Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 3

Mr. Cannon

i

A little later Hilda came downstairs dressed to go out. Her mother was lighting a glimmer of gas in the lobby. Ere Mrs. Lessways could descend from her tiptoes to her heels and turn round Hilda said quickly, forestalling curiosity:

“I’m going to get that thread you want. Just give me some money, will you?”

Nobody could have guessed from her placid tone and indifferent demeanour that she was in a state of extreme agitation. But so it was. Suddenly, after kissing her mother in the kitchen, she had formed a tremendous resolve. And in a moment the resolve had possessed her, sending her flying upstairs, and burning her into a fever, as with the assured movements of familiarity she put on her bonnet, mantle, ‘fall,’ and gloves in the darkness of the chamber. She held herself in leash while her mother lifted a skirt and found a large loaded pocket within and a purse in the pocket and a sixpence in the purse. But when she had shut the door on all that interior haunted by her mother’s restlessness, when she was safe in the porch and in the windy obscurity of the street, she yielded with voluptuous apprehension to a thrill that shook her.

“I might have tidied my hair,” she thought. “Pooh! What does my hair matter?”

Her mind was full of an adventure through which she had passed seven years previously, when she was thirteen and a little girl at school. For several days, then, she had been ruthlessly mortifying her mother by complaints about the meals. Her fastidious appetite could not be suited. At last, one noon when the child had refused the whole of a plenteous dinner, Mrs. Lessways had burst into tears and, slapping four pennies down on the table, had cried, “Here! I fairly give you up! Go out and buy your own dinner! Then perhaps you’ll get what you want!” And the child, without an instant’s hesitation, had seized the coins and gone out, hatless, and bought food at a little tripe-shop that was also an eating-house, and consumed it there; and then in grim silence returned home. Both mother and daughter had been stupefied and frightened by the boldness of the daughter’s initiative, by her amazing, flaunting disregard of filial decency. Mrs. Lessways would not have related the episode to anybody upon any consideration whatever. It was a shameful secret, never even referred to. But Mrs. Lessways had unmistakably though indirectly referred to it when in anger she had said to her daughter aged twenty: “I suppose her ladyship will be consulting her own lawyer next!” Hilda had understood, and that was why she had blushed.

And now, as she turned from Lessways Street into the Oldcastle Road, on her way to the centre of the town, she experienced almost exactly the intense excitement of the reckless and supercilious child in quest of its dinner. The only difference was that the recent reconciliation had inspired her with a certain negligent compassion for her mother, with a curious tenderness that caused her to wonder at herself.

ii

The Market Square of Turnhill was very large for the size of the town. The diminutive town hall, which in reality was nothing but a watch-house, seemed to be a mere incident on its irregular expanse, to which the two-storey shops and dwellings made a low border. Behind this crimson, blue-slated border rose the loftier forms of a church and a large chapel, situate in adjacent streets. The square was calm and almost deserted in the gloom. It typified the slow tranquillity of the bailiwick, which was removed from the central life of the Five Towns, and unconnected therewith by even a tram or an omnibus. Only within recent years had Turnhill got so much as a railway station — rail-head of a branch line. Turnhill was the extremity of civilization in those parts. Go northwards out of this Market Square, and you would soon find yourself amid the wild and hilly moorlands, sprinkled with iron-and-coal villages whose red-flaming furnaces illustrated the eternal damnation which was the chief article of their devout religious belief. And in the Market Square not even the late edition of the Staffordshire Signal was cried, though it was discreetly on sale with its excellent sporting news in a few shops. In the hot and malodorous candle-lit factories, where the real strenuous life of the town would remain cooped up for another half-hour of the evening, men and women had yet scarcely taken to horse-racing; they would gamble upon rabbits, cocks, pigeons, and their own fists, without the mediation of the Signal. The one noise in the Market Square was the bell of a hawker selling warm pikelets at a penny each for the high tea of the tradesmen. The hawker was a deathless institution, a living proof that withdrawn Turnhill would continue always to be exactly what it always had been. Still, to the east of the Square, across the High Street, a vast space was being cleared of hovels for the erection of a new town hall daringly magnificent.

Hilda crossed the Square, scorning it.

She said to herself: “I’d better get the thing over before I buy the thread. I should never be able to stand Miss Dayson’s finicking! I should scream out!” But the next instant, with her passion for proving to herself how strong she could be, she added: “Well, I just will buy the thread first!” And she went straight into Dayson’s little fancy shop, which was full of counter and cardboard boxes and Miss Dayson, and stayed therein for at least five minutes, emerging with a miraculously achieved leisureliness. A few doors away was a somewhat new building, of three storeys — the highest in the Square. The ground floor was an ironmongery; it comprised also a side entrance, of which the door was always open. This side entrance showed a brass-plate, “Q. Karkeek, Solicitor.” And the wire-blinds of the two windows of the first floor also bore the words: “Q. Karkeek, Solicitor. Q. Karkeek, Solicitor.” The queerness of the name had attracted Hilda’s attention several years earlier, when the signs were fresh. It was an accident that she had noticed it; she had not noticed the door-plates or the wire-blinds of other solicitors. She did not know Mr. Q. Karkeek by sight, nor even whether he was old or young, married or single, agreeable or repulsive.

The side entrance gave directly on to a long flight of naked stairs, and up these stairs Hilda climbed into the unknown, towards the redoubtable and the perilous. “I’m bound to be seen,” she said to herself, “but I don’t care, and I don’t care!” At the top of the stairs was a passage, at right angles, and then a glazed door with the legend in black letters, “Q. Karkeek, Solicitor,” and two other doors mysteriously labelled “Private.” She opened the glazed door, and saw a dirty middle-aged man on a stool, and she said at once to him, in a harsh, clear, deliberate voice, without giving herself time to reflect:

“I want to see Mr. Karkeek.”

The man stared at her sourly, as if bewildered.

She said to herself: “I shan’t be able to stand this excitement much longer.”

“You can’t see Mr. Karkeek,” said the man. “Mr. Karkeek’s detained at Hanbridge County Court. But if you’re in such a hurry like, you’d better see Mr. Cannon. It’s Mr. Cannon as they generally do see. Who d’ye come from, miss?”

“Come from?” Hilda repeated, unnerved.

“What name?”

She had not expected this. “I suppose I shall have to tell him!” she said to herself, and aloud: “Lessways.”

“Oh! Ah!” exclaimed the man. “Bless us! Yes!” It was as if he had said: “Of course it’s Lessways! And don’t I know all about you!” And Hilda was overwhelmed by the sense of the enormity of the folly which she was committing.

The man swung half round on his stool, and seized the end of an india-rubber tube which hung at the side of the battered and littered desk, just under a gas-jet. He spoke low, like a conspirator, into the mouthpiece of the tube. “Miss Lessways — to see you, sir.” Then very quickly he clapped the tube to his ear and listened. And then he put it to his mouth again and repeated: “Lessways.” Hilda was agonized.

“I’ll ask ye to step this way, miss,” said the man, slipping off his stool. At the same time he put a long inky penholder, which he had been holding in his wrinkled right hand, between his teeth.

“Never,” thought Hilda as she followed the clerk, in a whirl of horrible misgivings, “never have I done anything as mad as this before! I’m under twenty-one!”

iii

There she was at last, seated in front of a lawyer in a lawyer’s office — her ladyship consulting her own lawyer! It seemed incredible! A few minutes ago she had been at home, and now she was in a world unfamiliar and alarming. Perhaps it was a pity that her mother had unsuspectingly put the scheme into her head!

However, the deed was done. Hilda generally acted first and reflected afterwards. She was frightened, but rather by the unknown than by anything she could define.

“You’ve come about the property?” said Mr. Cannon amiably, in a matter-of-fact tone.

He had deep black eyes, and black hair, like Hilda’s; good, regular teeth, and a clear complexion; perhaps his nose was rather large, but it was straight. With his large pale hands he occasionally stroked his long soft moustache; the chin was blue. He was smartly dressed in dark blue; he had a beautiful neck-tie, and the genuine whiteness of his wristbands was remarkable in a district where starched linen was usually either grey or bluish. He was not a dandy, but he respected his person; he evidently gave careful attention to his body; and this trait alone set him apart among the citizens of Turnhill.

“Yes,” said Hilda. She thought: “He’s a very handsome man! How strange I don’t remember seeing him in the streets!” She was in awe of him. He was indefinitely older than herself; and she felt like a child, out of place in the easy-chair.

“I suppose it’s about the rent-collecting?” he pursued.

“Yes — it is,” she answered, astonished that he could thus divine her purpose. “I mean —”

“What does your mother want to do?”

“Oh!” said Hilda, speaking low. “It’s not mother. I’ve come to consult you myself. Mother doesn’t know. I’m nearly twenty-one, and it’s really my property, you know!” She blushed with shame.

“Ah!” he exclaimed. He tried to disguise his astonishment in an easy, friendly smile. But he was most obviously startled. He looked at Hilda in a different way, with a much intensified curiosity.

“Yes,” she resumed. He now seemed to her more like a fellow-creature, and less like a member of the inimical older generation.

“So you’re nearly twenty-one?”

“In December,” she said. “And I think under my father’s will —” She stopped, at a loss. “The fact is, I don’t think mother will be quite able to look after the property properly, and I’m afraid — you see, now that Mr. Skellorn has had this stroke —”

“Yes,” said Mr. Cannon, “I heard about that, and I was thinking perhaps Mrs. Lessways had sent you. . . . We collect rents, you know.”

“I see!” Hilda murmured. “Well, the truth is, mother hasn’t the slightest idea I’m here. Not the slightest! And I wouldn’t hurt her feelings for anything.” He nodded sympathetically. “But I thought something ought to be done. She’s decided to collect our Calder Street rents herself, and she isn’t fitted to do it. And then there’s the question of the repairs. . . . I know the rents are going down. I expect it’s all mother’s for life, but I want there to be something left for me when she’s gone, you see! And if — I’ve never seen the will. I suppose there’s no way of seeing a copy of it, somewhere? . . . I can’t very well ask mother again.”

“I know all about the will,” said Mr. Cannon.

“You do?”

Wondrous, magical man!

“Yes,” he explained. “I used to be at Toms and Scoles’s. I was there when it was made. I copied it.”

“Really!” She felt that he would save her, not only from any possible unpleasant consequences of her escapade, but also from suffering ultimate loss by reason of her mother’s foolishness.

“You’re quite right,” he continued. “I remember it perfectly. Your mother is what we call tenant-for-life; everything goes to you in the end.”

“Well,” Hilda asked abruptly. “All I want to know is, what I can do.”

“Of course, without upsetting your mother?”

He glanced at her. She blushed again.

“Naturally,” she said coldly.

“You say you think the property is going down — it is, everybody knows that — and your mother thinks of collecting the rents herself. . . . Well, young lady, it’s very difficult, very difficult, your mother being the trustee and executor.”

“Yes, that’s what she’s always saying — she’s the trustee and executor.”

“You’d better let me think it over for a day or two.”

“And shall I call in again?”

“You might slip in if you’re passing. I’ll see what can be done. Of course it would never do for you to have any difficulty with your mother.”

“Oh no!” she concurred vehemently. “Anything would be better than that. But I thought there was no harm in me —”

“Certainly not.”

She had a profound confidence in him. And she was very content so far with the result of her adventure.

“I hope nobody will find out I’ve been here,” she said timidly. “Because if it did get to mother’s ears —”

“Nobody will find out,” he reassured her.

Assuredly his influence was tranquillizing. Even while he insisted on the difficulties of the situation, he seemed to be smoothing them away. She was convinced that he would devise some means of changing her mother’s absurd purpose and of strengthening her own position. But when, at the end of the interview, he came round the large table which separated them, and she rose and looked up at him, close, she was suddenly very afraid of him. He was a tall and muscular man, and he stood like a monarch, and she stood like a child. And his gesture seemed to say: “Yes, I know you are afraid. And I rather like you to be afraid. But I am benevolent in the exercise of my power.” Under his gaze, her gaze fastened on the wire-blind and the dark window, and she read off the reversed letters on the blind.

Like a mouse she escaped to the stairs. She was happy and fearful and expectant. . . . It was done! She had consulted a lawyer! She was astounded at herself.

In the Market Square it was now black night. She looked shyly up at the lighted wire-blinds over the ironmongery. “I was there!” she said. “He is still there.” The whole town, the whole future, seemed to be drenched now in romance. Nevertheless, the causes of her immense discontent had not apparently been removed nor in any way modified.

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