Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 3

Journey to Bleakridge

i

Hilda and Janet were mounting the precipitous Sytch Bank together on their way from Turnhill into Bursley. It was dark; they had missed one train at Turnhill and had preferred not to wait for the next. Although they had been very busy in Hilda’s house throughout all the afternoon and a part of the evening, and had eaten only a picnic meal, neither of them was aware of fatigue, and the two miles to Bursley seemed a trifle.

Going slowly up the steep slope, they did not converse. Janet said that the weather was changing, and Hilda, without replying, peered at the black baffling sky. The air had, almost suddenly, grown warmer. Above, in the regions unseen, mysterious activities were in movement, as if marshalling vast forces. The stars had vanished. A gentle but equivocal wind on the cheek presaged rain, and seemed to be bearing downwards into the homeliness of the earth some strange vibration out of infinite space. The primeval elements of the summer night encouraged and intensified Hilda’s mood, half joyous, half apprehensive. She thought: “A few days ago, I was in Hornsey, with the prospect of the visit to Turnhill before me. Now the visit is behind me. I said that Janet should be my companion, and she has been my companion. I said that I would cut myself free, and I have cut myself free. I need never go to Turnhill again, unless I like. The two trunks will be sent for tomorrow; and all the rest will be sold — even the clock. The thing is done. I have absolute liberty, and an income, and the intimacy of this splendid affectionate Janet. . . . How fortunate it was that Mr. Cannon was not at his office when we called! Of course I was obliged to call. . . . And yet would it not be more satisfactory if I had seen him? . . . I must have been in a horribly morbid state up at Hornsey. . . . Soon I must decide about my future. Soon I shall actually have decided! . . . Life is very queer!” She had as yet no notion whatever of what she would do with her liberty and her income and the future; but she thought vaguely of something heroic, grandiose, and unusual.

ii

In her hand she carried a small shabby book, bound in blue and gold, with gilt edges a little irregular. She had found this book while sorting out the multitudinous contents of her mother’s wardrobe, and at the last moment, perceiving that it had been overlooked, and being somehow ashamed to leave it to the auctioneers, she had brought it away, not knowing how she would ultimately dispose of it. The book had possibly been dear to her mother, but she could not embarrass her freedom by conserving everything that had possibly been dear to her mother. It was entitled The Girl’s Week-day Book, by Mrs. Copley, and it had been published by the Religious Tract Society, no doubt in her mother’s girlhood. The frontispiece, a steel engraving, showed a group of girls feeding some swans by the terraced margin of an ornamental water, and it bore the legend, “Feeding the Swans.” And on the title-page was the text: “That our daughters may be as corner-stones, polished after the similitude of a palace. Psalm cxliv. 12.” In the table of contents were such phrases as: “One thing at a time. Darkness and Light. Respect for Ministers. The Drowning Fly. Trifling with words of Scripture. Goose and Swan. Delicate Health. Conscientious Regard to Truth. Sensibility and Gentleness contrasted with Affectation. Curiosity and Tattling. Instability of Worldly Possessions.” A book representing, for Hilda, all that was most grotesque in an age that was now definitely finished and closed! A silly book!

During the picnic meal she had idly read extracts from it to Janet, amusing sentences; and though the book had once been held sacred by her who was dead, and though they were engaged in stirring the scarce-cold ashes of a tragedy, the girls had nevertheless permitted themselves a kindly, moderate mirth. Hilda had quoted from a conversation in it: “Well, I would rather sit quietly round this cheerful fire, and talk with dear mamma, than go to the grandest ball that ever was known!” and Janet had plumply commented: “What a dreadful lie!” And then they had both laughed openly, perhaps to relieve the spiritual tension caused by the day’s task and the surroundings. After that, Hilda had continued to dip into the book, but silently. And Janet had imagined that Hilda was merely bored by the monotonous absurdity of the sentiments expressed.

Janet was wrong. Hilda had read the following: “One word more. Do not rest in your religious impressions. You have, perhaps, been the subject of terror on account of sin; your mind has been solemnized by some event in Providence; by an alarming fit of sickness, or the death of a relative, or a companion. . . . This is indeed to be reckoned a great mercy; but then the danger is, lest you should rest here; lest those tears, and terrors, and resolutions, should be the only evidences on which you venture to conclude on the safety of your immortal state. What is your present condition? . . . ”

Which words intimidated Hilda in spite of herself. In vain she repeated that the book was a silly book. She really believed that it was silly, but she knew also that there was an aspect of it which was not silly. She was reminded by it that she had found no solution of the problem which had distracted her in Hornsey. ‘What is your present condition?’ Her present condition was still that of a weakling and a coward who had sunk down inertly before the great problem of sin. And now, in the growing strength of her moral convalescence, she was raising her eyes again to meet the problem. Her future seemed to be bound up with the problem. As she breasted the top of the Sytch under the invisible lowering clouds, with her new, adored friend by her side, and the despised but powerful book in her hand, she mused in an ambiguous reverie upon her situation, dogged by the problem which alone was accompanying her out of the past into the future. Her reverie was shot through by piercing needles of regret for her mother; and even with the touch of Janet’s arm against her own in the darkness she had sharp realizations of her extreme solitude in the world. Withal, the sense of life was precious and beautiful. She was not happy; but she was filled with the mysterious vital elation which surpasses happiness.

iii

They descended gently into Bursley, crossing the top of St. Luke’s Square and turning eastwards into Market Square, ruled by the sombre and massive Town Hall in whose high tower an illuminated dial shone like a topaz. To Hilda, this nocturnal entry into Bursley had the romance of an entry into a town friendly but strange and recondite. During the few days of her stay with the Orgreaves in the suburb of Bleakridge, she had scarcely gone into the town once. She had never seen it at night. In the old Turnhill days she had come over to Bursley occasionally with her mother; but to shoppers from Turnhill, Bursley meant St. Luke’s Square and not a yard beyond.

Now the girls arrived at the commencement of the steam-car track, where a huge engine and tram were waiting, and as they turned another corner, the long perspective of Trafalgar Road, rising with its double row of lamps towards fashionable Bleakridge, was revealed to Hilda. She thought, naturally, that every other part of the Five Towns was more impressive and more important than the poor little outskirt, Turnhill, of her birth. In Turnhill there was no thoroughfare to compare with Trafalgar Road, and no fashionable suburb whatever. She had almost the feeling of being in a metropolis, if a local metropolis.

“It’s beginning to rain, I think,” said Janet.

“Who’s that?” Hilda questioned abruptly, ignoring the remark in the swift, unreflecting excitement of a sensibility surprised.

“Where?”

“There!”

They were going down Duck Bank into the hollow. On the right, opposite the lighted Dragon Hotel, lay Duck Square in obscure somnolence; at the corner of Duck Square and Trafalgar Road was a double-fronted shop, of which all the shutters were up except two or three in the centre of the doorway. Framed thus in the aperture, a young man stood within the shop under a bright central gas-jet; he was gazing intently at a large sheet of paper which he held in his outstretched hands, and the girls saw him in profile: tall, rather lanky, fair, with hair dishevelled, and a serious, studious, and magnanimous face; quite unconscious that he made a picture for unseen observers.

“That?” said Janet, in a confidential and interested tone. “That’s young Clayhanger — Edwin Clayhanger.1 His father’s the printer, you know. Came from Turnhill, originally.”

“I never knew,” said Hilda. “But I seem to have heard the name.”

“Oh! It must have been a long time ago. He’s got the best business in Bursley now. Father says it’s one of the best in the Five Towns. He’s built that new house just close to ours. Don’t you remember I pointed it out to you? Father’s the architect. They’re going to move into it next week or the week after. I expect that’s why the son and heir’s working so late to-night, packing and so on, perhaps.”

The young man moved out of sight. But his face had made in those few thrilling seconds a deep impression on Hilda; so that in her mind she still saw it, with an almost physical particularity of detail. It presented itself to her, in some mysterious way, as a romantic visage, wistful, full of sad subtleties, of the unknown and the seductive, and of a latent benevolence. It was as recondite and as sympathetic as the town in which she had discovered it.

She said nothing.

“Old Mr. Clayhanger is a regular character,” Janet eagerly went on, to Hilda’s great content. “Some people don’t like him. But I rather do like him.” She was always thus kind. “Grandmother once told me he sprang from simply nothing at all — worked on a potbank when he was quite a child.”

“Who? The father, you mean?”

“Yes, the father. Now, goodness knows how much he isn’t worth I Father is always saying he could buy us up, lock, stock, and barrel.” Janet laughed. “People often call him a miser, but he can’t be so much of a miser, seeing that he’s built this new house.”

“And I suppose the son’s in the business?”

“Yes. He wanted to be an architect. That was how father got to know him. But old Mr. Clayhanger wouldn’t have it. And so he’s a printer, and one day he’ll be one of the principal men in the town.”

“Oh! So you know him?”

“Well, we do and we don’t. I go into the shop sometimes; and then I’ve seen him once or twice up at the new house. We’ve asked him to come in and see us. But he’s never come, and I don’t think he ever will. I believe his father does keep him grinding away rather hard. I’m sure he’s frightfully clever.”

“How can you tell?”

“Oh! From bits of things he says. And he’s read everything, it seems! And once he saved a great heavy printing-machine from going through the floor of the printing-shop into the basement. If it hadn’t been for him there’d have been a dreadful accident. Everybody was talking about that. He doesn’t look it, does he?”

They were now passing the corner at which stood the shop. Hilda peered within the narrowing, unshuttered slit, but she could see no more of Edwin Clayhanger.

“No, he doesn’t,” she agreed, while thinking nevertheless that he did look precisely that. “And so he lives all alone with his father. No mother?”

“No mother. But there are two sisters. The youngest is married, and just going to have a baby, poor thing! The other one keeps house. I believe she’s a splendid girl, but neither of them is a bit like Edwin. Not a bit. He’s —”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Look here, miss! What about this rain? I vote we take the car up the hill.”

1 See the author’s novel, Clayhanger.

iv

The steam-car was rumbling after them down Duck Bank. It stopped, huge above them, and they climbed into it through an odour of warm grease that trailed from the engine. The conductor touched his hat to Janet, who smiled like a sister upon this fellow-being. Two middle-aged men were the only other occupants of the interior of the car; both raised their hats to Janet. The girls sat down in opposite corners next to the door. Then, with a deafening continuous clatter of loose glass-panes and throbbing of its filthy floor, the vehicle started again, elephantine. It was impossible to talk in that unique din. Hilda had no desire to talk. She watched Janet pay the fares as in a dream, without even offering her own penny, though as a rule she was touchily punctilious in sharing expenses with the sumptuous Janet. Without being in the least aware of it, and quite innocently, Janet had painted a picture of the young man, Edwin Clayhanger, which intensified a hundredfold the strong romantic piquancy of Hilda’s brief vision of him. In an instant Hilda saw her ideal future — that future which had loomed grandiose, indefinite, and strange — she saw it quite precise and simple as the wife of such a creature as Edwin Clayhanger. The change was astounding in its abruptness. She saw all the delightful and pure vistas of love with a man, subtle, baffling, and benevolent, and above all superior; with a man who would be respected by a whole town as a pillar of society, while bringing to his intimacy with herself an exotic and wistful quality which neither she nor anyone could possibly define. She asked: “What attracts me in him? I don’t know. I like him.” She who had never spoken to him! She who never before had vividly seen herself as married to a man! He was clever; he was sincere; he was kind; he was trustworthy; he would have wealth and importance and reputation. All this was good; but all this would have been indifferent to her, had there not been an enigmatic and inscrutable and unprecedented something in his face, in his bearing, which challenged and inflamed her imagination.

It did not occur to her to think of Janet as in the future a married woman. But of herself she thought, with new agitations: “I am innocent now! I am ignorant now! I am a girl now! But one day I shall be so no longer. One day I shall be a woman. One day I shall be in the power and possession of some man — if not this man, then some other. Everything happens; and this will happen!” And the hazardous strangeness of life enchanted her.

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