Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 8

Janet Orgreave

i

“Our friend is waiting for that letter to Brunt,” said Arthur Dayson, emerging from the inner room, a little later.

“In one moment,” Hilda replied coldly, though she had not begun to write the letter.

Dayson disappeared, nodding.

She resented his referring to Mr. Cannon as ‘our friend,’ but she did not know why, unless it was that she vaguely regarded it as presumptuous, or, in the alternative, if he meant to be facetious, as ill-bred, on the part of Arthur Dayson. She chose a sheet of paper, and wrote the letter in longhand, as quickly as she could, but with arduous care in the formation of every character; she wrote with the whole of her faculties fully applied. Even in the smallest task she could not economize herself; she had to give all or nothing. When she came to the figures — 4000 — she intensified her ardour, lavishing enormous unnecessary force: it was like a steamhammer cracking a nut. Her conscience had instantly and finally decided against her. But she ignored her conscience. She knew and owned that she was wrong to abet Mr. Cannon’s deception. And she abetted it. She would have abetted it if she had believed that the act would involve her in everlasting damnation — not solely out of loyalty to Mr. Cannon; only a little out of loyalty; chiefly out of mere unreasoning pride and obstinate adherence to a decision.

The letter finished, she took it into the inner room, where the three men sat in mysterious conclave. Mr. Cannon read it over, and then Arthur Dayson borrowed the old clerk’s vile pen and with the ceremonious delays due to his sense of his own importance, flourishingly added the signature.

When she came forth she heard a knock at the outer door.

“Come in,” she commanded defiantly, for she was still unconsciously in the defiant mood in which she had offered the lying letter to Mr. Cannon.

ii

A well-dressed, kind-featured, and almost beautiful young woman, of about the same age as Hilda, opened the door, with a charming gesture of diffidence.

For a second the two gazed at each other astounded.

“Well, Hilda, of all the —”

“Janet!”

It was an old schoolfellow, Janet Orgreave, daughter of Osmond Orgreave, a successful architect at Bursley. Janet had passed part of her schooldays at Chetwynd’s; and with her brother Charlie she had also attended Sarah Gailey’s private dancing-class (famous throughout Turnhill, Bursley, and Hanbridge) at the same time as Hilda. She was known, she was almost notorious, as a universal favourite. By instinct, without taking thought, she pleased everybody, great and small. Nature had spoiled her, endowing her with some beauty, and undeniable elegance, and abundant sincere kindliness. She had only to smile, and she made a friend; it cost her nothing. She smiled now, and produced the illusion, not merely in Hilda but in herself also, that her pleasure in this very astonishing encounter was quite peculiarly poignant.

They shook hands, as women of the world.

“Did you know I was here?” Hilda questioned, characteristically on her guard, with a nervous girlish movement of the leg that perhaps sinned against the code of authentic worldliness.

“No indeed!” exclaimed Janet.

“Well, I am! I’m engaged here.”

“How splendid of you!” said Janet enthusiastically, with no suggestion whatever in her tone that Hilda’s situation was odd, or of dubious propriety, or aught but enviable.

But Hilda surveyed her with secret envy, transient yet real. In the half-dozen years that had passed since the days of the dancing-class, Janet had matured. She was now the finished product. She had the charm of her sex, and she depended on it. She had grace and an overflowing goodness. She had a smooth ease of manner. She was dignified. And, with her furs, and her expensive veil protecting those bright apple-red cheeks, and all the studied minor details of her costume, she was admirably and luxuriously attired. She was the usual, as distinguished from the unusual, woman, brought to perfection. She represented no revolt against established custom. Doubts and longings did not beset her. She was content within her sphere: a destined queen of the home. And yet she could not be accused of being old-fashioned. None would dare to despise her. She was what Hilda could never be, had never long desired to be. She was what Hilda had definitely renounced being. And there stood Hilda, immature, graceless, harsh, inelegant, dowdy, holding the letter between her inky fingers, in the midst of all that hard masculine mess — and a part of it, the blindly devoted subaltern, who could expect none of the ritual of homage given to women, who must sit and work and stand and strain and say ‘yes,’ and pretend stiffly that she was a sound, serviceable, thick-skinned imitation man among men! If Hilda had been a valkyrie or a saint she might have felt no envy and no pang. But she was a woman. Self-pity shot through her tremendous pride; and the lancinating stab made her inattentive even to her curiosity concerning the purpose of Janet’s visit.

iii

“I came to see Mr. Cannon,” said Janet. “The housekeeper downstairs told me he was here somewhere.”

“He’s engaged,” answered Hilda in a low voice, with the devotee’s instinct to surround her superior with mystery.

“Oh!” murmured Janet, checked.

Hilda wondered furiously what she could be wanting with Mr. Cannon.

Janet recommenced: “It’s really about Miss Gailey, you know.”

“Yes — what?”

Hilda nodded eagerly, speaking in a tone still lower and more careful.

Janet dropped her voice accordingly: “She’s Mr. Cannon’s sister, of course?”

“Half-sister.”

“I mean. I’ve just come away from seeing her.” She hesitated. “I only heard by accident. So I came over with father. He had to come to a meeting of the Guardians here, or something. They’ve quarrelled, haven’t they?”

“Who? Miss Gailey and Mr. Cannon? Well, you see, she quarrels with every one.” Hilda appeared to defend Mr. Cannon.

“I’m afraid she does, poor thing!”

“She quarrelled with mother.”

“Really! when was that?”

“Oh! Years and years ago! I don’t know when. I was always surprised mother let me go to the class.”

“It was very nice of your mother,” said Janet, appreciative.

“Is she in trouble?” Hilda asked bluntly.

“I’m afraid she is.”

“What?”

Janet suddenly gave a gesture of intimacy. “I believe she’s starving!”

“Starving!” Hilda repeated in a blank whisper.

“Yes, I do! I do really believe she hasn’t got enough to eat. She’s quarrelled with just about everybody there was to quarrel with. She suffers fearfully with rheumatism. She never goes out — or scarcely ever. You know her dancing-classes have all fallen away to nothing. I fancy she tried taking lodgers —”

“Yes, she did. I understood she was very good at housekeeping.”

“She hasn’t got any lodgers now. There she is, all alone in that house, and —”

“But she can’t be starving!” Hilda protested. At intervals she glanced at the inner door, alarmed.

“I really think she is,” Janet persisted, softly persuasive.

“But what’s to be done?”

“That’s the point. I’ve just seen her. I went on purpose, because I’d heard. . . . But I had to pretend all sorts of things to make an excuse for myself. I couldn’t offer her anything, could I? Isn’t it dreadful?”

They were much worried, these two young maids, full of health and vigour and faith, and pride and simplicity, by this startling first glimpse into one of the nether realities of existence. And they loyally tried to feel more worried than they actually were; they did their best, out of sympathy, to moderate the leaping, joyous vitality that was in them — and did not succeed very well. They were fine, they were touching — but they were also rather deliciously amusing — as they concentrated all their resources of solemnity and of worldly experience on the tragic case of the woman whom life had defeated. Hilda’s memory rushed strangely to Victor Hugo. She was experiencing the same utter desolation — but somehow less noble — as had gripped her when she first realized the eternal picture, in Oceana Nox, of the pale-fronted widows who, tired of waiting for those whose barque had never returned out of the tempest, talked quietly among themselves of the lost — stirring the cinders in the fireplace and in their hearts. . . . Yet Sarah Gailey was not even a widow. She was an ageing dancing-mistress. She had once taught the grace of rhythmic movement to young limbs; and now she was rheumatic.

“Nobody but Mr. Cannon can do anything,” Janet murmured.

“I’m sure he hasn’t the slightest idea — not the slightest!” said Hilda half defensively. But she was saying to herself: “This man made me write a lie, and now I hear that his sister is starving — in the same town!” And she thought of his glossy opulence. “I’m quite sure of that!” she repeated to Janet.

“Oh! So am I!” Janet eagerly concurred. “That’s why I came. . . . Somebody had to give him a hint. . . . I never dreamt of finding you, dear!”

“It is strange, isn’t it?” said Hilda, the wondrous romance of things seizing her. Seen afresh, through the eyes of this charming, sympathetic acquaintance, was not Mr. Cannon’s originality in engaging her positively astounding?

“I suppose you couldn’t give him a hint?”

“Yes, I’ll tell him,” said Hilda. “Of course!” In spite of herself she was assuming a certain proprietorship in Mr. Cannon.

“I’m so glad!” Janet replied. “It is good of you!”

“It seems to me it’s you that’s good, Janet,” Hilda said grimly. She thought: “Should I, out of simple kindliness and charity, have deliberately come to tell a man I didn’t know . . . that his sister was starving? Never!”

“He’s bound to see after it!” said Janet, content.

“Why, of course!” said Hilda, clinching the affair, in an intimate, confidential murmur.

“You’ll tell him to-night?”

Hilda nodded.

They exchanged a grave glance of mutual appreciation and understanding. Each was sure of the other’s high esteem. Each was glad that chance had brought about the meeting between them. Then they lifted away their apprehensive solicitude for Sarah Gailey, and Janet, having sighed relief, began to talk about old times. And their voices grew louder and more free.

“Can you tell me what time it is?” Janet asked, later. “I’ve broken the spring of my watch, and I have to meet father at the station at ten-fifteen.”

“I haven’t a notion!” said Hilda, rather ashamed.

“I hope it isn’t ten o’clock.”

“I could ask,” said Hilda hesitatingly. The hour, for aught she knew, was nine, eleven, or even midnight. She was oblivious of time.

“I’ll run,” said Janet, preparing to go. “I shall tell Charlie I’ve seen you, next time I write to him. I’m sure he’ll be glad. And you must come to see us. You really must, now! Mother and father will be delighted. Do you still recite, like you used to?”

Hilda shook her head, blushing.

She made no definite response to the invitation, which surprised, agitated, and flattered her. She wanted to accept it, but she was convinced that she never would accept it. Before departing, Janet lifted her veil, with a beautiful gesture, and offered her lips to kiss. They embraced affectionately. The next moment Hilda, at the top of the dim, naked, resounding stair, was watching Janet descend — a figure infinitely stylish and agreeable to the eye.

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