Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 12

The Telegram

i

It was the end of February 1880. A day resembling spring had come, illusive, but exquisite. Hilda, having started out too hurriedly for the office after the midday dinner, had had to return home for a proof which she had forgotten.

She now had the house to herself, as a kingdom over which she reigned; for, amid all her humiliation and pensive dejection, she had been able to exert sufficient harsh force to drive her mother to London in company with Miss Gailey. She was alone, free; and she tasted her freedom to the point of ecstasy. She conned corrected proofs at her meals: this was life. When Florrie came in with another dish, Hilda looked up impatiently from printed matter, as if disturbed out of a dream, and Florrie put on an apologetic air, to invoke pardon. It was largely pretence on Hilda’s part, but it was life. Then she had the delicious anxiety of being responsible for Florrie. “Now, Florrie, I’m going out to-night, to see Miss Orgreave at Bleakridge. I shall rely on you to go to bed not later than nine. I’ve got the key. I may not be back till the last train.” “Yes, miss!” And what with Hilda’s solemnity and Florrie’s impressed eyes, the ten-forty-five was transformed into a train that circulated in the dark and mysterious hour just before cockcrow. Hilda, alone, was always appealing to Florrie’s loyalty. Sometimes when discreetly abolishing some old-fashioned, work-increasing method of her mother’s, she would speak to Florrie in a tone of sudden, transient intimacy, raising her for a moment to the rank of an intellectual equal as her voice hinted that her mother after all belonged to the effete generation.

Awkwardly, with her gloved hands, turning over the pages of a book in which the slip-proof had been carelessly left hidden, Hilda, from her bedroom, heard Florrie come whistling down the attic stairs. Florrie had certainly heard nothing of her young mistress since the door-bang which had signalled her departure for the office. In the delusion that she was utterly solitary in the house, Florrie was whistling, not at all like a modest young woman, but like a carter. Hilda knew that she could whistle, and had several times indicated to her indirectly that whistling was undesirable; but she had never heard her whistling as she whistled now. Her first impulse was to rush out of the bedroom and ‘catch’ Florrie and make her look foolish, but a sense of honour restrained her from a triumph so mean, and she kept perfectly still. She heard Florrie run into her mother’s bedroom; and then she heard that voice, usually so timid, saying loudly, exultantly, and even coarsely: “Oh! How beautiful I am! How beautiful I am! Shan’t I just mash the men! Shan’t I just mash ’em!” This new and vulgar word ‘mash’ offended Hilda.

ii

She crept noiselessly to the door, which was ajar, and looked forth like a thief. The door of her mother’s room was wide open, and across the landing she could see Florrie posturing in front of the large mirror of the wardrobe. The sight shocked her in a most peculiar manner. It was Florrie’s afternoon out, and the child was wearing, for the first time, an old brown skirt that Hilda had abandoned to her. But in this long skirt she was no more a child. Although scarcely yet fifteen years old, she was a grown woman. She had astoundingly developed during her service with Mrs. Lessways. She was scarcely less tall than Hilda, and she possessed a sturdy, rounded figure which put Hilda’s to shame. It was uncanny — the precocity of the children of the poor! It was disturbing! On a chair lay Florrie’s new ‘serviceable’ cloak, and a cheap but sound bonnet: both articles the fruit of a special journey with her aunt to Baines’s drapery shop at Bursley, where there was a small special sober department for servants who were wise enough not to yield to the temptation of ‘finery.’ Florrie, who at thirteen and a half had never been able to rattle one penny against another, had since then earned some two thousand five hundred pennies, and had clothed herself and put money aside and also poured a shower of silver upon her clamorous family. Amazing feat! Amazing growth! She seized the ‘good’ warm cloak and hid her poor old bodice beneath it, and drew out her thick pig-tail, and shook it into position with a free gesture of the head; and on the head she poised the bonnet, and tied the ribbons under the delightful chin. And then, after a moment of hard scrutiny, danced and whistled, and cried again: “How beautiful I am! How pretty I am!”

She was. She positively did not look a bit like a drudge. She was not the Florrie of the kitchen and of the sack-apron, but a young, fledged creature with bursting bosom who could trouble any man by the capricious modesty of a gaze downcast. The miraculous skirt, odious on Hilda, had the brightness of a new skirt. Her hands and arms were red and chapped, but her face had bloomed perfect in the kitchen like a flower in a marl-pit. It was a face that an ambitious girl could rely on. Its charm and the fluid charm of her movements atoned a thousand times for all her barbaric ignorance and crudity; the grime on her neck was naught.

Hilda watched, intensely ashamed of this spying, but she could not bring herself to withdraw. She was angry with Florrie; she was outraged. Then she thought: “Why should I be angry? The fact is I’m being mother all over again. After all, why shouldn’t Florrie . . .?” And she was a little jealous of Florrie, and a little envious of her, because Florrie had the naturalness of a savage or of an animal, unsophisticated by ideals of primness. Hilda was disconcerted at the discovery of Florrie as an authentic young woman. Florrie, more than seven years her junior! She felt experienced, and indulgent as the old are indulgent. For the first time in her life she did honestly feel old. And she asked herself — half in dismay: “Florrie has got thus far. Where am I? What am I doing?” It was upsetting.

At length Florrie took off the bonnet and ran upstairs, and shut the door of her attic. Apparently she meant to improve the bonnet by some touch. After waiting nervously a few moments, the aged Hilda slipped silently downstairs, and through the kitchen, and so by the garden, where with their feet in mire the hare trees were giving signs of hope under the soft blue sky, into the street. Florrie would never know that she had been watched.

iii

Ten minutes later, when she went into the office of Dayson & Co., Hilda was younger than ever. It was a young, fragile girl, despite the dark frown of her intense seriousness, who with accustomed gestures poked the stove, and hung bonnet and jacket on a nail and then sat down to the loaded desk; it was an ingenuous girl absurdly but fiercely anxious to shoulder the world’s weight. She had passed a whole night in revolt against George Cannon’s indignity; she had called it, furiously, an insult. She had said to herself: “Well, if I’m so useless as all that, I’ll never go near his office again.” But the next afternoon she had appeared as usual at the office, meek, modest, with a smile, fatigued and exquisitely resigned, and a soft voice. And she had worked with even increased energy and devotion. This kissing of the rod, this irrational instinctive humility, was a strange and sweet experience for her. Such was the Hilda of the office; but Hilda at home, cantankerous, obstinate, and rude, had offered a remarkable contrast to her until the moment when it was decided that her mother should accompany Miss Gailey to London. From that moment Hilda at home had been an angel, and the Hilda of the office had shown some return of sturdy pride.

To-day the first number of The Five Towns Chronicle was to go to press. . . . The delays had been inexplicable and exasperating to Hilda, though she had not criticized them, even to herself; they were now over. The town had no air of being excited about the appearance of its new paper. But the office was excited. The very room itself looked feverish. It was changed; more tables had been brought into it, and papers and litter had accumulated enormously; it was a room humanized by habitation, with a physiognomy that was individual and sympathetic.

From beyond the closed door of the inner room came the sound of men’s rapid voices. Hilda could distinguish Mr. Cannon’s and Arthur Dayson’s; there was a third, unfamiliar to her. Having nothing to do, she began to make work, rearranging the contents of her table, fingering with a factitious hurry the thick bundles of proofs of correspondence from the villages (so energetically organized by the great Dayson), and the now useless ‘copy,’ and the innumerable letters, that Dayson was always disturbing, and the samples of encaustic tiles brought in by an inventor who desired the powerful aid of the press, and the catalogues, and Dayson’s cuttings from the Manchester, Birmingham, and London papers, and the notepaper and envelopes and cards, and Veale Chifferiel & Co.‘s almanac that had somehow come up with other matters from Mr. Karkeek’s office below. And then she dusted, with pursed lips that blamed the disgraceful and yet excusable untidiness of men, and then she examined, with despair and with pride, her dirty little hands, whose finger-tips all clustered together (they were now like the hands of a nice, careless schoolboy), and lightly dusted one against the other. Then she found a galley-proof under the table. It was a duplicate proof of The Five Towns Chronicle’s leading article, dictated to her by a prodigious Arthur Dayson, in Mr. Cannon’s presence, on the previous day, and dealing faithfully with “The Calder Street Scandal” and with Mr. Enville, a member of the Local Board — implicated in the said scandal. The proof was useless now, for the leader-page was made up. Nevertheless, Hilda carefully classified it “in case . . . ”

iv

On a chair was The Daily Telegraph, which Dayson had evidently been reading, for it was blue pencilled. Hilda too must read it; her duty was to read it: Dayson had told her that she ought never to neglect the chance of reading any newspaper whatever, and that a young woman in her responsible situation could not possibly know too much. Which advice, though it came from a person ridiculous to her, seemed sound enough, and was in fact rather flattering. In the Telegraph she saw, between Dayson’s blue lines, an account of a terrible military disaster. She was moved by it in different ways. It produced in her a grievous, horror-struck desolation; but it also gave her an extraordinary sensation of fervid pleasure. It was an item of news that would have to appear in the Chronicle, and this would mean changes in the make-up, and work at express speed, and similar delights. Already the paper was supposed to be on the machine, though in fact, as she well knew, it was not. No doubt the subject of discussion in the inner room was the disaster! . . . Yes, she was acutely and happily excited. And always afterwards, when she heard or saw the sinister word ‘Majuba’ (whose political associations never in the least interested her), she would recall her contradictory, delicious feelings on that dramatic afternoon.

While she was busily cutting out the news from the Telegraph to be ready for Arthur Dayson, there was a very timid knock at the door, and Florrie entered, as into some formidable cabinet of tyrannic rulers.

“If you please, miss —” she began to whisper.

“Why, Florrie,” Hilda exclaimed, “what have you put that old skirt on for, when I’ve given you mine? I told you —”

“I did put it on, miss. But there came a telegram. I told the boy you were here, but he said that wasn’t no affair of his, so I brought it myself, and I thought you wouldn’t care for to see me in your skirt, miss, not while on duty, miss, ‘specially here like! So I up quick and changed it back.”

“Telegram?” Hilda repeated the word.

Florrie, breathless after running and all this whispering, advanced in the prettiest confusion towards the throne, and Hilda took the telegram with a gesture as casual as she could manage. Florrie’s abashed mien, and the arrival of the telegram, stiffened her back and steadied her hand. Imagine that infant being afraid of her, Hilda! This too was life! And the murmur of the men in the inner room was thrilling to Hilda’s ears.

She brusquely opened the telegram and read: “Lessways, Lessways Street, Turnhill. Mother ill. Can you come? — Gailey.”

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