Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 9

In the Street

i

A few minutes later, just as Hilda had sealed up the last of the letters, Mr. Cannon issued somewhat hurriedly out of the inner room, buttoning his overcoat at the neck.

“Good night,” he said, and took his stick from the corner where he had placed it.

“Mr. Cannon!”

“Well?”

“I wanted to speak to you.”

“What is it? I’m in a hurry.”

She glanced at the inner door, which he had left open. From beyond that door came the voices of Arthur Dayson and the old clerk; Hilda lacked the courage to cross the length of the room and deliberately close it, and though Mr. Cannon did not seem inclined to move, his eyes followed the direction of hers and he must have divined her embarrassment. She knew not what to do. A crisis seemed to rise up monstrous between them, in an instant. She was trembling, and in acute trouble.

“It’s rather important,” she said timidly, but not without an unintentional violence.

“Well, tomorrow afternoon.”

He, too, was apparently in a fractious state. The situation was perhaps perilous. But she could not allow her conduct to be influenced by danger or difficulty, which indeed nearly always had the effect of confirming her purpose. If something had to be done, it had to be done — and let that suffice! He waited, impatient, for her to agree and allow him to go.

“No,” she answered, with positive resentment in her clear voice. “I must speak to you to-night. It’s very important.”

He made with his tongue an inarticulate noise of controlled exasperation.

“If you’ve finished, put your things on and walk along with me,” he said.

She hurried to obey, and overtook him as he slowly descended the lower flight of stairs. She had buttoned her jacket and knotted her thick scarf, and now, with the letters pressed tightly under her arm lest they should fall, she was pulling on her gloves.

“I have an appointment at the Saracen’s,” he said mildly, meaning the Saracen’s Head — the central rendezvous of the town, where Conservative and Liberal met on neutral ground.

ii

He turned to the left, toward the High Street and the great cleared space out of which the cellarage of the new Town Hall had already been scooped. He carried his thick gloves in his white and elegant hand, as one who did not feel the frost. She stepped after him. Their breaths whitened the keen air. She was extremely afraid, and considered herself an abject coward, but she was determined to the point of desperation. He ought to know the truth and he ought to know it at once: nothing else mattered. She reflected in her terror: “If I don’t begin right off, he will be asking me to begin, and that will be worse than ever.” She was like one who, having boastfully undertaken to plunge into deep, cold water from a height, has climbed to the height, and measured the fearful distance, and is sick, and dares not leap, but knows that he must leap.

“I suppose you know Miss Gailey is practically starving,” she said abruptly, harshly, staring at the gutter.

She had leapt. Life seemed to leave her. She had not intended to use such words, nor such a tone. She certainly did not suppose that he knew about Miss Gailey’s condition. She had affirmed to Janet Orgreave her absolute assurance that he did not know. As for the tone, it was accusing, it was brutal, it was full of the unconscious and terrible clumsy cruelty of youth.

“What?” His head moved sharply sideways, to look at her.

“Miss Gailey — she’s starving, it seems!” Hilda said timidly now, almost apologetically. “I felt sure you didn’t know. I thought some one should tell you.”

“What do you mean — starving?” he asked gruffly.

“Not enough to eat,” she replied, with the direct simplicity of a child.

“And how did this tale get about?”

“It’s true,” she said. “I was told to-night.”

“Who told you?”

“A friend of mine — who’s seen her!”

“But who?”

“It wouldn’t be right for me to tell you who.”

They walked on in an appalling silence to the corner of the Square and the High Street.

“Here’s the letter-box,” he said, stopping.

She dropped the letters with nervous haste into the box. Then she looked up at him appealingly. In the brightness of the starry night she saw that his face had a sardonic, meditative smile. The middle part of the lower lip was pushed out, while the corners were pulled down — an expression of scornful disgust. She burst out:

“Of course, I know very well it’s not your fault. I know, if you’d known . . . but what with her never seeing you, and perhaps people not caring to —”

“I’m very much obliged to you,” he interrupted her quietly, still meditative. He was evidently sincere. His attitude was dignified. Many men would have been ashamed, humiliated, even though aware of innocence. But he contrived to rise above such weakness. She was glad; she admired him. And she was very glad also that he did not deign to asseverate that he had been ignorant of his half-sister’s plight. Naturally he had been ignorant!

iii

She was suddenly happy; she was inspired by an unreasoning joy. She was happy because she was so young and fragile and inexperienced, and he so much older, and more powerful and more capable. She was happy because she was a mere girl and he a mature and important male. She thought their relation in that moment exquisitely beautiful. She was happy because she had been exceedingly afraid and the fear had gone. The dark Square and far-stretching streets lay placid and void under the night, surrounding their silence in a larger silence: and because of that also she was happy. A policeman with his arms hidden under his cloak marched unhasting downwards from the direction of the Bank.

“Fine night, officer,” said Mr. Cannon cordially.

“Yes, sir. Good night, sir,” the policeman responded, with respect and sturdy self-respect, his footsteps ringing onwards.

And the sight and bearing of this hardy, frost-defying policeman watching over the town, and the greetings between him and Mr. Cannon — these too seemed strangely beautiful to Hilda. And then a train reverberated along its embankment in the distance, and the gliding procession of yellow windows was divided at regular intervals by the black silhouettes of the scaffolding-poles of the new Town Hall. Beautiful! She was filled with a delicious sadness. It was Janet’s train. In some first-class compartment Janet and her father were shut together, side by side, intimate, mutually understanding. Again, a beautiful relation! From the summit of a high kiln in the middle distance, flames shot intermittently forth, formidable. Crockery was being fired in the night: and unseen the fireman somewhere flitted about the mouths of the kiln. And here and there in the dim faces of the streets a window shone golden . . . there were living people behind the blind! It was all beautiful, joy-giving. The thought of her mother fidgeting for her return home was delightful. The thought of Mr. Cannon and Miss Gailey, separated during many years, and now destined to some kind of reconciliation was indescribably touching, and beautiful in a way that she could not define.

“I was only thinking the other day,” said Mr. Cannon, treating her as an equal in years and wisdom —“I was only thinking I’d got the very thing for my half-sister — the very opening for her — a chance in a thousand, if only she’d . . . ” It was unnecessary for him to finish the sentence.

“And is it too late now?” Hilda asked eagerly.

“No,” he said. “It isn’t too late. I shall go round and see her tomorrow morning first thing. It wouldn’t do for me to go to-night — you see — might seem too odd.”

“Yes,” Hilda murmured. “Well, good night.”

They separated. She knew that he was profoundly stirred. Nevertheless, he had inquired for no further details concerning Miss Gailey. He was too proud, and beneath his inflexibility too sensitive, to do so. He meant to discover the truth for himself. He had believed — that was the essential. His behaviour had been superb. The lying letter to Ezra Brunt was a mere peccadillo, even if it was that, even if it was not actually virtuous.

She walked off rapidly, trying to imitate the fine, free, calmly defiant bearing of Mr. Cannon and the policeman.

iv

“Florrie gone to bed?” she asked briskly of her mother, who was fussing about her in the parlour, pretending to be fretful, but secretly enchanted to welcome her, with a warm fire and plenteous food, back again into the house. And Hilda, too, was enchanted at her reception.

“Florrie gone to bed? I should just think Florrie has gone to bed. Half-past ten and after! Eh my! This going out after tea. I never heard of such doings. Now do warm your feet.”

“I should have been home sooner, only something happened,” said Hilda.

“Oh!” Mrs. Lessways exclaimed indifferently. She had in fact no curiosity as to the affairs of Dayson and Company. The sole thing that interested her was Hilda’s daily absence and daily return. She seemed quite content to remain in ignorance of what Hilda did in the mysterious office. Her conversation, profuse when she was in good spirits, rarely went beyond the trifling separate events of existence personal and domestic — the life of the house hour by hour and minute by minute. It was often astounding to Hilda that her mother never showed any sign of being weary of these topics, nor any desire to discover other topics.

“Yes,” said Hilda. “Miss Gailey —”

Mrs. Lessways became instantly a different creature.

“And does he know?” she asked blankly, when Hilda had informed her of Janet’s visit and news.

“Yes. I told him — of course.”

“You?”

“Well, somebody had to tell him,” said Hilda, with an affectation of carelessness. “So I told him myself.”

“And how did he take it?”

“Well, how should he take it?” Hilda retorted largely. “He had to take it! He was much obliged, and he said so.”

Mrs. Lessways began to weep.

“What ever’s the matter?”

“I was only thinking of poor Sarah!” Mrs. Lessways answered the implied rebuke of Hilda’s brusque question. “I shall go and see her tomorrow morning.”

“But, mother, don’t you think you’d better wait?”

Mrs. Lessways spoke up resolutely: “I shall go and see Sarah Gailey tomorrow morning, and let that be understood! I don’t need my daughter to teach me when I ought to go and see my friends and when I oughtn’t. . . . I knew Sarah Gailey before your Mr. Cannon was born.”

“Oh, very well! Very well!” Hilda soothed her lightly.

“I shall tell Sarah Gailey she’s got to reckon with me, whether she wants to or not! That’s what I shall tell Sarah Gailey!” Mrs. Lessways wiped her eyes.

“Mother,” Hilda asked, when they had gone upstairs, “did you wind the clock?”

“I don’t think I did,” answered the culprit uncertainly from her bedroom door.

“Mother, how tiresome you are! Night before last you wouldn’t let me touch it. You said you preferred to do it yourself. And now I shall be waiting for it to strike tomorrow morning, to get up — lend me that candle, do!”

She tripped down to the lobby gladly, and opened the big door of the clock, and put her hand into the dark cavity and, grimacing, hauled up the heavy weights. This forgetfulness of her mother’s somehow increased her extraordinary satisfaction with life. She remounted the shadowy stairs on the wings of a pure and ingenuous elation.

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