Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett

Chapter 4

With the Orgreaves

i

The Orgreave family was holding its nightly session in the large drawing-room of Lane End House when Hilda and Janet arrived. The bow-window stood generously open in three different places, and the heavy outer curtains as well as the lace inner ones were moving gently in the capricious breeze that came across the oval lawn. The multitudinous sound of rain on leaves entered also with the wind; and a steam-car could be heard thundering down Trafalgar Road, from which the house was separated by only a few intervening minor roofs.

Mrs. Orgreave, the plump, faded image of goodness, with Janet’s full red lips and Janet’s kindly eyes, sat as usual, whether in winter or in summer, near the fireplace, surveying with placidity the theatre where the innumerable dramas of her motherhood had been enacted. Tom, her eldest, the thin, spectacled lawyer, had, as a boy of seven, rampaged on that identical Turkey hearthrug, when it was new, a quarter of a century earlier. He was now seated at the grand piano with the youngest child, Alicia, a gawky little treasure, always alternating between pertness and timidity, aged twelve. Jimmie and Johnnie, young bloods of nineteen and eighteen, were only present in their mother’s heart, being in process of establishing, by practice, the right to go forth into the world of an evening and return when they chose without suffering too much from family curiosity. Two other children — Marian, eldest daughter and sole furnisher of grandchildren to the family, and Charlie, a young doctor — were permanently away in London. Osmond Orgreave, the elegant and faintly mocking father of the brood, a handsome grizzled man of between fifty and sixty, was walking to and fro between the grand piano and the small upright piano in the farther half of the room.

“Well, my dear?” said Mrs. Orgreave to Hilda. “You aren’t wet?” She drew Hilda towards her and stroked her shoulder, and then kissed her. The embrace was to convey the mother’s sympathy with Hilda in the ordeal of the visit to Turnhill, and her satisfaction that the ordeal was now over. The ageing lady seemed to kiss her on behalf of the entire friendly family; all the others, appreciating the delicacy of the situation, refrained from the peril of clumsy speech.

“Oh no, mother!” Janet exclaimed reassuringly. “We came up by car. And I had my umbrella. And it only began to rain in earnest just as we got to the gate.”

“Very thoughtful of it, I’m sure!” piped the pig-tailed Alicia from the piano. She could talk, in her pert moments, exactly like her brothers.

“Alicia, darling,” said Janet coaxingly, as she sat on the sofa flanked by the hat, gloves, and jacket which she had just taken off, “will you run upstairs with these things, and take Hilda’s too? I’m quite exhausted. Father will swoon if I leave them here. I suppose he’s walking about because he’s so proud of his new birthday slippers.”

“But I’m just playing the symphony with Tom!” Alicia protested.

“I’ll run up — I was just going to,” said Hilda.

“You’ll do no such thing!” Mrs. Orgreave announced, sharply. “Alicia, I’m surprised at you! Here Janet and Hilda have been out since noon, and you —”

“And so on and so on,” said Alicia, jumping up from the piano in obedience.

“We didn’t wait supper,” Mrs. Orgreave went on. “But I told Martha to leave —”

“Mother, dearest,” Janet stopped her. “Please don’t mention food. We’ve stuffed ourselves, haven’t we, Hilda? Anyone been?”

“Swetnam,” said Alicia, as she left the room with her arms full.

Mr. Swetnam,” corrected Mrs. Orgreave.

“Which one? The Ineffable?”

“The Ineffable,” replied Mr. Orgreave, who had wandered, smiling enigmatically, to the sofa. His legs, like the whole of his person, had a distinguished air; and he held up first one slippered foot and then the other to the silent, sham-ecstatic inspection of the girls. “He may look in again, later on. It’s evidently Hilda he wants to see.” This said, Mr. Orgreave lazily sank into an easy chair, opposite the sofa, and lighted a cigarette. He was one of the most industrious men in the Five Towns, and assuredly the most industrious architect; but into an idle hour he could pack more indolence than even Johnnie and Jimmie, alleged wastrels, could accomplish in a week.

“I say, Janet,” Tom sang out from the piano, “you aren’t really exhausted, are you?”

“I’m getting better.”

“Well, let’s dash through the scherzo before the infant comes back. She can’t take it half fast enough.”

“And do you think I can?” said Janet, rising. In theory, Janet was not a pianist, and she never played solos, nor accompanied songs; but in the actual practice of duet-playing her sympathetic presence of mind at difficult crises of the music caused her to be esteemed by Tom, the expert and enthusiast, as superior to all other performers in the family.

ii

Hilda listened with pleasure and with exaltation to the scherzo. Beyond a little part-singing at school she had no practical acquaintance with music; there had never been a piano at home. But she knew that this music was Beethoven’s; and from the mere intonation of that name, as it was uttered in her presence in the house of the Orgreaves, she was aware of its greatness, and the religious faculty in her had enabled her at once to accept its supremacy as an article of genuine belief; so that, though she understood it not, she felt it, and was uplifted by it. Whenever she heard Beethoven — and she heard it often, because Tom, in the words of the family, had for the moment got Beethoven on the brain — her thoughts and her aspirations were ennobled.

She was singularly content with this existence amid the intimacy of the Orgreaves. The largeness and prodigality and culture of the family life, so different from anything she had ever known, and in particular so different from the desolating atmosphere of the Cedars, soothed and flattered her in a manner subtly agreeable. At the same time she was but little irked by it, for the reason that her spirit was not one to be unduly affected by exterior social, intellectual, and physical conditions. Moreover, the Orgreaves, though obviously of a class superior to her own, had the facile and yet aristocratic unceremoniousness which, unconsciously, repudiates such distinctions until circumstances arise that compel their acknowledgment. To live among the Orgreaves was like living in a small private republic that throbbed with a hundred activities and interests. Each member of it was a centre of various energy. And from each, Hilda drew something that was precious: from Mrs. Orgreave, sheer love and calm wisdom; from Janet, sheer love and the spectacle of elegance; from little Alicia candour and admiration; from Tom, knowledge, artistic enthusiasm, and shy, curt sympathy; from Johnnie and Jimmie the homage of their proud and naïve mannishness: as for Mr. Orgreave, she admired him perhaps as much as she admired even Janet, and once when he and she had taken a walk together up to Toft End, she had thought him quite exquisite in his attitude to her, quizzical, worldly, and yet sensitively understanding and humane. And withal they never worried her by interferences and criticisms; they never presumed on their hospitality, but left her as free as though her age had been twice what it was. Undoubtedly, in the ardour of her gratitude she idealized every one of them. The sole reproach which in secret she would formulate against them had reference to their quasi-cynical levity in conversation. They would never treat a serious topic seriously for more than a few minutes. Either one or another would yield to the temptation of clever facetiousness, and clever facetiousness would always carry off the honours in a discussion. This did not apply to Mrs. Orgreave, who was incapable of humour; but it applied a little even to Janet.

The thought continually arising in Hilda’s mind was: “Why do they care for me? What can they see in me? Why are they so good to me? I was never good to them.” She did not guess that, at her very first visit to Lane End House, the force and mystery of her character had powerfully attracted these rather experienced amateurs of human nature. She was unaware that she had made her mark upon Janet and Charlie so far back as the days of the dancing-classes. And she under-estimated the appeal of her situation as an orphan and a solitary whose mother’s death, in its swiftness, had amounted to a tragedy.

The scherzo was finished, and Alicia had not returned into the drawing-room. The two pianists sat hesitant.

“Where is that infant?” Tom demanded. “If I finish it all without her she’ll be vexed.”

“I can tell you where she ought to be,” said Mrs. Orgreave placidly. “She ought to be in bed. No wonder she looks pale, stopping up till this time of night!”

Then there were unusual and startling movements behind the door, accompanied by giggling. And Alicia entered, followed by Charlie — Charlie who was supposed at that precise instant to be in London!

“Hello, mater!” said the curly-headed Charlie, with a sublime affectation of calmness, as though he had slipped out of the next room. He produced an effect fully equal to his desires.

iii

In a little while, Charlie, on the sofa, was seated at a small table covered with viands and fruit; the white cloth spread on the table made a curiously charming patch amid the sombre colours of the drawing-room. He had protested that, having consumed much food en route, he was not hungry; but in vain. Mrs. Orgreave demolished such arguments by the power of her notorious theory, which admitted no exceptions, that any person coming off an express train must be in need of sustenance. The odd thing was that all the others discovered mysterious appetites and began to eat and drink with gusto, sitting, standing, or walking about, while Charlie, munching, related how he had miraculously got three days’ leave from the hospital, and how he had impulsively ‘cabbed it’ to Euston, and how, having arrived at Knype, he had also ‘cabbed it’ from Knype to Bleakridge instead of waiting for the Loop Line train. The blot on his advent, in the eyes of Mrs. Orgreave, was that he had no fresh news of Marian and her children.

“You don’t seem very surprised to find Hilda here,” said Alicia.

“It’s not my business to be surprised at anything, kid,” Charlie retorted, smiling at Hilda, who sat beside him on the sofa. “Moreover, don’t I get ten columns of news every three days? I know far more about this town than you do, I bet!”

Everybody laughed at Mrs. Orgreave, the great letter-writer and universal disseminator of information.

“Now, Alicia, you must go to bed,” said Mrs. Orgreave. And Alicia regretted that she had been so indiscreet as to draw attention to herself.

“The kid can stay up if she will say her piece,” said Charlie mockingly. He knew that he could play the autocrat, for that evening at any rate.

“What piece?” the child demanded, blushing and defiant.

“Her ‘Abou Ben Adhem,’” said Charlie. “Do you think I don’t know all about that too?”

“Oh, mother, you are a bore!” Alicia exclaimed, pouting. “Why did you tell him that? . . . Well, I’ll say it if Hilda will recite something as well.”

“Me!” murmured Hilda, staggered. “I never recite!”

“I’ve always understood you recite beautifully,” said Mrs. Orgreave.

“You know you do, Hilda!” said Janet.

“Of course you do,” said Charlie.

You’ve never heard me, anyhow!” she replied to him obstinately. How could they have got it fixed into their heads that she was a reciter? This renown was most disconcerting.

“Now, Hilda!” Mr. Orgreave soothingly admonished her from the back of the sofa. She turned her head and looked up at him, smiling in her distress.

“Go ahead, then, kid! It’s agreed,” said Charlie.

And Alicia galloped through Leigh Hunt’s moral poem, which she was preparing for an imminent speech-day, in an extraordinarily short space of time.

“But I can’t remember anything. I haven’t recited for years and years,” Hilda pleaded, when the child burst out, “Now, Hilda!”

Stuff!” Charlie pronounced.

“Some Tennyson?” Mrs. Orgreave suggested. “Don’t you know any Tennyson? We must have something, now.” And Alicia, exulting in the fact that she had paid the penalty imposed, cried that there could be no drawing back.

Hilda was lost. Mrs. Orgreave’s tone, with all its softness, was a command. “Tennyson? I’ve forgotten ‘Maud,’” she muttered.

“I’ll prompt you,” said Charlie. “Thomas!”

Everybody looked at Tom, expert in literature as well as in music; Tom, the collector, the owner of books and bookcases. Tom went to a bookcase and drew forth a green volume, familiar and sacred throughout all England.

“Oh dear!” Hilda moaned.

“Where do you mean to begin?” Charlie sternly inquired. “It just happens that I’m reading ‘In Memoriam,’ myself. I read ten stanzas a day.”

Hilda bent over the book with him.

“But I must stand up,” she said, with sudden fire. “I can’t recite sitting down.”

They all cried “Bravo!” and made a circle for her. And she stood up.

The utterance of the first lines was a martyrdom for her. But after that she surrendered herself frankly to the mood of the poem and forgot to suffer shame, speaking in a loud, clear, dramatic voice which she accompanied by glances and even by gestures. After about thirty lines she stopped, and, regaining her ordinary senses, perceived that the entire family was staring at her with an extreme intentness.

“I can’t do any more,” she murmured weakly, and dropped on to the sofa.

Everybody clapped very heartily.

“It’s wonderful!” said Janet in a low tone.

“I should just say it was!” said Tom seriously, and Hilda was saturated with delicious joy.

“You ought to go on the stage; that’s what you ought to do!” said Charlie.

For a fraction of a second, Hilda dreamt of the stage, and then Mrs. Orgreave said softly, like a mother:

“I’m quite sure Hilda would never dream of any such thing!”

iv

There was an irruption of Jimmie and Johnnie, and three of the Swetnam brothers, including him known as the Ineffable. Jimmie and Johnnie played the rôle of the absolutely imperturbable with a skill equal to Charlie’s own; and only a series of calm “How-do’s?” marked the greetings of these relatives. The Swetnams were more rollickingly demonstrative. Now that the drawing-room was quite thickly populated, Hilda, made nervous by Mr. Orgreave’s jocular insinuation that she herself was the object of the Swetnams’ call, took refuge, first with Janet, and then, as Janet was drawn into the general crowd, with Charlie, who was absently turning over the pages of “In Memoriam.”

“Know this?” he inquired, friendly, indicating the poem.

“I don’t,” she said. “It’s splendid, isn’t it?”

“Well,” he answered. “It’s rather on the religious tack, you know. That’s why I’m reading it.” He smiled oddly.

“Really?”

He hesitated, and then nodded. It was the strangest avowal from this young dandy of twenty-three with the airy and cynical tongue. Hilda thought: “Here, then, is another!” And her own most secret troubles recurred to her mind.

“What’s that about Teddy Clayhanger?” Charlie cried out, suddenly looking up. He had caught the name in a distant conversation.

Janet explained how they had seen Edwin, and went on to say that it was impossible to persuade him to call.

“What rot!” said Charlie. “I bet you what you like I get him here tomorrow night.” He added to Hilda: “Went to school with him!” Hilda’s face burned.

“I bet you don’t,” said Janet stoutly, from across the room.

“I’ll bet you a shilling I do,” said Charlie.

“Haven’t a penny left,” Janet smiled. “Father, will you lend me a shilling?”

“That’s what I’m here for,” said Mr. Orgreave.

“Mr. Orgreave,” the youngest Swetnam put in, “you talk exactly like the dad talks.”

The bet was made, and according to a singular but long-established family custom, Tom had to be stake-holder.

Hilda became troubled and apprehensive. She hoped that Charlie would lose, and then she hoped that he would win. Looking forward to the intimate bedroom chat with Janet which brought each evening to a heavenly close, she said to herself: “If he does come, I shall make Janet promise that I’m not to be asked to recite or anything. In fact, I shall get her to see that I’m not discussed.”

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