Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 7

The Editorial Secretary

i

Arthur Dayson, though a very good shorthand writer, and not without experience as a newspaper reporter and sub-editor, was a nincompoop. There could be no other explanation of his bland, complacent indifference as he sat poking at a coke stove one cold night of January, 1880, in full view of a most marvellous and ravishing spectacle. The stove was in a room on the floor above the offices labelled as Mr. Q. Karkeek’s; its pipe, supported by wire stays, went straight up nearly to the grimy ceiling, and then turned horizontally and disappeared through a clumsy hole in the scorched wall. It was a shabby stove, but not more so than the other few articles of furniture — a large table, a small desk, three deteriorated cane-chairs, two gas brackets, and an old copying-press on its rickety stand. The sole object that could emerge brightly from the ordeal of the gas-flare was a splendid freshly printed blue poster gummed with stamp-paper to the wall: which poster bore the words, in vast capitals of two sizes: “The Five Towns Chronicle and Turnhill Guardian.” Copies of this poster had also been fixed, face outwards, on the two curtainless black windows, to announce to the Market Square what was afoot in the top storey over the ironmonger’s.

A young woman, very soberly attired, was straining at the double iron-handles of the copying-press. Some copying-presses have a screw so accurately turned and so well oiled, and handles so massively like a fly-wheel, that a touch will send the handles whizzing round and round till they stop suddenly, and then one slight wrench more, and the letters are duly copied! But this was not such a press. It had been outworn in Mr. Karkeek’s office; rust had intensified its original defects of design, and it produced the minimum of result with the maximum of means. Nevertheless, the young woman loved it. She clenched her hands and her teeth, and she frowned, as though she loved it. And when she had sufficiently crushed the letter-book in the press, she lovingly unscrewed and drew forth the book; and with solicitude she opened the book on the smaller table, and tenderly detached the blotting-paper from the damp tissue paper, and at last extracted the copied letter and examined its surface.

“Smudged!” she murmured, tragic.

And the excellent ass Dayson, always facetiously cheerful, and without a grain of humour, remarked:

“Copiousness with the H2O, Miss Lessways, is the father of smudged epistles. I’m ready to go through these proofs with you as soon as you are.”

He was over thirty. He had had affairs with young women. He reckoned that there remained little for him to learn. He had deliberately watched this young woman at the press. He had clearly seen her staring under the gas-jet at the copied letter. And yet in her fierce muscular movements, and in her bendings and straightenings, and in her delicate caressings, and in her savage scowlings and wrinklings, and in her rapt gazings, and in all her awful absorption, he had quite failed to perceive the terrible eager outpouring of a human soul, mighty, passionate, and wistful. He had kept his eyes on her slim bust and tight-girded waist that sprung suddenly neat and smooth out of the curving skirt-folds, and it had not occurred to him to exclaim even in his own heart: “With your girlishness and your ferocity, your intimidating seriousness and your delicious absurdity, I would give a week’s wages just to take hold of you and shake you!” No! The dolt had seen absolutely naught but a conscientious female beginner learning the duties of the post which he himself had baptized as that of ‘editorial secretary.’

ii

Hilda was no longer in a nameless trouble. She no longer wanted she knew not what. She knew beyond all questioning that she had found that which she had wanted. For nearly a year she had had lessons in phonography from Miss Dayson’s nephew, often as a member of a varying night-class, and sometimes alone during the day. She could not write shorthand as well as Mr. Dayson, and she never would, for Mr. Dayson had the shorthand soul; but, as the result of sustained and terrific effort, she could write it pretty well. She had grappled with Isaac Pitman as with Apollyon and had not been worsted. She could scarcely believe that in class she had taken down at the rate of ninety words a minute Mr. Dayson’s purposely difficult political speechifyings (which always contained the phrase ‘capital punishment,’ because ‘capital punishment’ was a famous grammalogue); but it was so, Mr. Dayson’s watch proved it.

About half-way through the period of study, she had learnt from Mr. Cannon, on one of his rare visits to her mother’s, something about his long-matured scheme for a new local paper. She had at once divined that he meant to offer her some kind of a situation in the enterprise, and she was right. Gratitude filled her. Mrs. Lessways, being one of your happy-go-lucky, broad-minded women, with an experimental disposition — a disposition to let things alone and see how they will turn out — had made little objection, though she was not encouraging.

Instantly the newspaper had become the chief article of Hilda’s faith. She accepted the idea of it as a nun accepts the sacred wafer, in ecstasy. Yet she knew little about it. She was aware that Mr. Cannon meant to establish it first as a weekly, and then, when it had grown, to transform it into a daily and wage war with that powerful monopolist, The Staffordshire Signal, which from its offices at Hanbridge covered the entire district. The original title had been The Turnhill Guardian and Five Towns General Chronicle, and she had approved it; but when Mr. Cannon, with a view to the intended development, had inverted the title to The Five Towns Chronicle and Turnhill Guardian, she had enthusiastically applauded his deep wisdom. Also she had applauded his project of moving, later on, to Hanbridge, the natural centre of the Five Towns. This was nearly the limit of her knowledge. She neither knew nor cared anything about the resources or the politics or the programme or the prospects of the paper. To her all newspapers were much alike. She did not even explore, in meditation, the extraordinary psychology of Mr. Cannon — the man whose original energy and restless love of initiative was leading him to found a newspaper on the top of a successful but audaciously irregular practice as a lawyer. She incuriously and with religious admiration accepted Mr. Cannon as she accepted the idea of the paper. And being, of course, entirely ignorant of journalism, she was not in a position to criticize the organizing arrangements of the newspaper. Not that these would have seemed excessively peculiar to anybody familiar with the haphazard improvisations of minor journalism in the provinces! She had indeed, in her innocence, imagined that the basic fact of a newspaper enterprise would be a printing-press; but when Mr. Dayson, who had been on The Signal and on sundry country papers in Shropshire, assured her that the majority of weekly sheets were printed on jobbing presses in private hands, she corrected her foolish notion.

Her sole interest — but it was tremendous! — lay in what she herself had to do — namely, take down from dictation, transcribe, copy, classify, and keep letters and documents, and occasionally correct proofs. All beyond this was misty for her, and she never adjusted her sight in order to pierce the mist.

Save for her desire to perfect herself in her duties, she had no desire. She was content. In the dismal, dirty, untidy, untidiable, uncomfortable office, arctic near the windows, and tropic near the stove, with dust on her dress and ink on her fingers and the fumes of gas in her quivering nostrils, and her mind strained and racked by an exaggerated sense of her responsibilities, she was in heaven! She who so vehemently objected to the squalid mess of the business of domesticity, revelled in the squalid mess of this business. She whose heart would revolt because Florrie’s work was never done, was delighted to wait all hours on the convenience of men who seemed to be the very incarnation of incalculable change and caprice. And what was she? Nothing but a clerk, at a commencing salary of fifteen shillings per week! Ah! but she was a priestess! She had a vocation which was unsoiled by the economic excuse. She was a pioneer. No young woman had ever done what she was doing. She was the only girl in the Five Towns who knew shorthand. And in a fortnight (they said) the paper was to come out!

iii

At the large table which was laden with prodigious, heterogeneous masses of paper and general litter, she bent over the proofs by Mr. Dayson’s side. He had one proof; she had a duplicate; the copy lay between them. It was the rough galley of a circular to the burgesses that they were correcting together. Reading and explaining aloud, he inscribed the cabalistic signs of correction in the margin of his proof, and she faithfully copied them in the margin of hers, for practice.

“l.c.,” he intoned.

“What does that mean?”

“Lower case,” he explained grandiosely, in the naïve vanity of his knowledge. “Small letter; not a capital.”

“Thank you,” she said, and, writing “l.c.,” noted in her striving brain that ‘lower case’ meant a small letter instead of a capital; but she knew not why, and she did not ask; the reason did not trouble her.

“I think we’ll put ‘enlightened’ there, before ‘public’ Ring it, will you?”

“Ring it? Oh! I see!”

“Yes, put a ring round the word in the margin. That’s to show it isn’t the intelligent compositor’s mistake, you see!”

Then there was a familiar and masterful footstep on the stairs, and the attention of both of them wavered.

iv

Arthur Dayson and his proof-correcting lost all interest and all importance for Hilda as Mr. Cannon came into the room. The unconscious, expressive gesture, scornful and abrupt, with which she neglected them might have been terribly wounding to a young man more sensitive than Dayson. But Dayson, in his self-sufficient, good-natured mediocrity, had the hide of an alligator. He even judged her movement quite natural, for he was a flunkey born. Hilda gazed at her master with anxiety as he deposited his black walking-stick in the corner behind the door and loosed his white muffler and large overcoat (which Dayson called an ‘immensikoff.’) She thought the master looked tired and worried. Supposing he fell ill at this supreme juncture! The whole enterprise would be scotched, and not forty Daysons could keep it going! The master was doing too much — law by day and journalism by night. They were perhaps all doing too much, but the others did not matter. Nevertheless, Mr. Cannon advanced to the table buoyant and faintly smiling, straightening his shoulders back, proudly proving to himself and to them that his individual force was inexhaustible. That straightening of the shoulders always affected Hilda as something wistful, as almost pathetic in its confident boyishness. It made her feel maternal and say to herself (but not in words) with a sort of maternal superiority: “How brave he is, poor thing!” Yes, in her heart she would apply the epithet ‘poor thing’ to this grand creature whose superiority she acknowledged with more fervour than anybody. As for the undaunted straightening of the shoulders, she adopted it, and after a time it grew to be a characteristic gesture with her.

“Well?” Mr. Cannon greeted them.

“Well,” said Arthur Dayson, with a factitious air of treating him as an equal, “I’ve been round to Bennions and made it clear to him that if he can’t guarantee to run off a maximum of two thousand of an eight-page sheet we shall have to try Clayhanger at Bursley, even if it’s the last minute.”

“What did he say?”

“Grunted.”

“I shall risk two thousand, any way.”

“Paper delivered, governor?” Dayson asked in a low voice, leering pawkily, as though to indicate that he was a man who could be trusted to think of everything.

“Will be tomorrow, I think,” said Mr. Cannon. “Got that letter ready, Miss Lessways?”

Hilda sprang into life.

“Yes,” she said, handing it diffidently. “But if you’d like me to do it again — you see it’s —”

“Plethora of H2O,” Dayson put in, indulgent.

“Oh no!” Mr. Cannon decided. Having read the letter, he gave it to Dayson. “It doesn’t matter, but you ought to have signed it before it was copied in the letter-book.”

“Gemini! Miss!” murmured Dayson, glancing at Hilda with uplifted brows.

The fact was that both of them had forgotten this formality. Dayson took a pen, and after describing a few flourishes in the air, about a quarter of an inch above the level of the paper, he magnificently signed: “Dayson & Co.” Such was the title of the proprietorship. Just as Karkeek was Mr. Cannon’s dummy in the law, so was Dayson in the newspaper business. But whereas Karkeek was privately ashamed, Dayson was proud of his rôle, which gave him the illusion of power and glory.

“Just take this down, will you?” said Mr. Cannon.

Hilda grasped at her notebook and seized a pencil, and then held herself tense to receive the message, staring downwards at the blank page. Dayson lolled in his chair, throwing his head back. He knew that the presence of himself, the great shorthand expert, made Hilda nervous when she had to write from dictation; and this flattered his simple vanity. Hilda hated and condemned her nervousness, but she could not conquer it.

Mr. Cannon, standing over the table, pushed his hat away from his broad, shining forehead, and then, meditative, absently lifted higher his carefully tended hand and lowered the singing gas-jet, only to raise it again.

“Mr. Ezra Brunt. Dear Sir, Re advertisement. With reference to your letter replying to ours in which you inquire as to the circulation of the above newspaper, we beg to state that it is our intention to print four thousand of —”

“Two thousand,” Hilda interrupted confidently.

Unruffled, Mr. Cannon went on politely: “No — four thousand of the first number. Our representative would be pleased to call upon you by appointment. Respectfully yours. — You might sign that, Dayson, and get it off to-night. Is Sowter here?”

For answer, Dayson jerked his head towards an inner door. Sowter was the old clerk who had first received Hilda into the offices of Mr. Q. Karkeek. He was earning a little extra money by clerical work at nights in connection with the advertisement department of the new organ.

Mr. Cannon marched to the inner door and opened it. Then he turned and called:

“Dayson — a moment.”

“Certainly,” said Dayson, jumping up. He planted his hat doggishly at the back of his head, stuck his hands into his pockets, and swaggered after his employer.

The inner door closed on the three men. Hilda, staring at the notebook, blushing and nibbling at the pencil, was left alone under the gas. She could feel her heart beating violently.

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