Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 1

Sin

i

From her bed Hilda could see the trees waving in the wind. Every morning she had thus watched them, without interest. At first the branches had been utterly bare, and beyond their reticulation had been visible the rosy façade of a new Board-school. But now the branches were rich with leafage, hiding most of the Board-school, so that only a large upper window of it could be seen. This window, upon which the sun glinted dazzlingly, threw back the rays on to Hilda’s bed, giving her for a few moments the illusion of direct sunlight. The hour was eleven o’clock. On the night-table lay a tea-tray in disorder, and on the turned-down sheet some crumbs of toast. A low, nervous tap at the door caused Hilda to stir in the bed. Sarah Gailey entered hurriedly. In her bony yellowed hand she held a collection of tradesmen’s account-books.

“Good morning, dear, how are you?” she asked, bending awkwardly over the bed. In the same instant she looked askance at the tray.

“I’m all right, thanks,” said Hilda lazily, observing the ceiling.

“You haven’t been too cold without the eiderdown? I forgot to ask you before. You know I only took it off because I thought the weather was getting too warm. . . . I didn’t want it for another bed. I assure you it’s in the chest of drawers in my room.” Sarah Gailey added the last words as if supplicating to be believed.

“You needn’t tell me that,” said Hilda. She was not angry, but bored, by this characteristic remark of Miss Gailey’s. In three months she had learnt a great deal about the new landlady of the Cedars, that strange neurotic compound of ability, devotion, thin-skinned vanity, and sheer, narrow stupidity. “I’ve been quite warm enough,” Hilda added as quickly as she could, lest Miss Gailey might have time to convince herself to the contrary.

“And the toast? I do hope — after all I’ve said to that Hettie about —”

“You see I’ve eaten it all,” Hilda interrupted her, pointing to the plate.

Their faces were close together; they exchanged a sad smile. Miss Gailey was still bending over her, anxiously, as over a child. Yet neither the ageing and worn woman nor the flaccid girl felt the difference between them in age. Nor was Hilda in any ordinary sense ill. The explanation of Miss Gailey’s yearning attitude lay in an exaggerated idea of her duty to Hilda, whose mother’s death had been the result of an act of friendliness to her. If Mrs. Lessways had not come to London in order to keep company with Sarah, she might — she would, under Providence — have been alive and well that day; such was Sarah’s reasoning, which by the way ignored certain statements of the doctor. Sarah would never forgive herself. But she sought, by an infatuated devotion, to earn the forgiveness of Caroline’s daughter. Her attentions might have infuriated an earlier Hilda, or at least have been met with disdain only half concealed. But on the present actual Hilda they produced simply no effect of any kind. The actual Hilda, living far within the mysterious fastness of her own being, was too solitary, too preoccupied, and too fatigued, to be touched even by the noble beauty that distinguished the expiatory and protective gesture of the spinster, otherwise somewhat ludicrous, as she leaned across the bed and cut off the sunshine.

ii

On the morning of her mother’s funeral, Hilda had gone to Hornsey Station to meet an uncle of Mrs. Lessways, who was coming down from Scotland by the night-train. She scarcely knew him, but he was to be recognizable by his hat and his muffler, and she was to await him at the ticket-gate. An entirely foolish and unnecessary arrangement, contrived by a peculiar old man: the only possible course was to accept it.

She had waited over half an hour, between eight and nine, and in that time she had had full opportunity to understand why those suburban stations had been built so large. A dark torrent of human beings, chiefly men, gathered out of all the streets of the vicinity, had dashed unceasingly into the enclosure and covered the long platforms with tramping feet. Every few minutes a train rolled in, as if from some inexhaustible magazine of trains beyond the horizon, and, sucking into itself a multitude and departing again, left one platform for one moment empty — and the next moment the platform was once more filled by the quenchless stream. Less frequently, but still often, other trains thundered through the station on a line removed from platforms, and these trains too were crammed with dark human beings, frowning in study over white newspapers. For even in 1880 the descent upon London from the suburbs was a formidable phenomenon. Train after train fled downwards with its freight towards the hidden city, and the torrent still surged, more rapid than ever, through the narrow gullet of the station. It was like the flight of some enormous and excited population from a country menaced with disaster.

Borne on and buffeted by the torrent, Hilda had seen a well-dressed epileptic youth, in charge of an elderly woman, approaching the station. He had passed slowly close by her, as she modestly waited in her hasty mourning, and she had had a fearful vision of his idiotic greenish face supported somehow like a mask at the summit of that shaky structure of limbs. He had indeed stared at her with his apelike eyes. She had watched him, almost shuddering, till he was lost amid the heedless crowd within. Then, without waiting longer for her relative, without reflecting upon what she did, she had walked tremblingly back to the Cedars, checked by tributaries of the torrent at every street corner. . . .

She had known nothing of the funeral. She had not had speech with the relative. She was in bed, somehow. The day had elapsed. And in the following night, when she was alone and quite awake, she had become aware that she, she herself, was that epileptic shape; that that epileptic shape was lying in her bed and that there was none other in the bed. Nor was this a fancy of madness! She knew that she was not mad, that she was utterly sane; and the conviction of sanity only intensified her awful discovery. She passed a trembling hand over her face, and felt the skin corrupt and green. Gazing into the darkness, she knew that her stare was apelike. She had felt, then, the fullest significance of horror. In the morning she had ceased to be the epileptic shape, but the risk of retransformation had hovered near her, and the intimidation of it was such that she had wept, aghast and broken as much by the future as by the past. She had been discovered weeping. . . .

Later, the phrase ‘nervous breakdown’ had lodged in her confused memory. The doctor had been very matter-of-fact, logical, and soothing. Overwork, strain, loss of sleep, the journey, anxiety, lack of food, the supreme shock, the obstinate refusal of youth to succumb, and then the sudden sight of the epileptic (with whom the doctor was acquainted): thus had run the medical reasoning, after a discreet but thorough cross-examination of her; and it had seemed so plausible and so convincing that the doctor’s pride in it was plain on his optimistic face as he gave the command: “Absolute repose.” But to Hilda the reasoning and the resultant phrase, ‘nervous breakdown,’ had meant nothing at all. Words! Empty words! She knew, profoundly and fatally, the evil principle which had conquered her so completely that she had no power left with which to fight it. This evil principle was Sin; it was not the force of sins, however multifarious; it was Sin itself. She was the Sinner, convicted and self-convicted. One of the last intelligent victims of a malady which has now almost passed away from the civilized earth, she existed in the chill and stricken desolation of incommutable doom.

iii

She had sinned against her mother, and she could not make amends. The mere thought of her mother, so vivacious, cheerful, life-loving, even-tempered, charitable, disorderly, incompetent, foolish, and yet shrewd, caused pain of such intensity that it ceased to be pain. She ought to have seen her mother before she died; she might have seen her, had she done what was obviously her duty. It was inconceivable to her, now, that she should have hesitated to fly instantly to London on receipt of the telegram. But she had hesitated, and her mother had expired without having sight of her. All exculpatory arguments were futile against the fact itself. In vain she blamed the wording of the telegram! In vain she tried to reason that chance, and not herself, was the evil-doer! In vain she invoked the aid of simple common sense against sentimental fancy! In vain she went over the events of the afternoon preceding the death, in order to prove that at no moment had she been aware of not acting in accordance with her conscience! The whole of her conduct had been against her conscience, but pride and selfishness had made her deaf to conscience. She was the Sinner.

Her despair, except when at intervals she became the loathed epileptic shape, had been calm. Its symptoms had been, and remained, a complete lack of energy, and a most extraordinary black indifference to the surrounding world. Save in the deep centre of her soul, where she agonized, she seemed to have lost all capacity for emotion. Nothing moved her, or even interested her. She sat in the house, and ate a little, and talked a little, like an automaton. She walked about the streets like a bored exile, but an exile who has forgotten his home. Her spirit never responded to the stimulus of environment. Suggestions at once lost their tonic force in the woolly cushion of her apathy. If she continued to live, it was by inertia; to cease from life would have required an effort. She did not regret the vocation which she had abandoned; she felt no curiosity about the fortunes of the newspaper. A tragic nonchalance held her.

After several weeks she had naturally begun to think of religion; for the malady alone was proof enough that she had a profoundly religious nature. Miss Gailey could rarely go to church, but one Sunday morning — doubtless with intent — she asked Hilda if they should go together, and Hilda agreed. As they approached the large, high-spired church, Hilda had vague prickings of hope, and was thereby much astonished. But the service in no way responded to her expectations. “How silly I am!” she thought disdainfully. “This sort of thing has never moved me before. Why should it move me now?” The sermon, evangelical, was upon the Creed, and the preacher explained the emotional quality of real belief. It was a goodish sermon. But the preacher had effectually stopped the very last of those exquisite vague prickings of hope. Hilda agreed with his definition of real belief, and she knew that real belief was impossible for her. She could never say, with joyous fervour: “I believe!” At best she could only assert that she did not disbelieve — and was she so sure even of that? No! Belief had been denied to her; and to dream of consolation from religion was sentimentally womanish; even in her indifference she preferred straightforward, honest damnation to the soft self-deceptions of feminine religiosity. Ah! If she could have been a Roman Catholic, genuine and convinced — with what ardour would she have cast herself down before the confessional, and whispered her sinfulness to the mysterious face within; and with what ecstasy would she have received the absolution — that cleansing bath of the soul! Then — she could have recommenced! . . . But she was not a Roman Catholic. She could no more become a Roman Catholic than she could become the queen of some romantic Latin country of palaces and cathedrals. She was a young provincial girl staying in a boarding-house at Hornsey, on the Great Northern line out of London, and she was suffering from nervous breakdown. Such was the exterior common sense of the situation.

Occasionally the memory of some verse of Victor Hugo, sounding the beat of one of his vast melancholies, would float through her mind and cause it to vibrate for an instant with a mournful sensation that resembled pleasure.

iv

“Are you thinking of getting up, dear?” asked Sarah Gailey, as she arranged more securely the contents of the tray and found space on it for her weekly books.

“Yes, I suppose I may as well,” Hilda murmured. “It’ll be lunch-time soon.” The days were long, yet somehow they seemed short too. Already before getting up, she would begin to think of the evening and of going to bed; and Saturday night followed quickly on Monday morning. It was scarcely credible that sixteen weeks had passed, thus, since her mother’s death — sixteen weeks whose retrospect showed no achievement of any kind, and hardly a desire.

“I’ve given those Boutwoods notice,” said Sarah Gailey suddenly, the tray in her hands ready to lift.

“Not really?”

“They were shockingly late for breakfast again, this morning, both of them. And Mr. Boutwood had the face to ask for another egg. Hettie came and told me, so I went in myself. I told him breakfast was served in my house at nine o’clock, and there was a notice to that effect in the bedrooms, not to mention the dining-room. And as good a breakfast as they’d get in any of their hotels, I lay! If the eggs are cold at ten o’clock and after, that’s not my fault. They’re both of them perfectly healthy, and yet they’re bone-idle. They never want to go to bed and they never want to get up. It isn’t as if they went to theatres and got home late and so on. I could make excuses for that — now and then. No! It’s just idleness and carelessness. And if you saw their bedroom! Oh, my! A nice example to servants! Well, he was very insulting — most insulting. He said he paid me to give him not what I wanted, but what he wanted! He said if I went into a shop, and they began to tell me what I ought to want and when I ought to want it, I should be annoyed. I said I didn’t need anyone to tell me that, I said! And my house wasn’t a shop. He said it was a shop, and if it wasn’t, it ought to be! Can you imagine it?”

Hilda tried to exhibit a tepid sympathy. Miss Gailey’s nostrils were twitching, and the tears stood in those watery eyes. She could manage the house. By the exertion of all her powers and her force she had made of herself an exceptionally efficient mistress. But she could not manage the boarders, because she had not sufficient imagination to put herself in their place. Presiding over all her secret thoughts was the axiom that the Cedars was a perfect machine, and that the least that a grateful boarder could do was to fit into the machine.

“And so you said they could go?”

“That I did! And I’ll tell you another thing, my dear, I—”

There was a knock at the door. Sarah Gailey stopped in her confidences like a caught conspirator, and opened the door. Hettie stood on the mat — the Hettie who despite frequent protests would leave Hilda’s toast to cool into leather on the landing somewhere between the kitchen and the bedroom. In Hettie’s hand was a telegram, which Miss Gailey accepted.

“Here, take the tray, Hettie,” said she, nervously tearing at the envelope. “Put these books in my desk,” she added.

“And I wonder what he’ll say!” she observed, staring absently at the opened telegram, after Hettie had gone.

“Who?”

“George. He says he’ll be up here for lunch. He’s bound to be vexed about the Boutwoods. But he doesn’t understand. Men don’t, you know! They don’t understand the strain it is on you.” The appeal of her eyes was strangely pathetic.

Hilda said:

“I don’t think I shall get up for lunch today.”

Sarah Gailey moved to the bed, forgetting her own trouble.

“You aren’t so well, then, after all!” she muttered, with mournful commiseration. “But, you know, he’ll have to see you, this time. He wants to.”

“But why?”

“Your affairs, I suppose. He says so. ‘Coming lunch one. Must see Hilda. — George.’”

Sarah Gailey offered the telegram. But Hilda could not bear to take it. This telegram was the first she had set eyes on since the telegram handed to her by Florrie in George Cannon’s office. The mere sight of the salmon-tinted paper agitated her. “Is it possible that I can be so silly?” she thought, “over a bit of paper!” But so it was.

On a previous visit of George Cannon’s to Hornsey she had kept her bed throughout the day, afraid to meet him, ashamed to meet him, inexplicably convinced that to meet him would be a crime against filial piety. There were obscure grottoes in her soul which she had not had the courage to explore candidly.

“I think,” said Sarah Gailey, reflective and anxious, “I think if you could get up, it would be nicer than him seeing you here in bed.”

Hilda perceived that at last she would be compelled to face George Cannon.

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