Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 13

Hilda’s World

i

The conversation in the inner room promised to be interminable. Hilda could not decide what to do. She felt no real alarm on her mother’s account. Mrs. Lessways, often slightly indisposed, was never seriously ill; she possessed one of those constitutions which do not go to extremes of disease; if a malady overtook her, she invariably ‘had’ it in a mild form. Doubtless Sarah Gailey, preoccupied and worried by new responsibilities, desired to avoid the added care of nursing the sick. Hence the telegram. Moreover, if the case had been grave, she would not have put the telegram in the interrogative; she would have written, ‘Please come at once.’ No, Hilda was not unduly disturbed. Nevertheless, she had an odd idea that she ought to rush to the station and catch the next train, which left Knype at five minutes to four; this idea did not spring from her own conscience, but rather from the old-fashioned collective family conscience. But at a quarter to four, when it was already too late to catch the local train at Turnhill, the men had not emerged from the inner room; nor had Hilda come to any decision. As the departure of her mother and Miss Gailey had involved much solemn poring over time-tables, it happened that she knew the times of all the trains to London; to catch the next and last she would have to leave Turnhill at 5.55. She said that she would wait and see. Her work for the first number of the paper was practically done, but there was this mysterious conclave which fretted her curiosity and threatened exciting development; also the Majuba disaster would mean trouble for somebody. And in any event she hated the very thought of quitting Turnhill before the Chronicle was definitely out. She had lived for the moment of its publication, and she could not bear to miss it. She was almost angry with her mother; she was certainly angry with Miss Gailey. All the egotism of the devotee in her was aroused and irate.

Then the men came forth from the inner room, with a rather unexpected suddenness. Mr. Cannon appeared first; and after him Mr. Enville; lastly Arthur Dayson, papers in hand. Intimidated by the presence of the stranger, Hilda affected to be busy at her table. Mr. Enville shook hands very amicably with George Cannon, and instantly departed. As he passed down the stairs she caught sight of him; he was a grizzled man of fifty, lean and shabby, despite his reputation for riches. She knew that he was a candidate for the supreme position of Chief Bailiff at the end of the year, and he did not accord with her spectacular ideal of a Chief Bailiff; the actual Chief Bailiff was a beautiful and picturesque old man, with perfectly tended white whiskers, and always a flower in his coat. Further, she could not reconcile this nearly effusive friendliness between Mr. Enville and Mr. Cannon with the animadversions of the leading article which Arthur Dayson had composed, and Mr. Cannon had approved, only twenty-four hours earlier.

As Mr. Cannon shut the door at the head of the stairs, she saw him give a discreet, disdainful wink to Dayson. Then he turned sharply to Hilda, and said, thoughtful and stern:

“Your notebook, please.”

Bracing herself, and still full of pride in her ability to write this mysterious shorthand, she opened her notebook, and waited with poised pencil. The mien of the two men had communicated to her an excitement far surpassing their own, in degree and in felicity. The whole of her vital force was concentrated at the point of her pencil, and she seemed to be saying to herself: “I’m very sorry, mother, but see how important this is! I shall consider what I can do for you the very moment I am free.”

Arthur Dayson coughed and plumped heavily on a chair.

ii

It was in such moments as this that Dayson really lived, with all the force of his mediocrity. George Cannon was not a journalist; he could compose a letter, but he had not the trick of composing an article. He felt, indeed, a negligent disdain for the people who possessed this trick, as for performers in a circus; he certainly did not envy them, for he knew that he could buy them, as a carpenter buys tools. His attitude was that of the genuine bourgeois towards the artist: possessive, incurious, and contemptuous. Dayson, however, ignored George Cannon’s attitude, perhaps did not even perceive what it was. He gloried in his performance. Accustomed to dictate extempore speeches on any subject whatever to his shorthand pupils, he was quite at his ease, quite master of his faculties, and self-satisfaction seemed to stand out on his brow like genial sweat while the banal phrases poured glibly from the cavern behind his jagged teeth; and each phrase was a perfect model of provincial journalese. George Cannon had to sit and listen — to approve, or at worst to make tentative suggestions.

The first phrase which penetrated through the outer brain of the shorthand writer to the secret fastness where Hilda sat in judgment on the world was this:

“The campaign of vulgar vilification inaugurated yesterday by our contemporary The Staffordshire Signal against our esteemed fellow-townsman Mr. Richard Enville . . . ”

This phrase came soon after such phrases as “Our first bow to the public” . . . “Our solemn and bounden duty to the district which it is our highest ambition to serve . . . ” etc. Phrases which had already occurred in the leading article dictated on the previous day.

Hilda soon comprehended that in twenty-four hours Mr. Enville, from being an unscrupulous speculator who had used his official position to make illicit profits out of the sale of land to the town for town improvements, had become the very mirror of honesty and high fidelity to the noblest traditions of local government. Without understanding the situation, and before even she had formulated to herself any criticism of the persons concerned, she felt suddenly sick. She dared not look at George Cannon, but once when she raised her head to await the flow of a period that had been arrested at a laudatory superlative, she caught Dayson winking coarsely at him. She hated Dayson for that; George Cannon might wink at Dayson (though she regretted the condescending familiarity), but Dayson had no right to presume to wink at George Cannon. She hoped that Mr. Cannon had silently snubbed him.

As the article proceeded there arose a crying from the Square below. A Signal boy, one of the earliest to break the silent habit of the Square, was bawling a fresh edition of Arthur Dayson’s contemporary, and across the web of the dictator’s verbiage she could hear the words: “South Africa — Details —” Mr. Cannon glanced at his watch impatiently. Hilda could see, under her bent and frowning brow, his white hand moving on the dark expanse of his waistcoat.

Immediately afterwards Mr. Cannon, interrupting, said:

“That’ll be all right. Finish it. I must be off.”

“Right you are!” said Dayson grandly. “I’ll run down with it to the printer’s myself — soon as it’s copied.”

Mr. Cannon nodded. “And tell him we’ve got to be on the railway bookstalls first thing tomorrow morning.”

“He’ll never do it.”

“He must do it. I don’t care if he works all night.”

“But —”

“There hasn’t got to be any ‘buts,’ Dayson. There’s been a damned sight too much delay as it is.”

“All right! All right!” Dayson placated him hastily.

Mr. Cannon departed.

It seemed to Hilda that she shivered, but whether with pain or pleasure she knew not. Never before had Mr. Cannon sworn in her presence. All day his manner had been peculiar, as though the strain of mysterious anxieties was changing his spirit. And now he was gone, and she had said naught to him about the telegram from Miss Gailey!

Arthur Dayson rolled oratorically on in defence of the man whom yesterday he had attacked.

And then Sowter, the old clerk, entered.

“What is it? Don’t interrupt me!” snapped Dayson.

“There’s the Signal. . . . Latest details. . . . This here Majuba business!”

“What do I care about your Majuba?” Dayson retorted. “I’ve got something more important than your Majuba.”

“It was the governor as told me to give it you,” said Sowter, restive.

“Well, give it me, then; and don’t waste my time!” Dayson held out an imperial hand for the sheet. He looked at Hilda as if for moral support and added, to her, in a martyred tone: “I suppose I shall have to dash off a few lines about Sowter’s Majuba while you’re copying out my article.”

“And the governor said to remind you that Mr. Enville wants a proof of his advertisement,” Sowter called out sulkily as he was disappearing down the stairs.

Hilda blushed, as she had blushed in writing George Cannon’s first lie about the printing of the first issue. She had accustomed herself to lies, and really without any difficulty or hesitation. Yes! She had even reached the level of being religiously proud of them! But now her bullied and crushed conscience leaped up again, and in the swift alarm of the shock her heart was once more violently beating. Yet amid the wild confusion of her feelings, a mechanical intelligence guided her hand to follow Arthur Dayson’s final sentences. And there shone out from her soul a contempt for the miserable hack, so dazzling that it would have blinded him — had he not been already blind.

iii

That evening she sat alone in the office. The first number of The Five Towns Chronicle, after the most astounding adventures, had miraculously gone to press. Dayson and Sowter had departed. There was no reason why Hilda should remain — burning gas to no purpose. She had telegraphed, by favour of a Karkeek office-boy, to Miss Gailey, saying that she would come by the first train on the morrow — Saturday, and she had therefore much to do at home. Nevertheless, she sat idle in the office, unable to leave. Her whole life was in that office, and it was just when she was most weary of the environment that she would vacillate longest before quitting it. She was unhappy and apprehensive, much less about her mother than about the attitude of her conscience towards the morals of this new world of hers. The dramatic Enville incident had spoiled the pleasure which she had felt in sacrificing her formal duty as a daughter to her duty as a clerk. She had been disillusioned. She foresaw the future with alarm.

And yet, strangely, the disillusion and the fear were a source of pleasure. She savoured them with her loyalty, that loyalty which had survived even the frightful blow of George Cannon’s casual disdain at her mother’s tea-table! Whatever this new world might be, it was hers, it was precious. She would no more think of abandoning it than a young mother would think of abandoning a baby obviously imperfect. . . . Nay, she would cling to it the tighter!

George Cannon came up the stairs with his decisive and rapid step. She rose from her chair at the table as he entered. He was wearing a new overcoat, that she had never seen before, with a fine velvet collar.

“You’re going?” he asked, a little breathless.

“I was going,” she replied in her clear, timid voice, implying that she was ready to stay.

“Everything all right?”

“Mr. Dayson said so.”

“He’s gone?”

“Yes. Mr. Sowter’s gone too.”

“Good!” he murmured. And he straightened his shoulders, and, putting his hands in the pockets of his trousers, began to walk about the room.

Hilda moved to get her bonnet and jacket. She moved very quietly and delicately, and, because he was there, she put on her bonnet and jacket with gestures of an almost apologetic modesty. He seemed to ignore her, so that she was able to glance surreptitiously at his face. He was now apparently less worried. Still, it was an enigmatic face. She had no notion of what he had been doing since his hurried exit in the afternoon. He might have been attending to his legal practice, or he might have been abroad on mysterious errands.

“Funny business, this newspaper business is, isn’t it?” he remarked, after a moment. “Just imagine Enville, now! Upon my soul I didn’t think he had it in him! . . . Of course,”— he threw his head up with a careless laugh — “of course, it would have been madness for us to miss such a chance! He’s one of the men of the future, in this town.”

“Yes,” she agreed, in an eager whisper.

In an instant George Cannon had completely changed the attitude of her conscience — by less than a phrase, by a mere intonation. In an instant he had reassured her into perfect security. It was plain, from every accent of his voice, that he had done nothing of which he thought he ought to be ashamed. Business was business, and newspapers were newspapers; and the simple truth was that her absurd conscience had been in the wrong. Her duty was to accept the standards of her new world. Who was she? Nobody! She did accept the standards of her new world, with fervour. She was proud of them, actually proud of their apparent wickedness. She had accomplished an act of faith. Her joy became intense, and shot glinting from her eyes as she put on her gloves. Her life became grand to her. She knew she was known in the town as ‘the girl who could write shorthand.’ Her situation was not ordinary; it was unique. Again, the irregularity of the hours, and the fact that the work never commenced till the afternoon, seemed to her romantic and beautiful. Here she was, at nine o’clock, alone with George Cannon on the second floor of the house! And who, gazing from the Square at the lighted window, would guess that she and he were there alone?

All the activities of newspaper production were poetized by her fervour. The Chronicle was not a poor little weekly sheet, struggling into existence anyhow, at haphazard, dependent on other newspapers for all except purely local items of news. It was an organ! It was the courageous rival of the ineffable Signal, its natural enemy! One day it would trample on the Signal! And though her rôle was humble, though she understood scarcely anything of the enterprise beyond her own duties, yet she was very proud of her rôle too. And she was glad that the men were seemingly so careless, so disorderly, so forgetful of details, so — in a word — childish! For it was part of her rôle to remind them, to set them right, to watch over their carelessness, to restore order where they had left disorder. In so far as her rôle affected them, she condescended to them.

She informed George Cannon of her mother’s indisposition, and that she meant to go to London the next morning, and to return most probably in a few days. He stopped in his walk, near her. Like herself, he was not seriously concerned about Mrs. Lessways, but he showed a courteous sympathy.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t go to London when your mother went,” he said, after a little conversation.

He did not add: “You’ve been indispensable.” He had no air of apologizing for his insult at the tea-table. But he looked firmly at her, with a peculiar expression.

Suddenly she felt all her slimness and fragility; she felt all the girl in herself and all the dominant man in him, and all the empty space around them. She went hot. Her sight became dim. She was ecstatically blissful; she was deeply ashamed. She desired the experience to last for ever, and him and herself to be eternally moveless; and at the same time she desired to fly. Or rather, she had no desire to fly, but her voice and limbs acted of themselves, against her volition.

“Good-night, then.”

“But I say! Your wages. Shall I pay you now?”

“No, no! It doesn’t matter in the least, thanks.”

He shook hands with a careless, good-natured smile, which seemed to be saying: “Foolish creature! You can’t defend yourself, and these airs are amusing. But I am benevolent.” And she was ashamed of her shame, and furious against the childishness that made her frown, and lower her eyes, and escape out of the room like a mouse.

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