Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 2

The End of the Scene

i

The linen money-bag and the account-book, proper to the last Wednesday in the month, lay on the green damask cloth of the round table where Hilda and her mother took their meals. A paralytic stroke had not been drastic enough to mar Mr. Skellorn’s most precious reputation for probity and reliability. His statement of receipts and expenditure, together with the corresponding cash, had been due at two o’clock, and despite the paralytic stroke it was less than a quarter of an hour late. On one side of the bag and the book were ranged the older women — Mrs. Lessways, thin and vivacious, and Mrs. Grant, large and solemn; and on the other side, as it were in opposition, the young, dark, slim girl with her rather wiry black hair, and her straight, prominent eyebrows, and her extraordinary expression of uncompromising aloofness.

“She’s just enjoying it, that’s what she’s doing!” said Hilda to herself, of Mrs. Grant.

And the fact was that Mrs. Grant, quite unconsciously, did appear to be savouring the catastrophe with pleasure. Although paralytic strokes were more prevalent at that period than now, they constituted even then a striking dramatic event. Moreover, they were considered as direct visitations of God. Also there was something mysteriously and agreeably impressive in the word ‘paralytic,’ which people would repeat for the pleasure of repeating it. Mrs. Grant, over whose mighty breast flowed a black mantle suited to the occasion, used the word again and again as she narrated afresh for Hilda the history of the stroke.

“Yes,” she said, “they came and fetched me out of my bed at three o’clock this morning; and would you believe me, though he couldn’t hardly speak, the money and this here book was all waiting in his desk, and he would have me come with it! And him sixty-seven! He always was like that. And I do believe if he’d been paralysed on both sides instead of only all down his right side, and speechless too, he’d ha’ made me understand as I must come here at two o’clock. If I’m a bit late it’s because I was kept at home with my son Enoch; he’s got a whitlow that’s worrying the life out of him, our Enoch has.”

Mrs. Lessways warmly deprecated any apology for inexactitude, and wiped her sympathetic eyes.

“It’s all over with father,” Mrs. Grant resumed. “Doctor hinted to me quiet-like as he’d never leave his bed again. He’s laid himself down for the rest of his days. . . . And he’d been warned! He’d had warnings. But there! . . . ”

Mrs. Grant contemplated with solemn gleeful satisfaction the overwhelming grandeur of the disaster that had happened to her father. The active old man, a continual figure of the streets, had been cut off in a moment from the world and condemned for life to a mattress. She sincerely imagined herself to be filled with proper grief; but an aesthetic appreciation of the theatrical effectiveness of the misfortune was certainly stronger in her than any other feeling. Observing that Mrs. Lessways wept, she also drew out a handkerchief.

“I’m wishful for you to count the money,” said Mrs. Grant. “I wouldn’t like there to be any —”

“Nay, that I’ll not!” protested Mrs. Lessways.

Mrs. Grant’s pressing duties necessitated her immediate departure. Mrs. Lessways ceremoniously insisted on her leaving by the front door.

“I don’t know where you’ll find another rent-collector that’s worth his salt — in this town,” observed Mrs. Grant, on the doorstep. “I can’t think what you’ll do, Mrs. Lessways!”

“I shall collect my rents myself,” was the answer.

When Mrs. Grant had crossed the road and taken the bricked path leading to the paralytic’s house, Mrs. Lessways slowly shut the door and bolted it, and then said to Hilda:

“Well, my girl, I do think you might have tried to show just a little more feeling!”

They were close together in the narrow lobby, of which the heavy pulse was the clock’s ticking.

Hilda replied:

“You surely aren’t serious about collecting those rents yourself, are you, mother?”

“Serious? Of course I’m serious!” said Mrs. Lessways.

ii

“Why shouldn’t I collect the rents myself?” asked Mrs. Lessways.

This half-defiant question was put about two hours later. In the meantime no remark had been made about the rents. Mother and daughter were now at tea in the sitting-room. Hilda had passed the greater part of those two hours upstairs in her bedroom, pondering on her mother’s preposterous notion of collecting the rents herself. Alone, she would invent conversations with her mother, silencing the foolish woman with unanswerable sarcastic phrases that utterly destroyed her illogical arguments. She would repeat these phrases, repeat even entire conversations, with pleasure; and, dwelling also with pleasure upon her grievances against her mother, would gradually arrive at a state of dull-glowing resentment. She could, if she chose, easily free her brain from the obsession either by reading or by a sharp jerk of volition; but often she preferred not to do so, saying to herself voluptuously: “No, I will nurse my grievance; I’ll nurse it and nurse it and nurse it! It is mine, and it is just, and anybody with any sense at all would admit instantly that I am absolutely right.” Thus it was on this afternoon. When she came to tea her face was formidably expressive, nor would she attempt to modify the rancour of those uncompromising features. On the contrary, as soon as she saw that her mother had noticed her condition, she deliberately intensified it.

Mrs. Lessways, who was incapable of sustained thought, and who had completely forgotten and recalled the subject of the cottage-rents several times since the departure of Mrs. Grant, nevertheless at once diagnosed the cause of the trouble; and with her usual precipitancy began to repulse an attack which had not even been opened. Mrs. Lessways was not good at strategy, especially in conflicts with her daughter. She was an ingenuous, hasty thing, and much too candidly human. And not only was she deficient in practical common sense and most absurdly unable to learn from experience, but she had not even the wit to cover her shortcomings by resorting to the traditional authoritativeness of the mother. Her brief, rare efforts to play the mother were ludicrous. She was too simply honest to acquire stature by standing on her maternal dignity. By a profound instinct she wistfully treated everybody as an equal, as a fellow-creature; even her own daughter. It was not the way to come with credit out of the threatened altercation about rent-collecting.

As Hilda offered no reply, Mrs. Lessways said reproachfully:

“Hilda, you’re too bad sometimes!” And then, after a further silence: “Anyhow, I’m quite decided.”

“Then what’s the good of talking about it?” said the merciless child.

“But why shouldn’t I collect the rents myself? I’m not asking you to collect them. And I shall save the five per cent., and goodness knows we need it.”

“You’re more likely to lose twenty-five per cent.,” said Hilda. “I’ll have some more tea, please.”

Mrs. Lessways was quite genuinely scandalized. “You needn’t think I shall be easy with those Calder Street tenants, because I shan’t! Not me! I’m more likely to be too hard!”

“You’ll be too hard, and you’ll be too easy, too,” said Hilda savagely. “You’ll lose the good tenants and you’ll keep the bad ones, and the houses will all go to rack and ruin, and then you’ll sell all the property at a loss. That’s how it will be. And what shall you do if you’re not feeling well, and if it rains on Monday mornings?”

Hilda could conceive her mother forgetting all about the rents on Monday morning, or putting them off till Monday afternoon on some grotesque excuse. Her fancy heard the interminable complainings, devisings, futile resolvings, of the self-appointed collector. It was impossible to imagine a woman less fitted by nature than her mother to collect rents from unthrifty artisans such as inhabited Calder Street. The project sickened her. It would render the domestic existence an inferno.

As for Mrs. Lessways, she was shocked, for her project had seemed very beautiful to her, and for the moment she was perfectly convinced that she could collect rents and manage property as well as anyone. She was convinced that her habits were regular, her temper firm and tactful, and her judgment excellent. She was more than shocked; she was wounded. She wept, as she pushed forward Hilda’s replenished cup.

“You ought to take shame!” she murmured weakly, yet with certitude.

“Why?” said Hilda, feigning simplicity. “What have I said? I didn’t begin. You asked me. I can’t help what I think.”

“It’s your tone,” said Mrs. Lessways grievously.

iii

Despite all Hilda’s terrible wisdom and sagacity, this remark of the foolish mother’s was the truest word spoken in the discussion. It was Hilda’s tone that was at the root of the evil. If Hilda, with the intelligence as to which she was secretly so complacent, did not amicably rule her mother, the unavoidable inference was that she was either a clumsy or a wicked girl, or both. She indeed felt dimly that she was a little of both. But she did not mind. Sitting there in the small, familiar room, close to the sewing-machine, the steel fender, the tarnished chandelier, and all the other daily objects which she at once detested and loved, sitting close to her silly mother who angered her, and yet in whom she recognized a quality that was mysteriously precious and admirable, staring through the small window at the brown, tattered garden-plot where blackened rhododendrons were swaying in the October blast, she wilfully bathed herself in grim gloom and in an affectation of despair.

Somehow she enjoyed the experience. She had only to tighten her lips — and she became oblivious of her clumsiness and her cruelty, savouring with pleasure the pain of the situation, clasping it to her! Now and then a thought of Mr. Skellorn’s tragedy shot through her brain, and the tenderness of pity welled up from somewhere within her and mingled exquisitely with her dark melancholy. And she found delight in reading her poor mother like an open book, as she supposed. And all the while her mother was dreaming upon the first year of Hilda’s life, before she had discovered that her husband’s health was as unstable as his character, and comparing the reality of the present with her early illusions. But the clever girl was not clever enough to read just that page.

“We ought to be everything to each other,” said Mrs. Lessways, pursuing her reflections aloud.

Hilda hated sentimentalism. She could not stand such talk.

“And you know,” said Hilda, speaking very frigidly and with even more than her usual incisive clearness of articulation, “it’s not your property. It’s only yours for life. It’s my property.”

The mother’s mood changed in a moment.

“How do you know? You’ve never seen your father’s will.” She spoke in harsh challenge.

“No; because you’ve never let me see it.”

“You ought to have more confidence in your mother. Your father had. And I’m trustee and executor.” Mrs. Lessways was exceedingly jealous of her legal position, whose importance she never forgot nor would consent to minimize.

“That’s all very well, for you,” said Hilda; “but if the property isn’t managed right, I may find myself slaving when I’m your age, mother. And whose fault will it be? . . . However, I shall —”

“You will what?”

“Nothing.”

“I suppose her ladyship will be consulting her own lawyer next!” said Mrs. Lessways bitterly.

They looked at each other. Hilda’s face flushed to a sombre red. Mrs. Lessways brusquely left the room. Then Hilda could hear her rattling fussily at the kitchen range. After a few minutes Hilda followed her to the kitchen, which was now nearly in darkness. The figure of Mrs. Lessways, still doing nothing whatever with great vigour at the range, was dimly visible. Hilda approached her, and awkwardly touched her shoulder.

“Mother!” she demanded sharply; and she was astonished by her awkwardness and her sharpness.

“Is that you?” her mother asked, in a queer, foolish tone.

They kissed. Such a candid peacemaking had never occurred between them before. Mrs. Lessways, as simple in forgiveness as in wrath, did not disguise her pleasure in the remarkable fact that it was Hilda who had made the overture. Hilda thought: “How strange I am! What is coming over me?” She glanced at the range, in which was a pale gleam of red, and that gleam, in the heavy twilight, seemed to her to be inexpressibly, enchantingly mournful. And she herself was mournful about the future — very mournful. She saw no hope. Yet her sadness was beautiful to her. And she was proud.

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