Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 6

Victor Hugo and Isaac Pitman

i

The next morning, Saturday, Hilda ran no risk in visiting Mr. Cannon. Her mother’s cold, after a fictitious improvement, had assumed an aggravated form in order to prove that not with impunity may nature be flouted in unheated October drawing-rooms; and Hilda had been requested to go to market alone. She was free. And even supposing that the visit should be observed by the curious, nobody would attach any importance to it, because everybody would soon be aware that Mr. Cannon had assumed charge of the Calder Street property.

Past the brass plates of Mr. Q. Karkeek, out of the straw-littered hubbub of the market-place, she climbed the long flight of stairs leading to the offices on the first floor. In one worsted-gloved hand she held a market-basket of multi-coloured wicker, which dangled a little below the frilled and flounced edge of her blue jacket. Secure in the pocket of her valanced brown skirt — for at that time and in that place it had not yet occurred to any woman that pockets were a superfluity — a private half-sovereign lay in the inmost compartment of her purse; this coin was destined to recompense Mr. Cannon. Her free hand went up to the heavy chignon that hung uncertainly beneath her bonnet — a gesture of coquetry which she told herself she despised.

Her face was a prim and rather forbidding mask, assuredly a mysterious mask. She could not have explained her own feelings. She was still in the adventure, but the end of it was immediate. She had nothing to hope from the future. Her essential infelicity was as profound and as enigmatic as ever. She might have said with deliberate and vehement sincerity that she was not happy. Wise, experienced observers, studying her as she walked her ways in the streets, might have said of her with sympathetically sad conviction, “That girl is not happy! What a pity!” It was so. And yet, in her unhappiness she was blest. She savoured her unhappiness. She drank it down passionately, as though it were the very water of life — which it was. She lived to the utmost in every moment. The recondite romance of existence was not hidden from her. The sudden creation — her creation — of the link with Mr. Cannon seemed to her surpassingly strange and romantic; and in so regarding it she had no ulterior thought whatever: she looked on it with the single-mindedness of an artist looking on his work. And was it not indeed astounding that by a swift caprice and stroke of audacity she should have changed and tranquillized the ominous future for her unsuspecting mother and herself? Was it not absolutely disconcerting that she and this Mr. Cannon, whom she had never known before and in whom she had no other interest, should bear between them this singular secret, at once innocent and guilty, in the midst of the whole town so deaf and blind?

ii

A somewhat shabby-genteel, youngish man appeared at the head of the stairs; he was wearing a silk hat and a too ample frock-coat. And immediately, from the hidden corridor at the top, she heard the voice of Mr. Cannon, imperious:

“Karkeek!”

The shabby-genteel man stopped. Hilda wanted to escape, but she could not, chiefly because her pride would not allow. She had to go on. She went on, frowning.

The man vanished back into the corridor. She could hear that Mr. Cannon had joined him in conversation. She arrived at the corridor.

“How-d’ye-do, Miss Lessways?” Mr. Cannon greeted her with calm politeness, turning from Mr. Karkeek, who raised his hat. “Will you come this way? One moment, Mr. Karkeek.”

Through a door marked “Private” Mr. Cannon introduced Hilda straight into his own room; then shut the door on her. He held in one hand a large calf-bound volume, from which evidently he was expounding something to Mr. Karkeek. The contrast between the expensive informality of Mr. Cannon’s new suit and the battered ceremoniousness of Mr. Karkeek’s struck her just as much as the contrast between their demeanours; and she felt, vaguely, the oddness of the fact that the name of the deferential Mr. Karkeek, and not the name of the commanding Mr. Cannon, should be upon the door-plates and the wire-blinds of the establishment. But of course she was not in a position to estimate the full significance of this remarkable phenomenon. Further, though she perfectly remembered her mother’s observations upon Mr. Cannon’s status, they did not in the slightest degree damage him in her eyes — when once those eyes had been set on him again. They seemed to her inessential. The essential, for her, was the incontestable natural authority and dignity of his bearing.

She sat down, self-consciously, in the chair — opposite the owner’s chair — which she had occupied at her first visit, and thus surveyed, across the large flat desk, all the ranged documents and bundles with the writing thereon upside down. There also was his blotting-pad, and his vast inkstand, and his pens, and his thick diary. The disposition of the things on the desk seemed to indicate, sharply and incontrovertibly, that orderliness, that inexorable efficiency, which more than aught else she admired in the external conduct of life. The spectacle satisfied her, soothed her, and seemed to explain the attractiveness of Mr. Cannon.

Immediately to her left was an open bookcase almost filled with heavy volumes. The last of a uniform row of Law Reports was absent from its place — being at that moment in the corridor, in the hands of Mr. Cannon. The next book, a thin one, had toppled over sideways and was bridging the vacancy at an angle; several other similar thin books filled up the remainder of the shelf. She stared, with the factitious interest of one who is very nervously awaiting an encounter, at the titles, and presently deciphered the words, ‘Victor Hugo,’ on each of the thin volumes. Her interest instantly became real. Characteristically abrupt and unreflecting, she deposited her basket on the floor and, going to the bookcase, took out the slanting volume. Its title was Les Rayons et Les Ombres. She opened it by hazard at the following poem, which had no heading and which stood, a small triptych of print, rather solitary in the lower half of a large white page:

Dieu qui sourit et qui donne

Et qui vient vers qui l’attend

Pourvu que vous soyez bonne,

Sera content.

Le monde où tout étincelle,

Mais ou rien n’est enflammé,

Pourvu que vous soyez belle,

Sera charmé.

Mon coeur, dans l’ombre amoureuse,

Où l’énivrent deux beaux yeux,

Pourvu que tu sois heureuse,

Sera joyeux.

That was all. But she shook as though a miracle had been enacted. Hilda, owing partly to the fondness of an otherwise stern grandfather and partly to the vanity of her unimportant father, had finally been sent to a school attended by girls who on the average were a little above herself in station — Chetwynd’s, in the valley between Turnhill and Bursley. (It was still called Chetwynd’s though it had changed hands.) Among the staff was a mistress who was known as Miss Miranda — she seemed to have no surname. One of Miss Miranda’s duties had been to teach optional French, and one of Miss Miranda’s delights had been to dictate this very poem of Victor Hugo’s to her pupils for learning by heart. It was Miss Miranda’s sole French poem, and she imposed it with unfading delight on the successive generations whom she ‘grounded’ in French. Hilda had apparently forgotten most of her French, but as she now read the poem (for the first time in print), it reestablished itself in her memory as the most lovely verse that she had ever known, and the recitations of it in Miss Miranda’s small classroom came back to her with an effect beautiful and tragic. And also there was the name of Victor Hugo, which Miss Miranda’s insistent enthusiasm had rendered sublime and legendary to a sensitive child! Hilda now saw the sacred name stamped in gold on a whole set of elegant volumes! It was marvellous that she should have turned the page containing just that poem! It was equally marvellous that she should have discovered the works of Victor Hugo in the matter-of-fact office of Mr. Cannon! But was it? Was he not half-French, and were not these books precisely a corroboration of what her mother had told her? Mr. Cannon’s origin at once assumed for her the strange seductive hues of romance; he shared the glory of Victor Hugo. Then the voices in the corridor ceased, and with a decisive movement he unlatched the door. She relinquished the book and calmly sat down as he entered.

iii

“Of course, your mother’s told you?”

“Yes.”

“I had no difficulty at all. I just asked her what she was going to do about the rent-collecting.”

Standing up in front of Hilda, but on his own side of the desk, Mr. Cannon smiled as a conqueror who can recount a triumph with pride, but without conceit. She looked at him with naïve admiration. To admire him was agreeable to her; and she liked also to feel unimportant in his presence. But she fought, unsuccessfully, against the humiliating idea that his personal smartness convicted her of being shabby — of being even inefficient in one department of her existence; and she could have wished to be magnificently dressed.

“Mrs. Lessways is a very shrewd lady — very shrewd indeed!” said Mr. Cannon, with a smile, this time, to indicate humorously that Mrs. Lessways was not so easy to handle as might be imagined, and that even the cleverest must mind their p’s and q’s with such a lady.

“Oh yes, she is!” Hilda agreed, with an exaggerated emphasis that showed a lack of conviction. Indeed, she had never thought of her mother as a very shrewd lady.

Mr. Cannon continued to smile in silence upon the shrewdness of Mrs. Lessways, giving little appreciative movements of the diaphragm, drawing in his lips and by consequence pushing out his cheeks like a child’s; and his eyes were all the time saying lightly: “Still, I managed her!” And while this pleasant intimate silence persisted, the noises of the market-place made themselves prominent, quite agreeably — in particular the hard metallic stamping and slipping, on the bricked pavement under the window, of a team of cart-horses that were being turned in a space too small for their grand, free movements, and the good-humoured cracking of a whip. Again Hilda was impressed, mystically, by the strangeness of the secret relation between herself and this splendid effective man. There they were, safe within the room, almost on a footing of familiar friendship! The atmosphere was different from that of the first interview. And none knew! And she alone had brought it all about by a simple caprice!

“I was fine and startled when I saw you at our door, Mr. Cannon!” she said.

He might have said, “Were you? You didn’t show it.” She was half expecting him to say some such thing. But he became reflective, and began: “Well, you see —” and then hesitated.

“You didn’t tell me you thought of calling.”

“Well,” he proceeded at last — and she could not be sure whether he was replying to her or not —“I was pretty nearly ready to buy that Calder Street property. And I thought I’d talk that over with your mother first! It just happened to make a good beginning, you see.” He spoke with all the flattering charm of the confidential.

Hilda flushed. Under her mother’s suggestion, she had been misjudging him. He had not been guilty of mere scheming. She was profoundly glad. The act of apology to him, performed in her own mind, gave her a curious delight.

“I wish she would sell,” said Hilda, to whom the ownership of a slum was obnoxious.

“Very soon your consent would be necessary to any sale.”

“Really!” she exclaimed, agreeably flattered, but scarcely surprised by this information. “I should consent quick enough! I can’t bear to walk down the street!”

He laughed condescendingly. “Well, I don’t think your mother would care to sell, if you ask me.” He sat down.

Hilda frowned, regretting her confession and resenting his laughter.

“What will your charges be, please, Mr. Cannon?” she demanded abruptly, and yet girlishly timid. And at the same moment she drew forth her purse, which she had been holding ready in her hand.

For a second he thought she was referring to the price of rent-collecting, but the appearance of the purse explained her meaning. “Oh! There’s no charge!” he said, in a low voice, seizing a penholder.

“But I must pay you something! I can’t —”

“No, you mustn’t!”

Their glances met in conflict across the table. She had known that he would say exactly that. And she had been determined to insist on paying a fee — utterly determined! But she could not, now, withstand the force of his will. Her glance failed her. She was disconcerted by the sudden demonstration of her inferiority. She was distressed. And then a feeling of faintness, and the gathering of a mist in the air, positively frightened her. The mist cleared. His glance seemed to say, with kindness: “You see how much stronger I am than you! But you can trust me!” The sense of adventure grew even more acute in her. She marvelled at what life was, and hid the purse like a shame.

“It’s very kind of you,” she murmured.

“Not a bit!” he said. “I’ve got a job through this. Don’t forget that. We don’t collect rents for nothing, you know — especially Calder Street sort of rents!”

She picked up her basket and rose. He also rose.

“So you’ve been looking at my Victor Hugo,” he remarked, putting his right hand negligently into his pocket instead of holding it forth in adieu.

iv

So overset was she by the dramatic surprise of his challenging remark, and so enlightened by the sudden perception of it being perfectly characteristic of him, that her manner changed in an instant to a delicate, startled timidity. All the complex sensitiveness of her nature was expressed simultaneously in the changing tints of her face, the confusion of her eyes and her gestures, and the exquisite hesitations of her voice as she told him about the coincidence which had brought back to her in his office the poem of her schooldays.

He came to the bookcase and, taking out the volume, handled it carelessly.

“I only brought these things here because they’re nicely bound and fill up the shelf,” he said. “Not much use in a lawyer’s office, you know!” He glanced from the volume to her, and from her to the volume. “Ah! Miss Miranda! Yes! Well! It isn’t so wonderful as all that. My father used to give her lessons in French. This Hugo was his. He thought a great deal of it.” Mr. Cannon’s pose exhibited pride, but it was obvious that he did not share his father’s taste. His tone rather patronized his father, and Hugo too. As he let the pages of the book slip by under his thumb, he stopped, and with a very good French accent, quite different from Hilda’s memory of Miss Miranda’s, murmured in a sort of chanting —“Dieu qui sourit et qui donne.”

“That’s the very one!” cried Hilda.

“Ah! There you are then! You see — the bookmark was at that page.” Hilda had not noticed the thin ribbon almost concealed in the jointure of the pages. “I wouldn’t be a bit astonished if my father had lent her this very book! Curious, isn’t it?”

It was. Nevertheless, Hilda felt that his sense of the miraculousness of life was not so keen as her own; and she was disappointed.

“I suppose you’re very fond of reading?” he said.

“No, I’m not,” she replied. Her spirit lifted a little courageously, to meet his with defiance, like a ship lifting its prow above the threatening billow. Her eyes wavered, but did not fall before his.

“Really! Now, I should have said you were a great reader. What do you do with yourself?” He now spoke like a brother, confident of a trustful response.

“I just waste my time,” she answered coldly. She saw that he was puzzled, interested, and piqued, and that he was examining her quite afresh.

“Well,” he said shortly, after a pause, adopting the benevolent tone of an uncle or even a great-uncle, “you’ll be getting married one of these days.”

“I don’t want to get married,” she retorted obstinately, and with a harder glance.

“Then what do you want?”

“I don’t know.” She discovered great relief, even pleasure, in thus callously exposing her mind to a stranger.

Tapping his teeth with one thumb, he gazed at her, apparently in meditation upon her peculiar case. At last he said:

“I tell you what you ought to do. You ought to go in for phonography.”

“Phonography?” She was at a loss.

“Yes; Pitman’s shorthand, you know.”

“Oh! shorthand — yes. I’ve heard of it. But why?”

“Why? It’s going to be the great thing of the future. There never was anything like it!” His voice grew warm and his glance scintillated. And now Hilda understood her mother’s account of his persuasiveness; she felt the truth of that odd remark that he could talk the hind leg off a horse.

“But does it lead to anything?” she inquired, with her strong sense of intrinsic values.

“I should say it did!” he answered. “It leads to everything! There’s nothing it won’t lead to! It’s the key of the future. You’ll see. Look at Dayson. He’s taken it up, and now he’s giving lessons in it. He’s got a room over his aunt’s. I can tell you he staggered me. He wrote in shorthand as fast as ever I could read to him, and then he read out what he’d written, without a single slip. I’m having one of my chaps taught. I’m paying for the lessons. I thought of learning myself — yes, really! Oh! It’s a thing that’ll revolutionize all business and secretarial work and so on — revolutionize it! And it’s spreading. It’ll be the Open Sesame to everything. Anybody that can write a hundred and twenty words a minute’ll be able to walk into any situation he wants — straight into it! There’s never been anything like it. Look! Here it is!”

He snatched up a pale-green booklet from the desk and opened it before her. She saw the cryptic characters for the first time. And she saw them with his glowing eyes. In their mysterious strokes and curves and dots she saw romance, and the key of the future; she saw the philosopher’s stone. She saw a new religion that had already begun to work like leaven in the town. The revelation was deliciously intoxicating. She was converted, as by lightning. She yielded to the ecstasy of discipleship. Here — somehow, inexplicably, incomprehensively — here was the answer to the enigma of her long desire. And it was an answer original, strange, distinguished, unexpected, unique; yes, and divine! How lovely, how beatific, to be the master of this enchanted key!

“It must be very interesting!” she said, low, with the venturesome shyness of a deer that is reassured.

“I don’t mind telling you this,” Mr. Cannon went on, with the fire of the prophet. “I’ve got something coming along pretty soon”— he repeated more slowly —“I’ve got something coming along pretty soon, where there’ll be scope for a young lady that can write shorthand well. I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s something different from anything there’s ever been in this town; and better.”

His eyes masterfully held hers, seeming to say: “I’m vague. But I was vague when I told you I’d see what could be done about your mother — and look at what I did, and how quickly and easily I did it! When I’m vague, it means a lot.” And she entirely understood that his vagueness was calculated — out of pride.

They talked about Mr. Dayson a little.

“I must go now,” said Hilda awkwardly.

“I’d like you to take that Hugo,” he said. “I dare say it would interest you. . . . Remind you of old times.”

“Oh no!”

“You can return it, when you like.”

Her features became apologetic. She had too hastily assumed that he wished to force a gift on her.

“Please!” he ejaculated. No abuse this time of moral authority! But an appeal, boyish, wistful, supplicating. It was irresistible, completely irresistible. It gave her an extraordinary sense of personal power.

He wrapped up the book for her in a sheet of blue “draft” paper that noisily crackled. While he was doing so, a tiny part of her brain was, as it were, automatically exploring a box of old books in the attic at home and searching therein for a Gasc’s French–English Dictionary which she had used at school and never thought of since.

“My compliments to your mother,” he said at parting.

She gazed at him questioningly.

“Oh! I was forgetting,” he corrected himself, with an avuncular, ironic smile. “You’re not supposed to have seen me, are you?”

Then she was outside in the din; and from thrilling altitudes she had to bring her mind to marketing. She hid under apples the flat blue parcel in the basket.

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