Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 14

To London

i

In the middle of the night Hilda woke up, and within a few seconds she convinced herself that her attitude to Miss Gailey’s telegram had been simply monstrous. She saw it, in the darkness, as an enormity. She ought to have responded to the telegram at once; she ought to have gone to London by the afternoon train. What had there been to prevent her from knocking at the door of the inner room, and saying to Mr. Cannon, in the presence of no matter whom: “I am very sorry, Mr. Cannon, but I’ve just had a telegram that mother is ill in London, and I must leave by the next train”? There had been nothing to prevent her! At latest she should have caught the evening train. Business was of no account in such a crisis. Her mother might be very ill, might be dying, might be dead. It was not for trifles that people sent such telegrams. The astounding thing was that she should have been so blind to her obvious duty. . . . And she said to herself, thinking with a mysterious and beautiful remorse of the last minute of her talk with Mr. Cannon: “If I had done as I ought to have done, I should have been in London, or on my way to London, instead of in the room with him there; and that would not have occurred!” But what ‘that’ was, she could not have explained. Nevertheless, Mr. Cannon’s phrase, “It’s a good thing you didn’t go to London,” still gave her a pleasure, though the pleasure was dulled.

Then she tried to reassure herself. Sarah Gailey was nervous and easily frightened. Her mother had an excellent constitution. The notion of her mother being seriously ill was silly. In a few hours she would be with her mother, and would be laughing at these absurd night-fears. In any case there would assuredly be a letter from Sarah Gailey by the first post, so that before starting she would have exact information. She succeeded, partially, in reassuring herself for a brief space; but soon she was more unhappy than ever in the clear conviction of her wrongdoing. Again and again she formulated, in her fancy, scenes of the immediate future, as for example at her mother’s dying bed, and she imagined conversations and repeated the actual words used by herself and others, interminably. And then she returned to the previous day, and hundreds of times she went into the inner room and said to Mr. Cannon: “I’m very sorry, Mr. Cannon, but I’ve just had a telegram —” etc. Why had she not said it? . . . Thus worked the shuttles of her mind, with ruthless, insane insistence, until she knew not whether she was awake or asleep, and the very tissues of her physical brain seemed raw.

She thought feebly: “If I got up and lighted the candle and walked about, I should end this.” But she could not rise. She was netted down to the bed. And when she tried to soothe herself with other images — images of delight — she found that they had lost their power. Undressing, a few hours earlier, she had lived again, in exquisite and delicious alarm, through the last minute of her talk with Mr. Cannon; she had gone to sleep while reconstituting those instants. But now their memory left her indifferent, even inspired repugnance. And her remorse little by little lost its mysterious beauty.

She clung to the idea of the reassuring letter which she would receive. That was her sole glint of consolation.

ii

At six she was abroad in the house, intensely alive, intensely conscious of every particle of her body, and of every tiniest operation of her mind. In less than two hours the letter would drop into the lobby! At half-past six both she and Florrie were dressed, and Florrie, stern with the solemnity and importance of her mission, was setting forth to the Saracen’s Head to order a cab to be at the door at eight o’clock.

Hilda had much to do, for it was of course necessary to shut up the house, and the packing of her trunk had to be finished, and the trunk locked and corded, and a label found; and there was breakfast to cook. Mrs. Lessways would have easily passed a couple of days in preparing the house for closure. Nevertheless, time, instead of flying, lagged. At seven-thirty Hilda, in the partially dismantled parlour, and Florrie in the kitchen, were sitting down to breakfast. “In a quarter of an hour,” said Hilda to herself, “the post will be here.” But in four minutes she had eaten the bacon and drunk the scalding tea, and in five she had carried all the breakfast-things into the kitchen, where Florrie was loudly munching over the sloppy deal table. She told Florrie sharply that there would be ample time to wash up. Then she went to her bedroom, and, dragging out her trunk, slid it unaided down the stairs. Back again in the bedroom, she carelessly glanced at the money in her purse, and then put on her things for the journey. Waiting, she stood at the window to look for the postman. Presently she saw him in the distance; he approached quickly, but spent an unendurable minute out of sight in the shop next door. When he emerged Hilda was in anguish. Had he a letter for her? Had he not? He seemed to waver at the gateway, and to decide to enter. . . . She heard the double blow of his drumstick baton. . . . Now in a few seconds she would know about her mother.

Proudly restraining herself, she walked with composure to the stairs. She was astonished to see Florrie bending down to pick up the letter. Florrie must have been waiting ready to rush to the front door. As she raised her body and caught sight of Hilda, Florrie blushed.

The stairs were blocked by the trunk which Hilda had left on the stair-mat for the cabman to deal with. Standing behind the trunk, Hilda held forth her hand for the letter.

“Please, miss, it’s for me,” Florrie whispered, like a criminal.

“For you?” Hilda cried, startled.

In proof Florrie timidly exposed the envelope, on which Hilda plainly saw, in a coarse, scrawling masculine hand, the words “Miss Florrie Bagster.” Florrie’s face was a burning peony.

Hilda turned superciliously away, too proud to demand any explanations. All her alarms were refreshed by the failure of a letter from Miss Gailey. In vain she urged to herself that Miss Gailey had thought it unnecessary to write, expecting to see her; or that the illness having passed, Miss Gailey, busy, had put off writing. She could not dismiss a vision of a boarding-house in London upset from top to bottom by the grave illness of one person in it, and a distracted landlady who had not a moment even to scribble a post card. And all the time, as this vision tore and desolated her, she was thinking: “Fancy that child having a follower, at her age! She’s certainly got a follower!”

The cab came five minutes before it was due.

iii

As the cab rolled through Market Square, where the Saturday stalls were being busily set up, the ironmongery building was framed for an instant by the oblong of the rattling window. Hilda seemed to see the place anew — for the first time. A man was taking down the shutters of the shop. Above that were the wire-blinds with the name of “Q. Karkeek”; and above the blinds the blue posters of the Five Towns Chronicle. No outward sign of Mr. Cannon! And yet Mr. Cannon. . . . She had an extremely disconcerting sensation of the mysteriousness of Mr. Cannon, and of the mysteriousness of all existence. Mr. Cannon existed somewhere at that moment, engaged in some activity. In a house afar off, unknown to her, her mother existed — if she was not dead! Florrie, with a bundle of personal goods on her lap, and doubtless the letter in her bosom, sat impressed and subdued, opposite to her in the shifting universe of the cab, which was moving away from the empty and silent home. Florrie was being thrown back out of luxury into her original hovel, and was accepting the stroke with the fatalism of the young and of the poor. And one day Hilda and her mother and Florrie would be united again in the home now deserted, whose heavy key was in the traveller’s satchel. . . . But would they?

At the station there was a quarter of an hour to wait. Hilda dismissed Florrie, with final injunctions, and followed her trunk to the bleak platform. The old porter was very kind. She went to the little yellow bookstall. There, under her hand, was a low pile of The Five Towns Chronicle. Miracle! Miraculous George Cannon! She flushed with pride, with a sense of ownership, as she took a penny from her purse to pay for a copy.

“It’s th’ new peeper,” drawled the bookstall lad, with a most foolish condescension towards the new paper.

“Lout!” she addressed him in her heart. “If you knew whom you were talking to —!”

With what pride, masked by careful indifference, she would hand the copy of the Chronicle to her mother! Her mother would exclaim “Bless us!” and spend a day or two in conning the thing, making singular discoveries in it at short intervals.

iv

It was not until she had reached Euston, and driven through a tumultuous and shabby thoroughfare to King’s Cross, and taken another ticket, and installed herself in another train, that Hilda began to feel suddenly, like an abyss opening beneath her strength, the lack of food. Meticulous in her clerical duties, and in many minor mechanical details of her personal daily existence, she was capable of singular negligences concerning matters which the heroic part of her despised and which did not immediately bear on a great purpose in hand. Thus, in her carelessness, she found herself with less than two shillings in her pocket after paying for the ticket to Hornsey. She thought, grimly resigned: “Never heed! I shall manage. In half an hour I shall be there, and my anxiety will be at an end.”

The train, almost empty, waited forlornly in a forlorn and empty part of the huge, resounding ochreish station. Then, without warning or signal, it slipped off, as though casually, towards an undetermined goal. Often it ran level with the roofs of vague, far-stretching acres of houses — houses vile and frowsy, and smoking like pyres in the dank air. And always it travelled on a platform of brick arches. Now and then the walled road received a tributary that rounded subtly into it, and this tributary could be seen curving away, on innumerable brick arches, through the chimneypots, and losing itself in a dim horizon of gloom. At intervals a large, lifeless station brought the train to a halt for a moment, and the march was resumed. A clock at one of these stations said a quarter to two.

Then the name of Hornsey quickened her apprehensive heart. As she descended nervously from the train, her trunk was shot out from the guard’s van behind. She went and stood over it, until the last of a series of kindly porters came along and touched his cap. When she asked for a cab, he seemed doubtful whether a cab was available, and looked uncertainly along the immense empty platform and across at other platforms. The train had wandered away. She strove momentarily to understand the reason of these great sleeping stations; but fatigue, emotional and physical, had robbed her of all intelligent curiosity in the phenomena of the mysterious and formidable city.

Presently the porter threw the trunk on his shoulder and she trudged after him up steps and over an iron bridge and down steps; and an express whizzed like a flying shell through the station and vanished. And at a wicket, in a ragged road, there actually stood a cab and a skeleton of a horse between the shafts. The driver bounced up, enheartened at sight of the trunk and the inexperienced, timid girl; but the horse did not stir in its crooked coma.

“What address, miss?” asked the cabman.

“Cedars House, Harringay Park Road.”

The cabman paused in intense thought, and after a few seconds responded cheerfully: “Yes, miss.”

The porter touched his cap for threepence. The lashed horse plunged forward. Hilda leaned back in the creaking and depraved vehicle, and sighed, “So this is their London!”

She found herself travelling in the direction from which she had come, parallel to the railway, down the longest street that she had ever seen. On her left were ten thousand small new houses, all alike. On her right were broken patches of similar houses, interspersed with fragments of green field and views of the arches of the railway; the conception of the horrible patience which had gone to the construction of these endless, endless arches made her feel sick.

The cab turned into another road, and another; and then stopped. She saw the words “Cedars House” on a gateway. She could not open the door of the cab. The cabman opened it.

“Blinds down here, miss!” he said, with appropriate mournfulness.

It seemed a rather large house; and every blind was drawn. Had the incredible occurred, then? Had this disaster befallen just her, of all the young women in the world?

She saw the figure of Sarah Gailey.

“Good afternoon,” she called out calmly. “Here I am. Only I’m afraid I haven’t got enough to pay the cabman.”

But while she was speaking she knew from Sarah Gailey’s face that the worst and the most ridiculous of her night-fears had been justified by destiny.

Three days previously Mrs. Lessways had been suddenly taken ill in the street. A doctor passing in his carriage had come to her assistance and driven her home. Food eaten on the previous evening had ‘disagreed’ with her. At first the case was not regarded as very serious. But as the patient did not improve in the night Miss Gailey telegraphed to Hilda. Immediately afterwards, the doctor, summoned in alarm, diagnosed peritonitis caused by a perforating cancer. Mrs. Lessways had died on the third day at eleven in the morning, while Hilda was in the train. Useless to protest that these catastrophes were unthinkable, that Mrs. Lessways had never been ill in her life! The catastrophe had happened. And upstairs a corpse lay in proof.

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