Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 5

Mrs. Lessways’ Shrewdness

i

Waiting irresolute in the kitchen doorway, Hilda passed the most thrillingly agreeable moments that destiny had ever vouchsafed to her. She dwelt on the mysterious, attractive quality of Mr. Cannon’s voice — she was sure that, though in speaking to her mother he was softly persuasive, he had used to herself a tone even more intimate and ingratiating. He and she had a secret; they were conspirators together: which fact was both disconcerting and delicious. She recalled their propinquity in the lobby; the remembered syllables which he had uttered mingled with the faint scent of his broadcloth, the whiteness of his wristbands, the gleam of his studs, the droop of his moustaches, the downward ray of his glance, and the proud, nimble carriage of his great limbs — and formed in her mind the image of an ideal. An image regarded not with any tenderness, but with naïve admiration, and unquestioning respect! And yet also with more than that, for when she dwelt on his glance, she had a slight transient feeling of faintness which came and went in a second, and which she did not analyse — and could not have analysed.

Clouds of fear sailed in swift capriciousness across the sky of her dreaming, obscuring it: fear of Mr. Cannon’s breath-taking initiative, fear of the upshot of her adventure, and a fear without a name. Nevertheless she exulted. She exulted because she was in the very midst of her wondrous adventure and tingling with a thousand apprehensions.

After a long time the latch of the drawing-room door cracked warningly. Hilda retired within the kitchen out of sight of the lobby. She knew that the child in her would compel her to wait like a child until the visitor was gone, instead of issuing forth boldly like a young woman. But to Florrie the young mistress with her stern dark mask and formidable eyebrows and air of superb disdain was as august as a goddess. Florrie, moving backwards, had now got nearly to the scullery door with her wringing and splashing and wiping; and she had dirtied even her face. As Hilda absently looked at her, she thought somehow of Mr. Cannon’s white wristbands. She saw the washing and the ironing of those wristbands, and a slatternly woman or two sighing and grumbling amid wreaths of steam, and a background of cinders and suds and sloppiness. . . . All that, so that the grand creature might have a rim of pure white to his coat-sleeves for a day! It was inevitable. But the grand creature must never know. The shame necessary to his splendour must be concealed from him, lest he might be offended. And this was woman’s loyalty! Her ideas concerning the business of domesticity were now mixed and opposing and irreconcileable, and she began to suspect that the bases of society might be more complex and confusing than in her youthful downrightness she had imagined.

ii

“Well, you’ve got your way!” said Mrs. Lessways, with a certain grim, disdainful cheerfulness, from which benevolence was not quite absent. The drastic treatment accorded to her cold seemed to have done it good. At any rate she had not resumed the flannel petticoat, and the nasal symptoms were much less pronounced.

“Got my way?” Hilda repeated, at a loss and newly apprehensive.

Mother and daughter were setting tea. Florrie had been doing very well, but she was not yet quite equal to her situation, and the mistresses were now performing her lighter duties while she changed from the offensive drudge to the neat parlour-maid. Throughout the afternoon Hilda had avoided her mother’s sight; partly because she wanted to be alone (without knowing why), and partly because she was afraid lest Mr. Cannon, as a member of the older generation, might have betrayed her to her mother. This fear was not very genuine, though she pretended that it was and enjoyed playing with it: as if she really desired a catastrophe for the outcome of her adventure. She had only come downstairs in response to her mother’s direct summons, and instantly on seeing her she had known that Mr. Cannon was not a traitor. Which knowledge somehow rendered her gay in spite of herself. So that, what with this gaiety, and the stimulation produced in Mrs. Lessways by the visit of Mr. Cannon, and the general household relief at the obvious fact that Florrie would rather more than ‘do,’ the atmosphere around the tinkling tea-table in the half-light was decidedly pleasant.

Nevertheless the singular turn of Mrs. Lessways’ phrase — “You’ve got your way,”— had startled the guilty Hilda.

“Mr. Cannon’s going to see to the collecting of the Calder Street rents,” explained Mrs. Lessways. “So I hope you’re satisfied, miss.”

Hilda was aware of self-consciousness.

“Yes, you may well colour up!” Mrs. Lessways pursued, genial but malicious. “You’re as pleased as Punch, and you’re saying to yourself you’ve made your old mother give way to ye again! And so you needn’t tell me!”

“I thought,” said Hilda, with all possible prim worldliness — “I thought I heard him saying something about buying the property?”

Mrs. Lessways laughed, sceptically, confidently, as one who could not be deceived. “Pooh!” she said. “That was only a try-on. That was only so that he could begin his palaver! Don’t tell me! I may be a simpleton, but I’m not such a simpleton as he thinks for, nor as some other folks think for, either!” (At this point Hilda had to admit that in truth her mother was not completely a simpleton. In her mother was a vein of perceptive shrewdness that occasionally cropped out and made all Hilda’s critical philosophy seem school-girlish.) “Do you think I don’t know George Cannon? He came here o’ purpose to get that rent-collecting. Well, he’s got it, and he’s welcome to it, for I doubt not he’ll do it a sight better than poor Mr. Skellorn! But he needn’t hug himself that he’s been too clever for me, because he hasn’t. I gave him the rent-collecting because I thought I would! . . . Buy! He’s no more got a good customer for Calder Street than he’s got a good customer for this slop-bowl!”

Hilda resented this casual detraction of a being who had so deeply impressed her. And moreover she was convinced that her mother, secretly very flattered and delighted by the visit, was adopting a derisive attitude in order to ‘show off’ before her daughter. Parents are thus ingenuous! But she was so shocked and sneaped that she found it more convenient to say nothing.

“George Cannon could talk the hind leg off a horse,” Mrs. Lessways continued quite happily. “And yet it isn’t as if he said a great deal. He doesn’t. I’ll say this for him. He’s always the gentleman. And I couldn’t say as much for his sister being a lady, and I’m sorry for it. He’s the most gentlemanly man in Turnhill, and always so spruce, too!”

“His sister?”

“Well, his half-sister, since you’re so particular, Miss Precise!”

“Not Miss Gailey?” said Hilda, who began faintly to recall a forgotten fact of which she thought she had once been cognizant.

“Yes, Miss Gailey,” Mrs. Lessways snapped, still very genial and content. “I did hear she’s quarrelled out and out with him, too, at last!” She tightened her lips. “Draw the blind down.”

Miss Gailey, a spinster of superior breeding and a teacher of dancing, had in the distant past been an intimate friend of Mrs. Lessways. The friendship was legendary in the house, and the grand quarrel which had finally put an end to it dated in Hilda’s early memories like a historical event. For many years the two had not exchanged a word.

Mrs. Lessways lit the gas, and the china and the white cloth and the coloured fruit-jelly and the silver spoons caught the light and threw it off again, with gaiety.

“Has she swept the hearth? Yes, she has,” said Mrs. Lessways, glancing round at the red fire.

Hilda sat down to wait, folding her hands as it were in meekness. In a few moments Florrie entered with the teapot and the hot-water jug. The child wore proudly a new white apron that was a little too long for her, and she smiled happily at Mrs. Lessways’ brief compliment on her appearance and her briskness. She might have been in paradise.

“Come in for your cup in three minutes,” said Mrs. Lessways; and to Hilda when Florrie had whispered and gone: “Now we shall see if she can make tea. I told her very particularly this morning, and she seems quick enough.”

And when three minutes had expired Mrs. Lessways tasted the tea. Yes, it was good. It was quite good. Undeniably the water had boiled within five seconds of being poured on the leaves. There was something in this Florrie. Already she was exhibiting the mysterious quality of efficiency. The first day, being the first day, had of course not been without its discouraging moments, but on the whole Florrie had proved that she could be trusted to understand, and to do things.

“Here’s an extra piece of sugar for you,” said Mrs. Lessways, beaming, as Florrie left the parlour with her big breakfast-cup full of steaming tea, to drink with the thick bread-and-butter on the scrubbed kitchen-table, all by herself. “And don’t touch the gas in the kitchen — it’s quite high enough for young eyes,” Mrs. Lessways cried out after her.

“Little poppet!” she murmured to herself, maternally reflecting upon Florence’s tender youth.

iii

She was happy, was Mrs. Lessways, in her domesticity. She foresaw an immediate future that would be tranquil. She was preparing herself to lean upon the reliability of Florrie as upon a cushion. She liked the little poppet. And she liked well-made tea and pure jelly. And she had settled the Calder Street problem; and incidentally Hilda was thereby placated. Why should she not be happy? She wished for nothing else. And she was not a woman to meet trouble half-way. One of her greatest qualities was that she did not unduly worry. (Hilda might say that she did not worry enough, letting things go.) In spite of her cold, she yielded with more gusto than usual to the meal, and even said that if Florrie ‘continued to shape’ they would have hot toast again. Hot toast had long since been dropped from the menu, as an item too troublesome. As a rule the meals were taken hurriedly and negligently, like a religious formality which has lost its meaning but which custom insists on.

Hilda could not but share her mother’s satisfaction. She could not entirely escape the soft influence of the tranquillity in which the household was newly bathed. The domestic existence of unmated women together, though it is full of secret exasperations, also has its hours of charm — a charm honied, perverse, and unique. Hilda felt the charm. But she was suddenly sad, and she again found pleasure in her sadness. She was sad because her adventure was over — over too soon and too easily. She thought, now, that really she would have preferred a catastrophe as the end of it. She had got what she desired; but she was no better off than she had been before the paralytic stroke of Mr. Skellorn. Domesticity had closed in on her once more. Her secret adventure had become sterile. Its risks were destroyed, and nothing could spring from it. Nevertheless it lived in her heart. After all it had been tremendous! And the virtue of audacious initiative was miraculous! . . . Yes, her mother was shrewd enough — that could not be denied — but she was not so shrewd as she imagined; for it had never occurred to her, and it never would occur to her, even in the absurdest dream — that the author of Mr. Cannon’s visit was the girl sitting opposite to her and delicately pecking at jelly!

“How is he Miss Gailey’s half-brother?” Hilda demanded half-way through the meal.

“Why! Mrs. Gailey — Sarah Gailey’s mother, that is — married a foreigner after her first husband died.”

“But Mr. Cannon isn’t a foreigner?”

“He’s half a foreigner. Look at his eyes. Surely you knew all about that, child! . . . No, it was before your time.”

Hilda then learnt that Mrs. Gailey had married a French modeller named Canonges, who had been brought over from Limoges (or some such sounding place) by Peels at Bursley, the great rivals of Mintons and of Copelands. And that in course of time the modeller had informally changed the name to Cannon, because no one in the Five Towns could pronounce the true name rightly. And that George Cannon, the son of the union, had been left early an orphan.

“How did he come to be a solicitor?” Hilda questioned eagerly.

“They say he isn’t really a solicitor,” said Mrs. Lessways. “That is, he hasn’t passed his examinations like. But I dare say he knows as much law as a lot of ’em, and more! And he has that Mr. Karkeek to cover him like. That’s what they say. . . . He used to be a lawyer’s clerk — at Toms and Scoles’s, I think it was. Then he left the district for a year or two — or it might be several. And then his lordship comes back all of a sudden, and sets up with Mr. Karkeek, just like that.”

“Can he talk French?”

“Who? Mr. Cannon? He can talk English! My word, he can that! Eh, he’s a ‘customer,’ he is — a regular’ customer’!”

Hilda, instead of being seated at the table, was away in far realms of romance.

The startling thought occurred to her:

“Of course, he’ll expect me to go and see him! He’s done what I asked him, and he’ll expect me to go and see him and talk it over. And I suppose I shall have to pay him something. I’d forgotten that, and I ought not to have forgotten it.”

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