervous appreciative smiles, and swift turnings of the head from one to another. When Mr. Cannon and Mrs. Lessways, in half a dozen serious words interjected among the archness, had adversely settled the fate of a whole family in Calder Street, there remained scarcely a trace, in the company’s demeanour, of the shamed consciousness that only two days before its members had been divided by disastrous enmities and that one of them had lacked the means of life.

ii

“Oh no! my dear girl! You’re too modest — that’s what’s the matter with you,” said George Cannon eagerly to his half-sister. The epithet flattered but did not allay her timidity. To Hilda it seemed mysteriously romantic.

The supreme topic had worked its way into the conversation. Uppermost in the minds of all, it seemed to have forced itself out by its own intrinsic energy, against the will of the company. Impossible to decide who first had let it forth! But George Cannon had now fairly seized it and run off with it. He was almost boyishly excited over it. The Latin strain in him animated his features and his speech. He was a poet as he talked of the boarding-house that awaited a mistress. He had pulled out of his pocket the cutting of an advertisement of it from the London Daily Telegraph, a paper that was never seen in Turnhill. And this bit of paper, describing in four lines the advantages of the boarding-house, had the effect of giving the actual house a symbolic reality. “There it is!” he exclaimed, slapping down the paper. And there it appeared really to be. The bit of paper was extraordinarily persuasive. It compelled everybody to realize, now for the first time, that the house did in fact exist. George Cannon had an overwhelming answer to all timorous objections. The boarding-house was remunerative; boarders were at that very moment in it. The nominal proprietor was not leaving it because he was losing money on the boarding-house, but because he had lost money in another enterprise quite foreign to it, and had pledged all the contents of the boarding-house as security. The occasion was one in a thousand, one in a million. He, George Cannon, through a client, had the entire marvellous affair between his finger and thumb, and most obviously Sarah Gailey was the woman of all women for the vacant post at his disposition. Chance was waiting on her. She had nothing whatever to do but walk into the house as a regent into a kingdom, and rule. Only, delay was impossible. All was possible except delay. She would inevitably succeed; she could not fail. And it would be a family affair. . . .

Tea was finished and forgotten.

“For your own sake!” he wound up a peroration. “It really doesn’t matter to me. . . . Don’t you agree with me, Mrs. Lessways?” His glance was a homage.

“Oh, you!” exclaimed Mrs. Lessways, smiling happily. “You’ve only got to open your mouth, and you’d talk anybody into the middle of next week.”

“Mother!” Hilda mildly reproved. She was convinced now that Mr. Cannon had come on purpose to clinch the affair.

He laughed appreciatively.

“But really! Seriously!” he insisted.

And Mrs. Lessways, straightening her face, said, with slight self-consciousness: “Oh, I think it’s worth while considering!”

“There you are!” cried Mr. Cannon to Miss Gailey.

“I shall be all alone up there!” said Miss Gailey, as cheerfully as she could.

“I’ll go up with you and see you into the place. I should have to come back the same night — I’m so tremendously busy just now — what with the paper and so on.”

“Yes, but — I quite admit all you say, George — but —”

“Here’s another idea,” he broke out. “Why don’t you ask Mrs. Lessways to go up with you and stay a week or two? It would be a rare change for her, and company for you.”

Miss Gailey looked quickly at her old friend.

“Oh! Bless you!” said Mrs. Lessways. “I’ve only been to London once, and that was only for two days — before Hilda was born. I should be no use in London, at my time of life. I’m one of your home-stayers.” Nevertheless it was plain that the notion appealed to her fancy, and that she would enjoy flirting with it.

“Nonsense, Mrs. Lessways!” said George Cannon. “It would do you a world of good, and it would make all the difference to Sally.”

“That it would!” Sarah agreed, still questioning Caroline with her watery, appealing eyes. In Caroline, Sarah saw her salvation, and snatched at it. Caroline could no nothing well; she had no excellence; all that Caroline could do Sarah could do better. And yet Caroline, by the mysterious virtue of her dry and yet genial shrewdness, and of the unstable but reliable equilibrium of her temperament, was the skilled Sarah’s superior. They both knew it and felt it. The lofty Hilda admitted it. Caroline herself negligently admitted it by a peculiar, brusque, unaffected geniality of condescension towards Sarah.

“Do go, mother!” said Hilda. To herself she had been saying: “Another of his wonderful ideas!” The prospect of being alone in the house with Florrie, of being free for a space to live her own life untrammelled and throw all her ardour into her work, was inexpressibly attractive to Hilda. It promised the most delicious experience that she had ever had.

“Yes,” retorted Mrs. Lessways. “And leave you here by yourself! A nice thing!”

“I shall be all right,” said Hilda confidently and joyously. She was sure that the excursion to London had appealed to her mother’s latent love of the unexpected, and that her faculty for accepting placidly whatever fate offered would prevent her from resisting the pressure that Sarah Gailey and Mr. Cannon would obviously exert.

“Shall you!” Mrs. Lessways muttered.

“Why not take your daughter with you, too?” Mr. Cannon suggested.

“Oh!” cried Hilda, shocked. “I couldn’t possibly leave my work just now. . . . The paper just coming out. . . . You couldn’t spare me.” She spoke with pride, using phrases similar to those which he had used to explain to Sarah Gailey why he could not remain with her in London even for a night.

“Oh yes, I could,” he answered kindly, lightly, carelessly, shattering — in his preoccupation with one idea — all her fine, loyal pretensions. “We should manage all right.”

iii

She was hurt. She was mortally pierced. The blow was too cruel. She lowered her glance before his, and fixed it on the table-cloth. Her brow darkened. Her lower lip bulged out. She was the child again. He had with atrocious inhumanity reduced her to the unimportance of a child. She had bestowed on him and his interests the gift of her whole soul, and he had said that it was negligible. And the worst was that he was perfectly unaware of what he had done. He had not even observed the symptoms of her face. He had turned at once to the older women and was continuing the conversation. He had ridden over her, and ridden on without a look behind. The conversation moved, after a pause, back to the plausible excuse for his call. He desired to see some old rent-book which would show how the doomed tenant in Calder Street had originally fallen into arrears.

“Where is that old book of Mr. Skellorn’s, Hilda?” her mother asked.

She could not speak. The sob was at her throat. If she had spoken it would have burst through, and she would have been not merely the child, but the disgraced child.

“Hilda!” repeated her mother.

Her singular silence drew the attention of all. She blushed a sombre scarlet. No! She could not speak. She cursed herself. “What a little fool I am! Surely I can . . . ” Useless! She could not speak. She took the one desperate course open to her, and ran out of the room, to the astonishment of three puzzled and rather frightened adults. Her shame was now notorious. “Baby! Great baby!” she gnashed at her own inconceivable silliness. Had she no pride? . . . And now she was in the gloom of the lobby, and she could hear Florrie in the kitchen softly whistling. . . . She was out in the dark lobby exactly like a foolish, passionate child. . . . She knew all the time that she could easily persuade her mother to leave her alone with Florrie in the house; she had levers to move her mother. . . . But of what use, now, to do that?

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