Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 2

The Little Room

i

After lunch Sarah Gailey left Hilda and Mr. Cannon in ‘the little room’ together.

‘The little room’— about eight feet square — had no other name; it was always spoken of affectionately by the boarders, and by the landlady with pride in its coziness. Situated on the first floor, over the front part of the hall, it lay between the two principal bedrooms. Old boarders would discover the little room to new boarders, or new boarders would discover it for themselves, with immense satisfaction. It was the chamber of intimacy and of confidences; it was a refuge from the public life of the Cedars, and, to a certain extent, from the piano. Two women, newly acquainted, and feeling a mutual attraction, would say to each other: “Shall we go up to the little room?” “Oh yes, do let us!” And they would climb the stairs in a fever of anticipation. “Quite the most charming room in the house, dear Miss Gailey!” another simpering spinster would say. Yet it contained nothing but an old carpet, two wicker arm-chairs, a small chair, a nearly empty dwarf bookcase, an engraving of Marie Antoinette regally facing the revolutionary mob, and a couple of photographs of the Cedars.

Hilda sat down in one of the arm-chairs, and George Cannon in the other; he had a small black bag which he placed on the floor by his side. Hilda’s diffidence was extreme. Throughout lunch she had scarcely spoken; but as there had been eight people at the table, and George Cannon had chatted with all of them, her taciturnity had passed inconspicuous. Now she would be obliged to talk. And the sensations which she had experienced on first meeting George Cannon in the dining-room were renewed in a form even more acute.

She had, in the first place, the self-consciousness due to her mourning attire, which drew attention to herself; it might have been a compromising uniform; and the mere fact of her mother’s death — quite apart from the question of her conduct in relation thereto — gave her, in an interview with a person whom she had not seen since before the death, a feeling akin to guiltiness — guiltiness of some misdemeanour of taste, some infraction of the social law against notoriety. She felt, in her mourning, like one who is being led publicly by policemen to the police-station. In her fancy she could hear people saying: “Look at that girl in deep mourning,” and she could see herself blushing, as it were apologetic.

But much worse than this general mortification in presence of an acquaintance seen after a long interval was the special constraint due to the identity of the acquaintance. It was with George Cannon that she had first deceived and plotted against her ingenuous mother’s hasty plans. It was her loyalty to George Cannon that had been the cause of her inexplicable disloyalty to her mother. She could not recall her peculiar and delicious agitations during the final moments of her previous interview with Cannon — that night of February in the newspaper office, while her mother was dying in London — without a profound unreasoning shame which intensified most painfully her natural grief as an orphan.

There was this to be said: she was now disturbed out of her torpid indifference to her environment. As she fidgeted there, pale and frowning, in the noisy basket-chair, beneath George Cannon’s eyes, she actually perceived again that romantic quality of existence which had always so powerfully presented itself to her in the past. She reflected: “How strange that the dreaded scene has now actually begun! He has come to London, and here we are together, in this house, which at the beginning of the year was nothing but a name to me! And mother is away there in the churchyard, and I am in black! And it is all due to him. He sent Miss Gailey and mother to London. He willed it! . . . No! It is all due to me! I went to see him one late afternoon. I sought him out. He didn’t seek me out. And just because I went to see him one afternoon, mother is dead, and I am here! Strange!” These reflections were dimly beautiful to her, even in her sadness and in her acute distress. The coma had assuredly passed, if only for a space.

ii

“Well, now,” he said, after a few inanities had been succeeded by an awkward pause. “I’ve got to talk business with you, so I suppose we may as well begin, eh?” His tone was fairly blithe, but it was that of a man who was throwing off with powerful ease the weariness of somewhat exasperating annoyances. Since lunch he had had a brief interview with Sarah Gailey.

“Yes,” she agreed glumly.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do?” He began to smile sympathetically as he spoke.

“I’m not going back to the paper,” she curtly answered, cutting short the smile with fierceness, almost with ferocity. Beyond question she was rude in her bitterness. She asked herself: “Why do I talk like this? Why can’t I talk naturally and gently and cheerfully? I’ve really got nothing against him.” But she could not talk otherwise than she did talk. It was by this symptom of biting acrimony that her agitation showed itself. She knew that she was scowling as she looked at the opposite wall, but she could not smooth away the scowl.

“No, I suppose not,” he said quietly. “But are you thinking of coming back to Turnhill?”

She remained mute for some seconds. A feeling of desolation came over her, and it seemed to her that she welcomed it, trying to intensify it, and yielding her features to it. “How do I know?” she muttered at length, shrugging her shoulders.

“Because if you aren’t,” he resumed, “it’s no use you keeping that house of yours empty. You must remember it’s just as you left it; and the things in it aren’t taking any good, either.”

She shrugged her shoulders again.

“I don’t see that it matters to anybody but me,” she said, after another pause, with a sort of frigid and disdainful nonchalance. And once more she reflected: “Is it possible that I can behave so odiously?”

He stood up suddenly.

“I don’t know what you and Sarah have been plotting together,” he said, wounded and contemptuous, yet with lightness. “But I’m sure I don’t want to interfere in your affairs. With Sarah’s I’ve got to interfere, unfortunately, and a famous time I’m having!” His nostrils grew fastidious. “But not yours! I only promised your uncle. . . . Your uncle told me you wanted me to —” He broke off.

In an instant she grew confused, alarmed, and extremely ashamed. Her mood had changed in a flash. It seemed to her that she was in presence of a disgraceful disaster, which she herself had brought about by wicked and irresponsible temerity. She was like a child who, having naughtily trifled with danger, stands aghast at the calamity which his perverseness has caused. She was positively affrighted. She reflected in her terror: “I asked for this, and I’ve got it!”

George Cannon stooped and picked up his little bag. There he towered, high and massive, above her! And she felt acutely her slightness, her girlishness, and her need of his help. She could not afford to transform sympathy into antipathy. She was alone in the world. Never before had she realized, as she realized then, the lurking terror of her loneliness. The moment was critical. In another moment he might be gone from the room, and she left solitary to irremediable humiliation and self-disgust.

“Please!” she whispered appealingly. The whole of her being became an appeal — the glance, the gesture, the curve of the slim and fragile body. She was like a slave. She had no pride, no secret reserve of thought. She was an instinct. Tears showed in her eyes and affected her voice.

He gave the twisted, difficult, rather foolish smile of one who is cursing the mortification of a predicament into which he has been cast through no fault of his own.

“Please what?”

“Please sit down.”

He waved a hand, deprecatingly, and obeyed.

“It’s all right,” he said. “All right! I ought to have known —” Then he smiled generously.

“Known what?” Her voice was now weak and liquid with woe.

“You’d be likely to be upset.”

Not furtively, but openly, she wiped her eyes.

“No, no!” she protested honestly. “It’s not that. It’s — but — I’m very sorry.”

“I reckon I know a bit what worry is, myself!” he added, with a brief, almost harsh, laugh.

These strange words struck her with pity.

iii

“Well, now,”— he seemed to be beginning again — let’s leave Lessways Street for a minute. . . . I can sell the Calder Street property for you, if you like. And at a pretty good price. Sooner or later the town will have to buy up all that side of the street. You remember I told your mother last year but one I could get a customer for it? but she wasn’t having any.”

“Yes,” said Hilda eagerly; “I remember.”

In her heart she apologized to George Cannon, once more, for having allowed her mother to persuade her, even for a day, that that attempt to buy was merely a trick on his part invented to open negotiations for the rent-collecting.

“You know what the net rents are,” he went on, “as you’ve had ’em every month. I dare say the purchase money if it’s carefully invested will bring you in as much. But even if it doesn’t bring in quite as much, you mustn’t forget that Calder Street’s going down — it’s getting more and more of a slum. And there’ll always be a lot of bother with tenants of that class.”

“I wish I could sell everything — everything!” she exclaimed passionately. “Lessways Street as well! Then I should be absolutely free!”

“You can!” he said, with dramatic emphasis. “And let me tell you that ten years hence those Lessways Street houses won’t be worth what they are now!”

“Is that property going down, too?” she asked. “I thought they were building all round there.”

“So they are,” he answered. “But cheap cottages. Your houses are too good for that part of the town; that’s what’s the matter with them. People who can afford £25 a year — and over — for rent won’t care to live there much longer. You know the end house is empty.”

All houses seemed to her to be a singularly insecure and even perilous form of property. And the sale of everything she possessed presented itself to her fancy as a transaction which would enfranchise her from the past. It symbolized the starting-point of a new life, of a recommencement unhampered by the vestiges of grief and error. She could go anywhere, do what she chose. The entire world would lie before her.

“Please do sell it all for me!” she pleaded wistfully. “Supposing you could, about how much should I have — I mean income?”

He glanced about, and then, taking a pencil from his waistcoat pocket, scribbled a few figures on his cuff.

“Quite three pounds a week,” he said.

iv

After a perfunctory discussion, which was somewhat self-consciously prolonged by both of them in order to avoid an appearance of hastiness in an important decision, George Cannon opened his black bag and then looked round for ink. The little room, having no table, had no inkpot, and the lawyer took from his pocket an Eagle indelible pencil — the fountain-pen of those simple days. It needed some adjustment; he stepped closer to the window, and held the pointed end of the case up to the light, while screwing the lower end; he was very fastidious in these mechanical details of his vocation. Hilda watched him from behind, with an intentness that fascinated herself.

“And how’s the Chronicle getting on?” she asked, in a tone of friendly curiosity which gave an exaggerated impression of her actual feeling. She was more and more ashamed that during lunch she had not troubled to put a question about the paper. She was even ashamed of her social indifference. That Sarah Gailey, narrow and preoccupied, should be indifferent, should never once in three months have referred to her brother’s organ, was not surprising; but it was monstrous that she, Hilda, the secretary, the priestess, should share this uncivil apathy; and it was unjust to mark the newspaper, as somehow she had been doing, with the stigma of her mother’s death. She actually began to characterize her recent mental attitude to her past life as morbid.

“Oh!” he murmured absently, with gloomy hesitation, as he manipulated the pencil.

She went on still more persuasively:

“I suppose you’ve got a new secretary?”

“No,” he said, as though it fatigued and annoyed him to dwell on the subject. “I told ’em they must manage without. . . . It’s no fun starting a new paper in a God-forsaken hole like the Five Towns, I can tell you.”

Plainly his high exuberant hopes had been dashed, had perhaps been destroyed.

She did not reply. She could not. She became suddenly sad with sympathy, and this sadness was beautiful to her. Already, when he was scribbling on it, she had noticed that his wristband was frayed. Now, silhouetted against the window, the edge of the wristband caught her attention again, and grew strangely significant. This man was passing through adversity! It seemed tragic and shocking to her that he should have to pass through adversity, that he could not remain for ever triumphant, brilliant, cocksure in all his grand schemes, and masculinely scathless. It seemed wrong to her that he should suffer, and desirable that anybody should suffer rather than he. George Cannon with faulty linen! By what error of destiny had this heart-rending phenomenon of discord been caused? (Yes, heart-rending!) Was it due to weary carelessness, or to actual, horrible financial straits? Either explanation was very painful to her. She had a vision of a whole sisterhood of women toiling amid steam and soapsuds in secret, and in secret denying themselves, to provide him with all that he lacked, so that he might always emerge into the world unblemished and glitteringly perfect. She would have sacrificed the happiness of multitudes to her sense of fitness.

v

There being no table, George Cannon removed a grotesque ornament from the dwarf bookcase, and used the top of the bookcase as a writing-board. Hilda was called upon to sign two papers. He explained exactly what these papers were, but she did not understand, nor did she desire to understand. One was an informal sale-note and the other was an authority; but which was which, and to what each had reference, she superbly and wilfully ignored. She could, by a religious effort of volition, make of herself an excellent clerk, eagerly imitative and mechanical, but she had an instinctive antipathy to the higher forms of business. Moreover, she wanted to trust herself to him, if only as a mystic reparation of her odious rudeness at the beginning of the interview. And she thought also: “These transactions will result in profit to him. It is by such transactions that he lives. I am helping him in his adversity.”

When he gave her the Eagle pencil, and pointed to the places where she was to sign, she took the pencil with fervour, more and more anxious to atone to him. For a moment she stood bewildered, in a dream, staring at the scratched mahogany top of the bookcase. And the bookcase seemed to her to be something sentient, patient, and helpful, that had always been waiting there in the corner to aid George Cannon in this crisis — something human like herself. She loved the bookcase, and the Eagle pencil, and the papers, and the pattern on the wall. George Cannon was standing behind her. She felt his presence like a delicious danger. She signed the papers, in that large scrawling hand which for a few brief weeks she had by force cramped down to the submissive caligraphy of a clerk. As she signed, she saw the name “Karkeek” in the midst of one of the documents, and remembered, with joyous nonchalance, that George Cannon’s own name never appeared in George Cannon’s affairs.

He took her place in front of the little bookcase, and folded the documents. There he was, beside her, in all his masculinity — his moustache, his blue chin, his wide white hands, his broadcloth — there he was planted on his massive feet as on a pedestal! She did not see him; she was aware of him. And she was aware of the closed door behind them. One of the basket-chairs, though empty, continued to creak, like a thing alive. Faintly, very faintly, she could hear the piano — Mrs. Boutwood playing! Overhead were the footsteps of Sarah Gailey and Hettie — they were checking the linen from the laundry, as usual on Saturday afternoon. And she was aware of herself, thin, throbbing, fragile, mournful, somehow insignificant!

He looked round at her, with a half-turn of the head. In his glance was good humour, good nature, protectiveness, and rectitude; and, more than these, some of the old serenely smiling triumphant quality. He was not ruined! He was not really in adversity! He remained the conqueror! She thrilled with her relief.

“You’re in my hands now — no mistake!” he murmured roguishly, picking up the documents, and bending over the bag.

Hilda could hear a heavy footstep on the stairs, ascending.

In the same instant she had an extraordinary and disconcerting impulse to seize his hand — she knew not why, whether it was to thank him, to express her sympathy, or to express her submission. She struggled against this impulse, but the impulse was part of herself and of her inmost self; She was afraid, but her fear was pleasurable. She was ashamed, but her shame was pleasurable. She wanted to move away from where she stood. She thought: “If only I willed to move away, I could move away. But, no! I shall not will it. I like remaining just here, in this fear, this shame, and this agitation.” She had a clear, dazzling perception of the splendour and the fineness of sin; but she did not know what sin! And all the time the muscles of her arm were tense in the combat between the weakening desire to keep her arms still and the growing desire to let her hand seize the hand of George Cannon. And all the time the heavy footstep was ascending the interminable staircase. And all the time George Cannon, with averted head, was fumbling in the bag. And then, in a flash, she was really afraid; the fear was no longer pleasurable, and her shame had become a curse. She said to herself: “I cannot move, now. In a minute I shall do this horrible thing. Nothing can save me.” Despairing, she found a dark and tumultuous joy in despair. The trance endured for ages, while disaster approached nearer and nearer.

Then, after the heavy footstep had been climbing the staircase since earth began, the door was brusquely opened, and the jovial fat face of Mr. Boutwood appeared, letting in the louder sound of the piano.

“Oh, I beg pardon!” he muttered, pretending that he had assumed the little room to be empty. The fact was that he was in search of George Cannon, in whom he had recognized a fraternal spirit.

“Come in, Mr. Boutwood,” said Hilda, with an easy, disdainful calm which absolutely astounded herself. “That’s all, then?” she added, to George Cannon, glancing at him indifferently. She departed without waiting for an answer.

vi

Putting on a bonnet, and taking an umbrella to occupy her hands, she went out into the remedial freedom of the streets. And after turning the first corner she saw coming towards her the figure of a woman whom she seemed to know, elegant, even stately, in youthful grace. It was Janet Orgreave, wearing a fashionable fawn-coloured summer costume. As they recognized each other the girls blushed slightly. Janet hastened forward. Hilda stood still. She was amazed at the chance which had sent her two unexpected visitors in the same day. They shook hands and kissed.

“So I’ve found you!” said Janet. “How are you, you poor dear? Why didn’t you answer my letter?”

“Letter?” Hilda repeated, wondering. Then she remembered that she had indeed received a letter from Janet, but in her comatose dejection had neglected to answer it.

“I’m up in London with father for the weekend. We want you to come with us to the Abbey tomorrow. And you must come back with us to Bursley on Monday. You must! We’re quite set on it. I’ve left father all alone this afternoon, to come up here and find you out. Not that he minds! What a way it is! But how are you, Hilda?”

Hilda was so touched by Janet’s affectionate solicitude that her eyes filled with tears. She looked at that radiating and innocent goodness, and thought: “How different I am from her! She hasn’t the least idea how different I am!”

For a moment, Janet seemed to her to be a sort of angel — modish, but exquisitely genuine. She saw in the invitation to the Five Towns a miraculous defence against a peril the prospect of which was already alarming her. She would be compelled to go to Turnhill in order to visit Lessways Street and decide what of her mother’s goods she must keep. She would of course take Janet with her. In all the Turnhill affairs Janet should accompany her. Her new life should begin under the protection of Janet’s society. And her heart turned from the old life towards the new with hope and a vague brightening expectation of happiness.

At the Cedars she led Janet to her bedroom, and then came out of the bedroom to bid good-bye to George Cannon. The extreme complexity of existence and of her sensations baffled and intimidated her.

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