Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 4

Domesticity Invaded

i

Early in the afternoon, two days later, Hilda came, with an air of reproach, into her mother’s empty bedroom. Mrs. Lessways had contracted a severe cold in the head, a malady to which she was subject and which she accepted with fatalistic submission, even pleasurably giving herself up to it, as a martyr to the rack. Mrs. Lessways’ colds annoyed Hilda, who out of her wisdom could always point to the precise indiscretion which had caused them, and to whom the spectacle of a head wrapped day and night in flannel was offensively ridiculous. Moreover, Hilda in these crises was further and still more acutely exasperated by the pillage of her handkerchiefs. Although she possessed a supply of handkerchiefs far beyond her own needs, she really hated to lend to her mother in the hour of necessity. She did lend, and she lent without spoken protest, but with frigid bitterness. Her youthful passion for order and efficiency was aggrieved by her mother’s negligent and inadequate arrangements for coping with the inevitable plague. She now made a police-visit to the bedroom because she considered that her mother had been demanding handkerchiefs at a stage too early in the progress of the disease. Impossible that her mother should have come to the end of her own handkerchiefs! She knew with all the certitude of her omniscience that numerous clean handkerchiefs must be concealed somewhere in the untidiness of her mother’s wardrobe.

See her as she enters the bedroom, the principal bedroom of the house, whose wide bed and large wardrobe recall the past when she had a father as well as a mother, and when that bedroom awed her footsteps! A thin, brown-frocked girl, wearing a detested but enforced small black apron; with fine, pale, determined features, rather unfeminine hair, and glowering, challenging black eyes. She had a very decided way of putting down her uncoquettishly shod feet. Absurdly young, of course; wistfully young! She was undeveloped, and did not even look nearly twenty-one. You are at liberty to smile at her airs; at that careless critical glance which pityingly said: “Ah! if this were my room, it would be different from what it is;” at that serious worried expression, as if the anxiety of the whole world’s deficiencies oppressed the heart within; and at that supreme conviction of wisdom, which after all was little but an exaggerated perception of folly and inconsistency in others! . . . She is not to be comprehended on an acquaintance of three days. Years must go to the understanding of her. She did not understand herself. She was not even acquainted with herself. Why! She was naïve enough to be puzzled because she felt older than her mother and younger than her beautiful girlish complexion, simultaneously!

She opened the central mirrored door of the once formidable wardrobe, and as she did so the image of the bed and of half the room shot across the swinging glass, taking the place of her own reflection. And instantly, when she inserted herself between the exposed face of the wardrobe and its door, she was precipitated into the most secret intimacy of her mother’s existence. There was the familiar odour of old kid gloves. . . . She was more intimate with her mother now than she could ever be in talking to her. The lower part of this section of the wardrobe consisted of three deep drawers with inset brass handles, an exquisitely exact piece of mahogany cabinetwork. From one of the drawers a bit of white linen untidily protruded. Her mother! The upper part was filled with sliding trays, each having a raised edge to keep the contents from falling out. These trays were heaped pell-mell with her mother’s personal belongings — small garments, odd indeterminate trifles, a muff, a bundle of whalebone, veils, bags, and especially cardboard boxes. Quantities of various cardboard boxes! Her mother kept everything, could not bear that anything which had once been useful should be abandoned or destroyed; whereas Hilda’s propensity was to throw away with an impatient gesture whatever threatened to be an encumbrance. Sighing, she began to arrange the contents of the trays in some kind of method. Incompetent and careless mother! Hilda wondered how the old thing managed to conduct her life from day to day with even a semblance of the decency of order. It did not occur to her that for twenty-five years before she was born, and for a long time afterwards, Mrs. Lessways had contrived to struggle along through the world, without her daughter’s aid, to the general satisfaction of herself and some others. At length, ferreting on the highest shelf but one, she had the deep, proud satisfaction of the philosopher who has correctly deduced consequences from character. Underneath a Paisley shawl she discovered a lost treasure of clean handkerchiefs. One, two, three, four — there were eleven! And among them was one of her own, appropriated by her mother through sheer inexcusable inadvertence. They had probably been lying under the shawl for weeks, months!

Still, she did not allow herself to be vexed. Since the singular hysterical embrace in the twilight of the kitchen, she had felt for her mother a curious, kind, forbearing, fatalistic indulgence. “Mother is like that, and there you are!” And further, her mood had been so changed and uplifted by excitement and expectation that she could not be genuinely harsh. She had been thrilled by the audacity of the visit to Mr. Cannon. And though she hoped from it little but a negative advantage, she was experiencing the rare happiness of adventure. She had slipped out for a moment from the confined and stifling circle of domestic dailiness. She had scented the feverish perfume of the world. And she owed all this to herself alone! She meant on the morrow, while her mother was marketing, to pursue the enterprise; the consciousness of this intention was sweet, but she knew not why it was sweet. She only knew that she lived in the preoccupation of a dream.

Having taken two of the handkerchiefs, she shut the wardrobe and turned the key. She went first to her own small, prim room to restore stolen property to its rightful place, and then she descended towards the kitchen with the other handkerchief. Giving it to her mother, and concealing her triumph beneath a mask of wise, long-suffering benevolence, she would say: “I’ve found ten of your handkerchiefs, mother. Here’s one!” And her mother, ingenuously startled and pleased, would exclaim: “Where, child?” And she, still controlling herself, as befitted a superior being, would reply casually: “In your wardrobe, of course! You stuck to it there weren’t any; but I was sure there were.”

ii

The dialogue which actually did accompany the presentation of the handkerchief, though roughly corresponding to her rehearsal of it, was lacking in the dramatic pungency necessary for a really effective triumph; the reason being that the thoughts of both mother and daughter were diverted in different ways from the handkerchief by the presence of Florrie in the kitchen.

Florrie was the new servant, and she had come into the house that morning. Sponsored by an aunt who was one of the best of the Calder Street tenants, Florrie had been accepted rather unwillingly, the objection to her being that she was too young — thirteen and a half. Mrs. Lessways had a vague humanitarian sentiment against the employment of children; as for Hilda’s feeling, it was at one moment more compassionate even than her mother’s, and at another almost cynically indifferent. The aunt, however, a person of powerful common sense, had persuaded Mrs. Lessways that the truest kindness would be to give Florrie a trial. Florrie was very strong, and she had been brought up to work hard, and she enjoyed working hard. “Don’t you, Florrie?” “Yes, aunt,” with a delightful smiling, whispering timidity. She was the eldest of a family of ten, and had always assisted her mother in the management of a half-crown house and the nurture of a regiment of infants. But at thirteen and a half a girl ought to be earning money for her parents. Bless you! She knew what a pawnshop was, her father being often out of a job owing to potter’s asthma; and she had some knowledge of cookery, and was in particular very good at boiling potatoes. To take her would be a real kindness on the part of Mrs. Lessways, for the ‘place’ was not merely an easy place, it was a ‘good’ place. Supposing that Mrs. Lessways refused to have her — well, Florrie might go on to a ‘potbank’ and come to harm, or she might engage herself with tradespeople, where notoriously the work was never finished, or she might even be forced into a public-house. Her aunt knew that they wanted a servant at the “Queen Adelaide,” where the wages would be pretty high. But no! No niece of hers should ever go into service at a public-house if she could help it! What with hot rum and coffee to be ready for customers at half-past five of a morning, and cleaning up at nights after closing, a poor girl would never see her bed! Whereas at Mrs. Lessways’ . . .! So Mrs. Lessways took Florrie in order to save her from slavery.

The slim child was pretty, with graceful and eager movements, and certainly a rapid comprehension. Her grey eyes sparkled, and her brown hair was coquettishly tied up, rather in the manner of a horse’s tail on May Day. She had arrived all by herself in the morning, with a tiny bundle, and she made a remarkably neat appearance — if you did not look at her boots, which had evidently been somebody else’s a long time before. Hilda had been clearly aware of a feeling of pleasure at the prospect of this young girl’s presence in the house.

Hilda now saw her in another aspect. She wore a large foul apron of sacking, which made her elegant body quite shapeless, and she was kneeling on the red-and-black tiled floor of the kitchen, with her enormous cracked boots sticking out behind her. At one side of her was a pail full of steaming brown water, and in her red coarse little hands, which did not seem to belong to those gracile arms, she held a dripping clout. In front of her, on a half-dried space of clean, shining floor, stood Mrs. Lessways, her head wrapped in a flannel petticoat. Nearer to the child stretched a small semi-circle of liquid mud; to the rear was the untouched dirty floor. Florrie was looking up at her mistress with respectful, strained attention. She could not proceed with her work because Mrs. Lessways had chosen this moment to instruct her, with much snuffling, in the duties and responsibilities of her position.

“Yes, mum,” Florrie whispered. She seemed to be incapable of speaking beyond a whisper. But the whisper was delicate and agreeable; and perhaps it was a mysterious sign of her alleged unusual physical strength.

“You’ll have to be down at half-past six. Then you’ll light your kitchen fire, but of course you’ll get your coal up first. And then you’ll do your boots. Now the bacon — but never mind that — either Miss Hilda or me will be down tomorrow morning to show you.”

“Yes, mum,” Florrie’s whisper was grateful.

“When you’ve got things going a bit like, you’ll do your parlour — I’ve told you all about that, though. But I didn’t tell you — except on Wednesdays. On Wednesdays you give your parlour a thorough turn-out after breakfast, and mind it’s got to be all straight for dinner at half-past twelve.”

“Yes, mum.”

“I shall show you about your fire-irons —” Mrs. Lessways was continuing to make everything in the house the private property of Florrie, when Hilda interrupted her about the handkerchief, and afterwards with an exhortation to beware of the dampness of the floor, which exhortation Mrs. Lessways faintly resented; whereupon Hilda left the kitchen; it was always imprudent to come between Mrs. Lessways and a new servant.

Hilda remained listening in the lobby to the interminable and rambling instruction. At length Mrs. Lessways said benevolently:

“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t go to bed at half-past eight, or nine at the latest. No reason whatever. And if you’re quick and handy — and I’m sure you are — you’ll have plenty of time in the afternoon for plain sewing and darning. I shall see how you can darn,” Mrs. Lessways added encouragingly.

“Yes, mum.”

Hilda’s heart revolted, less against her mother’s defects as an organizer than against the odious mess of the whole business of domesticity. She knew that, with her mother in the house, Florrie would never get to bed at half-past eight and very seldom at nine, and that she would never be free in the afternoons. She knew that if her mother would only consent to sit still and not interfere, the housework could be accomplished with half the labour that at present went to it. There were three women in the place, or at any rate, a woman, a young woman, and a girl — and in theory the main preoccupation of all of them was this business of domesticity. It was, of course, ridiculous, and she would never be able to make anyone see that it was ridiculous. But that was not all. The very business itself absolutely disgusted her. It disgusted her to such a point that she would have preferred to do it with her own hands in secret rather than see others do it openly in all its squalor. The business might be more efficiently organized — for example, there was no reason why the sitting-room should be made uninhabitable between breakfast and dinner once a week — but it could never be other than odious. The kitchen floor must inevitably be washed every day by a girl on her knees in sackcloth with terrible hands. She was witnessing now the first stage in the progress of a victim of the business of domesticity. To-day Florrie was a charming young creature, full of slender grace. Soon she would be a dehumanized drudge. And Hilda could not stop it! All over the town, in every street of the town, behind all the nice curtains and blinds, the same hidden shame was being enacted: a vast, sloppy, steaming, greasy, social horror — inevitable! It amounted to barbarism, Hilda thought in her revolt. She turned from it with loathing. And yet nobody else seemed to turn from it with loathing. Nobody else seemed to perceive that this business of domesticity was not life itself, was at best the clumsy external machinery of life. On the contrary, about half the adult population worshipped it as an exercise sacred and paramount, enlarging its importance and with positive gusto permitting it to monopolize their existence. Nine-tenths of her mother’s conversation was concerned with the business of domesticity — and withal Mrs. Lessways took the business more lightly than most!

iii

There was an impatient knock at the front door — rare phenomenon, but not unknown.

Mrs. Lessways cried out thickly from the folds of her flannel petticoat:

“Hilda, just see who that is, will you? . . . knocking like that! Florrie can’t come.”

And just as Hilda reached the front door, her mother opened the kitchen door wide, to view the troublesome disturber and to inform him, if as was probable he was exceeding his rights, that he would have done better to try the back door.

It was Mr. Cannon at the front door.

Hilda heard the kitchen door slammed to behind her, but the noise was like a hallucination in her brain. She was staggered by the apparition of Mr. Cannon in the porch. She had vaguely wondered what he might do to execute his promise of aid; she had felt that time was running short if her mother was to be prevented from commencing rent-collector on the Monday; she had perhaps ingenuously expected from him some kind of miracle; but of a surety she had never dreamed that he would call in person at her home. “He must be mad!” she would have exclaimed to herself, if the grandeur of his image in her heart had not made any such accusation impossible to her. He was not mad; he was merely inscrutable, terrifyingly so. It was as if her adventurous audacity, personified, had doubled back on her, and was exquisitely threatening her.

“Good afternoon!” said Mr. Cannon, smiling confidently and yet with ceremoniousness. “Is your mother about?”

“Yes.” Hilda did not know it, but she was whispering quite in the manner of Florrie.

“Shall I come in?”

“Oh! Please do!” The words jumped out of her mouth all at once, so anxious was she to destroy any impression conceivably made that she did not desire him to come in.

He crossed the step and took her hand with one gesture. She shut the door. He waited in suave silence. There was barely space for them together in the narrow lobby, and she scarce dared look up at him. He easily dominated her. His bigness subdued her, and the handsomeness of his face and his attire was like a moral intimidation. He had a large physical splendour that was well set off and illustrated by the brilliance of his linen and his broadcloth. She was as modest as a mouse beside him. The superior young woman, the stern and yet indulgent philosopher, had utterly vanished, and only a poor little mouse remained.

“Will you please come into the drawing-room?” she murmured when, after an immense effort to keep full control of her faculties, she had decided where he must be put.

“Thanks,” he said.

As she diminished herself, with beautiful shy curves of her body, against the wall so that he could manoeuvre his bigness through the drawing-room doorway, he gave her a glance half benign and half politely malicious, which seemed to say again: “I know you’re afraid, and I rather like it. But you know you needn’t be.”

“Please take a seat,” she implored. And then quickly, as he seemed to have no intention of speaking to her confidentially, “I’ll tell mother.”

Leaving the room, she saw him sink smoothly into a seat, his rich-piled hat in one gloved hand and an ebony walking-stick in the other. His presence had a disastrous effect on the chill, unfrequented drawing-room, reducing it instantly to a condition of paltry shabbiness.

The kitchen door was still shut. Yes, all the squalor of the business of domesticity must be hidden from this splendid being! Hilda went as a criminal into the kitchen. Mrs. Lessways with violent movements signalled her to close the door before speaking. Florrie gazed spellbound upwards at both of them. The household was in a high fever.

“You don’t mean to tell me that’s Mr. Cannon!” Mrs. Lessways excitedly whispered.

“Do — do — you know him?” Hilda faltered.

“Do I know him! . . . What does he want?”

“He wants to see you.”

“What about?”

“I suppose it’s about property or something,” Hilda replied, blushing. Never had she felt so abject in front of her mother.

Mrs. Lessways rapidly unpinned the flannel petticoat and then threw it, with a desperate gesture of sacrifice, on to the deal table. The situation had to be met. The resplendent male awaited her in the death-cold room. The resplendent male had his overcoat, but she, suffering, must face the rigour and the risk unprotected. No matter if she caught bronchitis! The thing had to be done. Even Hilda did not think of accusing her mother of folly. Mrs. Lessways having patted her hair, emptied several handkerchiefs from the twin pockets of her embroidered black apron, and, snatching at the clean handkerchief furnished by Hilda, departed to her fate. She was certainly startled and puzzled, but she was not a whit intimidated, and the perception of this fact inspired Hilda with a new, reluctant respect for her mother.

Hilda, from the kitchen, heard the greetings in the drawing-room, and then the reverberations of the sufferer’s nose. She desired to go into the drawing-room. Her mother probably expected her to go in. But she dared not. She was afraid.

“I was wondering,” said the voice of Mr. Cannon, “whether you’ve ever thought of selling your Calder Street property, Mrs. Lessways.” And then the drawing-room door was closed, and the ticking of the grandfather’s clock resumed possession of the lobby.

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